She had given up trying to stay away. It was a battle lost long before it had ever begun. Perhaps if it was anything else other than the kaleidoscope of colours in front of her, colours that tugged at her eyes and her heart and her soul, perhaps then. But no, here she was once again, face pressed to the glass, the beauty of the display on the other side making her almost shake with want.
“YOU! How many times have I told you not to come back here?!”
The voice startled her from her sugar-induced stupor, and she hurriedly wiped away the drool on her chin, rushing round the corner before the large baton, and its even larger wielder, caught up with her.
Amna had always had a sweet tooth, even as a child. Her father used to call her shazumami, after those tiny ants with the big heads that liked to drown themselves in sugar and were the bane of her mother’s existence.
So, it was no wonder that the perfection of the macaroon seemed to have her in a chokehold that would not let up. She wanted to taste one so badly. It was all she could think of. She woke up with it on her mind and went to bed with it still in her thoughts. It even followed her into her dreams, and the morning would find her once again sneaking uphill, past the run-down houses and porthole covered streets of her side of town, to the sprawling array of mansions on the other side of the rise.
The cafe that housed the objects of her desire was more glamorous than any building she’d ever entered. With its high arches and wooden panels, dim lights offsetting the pure white tablecloths covering the delicate tables, it evoked class and style. Walking amongst its bright flowers and shining crystal glassware, warping with the sunlight, was like walking into a whole new world. Not that she would ever truly know, having only seen it from the outside. No one would ever let her through the door.
“Where have you been, Amna?” her mother snapped the minute she walked into their house.
Amna blanched, trying to scoot past to the safety of her room. “Nowhere.”
Her mother grabbed her by the chin, squinting at her face. “You went to that shop again, didn’t you? Darling, you know we can’t afford any of the things they sell in that place. Why do you keep torturing yourself?”
Amna muttered something unsavoury, glaring at her feet, then hastily amended her expression when her mother frowned. Best not give her a reason to put me to work.
“I’d buy them for you if I could, you know I would.”
She did know. Her mother loved her, of course she did. As her only child Amna had a pride of place that no one could even come close to replicating. Mama would do anything for her. Would move mountains and burn cities if she had to. A macaroon was nothing in the face of that, even if she’d once had the audacity to call them “a waste of time”, laughing herself silly when Amna had almost expired on the spot.
She knew all this, so she only nodded to her mother and walked to her room, trying to get the bright colours of the little buggers to stop flashing in front of her eyes.
They came in a variety of eye-catching displays. Mint green, and mango yellow and cherry red, colours like strawberry pink and peppermint blue and lavender purple. There was even one in an off white colour the same shade as her mother’s old wedding dress, the one Amna had only ever seen when it was finally sold.
The names of the flavours on the tiny placards were even more exotic. Vanilla bean and chocolate hazelnut and something called pistachio. She did not know what eggnog was—or cappuccino or salted caramel—but she’d had cotton candy before, when there’d been a fair on the rise, and one of the sellers had taken pity on her wide eyes and wistful expression and offered her a small cloud on a stick. She’d never forgotten the bright pink colour of it and the way it had immediately melted in her mouth. So, she knew what cotton candy was like, and the macaroon on the furthest side of the display window labeled the same was the one she most wanted to try. Hidden in an alcove and seething with jealousy, she’d heard one of the wealthy patrons, a blogger of some sort, describing them once. The words a “crunchy exterior with a soft filling, made of buttercream”—or fruit apparently, or jam—had nearly sent her into raptures.
Amna had spent months staring at them whenever she had the chance, these little dimensions of colours and flavor, each with a story to share with her. She would fold herself into careful corners and vantage points where neither the cafe customers or employees could see her, and spend hours swaddled in a fantasy land where all she had to do was reach out — until a leaving customer inevitably spotted her and alerted the doorman, and she was angrily chased away.
So, it was a rather huge surprise a few weeks later, when instead of swatting at her with his stick the way he always did—like a particularly errant housefly—the doorman instead motioned her closer.
His eyes roved over her, or rather, her unbound hair. She’d worn it loose today instead of leaving it in its customary braids, wrapped several times around her head. Her hair was her crowning jewel, something both she and her mother were extremely proud of. Long and soft and silky, it was as black as the darkest night, rippling and shining like a waterfall and reaching all the way to her waist. It was a gift, Mama had said, passed down through generations from her Fulani ancestors to her, and Amna was pleased and honoured to carry on their legacy. She did not like the way this man was looking at her hair.
But she was curious, so she let him lead her to the alley behind the cafe and stood warily next to a garbage bin.
