An excerpt from The Last Patriarch By Najat El Hachmi Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Forthcoming this month from Serpent’s Tail
This is the story of Mimoun, son of Driouch, son of Allal, son of Mohammed, son of Mohand, son of Bouziane, whom we shall simply call Mimoun. It is his story and the story of the last of the great patriarchs who make up the long chain of Driouch’s forbears. Every single one lived, acted and intervened in the lives of those around them as firmly as the great figures in the Bible.
We know little about what shapes a great or a mediocre patriarch, their origin is lost in the beginning of time and origins are of no interest to us here. There are many theories that attempt to explain the longevity of this kind of social order that has always existed and survives even to this day. Whether determinist or pseudo-magical the explanations are of little consequence. The fact is Mimoun represents the abrupt curtailment of this particular line of succession. No son of his will identify with the spirit of authority that preceded him or try to emulate similar discriminatory and dictatorial attitudes.
This is the only truth we want to tell you, the truth about a father who has to grapple with the frustration of seeing his destiny unfulfilled and about a daughter who, entirely unintentionally, changed the history of the Driouchs forever.
A long awaited son
On that day, after three daughters, a first son was born to Driouch of Allal of Mohammed of Mohand of Bouziane, etc. He was Mimoun the fortunate because he was born after so many females.
The day didn’t start at all spectacularly; it was a day like any other. Even if those grand women in white robes that usually concern themselves with these matters had had to say what predicted that birth, they couldn’t have singled out anything extraordinary. There were no signs in the sky, no heavy clouds gathering on the horizon at twilight, no disturbing calm, no scorching midday sun, not even the flock of sheep seemed more excitable than usual. The donkey didn’t flap its ears in that way that indicated something was about to happen. And the gullies of the river didn’t resound more than usual.
What normally happens on such occasions didn’t even happen: grandmother, Mimoun’s mother, didn’t get up in the morning with a kind of premonition that this was to be the day, even though there were still a few days to go to a new moon. None of any of that. No backache, no to-ing and fro-ing prompted by anxiety over her contractions until the waters broke.
Grandmother had got up as always, with the cock’s crow, feeling very heavy, although her belly was only mildly swollen by her fourth pregnancy. She had kneaded the dough for their bread as always, smooth and white like the belly of a barren woman. She had completed her morning ablutions while the dough fermented and prostrated herself several times before the Supreme One.
She had gone out to pick fruit from the prickly pears, wielding a long three pronged implement with rigid tentacles where the chosen item was soon placed. There and then, a large bead of sweat rolled down her temples that were framed by a white headscarf and black, unkempt tresses glistening in oil.
Her next-door neighbour had come out to greet her, shouting: hey, what a belly you’ve got on you, so, don’t you think it will be another girl? Let it be whatever God wills, providing it’s live and healthy, boy or girl, we must accept his grace and blessing.
In her heart of hearts it couldn’t have mattered to her if it was a girl. But what would she do when all her girls had gone to live in other peoples’ houses where they’d rear their descendents and their children wouldn’t remember their lineage? This lineage business didn’t worry her for sure… but the loneliness… Her neighbour and sister-in-law had already given birth to two sons. So far she had failed as a wife, she hadn’t achieved her main goal. The Driouchs’ project wasn’t developing to plan.
Grandmother had drunk hedgehog’s blood, bathed in water where they’d dissolved her husband’s sperm and had had her crotch smoked in the steam from a sulfur, shredded poppy, dry pigeon shit concoction that was boiling on the fire.
All the remedies grandmothers at the time had recommended. Don’t go to parties where the women who were most jealous might look at you and change the sex of the newborn if it was a boy, or show too much belly to women you know see you as a rival. Don’t trust anyone and sprinkle your front door with your first piss of the day. If those women cross your threshold, their evil thoughts won’t.
That day grandmother had carried on toiling as always, her thick silver bracelets clonk-clonked against the large earthenware dish where she was again kneading the half fermented dough. Clonk-clonk, and she cleaned off the white stuff that had stuck to her fingers. Then added the bits to the rest, with her index finger, the final touch. Like a musical note.
