The Weekend Read
A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle
By Rania Mamoun
10th May 2019
I didn’t think her that tall or slender when I saw her sitting by the mosque wall. At night she was curled up, and in the morning she sat with her skinny legs outstretched.
I saw her carrying an old-fashioned bundle, oil-soaked and dark in hue, as she walked down the street, her legs long like crochet needles, taking lengthy strides. When you saw her, you forgot everything you knew about steady steps and straight lines. She seemed to have her own rhythm, her own sense of harmony: she leant to the right for a moment, then swerved to the left, in syncopated steps. She carried the bundle in her right hand and tucked the corner of her dress under her left arm, which swung freely by her side.
She took up residence by the mosque wall out of the blue, making a home under the neem trees with their dense foliage, trees whose leaves stand up straight and shade the area around them. There was lots of talk about her. Everyone had questions and everyone had answers, and while the answers differed,the stories all started the same way.
People who had lived in the neighbourhood for a long time said that she’d owned a house not far from the mosque, and that she’d once had money. But then ‘Madame Cash’ tricked her and took her house, although some people said she’d bought it. ‘Madame Cash’ earned her nickname because she had lots of money and gold, which her granddaughter once tried to steal to give to her father.
A lady whose name I don’t know told me that the woman by the mosque had children, one of whom was a composer. When I asked why they let her live like this, she said the woman runs away from them: every time they take her back home, she refuses to stay.
I often saw her speaking to people that no one else could see, sometimes arguing with them or raising a threatening finger. On rare occasions she laughed and chatted amicably with them, but mostly she scolded them. Perhaps she contained too much anger, and that was the only way she could let it all out.
Many a time I tried to understand what she was saying by neatly sorting her words and storing them in my mind, but I never succeeded. From her expression and intonation you could tell that she was speaking to an apparition, but you could never truly understand what she was saying. She had created her own world with them and immersed herself in it, unable to find her way out of their labyrinths, and disinterested in us curious passersby.
One of my sister’s friends told me that children made fun of her, they cursed and threw stones at her because she often launched stones at people herself, and that one time she chucked rocks at a group of young girls just because they said hello. But since I’d never seen this myself, and since it seemed unlikely, I greeted her every day, and she never threw a stone at me. Even so, that story stayed in the back of my mind, and every time I said good morning I imagined a rock flying at my head instead of a greeting in return.
One time I neared her, I noted that she had a long face, dark and deep-set eyes, face tattoos, and that her hair was thinning, perhaps with age.
She was always clean, never smelled bad and often glistened from the way she oiled her legs and hands. I often saw her moisturise, and sometimes I glimpsed her washing her clothes at the tap in the mosque and hanging them in some good Samaritan’s courtyard, either inside or in the open air. Opposite the mosque’s eastern door, there was a walled off area covered with hessian and plastic sheeting that was home to two scraggly neem trees that spread scant shade beneath them.
The woman changed her position as the sun moved. In the morning she sat on the north side of the wall, in the neem trees’ shade, and in the afternoon she sat at the base of the wall on the east side, where shadows of trees and buildings advanced towards her. At night she sometimes curled up there, while other times she disappeared. Some people supposed that she slept in the mosque, while others guessed that she went to a courtyard across the street, to shelter from the rain like anyone else. Either way, she always appeared shortly afterwards like a rainbow.
At night she laid her head on her dark bundle, and in the morning she always set it aside. The bundle intrigued me. She often gently rested a hand on it, or stroked it as tenderly as a mother running a hand through her child’s hair, tempting me to find out more. I asked myself: does it holda precious treasure, her life’s achievement? Or just a bunch of worthless odds and ends? Maybe it contains mementos from a past from which she alone survived? She seemed like a deep well of secrets, and her bundle was a source of curiosity to me – every time my eyes fell on it, it kindled my desire to learn more.
