One night after dark when his brothers were already asleep his father, returning home even later than usual, called him out to the yard. Excitement was crackling in his eyes and voice. So Ali stepped out carefully, open-eyed, pointed foot following pointed foot.
A donkey was tied to a post beside the latrine. Its sad soft eyes watched Ali expectantly.
This is yours, said father, grinning.
It’s ours. Yours and mine. But you will look after it.
Ali approached and touched the beast’s warm muzzle.
You wanted to go to the school with your brothers, father said. It made you angry when I said no. But now you’ll see why. For you there is a more important task.
He smiled his broadest smile. His teeth shone through the darkness and through the mushy odour of the warm latrine, for the night was warm and sticky. Father’s hand clasped the nape of Ali’s neck and squeezed, but gently. Was the moon full? It was a silently powerful early summer’s night full of moonlit feeling.
After that father said no more, but pointed through the closed front door to the mattress on which Ali slept. So Ali went in and lay down. And in the morning, once they’d prayed the prayer, father held Ali’s arm, saying: Don’t go to the docks today. You’re finished with that.
Ali got down to his new jobs, brushing away the night’s manure. He attached a feeding bag to the donkey’s neck and poured in a measure of grain. Then father and son together lifted saddle bags onto the donkey’s back, and packed these with cans of olive oil.
Their preparations were complete by the time the brothers were ready to leave for school. Father called them to look, placing one hand on the donkey’s head and the other on Ali’s shoulder. You see us? he said. If God wills, we’re going to improve this household. You’ll see, the future will be better than the past. He emanated a proud confidence which was reflected back by the hope shining from Yusuf’s dark eyes and from Razaq’s more complicated green eyes too, squinting through several layers of reserve but reaching through nonetheless. Mama also came into the yard, wiping her hands on her apron and smiling as if it were a festival day. She squeezed her husband’s arm and kissed Ali on the cheek.
When we come back we’ll bring you something good to cook, said father.
And off they went, partners united by father’s use of the word we, side by side up the alley alongside the donkey, Ali straight-backed to mirror his father’s more youthful than usual posture. They strode broadly past their neighbours, father beaming beyond his habitual sobriety, returning greetings and accepting congratulations on ownership of the donkey. Then they walked in silence until they left the built-up area and started south along the coastal road. It took over an hour to pass the point at which Ali and Mama descended from the bus when visiting grandfather’s graveside home. This felt like a transition, as if they’d finally left home behind, because here father began speaking, loudly to compete with overtaking trucks. He was much more expansive than usual in his explanation.
He’d been saving for a long while to buy the donkey. He’d bought him at a bargain price after weeks of haggling. His plan now was to barter in the hills what he could buy cheaply or find for free in the market. The oil in the cans was the mixed dregs he’d collected from tanks discarded by restaurants and wealthy homes, and some of it he’d been given in return for labour.
Do they not have oil in the hills?
They have some olives, but not much oil. They are poor, you see.
And he raised both chin and brow, as if he and Ali were rich.
What will they give us in return?
We’ll see what they give us. We’ll have to be careful. Whatever they give we’ll sell in the city.
Soon they turned inland on a quieter road, through orange orchards, and then through olive groves as the slopes began.
Father quoted scripture: God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. Then glossed it: What does that mean for us? It means we have to make an effort if we want to improve. Like those who migrated for the sake of religion. We have to visit places which are difficult to visit. God willing, that’s where we’ll find our reward. In the city, you know how it is. And on the coast, everything is owned by the owners. Even on the lower slopes almost everything is contracted to certain big buyers. But up there – he indicated the highest summits, shading his eyes – up there it’s open for business. The higher up the village, the more isolated, the greater our profit will be. God willing.
The road forked at a white-domed shrine.
This is where you made such a noise when you were a little boy.