It was only when she’d been cooking the bread for some time, her cheeks reddened by the brushwood fire, coughing now and then, with her whole weight on the souls of her feet and her knees open to the heat, then when only the smallest loaf was left to cook, that she cried Ah and saw her trousers were all soaked and had turned vaguely beige. The damp had spread to her loose-fitting serual, through the first undershirt, the first layer of clothing, and the second pulled down over the first, before finally seeping though to the front of her apron.
It was the birth, and had come unheralded.
She ran and shouted to her mother-in-law and told her it wasn’t hurting, but that she was already drenched from top to bottom.
A bad omen.
Grandmother crouched down and seized the rope that hung down from the ceiling. She stared at the beams made from tree trunks, such a lot of woodworm! One, one colour, the other, another. She lifted her head and looked at the other end as she gripped her knees as hard as she could and started to push. She looked as if she was hanging from the rope, like a sheep. She pushed. She didn’t have to push much more, although there was a moment when she felt a huge tightening and wondered whether there was still time to stop it coming out, to turn that huge thing back. No, she couldn’t. Standing behind her and clutching her above the waist with both hands, her mother-in-law ordered her to keep on with the task she couldn’t avoid. In the name of God, push in the name of God, help us, Lord, push. A bad omen, daughter, when children are born without pain. If they don’t hurt you when they’re born, they’ll hurt you for the rest of your life.
And so it was. Mimoun, the fortunate, was born on that day and would have the honour of bringing to an end generations and generations of patriarchs destined to make the world a decent and well-ordered place. He would put an end to the curse of patriarchy forever. But he knew nothing about any of that yet. And grandmother, who foretold and dreamed so much that turned out to be true, hadn’t dreamed or intuited any of this. Exhausted as she was, she heard the you-yous of all the women in the house announcing the good news to the whole town: a boy had been born in the house of the Driouchs. The din of their cries rose up from mouths where tongues lashed frantically right and left.
The father of the father
Mimoun got his first smack at six months. Thwap, it sounded, muffled. The hand had come down, hard put to find place enough to hit, but all the same it had sounded muffled like that, thwap. We don’t know how Mimoun felt this dramatic rebuff or whether it taught him anything.
His father had given it some thought. He’d given him fair warning. First he’d warned his mother: get that blasted baby to shut up, he’d said. He’d warned Mimoun’s sisters, shut him up for once, he probably said. But they’d all been passing him round, rocking him to and fro in the bundle where they protected him from everything. Mimoun kept opening his mouth and bellowing in a way that, in defence of Driouch, we have to admit, must have been extremely tiresome. He’d warned his sisters, his mother and, finally reached the end of his tether and threatened the little one. Shut that racket up you’re making me go mad, he probably said. God curse the ancestors of the mother who gave birth to you! By now grandmother was quite used to hearing herself rebuked like that and she must have looked at him askance, keeping her face muscles still, as if she was about to launch in his direction one of those gobs of spit that come from deep down in the throat. But she probably said nothing and continued cradling Mimoun up and down, ever more quickly, now not sitting down, but walking across the bright light from the door, and even over the soft, dry mud in the yard, and that way his squeals spread across the sky and sounded fainter when they reached grandfather’s bedroom.
But grandfather was having a bad day, he’d run out of the tobacco he used to snort, the little local shop had none and no car would be driving down to the nearest city until the next morning. He stared at the dirty handkerchief where he’d sneezed out the last grams he’d inhaled though his right nostril, that had reached a cranny that gave him a series of small, slow, dry orgasms, before it came out mixed up with the mucous slime that tends to inhabit this kind of cavity in the human body. And that happened some time ago. And all the time Mimoun had been bellowing.
And so he’d suddenly got up from the henna-dyed sheepskin rug where he’d half stretched out. In defence of Mimoum, it has to be said, that the bedroom was the far side of the yard. You might think that his reaction showed just how touchy Driouch was… But it happened like this, he pulled himself up, first by putting his weight on his thumbs and index fingers, as if he were a runner, then launched himself towards the spot where grandmother was standing, lips pressed together and eyes bulging out more than normal. Perhaps it must have been like that, if we are to grasp how Mimoun received his first slap at six months. A very dull, awkward thwap that didn’t even touch the baby’s face, while grandmother tried to shield him by bending her shoulders over him. But he’d caught her unawares, otherwise he wouldn’t have hit his target at all. The earth in the yard hadn’t sufficiently reflected the soft pad of his bare feet. Grandmother would have avoided his slap if he hadn’t probably slipped his hand behind her and let the whole weight of his forearm come down on the bundle that was barely visible. It was one of those blows you don’t think about, that’s unleashed trying to hit someone as hard as you can, to let off your rage, perhaps he even gave out one of those howls that make us sound like animals rather than people.
