THE LAST OLIVE TREE
Short Story by: donkylemore
From the mountain the rolling dusty hills rippled under the dappled light all the way to the coast. Here deep against the slopes the village was perched like an eagle landed furtive, timorous
The moods of the changing seasons seemed to mirror those of the villagers – from the stolid and wistful in winter yielding to a jauntiness in spring followed by the languor under the torpid summer sun; Now it was autumn and the fruit hung heavily on the olive trees, the tobacco leaves a vivid yellow in the slanting sunlight.
. The people had been invaded conquered, oppressed in turn by the Greeks, then the Romans. Each had tried to impose with an implacable force the ideals of their empires; their justice and law, their art and their culture Both had failed and had at length abandoned their missions; they deemed these people indolent and unworthy. But these people were of an older race; The Phoenicians whose own creed was as ancient as it was resolute.
Bountiful harvest following on a good blessing, justice following on wisdom rather than mercy. Their most prayer invoked a belief that one day’s justice was worth a thousand days prayer. But despite their prayer both peace and justice had long eluded them; yet they were resilient and accepted their fate with a resignation and fortitude which the cynic saw as surrender, but the which wise as an expression of nobility.
Abdul Hassan Nabbi was among them He was a lowbred thug from the other side of the mountain; He had fled to the south when the Israelis first bombed the mountain villages. There he was recruited in to the Israeli backed militia, and now he controlled the region with his band of craven vagabonds. Because of the ill-defined ambiguous nature of their mandate the UN forces were powerless to restrain them. Nabbi exploited every opportunity of this ambiguity and was thus inured from restraint.
He had pillaged the villages as he choose. Taken a young boy here, a girl there; had taken anything of any value from each home. Sometimes the captives were returned when they failed to amuse him any more. But some rather that face the shame on return had taken their own lives.
Since their young men had fled to the north and only the elderly and the very young remained Nabbi had humiliated and terrorised the mountain people with impunity. Each evening after prayer he came to the village square in a convoy of battered Mercedes cars. He would alight from his car with a pretentious splendour. He was dressed in the uniform of Colonel and carried a swagger stick with a silver cap as he strutted among the frozen people emerging from the mosque. He would sit in regal court in the village square and speak to them in hectoring tones about the young men who had fled, how the UN soldiers had to dig the graves, which now awaited each of them. Some of the villagers would approach him and plead his mercy for a son, a daughter.
Nabbis militia had taken control of the bridge leading to the coast and he was accruing a substantial income from the taxes he imposed on the trucks carrying the tobacco to Tyre. But just yesterday the Un had taken the bridge and tried to disarm his men. They had refused them armed passage across the bridge. They were allowed cross if they surrendered their arms, which would be returned to them on the other side of the occupied enclave. This was the first confrontation of its kind he’d had with the UN. Such was his furyat the affront that even nowhis own henchmen now knowing hiswrath feared his volatility. They had seen him angered in the past and knew his retribution to be ruthless mercilessand unpredictable.
But he seemed oddly mild mannered tonight as he sat in the square in the falling light He listened in a manner which seemed almost obsequious; a sort of mild mannered patrimony which erstwhile might have suggested concern and when he spoke he did so with an odious calm, his menace hidden by the shaded glasses.
He told them they would each join his militia and march on the bridge in the coming days. His men would train them the rudiments of marching and carrying arms. Only the housebound would be excused. The training would begin this evening.
Leelia listened to his monstrous speech with a wide-eyed innocence. She was vulnerable. At 17 she was the last one left to care for her grandfather, who now bedridden with a cancer which was slowly eating him up. He bland expression showed not the smallest suggestion of her inner revulsion at this vile man. She hated him with a passion, which she knew was sinful. The UN doctor was now caring for her grandfather. A kindly man but who was given to the weakness of arak . The smell was always on his breath. He came at odd times to her house to see the old man and the two though separated by language and culture had developed a friendship, which was strange. Her grandfather scarcely tolerated the UN for not holding a stronger position with the Israelis who every day broke the agreement they had made with the Un by remaining in the demilitarised zone.
To tell him now that the people of the village were being marched to the bridge by this thug would be like a scorpion in his heart. He had fought from Jerusalem, to Beirut. He would never accept the new borders. His homeland was in Palestine. His family had lived just outside Jerusalem and he considered the Israeli the invader – the Occupier.
