Excerpt from Polite Society, “The Edge of the Sky”
(published in The New Yorker)
Someone in your house will be unfaithful,” said the seetkat. Her black skin was so wrinkled that it looked as if life had wadded her up like a paper bag and then, in random acts of grace, tried to smooth her out again. She was no bigger than the child sleeping beside her on the bed. Mumbling incantations, she rattled the cowrie shells in her bony hand and tossed them across the faded blanket, where they formed the blurred outline of a fish. Thea, the wife of the American ambassador to Senegal, and her maid, Coumba, leaned forward to study the mysterious shape of their futures.
The old witch said something in Wolof to Coumba, who replied “Waaw, waaw’ in assent and leaned back, adjusting the bright yellow robe that slid off one glossy black shoulder. She was tall and slender with an exquisite face. As she turned her head, fine black braids weighted with metal beads clacked softly against her neck. “Ndeysaan,” she said in sympathy, and smiled. Her gums had been dyed blue to make her teeth dazzle. Sitting next to her maid, Thea felt like a pasty white ball of dough. She wore a practical, mud-colored skirt and a dowdy blouse. Her bangs were cut too short.
Translating the seetkat’s prescription, Coumba told Thea in French, “You buy three white birds. Let one go west in the leaving sun, let one go east in the coming sun, and let one go where it will. You buy four meters of black cloth and give them to a beggar. You put three eggs in the sea. God will know.”
“Isn’t this interesting,” said Thea, planning a visit to her tailor.
In the dirt yard of the dilapidated house, two boys with quick eyes and long, dusty legs edged shyly back from the baby blue Lincoln Continental to let the ambassador’s wife and her maid pass by them. Samba, the chauffeur, stepped out in his blue uniform with the gold braid and opened the doors. Leaning back in the cool leather seat, Thea considered the witch’s prophecy. Did Grant have a lover?