The shabbily starlit sky was of dark-blue attire. A cohort of illuminations made up, by proxy, for the somber celestial koubba of the White City.
From the fifth floor, thirty-five-year-old Maciva, who was still up in the dead of the night despite her tiredness, recorded passively the few uproars coming up from the nearby port. At her far right, the Memorial of Martyr, also feebly illumined for this March night, and at the top of which a red light served as a signal light for both boats and planes (who knows ?), seemed to guard the Algiers's sleeping dwellers--and squatters, for sure.
The Algiers Bay was alive of days' churned-out froth. Below this French-style building, two tortuous queues of parked cars zipped up the already miniature street, waiting for the traffic bottlenecks of morn.
Maciva, her brown hair winnowing in the night breeze and bare slim arms resting on the aluminum sill of the wide sliding window, glanced down at a line of poor palm trees, overwhelmed by quotidian emitted car gazes.
The feminine voice of Al Jazeera's newsreader, Algerian-born and trained Khadidja Benguenna, called on Maciva's suddenly awakened mind. A Palestinian is slain every one hour…At the pace of slaughter, these marooned people of the Middle East's most raped land, would one day go extinct like dinos. The shame would be tarbooshing the heads of docile onlookers of the Arab Umma. 'From the Ocean to the Gulf,' as unflagging, ageless Arab rulers would articulate, 'the condemnation is unanimous, stern and sustained!' Certainly like their compelling golden thrones! Always athirst for extending their years of unduly caliphate, they make sure that the only interchangeable piece of furniture next to their rooted thrones is a wooden coffin! Still, they perhaps dream of an afterlife remake of their turbid life!
Maciva was so absorbed in hammering away at the Arabian rulers' turpitudes, that she did not feel her barefoot son getting up from his bed and coming up to her so closely, just behind her waist. "Oh, my darling Yidir," she said, as she turned back, crouching to hug him tightly.
"I'm thirsty, mama," he whispered in her ears.
"Oh, my baby. Sorry." She stood up and fetched a glass of water. She cupped the glass and helped him drink about two-thirds of it. She gulped down the last third.
"Mama, I want to pee."
"Okay. Come with me."
When she bedded him down back in his bed, five-year-old Yidir urged his mother to narrate him a story before sleeping back. It was true that Maciva had been getting him used to every fallen night. His fragile head posed on the Pokemon-patterned pillow and the other part of his body covered by a yellow-striped eiderdown. He looked up at Maciva, alacritous to be fed with a fable.
She reached out her palm in slow motion for cosseting his plump cheeks. "Which story would you like to hear my pet?"
"Belajut!" he muttered, innocence in shroud.
"It's a long story. Don't you want to sleep, Yidir?" She bent her head a bit, their faces being just one inch from each other. "Once upon a time, lived a young man whose name was Belajut. He was orphan at the age of five. He had just a miserable red-tiled hut, passed on him by his defunct parents. In fact, his modest hut was divided into two parts. By the corner, a tiny part at the left of the wooden door provided an in-hut den for his only she-goat. Of course, piled-up ash logs made up a barrier from the other part of his hut, where he managed to make it a sound¾but not necessarily an inodorous¾living. His hut was situated at midway of the village he thought belonging to and the vale where a rivulet would just flow in winter and spring." She paused to let it sink in for her unique child.
And Yidir to ask, somnolence being hard to overcome him, "Did he go to school?"
Maciva smiled at him warmly. "Not at all! He lived in a time when there existed neither school nor electricity. His village was nested high in the green mountains. People lived on farming their lands and raising their tamed animals. Goat, sheep, hens, rabbits, cows and donkeys. Belajut had his own small land at the border of the rivulet. The land was comprised of, to be exact, three fig trees, one plum tree, one walnut tree, two pomegranate trees, one medlar tree, and two red cherry trees." She held his fingers in hers to count him that Belajut had had, in all, in his orchard ten fruit trees.
"He was surely happy to have ten trees, mama?"
"Yes, indeed. Besides, he cultivated vegetables. Then, he had goat milk, fruit and vegetables. For the time of his living it was quite complacent a possession. What encouraged Belajut to love and plow his land, was the abhorrent attitude of the villagers toward him. Belajut did not know the reason, but he promised himself,and his goat,to dig up the truth, sooner or later. The few times he would show up in the overlooking village, he felt his wool-clad back bitten by strange and fiend eyes. And Belajut was so shy that he dared not clash with the villagers. He just made his visits to the village less and less frequent. He only attended funerals. As to marriages, when the few people remembered to invite Belajut, he would always s excuse himself after congratulating the newly wed couple with a basketful of fruit and a jar of caprine milk."
"Had he got some friends?"
She wetted her lips before saying, "Unfortunately, no. His only friends were his goat and the birds pecking at the fruit of his orchard."
Yidir's countenance felt for the poor Belajut. "If I were living in his time, I'd have been a faithful friend to Belajut, played with his goat, and helped him taking care of his ten trees."
Pleased that her growing up child had such a sensitive heart, Maciva said, "I'm proud of you, Yidir. You're the last hope I'm holding to in my life. May God protect you, my dear son."
He straightened up to be folded by his mother's arms. The hug was strong and warm. Maciva's jet-black eyes started to well as some drops made their way down onto her cheeks, moistening slightly Yidir's white-T-shirted left shoulder. He felt secure against the bosom of his mother, not knowing the upset noesis of hers when at this very strong moment dormant chagrins got up tormenting her mind unremittingly.
Yidir pulled back as he realized that something had gone wrong with his endeared mother. "Mama, why are you weeping?" He extended his dwarf hand up under her eyelids, collecting with the tips of his cherubic fingers some drops of her tears.
