A Love Affair Preserved by a Petrified Fetus
“Stone Baby” by Michelle Sacks, recommended by Joan Silber
AN INTRODUCTION BY JOAN SILBER
“Stone Baby” is a ghost story — and hence may seem at first cold-hearted and romantic, as ghost stories are. But something rarer and more original is at work here. At the center of the story is Mme Monique, a Frenchwoman who has lived alone for decades in Fez, Morocco, and the ghost she wears in a gold-embroidered pouch: a calcified embryo left from a failed pregnancy. All this is grim and strange, but by the ending the strangeness has become quite wonderful, something extraordinary. We finish the story contemplating the nature of beauty, of all things.
How does the author do this? Her story insists without apology or irony on the romance of place. Monique is introduced to North Africa by a father who has had his best life as a colonial in thrall to the country of Morocco; when Monique herself falls under the spell of the desert — and the Sahara guide who becomes her lover — her devotion and resettlement progress without question. Nothing could be more uncompromising than the landscape the desert presents. Monique, who installs herself as a hotelkeeper, is heard throughout the story insisting that she has no regrets, that there’s nowhere else she’d want to be. “Stone Baby” is, in fact, a story about emotional integrity — the refusal to go back on what one feels is the line of the plot, and also the quality admired by most of its characters.
“Stone Baby” is, in fact, a story about emotional integrity
In real life, I more or less believe that people should just get on with it, and yet this story won me over. I was so pleased by its pronouncements at the end, its final will to push further. We go to fiction to hear what we don’t already suppose, to go beyond what we take for granted. “Stone Baby” does exactly that.
Author of Improvement
A Love Affair Preserved by a Petrified Fetus
by Michelle Sacks
Madame Monique of Riad Bovary in Fez, a once-beautiful Frenchwoman who didn’t seem to object to the waning of her youth or beauty, was up every morning at six a.m. It was always the same. She rose, drank the strong coffee prepared for her by Hassan and brought to her door on a silver tray, wrapped a scarf around her neck, and went downstairs. It was her favorite time of day. Too early for the guests to be up or for the rest of the staff to arrive. Only stillness, silence; the soft rattling of Hassan in the kitchen and the song of the swifts in the orange trees outside.
The sight of the riad in the morning light took her breath away. It was magnificent, the crumbling walls, the chipped remains of mosaics — everything meticulously restored and returned to its former glory. It made her feel like Scheherazade, installed in a palace, a living work of art. It had taken years and almost all her money, but she’d refused to stop until the place gleamed. A testament to her love of the city. A testament to love itself, which was more or less the same thing. She had visited the Taj Mahal some months ago on a trip to India. She wanted to see what Shah Jahan had built with his grief, this wonder of the world and the great monument to overwhelming love and despair at his wife Mumtaz’s passing. She expected to feel deeply moved when she saw it, but it was home that she longed for: these walls, this marble under foot. Riad Bovary was her mausoleum, the spectacular resting place of her great love, her only love. There was nothing else that could come close.
On the bus back to Delhi, she had closed her eyes against the heat and listened to two young women talking in English. The one sighed and said, can you imagine someone loving you enough to do all that? The other replied, hell, I’d settle for a bloody second date. Monique wanted to interrupt them, to say, no, it’s true, such love exists in the world! I have known it. She wanted to touch the taut skin of their faces and look into their bright eyes and see all the lives that were yet to unfold. She said nothing, only put her hand into her pocket and rubbed her thumb against the hard smooth baby secreted inside.
She was twenty-one when she came to Morocco. A girl, practically a child. It was on her father’s insistence that she visit, he wanted her to sleep under the stars of the great Sahara, a rite of passage he had shared with his father and one he had dreamed about enjoying with his own son. But Eduard was dead and buried, and a daughter was all he had left. Claude, her father, fancied himself an adventurer. He had joined de Gaulle’s Free French forces during the war, led troops through North Africa, and in the process fallen hopelessly in love with the continent all over again, with the endless expanse of sky and sand and the humbleness of the people, who appeared to him both regal and in possession of some arcane wisdom and grace. After the war, he returned to France with great reluctance. He was already married, his wife had suffered enough with his absence during the war, she would not consent to further marital sacrifice and a life spent living out her husband’s colonial fantasies. They rented a tiny apartment in Paris, a room really, with a little stove and a bathroom down the hall shared by everyone on their floor. It felt like prison to Claude, cramped and airless and achingly dull. He contemplated running away and once almost did, but then his wife opened her bathrobe one morning and showed him the bump that was forming.
