I had been traveling for some time. Without warning, the ship I was on, the Cape Falcon, received orders to change direction. Although I had paid my passage in advance, the Captain refused to reimburse me. I had no choice but to disembark.
The city was on a bay. I took a room in a small hotel in the medina. Nearby was the souk, where old men sat under rows of plucked chickens, and veiled women dug their hands into sacks of rice and cous cous. I bought figs, oranges, and a bag of dates. I began my nocturnal wanderings. Finally I discovered a giant building. It sat in a dusty, little frequented part of town. It had many domes and turrets. I found a way in through a fence and a boarded up window. I could see little in the darkness, but was strangely impressed. There is no explanation for such a feeling. I returned to my room and prepared my cameras. Later, when I saw the woman, I recognized the same aspect in her: her footsteps, her shadow, her odor. Immediately I envisioned her in the building. She sat in a cafe. Her face was painted, and a high-heeled shoe dangled from the toes of one foot. When I took the seat opposite her she lifted her head haughtily. It took all my charm, all my persistence, to bring her around. Finally, when I admired her extravagantly long fingernails, she allowed me to take her hand. I described the building. She nodded. It had once been a famous museum, she told me. Before that, it was the palace—the kasbah—of an emir. It had been closed now for many years, its artifacts dispersed. I told her what I wanted to do. Her eyes slid away from mine. Her hand withdrew. For a long moment she was silent.
“Agreed,” she said finally. “Although,” she added, “it will cost you more than you bargained for.”
We walked. It was midday, and children raced up the sidewalk carrying pots of steaming rice.
“You seem very Western,” I said.
“Because of my clothes?”
She was wearing tight corduroy jeans, the high-heels, a silk shirt.
“And because you speak English so well.”
“It was taught to me.”
We stopped outside the building.
“It is said,” she said, “that he liked dwarves and odalisques.”
“The emir. He collected them the way my sister collects vases. At one time there were more than two hundred dwarves within these walls.”
“Yes, many also. But his line did not flourish. His children quarreled, and then his grandchildren. There were many assassinations, I think. Some of the crimes were quite famous, although you wouldnt have heard of them in your country.”
“When did it become a museum?”
“Too long ago.”
I pointed out how I had entered.
“Very clever!” she said. “We must be careful when we return.”
A taxi came up the street. Its fenders were battered. It swayed, like a camel, as it crossed potholes.
“Now I must go,” she said. “We will not meet again until Tuesday. I will be wearing a d'jellaba, with a veil, and carrying a canvas bag. Do not be late.”
She entered the taxi. I gave her the agreed upon money. She looked at me through the open window.
“Do you know what people call me?” she said.
“The two-headed woman.”
“The two-headed woman?”
“Look at my face.”
“Well?” she said. “Dont you see? The left side is different from the right side. It has a different shape—even a different expression.”
“What does it mean?”
“No one knows.”
The taxi drove off.
I had no trouble recognizing her, in spite of the d'jellaba and veil. She stood under a tree, next to the wall of the museum. The canvas bag was at her feet. We waited until the street was clear.
“Now?” she said.
She hobbled forward. Inside the building, all was dark and cool.
“Let me show you what I brought,” she said.
I selected the garments, then turned my back while she changed. It took a long time. I arranged lights, wires, the battery pack.
“You can look now,” she said.
I watched her slip her legs into silk stockings.
“I must tell you," she said suddenly. “I could never love a man who was faithful to me.”
She stood up. The dress was red and black. It slid down to cover her knees. I showed her the path I wanted her to take. Her heels clicked. The lights caught her exactly as I had predicted.
“Was I good?” she asked.
I advanced the film.
“I used to philander,” I said. “Many years ago. I claimed it was an expression of my independence. My natural right—like life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”
“Did you make your wife very unhappy?”
“My girlfriend. Yes, it made her unhappy. We were living together. Do you do that here? Live together, I mean? Without marriage?”
“My brothers would kill me,” she said breathlessly.
She waited for me at the door.
“Again," I said.
“The same way?"