"Am I crying, truely?" she just retorted, finding no other words to utter at his brusque question, ridden with sorriness.
"Someone hurt you, mama?"
"No. What are you talking about, sonny?"
"I'm a man now. I can combat anybody who dares harm you. Believe me."
Her smile followed her tears, and if her smile were compared to the sun's rays and her tears to the droplets of rain, Yidir could extraordinarily contemplate a facial rainbow of his mother!
"Now, you must sleep, sweet bunny. It's late for a child of your age. Okay?"
"It's a long fable as I told you. I promise you every night I'll narrate you a bit of it. I'm sorry, dear son. Tomorrow, I've a lot of work to do. And I've to wake up before seven."
He resignedly accepted to turn in. Maciva kissed him on his forehead, checked he was well covered, then switched off the light.
Maciva stretched alone in her double-bed. The darkness of her room made her feel comfortable. She disliked the intense light, be it natural or man-made. The light shone just to let her see the harsh moments she had been hauling, living, shoeing, wearing, espousing, kissing and licking. For her, darkness had virtues: not to see, and not to be seen. She had not studied philosophy at university, but she could easily make out the philosophy of her own life¾hard life. Wasn't it the bright daylight of August that brought her bad news of her sister, Tinhinan, who committed suicide without warning? Wasn't it, too, the moonlight of May that triggered off her abrupt divorce? 'You're divorced!' he had sentenced. Thrice. Maciva, found it funny¾and bitter¾that she had married him in May and got divorced from him five years later in the very same month. Fortunately, the irony of fate denied all-all accomplishment as the days mismatched. The two diametrically opposed days were nine days apart. In two months, it would have passed one year since her morale-defeating split. And nine months since her salt-rubbing wound of her sister's unscheduled, irreversible departure. Twin misfortunes, Maciva thought.
So, wound ought to be different in size, deepness and acuteness. Maciva admitted to herself that her sister's death was bigger, deeper and sharper than her divorce. She knew well that there would be no cure to the stigmata left, even though unsolicited, by her big sis, Tinhinan. Actually, Tinhinan was two years older than Maciva. Instead of offering a nosegay of daisies in the upcoming May's sixth anniversary of their wedding, and as the wind of divorce shifted the direction of pollen, Maciva would disconsolately lay a wreath for her dead sister on August. Mournful summer. She had been so shocked that she barely broke down. Buried beside her long-dead father, Tinhinan could find under what lacked her above: paternal tenderness. Maciva did not need to close her watery eyes to see back the gloomy miasma of that gloomier family day, come to delete a second member of her family nineteen years later. Why have you done this, Tinhinan? Did we need another monumental loss? Have you ever thought about our decades-long grieving mother? It was unfair from your side, dear Tinhinan. You were graduated in History, and now you constitute a harrowing History of our splayed, dismembered family.
Maciva could never recover from the unforeseen parting of Tinhinan on that broiling August. It was she who had discovered the inert body of black-robed Tinhinan; a lasso around her bluish neck, bulged eyes, bloodless face, sere and creviced lips, red-coral-embossed silver earrings, uncombed black hair, shoeless slender feet flailing half a meter above the wet floor of the bathroom. The scene of the horror had been unbearable, mind-paralyzing, and body-electrocuting, beyond screaming. Maciva's first reaction when she had finally come to was to dash on toward the kitchen. She had been in a pother fishing for the damn knife. Climbing on the chair Tinhinan had used to stage suicide, Maciva cut like a mad, all sobbing, the damn beige rope which was hanging down from the ceiling. She had almost tumbled down from the chair as she held the relatively heavy cadaver of Tinhinan ¾do corpses gain weight? She loosened the loop, slammed Tinhinan's cheeks for a desperate resuscitation, ear-probed her chest for a more desperate, beatless, shut-down cherished heart…
At this woeful sequence, Maciva stopped living back the familial calamity of that second Monday of damn August. She turned on her belly, slithering her right cheek from one extremity of the pillow to the other, always in the dimness. She would, since her sister's great loss, experience nightmares before sealing off the eyelids. It was very difficult for Maciva to surmount two three-month interspaced mishaps. Destiny had not pampered her. Not at all. Work in Algiers compelled her to live away from her diabetic mother, shacking in the high mountains. Many times Maciva had tried to convince her mother to come stay with them (she and Tinhinan), then with her, a grass widow living in a heart-rending Algerian society, deeply metamorphosed by scuzzy terrorism and crawling pauperism, while the oil barrel had been crescendoing over one hundred wings.
Her ex-husband became, as the months crept by, sheer anathema to her the seldom moments he deigned popping up to see their child, Yidir. Hocine's leman might be strict! His compendious verdict of that damn night of mid-May was still piercing her spirit like disintegrating nails of different sizes. How after five harmonious years of marital life he made up his mind parting with her? Though she recognized that her ex had been a good divorcer. In record time, he had left her this apartment situated in the heart of Algiers, paid the due divorce costs, then went his way, lithe that his pettifogger got him things done hastily, neatly and efficiently. His rank, Maciva full knew, alas, permitted him to act up so. Who can deter him not to ? Her widowed mother? Her gone sister? If Maciva could just find out the reason of his bold decision. She would dedicate the remaining years of her lifespan to unearth the rationale, if any, of her divorce as well as of her sister's sudden death. It would not be a walk in the park, she owned to herself, before she melted into a sound sleep in the dark.