In Marrakech, Claude had guided his daughter through the rabbit warren of the medina, past the carpet sellers and herbalists and the men sitting street side drinking pots of mint tea and arguing about the world. He knocked on the tiny wooden door of a crumbling house and, when it opened, ushered her inside a magnificent riad that smelled of saffron and lemons. The owner of the house was Omar, onetime soldier and longtime friend of Claude’s. The two men greeted each other with kisses on the cheek. Omar summoned his children and grandchildren from the other rooms and as the two families smiled and kissed, Monique was struck by the man her father appeared to be in this faraway place. It was Friday, Omar’s wife had prepared couscous with lamb and vegetables. She presented the food on a dish so large it required her two sons to carry it. They sat upon cushions on the floor around a low table.
Eat, eat, Omar urged, and she watched her father stick his hands into the food and scoop out a handful of warm couscous. He shoved his fingers into his mouth, licked the fat, and declared it delicious. The rest of the family put their hands into the dish, ate hungrily. Try it, Claude instructed his daughter, go on. She put a few fingers into the food, gingerly scooped some up, and put it into her mouth. It was the best thing she had ever tasted. She smiled, she ate more; her father gave her knee a pat.
Good girl, he said, that’s it, and she felt he had never been prouder.
In Paris she had a boyfriend, a sweet but dull man who loved her a little too much. She expected that he would propose soon enough and she would be obliged to say yes. The idea filled her with mild dread but she hid it well. Her mother was terribly excited about the prospect of a son-in-law who was a lawyer. Claude took her to Volubilis, to the ancient Roman ruins, they visited Fez and stayed in a riad that had once belonged to the philosopher Aziz Lahbabi. They got lost in the medina’s elbow-wide alleyways, paid children to lead them back to where they came from. In the markets, they sampled dates and pastries heavy with honey and orange blossom, they ate tagines cooked for hours over coals piled onto little corners of the street, and never refused the offer of a mint tea with a curious stranger. Everywhere, Claude spoke Arabic like it was his mother tongue. Monique was struck by how easily her father fit into this world, as though it was here that he belonged all along.
You’re so happy here, she remarked, and he nodded sadly.
From Erfoud, they headed into the Erg Chebbi desert, guided by Addi, a six-foot Tuareg man with a wide smile and green eyes. He had brought two camels, one for Claude and one for her. He would be on foot, and shoeless. The camels were not easy to ride over the dunes, their spindly legs seemed to give way from time to time as they struggled downhill. Monique held tight to the metal handle, felt her muscles tense and relax as she tried to move in rhythm with the animal.
You’re doing splendidly, Claude called to her.
Yes, yes, Addi agreed, your daughter is very good Berber!
The animals were flatulent and uncomfortable, but the desert — the silence and the vastness and the feeling of being alone in the world — it was magic. The first day they trekked eight or so hours, stopping only briefly for a modest lunch of nuts and fruit prepared by Addi. After lunch they continued on until they reached a small Berber compound.
We will rest here tonight, Addi said, and he helped them off the camels.
They ate a meal of vegetables and chicken, cooked in a tagine buried in the sand since the morning. The chicken’s head and feet sat in the dish, pale and fatty. As the sun began to set the sky turned pink and then orange and then black. It was the most beautiful thing Monique had ever witnessed. They sat under the stars, father and daughter, silent and content. A Berber woman covered head to toe in robes and scarves ushered them into a tent laid out with carpets to sleep upon.
It’s safe, Addi said. Berber carpets dyed with saffron to keep away the snakes!
They slept deeply and in the morning set off once again, this time with a different guide. I am Bakai, the man said.
He spoke to them in perfect French, inquired about their night and if their dinner had been satisfactory. He had gleaming white teeth and eyes dark like onyx.
Are you also Tuareg? Monique asked.
No, madame, he replied. I am a nomad.
Bakai, in his blue djellaba, also walked barefoot.
Is the sand not hot? Monique asked.
He smiled, I am used to it, he replied. It is easier for me to walk without shoes.
