Fiction

The long supper 

MY SISTER INSPIRED hunger a breath from anguish. Mother fell unconscious the minute she gave birth to her, and our grandmother snatched the red baby close and said, Oh…I could eat this girl up alive. Nadia was the name they chose: the one who calls. At fourteen, she put on the hijab. Schoolboys took this as a blow, like she was wrapping a caramel candy. When first the man who would become her husband saw her at a community dinner, he grimaced and turned his face down to his plate. To his father beside him, I heard him say, God, am I starved. I saw his grip on the cutlery whiten and his brow develop a sheen. He kept looking between my sister and the meat on his dish, blinking and sweating, like they had brought him the wrong piece of steak.

Something in her made men and women alike want to grab a handful, take a bite. It might have been a sweetness. It might have been the air of something ripe. It had little to do with beauty; we were both amply supplied in that arena. It had little to do with weight; her cheeks suggested the consistency of a bao bun, but so did mine.

Envy never occurred to me. People mostly resented her, especially during Ramadan, when I noticed our mother oppressed by her presence – she would fret and whisper her away if Nadia came into the kitchen before iftar. Family friends skipped her cheek when they offered us kisses of greeting. In the streets, charity workers singled her out in a crowd and hounded her for donations of blood.

This shadow-famine could not be explained. If upon first sight of her people’s eyes grew larger than their stomachs, their stomachs soon grew to accommodate their eyes. But gluttony came with a serving of self-disgust on the side; they had been caught with their mouths full and their hands wrist-deep in a cake. And they blamed her: they were sure it was Nadia who had called them to gorge. It was Nadia who had demeaned them by forcing them to crave a fruit that some blight made extinct. People everywhere, all of them, all the time, turning a grimace down to their plates and their plates so empty, like Tantalus with the lake so deep and the fruit so near, and all of them reaching…

 

NADIA HERSELF WAS unremarkable. She spoke little and staked little claim. She ate in moderation (always in private). She exercised moderately (always indoors). Books were the exception; those, she binged. She had a favourite refrain: The first word revealed of the Quran was ‘Read!’ In it I heard not defence – it was not her habit to justify or apologise – no, in it I heard gratitude for an appetite endorsed by divine imperative.

Once, during an interfaith class in high school, our teacher asked her to comment on the story of Adam and Eve. We all waited for what she would say. The girl beside me dry swallowed. A few students ground their pencils with their teeth.

In the Quran, God isn’t angry with them, Nadia said at last. She was soft-spoken. Many leaned forward in their seats. In the Bible, He curses them, Eve especially. In the Quran, God knew they would eat. With equal culpability. He created them so that they would eat. And when they do, instead of descending wrath, He reassures them. ‘Go forth. There is for you on Earth an abode and provisions for a time.’ Only for a time. Adam repents – with words God gave him, knowing all along they would slip – and then it says, ‘God turned towards him with mercy.’

The rest of the class hung in a precarious silence. I watched her for the whisper of Iblis or the daughter of Eve or the forbidden fruit tree. She could be so bewildering. I never knew which creation she imagined herself to be, but these visions of hers enthralled me. These were the rarely glimpsed leftovers of a public all-you-can-eat. All my love for the rest of her was nothing compared to my love for this inner kernel, which was nutritious, I knew, and blessedly impossible to reap.

 

THAT WAS BEFORE Nadia married. Ismael, the starving fellow from the community dinner, was a budding physician and a good choice of fiancé, but still in the months leading up to the wedding I suffered a presentiment of loss all the same. My sister, as I have said, was difficult to penetrate. Usually this quality I encouraged and protected in her but then, on the cusp of something so foreign to us both, I wanted reassurance, however meagre, that she would be safe. Her behaviour before the wedding hinted at nothing but placidity.