The saddest days for Mr. Adrim had always been the ones he should remunerate his employees. Parting with his money would flummox his mind every first day of each newborn month. That is to say, he would undergo, eyes widely opened, a nightmare as the last day of each month reminded him of the salaries he must dole out on his workers the following day. Twelve days per annum Mr. Adrim wished erased from his calendar. The night prior payment he would mourn the bucks he had so loved and locked up in his secret strongbox in his three-storey, red-tiled villa. To pay or not to pay, that was Mr. Adrim's two-horned dilemma; paying made him blighted and angry, not paying, a thing he had never tempted to do, would tag him of sweat-sucker. How else should he do? He imagined the fortune he had heaved dwindling and spilling away the day he handed out the damn salaries.
Mr. Adrim owned a big clothes shop in Algiers, a bar-restaurant in Tizi Ouzou, an army of buses shuttling between the capital and the main Algerian cities, and a flour-milling industry in westernmost Algeria. This was just the very tip of the iceberg. Paying over one hundred workers made him look like a transient
lycanthrope on the verge of biting till blood oozed out of its victims. He could not help sweating over the origin of his penuriousness. Early days of his orphanage at the age of seven? His father died in a rainy, dark night of the last set of the Algerian War, fallen with honors, a smoking gun in his shattered hands and bloodied chest. His mother had told him that his father had been scraping over impending post-Independence days with his so-called companions of combat.
Even though he could afford a dozen of accountants, Mr. Adrim had never considered placing confidence, when it comes to money, on dodgy accountants. It was like, he repeatedly amused himself, implying rats in siloing cereals for the hard, dreary times of famine!
He whistled a few seconds, and then sank down in his big swivel leatherette chair, buzzing in the intercom for the entry of the first employee in his luxurious bureau, testament to his being a son of a glorious 1954 martyr.
The wide French door swung open, and his secretary, Sonia, led the way of the first worker into the office. Smiled at her chief, and closed the door behind her.
"Sit down, Maciva" Mr. Adrim said, stroking his silver mustachio which propped his heavy nose.
"Thanks, sir," she said with a low voice.
"Sonia told me you were divorced two weeks ago."
"It's hard to bring up a child in such a situation."
She looked down at her brown-skirted lap, then acknowledged, "Difficult but not impossible, as long as I work hard, sir."
"Sure." Going down to his business, he asked: "How's work in the shop doing? Are grungy masses getting themselves new clothes?"
"Not really, I'd say. They would rather purchase second-hand vestments."
"With all those Chinese cheap whatsit, I forecast bad days for selling out our stylish clothes. They've been flooding our market, and nobody is feeling disturbed. I hate those yellow-skinned sports spoils. They've invaded us!"
Maciva dare not gainsay her bigwig's vitriols against Chinese fripperies. It was none of her business. But his. All she was concerned about was gaining clean money, enough to sustain her only child.
Uncopacetic, Mr. Adrim told her, "Do you really think that we'd be better off swapping stylish clothes for second-class ones?" He reached for his golden case and took out a cigarette. Lit it with a lighter, featuring Eiffel Tower. A plume of smoke swept upward, past his hazy round face and his small foxy coal eyes. He did not mind if smoke displeased her. After all, it was he who called the shots, that is, the Big Boss.
"Well," Maciva spoke up, directing rather her eyes on the fag-laden square ashtray than on his gauzy visage of mid-fifties, "the ideal would be to halve the shop: a part for classy clothes, the other for second-class stuff. The last word, of course, is yours."
Mr. Adrim put down his half-consumed ciggie on the notch of the ashtray and said, "Why not? Though I've a better idea! I'll simply open another second-class shop for the unstylish rabble!"
"Good," she said
"I can afford everything I want," the toff strutted out.
Maciva nodded, wordless. This grey-suited man can buy off everything he sees, she thought. Like her ex-husband.
Mr. Adrim gave her a sealed white envelope, saying, "That's your last month's wage." He felt as if his family jewels were being cut off.
Strolling down Didouche Mourad Boulevard (former Rue Michelet), swarming and babbling as ever, Maciva wondered how much money her employer had slotted in the envelope. She admitted to herself, while digging it in her handbag, that it was heavier than the last month's. No sense! she thought. Maybe, he has just inserted two-hundred-dinar bills in lieu of one-thousand-dinar ones; that's all. What a closefisted man! His being in clover makes him think that paid wages are dooming his wealth. Hasn't he figured out that paid salaries represent just a teeny-weeny fraction of his increasing money, which we, poor workers, are contributing to role up? Mr. Adrim is in need of a psychologist. How many seeds of his kind of greed are there in all over the country? The world?
With all these worries and Adriman puzzles, Maciva arrived at the front of the shop she had been working in. The overhead luminous sign read ADRIM EXCELLENCE, the eponymous name he had chosen for his posh shop. She pushed the thick-glassed door, and stepped inside, smiling.
"Hello, Maciva. Dough makes you smile?" Anita, in her V-necked knee-length azalea dress, joked behind the cash-drawer.
The three other colleagues,all women, of hers were busy with the few customers eye-licking the elegant French-designed clothes. They patted the fabric, the buttons, the snaps, the cuffs, the collars,zipped up and unzipped jackets, even tried on clothes they had never intended to buy. Most of them would lie that they had come to probe prices, promising priming up for good next time, till the ravens get white, to put it this way. Actually, many people took shops for museums, just worth visiting and eye-sighting and touching. Surely not the kind of folks Monsieur Adrim had chipped in money for. He would go bonkers if he met them every time he paid a visit to his fashionable shop.
"Chicken feed, dear Anita. I guess he has subtracted the time I spent in his office up there getting his smoke passed on to me!"
Anita said to Maciva, "Better than nothing. Think of loafers outside. At least we aren't asking our dads buying us Always!"