Claude that day seemed to be in a slight decline, perhaps too many regrets or memories at the surface. He spoke little, and rode off at a distance. Monique and Bakai had hours to talk. By the time they reached that night’s Berber camp, it had already transpired: Monique was in love. She loved the way Bakai moved, his muscles neat and perfect under the robes; she loved how he spoke, his voice deep and soft at the same time, liquid almost. He took care with her, held her hand as she dismounted the camel, offered her water and tea and looked into her eyes and through to the other side; she could hardly breathe with his gaze upon her.
That night, as her father snored in the tent, she lifted the blankets off her and slipped outside into the cool desert air. The stars were out, lighting her way as she walked softly with the sand underfoot. The camels were tethered together, each one with a hind leg bound to prevent it wandering off. It was heady, the night and the stars and the smallness of everything but the sky. She headed slowly toward the dune, felt her heart pump with blood as she climbed to the top. Looking down, she could see the tents and the camels, tiny dots in a sea of sand, a microcosm of life as opposite to her own as one could get. You are alright, madame? It was Bakai, he had followed her up the dune, as she had hoped.
Oh yes, she said. I think I have never been better.
How strange the life that finds you, the life that snatches you from everything you know to be true and holds you fast and firm in its grip, refusing to let go. She did not return to France with her father, or with her mother, who made a special trip out to Morocco to try to persuade her daughter of the lunacy of her decision.
I will never return, she declared.
Bakai it turned out was married already, with several children and one on the way. He could offer her nothing more than a few stolen days every few months, between time in the desert and time with his family. Still, it was enough, anything was enough; those hours together sacred and exquisite. She moved to Fez, rented a little room with a family but soon realized that she would need privacy in order to avoid scandal. She wrote to her father and begged him for a loan. She implored him to understand her decision, to allow her to honor her great love.
I suspect your life was not in the end the life of your choosing, she wrote, I believe that when we fight our destiny we die a little more each day, until one day nothing is left but the negative space once occupied by dreams. Please Father, she wrote, please help me. He wired her the money the following week, enough to buy the riad and a little left over to fix it up. She called it Riad Bovary to be ironic, and maybe a little dramatic, but it suited her nonetheless and she settled into her new life with remarkable ease. Madame Monique, the locals called her, always a little awed by the young French girl who lived alone in a faraway place.
You have no husband? the women asked, and when she replied that she did not, they shook their heads and speculated among themselves what the reason for such misfortune might be.
Bakai visited when he could, always knocking on the door and inquiring at the desk if he might book a room for the night. She would smile calmly while her heart beat furiously and her body braced itself for the long-awaited thrill of his touch.
Yes sir, she’d say, we would be delighted to accommodate you for the evening.
He would have no bag, no change of clothing, only a stash of fresh dates wrapped in brown paper brought for her from the desert as a gift. She would have one of the staff escort him upstairs — always to the same room — and spend the hours until evening trying not to blush. After finishing up for the night, she would head upstairs, slip into her own room to change her underwear and brush her teeth, and then knock softly on the door next to hers.
My beautiful, he would say, opening up, leading her inside where they would lie entwined in each other’s arms.
In the morning she would find him on the floor, curled into the carpet because the bed was too soft. She always asked after his family and he always told her with pride about his sons, who were strong, and his daughters, who were becoming beautiful. She did not feel jealousy toward them, only some strange sense of kinship: they loved the same man, they were one family.
When her father died suddenly, she returned for a brief time to France. Her mother was old with grief, lined and brittle as if she might break.
You must come home now, she said, we are all that is left.
She helped her mother pack up the closets and bundled up her father’s shirts and books into cardboard boxes. He had surprisingly little, for a man of so many years. In the back of the wardrobe she found his journals from his time in the war and slipped them into her coat to take with her.
I think I will die soon too, her mother said, we are not meant to exist in solitude.
Perhaps you will come to Fez, Monique said. The change would do you good.
Her mother sneered, lit a cigarette, and said with bitterness, you are just like him, happiest when farthest away from me.
Monique left after several weeks, exhausted from tending to her mother’s need and from her own grief at being fatherless. But also there was something else.
In Fez, the doctor examined her and frowned.
You are some weeks along, he said.
