She was perched on the armrest, beer mug in hand, when the door of the house across the street crashed open. The house was fenced, but Ma Bille could see the front door through the grilled gate. She pressed her forehead against the window bars and watched as a figure emerged and sat down on the doorstep. She couldn't make out the facethere was once a time when she could see all the way into the courtyard of that housebut she knew for certain it was Perpetua.
In all the years that they had stared into each other's houses and watched one another grow old, Ma Bille and Perpetua had never called each other by name, never held a conversation, never greeted. Perpetua was a widow with only one child whom everybody knew was a drunk who hated her mother. To the scandal of her daughter's condition was added other strangenesses: Perpetua never came out at night; she was the first person on the street to wall up her frontage and the only one who put razor wire in her fence, even though she was poor; she was the widow of one of the first foreign-educated men in Poteko, a man who had streets and government buildings in the city named after him, yet she was poor. Ma Bille had warned her children time and againwhen they still lived with herto avoid "that woman's house," and only her youngest, Nimi, disobeyed: he used to cross the street to sit and chat with Perpetua. Despite that provocation over the years the two women had not found an excuse to quarrel, but Ma Bille blamed Perpetua for the death of Cardinal Rex the second, because it was in front of her house that she had found his broken body.
Ma Bille turned away from the window, muttering with a vehemence that watered her eyes. She lifted her mug, tossed down the warm, bitter remains of her beer, and rose from her seat, carried the mug, empty bottle, and tray into the kitchen, then locked the kitchen door, her bedroom door, and the front door behind her. From her doorstep she scanned the sun-washed street. A FanYogo carton lay on the road, and strawberry yogurt had leaked out and pooled on her paved frontage, a lurid pink surface dive-bombed by flies. Ma Bille walked to the road's edge, looked left, right, left again, and then hurried across. As she approached the other side she heard the murmur of Perpetua's voice, and glanced in through her gate. Perpetua was chatting with a bread hawker, a young mother with a sleeping baby strapped to her back, who knelt beside her wooden tray piled high with oven-fresh bread. She was spreading mayonnaise on a split loaf with slow sweeps of her knife. Ma Bille stared. There was something different about Perpetuashe was wearing a new blouse, a striking shade of blue, like the sky on a bright day, today; and, also, she seemed to have lost weight, she looked younger. Then Ma Bille got it: she had shaved off her hair. At that instant Perpetua looked up and fell silent. The bread hawker turned around. "E kaaro, Ma," he greeted, but Ma Bille walked off without answering, her footsteps quickening as Perpetua snickered.
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