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The Marriage Market

An old Bedford van passes you on the track to the *moussem. On top, penned but precarious, barely a bleat, goats. Good meat, you’re told. Behind you, the woman who shares your bed, the woman who wants to be your wife, she says. The woman who fucked your sister. Clawed you red and hollow beneath your ribs.

The stale breath of last night’s argument lingers in the space between you. You’re grateful she hangs back; you’d struggle to be civil. She doesn’t deserve you, you think, and you consciously walk in time to the sound of drums from the market, swaying your hips so she can’t help but see. You decide to hate your sister for tarnishing the precious, sparkling things in your life.

Some children notice you, whisper behind hands as you approach. You know enough not to stop and fall prey to them, despite the stupidity of being separated in the crowds if you get too far ahead. So, you slow down and look purposeful. Two girls giggle and move closer. Others take their lead and surround you on three sides, keeping a distance, eyes smiling, but leaning in, taking liberties. You want to bat them away. Then the track is filled with the noise of camels, solid, incontrovertible, and drovers’ sticks and shouts cutting the air. The children scatter into the market and you make yourself look at the woman behind you.

She is slight, blonde hair wrapped in a yellow Berber scarf, layers of colourful fabric. She looks the part. You never knew you’d grow up and fall in love with a chameleon. You never knew you’d grow up and fall in love with anyone.

“Bitch,” she says.

It’s a term of endearment in your shared language; perhaps there’s an edge to it now, you think. Perhaps there isn’t. But you hold your tongue. You know how she turns things: she doesn’t want a lecture about love.

You want to remind her of that night in your flat, trawling through The Rough Guide, the bottle of white Rioja, the sex. The story of the young lovers driven apart by their warring families, whose tears became the two blue lakes nestled in the mountains nearby. That’ll never be us, she said, as she fed you a pomegranate, placing its arils on your tongue with more tenderness than you have ever known, enjoying your pleasure as they burst in your mouth.

Instead, you walk along Champs-Élysées, even managing a smile at the joke scrawled on a scrap of cardboard, and don’t care now if she follows you or not. You pass makeshift meat stalls, aiming for the large white tents, red flags fluttering, where the signing of the marriage contracts takes place. Flies lift in unison from a goat’s head hanging from a hook, before settling once more. Live chickens dangle by their feet from the hands of customers, stupefied by their upside-down view of the world. On a blanket in the dust, spines of porcupines stripped from carcasses. Everywhere is flesh. You feel disembodied.

You follow the steady stream of brides and grooms, nearing the end of their journeys from remote villages high in the Atlas Mountains. It’s a time of promise and plenty: stalls swelling with dates, king walnuts, pomegranates the colour of an autumnal setting sun. Teenagers eddy and swirl. Boys and girls drawing and redrawing the space between them with a furtive glance through lashes, the flash of a smile, a hand raised provocatively to the mouth. You think of the annual fair on the common back home when you were a teenager, with its dodgems and hot dogs and dark, shadowy places: the moussem is as taut with sexual tension and possibility.

A sudden movement by some steps catches your eye. A small lizard pinned to the ground, a spider fast as dust in the wind.

“Camel spider,” says a man who is watching you watching the struggling lizard. He looks at you optimistically and takes a step closer.

“I’m here with my friend,” you say quickly. My husband, you lie, in a just-in-case voice, louder than necessary. The camel spider begins to ingest its meal. You slip a scarf around your face and search the crowds for a woman wearing yellow.

She’s seen you, walks towards you. Her step is sure. She lowers her eyes. You look at the pomegranate held in her outstretched hand, see the tracery of leaves and tendrils hennaed there, like the brides you followed earlier. She holds the fruit to your ear and taps. Hear? she says. There is a round perfection to the sound, metallic in its clarity. And there is no decision to make. Your gaze is as unwavering as her hand.

*moussem: a traditional festival or celebration

Susan Wigmore retired from teaching English in 2018 and completed the Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford in 2020. Her fiction has been long and short-listed for prizes, including The Daily Telegraph Short Story Competition, and both Reflex and Oxford Flash Fiction, with pieces to be published in their respective anthologies. Her poetry has been published in Raceme and Angled by the Flood, a SciPo (Oxford) publication exploring the creative common ground between science and poetry.

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