She unfurled a piece of hessian cloth, and the sky truly, completely would around, while we considered the sheer dress she wears to be cover enough. She kept a big tin can nearby which she drank from, as well as a yellow plastic kawra that served as a bowl, a jar where perhaps she kept the oil for her skin, old bottles of sparkling water, and other things I could never identify as I walked past.
I ran into our neighbour from across the street on the bus one day as she was carrying a heavy handbag and another bag filled with vegetables. I carried the latter for her, and we walked home side by side. When we passed the woman, I gave her two tomatoes and a cucumber, and my neighbour said she would send her some bread.
‘Why do her children let her stay her like this?’ I asked, in yet another attempt to learn more about her. ‘They shouldn’t let her wander awayfrom home!’
‘She’s mad, and mad people don’t let you tell them what to do,’ my neighbour said.
‘What’s her story?’ I asked.
‘It’s a long one. People say she went mad when she lost all her money. Lord protect us.’
‘But she’s not mad!’ I said defensively.
‘My dear, isn’t it mad for someone to leave her home and go live in the street!’
This was her logic for convincing me that the woman was mad, but I refused to let it sway me. Nor would I believe that she was a beggar. She seemed self-aware to me, as if she’d chosen this life willingly for reasons that were hers alone. To me, she was unlike the crazy man who my friend Mohamed and I often saw on our way back from university. The man was very tall, and wore an old, discoloured jellabiya that stopped just above the knee. He looked, in other words, just like other crazy people who’ve decided to go about in rags. He used to wander down the middle of the street, walking on the asphalt as if it were a tightrope in the circus. He held his arms out to balance and took slow steps, incredibly carefully, perhaps thinking that the cars’ blaring horns were the cheers of the crowd, and that the pedestrians were monkeys jumping about beneath him.
‘He thinks the gravel is a rope!’ I remember Mohamed saying.
‘Samuel says that madness is an illusion,’ I replied. ‘He thinks he’s tightrope walking. He believes his illusion, it’s fixed in his mind.’
The woman with the bundle was also different to the man who walked through the market stark naked. Even when someone threw him a scrap of clothing he tore it up and stamped on it with his bare feet. It was a good thing I’d only seen him from behind. Unlike my friend Souad, who had been hit in the head with something hard.
And she didn’t beg like the woman who panhandled on the unpaved road, the one with elephantiasis who sat by the hospital door, who asked me for more when I gave her 50 piasters, saying she’d pray hard for me. I gave her a pound, and she told me to give her the 50p too.
She was unlike all of them because she wasn’t aggressive, quarrelsome, or sly. She didn’t ask people for money, and yet, many passersby gave her what they could, as did the neighbours. One day as I was coming back from work I saw someone bring her a dish full of food, and collect an empty dish nearby. The woman thanked her and said a prayer for her, as she often said a prayer for me when I gave her a handful of change from my purse.
On one occasion she took a roll of blue paper from the corner of her dress and showed it to me.
‘Girl, will you see for me how much this is? Someone just gave it to me.’
‘It’s two of the new pounds, or two thousand pounds in the old piasters.’
‘Huh! So he tricked me, gave me a useless scrap of paper.’
‘No, Hajja, they aren’t useless… they’re the new currency.’
I smiled as I walked away. I could tell that she understood. I was surprised by her scepticism – incredulity, perhaps – that someone would give her so much money.
Our eyes met and our fingers brushed against each other in that brief interaction. I touched her stiff, dry hand and half-expected it to crumble. I still wanted to sit with her every day, to have our morning coffee together and hear her stories, heedless of the dust kicked up by cars and inquiring looks from passersby.
I missed her when I didn’t see her in her morning spot and I grew nervous, afraid I wouldn’t find her there, and hear news of her departure. My heart felt ragged when I saw her at night at the base of the mosque’s east wall, a black mass gathered in the dark. Even the dogs were afraid of her. I felt bad for her; I felt helpless. I longed for her, and thought about saving her or inviting her to come home with me, but before I did I feared how she might respond. I feared her stones that lay buried in my memory, because just like all villains, I too had fears.