He regarded her coldly, prodded her belly with rough fingers that gave her gooseflesh. The nurse looked on uncomfortably. They were aware that she was unmarried. There was no way of getting the news to Bakai, she could only wait until his next visit, and there was no knowing when that might be. She sat sipping tea in the kitchen of the riad, hands trembling with a mix of dread and delight. A child, her child, their child. She knew there would be difficulties, disapproval.
She started to show some months later, a rounding of her belly which no one was shy to point out.
You are getting so fat! the women at the market declared, laughing. Yes, she smiled, I am having a baby.
One of the women said something to her friend, and both women shook their heads. Faizel, who worked in the kitchen, came to her one afternoon to tell her that he was leaving.
You bring shame upon yourself, he scowled, and shame on me if I work for you.
Soon after, the others left too. They needed the money but not at the cost of their moral standing in the community. It was too great a scandal. Monique sent a telegram to her mother, asked her to come to Fez for the birth. The reply was curt, not altogether unexpected.
I have no daughter, her mother wrote.
She signed with her Christian name, not Mother, as she had always done.
Still, Monique did not feel alone those months. She felt the hardness of her belly, the sharp pain that told her life grew there, slow and steady. She made a quilt and found a man who would build her a crib. She did not mind taking over the cleaning of the rooms and the cooking of the guests’ breakfasts; she found the labor somehow beautiful, an ode to the new life she was creating. She watched as her body changed in the mirror and imagined how it would please Bakai to see her fill out. She wrote out names for boys and girls, in Arabic and in French. If it was a boy she would name him after her father.
One day at the door there stood a man.
Madame, he said in French, I believe you are short of staff.
Yes, she smiled, it seems that Riad Bovary is not an altogether desirable place to work. She indicated her belly. It is a little scandalous, she said.
Beneath the man’s djellaba she saw that he was skin over bone. He smiled at her. Perhaps we can be helpful to one another, he said.
His name was Hassan, he had crossed over from Algeria on foot. Monique hired him on the spot, sat him down at the kitchen table, and made him eat a breakfast of yogurt and eggs and oranges.
At twenty weeks she was brought to her knees. The pain was unbearable. She ordered a taxi to deliver her to the hospital. The doctor on duty slipped on a plastic glove and opened her up with his hand.
Something is wrong, he said. We will do more tests.
They took blood and urine and another doctor put on another plastic glove and felt her insides. She curled into a ball and wept, for pain and loneliness and the terror of everything unknown. They gave her painkillers, which allowed her to sleep. When she woke the doctor told her she would need an operation.
We need to remove the baby, he said.
No, she cried, you cannot take my child.
I am sorry, he said, but there is no child. Only stone.
It was called lithopedion, she learned later, the calcification of a fetus that dies during an abdominal pregnancy. A doomed child in the wrong place, suspended in time and turned into stone. She allowed the doctor to remove it on condition that he keep the baby to give to her afterward. He looked at her sadly but agreed. As the anesthetic took effect, she had a vision of herself in the Sahara, lying on the hot sand and cradling a stone. The sun beat down on her and the wind shifted the dunes until they buried her completely under sand. I am drowning, she mumbled, and then all was dark. She woke sore and in a haze. There were nurses around her speaking quietly in Arabic. She could tell that they were talking about her, motioning at her belly and at something beside her bed. She tried to make out the words but fell once more into the quiet of sleep. Later, she saw it too. The baby in a jar beside her bed. Her baby. It was the size of a golf ball, the color of sand. She opened the lid of the jar and removed it. In her belly the pain was severe. She welcomed it, breathed into the wound and gripped her fingers around the rock-hard child in her palm. The tears she couldn’t stop, and so she let them come. The nurse came up to her and touched her gently on the head.
The pain will pass in time, madame, she said.
Monique clutched the baby and brought it to her lips to kiss. Already she loved it and would forever.
The doctor came the next day with a solemn face. There were some complications, he said. I am terribly sorry.
The baby had been too deeply lodged to her insides, there was no way to remove it without taking the uterus. There would be no more children. Only the child of stone.
Is there someone I may call to collect you? the doctor inquired, and it was Hassan’s name she gave.
Back at the riad, he tended to her with great care. He brought her meals to her room and insisted on sleeping outside the door so that she could call for him in the night. She showed him the stone baby, and he held it with fascination and tenderness.
