Excerpted from a 1962 collection of short stories by the Sudanese author Al-Tayyib Salih (1929-2009), this story concerns a character who has left his Scottish wife behind in London in order to visit his family in the Sudan.
My dearest Eileen,
I have finally finished unpacking my suitcases. You are everything to me, and I don’t know what I will do without you. Nothing that is necessary for me to live is in these suitcases. Nine Van Heusen shirts, three of which I don’t even need. They must be washed and dried and starched. And you know that I will not do things of this kind. This necktie that I bought for myself last year on Bond Street—I have as much need of it as I do the five others in the suitcase. Five is more than enough. You asked, “Won’t you go out often? You might need a necktie for a party.” No, I’m afraid there aren’t many parties to attend. Still, this scarlet-colored necktie is one out of a million small things that binds my heart to you.
I remember this time last year, when I’d known you for eight months, when we stood on the six o’clock train as it crawled across the earth and the people crowded close around us. We stood together and you leaned on me. Upon our arrival, I said to you: “I love you. I want to marry you.” Your cheeks flushed and people stared at us. It had been eight months that I knew you, and all through them I did not tell you that I loved you. I was evading the question, and yes, I was aware of it and I turned away. But then, at the center of the six o’clock crowd, when the people return tired and oppressed to their homes after working in the market throughout the day, only then did the forbidden words leave my mouth. It was as if I were feverish. I don’t know any devil that moved my tongue, anything that heightened my emotions, but I felt a great happiness at that time, in that suffocating air, between the austere, lined faces that lurked behind the evening newspaper. When we went out of the train, you squeezed my hand hard, and I saw in your eyes the faintest hint of tearfulness and you said to me: “You are foolish. You are the craziest, most infatuated man that I’ve ever known. But I like you. We could be married.”
Eight months, and I avoided you. Instead I talked and talked, lecturing you about the differences that separate us. Religion, country, gender. You are from Aberdeen in Scotland, and I am from Khartoum. You are Christian and I am Muslim. You are small and joyful and optimistic, and I have a heart punctured by wounds that won’t scar. Is there anything like this in you, my love? You are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, with a strong body. You like swimming and playing tennis. Meanwhile, I still yearn somewhat for a dark girl, wide-eyed and black-haired, with Eastern features and delicate movements. Anything that I love of you is inside you. You see, Eileen, I am lost, wretched and strange. I carry in my heart the concerns of my race as if they were my family. Do I deceive you?
You told me, “Don’t search for explanations for everything. You’re like a senile horse from a backward country. I wanted a divine fate to strike me with your love. That’s all I ever wanted. Remember that Shakespeare quote: ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.’ As are we.”
Your golden hair fell onto your face and you pushed it away with your hand, then laughed your special brand of laughter, which weaves and resonates through all of your stories. We went to a Chinese restaurant and we celebrated, and we forgot that it was my birthday. I didn’t celebrate yesterday or today, but you did. You remembered; you bought me this crimson necktie. How I loved you for this! And I placed it among my dearest belongings.
Oh, my dearest Eileen!
This is my first night without you…in a year. It has been a complete year. Three hundred sixty-five nights that you shared my bed. You slept with your head on my arm and our breathing entwined. We perfumed each others’ bodies. You dreamt my dreams, you read my ideas, you prepared my breakfast, we bathed together in a single bathtub, we used a single toothbrush, you read the books and you told me what they meant—for I have enough to read in you that I have no need of books. You married me, you married an Easterner pulled from another lifetime, a different path, you married a sun that shone with harsh rays of light. I married you, thinking recklessly, hoping desperately like a man dying of thirst in the Sahara.
The first night—I tell you this, oh daughter of Aberdeen—you stopped by chance on my street. You became like a sister to me. “His two sisters, his two sisters.” The gray suit you wore—three conversations with you were more than enough. A married man who stays up late with his family will not stay up late with you alone, and will not take an interest in your longings for your country. Still, it is without a doubt that you are at peace with yourself. If I go home to the Sudan, you will return to me peacefully. Even if I must laugh at you in front of my family, they will see only you, a girl with a grin on her face.
I was overwhelmed, for you, my girl, you would not have laughed at me. In my family’s reckoning of things, I am like a date palm in splinters, torn out of the ground and swept away by the stream to somewhere very far from here. In their minds, I am nothing but a boring businessman. But this isn’t such a problem for you, that I am not saleable merchandise.
This is the first night spent without you. And far from you, I must face 30 nights, 30 nights spent as though I wander through an unending desert. I will sit on a boulder opposite my family’s house and I will speak to you. I am confident that you will hear me. I trust that the harsh desert winds and the electrical currents that travel through the ether and the sudden daydreams that fall upon you will carry my words to you. Waves of folly emanating from my lovesick heart will crash and break against your shorelines. When you sleep, you will place your arm where I placed my head on the pillow, as if I am there with you. When you wake up, you will hear me whispering “Good morning.” It is for this that I yearn. It is for this that I listen to the air. I hear your sweet voice ringing clearly and you say to me: “I am happy though you are gone—but do not grow too happy away from me. Remember that I grow thin waiting here for you. You will be with your people, but remember that in doing so you leave me with mine.”
He finishes the letter, folds it four times and places it in the envelope, then writes the address. He grasps it between his fingers and holds it up to the light. He stares at it for a long time in silence, as if it contains a great secret. He hears his brothers and his cousins and his wife whispering inside the envelope. He drops it into the mailbox.
Some time passes with no response. Perhaps she waited a long time to write back or perhaps the letter never reached her. He sits inside his house where he cannot hear or see anything.
The next day, he hears high laughter approaching from the north side of the house. The sound becomes clear in his ears, the noise of women coming to welcome him from a faraway country. They crowd near him. In the crowd are his aunts and their daughters. His brother comes forward, and with him a crowd of men. All of them crowd very close to him. They accept him into their circle and they sit together. The women bring coffee, tea, orange juice, and lemon juice. They ask him questions and he replies. The group discusses him and his absence in their lives. He feels hatred for them in his heart for shaming him in this way. An idea looms larger in the back of his mind, an idea of fear for Eileen. These people have turned against him, and thus against her. They are a tribe and he is an exile from it. They have become strange to him, and he is strange to them. And yet, when he stands to shake his brother’s hand, his brother simply laughs before him, as though his return were nothing. He treats him as kin, without the awkwardness of elapsed days between them. His brother clasps him strongly in his arms, tears welling forth, and the remainder of the tribe exaggerates their welcome. Their pretense unnerves him, as if their natural distaste for him was suddenly abated and they now accept him without sincerity. “Time heals all wounds,” he thinks to himself.
And he hears Eileen’s voice calling to him plainly and sweetly, saying: “I hope with all my heart that you live among your people as if you had never left them, for they have not changed. It is of utmost importance that you live as you are, but also that you do not change their ways.”
Oh, to be so far from you, Eileen, in this age of migration!