Amel, wearing a floral mock wrap dress, paced closer to them along with a woman holding a plastic-coated caftan skirt. She cheek-kissed Maciva. "How's your son?"
"Good. Growing up like all other children," Maciva replied, unconvincingly. Fathered nippers are certainly not the same as unfathered ones, she thought, convincingly this time. "You're elegant today," she said, switching subjects intentionally.
"Oh, thanks. You, too."
"Don't offend me, girl! You're still in your twenties. When you'll hit thirties, you'll see it by yourself!"
Anita said to Amel, "Please, get back to your task. Mr. Adrim hates gathering for chat at work, you know this." Anita was the shop's chief, after all.
The lavish spacious shop was divided into three distinct roomy marbled and glassed areas. One part displayed women's wears, taken care of by Amel. The second part featured men's clothes, which was handled by Feriel. The third part was dedicated to the vestments of children, where Maciva and Bahia were operating.
The time was ten in the morning. April, the first. Nobody could explain why Mr. Adrim paid them on different days, though consecutive, of each nascent month.
"Tomorrow is your day, Bahia," Maciva said.
Bahia had a three-piece blue skirt on. "You said it! The day I realize I work for nothing! Badly paid in a stylish shop! A paradox?"
"Have we another choice? Oil is costly, we're cheaper!"
"The equation smartest mathematicians could never solve. People coming in here think the luxurious clothes we wear are ours!"
Patting Bahia's shoulder, Maciva said laughingly, "We just own our undies! Not more."
Maciva excused herself, backed out of the Children's Clothes, and waisted her way toward Feriel.
Standing between the racks of suits and jackets, which were set lengthwise with hangers on the running boards, Feriel, who togged herself in green-silked long robe and having a well-applied make-up on, in assortment with her stylishly combed blonde hair, was twenty-two years old. "Hello, Maciva," she said as she hugged her tightly.
Maciva stepped back. "How can I thank you? I'm grateful to you. That was kind of you." She opened her handbag and produced five thousand dinars and gave them to Feriel. "Here's the money you've lent me. Thank you so much again."
Green-eyed Feriel held Maciva's chin. "If you need it for more time, take it back. I know a divorcee's life isn't a play. Me, I'm single. I don't need so much money. By the way, how's your Yidir? "
Emotional Maciva said, "He's fine for the moment, though he always asks for his dad. I'm compelled to feed him with fibs. Like: 'He works in the South.' Yidir isn't conscious of the divorce. He's only five. "
"I'm so sorry, Maciva. Last year must have been the cruelest for you. Your sister's suicide¾"
"These last eight months, I didn't stop thinking about her. Poor Tinhinan. She was all booming, industrious, life-loving, till that black day…" Maciva burst out into tears.
Feriel gave her a paper handkerchief. "Please, Maciva. Not now. What happened was part of destiny. Get out of your past. For Yidir's sake. "
"Not before knowing the whole truth about her suicide. I promised her on grave to unearth the story behind her death. Perhaps I was partly guilty--"
"Don't be so self-tormenting," Feriel cut in. "My sister, Imene, told me Tinhinan had created a foundation, hadn't she?"
Startled Maciva said, "How do you know about that?"
Feriel whispered to her, "My sister's an active member!"
"In fact, seldom did late Tinhinan talk me about the foundation in question. I knew it dealt with our History. A detail: two months after its creation, Tinhinan committed suicide. I know nothing about its members. Perhaps I'll have clues about Tinhinan's suicide motive if I speak to them, one by one. Your sister to start with. Can you help me have a word with her."
"Naturally. Whenever you'd like to," Feriel assured her.
The kindergarten Tufula was alive with children, waiting their parents every afternoon at sixteen-thirty. An apiarian atmosphere, short of honey. Mostly, children whose mothers worked outdoors, but also housewives' progeny, willing to readying them to school days. Maciva showed up ten minutes later. She found Yidir in a group of six, talking and gesturing. At three yards away, she called him. He immediately turned back, and rushed toward her. "My grand baby! What were you telling them? "
"Belajut's story," he innocently replied, warm in his mother's arms, folded around his schoolbagged back.
"Oh, you're clever enough to remember it well. Tonight, I'll narrate you a bit of it. I promise you, dear son. "
Yidir smiled, dreaming from now on of the Belajut's coming chapters.
Maciva held his small frail hand, walking him away.
The spring's rays still half-flooded the congested sidewalks, People enclothed signs of exhaustion, shoed stress and hatted monotony. Days strode by, resembling each other for the people of the street. Prices went off and salaries panted to catch up.
As a matter of fact, a third of Maciva's salary served to reimburse her debt. When money hits one's pocket once in a great while, dropping in on a butcher's is somewhat apropos. Shopping for some meat is set as a meat-o-meter for Algerians' lifestyle! 'Tell me how much meat you eat, I'll tell you to which social class you belong.'
Maciva bought two kilos of beef meat, vegetables and three kinds of fruit: apples, bananas and strawberries. As to Yidir, she would tog him during the week-end.
After dinner and dishwashing, Yidir urged his mother to meet her promise of evening. "Now, time to narrate me Belajut!"
Maciva was fumbling in her bedroom's credenza's drawers. "Wait a minute. It's a bit early, anyway. " Actually, she had hidden her money in a safe drawer.