Ali remembered the story of his hysterics and the old men amazed by his name. Perhaps he remembered the actual event. The place did seem somewhat familiar, only smaller and messier. Fuel had spilled on the road, and the roadsides were buried in a layer of cigarette packs, crushed cans and decomposed plastic bags. The dome was clean though, freshly whitewashed. Was this the good man’s house he’d seen in a vision when he was a child? There was a kiosk under a fig tree, and a group of soldiers on plastic seats laughing, smoking and drinking glasses of tea. A couple were officers with stripes on their shoulders. Ali wondered, as he wondered whenever he saw officer stripes, if it was one of these men who had sliced off Ra’ed’s fingers. But they looked so cheerful in the sunshine he couldn’t imagine it.
One fork of the road began a descent back to the coast, while the other continued flat. But Ali and his father turned straight up the mountain side, eastward and up on a narrow dusty track.
Father said, A donkey is better than a car for this terrain. And he slapped the animal’s side and beamed as if he had the money to buy a car but had chosen the much better option.
An occasional single-storey house stood back from the track, with stands of tobacco in front. On either side was a scrub of tangled thorns and thistle. They had to stand in the thorns to let a military jeep pass. It whipped the dust to a cloud which coated their tongues and throats.
As they climbed further up father grew more serious, entreating Ali to be careful, polite, untrusting. To keep his eyes down and his ears open. Because these were areas which had long evaded, by poverty, banditry or heroism, the grasping of the state, its tax collectors and conscription raids, but whose sons in many cases filled the ranks of the grasping state themselves these days – they were the collectors and raiders now.
His tone hardened and his voice dropped to a whisper, though nobody else was about. His warnings echoed the murmurs of the men in the city, that the hill people ate filthy food, drank forbidden liquor, and shared out their wives.
We are here to trade, he said, not to make friends. They are not like us.
As father’s mood darkened so did the day, but Ali’s eyes were lit by what he’d never seen before – a spreading woodland on either side of the track which had planted itself and served its own interests. It was wild, diverse and unregulated, the opposite of a commercial plantation, and the air was almost chilly beneath its lengthening shades. It seemed to him like a setting for stories and he wished very much to explore. Of course he didn’t mention this frivolous wish, and was pleased when it was granted anyway. It was time to camp for the night, and father wanted the site to be suitably hidden. So they left the track and picked through the trees until they found a rocky spot shielded from alien eyes. Ali gathered sticks and then they prayed, judging direction by the falling of the sun. As soon as they’d boiled tea to wash down their dry bread they extinguished their fire, like fugitives.
Early next day they continued up the slope and through the hamlets and past the small farms which would become familiar in the days and weeks that followed. Up there people stared from doorways or from the vegetable plots, unresponding to nods, their mouths set in flat lines and their eyes glazed and inexpressive. Despite this initial coldness, once they’d arrived at a farm house or in the centre of a village and explained their purpose, they were soon invited to sit, and offered weak tea or at least a drink of water. Often once business was done they were even offered a place to stay in a barn or on a sheltered veranda, though father always politely declined. Don’t trouble yourselves on our account, he said. Though we’d be greatly honoured, by God. Yet we must continue on our way.
Their way led always at night to a campsite far from the track defended by boulders and trees. Father slept with a long knife in his grasp, which he sharpened each evening while Ali built their fire.
Once in a high village a group of old men gathered round them but showed no interest in their wares.
The oldest and most impressively bearded chose to sit next to Ali, a mere boy. He made a show of it, pushing another man out of the way. Seeing you here, he said to Ali, ignoring Ali’s father, makes us remember our master the sheikh. His house was rebuilt, how long ago?
Ten years, said one.
Twelve, said another.
And you, said the oldest, You’re the boy who saw our master.
Is this the boy? asked another, rising. Is this Ali, who saw Ali?
Father, frowning, leaned forward to touch Ali’s wrist. Not him, he said. It wasn’t him. We don’t remember that.
It was him, said the old man, turning at last to father. We recognize you and we know your son. It’s because of him that we welcome you here.
