Across the square a man was pushing a handcart on which balanced a pyramid of fragile sugarcane cages secured with bits of string, each with a live chicken inside. A little boy with a mop of black hair, wearing an oversized blue t-shirt on which the jaws of a great white shark advertised Jaws II, approached the man from behind and mimed being a chicken. Quickly Nicolette dropped the used film into her bag, fed another in her camera and slipped the strap around her neck. She focussed across the square. The boy was still miming being a chicken, cluck-clucking and laughing, and the man turned, hand raised as if to strike the boy, but his movement overbalanced the cart so that it tipped, crashing the cages to the ground. The chickens squawked in fear, some escaping the broken cages and flapping amongst the crowd. The man swore at the boy who ran, laughing, to a safer part of the square. Nicolette’s camera whirled.
Music seeped into the street from a radio inside the café and a beggar approached Nicolette but DJ drove him away with a torrent of abuse. A waiter came to refill their cups. Nicolette saw Jean-Paul on the other side of the square come towards them; he saw her looking his way and waved. She watched the boy in the Jaws t-shirt steal some apples from a stall and run to a barefooted little girl. A dog howled. She zoomed in on the two children. The girl put a hand out for the fruit, but the boy spat on his hand and cleaned her face before giving her an apple. Nicolette pressed the shutter.[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
A horrific roar ripped through the square. The ground shuddered. A rolling, shimmering wave of hot air surged outwards in every direction, tearing bodies, shattering stalls, splitting the square into a kaleidoscope of still images, knocking Nicolette to the ground. The window of the café shattered. The surge of air stopped and reversed, feeding the thick cloud of black smoke rising from where there had been a shop. Next to Nicolette lay the old man from the next table, his glasses still on the tip of his nose. He twitched as if shocked by an electric current then lay still. Pieces of cloth and paper swirled upwards.
An instant of surreal silence.
A sudden shower of dust, rocks and glass.
Steven pulled Nicolette to her feet and dragged her into the café. She caught a glimpse of DJ grabbing the camera bags and following. They sheltered amongst other customers behind a counter strewn with spilled food and coffee. DJ crashed in beside her and said something, and Nicolette realised she couldn’t hear him. She pressed her fingers to her ears and swallowed until her hearing returned to normal.
‘What the hell?’
‘Fucking bomb. Everyone okay?’
Nicolette nodded, too shocked to speak. She had lost control of her muscles, couldn’t even lift her hand from the floor to her lap. DJ took his camera from his bag and headed for the entrance of the café.
‘Give it a minute, mate. Might be another one.’
DJ considered, came back to sit with them on the floor, his back against the counter. Outside, a woman keened. One of the customers crouching beside Nicolette stood, hesitated a moment, then left. Others followed. DJ pulled a joint out of the pocket of his jacket and lit it, drawing deep, holding it. Slowly exhaled.
Drew again. Passed it to Nicolette.
‘You’ve got to be kidding. Are you out of your mind?’
‘A bloody bomb just went off!’
‘Yeah, I know that.’
‘A bomb went off. We could all be dead by now. And you light up a fucking joint?’
‘Best time, if you ask me.’
Nicolette stared at DJ, mouth opened, disbelieving. Steven smiled and took the joint from DJ’s fingers. Took a long drag.
‘Let’s go,’ he said, and headed out into the square.
The air was jaundiced, dust and panic laden. Across the square a building burned. In the middle of the road a toddler stood alone, crying, his screams silenced by the shouting around him. DJ and Steven were already in the centre of it all, but Nicolette stood and stared, shivering – a movie being played in slow motion. She saw Jean-Paul across the square, covered in dust but safe. A boy bumped into her as he ran past, jerking her out of her daze. She ran across the square.
A woman lay across a fruit and vegetable stall, arm and fingers outstretched as if trying to snatch the orange just beyond her grasp. Her eyes were open, her features peaceful as her exposed intestines steamed in the cold air. Nicolette moved around behind the stall and squatted, so that her lens was level with the woman’s hand. She focused on it and on the oranges before it, filling two thirds of the viewfinder. The woman’s face and body behind it were foreshortened, slightly blurred. Nicolette pressed the shutter. Looked down to see a dog licking the blood dripping from the woman’s intestines onto the ground. She picked up an orange and threw it at the dog. Moved towards the burning building, motor drive whirling, and photographed an old couple standing over the body of a young woman, the old man half collapsed in his
wife’s arms, crying. She, stone faced, stared straight ahead. When Nicolette lowered her camera, her gaze met the old woman’s. She turned away, shaken. Saw Steven tying a bandana around someone’s leg.
‘Need help?’ she asked.
‘Nah, I’m ‘right. Got all you want?’
‘Just let me get a couple more.’
‘Be quick. They’ll be here arresting everybody in sight in a minute.’
Nicolette nodded. Looked around for another shot. Faces, sounds, shadows. The crackling of the fire, the stench of smoke.
A dead chicken at her feet. Against a wall a small blue clump, something about it familiar.