Is it a boy or a girl, he asked, and she realized that she had no idea.
It was some weeks later that Bakai appeared back at the riad. He held her in his arms as she told him of the pregnancy and the baby and the fact that she would never bear more of his children.
You are well, he said, you are here, this is what matters.
He held the baby, traced with his finger the outline of head and torso. It is a miracle, he said.
Why? she asked.
He kissed her lips and put the stone into her palm. This child we made will live a million million years. It cannot die, it cannot turn to dust.
Because the riad was empty of guests and because Hassan was Hassan, the three of them sat together and ate dinner around the table.
Hassan has been my savior, she told Bakai.
And madame mine, Hassan replied.
Bakai took Hassan by the hand and kissed him on each cheek. Then it is good we have found each other in this world, he said.
Before Bakai left again for the Sahara, he presented Monique with a gift. It was something he’d had made for her, a little pouch embroidered with gold thread that she could wear around her waist.
So you can keep the baby close, he said. He tied it gently around her and she slipped the baby inside.
It was hard sometimes to remember those years, the tremendous longing between visits with Bakai, the elation when he would arrive at the door at last. In bad seasons, he would come only once in the year, and she would read on his face the shame and the disappointment as he stood before her.
I could lend you a little money, she offered once and never again.
It had been the cause of their first and only argument. He would never consent to taking her money. There were times when loneliness gave way to despair, when the gaze of a man on the street reminded her of everything she was missing out on. There was an American diplomat who stayed at the riad for three weeks. He asked her to prepare him dinner on a few occasions, and then insisted that she join him in eating it.
So, he said, you must be running from something or toward someone. Which is it?
After dinner he pressed his lips against hers and put his hand under her shirt. You are disarmingly beautiful, he said.
She let herself follow him upstairs and in the morning washed the stains of him from her skin. There were others, always only brief and sweet. Love was reserved for Bakai alone.
The guests at the riad were often incredulous.
But you live here, they said, all alone?
Yes, she would reply, and there is nowhere else I would want to be.
It was almost true.
She read books, she learned Arabic, she busied herself with the endless restoration of the riad.
Why do you do this? Hassan asked.
She smiled, because I would like to leave something behind when I die, something perfect and beautiful.
Any money she made from the tourists she poured into the restoration, there was always something more to be done. Years when there was a little left over, she would book a flight somewhere far away. Cambodia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Jordan. She loved the smells and the colors and the food, she loved leaving and she loved the return. There was Hassan too, of course, her constant companion, her most loyal friend.
Hassan, she often said, what would have become of us if you had not found your way to my door?
He too had no family, no home but this one. There had been only one conversation between them about his life before Fez, but she could guess at the circumstances of his departure from Algeria, his lack of family ties, his disinterest in finding a wife. They made a perfect match.
Years became decades. She watched her youth leave her, slowly at first and then all at once. She was now an old woman, not yet frail, but not far from it either. Her hair was gray, her face lined with everything that had passed. Still, Bakai called her beautiful, still he kissed her with tenderness and desire. He was old too, worn by time and sun. On recent visits, she had noticed how he breathed at night, almost a struggle. She wondered how many more crossings of the Sahara he would be able to make before his legs gave way. He told her that his youngest son was almost ready to take over from him and she was glad. His wife was ill, he said, he needed to look after her. Monique, despite herself, felt a flicker of hope. If his wife died, it might be possible for him to spend more time with her in Fez.
She walked quickly now through the narrow warren of the medina, the houses in some places so close that it was hard to pass at all. After all these years she could make her way on instinct alone, finding her way effortlessly through the old town, through the vendors and the hordes of tourists on their way to the tanneries, through the winding markets past the odd donkey laden with goods to sell. At the market she waited while the man sliced wedges of flaky pancakes and wrapped them in paper for her breakfast guests. She spoke to him in Arabic, made him laugh, and felt as always the pleasure of such an exchange. From the fruit seller she bought kiwis and oranges, she sent wishes to his wife, who was having their fifth baby, and made her way back to the riad. As she opened the door, Hassan came to her.
Someone is here to see you, he said. His face was grave.
Who is it? she asked.
He took the shopping from her and pointed her to the study. He is in there.