There was a warning implicit in these words. Ali watched his father absorb it, and bow his head.
It was true that in this village and the nearby settlements they enjoyed a warmer welcome than they did lower down. People behaved more naturally here, whereas on the lower slopes they were reserved and rigid, as sober before strangers as father insisted Ali be before them. Up here the children pursued their games around their feet, the girls and women carried on as if they were no threat, and the boys and young men were friendly with Ali. He returned their greetings and answered their questions when his father was out of the way. They asked if he had a lot of girlfriends in the city, and how many prostitutes he knew, and with what words the preachers in the mosques incited his people to violence against the people of the hills. Ali smiled as he put them right, feeling worldly, and realized how similar the stories of the hills were concerning the city to the stories of the city concerning the hills.
The hill people did in fact have oil presses. But not all of them. Some still wanted to exchange their excess possessions for the tanks from the city. Oil in any case became less important to the business after their first trip.
Their customers sometimes paid in coins or notes but more often with goods in exchange. So they gave pistachio nuts, for example, in return for peanuts, and sheets of leather in return for steel knives, and for the mixed dregs of olive oil and plastic items and cheap clothing from the city market they gave such mountain produce as reed baskets, wrapped-up flaking leaves of tobacco, and apples and aubergines, dried figs, apricots and mulberries, and lavender, cumin, oregano and various other herbs and seeds.
Father was clever at pointing out what the people up here lacked. He described the uses of various absent items in vivid terms, creating wants from nothing, then turning wants to needs. He was good too at politely sniffing at whatever was offered in return for his merchandise. By means of a gentle frown and a pained look he would often provoke a customer to double the quantity of his offering. Ali admired this hustling and was proud of his father, who he thought of in these moments as his true partner. They were indeed an effective team. All it needed was a glance, and Ali withdrew the correct item from a saddlebag. Father took it from him without looking round. They were synchronized as they performed these sales, as if they shared one intelligence.
And Ali played the role of the educated partner, following closely and scratching in a notebook in his clumsy untutored writing whatever father wished to remember, requests that people made, or numbers that father recited. When, back home, Razaq discovered the notebook, he mocked Ali’s writing, but father defended it. What matters is that we can read it, he said, snatching the book from Razaq’s hand. Which meant it mattered that Ali could read it, because father of course never tried. At night or early in the morning he charged Ali with reading the notes aloud. Once Ali had understood that nobody else would be reading them, he developed his own code, half alphabetic and half pictogrammatic.
Soon they had regular customers, and children who’d run to meet them at the entrance to a village, and men who’d greet them with smiles. Father would enter smoky rooms and drink tea and talk while Ali guarded the donkey. He called his customers by familiar names, embraced them warmly, and appeared to genuinely enjoy their company, but once alone with his son he warned again in whispers against the runaway passions of these hilltop folk, their exaggerations and perversions in matters moral and religious, their crude superstition and backwardness, the pernicious nature of their creed. He’d grow dark and angry as he talked. His new mountain face would collapse back into the old face of his frustration as he reeled off prohibitions, taboos and muttered curses.
Once he returned at dusk after an afternoon away to where Ali and the donkey were waiting, and as he came Ali saw his face was closed and furiously boiling. He came at a pace over rocks and when he arrived, without any warning, he grabbed Ali between the legs and squeezed. As the charcoal man in the café had once squeezed, but in an educative anger rather than lust. This, he said, teaching his lesson, What is this? Tell me. Ali spluttered and stopped and his arms lifted high. I don’t know, he whispered. This is danger, father said. Danger is what it is. And then released him, and sermonised as he rubbed his beard on the wickedness of women, and mountain women in particular, and how weak boys might give in to temptation, how Satan could trap a boy using the shape of a woman, how everything then would be lost, and how he, father, would kill his son rather than allow himself to be shamed.