The city was on a bay. I had admired the whitewashed buildings, the uncluttered streets. Traffic lights blinked forlornly—no one paid any attention to them. Motorbikes, rattling taxis, occasional oxen passed by. Even if poor, the people were clean and seemed purposeful. In the cafes old men played card games and games that used ivory chips, like dominos. I enjoyed the breeze, moist and salty, and the odors coming from the darkened shops. Brass and pewter filled shelves, along with stuffed owls, horns from antelope, and American cigarettes. I saw several attractive women, some with pale skin and black hair—a heritage left from the Spanish and French occupations—and others swarthy, shorter, their bodies swathed in yards of muslin or the ankle length d'jellabas. I took a room in a small hotel called the Mamora. I eyed the women with care. Finally I saw the one I wanted, sitting alone in a cafe. She wore tight corduroy pants, a silk shirt. One leg was crossed over the other. A high-heeled shoe dangled from her toes. There was make-up on her face, rouge rather carelessly applied, eyeliner and mascara and shadow, and lips red as the betel-red of a savage. At first I thought she was a tourist; then a whore. I smiled at her, and she lifted her head haughtily. The challenge was unmistakable.
From the cafe we walked past the shop her uncle owned. It was like all the others on the street. I could see no one inside.
“And your father?” I said. “What does he do?”
“No one knows.”
“What do you mean?”
“My father deserted us. When I was a child. No one knows where he is.”
She stopped and looked me straight in the eye.
“Dont be so surprised,” she said. “It isnt uncommon here.”
“It must have been hard on you.”
“Yes.” Her head moved away. “Harder than you think.”
We stopped in front of the building.
“It is just as I said. Originally it was a kasbah, the palace of an emir. He collected dwarves and odalisques. You should hear the stories!”
“You must tell them to me.”
“Perhaps I will.”
The traffic was light. We waited until the street was clear.
She hobbled forward.
I arranged the lights carefully. My back was to her while she changed into the clothes I had selected.
“You can look now,” she said.
I watched her slide her legs into the silk stockings. She attached garters to each stocking top. Her movements were intricate. Then she stopped. Her eyes stared—stared like snake eyes at my face. Her shoes were next to her feet, one on its side, the other balanced precariously on its narrow heel. Slowly she inserted one foot into this shoe. It was like watching a snake slide into its nest. I leaned forward and kissed the proffered knee. Her legs parted slightly.
Light sprang across the room like a leopard. Her savage lips, betel-red, broke open. It was the same look I had seen in the cafe: there was no mistaking the challenge in that gaze. I examined, through my viewfinder, the wet mouth, the hand—red nails unsheathed—that slid along one breast. I heard the hiss of silk on silk as she lifted one leg, and the hiss that emerged, simultaneously, silkily, from between her teeth. When I pressed the shutter she was caught, transfixed. The light illuminated her. The light illuminated us. She waited for me at the door.
“Again,” I said.
“The same way?”
I had been voyaging for some time. The ship I was on, the Cape Falcon, abruptly changed its itinerary. My goal was to visit Ethiopia, a fabled country, but the ship would now be traveling in a different direction. With some misgivings I got off at the next port. The city looked pleasant enough, with many cafes, smoke rising from braziers, small children squatting in the dust, but I knew no one. I took a room in a small hotel in the medina. I prowled the streets, often walking all night. One such night I found a giant building. Once it had been the kasbah of an emir, then a museum. Now, it was said, the building was deserted except for the ghosts of thousands of odalisques and dwarves which the emir had collected. I thought immediately of taking pictures. I cleaned my cameras. I found a store which would rent me a battery pack and lights powerful enough for my needs. Then I went searching for my subject. I found the woman in a cafe. My lips broke into a smile. Like a snake my arm slid across the table. When I had her hand in mine I led her to the kasbah. Although her face was veiled, I saw her eyes light with interest. We talked of odalisques, of brazen skies, of bodies of slack flesh and ripened tongues. She slipped her legs into silk stockings. I slipped my hand between her parted thighs. Then I kissed the proffered knee. It was like kissing the slick scales of a snake. Her feet found their way into the brazen shoes. “My father deserted me when I was a child,” she said. “I could never love a man who was faithful to me.” All the while her throat arched, like the underbelly of a lizard. Light sprang across the room. Heels clicked. Savage lips, betel-red, broke open. She hissed between her teeth even as her legs hissed one against each other. I pressed the shutter. The image spread onto the film like blood onto the floor. I had never felt such joy.
“My love,” I said.
I advanced the film. She hissed, advancing to the door, where she waited for me.
“Again,” I said.
“The same way?”
I said. “Oh, yes, my love, exactly.”
NOTES: This is one of my Ethiopian stories, though written some time later than my others. See "Motherburial #1" for more information.