Najat El Hachmi: The Little One
Mimoun would have been a normal man if his childhood hadn’t been plagued by so many unusual incidents, the first being the order in which he was born. If only he’d been born before the third daughter or after his brother, everything would have been different.
He was dark-skinned like so many other baby boys, who are born ugly, wrinkled, and almost bluish, and then change with time, after their birth. But he continued to be very dark.
His three sisters were women like they used to be, the kind who take responsibility for the house and the family, and feel innate devotion for their small brother, although they weren’t much older. They swaddled him, caressed him, milked the cow every morning so he had fresh milk, and accustomed him to massages in oil of almond from the day he was born. They were proud of him, and were his nursemaids as he was their toy.
He grew up like that, surrounded by women who protected him against everything. If he was crying and Father started on his Go and shut that boy up, they ran and scolded the father. What on Earth did you think, that after all the effort you had to put into making a male child, you’d act so a djinn could take his soul away because of that fright and never bring it back.
His sisters not only protected him from his father, they also shielded him from the looks of envious women who’d have cursed the beauty of his eyes and that deep brown freckle perfectly placed above his lip. And from the winds, the sun, and the eternal summer afternoons. They wrapped him up, hid him, always in the shade.
During the harvest, the girls took turns to tie him like a bundle on their backs before bending over with their scythes.
Then all of a sudden one of those incidents struck that turned Mimoun into someone different from the person he ought to be, an incident nobody knows about today, or if they do, they keep it quiet. When he was three, and already running in the fields around their whitewashed house, spying on animals or looking for hens’ eggs in the bushes, a new character appeared unexpectedly on the scene. For some time Mother had been carrying a belly that was now like a big, big ball. One day it suddenly deflated, after he’d heard her shouting out all night, as if she was going to die or was in unbearable pain. The morning after, Mimoun went to look for her and she was still lying between blankets at the back of her bedroom, surrounded by a smell of blood or gutted sheep mixed with a hint of vinegar.
He walked over to her after rubbing his feet on the mat in the doorway and shaking off the dust that had stuck to his feet in the yard; he wiped away the snot hanging from his nose with the back of his hand, sensing that something had changed.
So Mother was there, at the back of the room, her belt undone, her clothes loose like when she went to bed. Her head was uncovered, and her tresses were all disheveled, with uncombed hair hanging loose from the fastener.
Come, my son, come, Mother must have said. And her voice had that tender tone, a blend of joy and sadness that the boy noticed after each of her subsequent births. As if she were both exhausted and contented. Do you want to meet your little brother? Look how pretty he is.
And he was a little bundle, a mess of sheets tied round a very little person, and you could only see his face in a mass of white. A prisoner. He was the smallest person Mimoun had seen so far, even smaller than he was. And ugly. Why did his mother say that such a blue, flushed thing was pretty? He’s ugly, Mimoun shouted, and started to run when he saw Mother’s arms busy themselves with that kind of huge worm that was about to disappear into the bud.
Or perhaps he didn’t run off, perhaps he told his mother to let him sit on her lap. We can’t ever know because he wasn’t the person he is now and, after all, he was only a little kid.
Abandoned, innocent, relegated to the background by both his mother and his sisters, who picked up the newly born babe whenever he cried. He opened his mouth, like a toothless old man’s, and shouted with a stridency nobody would have thought possible from such a tiny item. His father said, Look, your brother is much less of a crybaby than you, and doesn’t wake anyone up early in the morning. And what will happen when you fall out with him, who will win, you or him? You or him who’s much smaller? If you want him to learn to respect you and call you Azizi, you should start showing who’s boss now.
And so many things changed in the Driouch household with the arrival of that second boy that in the end something happened nobody could explain, and that some even put down to the appearance of an evil spirit.
It all happened in a minute. The opportunity presented itself and Mimoun took it. The little one must have been a couple of months old and they’d left him on blankets in the girls’ room while they had breakfast downstairs, taking advantage of the daylight streaming through the door. Mother was still recounting last night’s dreams with one leg stretched out and another tucked in at quite an obtuse angle She said she’d had one of her presentiments.
Mimoun looked at the little one, stared hard at him, and, not giving it much thought, took one of the big pillows and gave it a hug. His little brother was looking around and all he could see was shadows and colors, until the only thing he saw was the white of the soft material and afterward even at the end, he saw only the darkness that precedes loss of consciousness.
The women were still talking cheerfully, were still laughing, while the little fellow, getting smaller and smaller, waved his legs and feet inside a kind of mummy wrap where he was imprisoned. He hardly made any noise. No, he made no noise, just stopped struggling, or being stiff. And Mimoun went off to play in the yard in front of his mother, who afterward thought the boy had been there all the time, from the moment he dunked his last mouthful of bread in the dish of olive oil and it just floated there, plop. Nobody had noticed he’d spent too long standing in front of his little brother.
Until much later, when Mother and daughters began to collect up the breakfast things, to put the bread in the flour-covered cloths, and went to take a look at baby, nobody realized he wasn’t moving, that the peace reigning wasn’t at all the sleep they’d thought he was enjoying. No, they didn’t at all imagine that silence was anything but deep sleep.
Nobody remembers seeing Mimoun prowling near the child before the fratricide, and we don’t even know if he, right now, remembers anything at all.