We don’t know exactly how it happened, but we are sure it was there, in the middle of the yard that’s so soft underfoot, surrounded by whitewashed walls on all sides, at a time when everyone must have been having their afternoon nap, that Mimoun’s first smack resounded thwap! Mimoun who had to learn not to be so spoilt.
And Mimoun unleashed one of those cries you don’t hear nowadays. A cry that starts off as a piercing scream and suddenly stops, and silence turns to panic. The baby continues with his mouth wider open than ever, and red, flushed, his eyes shut, but there’s no sound. There is no air. It’s as if he’s simply dying of fright and, even more terrible, as if it hurts so much he’s even forgotten how to breathe. It’s only for a few seconds but they seem eternal as they wait anxiously for life to return. And if it doesn’t? If it doesn’t? Grandmother must have shaken him, in the name of God, in the name of God, in the name of God. And even so life was slow to return. And if it doesn’t? She listened to his heart, listened to his lungs, and shook him again. As if someone had pressed “pause”, the child was slow to return to life, grandmother had felt all her blood rush down to her feet, her face was now only stiflingly hot and her heart stopped beating for a few seconds. What have you done, you wretched man? What have you done to my son?
But Mimoun did return to life, for, if not, how else could we continue this story? He revived and went on crying, more loudly than ever, and grandmother let her heart beat once more and was still trembling as she hugged her son. And she must have cried, sitting on the ground reciting some litany. Swaying her body to and fro with the baby stuck to her clothes. For a long, long time.
We don’t know how important this unusual event was in the life of Mimoun. Grandmother always says it changed her son forever. That frights suffered at such a young age mark us forever, that the fright goes very deep inside and hides away in a secret cranny. Until it changes and turns into something you’d never recognise as fear, like banging on the door or pulling your hair out because they won’t let you do as you please. Grandmother always told this story to justify her son’s rather out-of-the ordinary behaviour. Whenever Mimoun gave them a headache, she’d recount that same story yet again, my poor child. Yes, bad frights go deep inside you and over time change and become the worst part of our selves, but at any rate, daughter, you know your father’s basically a good sort and he’d never hurt anyone. The fact is these frights never completely left his body and that made him someone different.
Rival number one
Mimoun would have been a normal man if it weren’t for the fact his childhood had been plagued by so many unusual incidents, the first being the order in which he was born. If only he’d been born before the third daughter or after his brother, everything would have been different.
He was dark-skinned like so many other baby boys, who are born ugly, wrinkled and almost bluish, and then change with time, after their birth. But he continued to be very dark.
Apart from the incident of the dull thwap! of that smack, Mimoun grew up without any other untoward episodes. His three sisters were women like they used to be, the kind that take responsibility for the house, the family and feel innate devotion for their small brother, although they weren’t much older. They swaddled him, caressed him, milked the cow every morning so he had fresh milk, and accustomed him to massages in oil of almond from the day he was born. They were proud of him, and were his nursemaids and he was their toy.
He grew up like that, surrounded by women who protected him against everything. If he was crying and grandfather started on his go and shut that boy up, they ran and scolded him, particularly after the incident of the thwap! smack. What on earth did you think, that after all the effort you had to put into making a male child, you’d act so a djinn could take his soul away because of that fright and never bring it back.
His sisters not only protected him from his father, they also shielded him from the looks of envious women who’d have cursed the beauty of his eyes and that deep brown freckle perfectly placed above his lip. And from the winds, the sun, and eternal summer afternoons. They wrapped him up, hid him, always in the shade.
During the harvest, the girls took it in turns to tie him like a bundle on their backs before bending over with their scythes.
Then all of a sudden one of those incidents struck that turned Mimoun into someone different from the person he ought to be, an incident nobody knows about today or if they do, they keep it quiet. When he was three, and already running in the fields around their whitewashed house, and was familiar with every nook and cranny and spied on animals or looked for hens’ eggs in the bushes, a new character appeared unexpectedly on the scene. For some time grandmother had been carrying a belly that was now like a big, big ball. One day it suddenly deflated, after he’d heard her shouting out all night, as if she was going to die or was in unbearable pain. The morning after, Mimoun went to look for her and she was still lying between blankets at the back of her bedroom, surrounded by that smell of blood or gutted sheep mixed with a hint of vinegar.