All this rankled with Ali so much he split into two. No, he said in his heart, in the heart of him. No to the indignity of being grabbed in particular, and no to father’s curses and his insults to their nearly-hosts. But yes he said out loud. So there were two Alis, the inner and the outer, and the inner craved the peace of aloneness.
Fortunately father too wanted time on his own. Wait here, he’d say, setting out for somewhere, and he’d return in an hour or a day.
Left alone, Ali mulled over his resentment. At his age he might have been about to enter the school’s highest class. He might have been preparing for university, to be a scientist as Razaq planned, or a doctor like Yusuf, and then to be respected and rich. If he couldn’t be in school now because he was helping his father with business, well, fair enough, but why couldn’t he have gone to school in the years previous?
He knew why. It was because they were poor. Because father was poor. And poverty, being God’s will, was not something he had a right to resent. No, the solution to poverty was to work harder, and to pray. So he had very often been told. It wasn’t his absence from school, then, that angered him, but being told no all the time, being limited by the long list of what was forbidden and the very short list of what was permitted: to obey father’s orders and fulfill his requests, to feed, tie and untie the donkey, to load and unload the saddle bags, to write the numbers and notes that father told him, and to wait patiently for father’s return.
Women were forbidden. Women were the most forbidden of all forbidden things, and the mountain women most of all.
When he was alone he tethered the donkey and lay down in hollows or places hidden by roots and rocks and then he floated on thoughts of women, summoning the princess he saw in his dreams, or remembering the faces and unveiled hair of the girls who watched him from the fields or from the village doorways, and their giggling or their gentle almost friendly mockery when he passed and there was nobody else to hear, or thinking of Femme Nue Assise, which he hadn’t seen since the evening group of boys broke up, and merging all these feminine shapes and sounds in his imagination into a general suchness of woman, so unbearably sweet, of a beauty so unbearably attractive that he was dragged into it, as if pins held certain molecules in his body and tugged these out from the rest of him as he dissolved, drawing them deep into the imagined target’s soft body, and so he was on tenterhooks, wracked, very painfully connected, until he exploded in a fountain of lonely pleasure.
And then he’d wash himself in a stream and let himself dry in the sun.
It was a benevolent high summer, free of the city’s humidity. The air was thin, clean, slightly camphorated by mountain plants. In his idleness Ali dissected the obviously sexual organs of flowers, the protruding parts and the receiving parts, the beds of bliss sticky with seed. Left alone for long enough, he and the donkey would stroll the wooded slopes. These were peopled by wonders – the carob and the evergreen oak, broom, pine and terebinth, wild olives escaped uphill from the plantations, the thin peeling bark of the strawberry tree and its unpeeled limbs first green then glowing orange. The trunks were cloaked in creepers and they whispered in the breeze.
Sometimes the boy would cloak himself in invisibility, taking a secret position and watching from this high place a farmer, for example, in an aubergine field below. The aubergines were clearly visible at this distance, purple, pendulous like penises or fingers swollen by disease. The man moved about, somewhat hunched, digging, sitting, smoking. There was a world inside the farmer’s head, words and impulses making him move. There was a cow in a tiny field, and a world inside that too, a hunger driving it to graze.
Ali in his secret place was an observer, an eye, hovering above the thrum of the land. He observed himself from a high place too, the world inside his own head which made him look out and down. And he observed the force of nature – the scrub, the trees, the crawling soil, everything alive and in motion. The realisation of this ubiquitous life struck fear into him, but only a little fear, the kind that turns easily to wonder.
Because apart from the wolves, jackals, men and wild pigs, there were no beasts larger than his hand that might challenge him. There was nothing at all that might harm him, save the obvious, such as snakes, bees and scorpions, and rocks and ravines, and knives and guns. Beyond the obvious, nature was by and large vanquished – o paradise! – these onetime pastures of lions and cheetahs pastured them no longer. Here where the Bull of Heaven once raged not even the jinn raged now, at least not convincingly. There was electric light climbing up the track – at night from the track you could see its glow all around. And there was battery music scratching through the villages, there was truck roar and TV flicker and dusty camouflage and posters of the leader’s face. There was the leader wherever there were men, stronger than all other forces.