Later on, Yidir put his head on his mother's lap. She stroked his hair as she narrated on. "One summer day, Belajut got up early. It was the day he decided to pick up the whole figs for swapping them with other goods in the weekly suq. No sooner had he put his feet in the orchard, as his only goat trotted on behind, than he climbed up the biggest fig tree of the three. His granddad had planted it sixty years earlier. Plump big figs made Belajut so merry that he began to sing with his utmost voice: 'Belajut's tree is full of sweet figs.' He kept on repeating this dozens of times. The goat grazed on, indifferently. An uphill thick forest was in fact looming over his orchard, the gurgling river flowing between them. Rumors in the village, spread over back-to-back generations under the vault of folktales, went that there existed a Fay, living in that forest. They gave her the name of Teryel. Of course, the few times Belajut had a word with villagers, the subject didn't give him a damn of interest, nor did he believe in such fairy tales! " Maciva paused.
Yidir looked up at her. "Was Teryel a bad woman?"
"Well, actually, Teryel wasn't a woman. She had such powers that she could transform into a man, or animals. "
"A magic creature, then?"
"You can say that."
"Go on, mama!"
"Aren't you afraid of the following episodes, Yidir?"
Maciva breathed in deeply. "Belajut was then crying out, perched on his fig tree. His cries echoed back by the silent dark forest on that silent morning. At this very moment, an old woman crossed the shallow river, a big sack behind her arched back. Belajut didn't see her coming in, closer to his orchard. With her pitiful voice, she begged for some figs. " Maciva paused again.
"Then?" impatient Yidir wondered.
"Now, it's sleep time. Tomorrow, you'll know the following chapter. "
Yidir grunted. And yawned.
Imene lived in Belouizdad (formerly Belcourt), Algiers. Belcourt had once been Albert Camus's refugium over which is located the cave of sixteenth-century famous writer Miguel de Cervantes, who having been enslaved by Algerian corsairs in 1575, had spent five years inside it before he was freed. Her sixth-floor seafront apartment belonged to her husband, Yunes. It was the fourth year of their marriage. Still, no child in the womb. Chores of home bored her as the emptiness of flying days overcame her unmet hopes. However, today there would be some change. Feriel, her sister, would be coming along with Maciva. Imene had not seen her before, but she guessed to welcome a Tinhinan lookalike.
Around ten in the morning, the expected guests belled at the door. Imene covered hastily her head, by reflex, with a makeshift charmeuse, and then paced to open the door but not before checking at the peephole. She saw two women and a child. Heard some chat.
She opened the door.
Feriel, Maciva and Yidir walked in the calm apartment. Indoors, heartfelt hugs followed. Feriel and Imene, first. Imene and Maciva, second. And Yidir, last.
Yunes's Friday oversleep came to an end in the bedroom as feminine voices reached him. Of course, he knew well of the visit of his sister-in-law and Maciva. When Imene had informed him two days before, he showed gratified comprehension on the grounds of Maciva's throes. He now switched on the television, stretched out under the crumpled sheets which sent off the aftermaths of last night's lovemaking.
So, in the living-room the merriment set in. Imene, scarfless now, provided her three houseguests with coffee, milk and plenty of homemade pastries. "I hope you're feeling comfortable," she said, taking care of Yidir, first.
"It's kind of you," Maciva said.
Feriel told Maciva, "We've done nothing special. Feel at home in here."
"Sure. Thanks for you two."
Yidir drank his milk with pastries timidly, not paying so much attention to the discussion of the three womenfolk.
Imene held Maciva's hands and said, with all her heart, "Maciva. I don't know how to tell you the sorrow I've been hauling since Tinhinan's sudden departure. What's more, I could never forgive myself missing her burial¾"
"Oh, never mind. It wasn't your mistake," Maciva cut in, wet-eyed.
"I know it's not easy to pull through from what happened to you. Yet, life must go on." Imene paused, caught the eye of Feriel who shortly afterwards walked Yidir to the balcony for some fresh sea-breeze.
Maciva did not know from which angle she would take on the matter of her visit. Or enquiry? Proceed by asking basic questions, she thought. "How did you know Tinhinan?"
"We studied together at the University of Algiers. History. I acknowledge Tinhinan's smartness."
"Yes, she stuck to her studies," Maciva avowed. "She was always digging for more knowledge. Bibliophilic, I'd say."
Imene added: "God knows how many hours she had spent at university's library. She drew forth great admiration from former graduation mates."
Maciva weighed up Imene's meritorious responses for a while, with a mouthful of moderately sugared coffee, and a maqruta as well. Since her divorce, she lost interest in cooking home pastries. Pastries go well with marital life not with divorcee's, she used to think. "Do you happen to know the reason of Tinhinan's suicide, Imene?"
Imene swallowed her saliva at the outspoken question. "No. I'm just wondering as you. Poor Tinhinan. She was a candle of too-rare wax."
"The last time you met her?" Maciva needled.
"A couple of weeks before her death. Last days of July," Imene replied, thinking she had wriggled out of the subtle inquest.
But Maciva charged. "What about the foundation, of which you're a founder-member, Tinhinan had created?"
The disconcertment of Imene grew sultrier. "Oh, it was just a non-profit, voluntary organization, leaguing former History grads, not more."
"Is the foundation still in activity?" insightful Maciva bespoke.
"We'd meet sporadically since Tinhinan's departure."
"Who's running the foundation now?"
Imene tried to keep a stiff upper lip. "Suad. She lives in Oran."
"Do you think there's a link between the foundation's goals and my sister's enigmatic death?"
Stuporous Imene bit her underlip. "Maciva, are you talking seriously?"
"Yes, I really am. Tinhinan wasn't a psychopathic, you know. Do you find it's just sheer coincidence that her suicide occurred two months after the foundation's creation? Come on, Imene!"
"Please, Maciva! Her death hurt me too. At times, I ask myself if it's realty we live in or nightmares we're enshrouded with. Do you believe in destiny?"
