Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Guillotine Choice - Chapter 1

The Harvest

Voufanzour, Algeria 1911 

Kaci stood before the baked earth walls of his family’s home and prayed the sun would rise soon and stop his shivering. By now there was enough light to see the high outline of the Djurdura mountain in the distance. Surely, the sun would reach the peak soon and from there slide into the winter sky. And then, at last there would be a little heat to leach some chill from his bones.
            The dog lying chained at his feet turned his head to watch his antics, a question in the angle of his head and his large, brown eyes. Kaci bent down and hugged him, taking warmth from the animal. Its tail brushed back and forth across the grey dust of the earth in response. Kaci rubbed the dog’s head, just in that spot he loved so well; between the ears and at the top of his skull. The dog’s eyes all but closed in pleasure as the boy’s small knuckles did their work.
            ‘You like that, don’t you, Lion?’ This wasn’t the name Kaci’s father had given him, but Kaci thought it suited him better. Kaci was his registered name, but his family called him Mohand and when he was especially good, they called him Chouchou, which meant “Bright-eyed boy” in the old language. So if he could have all these names, why could the dog not share his good fortune?
            Lion was not the biggest dog in the village, but he had the biggest heart and the loudest, most persistent bark. Bear and boar dare not enter his territory and he had even chased a leopard away from the field where the olives grew. Or perhaps Papa had pretended about that one. He was always laughing and teasing.
            Kaci stood up and looked in towards the olive trees. Small as he was he still had a job to do at harvest, picking olives from the sacking that lay beneath the trees, while his uncles and older cousins climbed up and shook them loose. It was also his task to watch over Lion as he guarded the increasing pile of harvested olives in front of the family home. Although he was only six, Kaci already knew that other village children would be paid pocket money for any stray olives that managed to work their way under their gandora, the loose thin shift they wore in all seasons. He also knew that every olive gathered would improve his family’s financial position.
            The Saoudi family, unlike most still owned some land. That it had not been taken over by some French Colon was a tribute to their hard work and persistence. It did however cause some jealousy among some of the extended family and neighbours. Kaci had heard his father, Hadj Yahia argue at the last village meeting that this was all part of the Frenchman’s plan. If the indigenes fight among themselves, he stressed, the French can go on stealing what remains of their land. He had even offered to share what he could with the poorest families of the area in an effort to stem the flow of resentment that surfaced every year around harvest time.
            “Have I not also suffered under the French?”
 Kaci remembered his father’s expression, dark with suppressed anger as he faced down some of the louder voices. This brought silence and everyone looked over at Kaci as they remembered his mother. Perhaps if there had been a doctor nearby and money to pay him she might have survived. He was only two when she died in labour. The lack of health care for the indigene was acute and the blood loss was too much for the local woman, who acted as midwife to try and repair.
            He had pretended to examine the small wooden carving he was playing with, the image of his father standing tall in the room strong in his mind. He felt he might burst with pride at his father’s bearing, and his kindness. He too, would be a son who would help his fellow Algerians. He would grow into a wise man. One day, he would be such a man to make his father proud.
            “Chouchou,’ he heard the familiar voice of his Hana Addidi from the door. ‘Go help the men with the olives. I will keep an eye on the dog.’ In the months that followed the death of his mother, Hana who was his Uncle’s wife, had become in effect, his mother.  She had eight children of her own, but she was always available with a soft word and a warm lap. Kaci loved nothing better than to fall asleep in the evening, his belly full of couscous while she sang the old Berber songs and stroked his forehead.
            ‘Ok,’ Kaci sang and raced across to the field to join the men. 
             His Papa heard the drum of his feet on the road and ruffled his hair when he reached them.
            ‘Can I help, Vava?’
            ‘There is a leopard circling the olive trees,’ Hadj Yahia said with a smile, ‘Go run round the field and frighten him off with your fierce roar.’ The last of the leopards had been killed off years before, but it was fun to see the boy run.
            Kaci was off, raising a storm of dust, roaring with all his might while his uncles and brother chuckled at his energy. Two circuits of the field later and there was no sight of the leopard. He re-joined his older male relatives.
            ‘The leopard is gone, Vava. I scared him.’ He roared into his father’s face to stress just how good he was.
            Just then the noise of barking came from the direction of the house.
            ‘Sounds like the dog is chasing off some olive thieves. Why don’t you run over there and see if you can bark louder than him?’
            His father was joined in laughter by the rest of the olive pickers as Kaci raced back to the house. With the wind roaring in his ears he promised that the thieves would soon hear his bark.
            As he neared the house he was able to see Lion pulling at his chain, barking with ferocity that Kaci had rarely witnessed. He skidded to a halt by the dog, put a hand out to soothe him and looked round for the cause of the furore. If anything, now that Lion had the child to watch over, his wrath increased and he jumped to the end of his chain with such madness that he choked off his bark.