Yet in the hills, though they were very nearly tamed, Ali experienced a relative silencing of human noise. Added to this, the silencing of the sea – what he had never known in his life before – produced a profound silence within. There was a void where the sea had been. All other sounds – traffic, his father’s voice when his father was present, the donkey’s voice, birdsong – arose against the backdrop of this silence.
In quiet rebellion against his father’s precautions he let the fire burn down slowly when he spent nights alone. In its glow he saw bats swooping on flies. He heard crackles and groans in the forest around him but refused to surrender to fear. Father had given him his own knife and instructed him to use it rather than be robbed, murdered or dishonoured, but he left it in a saddlebag, refusing again to indulge the anxiety his father had ordered.
He loved those nights – and I love them still in memory – lying at fireside wrapped in a thin blanket and the aromatic breath of nighttime air. He was happily awestruck by the stars bright above him swimming into his eyes. Any fraction of infinity must be zero (so I have learnt since), so the boy stared and squinted and pored over the heavens, observing precisely zero percent of the whole.
In the morning as he stirred the donkey’s muzzle snuffled his ears. The donkey was a feeling thing like everything else, following its own logic, inhabiting its own world. Freed of the influence of others, Ali was kinder to him than he’d been to the cargo herds. Now he regretted his brutal treatment of those beasts, and the brutality of men in general. People whip their donkeys until they draw blood. They use the donkey’s name as an insult to mean stupid, stubborn, unfeeling. But this donkey was not at all unfeeling. He complained if overloaded and rejoiced when set free.
When he was told to, Ali led him carefully back down the slopes to the city where his saddle bags could be unloaded and repacked. Then Ali would sleep a night or two at home, and Mama would spoil him, feeding him by hand from the meal she’d cooked with fresh mountain ingredients, and making him lie afterwards with his head in her lap, stroking his hair as if he were a baby. How I miss you, my boy! she’d croon. Yusuf too would make a ritual of welcoming his brother home. On Ali’s first return he seized his hand and kissed it and pressed it to his forehead in the way a respectful child would kiss a parent’s hand. This touched and embarrassed Ali in equal measure. He snatched his hand away and on future returns kept it out of Yusuf’s reach. But if Mama and Yusuf had upgraded Ali’s status, Razaq was a different matter. His welcome stretched only as far as a quick arching of eyebrows, and then a good deal of tutting and sighing as he cleared his books from Ali’s section of mattress. When Ali told his mountain tales Razaq looked studiously bored, and when Ali paused, even if only for breath, Razaq interrupted to lecture an absent audience on the contents of his books. On Ali’s first return the book in question was Capital by Karl Marx. Which in our language is ‘head money’, Razaq announced. It’s a very important book which covers extremely important topics, such as accumulation, the struggle of classes, and dialectical materialism. Our generation better learn these terms if we’re going to achieve our potential. If we can’t develop a scientific politics, well, we’re doomed! Though Marxist thought must be adapted for our context. Marxism as it stands is not suited to our national situation.
Ali was as confused by this as Mama was. Of course, their incomprehension was Razaq’s intended purpose. Only Yusuf understood what he was talking about, but his wrinkled nose and silently shaking head made plain that he didn’t approve.
Every week or ten days Ali led the donkey down the slopes. More often father descended and returned by himself. His orders now included not only Wait here, but also Meet me outside such and such a village, or At the rocks I showed you, and so on. He brought back batteries and transistor radios, and women’s make-up, and pegs and nails and balls of string.
All this was quickly sold and more mountain goods were bought. Father’s project was working out well. Their joint project.