Maciva stared up at a painting featuring the Bay of Algiers, devoid of boats, foamless waves rolling towards the shoreline which was crammed with giant crabs and scorpions. Surrealistic, she guessed. "I believe in the relativity of destiny. It's like dough; certainly, we're not responsible of the amount we're given to kneading, but we're responsible for the shape we give it!"
Half-smiling Imene said, "You and Tinhinan share the same philosophic view. Inheritance does a good job."
"Yet, I'm against suicide," Maciva pointed out. "Algerian people committing suicide are on the rise. A social headache, no?"
"Islam forbids killing oneself. Sorry to say, people are in one side of the river, and Islam being in the other side. No reason can account for the suicide."
The hour ticked eleven-fifty-two. Yunes finally rolled out of bed, groggy in his white underpants. The guests made him confine in the bedroom for circa two hours, during which he jumped slothfully from one channel to another. When he heard the doorway's slam, synonymous of goodbye, he felt relieved, saved and freed. He put on his scuffs, advanced toward the window, pulled back the plum curtains to let spring's rays bleed through, and glimpsed at the near glowing sea.
Imene came in. They kissed.
"Your breakfast awaits you, darling," she told him, still feeling lustfully the arms of her husband around her hips.
"I've to take a bath, first. Friday's prayer is one hour away. "
"The bathroom ran out of water. You've to do it in public showers."
Yunes looked exasperated, freed his hands. "Even in Friday, they let us without water. Unbelievable. Will come the day when they'll cut off oxygen. "
Caring Imene said, cattily, "Don't worry, dear. I'll breathe air into your lungs!"
The Act II came off with heat, doggy-style, till climactic come, seven minutes later.
"Oh, time's flying," Yunes said, all satiated.
Imene helped him prepare bath paraphernalia. The time being, Yunes changed his clothes.
"By the way," he talked from the wardrobe, "what's the motive of Maciva's visit?"
Stuffing Pentene shampoo and towel in the bag, she replied, "She thought I knew the actual reason of her sister's last year's suicide."
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing, Imene. Drop it."
"Tinhinan did what she judged the ultimate choice for her. I'm also trying to unlock the mystery of her death. "
"What's for, dear? Dead heads aren't going to come back, anyway."
"Tinhinan's loss is an open wound for Maciva. Occurred shortly after her harsh divorce. Two mishaps, you see. "
"That's life. We'll discuss that further later, dear. I'm too late now."
Imene fell silent, while sperm cells were still swimming up to her desperate ovary.
Maciva celled her mother at one p.m. Having lunched out, she felt free to deserve an intermission of cooking at least on Fridays. As for Yidir, she had him take a siesta. His moderate snores broke the apartment's stillness. He might have contracted tonsillitis, she was afraid.
A male voice responded on the other line. It was her only brother, older than she by three years. He was serving now as a municipal militiaman,blue-uniformed and Simonov-armed for the majority, a corps created during President Liamine Zeroual's term in the 1990s to help other established security forces eradicate ever-regenerating terrorism. "Hello, my dear sister," he said.
It had been just ten days since she had called home. Tears were unavoidable, though they could not be seen by her brother. "How are you, Jamel?"
"Fine, Maciva. And Yidir? "
"He's fine, too. He's napping right now. "
"We miss you. Most our mother. "
"Pass her to me. I can't tell you, my dear brother, how I'm feeling a stranger in Algiers. Work doesn't allow me to rejoin my home of birth. " Maciva heard a shush.
The voice was deep-throated. "Good afternoon, my dear daughter. I miss you too much. How's my dear grandson, Yidir, the handsome? "
Tears swelled on Maciva's cheekbones. "Mother, I miss you to a high degree. Don't exert yourself too much. Take rest now. Your health is more important than farming chores. Jamel works. I work. We both give you enough money to live on. "
"Oh, dear Maciva. I'm used to plowing and sowing my small land. I can't let it down for any reason. It's not a matter of money. I feel healthier working in the field than being imprisoned at home. "
"You know, mother,Yidir is fond of Belajut's tale. The very tale you would tell us when we were little girls, me and Tinhinan. They were old good days, mother."
A short silence set in on the distance. Her mother was weeping a bit. Tinhinan's remembrance brought out wounds that would never heal over the time. Too many interwoven things recalled them of the blackest day of all their life.
Jamel looked down, piteous. Living one hundred and fifty kilometers apart, like two cut-off branches having originally the same deep root, the family members shared the unwritten heritage of Tinhinan's loss. No comeback. Just heart-bleeding flashbacks carved on the surrounding Djurdjura Mountains.
Between times, Maciva asked herself in the folds of nights, how her mother could bear plowing the soil, which half a kilometer away down their pastoral house ate, bit by bit, Tinhinan's cherubic body. The paradox of soil, that is, which allows seeds to germinate and bodies to terminate, worms to move earth and bodies to be removed from above world, roots to sustain life above and bodies to sow the seeds of sorrow among alive relatives above.
"Don't you need anything?"
"Mother! I'm okay. My work meets my needs. All I hope is, seeing you all again as soon as possible. "
Maciva could not levee the overflowing tears. "Mother, next week-end I'll try to convince my employer to give me a leave of three or four days."
"Anyway, my dear daughter, don't worry about that. I've enough forbearance for all life's trials. "
"Sure, mother. Take care of yourself. May God keep you for us, mother. You're our last perfume of the family "
And her mother repeated the same words to her only living daughter.
