The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.
“Acu? Amek ? Acu? Tamɣart-iw?” (What? How? What? My mother-in-law?)
My father-in-law was shouting down the telephone, holding the receiver in one trembling hand, and repeating every word the caller was saying as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Shot in the head, you say? Dead? Allah yarhamha.” (God have mercy on her soul.)
My mother-in-law had crept out of the kitchen on hearing the phone ring and her husband’s raised voice. She stood there in the doorway, nervously twisting a cloth in her hands. For her, the telephone was something to be feared — it always brought bad news. Even in later years, she would jump in fright whenever the phone rang. She would then go and stand next to the person answering the call, looking up at them with watery blue eyes full of unspoken fears.
Her husband had struggled up from the couch where he had been lying in order to answer the phone’s insistent ringing. Eyes sunken and skin sallow, overcome by one of his bouts of sudden and devastating fatigue, he stood there swaying on his feet, as pale as a ghost, a sickly cold sweat glistening on his skin, and his face masking the turmoil inside. He had been diagnosed with diabetes a few years before and seemed to grow weaker every day.
Putting the receiver down with a sigh, he turned to meet the disbelieving gaze of his wife. Before he could say a word, her hands went up to her head, tearing off her headscarf and yanking down her coils of bright chestnut hair to hide her face, from which all colour had suddenly fled. A high keening note burst from her and she started clawing at her cheeks, leaving bloody red tracks scored by her nails into her white skin.
T, aged just fifteen at the time, had been standing, unnoticed, in the corner of the room. Pain washed over him, and his body trembled. His grandmother Zayna had gone. She had been a second mother to him — a solid, reassuring presence in his life. All he had left of her now was a fading image in his mind. He could still see her, sitting on a mat on the floor as usual, her strong, capable hands folded in her lap and the colourful fringe of her headscarf obscuring her face. But, no matter how hard he tried, he could not make out her features; they had been consumed by death’s empty darkness, just like her.
Suddenly his grief and shock turned to fury. Rounding on his father, and abandoning the respectful tone he usually adopted when addressing him, he snarled, “Why did you have to be so brutal? Why couldn’t you have broken it to her gently?” His father, who had staggered back to the couch and sat down again with a groan, looked silently at T for a long moment and then said, “And how was I supposed to do that? Go on, boy, tell me how.”
They were to learn the painful details in the days that followed. T’s grandmother had gone to the spring with the other women to fetch water, as she had done practically every day of her life. Some years before, T’s father had built a concrete holding basin for the mountain spring trickling down the rock face. This cool oasis, surrounded by lush greenery, provided a welcome respite for the women of the village from the grinding rhythm of their daily work out in the fields and at home — a safe place where they could sit and chat.
On that particular summer’s day, the leaves above and around the spring displayed more shades of green than could be counted. Some new leaves were still pale enough for the sunlight to pass through, while others were a deeper, richer green. But soon the chilly winds of autumn would leave behind only memories of the season past, replacing the green by the transient beauty of red and gold.
Picking up her pitcher full of water, T’s grandmother swung it up on to her head, and started up the path to the village with the other women. Suddenly the peace of the afternoon, broken only by the chirring of cicadas and the laughter of the women, was shattered by the whine of bullets. A French sniper, from the outlook post in the neighbouring village, was targeting them with his heavy 12.7 machine-gun.
The sniper might have been a young recruit, sent out to Algeria to do his national service, and amusing himself by shooting at anything that moved. Or it could have been a hardened veteran, with cold eyes and an even colder heart, taking aim at the group of women on purpose, firmly convinced that Algerians were mere animals — subhumans not worth the lead in the bullets that took their lives.
Zayna stumbled and fell to her knees, her pitcher full of water falling to the ground. She pitched forward and lay there, her headscarf stained with blood and her colourful dress making an incongruously bright patch of colour against the dusty path. One of the bullets had ricocheted and struck her in the head, killing her instantly — her skull and the pitcher both shattered beyond repair.
Back in Algiers, T’s mother had pleaded in vain with her husband to take her home so that she could say her last goodbyes. One thought was uppermost in her mind; on their last trip to Kabylie two years before, she had taken leave of her mother without a second thought. There had been no inkling, no foreshadowing of what was to come. Now she would never be able to tell her again how much she loved her, never be able to hold her close again and gaze into her dark eyes shining with love.
They would not have reached the village in time for the burial, anyway. According to Muslim tradition, Zayna had been buried in the village cemetery in the presence of her two sons, one only seventeen years old, within twenty-four hours of her death. It would have taken longer than that to obtain the necessary travel permits for her daughter. The roads along which they would have to travel were also extremely dangerous, with control points manned by trigger-happy French troops every few kilometres. These measures all came under the umbrella term of “pacification” – a euphemism for repression and genocide.
In the space of a few years, T’s mother had lost both parents. But the crueller blow by far had been her mother’s death. To die like that, on the rocky path up to the village, with the other women screaming and running for cover from the hail of bullets. She had been just fifty-two years of age and in rude health, as only those born and bred in the mountains can be. Now looking at her husband, a mere ten years younger than her mother, but so tired and frail, T’s mother felt a ball of icy dread form in her stomach. Surely she couldn’t lose him, too?
T was not allowed to be afraid — not allowed to show the fear that bloomed like a monstrous flower in his head and heart. He had to assume the roles of warrior and protector, combined with those of comedian and storyteller, in order to lift the spirits of his mother and younger brothers. He had to reassure his mother each time his father failed to return from a trip to Algiers to pick up supplies. He had to sit on the farmhouse steps in the early morning light, watching the sun creep over the horizon and his father’s van lurching up the road towards him. He had to help his father out of the vehicle, pale and exhausted, after another arbitrary arrest, another day of interrogation, another night spent in an army camp.
That autumn, my father-in-law decided to enrol T in school again after the year-long students’ strike. It pained him to see his eldest son working as a farmhand when he was capable of so much more. His wife, however, did not agree. Aware of her husband’s poor health, she thought it was time T settled down and replaced his father at the bakery. It was his turn to be the family breadwinner.