Scars are not signs of weakness, they are signs of survival and endurance.
― Rodney A. Winters
“Andela a mmi?” (Where’s my son?) my father-in-law shouted as he strode through the door of his family home in Kabylie. Married for just three years, T was his first-born son and, as such, doubly precious. Not only was he the first child, but he was a boy, the heir and, as such, the repository of all the family’s hopes.
“Yetus.” (He’s asleep), T’s mother responded nervously, backing away from her husband and pulling the blanket covering her son a little further up his sleeping face. T’s father, shrugging his shoulders, turned his attention to his evening couscous, without giving a second thought to the strangeness of his son being fast asleep at that hour. If he had taken a few minutes to have given more than a cursory glance at the child lying on the bed, he would have seen a large gaping wound on the bridge of his nose, a mess of raw and weeping flesh.
I first noticed T’s scar when we had been together a few months. It was a barely visible pale and shiny groove at the top of his high-arched nose, but it was clear that it had never been stitched or treated. His hand would go there automatically when he was deep in thought, his finger tracing its ridges and jagged edges. It detracted in no way from his good looks, however — at least to my eyes. When, one day, I asked him what had caused it, he had just laughed and said, “I fell out of a window on to a dustbin.”
T’s mother had been barely eighteen when he had been born. She had been married at sixteen to an older man from a family with a mixed reputation, counting both schoolteachers and highwaymen amongst its members. Going straight from her parents’ care to that of her husband, she had never really matured or taken on any kind of responsibility.
She would spend hours playing with her baby as she would a doll, but would more often than not have her head in the clouds, singing and humming to herself as she went about her daily chores or sat dreamily combing her hair. She would give herself over to daydreams, which blossomed like spring flowers, unfurling a delicate petal at a time. She created for herself a fantasy world, a life within a life, without leaving the confines of her own home.
Her mother, Zayna, had taken over the day-to-day care of her grandson, even breastfeeding him along with her own two-year-old son. But that fateful day, she hadn’t been there and so T, toddling over to the open window, had crawled through it, falling on to the galvanised steel drum just below, the sharp metallic edge slicing through his flesh like a knife through butter.
Alerted to her child’s shrieks, my mother-in-law had leapt to her feet and rushed outside to find him lying on the ground, blood streaming down his face from the deep wound on his nose. His screams were high pitched and raw, the sound of a child in fear and pain. Scooping him up, she tried desperately to stem the blood with her dress. Pressing his face against her shoulder, she ran indoors, and, sitting on the floor, rocked him to and fro until his sobs quietened.
Looking down at his bloodstained face, she saw that his eyes were closed, great mauve shadows like bruises beneath them, the silky lashes lying on his pale cheeks like butterfly wings. He had suddenly gone quiet and strangely floppy, his head lolling as she held him.
Fearing her husband’s reaction, she lay her drowsy son down on the bed and tucked the blanket around him. Of course, it was the worst thing she could have done, as T was probably suffering from concussion, but she didn’t know any better.
She had not been able to hide what had happened from her husband for very long, and I can’t even begin to imagine how he had reacted when he finally found out. If he was anything like his son, his anger would have been like ice, coating him like permafrost, and more difficult to deal with than red-hot rage.
It had not been the only accident to happen to T as a baby. When he had been a few months old, his mother had swaddled him tightly, as was the custom, and put him in a floppy woven basket called a couffin that she hung on a nail hammered into the wall at about head height. Of course, even though he was swaddled, T didn’t stay still, and, worked free by his movements, the nail gave way and he tumbled to the floor. The fact that he had been tightly bound probably saved his life, and he sustained no lasting injury from that mishap at least.
T survived both accidents, thank goodness, and wore his scar like a badge of honour, even earning the nickname Le Balafré (Scarface) from his schoolfriends. It sounded good to his ears, a little like one of the heroes in the romans noirs he read so avidly, and he would puff out his chest and act accordingly.
During the first few months of our relationship, besotted as I was, I was enthralled with everything he did or said. He was so different from English boys. He would look at me with a cool, impenetrable stare and I had no idea what was going on in his head. I would gaze at my fingers entwined with his, tanned and foreign and unmistakably male, and suddenly noticed one day that there was a thin white tracing on the top of one hand, between his thumb and index finger – a mere snail’s trail of a scar.
Again the explanation was simple. He and his donkey had fallen down a ravine. Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
After his father’s bankruptcy and their return to Kabylie, T, aged eleven, and his brother, two years younger, had been collecting dried grass for fodder one day. As befitted his status as the elder brother, T sat astride the donkey while his younger brother toiled away, gathering up the grass. Suddenly, the beast lost its footing on the steep, stony slope and slid, head over hooves, down into the ravine, dragging T along in its wake.
The world whirled around him like a slow-motion kaleidoscope, the heavy body of the donkey rolling over and over next to him. One glancing blow from its hoof could easily have split his face open or caved his skull in. Finally, his body hit a rock and he came to a halt, all the breath knocked out of him. He lay stunned for a few minutes – anything to delay the moment when the pain would kick in.
The donkey had come to no harm at all and was soon cropping the juicy grass down by the river. The skin on T’s hand, however, had been practically torn to shreds by the sharp stones encountered on his way down. Sobbing, covered in blood, he scrambled up the slope, leaving the donkey to find its own way home. His father’s rough and ready treatment had been to plunge his son’s hand into a bowl filled with hydrogen peroxide and to tell him sternly to stop snivelling.
T was to garner more scars later in life —not least the long, jagged scar along his thigh when a stainless steel rod was inserted into his femur, fractured in his car accident, twelve days after the birth of our son. The final stitching up of the operation wound had been left to an inexpert junior doctor and the cicatrix on his thigh is broad and rough, like a washed-out fish bone reaching from his hip to his knee. Sometimes it aches like a ghostly echo of the scalpel that cut it so long ago.
I suppose his scars are the proof of his survival – each one the memory of when he nearly lost his life. Some scars are invisible, however, and loving him doesn’t give me the right to rummage though his head — to know every pain and doubt. It is enough that I know he carries his share.