I am the funny one. The unwanted one. The ugly one. Women talk about me and giggle. Men don’t look at me. I walk into a place and everyone keeps silent. I have learnt to walk in the shadows of my sister’s beauty. Revel in the attention she gets. Live vicariously on her highs. But, at night when I close the flaps of my tent, and lay down on my bed. I wish I had a warm body next to me. That I was married. Even though that ghost has slowly left the building as I turn 35.
Then everything changed. I remember. It was one of those hot, sunny days in the dessert. People were milling around. As strangers became almost citizens,as citizens went out of their ways to ensure that these visitor’s camels were cared for and they were drinking a lot of water. It is very difficult to survive in the dessert. Many have died on their way here.
Then he arrived. Sweaty. Muscles under his shirt rippling. No bulgy stomach which men of a certain age and ilk were fond of having. He carried himself like a prince. I wanted to become a fallen woman so badly – so I could rush over to him and invite him to my tent to come sate himself between my thighs. But, there was something about this guy that showed that even if that opportunity was given to him – he probably won’t take it. His clothing said a lot. Made of blue woven silk materials. His sandals spoke of a journey ranging from the East to the West. He seemed thirsty.
I made to go up to him. There came my sister, Rachel. Rachel with her long hair flowing down her back, her light skin and her plump frame. There was something about Rachel that made men want to either marry her or take her to bed. Before she turned 13, our house had become the bedrock of many men’s broken dreams. But, Rachel was fond of saying that she was waiting for her prince and she will have no other. But, that didn’t stop Rachel from keeping these men around. Though no one said it aloud – Rachel loved attention… a lot.
“You must be thirsty” Rachel said to him in a soft voice. Feigning a softness that all who knew Rachel knew she wasn’t.
“Quite” he replied looking at her as if he couldn’t believe that such an angel existed.
“Come and drink, and I will fetch water for your camel too” Rachel said, while giving him a cup of water and surreptitiously touching his arm.
My mouth fell open. It was a known fact that Rachel was lazy. She had servants who did everything for her and that’s how dad wanted it. Per daddy, Rachel’s beauty will bring him untold wealth and he didn’t want anyone or anything messing up with his beauty. As a result, I found myself often acting in the role of a servant when no one was around. I was older.
As Rachel poured water for him and his donkey, they stayed side by side chatting. While I hid behind the tent listening in. Marveling at the depth of his voice and dreaming of how it will feel to have such a man talk to me. If wishes were horses right?
They eventually finished their conversation and Rachel invited him over for dinner and he accepted.
That night, I took longer with my shower and longer than that dressing up. I slowly applied kohl around my eyes, while rubbing the red pomegranate leaf on my lips to give it a rosy hue. I also took time to sprinkle rose and jasmine water on my skin. Though, I knew I couldn’t compete with Rachel’s beauty but maybe something about my smell will make him talk to me. I was so excited to have a man around us.
When, my daddy eventually called us girls to his tent. I nearly tripped getting there. It was a magical evening, sitting next to daddy, watching him eat, watching them talk and I fell in love again. I refused to think about what Rachel might be doing with her usual girlish wiles. I wanted him but I knew that it wasn’t meant to be. I could not compete.
By the time, they finished dinner -it was agreed that he will work with us for some time until he decides what he wants to do. I was excited even as my heart died a little as I watched the attraction zing between my sister and he. I knew that my place in his life will be just as a friend.
For months, I tried my best to hide my sadness. With each new day, I knew that the time was drawing near for the only man I ever loved to marry my sister. My heart broke and it took all the will that I had in my body not to throw a curse. Curse the winds of fortune. Curse the winds that brought me into this family, the way I was. Curse the wind that made me the way that I am. Ugly, rejected, unwanted. Each day, I walked further into the desert seeking solace. Seeking healing.
Then it happened. On the wedding night, someone called me to go into my father’s tent. I rushed into my father’s tent and there he was smoking his hookah.
“Leah, I’ve seen how you’ve been watching him. I can make your dreams come true” he said without preamble.
My heart skipped a beat. I thought I had hidden my fawning attention away. Far away in the recesses of my heart but it seems my father had been paying attention.
