Syzygy (the alignment)

Kofiyah by Solly Gutman
Korfiyah by Solly Gutman

The bell over the shop door jingles as Abdul pushes it open wide and sniffs the salty air of the pre-dawn morning. Despite the early hour, the two aunties who live in the tiny whitewashed stone building opposite are already busy on their stoep, sitting at their wide wooden table peeling a small mountain of vegetables. The aunties are always busy: knitting or sewing, mending and altering; or making rotis and other goodies to sell by the harbour. That’s how they manage.

Abdul manages too. He sells all sorts of Useful Things. Indeed, that is what his shop is called. It might be a pot or a pan, a fishing net, or a rod and line. Or maybe something more exotic, like an oyster knife or an implement for getting stones out of horses’ hooves. If you can’t find it anywhere else, then Abdul is sure to have it. You only have to ask.

He steps outside and looks up. He grins. It’s an auspicious day. A sliver of a new moon, Venus and Jupiter form a precise alignment in the eastern sky: bringing love, happiness and maybe wealth and adventure, he thinks. And something more. Abdul hurries across the dusty road to greet the two aunties.

Auntie Grace looks up from her peeling. “Have you been consulting with your heavenly bodies, Abdul?” she says with a twinkle in her eye. Auntie Grace is over ninety, the brown skin of her face is still smooth though, and she loves to tease.

Abdul inclines his head.

“And what are they telling us?”

Abdul repeats his thoughts to them.

Auntie Rose holds up a long strand of potato peeling triumphantly. “There. All in one go. We will have good luck.” She grins up at Abdul toothlessly. Her face is nut-brown and deeply wrinkled although she’s some ten years her sister’s junior.

“Most certainly, in that case,” replies Abdul. “Did you buy your lottery ticket this week?”

“Of course.” Auntie Grace reaches inside her capacious bosom and draws out the ticket.

Auntie Rose chuckles and reaches inside her pocket. “A day to put my teeth in then,” she gurns, before slipping in her dentures.

Abdul smiles, puts his two hands together and bows his head to the Aunties, before hurrying back to the shop to arrange the display on the table in front of his shop window. The other shopkeepers are opening up now and everyone nods and waves to each other. It’s a friendly little community.

The day goes well for Abdul. He’s sold an entire dinner service by eleven o’clock, and someone else is coming back later with the money for a small mahogany table which Abdul has lovingly polished every day for a month.

Later in the afternoon a tall woman, carrying two bulging holdalls comes into the shop. She’s looking for an oil lamp. ‘Something which doesn’t need electric,’ she says. ‘Not a candle,’ she adds emphatically. The woman is about Abdul’s age, he guesses; neither young nor old. She wears a long skirt and a rather obvious wig, he notices. He hasn’t seen her before. He wonders if she’s new to the town, but he’s too shy to ask. He thinks for a moment then finds exactly the lamp she’s looking for. He throws in a small container of kerosene for free and her face lights up. She stuffs her purchases into one of her bags. Abdul hold the shop door for her and watches as she slowly walks away, her head held high.

Now he’s eager for the working day to end. He has something to do and this is the very day on which he must do it. He saw the syzygy, the particular alignment, in the early morning sky. Abdul’s eyes stray to a large, cracked leather-bound volume which stands on his highest shelf, partly concealed behind a bulbous copper kettle.

It had been the aunties who had given him the book more than a year ago. Written as it was in Arabic, they’d had no use for it. It had just been taking up space, Auntie Rose had said. But it had come with a stern warning from Auntie Grace. She’d recalled mention in their family of some strange ‘happening’ when her grandfather had read it aloud in his room one night during a full moon. Abdul had smiled and shaken his head. His Arabic wasn’t so good, he’d said. And it hadn’t been until he’d begun to try to read the book.

Now he’s pretty much fluent.

As soon as he’s locked up the shop at precisely five o’clock, Abdul carefully lifts the book down from the shelf and disappears into his little private room and the back of the shop. All goes quiet. Nobody notices when much later that evening a strange curl of reddish smoke rises from the back of the shop, or a peculiar, over-sweet odour wafts away on the strengthening estuary breeze.

Across the road, the aunties are jumping up and down like spring chickens, having netted a nice little lottery win. Not life-changing, but certainly life-improving, they say to each other. Rose puts her dentures back in to celebrate with a toothy grin.

Neither of them sees the fish eagle as it flies in a graceful arc, up over their little house to the harbour, curving round across the estuary mouth to head down the river towards the salt flats where it wheels again and flies over the marina and out to sea, hugging the coast, looking down at the fishing boats in the coves along the coast. The bird alights briefly on the headland opposite the harbour then, as if satisfied, returns to whence it came, disappearing behind the workshops and warehouses which line the harbour.

Abdul doesn’t see the aunties until they return from church the following day. They stand beaming outside his shop, peering in until he comes to the door. He pokes his head out, but unusually, he doesn’t step outside, expressing his congratulations on their news from his side of the door.

Auntie Rose takes a step forward and reaches up. She plucks a feather from his beard and holds it out to her sister. Auntie Grace peers round the door and notices something odd about the way Abdul is standing. She glances down. She nudges her sister and nods at Abdul’s feet which are mostly hidden by his long white shirt and matching trousers. He shuffles his feet awkwardly.

“What’s the matter with your toes?” says Auntie Rose. Abdul looks at her, then down at his feet. The claws which poke out from his sandals are unmistakable.

“The book?” asks Auntie Grace.

Abdul nods.

Inspired by ‘Korfiyah’ by Cape Town artist, Solly Gutman – visit his website for more of his wonderful artwork