Stone Telling

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The Sand Diviner

by Sofia Samatar

She spoke to him of roads. She said: Silk flows downward. Her eyelids twitched with every word, a desert in her glance. The shadow of her hand moved in the moonlight, back and forth over the holes dug in the sand with a fingertip.

Close by, the sound of vessels full of water.
She pointed to the holes and spelled: siin, lam, kaf.

He smiled. The winking woman pinched his chin. At home he found his father chewing on a fistful of blood.

As for his mother, he never saw her body.

The sand diviner said: You are a city with five gates. A clear glow distracted him: a lamp moved from one tent to another, oil curling in the dark.

The woman snapped her fingers. Her diseased eyes flashed. You are a city. He was seventeen years old.

At home his brother seized him on the doorstep, hoarse with tears. Sea-crows dallied in the crimson air.

Five gates. All of them closed.

And so.
And so what we will write.
And so what we will write is what is known.

The earth is like a grape floating on water. Where the water withdrew, there are the cultivated lands. Some, like the Eternal Isles, whose inhabitants till the soil with horns, can only be reached by chance.

Such caution always, a rigor amounting to passion.

Aisha said: It's as if you'd made an enemy of sleep.

The insight amazed him,
coming as it did on their honeymoon in Algiers,
coming from a woman of her background,
of her years.

The sand diviner said: Ours is a lawful craft, the science of Idris.

And his fate answered: Pestilence and war.

She said: I paint the future on glass dishes. When these dishes are placed before a fire, time shows all its colors.

She said: You will smell saffron. You will never know the answer. You will string words on a necklace. You will live.

And his fate answered: War.

He said: Save my books.

He said: I will look upon the end of the world without blinking.

That night, one of their last nights, it came over him as if fingers had gripped his heart: the old sand diviner was lurking in the street. Aisha was pouring coffee and he seized her and threw her to the floor, the coffee blackening deep in the carpet forever. Aisha screeched, God how she screeched, stiff and unyielding on her hands and knees, trying not to let her big belly touch the floor, and he smacked the candles over and beat them to smoke with the heel of his slipper because he didn't have the breath to blow them out. Madman, criminal, screamed his wife, her voice a red-hot nail. She has two gates, he thought, two gates only, a sneer and an angry cry. But fear makes even the deserts of marriage bloom. He pressed his face to the lattice and pushed her away to keep her safe.

Not gently.
He is ashamed.

No matter.
His heart is ashes.
All the hills are lost,
the children.

Aisha's yawning ghost
wrings a shower of stars
from the sheet of night.

She blinks, but not for him.

Nailed to his couch
with his beard between his teeth
he is writing the history of the world.

Sofia Samatar is an American of Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite background. She has lived in Egypt and South Sudan, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth-century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her poetry is forthcoming in Bull Spec and the anthology The Moment of Change, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, will be published by Small Beer Press in 2012.

Photography: Lonely Hands, by Riccardo Cuppini.