She rises next to a child’s body that’s still warm, his breath
hot on her face, scented with milk from her breast. It’s time for tea, she knows, and the child is only a dream. The place on the straw mat empty and brutal.

Haboob clouds hover above, orange like sticky nabag fruit and pregnant with the Sahara.

At any moment the sky will release itself with the keening of a woman in bittersweet labor.

Her face is a canvas.

Mauled perhaps, but beautiful still with traces of her ancestors’ inscriptions. Two slashes of a razor blade across each cheek, gifted by her mother and her mother’s mother.

Her tooted lips feel heavy from chewing tobacco all day and from a memory of a sharp needle dipped in ink many rainy seasons ago. She had been a girl before that, bathing in the White Nile. Her voice, they used to say, was like that of a bird of Paradise, sweetened with innocence and love.

Silently, she splashes water from a bucket onto her face, marble and silk it is. Except for those razor passages and the tattooed indigo lips.

Her body is plump and achy, even after the sleep, but she wraps a faded tobe around the curves and lumps, the heavy thighs and the rounded belly that housed her many children. The sagging breasts that suckled her young, who are no more young, and no more here.

The sandstorm descends upon the city but the she gives it no mind. Hastily, she arranges her grey veil over carefully braided hair and chews on a meswak branch to clean her teeth. They are strong and white.

She is quick and skilled at tea making. The street is stirring into life despite the orange haze, the howl of the wind. The sand is in her mouth and nose but everyone needs tea. The fire is glowing and warm now, she has fanned its ambers into jinn eyes. Water and black tea gurgle and sputter, releasing an aroma of cloves and mint.

Her first customer is here, coins fall into her palm. She rolls a ball of tobacco and inserts it under her lip then pulls the tobe tighter around her heart.

And then she waits.



"Growing up in Sudan as a European/Balkan child of a Sudanese stepfather I immersed myself into the culture and observed in order to fit in. One of the many things that fascinated me were the female street vendors. The pumpkin seed and peanut hawkers, the tea women, their bodies tenderly protective of their wares. Others fanning the coals into an amber fire, staring into - what? The what in their eyes fascinates me. This piece is one of many about marginalized women- a Tea Lady, a 'Seit Al Shai.

A few months ago I visited Sudan and ordered a cup of sweet, sticky milk-tea from a woman with haunted eyes the color of loss. I sat next to her, under a ripped cloth awning, sweat dripping, flies buzzing and dust rising from Khartoum back streets. Oh, but how deliciously decadent it felt to belong."

Zvezdana Rashkovich was born in former Yugoslavia and grew up in Libya and Sudan. English is her second language, Arabic her third. She writes about the complexity, the hidden and conflicting beauty of Sudan, The Middle East and her homeland in Balkans. Her essays, short fiction, memoir, poems and articles can be found in many lovely journals and anthologies for which she is thankful.

Duende Logo Transparent Background.png