The old women wore a large, hand-woven wool robe; the very rustic, traditional apparel common in the far past. Her head was covered with a scarf, cuffs of which were hand-decorated by multicolored trimmings. The visible hair above her forehead was tinged henna. Her face was heavily wrinkled, nose thick, eyes a downsized of cow's, and thick hennaed lips. Her bosom dangled down like two olden flesh watermelons. Her feet were bare and dyed also with henna. She slid her sack down her back onto land at three yards of the fig's trunk. With a miserable voice she said from down, "Oh, kind young man, I'm a poor old woman living alone in one of those villages located on the other side of the mountains. Could you, kind young man, feed me with two or three figs of yours? "
Belajut felt pity for her. Looking down at her made him sense strange things in his guts. "Help yourself, Yemma Jida."
The old woman uplifted her tattooed chin and said, "I'm aged as you see, kind young man. How can I climb up such a big tree of yours! "
"Then, I'll throw you down a dozen of figs," Belajut offered from the heavens.
"My sight is very weak. I'd spend hours before finding them on the ground. "
Mounting adrenalin had not inhibited Belajut's drolleries. "I'll toss them down on your head, Yemma Jida!"
"Oh, kind young man, I'd prefer taking them from your generous hands."
Belajut made his way down the fig tree, laden with fresh figs for Yemma Jida.
Sinjoro Adrim had already swigged two glasses of bourbon, following a plenteous dinner: French salad for hors d'oeuvre, then lobster, filet mignon and grilled chicken, finishing off with fruit brochettes as dessert. He felt in his stomach hot lava dowsing the eaten meal.
The bar was full of boozers, who rushed in to drown their days' blahs in a drink or two, secure in the dimness and anonymousness of the coveted place. The word 'prohibition' had never ventured to trespass the thresholds of the bar's doorway. The anonymousness was such that none of the clients knew that Bay Adrim, in his usual gray suit and striped tie, sitting in the bar's restaurant, self-complacent and glad of his bonanza, was the actual patron of the bar-restaurant. He would grin at a habitué and a newcomer alike. You drink like fish, I strip you of money like a shark, he would amuse himself as thinking.
At nine-two p.m., Herr Adrim's right-hand man, Aziz, came in and shouldered his way to Signor Adrim's table. The sweat blotched the white shirt of Aziz, haloing by the armpits. "Good evening, Mr. Adrim. Sorry for my being late. Have you warned
me of your visit, I'd have come earlier to welcome you."
"Sit down, Aziz. That's not important. I decided to show up at the last minute, fleeing the boring capital." Indeed, he had made almost a two-hour drive aboard his black Mercedes, arriving shortly after sunset.
Aziz was a round-faced, dark-eyed, thick-lipped, flat-nosed man of forty-one. He had neither mustache nor beard. Mr. Adrim had chosen him to steer his bar-restaurant in the early days of its launch. For seven years now.
The restaurant offered well-carved cavelike walls. At the heart of the restaurant, a miniature countrified fountain played gurglingly, around which were set fifty-four tables.
Pan Adrim's table was beside the aquarium. "Have a drink, Aziz?"
"I stopped drinking alcohol, Mr. Adrim," Aziz conceded, with hesitation, but the bullet was fired out.
Señor Adrim widened his small eyes in astonishment. "Aren't you blitzed, Aziz? You, the champion of booze! Do you want to go back to milk days, or what? Anyway, I'm not an imam!"
Aziz veered off his gaze toward the two red fish, lost in their fake little world. "My twelve-year-old son, Krim," he explained, "told me one night that he would be proud if I gave up drinking alcohol." Aziz focused now his gaze on his boss. "He told me he was fed up with a fridge overstuffed with booze, leaving no place to put a yogurt in."
"Buy yourself another fridge, dear Aziz! Easy, no?" Sir Adrim poured some fun in the air.
"My first glass of wine was at the age of sixteen," Aziz remembered. "Twenty-five years. A quarter of a century under the influence of alcohol is enough, I think. Isn't it?"
"Well, it's your own life. Matters my business you're running in here. I hope you've still enough vim to carry on booze things?"
"Sure, Mr. Adrim. Free-alcohol life would clear my thoughts better."
"Good, Aziz! I'd like to expand my business in the area. A luxurious nightclub. What do you think about that?"
Aziz thought it over. "Where do you want it settled, Mr. Adrim?"
"Outside the town. I'll just bring in whores and you'll see it yourself that it'll be very profitable. People are so obsessed that the future nightclub will never clear out! Believe me in my words."
"And what about the legal authorization?"
Senhor Adrim's lips drew a smirking smile. "Wait, wait, guy! Money's the master of all tricky strings of business in this shit land. With money I could make a river of wine flow through this town. I tell you something, Aziz: you'll see that the asses of authorities will be the most regular rounds showing up in my nightclub! They've inspiration for enforcement of laws in such holes of pleasure!"
Aziz realized, not without fears, the madness of his honcho.
Hundreds of kilometers to the west.
By nights, the truck trailers are the lords of roads. Almost free of small vehicles, the semitrailers roll on the asphalt like hell. Drivers of cars would dub them 'ghouls of roads.' And the drivers of semis would retort by tagging their foes of 'bugs of roads.' The contest of words ties, then. Not so. The clashes of roads by daytime lead to incredible accidents. And always a semi is involved in an accident. No wonder that Algeria ranks in the top-ten of countries having the most calamitous road accidents.
