Friday, 15 April 2011
The Guillotine Choice - Chapter 2
Maillot, Algeria 1924
Kaci sat under a tree, his belly full after an evening meal of couscous, watching the setting sun paint the ridge of the distant mountain gold and red. Wood doves called to each other in the olive groves around him to the accompaniment of children’s feet scuffing the dusty earth as they chased and fought and played.
One of the children broke away from the group. His little body rigid with anger as he stamped across to the trees.
‘Baby,’ one child shouted after him, ‘Zaki is a baby.’
Head down, Zaki tried to ignore the taunts until he was safely under the shelter of an olive tree. From Kaci’s vantage point he could see that once he was out of sight of the other children, the boy slumped on the ground and gave in to his feelings, sobbing into his sleeve.
Kaci climbed to his feet and as if the child was a wild animal approached him with care. Once he was sure the boy wouldn’t run off he crouched down beside him.
‘Zaki is a very wonderful name,’ Kaci said softly. The boy turned away from him, his face in his hands.
‘A powerful name.’ Kaci placed his hand on the boy’s bony shoulder. ‘Do you know what it means?’
Zaki lifted his head from his hands, curiosity stilling his emotion. He nodded. ‘It means clever.’
‘Oh, it is so much more than that, Zaki.’ Kaci said with a large smile. ‘It means the owner is so smart he could rule the world one day.’
The boy’s eyes widened as if struggling to contain such a notion.
‘The world?’ he asked.
‘A boy with this name is so smart he can understand every story his wise uncle could tell him.’
‘You are going to tell me a story?’ Zaki swivelled on his little bottom until he was facing Kaci. All Berber children loved to hear a story and the word hung in the air above Kaci’s head as if pinned their by Zaki’s excitement. Like butterflies to the sweetest scented flower the other children gathered around Kaci’s feet with a clamour of bare feet and dust.
Looking around at the small faces tuned in to hear his words Kaci told them his favourite fable. The very story his own father told him the day after the Frenchman had shot his dog.
"Many years ago there was an orphan child wandering about upon the earth. He was very sad as he had no father and no mother. Nobody on the earth would talk to him, or pay him any attention; nobody cared why he was so sad. Despite his anguish, the boy was unable to weep as tears had not yet entered the world.’
Ten little faces formed a pout of consideration as they assessed this news.
‘There was no tears?’ Zaki asked.
Kaci nodded. ‘No tears. This night, the moon noticed the distraught orphan boy walking about the earth and felt great compassion towards him. The moon left the heavens, slid down from the sky and came to lie upon the earth before the orphaned child. He addressed the child: “Weep, sad child! But you cannot let the tears drop to the earth, as it would make it unclean for people who get their food from it. Rather, let your tears fall onto me. I will then carry them back with me up into the sky.” The orphan child obeyed. For who could ignore the moon? The oceans can’t. The wolves can’t. So he began to weep. The first tears ever to fall, rolled down his cheeks and dropped onto the moon.
‘The Moon gave the lonely child a blessing saying: “From now on, every person shall love you.” When the child could weep no more, the moon returned to the heavens. Thereafter the orphan became happy and people would give him all that he needed and all that would make him rejoice. Every time you look at the moon's face, you will be able to see the stains left by the tears of the orphan child, the first tears ever shed.’
The children gasped in concert and as one they all craned their necks up to look at the great silver disc in the sky.
‘Uncle Kaci?’ asked Zaki. ‘Does that mean that it is always okay to cry? If the little boy in the story was given permission to cry by the moon, then how can it be wrong?’
‘Zaki, you are a very clever boy to work this out.’ Kaci reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder. Zaki beamed a smile, whirled to the side and ran away whooping with joy. He was quickly followed by a whirlwind of children that formed and swooped around him.
Kaci could only laugh as he watched them all begin a new game. He settled down under the tree and allowed his eyes to roam around the area as he regarded his clan at rest. This was his favourite time of the day. Everyone in the family was relaxed after a hard day’s work and they could look forward to some chat and music before nightfall and a well-earned sleep.
He was feeling good about his efforts on behalf of the family. He had recently been given work at the Mayor’s office as an administrator and as such was one of the few men in the family who was bringing in hard currency. At his young age this was a major achievement, but one that he wore with humility. He was in a unique position because of the gifts Allah had given him. Why should he not take advantage of them? And why should he allow this to make him feel better than anyone else? He had a duty to his tribe and the only pride he would allow himself was that he carried this duty out to the best of his abilities.
He heard the footfall of an adult and looked over his shoulder towards the houses. There were four buildings, low to the ground, made of mud and stone and thatched roofs. Homes where his father, his uncles and aunts and all their twenty-two offspring thrived despite the best efforts of the French.
He recognised the squat and muscular shape of his cousin Arab. Kaci couldn’t help but be flattered by the attentions of Arab. He was more than twice his age. He had fought alongside the French in the Great War and yet he sought out the words of an inexperienced youth like himself.
His father had warned him about Arab. Muttered something about “not to be trusted” and “a danger to himself”. There had been an argument. Threats were issued. And then everything died down. After all, thought Kaci, we are Berbers. We are family. Nothing is more sacred to Berbers than family. And loud voices were nothing new. His was a boisterous family and always the loud voices were talked down from their position of anger with humour and soon there were grins all around the room.
He watched Arab as he folded his legs and sat beside him.
‘You treat them too soft, boy,’ Arab’s eyes were black in the moonlight, picking up only the tiniest glint from the distant fire. ‘Life is difficult for an Algerian. We must toughen them up. Not tell them fanciful tales.’
‘Ach, you are a hard man, Arab. We should let the children be children for as long as we can. Life will be difficult soon enough.’
Arab’s answering laugh was loud and harsh. A sound that could often clear a room.
‘Mohand ou Yahia, Saoudi the Sage,’ Arab said, his voice dripping with mockery. ‘How old are you boy?’
‘Old enough,’ Kaci bristled. He would not be bowed by this man.
‘Yes, I heard that my young cousin was to become a man,’ Arab’s teeth were displayed in a smile. His voice was softer now. The change was so abrupt that it threw Kaci from his defensive tone.
‘Yes,’ he said a little more relaxed, warmed by the thought and yet nervous of his impending marriage. ‘Eighteen is a good age to take a wife, don’t you think?’
‘A wife is good for a man,’ Arab patted him on the shoulder. ‘Helps to keep his blood cool.’
Kaci fought to control his blush. Although he was a virgin, he had some experience with girls and he had overheard men talk.
The task of finding a wife was normally the role of a mother, but for Kaci and his brother Amar it had fallen to his father and Hana Addidi.
Eventually she suggested a girl from her extended family. She was 13 years and 6 months old. Hana Addida assured him that she was dark and she was lovely and she had a sweet temperament. Such was his trust for this kindest of women who had taken the role of his mother that her words were good enough for him.
The process of agreeing this match took almost as long as the prospecting. For the girl to qualify as being worthy of this position as his wife, his father had to make enquiries into the status of her family. If the family were of the same status as theirs, they would approach them and a dowry would be agreed.
The boy and girl would not see each other before the night of the wedding. They were young. What did they know about picking a mate for life?
Amar was marrying a cousin from a branch of the family that lived nearby. Kaci’s future wife was called Saada and Amar’s was called Messaouda.
A double celebration was prepared ...