And yet it was because of her I had no interest in marriage; it was because of her I had decided only to cede to a man if I could devise a plan for fair trade. Whereas Nadia seemed incapable of preparing a sacrificial lamb for a pair of incisors so as to spare her own jugular vein, I would be sure to cook a nightly feast for a man if need be – rice and nuts and salted meats, yoghurt with mint and garlic, skewered lamb, fried bread, guava juice, dates and figs – to fill him up, to empower less withering appetites. Nadia never thought to satisfy another’s pang. That everything before the hereafter was temporary made her at peace, I think, with hunger as the condition of being. She no more sought to end it than to end her own pulse.

But if I could make Nadia aware of my bargaining chip, if I could give her one last piece of armour, one last smuggled thing…she was silent on the subject. She spent those final weeks at home alone in her room, savouring Charlotte Brontë. A week before the event, I panicked and convinced her to come with me on a last-minute camping trip.

It was then, on the drive up to Wisemans Ferry, just as I was preparing to pounce, that news broke of police disrobing a hijabi on a beach in Nice. Nadia had pulled out her phone and seen the story. She read it aloud. I kept thinking of those schoolboys hankering for an unshelled caramel candy. We drove the rest of the way in silence.

At the river, we set up our tent and sat by the water all evening. I never brought up her engagement. In the end, I just let her be. Those hours of freedom were a mutual gift. I left her to sit by the stream, which was slim and silver under a sky at first lavender then snuffed to navy. In the tent I rehydrated a sachet of tomato soup. When at last she came in from outside I thought she had been roused by hunger, but I saw she was agitated, scratching herself all over. They bit me, she said. Her face, her toes, even her well-covered limbs. Mosquitoes had ravished her through her clothes. I didn’t even feel it. She was astonished. It was the only time I ever sensed from her a tenor of fear. I offered antihistamines. They knocked her out and made her so nauseous even after she awoke that she could not stomach a bite to eat.

 

THE MOSQUITO BITES had scabbed over by the day of the wedding. Bite marks were her bridal face. Nadia withstood it with grace but requested there be no photographs, which betrayed a self-consciousness I found surprising. Reliably, the guests aimed lenses at her anyway. I caught her flinch a few times under the flash, and once a camera-wielder crept up on her with such stealth the ambush made her jerk her hands up to shield her face.

Other than that, the night was enjoyable. Ismael was a man radiant with his avowed buffet. The guests congratulated him, they whispered words of goodwill and warning. Nadia glowed quietly. My mother, sitting beside me, shuddered; her regret and relief were indistinguishable. I was hopeful, I think.

The problems began directly afterwards when we learnt the caterer had left the cake out overnight. Whatever bacterial colony had taken hold, the pistachio cream gave every single guest food poisoning. The way they spoke about their nausea, it seemed as though they had been expecting it, as though they had felt a rot hanging over the entire ceremony. And so the guests blamed her, and basted Nadia in their blame, and they received their sickness with satisfaction at the arrival of an omen a lifetime in the making.

 

SHE FELL PREGNANT immediately, of course. Everything imaginable wanted a piece of her, even that which did not yet exist. And, of course, she was pregnant with twins. Around this time, Ismael came down with sympathy for the famine-stricken in Yemen and promptly shipped himself off with Médecins Sans Frontières. Nadia moved back home for the time being.

Morning sickness hit like a plague, and not just in the morning. The doctors said it was a symptom of multiple gestation. A few weeks of constant retching later, they diagnosed her with hyperemesis gravidarum, and the heavier she grew, the more full of hormones she was pumped, the more her burden purged her from the inside. The anti-emetics her obstetrician prescribed were insipid. Mostly it was my job to keep her alive by forcing her to crawl out of the bathroom and drink.

She was at once gaunt and swollen, but she never complained. Like the immediate conception, like the twins, it seemed to come as no surprise. She knew all about it already from what had happened to Brontë.

Charlotte had it, Nadia told me, half-unconscious in her bed – I had the urge to quiet her before, in her weakness, she revealed her inner kernel to me. There was the inevitability of it. Her publisher warned her she’d never write again if she married, but there was the inevitability. She fell pregnant, came down with this thing, died within a year. Had she vomited herself to death? I asked. Nadia’s breath was rancid, but I leaned in to hear her whisper from the brink of sleep. No, it was the hunger…the hunger that came after…her emaciation…re-feeding too quickly…she couldn’t help it…she was so sick and so hungry.