The girl lay face up on the ground, eyes staring sightlessly at the sky. In her hand she still held the apple, whole except for one small bite taken out of it, the flesh of the fruit indecently white against the red of the skin. Covering her was the boy in the blue t-shirt. From one end poked two skinny bird-like legs, at the other a mangle of dark hair, bone and raw flesh where his face had been. Nicolette wanted to vomit. If you can’t handle that, you shouldn’t be here. She raised her camera to her eye, looked through the viewfinder and zoomed in. The jaws of a great white shark filled her lens, and in the centre a dark patch spread until it reached the teeth, turning them red. Her finger hesitated over the shutter. Her hand shook. The patch continued to spread. She pressed the shutter. [/read]
Louis sat up with a start – something had wakened him. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and beside him Marius snored. The goat was up, ears pricked forwards, looking towards the doorway.
Then he heard it again – an animal snort, just outside.
‘Father, wake up,’ he whispered.
Marius woke, instantly alert. He looked at Louis, then the goat, following their gaze to the doorway. He rose and went outside.
The goat and Louis followed.
Tied to the tree was a mule, and sitting cross-legged beneath the tree was Imez, his father, and an old man. Unlike Imez’s father, this man was not draped in indigo, nor was his face covered. Instead he wore a white burnoose frayed at the edges, the hood of it pulled over his head. The old man held the reins of two camels.
Louis ran to the mule. ‘It’s ours, Father, look – you can tell. Look at the ear.’
Imez’s father rose and salaamed. ‘ ‘as-sal?mu calaykum’ he said.
‘How do you do,’ answered Marius, holding out his hand. The men shook hands, and Imez joined Louis. The boys stroked the mule as Louis watched and listened to the two men. Through a mixture of sign language and a few words of French Imez’s father was explaining the return of the mule.
‘Gwafa, my father,’ explained Imez, ‘stop thief.’
‘But how did he know it was ours?’ asked Louis.
Imez shrugged. Gwafa spoke to his son, pointing to the old man still sitting under the tree. Imez nodded. ‘Merzoug stay,’ he announced, also pointing to the old man who nodded and smiled.
‘I don’t think—’
‘He stay,’ Imez repeated.[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
Marius tried to protest but Gwafa held up his hand, silencing him. He salaamed towards Marius, then Louis. ‘Ilâ l-ligâ,’ he said.
Imez also salaamed. ‘Ilâ l-ligâ. Till next time.’
Louis watched Imez and his father lead the camels around the boulders that indicated the turnoff to Ain Azel.
‘Why is this man staying?’ he asked Marius. ‘Who is he, anyway?’
‘Well, apparently his name is Merzoug. And why he’s here, I really don’t know. He’s not dressed like them, so I don’t think he’s Tuareg. I’m just wondering if he’s not one of their slaves… I think we’ve just been given a slave.’
‘But we don’t keep slaves.’
‘I’m well aware of that, but what would you have me do? Look at him. He’s old. They probably don’t want him anymore.’
‘We could pay him.’
‘I agree. But with what? To do what? Look at him – what use can he be?’ He looked at the old man still sitting under the tree, smiling at them. ‘I’ll have to think of something. Obviously we can’t keep him. For now, I just hope he doesn’t eat much.’
Early next morning Merzoug was not there when Louis and Marius woke, but he returned just as they were drinking their morning cup of goat’s milk. With a toothless smile he handed Marius three rabbits he had trapped, already skinned and gutted.
Then, without asking, he went to their supplies and broke off a large piece of salt from the cone, which he mixed in a bucket of water in which he soaked the skins to cure. And when Louis and Marius went to the field Merzoug was there beside them, picking up the smaller of the rocks and stacking them onto the travois.
He always stopped for a nap of an hour or so in the middle of the day, and five times a day he would kneel, always facing in the same direction, and touch his forehead to the ground in prayer.
He spoke little, but always smiled and nodded at whatever was said to him, except when Marius tried to explain that he could not stay. Then the old man would frown and wander off for a while, only to return a short while later and act as if the conversation had never taken place. So Merzoug stayed. Each night he slept outside the doorway of the gourbi, and there were no more thefts. Each morning he would appear as Louis and Marius woke, with rabbits
or fish or berries for their evening meal.
Then one morning, when they had nearly finished clearing the field and the air held the promised of rain, Merzoug did not appear at breakfast. For a whole week he was gone, then on the eighth day reappeared followed by an Arab with a horse pulling a wooden plough. Without bothering to explain anything or introduce the Arab, Merzoug showed the man the field and the man began ploughing.
It took him two days, and during that time Merzoug sat on the edge of the field and watched him, moving only to pray. When he had finished Merzoug walked him to the boulder turnoff, then returned to the gourbi and pointed to the parasol Louis had found in Algiers.
‘Do you want it?’ asked Marius. Merzoug nodded and smiled.
‘Then it’s yours.’
Merzoug went outside to the tree where he liked to nap, and slept the rest of the afternoon, all the while with the parasol unfurled above his head, the handle wedged in the crook of his arm.
With the clods of earth in the field now ready to be broken up by the frost and snow that were not far away, Merzoug showed Marius and Louis how to dig silos into the ground to hold the expected harvest. Then, when winter arrived, they went into the pine forest to cut down trees that Marius and Merzoug split into planks, out of which Marius made beds and a table and four chairs. While Marius was thus occupied, Merzoug would take Louis into the mountains and gorges and teach him about this land, and the old man and the boy became close friends. And everywhere he went, no matter what the weather, Merzoug proudly held aloft the open parasol, and occasionally he would look up at the small garlands of spring flowers and fluttering butterflies, and smile. [/read] #MustRead #Algeria #histfic #histnovel