“Mom! We’ll miss it! Hurry!” Frantic, her daughter shook Nunuco’s leg.
Eyes still closed, Nunuco swiped at the air. “Okay, okay. I’m coming.”
The shaking stopped.
Through the riot of chirping frogs, Nunuco heard her daughter scurry out of the dark room.
Groaning, Nunuco shifted out from under her youngest son’s arm, which was slung across her throat like a rag. She stood, gathered her thick, dark hair, twisted it into a bun, and pinned it back with two long, smooth wands, then grabbed her sarong. Tying the old cloth around her waist, Nunuco walked through the empty kitchen and stood at the front door, squinting into the darkness with its relentless cacophony of croaking frogs wafting from the Great River’s edge.
Her dark and budding daughter, who lingered for that brief moment between being both a child and a woman, stood on the front porch, naked and hugging herself against the sudden breeze. Nunuco wondered if the plea, the innocent longing, that flowed from her daughter’s eyes was innocence or manipulation. “Can I get a shawl, Mommy? It’s too cold!”
Manipulation. “Don’t whine, Anggun. You know you have to be naked.”
The breeze stopped.
“And it’s not too cold.”
Still hugging herself, Anggun sighed and looked down, blinking her long eyelashes as she knelt on the same spot she did every morning before dawn; or rather, every morning since becoming a woman nine days ago.
Nunuco walked over to a table and scooped up a handful of white lotus petals from a bowl. Nunuco scattered the petals as she circled her kneeling, naked daughter. They whirled silently through the darkness and landed on the crude mud bricks upon which Anggun knelt.
Through the cascade of petals, Anggun looked up at her mother and cocked her head, causing thin braids to fall across her delicate shoulders. She smiled, revealing white, perfect teeth that, like her eyes, seemed to glow in the darkness. They are so bright, like beacons. Nunuco shuddered, knowing that her daughter’s bewitching beauty caused those who beheld her to either love her with supernatural devotion, or hate her with hellish jealousy, especially now that Anggun had recently completed her cycle, her first blood. Nunuco knew boys would be sniffing around soon, threatening Anggun’s chance of securing a marriage that would get them all out of this forsaken place.
Still smiling, Anggun glanced away from her mother.
Nunuco flicked her daughter’s head with her finger. “Stop thinking about boys.”
Anggun’s bright smile faded. She looked down as Nunuco scattered the last of the petals. Wiping her calloused hands, Nunuco walked over to the table and picked up an offering to Ra, a small packet of coffee beans, hibiscus flowers, and bread neatly wrapped in a bright green palm frond.
“Why can’t I have a cushion? I’ve been sitting here forever! My knees hurt. And I’m still cold,” Anggun complained.
“Not yet. And stop whining.”
Nunuco tossed the packet toward Anggun just as a small boy reached out to snatch it. Anggun caught his lanky arm by the wrist, and the offering landed safely between her bare thighs.
“No, no,” Anggun chided her youngest brother. “Not for you.”
“Let him have it,” yawned Nunuco. “Maybe he’s Ra.”
“Are you Ra?” Anggun asked the boy.
Peteq looked up at his big sister and shouted. “Yes! No!”
The siblings giggled. Crossing her arms, Nunuco tried to give her youngest son, a lean sprout of a boy, a stern look, but she couldn’t help smiling. “It’s hard to be mad at you when you’re so damn cute.”
The sky began to brighten, halting the chorus of croaking frogs. Out of the corner of her eye, Nunuco noticed the motions of other women on other front porches, also in pairs. They too were making offerings; the older women conducting the ceremony as the young girls knelt submissively. The entire community engaged in this show of familial beauty should Ra, the God of Day, decide to take one of these virgins to His heavenly harem, where He would grant her eternal youth and beauty.
Nunuco turned back to her daughter, who still knelt among the white petals.
Anggun pulled her little brother onto her lap. He grinned, cheeks dimpling as he swooped back his top-knot.
“You know you’re not supposed to be here. You’re a boy,” Anggun scolded as Peteq nestled against her newly formed breasts. They had held his attention ever since their recent arrival. She untied his topknot, letting his brown locks fall over the soft new growth of his shaven head. She ran her fingers through the long strands, dividing them into three sections, which she began braiding. Suddenly, Anggun sniffed the air. She gasped and looked up at her mother.
Nunuco smelled it too: incense.
“Shit!” Nunuco scanned the porch for the incense burner, finally spotting it on the table, cold and forgotten. She considered rushing to fetch embers from the hearth, but decided she really didn’t care if the God missed His morning portion of sweet-smelling smoke. Then she noticed the row of jugs lined up along the side of the porch. Ah, beer. She raised an eyebrow. Now there’s something Ra might like for breakfast.