 

THE LAST TIME she vomited was right after the labour, when a midwife asked her if she’d like to eat the placenta. After that it seemed the worst had passed. Having returned for the birth, Ismael at last pivoted his attentions to famine in the domestic sphere. He was an attentive man, a good physician. He rationed Nadia’s intake, cooked what was easy on her stomach: leek and parsnip soup, crackers, cucumber, pre-peeled mandarins. With caution, he reintroduced her to hunger.

The babies needed no instruction. Indeed, they could not be stopped. Ismael, though a compassionate man by nature and religion, was desperate for the twins to be spared from what he imagined as the child abuse of bottle-feeding. While he quoted medical studies expounding the myriad benefits of a mother’s milk, the sucklings slaked their thirst all night and all day. They gnawed on her once they were equipped with teeth. Nadia fainted one afternoon while visiting me; being deprived of her for those few seconds of unconsciousness made the babies scream.

And still we loved them, loved them as they drained her – me, Nadia, our mother, we sat for hours rapt by them, gaping in wonderment, tapping their hands and feet, their bubbling mouths, their apple-like cheeks – but even our mother’s tolerance for Nadia’s suffering grew thin. She began slipping me money to buy baby formula, which I would prepare and keep in the fridge. To spare Nadia the trouble of lying to her husband, I would invite her every day, beg her to nap, and bottle-feed the babies in secret while she was asleep. Reduction in their appetites came as a relief so great she asked no questions.

 

FOR A FEW years, she was healthy. Sometimes she was tired, often serene; mostly she seemed to be waiting. To what destiny she had entrusted herself I could not guess, but her firmness assuaged me. While schoolboys hoarded candies for consumption all the world over, we locked ourselves away.

Then came unexplained weight loss. Ismael knew what it was. He couldn’t bear it. He sent her to the doctor with me. It sounds crude to put it so plainly: the X-ray showed a tiny nodule in the right lung periphery, but the PET scan was black.

Nadia fixated on the nodule. The doctor explained it was squamous cell proliferation gone awry, a tumour sometimes seen in non-smokers with a predisposition in the genes. So it’s not consumption, she kept asking. It’s from me? It wasn’t tuberculosis, no, he told her. It was her own cell, her own self, herself all over. It’s me, she marvelled. It’s me.

 

NADIA WAS PERHAPS the only one among us at peace with what was coming. Even as the months passed and she lost her appetite and all Ismael could get into her mouth were water-soaked sugar canes that he grew in the yard and begged her to lick, she remained impenetrable. I took this as a sign of life and was relieved. Instead of forcing her to surrender that last inner kernel, I sat with her in silence when she wished it or read the Quran aloud when she asked me to read.

It was difficult. Ismael became delirious. Mother shrivelled. The children only understood enough to be silent and afraid. As people had grimaced at Nadia in life, neither could they bear the sight of her dying.

I alone never left her. I knelt at the bedside and hid my face as she ran a hand over my hair. I thought of the worms and fungi and bacteria in her gut. I thought of the seed planted in her grave once the headstone had crumbled in a few centuries, and the tree that would suck her marrow through its roots and mulch her and thrust up from her clay, at first green and soft and then hard, and then pregnant and then bowing with yield, an apple, down for a groping hand, a darting tongue, juice dripping, flesh chewed, swallowed into the sapling of another pulsing vein, the teeth mashing into my sister…and all the while she kept whispering beautiful things. In her mind was the banquet. She spoke of heaven as in the Quran. The fig, the pomegranate, the olive tree…she breathed. The death rattle made her voice weak. I thought of decomposition, all eyes ever laid upon her chewing up her life. The River Kawthar, milk and honey, a sip forever quenching. The wedding photo with her hand over her face. Wine you can drink without drunk becoming. The fruit in clusters, hanging low, easy down, within reach. God’s turn, I thought. She seemed to hear me. Her eyes were shining in exaltation. Good, she said. She was in ecstasy. He alone has no need. He alone has no appetite. God does not eat.

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