He walked over to her after rubbing his feet on the mat in the doorway and shaking off the dust that had stuck to his feet in the yard; he wiped away the snot hanging from his nose with the back of his hand, sensinging that something had changed.
So grandmother was there, at the back of room, her belt undone, her clothes loose like when she went to bed. Her head was uncovered, and her tresses were all dishevelled, with uncombed hair hanging loose from the fastener.
Come, my son, come, she must have said. And her voice had that tender tone, a blend of joy and sadness that the boy noticed after each of her subsequent births. As if she were both exhausted and contented. Do you want to meet your little brother? Look how pretty he is.
And he was a little bundle, a mess of sheets tied round a very little person, and you could only see his face in a mass of white. A prisoner. He was the smallest person he’d seen so far, even smaller than he was. And ugly. Why did his mother say that such a blue, flushed thing was pretty? He’s ugly, Mimoun shouted, and started to run when he saw grandmother’s arms busy themselves with that kind of huge worm that was about to disappear into the bud.
Or perhaps he didn’t run off, perhaps he told his grandmother to let him sit on her lap. We can’t ever know because he wasn’t the person he is now and, after all, he was only a little kid.
Abandoned, innocent, relegated to the background both by his mother and his sisters, who picked up the newly born babe whenever he cried. He opened his mouth, like a toothless old man’s, and shouted with a stridency nobody would have thought possible from such a tiny item. His father said, look, your brother is much less of a cry baby than you, and doesn’t wake anyone up early in the morning. And what will happen when you fall out with him, who will win, you or him? You or him who’s much smaller? If you want him to learn to respect you and call you Azizi, you should start showing who’s boss now.
And so many things changed in the Driouch household with the arrival of that second boy, that in the end something happened nobody could explain, and that some even put down to the appearance of an evil spirit.
It all happened in a minute. The opportunity presented itself and Mimoun took it. The little one must have been a couple of months old and they’d left him on blankets in the girls’ room while they had breakfast downstairs, taking advantage of the daylight streaming through the door. Grandmother was still recounting last night’s dreams with one leg stretched out and another tucked in at quite an obtuse angle She said she’d had one of her presentiments.
Mimoun looked at the little one, stared hard at him and, not giving it much thought, took one of the big pillows and gave it a hug. His little brother was looking around and all he could see was shadows and colours, until the only thing he saw was the white of the soft material and afterwards even, at the end, he saw only the darkness that precedes loss of consciousness.
The women were still talking cheerfully, were still laughing, while the little fellow, getting smaller and smaller, waved his legs and feet inside a kind of mummy wrap where he was imprisoned. He hardly made any noise. No, he made no noise, just stopped struggling, or being stiff. And Mimoun went off to play in the yard in front of his mother who afterwards thought the boy had been there all the time, from the moment he dunked his last mouthful of bread in the dish of olive oil and it just floated there, plop. Nobody had noticed he’d spent too long standing in front of his little brother.
Until much later, when grandmother and daughters began to collect up the breakfast things, to put the bread in the flour-covered cloths, and went to take a look at baby, nobody realised he wasn’t moving, that the peace reigning wasn’t at all the sleep they’d thought he was enjoying. No, they didn’t at all imagine that silence was anything but deep sleep.
Nobody remembers seeing Mimoun prowling near the child before the fratricide, and we don’t even know if he, right now, remembers anything at all.
Mimoun is special
Sometimes people don’t remember if rival number one existed or not. Especially because grandmother got pregnant very soon afterwards, and the newly born child was given his dead brother’s name, as tradition demands. Or especially because of his short sojourn in life, thanks to which he would go straight to heaven. We don’t know whether Mimoun remembers him or not.
Rival number two was certainly easier to tolerate. He was also an ugly cry baby and acted so everyone was at his beck and call all the time, but Mimoun had now grown up, had started to go to school and, most importantly, had started practising the difficult art of winning over the people around him, try flattery, as the fox said.
