He thinks I don’t know, but I know. He wants something; maybe he wants Latifa. He is Jeedah’s sort of man. Even though he is from a strange country, she would have spoken with him. She always knew.
“If you don’t know, child, don’t speak to them. Let them figure out your thoughts themselves if they can. Say nothing.” Sometimes she would put her hand on my head and say, “It’s no use, Malak, your face says it all. You are too magnificent, too proud. Where did you come from, child? Who are your people? It’s in her blood, your mother’s and your’s, but you are more special. You will never give up.”
As he ate, he noticed the beautiful facial features of the child and her long thick hair. In spite of the fact that she was dressed in rags and dirty, her face smeared and her hands black, the child was striking. She glanced at the food, still attending to the baby, and even though she looked away, her eyes wandered back to the overladen dish. Then she’d put her chin out abruptly as an inward gesture, a self-correction, and look elsewhere. She’s starving poor little cow, Pete thought, but proud, amazing a five-year-old urchin with a gutful of pride.
“What is her name?” He pointed to the child.
“Malak” she replied. “Her mother works, so she and her sister are on the streets all day.”
“So what’s the problem with school?”
“No money.” She said something about him to the child, who turned and looked at Pete. Her teeth were white and perfect, and her smile entirely unexpected in a face whose total lack of expression must have been the child’s only weapon against the evil and negligence which was happening around her, and which she instinctively knew was so, so wrong.
“Give her couscous.”
“No, she will have what we leave.”
So he went to the other room and found a plate and a fork. He stacked the big platter high with semolina and placed it before the child, who fell on it like a wolf cub, using her hands to devour it ravenously. He gave her bread and a Coke.
“Malak!” he said loudly, and she looked up but continued eating. “Tell her to stop.”
Latifa, his friend, spoke sharply to her and the girl stopped and looked at him. “She says she is sorry.”
“She has nothing to be sorry for, just tell her she will make me happy if she uses the fork.”
Latifa spoke to her, and the little girl listened attentively, humbly. Then she laughed, a peal of heartfelt mirth, looking at him, and Pete, caught unawares, grinned back in spite of himself. She ate the rest of the food with the implement, experiencing some difficulty. As she ate, she kept looking into his face and gently laughing. The man was smitten with the child. Her beauty, wisdom, and pride were amazing for a little girl living in abject poverty. And, of course, he realised that the child somehow was aware of her power, as a woman to be, of her loveliness and charm, and knew how to use them given the right opportunity. She knew instinctively, intuitively, he thought, that he was the type of man who would love children and hold sacred their right to be children. Of course, there was also the possibility that she just believed that foreigners were the greener side of her particular river.
A gravelike silence greets the two women with the child and the young man, who are escorted by Captain Hannachi into the tent. An all-male domain in an Arab world and they know, they have been told of the reputation of this sinister man of steel who is the Caliph, the overlord, who sits as a Pasha of old surrounded by his personal handpicked fighters. The boy who is with them is tall, strikingly good-looking. His young age makes him even beautiful with long curly black hair and moving lithely like a cat, he is dressed simply in a white Kandora and pants, and he looks towards the reclining couch on which is ensconced the one man he appears to have picked out as likely to be the leader. The elder of the two girls is very attractive in a shy, diffident sort of way. The General notes her glancing, seeking the eyes of the various, the most attractive men in the pavilion, typical of her age no doubt, but perhaps a little too voracious and yet an air of appropriate shyness, the sort that engages in following the bashful approach to a man’s heart. The woman can only be described as regal, her stance, her beauty, her enormous eyes; she is holding a small girl by the shoulders who also walks with a confident bearing and is stunning to gaze upon as her features are as of an angel: soft, cherubic, enchanting. At that precise moment, a ray of light––be it sunlight or an electric beam which has slipped––chances to settle on her face. The General glances around to locate the source but finds none, a superstitious shiver runs through his body, and he shakes it off. The captain takes a pace forward.
“General, may I present…” but he is not allowed to finish as the small girl wriggles away from her mother’s grasp.
“We’re not afraid of you!” she shrills out in her small voice, pointing her finger accusingly at the General, her mother rushing up. For a few seconds total silence reigns, all eyes are on Chenouali not knowing what to expect. He has gone cold all over. What is happening? He tries to think and then deep in his head come the screams, but he pushes them down. They are waiting, Khizr. He steels himself. Then the suspicion of a smile appears on his face.
The morning sun casts long shadows so that even from where their supply caravan is travelling over the rise of a high dune, they can discern the oddity on the far horizon: a shape, camels and something else, laden but lightly, and still stationary? Immediately two dark blue hooded figures are wheeling their horses around and detaching themselves from the main body gallop down in a cloud of flying sand. The rest of the caravan adopts a defensive stance in case the vision is a threat of sorts, a ruse, a diversion or indeed just that, a mirage of ill omen. The Beni Kahini or at least the fear of them, if they truly exist habitually keep the trade routes open and safe, but the desert teaches them many lessons and one such is not to assume anything. He leaps from his mount and approaches the unconscious figure, uncovering her face and pulling the camels toward him to unravel the mess of ropes which are choking her.
“It’s a woman!”
They are walking downhill through pine trees over a floor carpeted in needles. The night air is scented with the pine and the rosemary and thyme from the multitude of wild bushes covering the hillside. Occasionally, a shaft of reluctant moonlight penetrates the woodland, illuminating a solitary hanging bough or a soaring fir, a ghostlike beam entering the gloom which hangs heavy around them as if it were a tangible physical thing.
The soldier’s ears pick up a sound, just the faintest of rustlings and not so far behind them; he knows it does not fit, it is alien, a human sound. Other night trivia alert his ever vigilant primitive instinct. Betrayal! Just one of many before, but he did not choose this Berber. It was the will of Allah that he have no choice but to trust him. But the beast in him heeds not what he must believe and trust in, he fears, he knows that the other is evil or perhaps just a weak man led by fear for himself and his family. As the truth comes to him, he increases his silent pace and moves forward until some unknown clairvoyance between killer and victim alerts the Berber, who starts to turn. But too late as the highly trained assassin leaps upon the other, knife poised to tear across the unshaven stubbly throat, the smell of sweat and musky all pervading goat odour is overpowering and mixed in now is the rank smell of the mans fear. “Bismillaahil-lathi la yadorro,” the guide screams imploring Allah to keep him safe from evil spirits. The soldier knows it is one of the Dua-a’s for protection against the devil. An intense dread pervades his spirit. “I am the scorpion, and this is the moment of truth. It was never the guide, all along, the stinging insect with the fatal touch in its tail, all along it was me, I am the Djinn.” He silences him with a blow to the throat as the knife falls from his own nerveless fingers. It is not for me to kill this man; perhaps he is touched, marked by Allah.
You may also be interested …
The Boy Who Sailed to Spain
My previous book now available on Amazon, click below to find out
Set in North Africa and Spain in 2015. Masuhun´s family have been Christians since before Islam was born, since the time of Augustine of Hippo and the Romans. They live in North Africa where he follows his father´s every footstep loving him and his company at every opportunity. Till one day after the celebration of house mass, in the night hooded men come to their home. In spite of the boy´s reckless intervention, they brutally slay his father, Afra.The tribe rushes belatedly to the house but Masuhun runs amok once he recovers consciousness, screaming accusing them of cowardice and that they wanted his father dead.