On happy nights, once the fire was extinguished, father would expatiate under the stars. Then his face uncrumpled and regained its proper size. His voice and chest puffed up on his fantasies. One day we’ll buy a jeep, he said. We’ll deal in jeeps. Why not? And then we’ll build a station for fuel. We’ll bring a fuel truck up here every day from the coast.
One day as they climbed towards one of the highest villages, they saw a body lying across the track. As they approached more closely they understood the body was a dead one, was a mutilated corpse. First they stopped, and then father raised a hand to stop, or for silence, though they were already silent save the rasping of their breath. Father checked from side to side and in front and behind for people. There were none, so then he approached the corpse, and Ali with him. It had belonged to a man older than Ali but younger than father. It wore an army uniform. Its throat was cut and its head rolled back at an angle impossible for one whose throat wasn’t cut. The crown of the head was set on the ground so the upside-down eyes, still open but clouded, stared backwards up the track towards the nearby village. A word was painted in blood on the forehead.
Read it, father commanded.
What use is your learning? Father spat in sudden anger.
But it was him who had kept Ali from school.
Ali tried again, though his lips were trembling and his breath came in gusts. But the blood was flaking and its lines too confusing. Still he couldn’t understand, so he returned to the donkey which he’d left some paces behind, removed the notebook and pencil from a saddle bag, then copied the shape of the word as best he could.
He looked at father expectantly. Father didn’t meet his eye but stared at the corpse for a few more moments, then began to move on.
Ali ran back to the donkey and stashed the notebook before catching up.
What are we going to do about him? he asked.
Shouldn’t we bury him?
Father cleared his throat. No, we shouldn’t. He’s not our problem. And on he stepped at a brisker pace. Ali watched him sideways, tugging the donkey, waiting for a different response. A minute later father tutted. They’re killing each other, he said. God protect us if it’s come to that.
By then they were on the threshold of the village. They had an appointment there with a man who’d asked for rope. But as they entered nobody came to greet them. The single street around which the houses were scattered was almost empty. They could hear a woman’s voice wailing somewhere, and the muffled sound of children crying. The faces of those few men around were closed. The only two exceptions were soldiers. One reclined on a car bonnet grinning energetically, sometimes giving up on his grin to bite his nails. Another was walking a wide circle on the track, dragging a gun behind him in the dust. He was shouting: You see? Do you see? Now you see what happens to those who are ungrateful!
Father inched off the track to avoid the shouting soldier. Ali and the donkey likewise, trampling the tobacco growing outside a family home. The soldier on the car bonnet was staring. He’d dropped his grin but still showed teeth.
Don’t look, said father. His lips didn’t move.
Eyes down, they passed through. Ali expected one or other soldier to call them to stop, but neither did, and in safety they passed through. Outside the village a fig tree spread, and then some high pines. The sun shone, as if they hadn’t just seen a corpse and a terrorized village.
What was happening there? Ali asked.
The biggest officer of that village had a disagreement with the boss.
With the leader?
Father hissed. Stop talking, he muttered. It’s their business, not ours.
That night, camped even further than usual from signs of man, Ali asked again. Don’t talk, father repeated. Though they were entirely alone. Though it was just them around an extinguished fire, just them and the donkey and the stars.
Ali couldn’t understand the reluctance to talk. He understood the silence was caused by fear, but wasn’t fear soothed by talking? When he was woken by nightmares in his early childhood his mother used to talk to him, and make him talk back, until his fear dissolved. This was what he needed now, and what his father needed too. But like a stubborn boy with quivering lip pretending to be brave, father sniffed and, clutching his long knife, turned his back on his son. Ali stared through the gloom on his shadowy shape, and the man shrank a little in his sight.
Next time he was at home Ali showed Yusuf the word he’d copied. Razaq was out at some after-school meeting.
It’s two words, said Yusuf, after peering for a while. One says traitor. The other says germ. Where did you find it?
I saw it somewhere, Ali said, before a protective urge sealed his lips. He didn’t wish to injure his brother.