He didn’t have to try hard with women: he just had to smile and slightly inflect his perfectly placed freckle. His sisters allowed him to curl up longer than usual between the still warm sheets at the back of the living- room where he still with one on each side of him. They must have left him there longer than was called for in these situations either because they were afraid of him sleeping alone in the room that was to be the boys’ or because they feared for his little soul that was more ethereal and delicate than normal, perhaps because of that thwap! smack. Whatever the reason, everybody was sure that boy wasn’t altogether normal and that for the slightest reason he might break into small pieces or turn to ash. It was the only way to explain it when now and then his neck went all stiff, he rolled on the ground screaming in a way that gave everyone goose pimples, and frantically waved his legs and feet, leaving his mark on the floor. And it could happen anywhere: when grandmother was washing clothes in the river and he couldn’t cajole the rest of the women into letting him paddle in the pool of the stagnant water they’d made to do their wash. Child, get your dirty feet out of there, they must have said. And grandmother, when Mimoun had already started his tantrum, must have run to chide the women she laboured with beating djellabas and seruals on the stone and asked them not to upset him, the boy’s not well, you can see that, and above all don’t go against him next to running water, that’s the worse place where anyone can get angry. And that’s how he must have learned to identify the moments when his fragile spirit was most in danger: near water, when dawn was breaking, around noon and, above all, at nightfall when you didn’t know if it was day or night.
This worked with his sisters and mother, naturally, for they understood the child’s precocious sensibility. Grandfather can’t have felt like that; no doubt he must have run over waving a rope-sandal whenever he heard Mimoun having one of his tantrums, let me deal with the kid, I’ll cure the spoilt brat of all his fits and get rid of all the djinns he’s got inside him; when they see what I’ve got in mind they’ll run off quickly enough. But he hardly ever caught him: grandmother or one of his aunts would stop him in time. And in case they weren’t around, Mimoun learned to run. To run as fast as his feet would take him over the stones on dusty paths or barren fields. He ran to places grandfather couldn’t get to or ran so quickly he couldn’t catch him. Then grandfather must have repeated the usual, ahh, I’ll catch you, sooner or later I’ll catch you, and when I do, I’ll skin you alive. But when he had the boy next to him he wouldn’t remember all his threats.
And now and then grandmother would take him to get cured, as she was so sure he had such a strange character. She took him to the house made of only one room, where a woman was waiting for him, surrounded by strange smells, and she sat him down right next to her. Tattooed from under her lower lip to where her robe began, this lady kneaded lots of fenugreek into a paste with her saliva. Pst, she’d go, as she spat into the pot and continued stirring with her chubby, chubby fingers. And she must have put a thimbleful of the mixture in the crook of his elbow and tapped it rhythmically with her two fingers as she invoked in the name of God, in the name of God, in the name of God. As if making music. Until lots of very fine filaments began to come out of the sticky paste stuck to Mimoun’s skin and disappear up into the air. Do you see that? the woman must have said, all his fears are leaving him, lady. Look at the bad state the poor boy was in. Look, they’re getting thicker and thicker, poor boy.
Run, Mimoun, run!
Mimoun never showed any interest in squiggles on pieces of paper that meant things, he didn’t see that they were useful, and while his teacher scrawled alifs, bas, tas and so on the blackboard, he dreamed of hutches for pigeons and rabbits that reproduce and never die from some sudden plague. He’d already been bored in the mosque by the long recitations of suras, though he felt the singsong chant and swaying movement left and right seemed pleasant enough. As well as the way they emphasised certain syllables, now and then, and strained their necks to make their voices sound deeper. He could put up with all that, no doubt, despite the thin switch of olive the imam held erect, always threateningly.
School as such was another matter. Getting up that early for a boy like him who needed to sleep until his body said it had had enough. An hour’s walk there, an hour’s walk back. And worst of all: that teacher who was so black and had such long arms and seemed straight out of hell itself. He must have heard lots of stories about him long before going, and his older cousins must have scared him before he started school at the age of seven. Ssi Foundou will hit you on your fingertips, which is where it hurts most, or on the souls of your feet. He’ll hit you so hard that afterwards you won’t even be able to walk and because he’s caught the whole class making a racket, even if you aren’t at all to blame.
And it was like that. Ssi Foundou’s arms hung down to his knees, and his hands must really hurt if they beat you. Black-skinned, he frightened Mimoun. He’d never seen a black man before. Let alone one who carried a wooden cane the likes of which that man did.
