My name is Assetou and I have a riddle: “Mercy and Assetou are in a boat, Assetou falls into the water. Who’s left?” It’s always Mercy who’s left. It’s always Mercy who wins.
Today my cousin Souleymane will be at the wedding. Souleymane is the only man in the village who has never looked at Mercy. So I have decided to love him. That’s all.
That’s why I went today to see Fatoumata, the hairdresser. Because today I want to be “Beautiful Assetou”. Today, I would like to win. I really like Fatoumata, she’s a gentle person. She’s a grandmother hairdresser. As I am dear to her, she does my hair in a symmetrical style with braids in a spiral which means that I may be approached, that I am ready to be seduced. And she lends me some gold ear-rings. So I smile and Fatoumata hugs me and tells me I am beautiful.
It is time. Mercy and her fiancé Salimi are sitting on tall gold chairs. Mercy is the queen. Mercy is radiant. It is not the sun making Mercy shine, it is Mercy making the sun shine. That’s how it is. Mercy is a sun. And I am honey. I do not shine but I am sweet.
Souleymane has not yet arrived. I dance with the other women. Mercy gets up to come and dance with us. Then all the women gather round her. Mercy is a good dancer. The village women say she has the devil in her body and God in her soul. A woman pushes me into the center of the circle to make me dance with Mercy. So I dance with Mercy. But I should not dance with Mercy, because when you dance with Mercy, you can’t be seen.
Then Souleymane arrives and I stop dancing. I sit on a chair in the shadows. I wait for him to come and talk to me. I have not used any black magic. I want him to love me for myself, Assetou. Souleymane goes to greet Salimi and talks to him for a long time. Occasionally they glance over at me. I am happy, I smile and flutter my eyelids as a sign of consent. I can see from here that Salimi is calling Mercy, who goes over to join them. All three of them talk together. It’s happening too quickly; this is not how one goes about a marriage proposal. He should come and talk to me first and then go and see my father. But it doesn’t matter.
Mercy comes over to me and sits down. She explains that Souleymane is very sorry, he has seen my hairstyle and he knows I am ready, but he will not be coming to me. Not today. Nor tomorrow. Souleymane does not want to get married. He wants to go away and leave the village to go to Europe. He cannot encumber himself with a wife. He is very sorry.
Tears are running down my face. Mercy wipes them away with her hands. Mercy kisses me. Mercy hugs me.
It is Mercy who gets married first. Mercy is my little sister. Mercy is fifteen. Mercy is prettier than I am, that’s what everybody says. And I love Mercy.
Translated by Wendy Cross