A few days later, something even worse happened.
They were walking down the track and approaching the lower slopes, only an hour or so above the proper road. It was late afternoon, warm and windless. They were passing a farmhouse with a large portrait of the leader propped against its outer wall.
A man waddled out of this house raising a chubby arm. A thick belt was wrapped around his heaving belly. Some curls of lacquered hair were stuck to his scalp, which was bald on top, and a drop of sweat was clinging to the tip of his nose. He made a comical impression.
Kneel, dog! he commanded.
Ali’s first urge was to smile. His eyes lit in anticipation of the entertainment to follow. Because father wasn’t the sort of man to accept such an insult. The fat man wasn’t armed, nor wearing a uniform. Surely father would now teach him to be polite.
Father stepped forward to meet the fat man. Then quickly he knelt down.
Ali’s eyes opened wide as the man seized father’s ear and twisted, and as father did nothing at all in response. Next the man punched father on the top of his head. On the balding spot at the crown.
It’s time to pay your tax, he said. Open your pockets, dog.
Father pulled out his trouser pockets. Notes and coins fell to the dust. Then his inside jacket pockets, without being told. More notes fluttered down. Head money.
Go on, growled the fat man. And Ali’s father scrabbled in the dirt for the money, then placed it in the fat man’s hand.
Now run around like the dog you are.
To Ali’s horror, father did as he was told. Crumpled, crawling. A tall man awkward on hands and knees.
Why aren’t you barking?
Still shifting from hand to knee, father approximated a bark. Once, twice, thrice.
You see, boy, said the fat man, for the first time looking at Ali. You’re the son of a dog.
Ali failed to respond. He couldn’t even move his head. He was frozen to the spot. His breath had stopped and his blood congealed. He felt himself turning to stone.
Come here now. The fat man beckoned father with a finger, and father scuttled over. Head up! ordered the fat man. Now open your mouth. He made a noise with his throat. Then slowly he spat a sticky gob of saliva down into father’s mouth. Swallow, he ordered. And father did.
The fat man laughed once, turned, and waddled back through the door he’d emerged from.
Ali fell to his knees.
Father stood, spat in the dust, rubbed the crown of his head.
It’s normal, he said, flushed red, not looking at his son. It’s the price we pay. It’s normal.
Ali, shivering, rocked slightly on his knees.
Get on your feet, said father, toneless. We can’t stay here.
Ali stood up. His feet were numb. He shuffled on, and the donkey too, beside his unspeaking father. Not surprising he couldn’t speak. His face of course was crumpled, shrunken.
Round a corner and a few minutes further they left the track. Here father sat on a rock, knees high, cradling his head in large hands. Beneath his hands his face was not crumpled now but only sad and tired, his skin loose in recognition of defeat, and for a moment he looked across to Ali not like a father or a warner but as an equal, full and frank. Is there any point to this? he asked. Or am I being stupid? Should I just go back home and accept my situation?
Perhaps the boy should have answered in kind, as an equal sharer in their joint project. But he didn’t know what to say, and in the moment he feared the possibility of equality, he was in fact frightened by his father’s indecision, and still stunned by his submission to the fat man’s injustice. So he made no reply.
When father rose to his feet his face was closed. They continued down the slope, and camped that night in heavy silence. The controlled rhythm of father’s breath exposed his insomnia, though his back was turned and his body rigid, and Ali too lay awake replaying the ugly scene again and again, grimacing in the dark, nauseated and ashamed. Normal, father had called it. So how many times had such a thing happened? Surely the fat man had met father before. The power relationship between them was well established, as father’s immediate acceptance of his submission showed. Could this have been the cause of his unexplained fury the day he’d grabbed Ali between the legs? The boy turned and gasped under his thin blanket, guessing for the first time at the size of his father’s hidden life, the invisible nine tenths of the iceberg hulking beneath the surface of the sea.
This is an extract from a work in progress.