Mimoun learned as he always learned, very quickly. Although the teacher’s words spoken in southern Arabic sounded like incomprehensible curses, he soon learned to distinguish between “come here you, bastard” and “you can go home now”. There he got used to being hit in another way. Not like his father hit him, all of a sudden, and unexpectedly, taking him by surprise. No, with Ssi Foundou it was different: he himself had to go docilely and receive the punishment that he deserved. If he didn’t, the blows would soon come thick and fast, Driouch, ten more strokes, Driouch, twenty more, and I’ve not finished yet. And he wasn’t finished yet. They perhaps hurt him more than a beating from his father. So cold, so calculating, he didn’t seem even annoyed when he lifted the piece of wood up high and sliced through the air, swish, until he could no longer feel the ends of his fingers and thought they would burst and the blood from his veins started to spatter everything.
Until he began not to go to school, he was so fed up of being beaten. He’d walk there with the others and then roam the streets around the small building, waiting for his companions or the older pupils to come out, and when he was far enough away so they couldn’t catch him, he’d shout out the worst he could, up your mother’s twat, or you pansy go fuck your grandmother’s hens. His legs sometimes failed him and more than one stone hit him in the middle of his face, and he’d get home and his forehead or cheeks weren’t a pretty sight.
If he missed one day, it meant he’d get beaten even more. The teacher would say why didn’t you come yesterday, and you’d say, I was ill, teacher, sir. You’re a liar, he might say, Saïd saw you grazing sheep in the middle of the morning, near here. And it didn’t make any difference you didn’t have sheep, only goats, by now you’d learned it was better to keep quiet or the punishment would be worse.
And the more days he stayed away the harder it was to go back, and the harder it was to go back, the more he stayed off.
Until he reached the fourth year and had to sit that important test that would allow him to go on to the next stage. A very important test, his grandfather probably said, if you don’t pass, you can’t go on at school and you’ll be a donkey for the rest of your life. Because despite the evidence of reality and Mimoun’s character, grandfather still longed for his first-born son to dedicate himself to medicine and then at least one of his children could leave life in the fields and enter a profession as respectable as a doctor’s.
The test was so crucial, so difficult that Mimoun soon tired of staring at the incomprehensible sheet of symbols he hardly recognised. He knew he couldn’t leave before the time was up and decided to amuse himself by drawing in the bottom right-hand margin of the paper. He drew the house-wall at the top of which he’d left lots of openings at the top for birds to nest, and drew baby pigeons, beaks wide-open, waiting for the masticated food their mothers would pop in. He drew all this, not realising pen ink couldn’t be erased. And he began to erase as hard as he could, rubbed the paper again and wore it down so much he removed the drawing by making a hole.
A hole was even more visible than a miniature drawing of pigeons and Mimoun thought he should repair the piece of paper. He tore off a strip from elsewhere, licked it as if it were a stamp and stuck it underneath. It was perfect. You couldn’t see the drawing, only a slight wrinkle on the paper.
When grandfather went to school to pick up the test results and Ssi Foundou told him not only that he’d failed, but that he’d also missed lots of school as well as completing a great feat of engineering on the day of the test. Mimoun started to run as soon as he saw his face when he left the teacher’s office. They went all the way home like that, with grandfather angrier than he’d ever been and Mimoun out of breath and really scared because his father had never tried so hard to catch him up. He felt for the first time that his life was at risk, that perhaps nobody could save him now and that he wouldn’t be able to escape even when they got home, and that this time his father wouldn’t pretend he’d forgotten everything.
Thinking that perhaps he wouldn’t just hurt him but that he might even die, Mimoun’s strength began to wane and he felt his legs slowing down, his legs that weren’t keeping up with him. Until he felt grandfather’s hand grab the back of his neck and it was if his blood stopped circulating where he held him tight. Mimoun looked around to find someone, anybody at all, to ask for help. There was nobody in the middle of that barren, dusty clearing, nobody. Nobody as he shouted as loud as he could. Nobody as he was kicked and kicked at the bottom of his spine, nobody as he tried to protect himself by putting his hands over the nape of his neck to deflect his father’s hands and arms. Nobody was there when he saw he was being dragged towards the prickly pears by the road-side, and realised that was where he’d end up at any moment. Nobody, but nobody was there when Mimoun felt all the prickly pear prickles piercing his face and hands, cutting through his clothes and inflicting a thousand wounds. The worst pain came from the thousand little prickles that stayed stuck in.