“Let’s get straight to the point. You are 35. No one has come seeking your hand in marriage. I know you want children. I’ve seen how you play with the young children of the other wives. I know that you have deeper feelings for him than your sister does. So, our culture allows a man to have as many wives as he wants, so why not marry him. We will sneak you in”. He continued.
At first I was angry. Yes. I was not pretty but a woman has her pride. I did not want to be a second wife. I wanted to be the only woman in my man’s life. But, I knew that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I could make him love him. I believed. How naive I was.
“I will do it” I responded quickly.
Kira will get you ready. Just do what she says.
I went with Kira who gave specific instructions. She washed me and lotioned me down with Rachel’s soaps and creams. She covered every part of my body while just uncovering the relevant parts. She told me not to say a word and keep quiet. ”It will be fast, I promise and when it is done, he can’t do anything, you will be married” Kira said softly. That was the most I ever heard Kira say to anyone. Kira was one of the slave women that had caught the eyes of my father. She had quickly moved up from the ranks of slave to courtesan or kept wife. She was protected now and so were her many children. There was something about Kira, that had always made me seek her company. She had this quietness and calmness about her that gave peace. It was said that she worshiped yemonja – the mother of the seas. There were no seas around here. But, she always wore blue and seemed to know things before it happened.
As she lotioned me down. She stopped at my stomach where my womb was situated and muttered some words. She looked into my eyes and whispered,”you will be fruitful”. ”There is a reason for everything. You are favored. Don’t pay attention to what they say. They have eyes but they do not see”. She continued.
Kira was definitely in a talkative mood.
“What about Rachel?” I wondered to myself but I didn’t say it aloud. I admit, I was being selfish. I should have looked out for my baby sister’s interest. But,I’ve always looked out for her interest and I wanted to do something for me for once. Yes, I was resentful.
I followed Kira’s instructions. I lay quietly on the bed and didn’t say any words when he drunkenly came into the room and started touching me.
I felt that same intensity of emotions I felt when I climbed a particularly rough coconut tree. It was a tingling. A whoosh. A wetness. I didn’t want him to stop. But, I had to remind myself that if I spoke, he will immediately know that I wasn’t Rachel. I bit my lips as his hand touched my breast and his mouth followed soon after.
I closed my eyes and told myself that if this will take me to hades. Then so be it. I felt his hands touch each part of my body slowly steadily. His fingers shook a bit. Maybe, because he was drunk.
When his fingers went to my woman’s bit. I knew that I was not letting go of this man, come whatever.
His entry was fast, slightly painful but it gave over to pleasure that never seemed to end. I held on tight , as I heard him but I lost my high when he screamed Rachel as he came.
“I am not Rachel” I said quietly after he had calmed down.
Then, they came into the room to view the blood as proof that he had broken my hymen and that I was officially his wife. The look of horror on his face is one that has remained with me till today.
Yes. We were traditionally married.
He didn’t speak to me for months as he went ahead to negotiate another wedding to his ‘true wife’.
Then one day, he came into my tent. We made love like animals in heat and I really thought that maybe he was at peace with being married to me. But, the next morning he was gone. He didn’t even hold me tight to cuddle.
I held my peace. As he went ahead to build a beautiful layout for Rachel. I bit my tongue in bitterness when I found out that I was pregnant.
I told him. He seemed to brush it aside.
With each pregnancy, I pleaded with him with my children’s names to look upon me with favor. But, he seemed constantly tuned to Rachel and what Rachel wanted. I learnt the role of invisibility and taught all my children the art of being around but not really around.
Rachel caused a lot of trouble. She knew she was the wanted one and I was the one that had just been foisted on her husband. She didn’t like me. I knew that but I didn’t blame her.
As each year passed, I learnt more about being self sufficient. I learnt that though having my husband look at me with joy and pleasure was worth seeking after but my joy should really come from within. I got my business skills together and made my clothing business flourish. I was known as the business woman of the desert.
I sought my husband’s God and he calmed my soul. The last time I got pregnant, I had stopped seeking the approval and applause of others and I had learned to seek approval from him. My last child’s name was in praise of the God of heavens and Earth. The one whose approval I seek. The one who saw me as the beautiful child that I am . The only one who saw me as precious. I was confident. Strong. A fully actualized woman.