Fifty-three-year old Kaddur drove on his loaded semi confidently. He had started off from westernmost Maghnia, Tlemcen, at eight p.m. The Renault 14-wheeler had already crunched sixty-nine kilometers. Headlights washed black serpentine road with yellow lights. Queues of trees lit up through the dark hole of night. Kaddur tuned in to Tangier-based Medi 1. He enjoyed the cocktail of music offered this night. The peregrination to Blida would be long, back-aching and eye-straining, although Kaddur had done the same trail a hundred of times. He so knew the roads that he felt capable of steering the wheel blind-eyed. He knew well the military checkpoints studding along the road. And, naturally, all the holes in the tar which were innumerable, some looking like impacts of mild asteroids. The pimples of roads, Kaddur called them, recalling us our Third World black holes.
Kaddur slowed down the truck trailer to light the sixth Winston cigarette since Maghnia. He could remember the first gasper of his life during the fiesta of Independence Day, July 5th, 1962, when he was eleven. Despite that in the evening his father spanked him and twisted his ears as he smelled out his son's smoke breath, Kaddur carried on smoking on the sly the time he grew up. And forty-two years of smoking all kinds of cigarettes had yet to sicken his lungs, making sport of the doctor's warnings to give up smoking in hope of fending off lung cancer. Nicotine-addicted till death, Kaddur spoke to his wheel.
At one checkpoint, a mustached gendarme ordered him by his hand to pull over. The huge tires shrieked indignantly on the dark dust and pebbles. Kaddur put on the cabin's ceiling lamp and rolled down the window, feigning a prior-bribe smile.
The olive-drab-uniformed gendarme, at one yard from the driver's window, raised his hand to his cap in salute. "Good evening, sheikh."
A sheer flattery, Kaddur read through the gendarme's mind. "Good evening, officer!"
"Your papers, please."
Kaddur unbelted, and then fumbled for them above his head. Bundled in a plastic pocket, he handed them out.
The gendarme checked the driver's license, truck's insurance and registration papers. He looked up at the driver. "Which kind of goods are you transporting?"
"Sacks of semolina," Kaddur replied, serious.
"Where do you truck them from?"
"Have you an invoice of goods?" the gendarme asked, thinking pinning him down.
Kaddur produced it from his front shirt pocket, in surprise to mark his victory.
The gendarme scrutinized it. "Going to Blida, then?"
"Mind you if I look at your wares?"
Shit, Kaddur whispered to himself. "Of course! You know your duties. " He opened the door, slammed it shut, and slumped out. He felt his feet slightly numb. The gendarme followed his paces, cautiously.
Kaddur swung up his left foot on one of the outermost left rear tires, popped the other foot as his hands reached up for the side of the truck trailer. He peeled off the green vinyl tarp.
The gendarme flooded the load with his torch's intense light. What he could see were nylon sacks of semolina. "Okay, come down, sheikh," he shouted.
"Is it okay?" an unmustached colleague of the gendarme called out from the distance, worried.
"Yeah," he muttered, walking toward his colleague.
"Do you think police dogs are needed?" the gendarme's mate asked.
Kaddur, tidying up the cover back to its place, could sniff out the gist of the discussion between the two gendarmes. Damn it, he thought. Do they suspect anything? I must keep my head, anyway. It's the umpteenth time I do this job. And aren't cuckoo cops going to dismantle the whole scheme. Kaddur's thoughts swirled in the dark, waiting the green light of the boring gendarmes to drive off.
The two gendarmes discussed for five minutes, whereas their other colleagues checked the other pulled-over automobiles. The engines alternated between mandatory shut-downs and liberating re-ignitions. Controlling vehicles is for the most part meant for three categories: terrorists, drug-dealers, and smugglers. As to terrorists, checkpoints are used much as deterrent actions than nets. For drug-dealers, their most dangerous business goes bad when an element is snatched, leading generally to the dismantlement of the whole crime-organization. As for contrabandists, the winds should not always be on their side; a hit-or-miss business.
Kaddur began to lose his patience, translated by the two cigarettes he puffed in five minutes. His papers were still in the gendarme's grasp.
The checkpoint's chief, a sergeant, with a walkie-talkie in his hands, now shook his black combat boots and walked toward his subordinates. "What's happening, guys?" he asked.
The first gendarme who had checked Kaddur talked. "The semitrailer's driver over there declares having sacks of semolina shipped from Maghnia, heading to Blida. Thing we're doubtful of."
The sergeant sized up the dark silhouette of Kaddur from the distance and said, "Maybe right. Semolina from a frontier town? It's a fishy story, guys." He took the papers and ran checks on them. "The authenticity of the papers must be scanned. Meanwhile," he ordered to the unmustached gendarme, "make him understand that we're obliged to delay him."
The uniformed man strode to Kaddur.
The sergeant radioed the central unit for police dogs, urgently. "I think, we got hands on a big cargo of drugs," he transmitted, lowering his voice as saying.
The unmustached gendarme said to Kaddur when he got closer to him, "We're sorry to make you wait longer, sheikh."
Kaddur did not make much of it. "What for, officer?"
"I've wares to deliver, you know. I certainly don't want to spend the whole night on the roads," Kaddur allowed himself to speak out. Now he lit another cigarette, drew it as a pipe of ire.
By way of rising wind, the smoke whiffed the face of the gendarme. The latter ignored the unintentional smoke offense. He was himself a smoker, just reticent to beg for a gratis drag.
Reading through the uniform of the gendarme, Kaddur offered him a cigarette, even lit it to him between his lips. Every kind gesture would be of help. Kaddur was all but a greenhorn. Roads drilled him scads of hands-on things. That was how he believed all roads led to wherever he desired to. One should have in mind, Kaddur's experience taught him, twenty-six plans, from A to Z. And the offer of a ciggie was classed plan A.
But when the police dogs rolled up in a green van twenty-three minutes later, Kaddur chewed over the befitting plan to get out of the trap. The most extreme and perilous plan Z was also being considered: flying the coop…