And if grandmother liked to justify her son’s unusual behaviour in years to come with the episode of the smack, Mimoun related in great detail the incident of the prickly pear to explain away his future performances.
Keep still, Mimoun
Mimoun stopped going to school, he wouldn’t now be a doctor, he would work in the fields. Grandfather had to begin to get used to the idea that his first male child wouldn’t do better in life than he had. He stopped pinning his hopes on him and centred all expectations on his second son.
Mimoun had more time available to learn the things of life that we have taken centuries to unlearn. Some of which we never throw off.
And if grandmother used the thwap! smack theory to explain why her son was the way he was, and Mimoun kept to the one inspired by the prickly pear and the bits that stay stuck in you, grandfather had another he rarely mentioned and which everyone tried to keep quiet about, in case the nightmare came back. Even now, if any of us dared ask “did that business with goats really happen when father was twelve…?”, before the sentence is finished, grandmother looked appalled and put her calloused palm over the guilty mouth. Shut up, stupid, don’t ever talk about these things, shut up. Because some people say that if you speak of the djinns you have seen or the djinns someone in the family has seen you yourself may go mad and never get your sanity back. Never ever.
Grandfather, on the other hand, never stopped talking about the goat episode, as if it could explain why father kicked in the doors of the house or threw over the dinner table and splattered broth over the walls of the living-room, and could even justify that peculiar way he rolled his eyes so you could see only their whites.
All the same, it was obvious he was tense when he talked about it and adopted his transcendental pose, staring into the infinite and scratching a beard that was already turning white.
He would say, yes, this son of mine has never been the same since that happened to him on that accursed summer’s night. He always tells you, he’s not right, he’s not right, and it’s true he never has been from that moment on. And now you see him looking well enough, because with time he’s forgotten that apparition, God keep all such apparitions far from you, my children.
Someone was getting married. And as you know anything can happen on a wedding night, boys went out and about and nobody said a word, they could do things you couldn’t even speak about the rest of the year. Even girls enjoyed more freedom, and there was plenty of scope for flirting and falling in love.
The night when one or other of Mimoun’s older cousins was getting married, he went to the river down by the main road, level with grandfather’s garden plots and right behind the hedge of prickly pears. He must have gone there in darkness; they wouldn’t have given him an oil-lamp on a day there were so many guests in the Driouchs’ house. Right there, in the gully cut by the river that was now half dry, Mimoun had the terrifying vision that marked him for the rest of his life. The moon shone on the little water flowing there, and there must have been a slight mist, the mist that hangs close over the ground. In the midst of that serene and silent night, a goat appeared upright on the highest wall on the bank and was looking at Mimoun. It stared at him and said: have you seen my son? I’ve been looking for him for a long time and he must be around here, I heard him calling me. And Mimoun must have been scared stiff probably ran off, as if possessed, or else stood rooted to the spot, quiet and staring at the apparition.
They say that afterwards he returned home, wrapped his shaking body in blankets in the darkest corner of his bedroom and didn’t emerge for three nights and three days. And refused to talk to anyone about what had happened.
It is quite true something happened by the river that night, because all of those who saw him running into the house as if possessed, his face drained of blood, thought he’d come eye to eye with the devil himself.
Other non-official versions abound in the family. 1) Some say it was down to the alcohol flowing at the wedding party, together with the first joint of hashish Mimoun ever smoked with his cousins, that gave him such a shock it transformed his face. 2) the most unofficial version of all is the one nobody ever recounts: the first-born son of the Driouchs was to enter fully the adult world by playing the part family members at his age got to play in such scenarios. If you bear in mind that grandmother’s brother had come up from the river just after Mimoun, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that, tired of assailing donkeys and hens, he’d taken advantage of the euphoria of the moment to find a more human cavity in which to slot his erect member. It wouldn’t have been at all unusual if he’d said, down a bit, Mimoun, I won’t hurt you, no, I won’t hurt you, keep still, just relax, just relax, that’s right, yes, that way it won’t hurt so much.
- A name young brothers and sisters use to address older ones as a sign of respect.