            Kaci faced the cause of the dogs concern and realised that this was no olive thief. In the distance he saw the shape of a man on a large horse. Still the dog barked.
            ‘Quiet, Lion,’ Kaci reached for the dog’s collar, thankful for the chain, for without it Lion would surely be lunging at the horse’s flanks and would equally as surely receive a hard kick. With all of his strength he held on, willing the dog to be still.
            Kaci struggled to keep his feet and still the dog tried to throw himself at the figure making its unhurried way up the dirt road to the house. He was close enough now for Kaci to make out the uniform of a Garde Champetre, one of the hated French field police.
            The Guard was wearing his hat low over his face and all Kaci could see was the line of his nose and thin lips angled in mild irritation. He must have been a tall man, for he seemed like a giant on the top of his dun coloured horse. The horse snorted his concern over the closeness of the angry animal on the chain, but the Guard simply pulled at the bridle and drew nearer.
            The Frenchman reached a spot that he seemed to consider safe enough for his horse, he jumped from its back and walked towards the boy and the dog, his focus never wavering from them, his expression not altering.
            Still the dog lunged and barked.
            ‘Please stop, Lion, please.’ Kaci shouted as loudly as he could fighting to hide his own fear.
            The Guard came closer.
            And still the dog barked. And jumped. An electrifying bundle of hair and muscle.
            The Guard stopped walking. With one fluid movement, he reached for the pistol at his side, pointed it at the dog and fired from point blank range down the animal’s exposed throat.
            Dog and boy collapsed to the ground, like puppets whose string had been severed. Energy and fury cut off with the roar of a gun. Kaci held on to the dog’s neck, fingers entwined in his fur.
            ‘No. No. No. Lion,’ he screamed. ‘You killed, Lion.’ His ears rang with the report from the weapon.
            The sound of the gun brought the men running from the field. Kaci wouldn’t, couldn’t let go and his Hana was there prising his fingers from the fur.
            ‘Chouchou,’ she whispered. ‘Please. Let go.’
            His father picked him up and held him tight against his chest. Kaci screamed and twisted; kicked and punched at his father.
            ‘He killed Lion.’
            ‘Be quiet, Mohand,’ normally the use of his formal name was enough to stop Kaci in his tracks, but he couldn’t stop. The fury from the dog had been transferred to him. He landed a blow on his father’s nose and his father surprised, dropped Kaci. The boy lunged for the rough, blood-matted coat lying lifeless on the ground.
            ‘Who owns this sack of fur?’ The Frenchman spoke for the first time.
            Kaci looked up at him through eyes thick with tears. The guard’s expression had altered slightly; he looked as if he had found enough energy to move beyond bored. Kaci’s little body was shaking with emotion, yet part of his mind was watching events with detachment. Some instinct told him there was still danger here and he had to be alert to it. The Guard had murdered his favourite creature with less thought than he might stub out a cigarette. What might he do to his people?
            ‘I do.’ Hadj Yahia answered, chin high.
            ‘Then you have committed a crime. You are charged with owning a dangerous animal and you will pay 16R.’
            There was a loud gasp from the adults gathered nearby. Few of them spoke sufficient French to know exactly what the Guard had said, but they all understood the sum of money he was talking about. It was enough to feed a family for a month.
            Everyone there had been touched by the case of the baby Akli. His older brother had died mere days after his birth, in a house fire and his father distracted by grief, had forgotten to register Akli’s birth. For that he had been sent to jail for six years.
            What if his father was sent to prison too? If Hadj Yahia did not find the money would he have to sell off more land to meet the fine, as many of his countrymen had done in the past? If he did so, how would the loss of revenue from the olives affect the family’s wellbeing?
            Kaci had not let go of the dog’s coat, his body still heaving as he sobbed. How could this foreigner come here and do this to his people? How could Allah allow this to happen? How could this man of flesh and blood and bone treat Lion, his best friend in the whole world in such a manner?
            ‘I will pay your fine, Frenchman,’ said Hadj Yahia, muttering a Berber curse under his breath.  His eyes never wavered from the Guard’s face. But Kaci read something in them. Had he the words at that young age to describe what he saw, he would have been torn between defiance and acceptance. It was as if somewhere deep inside, his Papa was staring at some terrible truth.
            Kaci swore that one day he would understand. He would watch. He would study and he would learn everything about the French, so that he and his kind would show that they were worth more; that they too were of flesh and blood and bone.
            One day he would grow up to be a man worthy of respect, from everyone.


  1. I liked the prologue, but I also liked this dramatic and atmospheric and quite captivating first chapter! Good work Michael!

  2. Cheers, Dez - glad you like. Just need to get me a publisher for this one now.

  3. if the whole book is touching and epic I'd go for some of the biggest publishers.

  4. That's what I'm thinking, Dezmond. The trick is getting the right person to read it.