by Geza Fuchs
A short story inspired by a trip to Morocco.
|Of all the celebrations we held year round, all the feasts and festivals we had, the one I looked forward to the most was the Festival of the Lamb. Ramadan was a struggle during the day, but the night more than compensated for that: music on the streets, dancing, everyone sharing their food with their friends and families. The Prophet's birthday was special because of the presents we received: colorful jilabas to wear, necklaces made from opal and topaz and jade. But seeing the city full of snow-white lambs, one for every family, hearing them clop-clopping up and down the streets, the smell of dry grass brought in from the countryside to feed them, nothing could compare to that.
In the course of just a few days, the conversation would change from the horrible summer heat or the gossiping about the new teachers at school to the new pets. You could see all the families walking back from the market with their lamb by their side, a frayed piece of rope or a rusty chain tied around its neck. Big ears, crooked teeth, clumsy feet and a deep bellowing. Wooly as a rug, playful as a mouse, naughty as any of us kids. For a few weeks the homes in the Medina would talk about nothing but their new pets, laughing at all the eccentricities they put on display, the small feats of almost superhuman intelligence. For us children, all the games on the streets revolved around the little lambs; my sister and I couldn't help but feel like the unwanted guests at the party, invited only out of pity. "And where's your lamb?," a neighbor asked me one time. I just stared at the ground in silence and secretly crossed her off my list of friends.
Some afternoons, while mom was still at work, we went to our neighbor's, Hakkima, and she watched after us. She braided our hair and tattooed our hands with henna. Hakkima would take the opportunity to pretend she had children of her own, just as we pretended to have a lamb of our own. Hakkima always let us ride the lamb for a little bit. I would hold on the the wooly creature's neck and it knew I wasn't afraid: it walked me from one end of the patio to the other, under my surrogate mother's constant supervision.
Going to sleep those nights, after mom had kissed us on the forehead, the light would go out, we closed our little eyes, and against the silence of the night there rose an empire of bleatings. In each terrace stood a lamb; at times they sang, all together in harmony, a strange lullaby for my younger sister and I. At times they took turns, as if talking about who knows what lamb-like ordeals. I fell asleep, counting on one day having my own.
The few times school started right before the festival, I would try my hardest to be the best student I could. I did all my homework, always raised my hand in class, memorized the Quran, with hopes that my lovely teacher would tell mom how dedicated I was. Every time I asked mom, with hope in my eyes, if we would get our own lamb this year. Her invariant reply, a melancholic "Maybe next year," and then she would turn around, as if hiding a strong emotion.
Only as an adult, many years later, did I realize the way mother had been acting, in an attempt to keep everything hidden from my sister and I. Making it all seem so casual, Mom would whisk us away from the city on the last day of the month, taking us to a remote cabin at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, or having us travel the whole day on the train, from Tanger to Essaouira-almost the whole length of the country-or, when there was money for nothing else, she locked us up in the house without even the chance to peek our noses out through the window.
That year was different. Mom had been feeling sick, staying in bed until late in the afternoon, without being able to cook or pay much attention to us. The day the festival was set to commence, the fever she had been harboring rose so high she was unable to get out of the bed at all. The eldest of the house, I took charge of the situation and provided care for my mother and little sister. Determined to buy some ice for cold compresses to soothe her temperature, my chest swelled with pride as I opened the door to leave the house.
With every step I took outside, in the direction of the Socco, I felt, more and more, an eerie atmosphere hovering around in the Medina, in the alleys and dead-end streets. There was a sweet smell in the air, a sweetness not belonging to sugar nor honey, not figs nor azaleas. Then, after passing two or three corners, my shoes started to stick to the floor, which was sticky and covered in an opaque film. Then the screams: bellows that started out joyful, until suddenly they lost their strength like a balloon with its end untied. When I turned that last corner before the Socco, still walking up the narrow street laden with rugs and silverware and colorful spices, I could see, at a distance, in the heart of the Socco, the scene of the Massacre.
People all dressed in white jilabas congregated in a semicircle. All in the pure color of white, but their clothes screamed out that something macabre was happening. Each family waited for its turn, with their white lamb next to them, playfully expectant, like any other day. And in every family, the father stood proud sometimes, concentrated other times, playful or solemn, but always with an sheathed knife in hand. One by one, the families took the spotlight, and effecting that rite so symbolic and so concrete at the same time, would lose the newest member of their family. Sometimes the children cried, sometimes the mothers had the caution of making them look away.
Back in my bed at the end of the day, trying to keep my eyes shut in a vain attempt to force myself to sleep, the spectral silence of the night made the hair on my skin stand up. Not one of my lambs had been spared.
That night was the first time the thought occurred to me, going against years of feeling just the opposite: I was grateful not to have a father. Despite the laughter thrown upon us, the scorn, the discrimination and my mother's lonely sobs and sighs at night, I was grateful.
Because had I had a father, I myself would have taken the knife from his hands, would have bound his four limbs together to keep him from kicking, would have laid him on his side in the street wet with blood, pushed his head up forcing him to bellow one last time, and then opened his throat, liberating the torrent of trapped blood with one swift upwards motion of my childish arm. I would not have my father hurting my lamb. Furiously, I commanded under my breath: no, Father. Not my lamb.
That year I understood what having a father meant. I decided I had been praying in vain for something I did not want. I did not need a loving, caring father who walked me to school and slew the throat of my tender lamb.