“Wait here sweet girl, eh?” he said, his eyes never leaving the cascade of her hair. There was a greed in there that made Amna uncomfortable.
He waited for her to nod before he slipped through the kitchen entrance, curling his large frame around the slightly opened door like a snake. The minute he was through, Amna took two steps back to the mouth of the alley, just in case.
When he returned some minutes later with extra company, he looked panicked for a moment before he spotted her. Scowling mightily in her direction, he said, “I told you to stay here.”
But Amna, refusing to answer, instead looked guardedly towards his companion. She was one of the waitresses of the cafe. Amna had seen her several times through the window carrying trays filled with tiny cakes and coffee mugs that hung on for dear life. She had a wig on her head that did nothing good for her sallow face. Amna wondered if perhaps she didn’t have any hair and suddenly felt bad.
“My God, it’s stunning!” the woman murmured, looking at Amna’s hair with the same hungry look as the man, like all her dreams had come true all at once. “Think of what we’ll get from this!”
The man nodded frantically.
The woman looked at Amna again, and probably noticing she was two seconds away from bolting, slipped smoothly to her knees, pasted on what she possibly thought was a kind smile, and held out her hand.
“My name is Maggie. I work part time at the salon down the way. And this is Chike,” she said sweetly, pointing at the man. “You have such lovely hair, love, won’t you let me feel it?”
Amna shuffled closer and let her run her thin fingers through her silky locks, pleased at the attention, but still wary.
“Chike tells me you like coming to see the macaroons. Is that true?”
Amna nodded shyly, her face filled with embarrassment. “I can’t afford them.”
“How would you like a whole macaroon to yourself then, just for you?” Maggie questioned, looking more than pleased with herself.
Amna looked up in shock. Her heart started an unsteady rhythm in her chest, and she felt suddenly weak. “You would do that, give me one for free? But why?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be for free of course. Nothing ever is. I want something in return.”
“What then?” Amna eagerly asked, already feeling the taste of her long-dreamt-of prize in her mouth, within reach at last.
Maggie gave a sharp smile and stroked a finger through Amna’s hair. “All in due time.”
When she walked through the door, her mother took one look at her and let out a wretched cry that shook the walls. “Oh Amna, how could you?!”
Amna lowered her eyes in shame, conscious of the tiny box with a single pink pastry hidden in her bag. She felt like a criminal on the execution platform, waiting for the swing of the axe.
“Why?” her mother asked tearfully. “What could possibly make you do such a thing?”
She shook her head and was momentarily stricken with the lack of weight attached to the motion. A sob caught in her throat. She had not wanted this, this ache in her chest that felt like it was choking her from the inside. She had only wanted a taste, had only wanted to be the person who could afford something she yearned for so dearly.
It’s just hair, she kept telling herself. It’ll grow back.
“I hope it was worth it,” her mother snarled, walking away.
It looked so delicate and tender, as if it would fall apart with the slightest of pressures, its perfect twin domes lovingly hugging the soft snowy filling between them.
Amna held it for a while, her back to the locked door as if something would come and snatch it from her hands, possessive in the way someone can be only of something they’ve owned for a short time and treasured for longer. She sat for a long time admiring the shape of it and its brilliant colour, cotton candy pink.
And then she raised it to her lips, holding it in one hand the way the cafe patrons did, and guided it into her mouth. Her teeth sank in, and she paused. At last.
A slight crunch followed the breaking of the crisp outer shell, followed by her teeth meeting the succulent middle—rich cream cheese filling Chike had said—a chewy texture that glided on her tongue and awakened her senses. It was both sweet and nutty and light as air. Amna felt like she was floating. She had never had anything so dreamy and decadent. So elegant. So ethereal.
She took another bite and moaned, eyes closing. After three full bites and nearly sobbing with pleasure as a result of them, she sought a fourth and met only her fingers.
Silence reigned in the room, and Amna suddenly felt empty. She spent a prolonged amount of time staring at the tiny box the macaroon had come in. When she finally moved to put it away, she instead caught her reflection in the small mirror on her pillow, fashioned by her mother’s own hands as a gift for her thirteenth birthday.
She picked it up and stared at herself for a long time. Then she started to cry.
Fatima Abdullahi is a Nigerian born writer, poet, and photographer with a
penchant for the dramatic. A graduate in mass communications and an animal
lover, she writes on heartfelt subjects including humanity, love, loss, and
depression. Her works have been published in Afristories and are
forthcoming in various publications, including Lunaris Review, The Shady Grove Literature, and The First Line Literary Journal. Find her on Instagram at @her_abstractions and on twitter at @ellisande_.