It was a young man, and he rose as she entered the room. He wore a blue djellaba, a nomad or a Berber, she thought. She greeted him in Arabic, which made him smile. As he did, she recognized him. It could only be him.
You are a son of Bakai, she said. She sank into the sofa.
In French, he replied. Yes, I am Bakar. And you are Madame Monique.
Hassan without a word laid a tray of tea on the table and then left the room.
Bakar, Monique said. I have heard about you from your father. You look very much like him.
Bakar nodded. Yes, all my father’s sons do.
Madame Monique, he said, please forgive my intrusion of your home, I am —
Please, Bakar, Monique interrupted, tell me why you have come. Is your father ill?
Bakar shook his head. No, madame, he said. He is not ill. He has already passed. Monique heard the words but shook her head. No, no, it is not possible, she said. It cannot be so.
Her head spun, her heart a tremendous pounding she could feel in her ears. She put a hand in her pocket and squeezed, felt the cold and hard stone against her flesh. She looked at Bakar, at the face staring back at her, familiar and strange at the same time. Bakai’s son, Bakai’s son.
I am sorry, he said. I am sorry to bear this news.
Monique clasped a hand over her mouth, shut her eyes against the tears. Is it possible, she said, is it possible I will never see him again?
Bakar shifted in his seat; she remembered suddenly that she was not the only grief-stricken woman he would have had to break the news to.
I’m sorry, Monique said, composing herself. It is a great loss for your family. For your mother.
Bakar opened his hands to the sky. It is God’s will, he said. He had a good life. Many children. He knew great love. These are things to make a man happy. He cannot ask for more.
Monique nodded. He was very proud of you, she said. I can see why.
Bakar motioned toward the tea on the table. May I take something to drink, he asked. My goodness, she said, of course. You have walked, from the desert?
Most of the journey, Bakar said.
It was kind of you to come, she said. You have done an old woman a great kindness.
Bakar drank his tea and she filled his glass again. My father told me about you some years ago, he said. He spoke of his love for a Frenchwoman in Fez, Madame Monique from Riad Bovary. He would have wanted you to be informed.
Monique shifted. You must think I am an awful woman, she said.
Bakar shook his head. No, madame, not at all. I think you are a courageous woman. You followed the calling of your heart.
Yes, she said quietly. And now that heart is broken.
You must be hungry, she said suddenly. I would like to prepare you some food. And offer you a room to stay the night. Please, she said. Let me return your kindness.
Bakar nodded, that would be very welcome, he said.
She showed him to a room and went to the kitchen. Hassan, standing over a pot, held out his arms to her. She wept on his shoulder and he stroked her hair. Together they cooked a stew of chicken and vegetables, Hassan made bread and sliced up some cake left over from the breakfast guests.
Monique went to summon Bakar to lunch, but found him already asleep in the room, flat on his back on the floor. Downstairs, the Englishman was waiting with his backpack at the entrance.
You are going today? Monique asked, struggling to remember who was due to leave or arrive.
For three nights, yes, the man said. The Path of Love and Presence. In the Middle Atlas?
Yes, yes, Monique said. Mr. Tom. Of course, you are participating in the retreat. And you will be back afterward. I am sorry, she said, waving a hand in the air. Everything is everywhere today.
He smiled at her. But perhaps everything is just where it should be, he said.
They ate together later that night, Monique and Bakar, and the next five nights after that. Monique found him to be much like his father, his gestures, his voice, the way he spoke with his eyes.
What will you do now? she asked.
Bakar set down his tea. I will take over from my father, he said. As a Sahara guide.
Do you enjoy it? Monique asked.
Oh yes, he said. I am under the stars every night, all around me there is sky and space. This is everything I need for my happiness.
Monique nodded sadly, yes, she said, that is what your father said too.
And what will you do? he asked. Will you return home?
Oh, she laughed. This is the only home I have known.
There were some things of Bakai’s that had gathered in the riad over the years, shoes and books. Monique bundled them up and gave them to Bakar.
We had a child, she said. I suppose you would have been an older brother. She showed the baby to Bakar and he turned the stone over in his hands.
It is a good reminder, he said.
Of what, she asked.
That life is strange, he said, and beautiful in its strangeness.
When he left, Monique handed him two things. An envelope of all the dirhams she had in the world, and a small pouch with a stone inside.