Leelia thought quickly. She would have to get to the hakim tonight. He had explained about the medicines. How often the old man was to take each. There was one for pain, one for sleep, one for. Hiccoughs and others for the several afflictions he endured now in his last battle – the one he could not win.
- No Papa he could not come today; there was much bombing in Shakra – they were with the wounded all day. He will come tomorrow.
Unlike him her grandfather complained a lot that evening. Then she discovered that he had not taken his medicine today. He had got a bottle of Arak, which he was going to drink with the Hakim when he came. He liked him and would like to drink with him; just the 2 of them. She could see the disappointment even through his pain and it hurt her more than he could possibly ever see. At last she persuaded him to take his medicine now and to rest. He protested a little but this was more from habit than from hope.
When he was in bed she came gave him a measure of each of the syrups the hakim had made up, as the old man could not swallow tablets anymore. She waited until she saw the pain ebb from his face.
She slipped out quietly. Ahmed was waiting in the dark under the vine. He had with him an old suitcase. He asked if she had everything she needed. Just one other thing she asked. Could he bring her to the Hakim that night? Ahmed looked at her bewildered.
She had known the boy all her life. He could scarcely refuse her. She got into the car and directed him to take a route that avoided all the checkpoints. This puzzled Ahmed, as the UN would be the only ones at the checkpoints now.
Finally they drew up outside the medical aid post. She instructed Ahmed to wait and went to the gate. The soldiers knew her as her sisters used to interpret for the MO at the clinics and while it was late they let her in.
When he came out of his room his face was flushed and bloated. What a waste of a mans life she thought as he came to her with a smiling frown.
- Yes I know you know how, but I have to tell you Leela he is a very frail man. Any more than just as much as he needs for the pain would. well... be too much
- No no please not come tonight, road very dangerous. You not hear..?Yes maybe they boom boom our village tonight, not safe.please.
He thought aloud –it’s not the right way, but there is nothing anyone can do for him now you know … it’s very delicate. Only so much medicine. Any more.... ..He trailed off then sobered from his reverie and asked
She assured him she knew the safe road and he could come in the morning. Reluctantly he went to the medicine cupboard and took out a vial a syringe and some swabs. As they were walking down to the gate he asked about her brothers. No news of them. It was better that way .He had heard something about the trouble on the bridge and this man Nabbi .Yes he is very evil man but no trouble. She said nothing of the plan he’d made to march the villagers on the bridge. It was simply too complicated.
When she looked in the old man was asleep. She took out the measures and filled each one again, and going to the bed she gently roused him.
Papa, she told him in his delirium. We have forgotten the medicine tonight. He protested but without conviction. She fed him the syrups one by one again. He had long accepted his confusion with time and took the medicines with the contorted face children made. She eased him back to bed and waited. He was asleep again within minutes. She then took the vial and filled the syringe. She waited in the light of the paraffin lamp until she saw his breathing grow shallow and the anguish dissipate as the medicine coursed in his feeble veins .She went to the bed and gently drawing back back the sheet she injected his withered buttock. He barely flinched as she withdrew the needle.
Though it was not yet dawn she knelt to the east and prayed. She then took the suitcase and assembled the corset as she had been shown.
She heard the unmistakable sosunds of the lumbering trucks . They were labouring up the deep wadi . Soon they would be here .She had 2 measures of the syrup ready and now she threw each back. Very soon both anger and joy were fusing in her soul, she was an olive tree with silver hands reaching to all the people of the valley, legs and arms and golden clouds swirling and she stepped on to the road.
The wailing sonud of the call to prayer blended with the brightening day. The light was as vivid as she'd ever seen it. The dust mould that sapped the colour from the vine , the cactus melted and the flowers of the roadside seemed riotus and fresh -.Again the gears proyested as the trucks trundeled up , to the track leading to the village ,
The sound of the cars drew nearer. She walked on, just a bit farther to where there was reason or anger but a burning conviction beyond these; where reason and anger had merged. Nothing was, as it seemed .It was the right thing to do. There was no argument in reason, and no sense in being, no point in the politics – there was only the least worthy of passions in her soul as the cars pulled up beside her.
The gruff voices called to her . She walked on and the trucks followed her every step . She stood , and took in all the beauty of the valley pblivvious to the hectoring .The last thing she thought proudly about was the image of a single cedar tree , coiled with an olive branch she’d seen somewhere .
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