Just then, the sun appeared on the horizon, signaling the end of the ritual.
“Looks like you’re stuck here another day,” sighed Nunuco, who started toward the beer jugs. She halted as Iawii appeared in the doorway, swinging a satchel over his thin shoulder. His white and spotless shenti, its folds crisp, was tied below the small paunch of his belly.
Standing there, he rubbed his head, bald but for the gray above his ears and over the back of his neck. His gold and blue earbobs clung to his old and stretched out lobes. Iawii scowled at Nunuco with narrow eyes meticulously lined with black kohl. “The incense isn’t burning.”
“I forgot it,” said Nunuco, still eyeing the beer jugs.
“It’s too late now,” grumbled Iawii as he stepped onto the porch. He pointed a long, bony finger at Peteq, still perched on Anggun’s bare thighs. “What’s he doing on her lap?”
“Since Ra never takes girls, we thought He might like a boy for a change,” Nunuco quipped.
Anggun quickly covered her mouth to hide her smile.
“Watch your tongue, Nu!” snapped Iawii. “And you, get him off of you!”
Anggun shoved Peteq off her lap as a stream of incense from a neighbor’s porch wafted by.
“Maybe Ang can hitch a ride on their smoke.”
“Humor,” Iawii stomped his foot, “is not appropriate in our devotions when we are enticing a God!”
“I’m just trying to make you laugh, Iawii. You’re always so serious.”
“Don’t you worry about me. Worry about the girl.”
Anggun rose, brushed the petals off her thighs, and headed toward the door. “I’m going inside.”
“No!” Nunuco and Iawii shouted in unison.
“Fine!” Anggun rolled her eyes and sat cross-legged among the lotus petals, pouting.
Iawii turned to Nunuco, his frown deepening. “Don’t be so careless, Nu. Have I taught you nothing of the power of the Gods? Where is your faith?”
“My faith staggered into the Nile with your son!” Nunuco often used the behavior of Iawii’s son, her dead and miserable husband, to shame and soften Iawii.
“The Gods have punished him for his wickedness,” Iawii countered.
Nunuco crossed her arms and stuck out her jaw. “So you say.” She knew full well the Gods had nothing to do with it. Her mind fluttered briefly to the memory of how easily her husband’s skull had yielded to the stone after the fourth blow. Or was it the fifth?
“Nu, I had hoped my being here would bring you some peace,” said Iawii, his voice calmer.
“It has.” Nunuco unfolded her arms. Though she found her father-in-law taxing, and at times impossible, he had sacrificed his comfortable retirement to assist Nunuco with raising her unruly brood of four children. And for that, she was grateful.
Iawii put his hand on her shoulder. “And some faith, also.”
“Oh, I have faith, Iawii—just not in the Gods.”
Iawii withdrew his hand.
Nunuco leaned down and grabbed a wooden cup. She then uncapped a jug of home brew, filled the cup with beer, and nestled it among the white lotus petals by Anggun’s crossed legs. “There! Now Ra will wake up happy.”
“Maybe,” said Iawii, “but if He drinks this early, He’ll be miserable tonight. You, of all people, should know that, Nu.”
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” She bent over, picked up the cup, and sipped the beer.
Shaking his head, Iawii adjusted his satchel and walked toward the steps, carefully avoiding any stray petals.
“I’ll see you later,” he said as he descended the steps.
“Enjoy your men,” said Nunuco, winking at her daughter.
Anggun looked up at her, puzzled. “Can I get up now? Please?”
Anggun stood as Nunuco leaned against a post and sipped the cup of beer. Feeling the smooth brew glide down her throat, she looked toward the road and watched Iawii walk between the mud brick hovels that comprised Arrousa’s slum. More men would soon join him to form the band of wizened old zealots people called “Iawii’s Men.” Every morning, Iawii led them in prayer at the banks of the Nile. As far as these old men were concerned, Iawii’s piety, and their imitation of it, had brought the nourishing floods this year. But Nunuco remembered other floods, floods that had come without prayers led by Iawii.
She watched as he disappeared up the road.
Here and there, a pecking hen clucked on the dirt in front of the porch. Nunuco knocked back the last of the beer. Perfect!
The appearance of her two older sons disturbed her momentary bliss. Gunang, Anggun’s tall and lanky twin brother, was followed by Buku, their younger, shorter, and more boxy brother.
Buku stared at Nunuco as he chewed on a heel of bread. Guilt flashed through Nunuco at thinking her own middle son odd-looking, but he was.
She put down the empty cup. “Okay. Let’s get to work! Bring the jugs from out back to the docks. I’ll meet you there. We’re delivering the new batch today.”
The boys stared at her blankly.
“Go!” she clapped her hands, and the two boys took off running.