They sit on a sack on the ground. All about them is the mill of traffic, on foot and in cars, walking and trundling past as the day waxes and then wanes. There are people who stop, and deposit coins in the tin bowls set before them. A clink, and then a walking off, the thankful prayer trailing them. The Sun burns their foreheads, and covers them with sweat. The conversation between them is a drawn-out thing, filled with intermittent pauses, filled with the sounds of the radio tuned in to the news.
- They have come into Libya. They go for the President.
- Is it America.
- America leads everyone else. But there are others.
A passerby, in shorts and sandals. A clink - a dalasi.
When the Sun sets they leave the place of begging. They trudge home in the half dark, the soles of her feet cracked and a dirty brown, from many years of washings and re-muddenings, by the rain.
They own a small gas stove - she cooks dinner on it. He goes out to the Peul shop, and returns with bread, moon tiger, an extra candle.
In the night he makes love to her, though they are both tired. Their soft rise and fall, backs speckled with sweat in the light of the streetlamp that comes in through the window, completely silent. Afterwards he gets up on weary limbs, and applies his hands to her back. He smooths out the furrows in her flesh, and kneads out the bumps. She sighs deeply, and is still. When he is done he lies back down, and holds her body against him, and strokes her small, scaly shoulders until she falls asleep.
A sickness has caught up to her. After begging she lies in bed and shivers, face twisted in pain. Which parts of her are in pain, he asks. But she cannot tell him - the pain roams across her body. Now in her thin legs, now in her breast. Again in her head, the hair on it in a tangle, her headwrap fallen to one side. She closes her eyes, and breathes in deeply. We must go see a doctor, he says.
They walk, to the nearest clinic. In a long line they wait for the doctor, seated on mental seats. People standing around them, a space between them and the ones next to them on the benches. An old man, who sits at a desk before which he stands, she seated before him.
- You must know which part, the impatient doctor says. All of you cannot hurt.
- It travels, she replies, now here now there. I cannot breath sometimes. I cannot sleep.
The doctor writes out a brisk prescription, signing it with a flourish, and hands it to them. He escorts her outside, looking at the price on the sheet. Then he goes back inside, to speak to the doctor.
What is it, the old man asks him, writing on his pad, not looking up. He finds himself suddenly flush with embarrassment, unable to speak. The old man looks up at him, a hardness in his eyes.
Yes? I have work to do, man.
The old man's voice is a deep snarl.
The medicines, he says, do we have to buy them all?
If you want your wife to be cured, comes the disdainful reply. The old man coughs, and begins again.You men think you can spend your money on other things. The body needs what it needs - if you do not spend it it will stop working.
Are there cheaper ones?
Are you mad, man! Those are the cheapest you can get. Now if you'll excuse me I have patients to see.
He takes her home, and holds her through the night. Neither of them sleep. She shivers in his hands, and then throws away the blankets. He fetches water from the tap outside. He wringes a sheet in it and holds it to her forehead. Then he climbs into bed with her, and draws her to him. Her body feels hot, hotter than the room they are in.
In the morning he goes to the place of begging alone. Today of all days all pockets are closed. The strangers who walk past are mean-fisted - they do not give, they studiously avoid his gaze. The Sun blazes down on the people who enter and leave the bank. He is filled with a terrible dread.
Please, he says, my wife is sick. But he does not raise his voice, and they do not hear him.
At the end of the day he rushes home empty-handed. In a pocket of his trousers lies the prescription. He walks past two pharmacies, and a supermarket before he reaches home, where she lies shivering, waiting for him.
You have always been good to me, she says, after he has fed her a dinner. Allah is my witness.
It frightens him, when she talks like this. The candle next to the bed casts her face into sharp relief, a monstrous shadow of it cast on the wall across. Her eyes are dim, there is a redness in them. The contours of her face are grooved, her complexion wan. She seems so weak, her words an effort.
Sssh, he says, you must rest. There is no reason to speak like that.
I must tell the truth, she says. You have tried hard, every day you have tried. Allah alone knows why He makes us as we are.
He gets up, and walks to the door, and walks back. He stands over her, and then he sits again.
You must rest, he says, You'll be better.
He blows out the candle, and climbs into bed with her. He holds her, and gradually her shivering abates. He thinks she is less warm, he thinks perhaps there is hope.
In the morning when he wakes she is dead. He knows a moment before the sleep leaves him - a tiredness fills him completely and leadens his eyes. He lies there and wishes he did not have to open his eyes, for a moment longer, did not have to turn to her stiff body, did not have to turn her over and cover her up and get up to call someone.
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