NOVEL EXTRACT: The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi

The Last Patriarch
Translated from Catalan by Peter Bush

Chapter 2 - The strange incident of the knife at midnight

The fact is, sometimes you don't know to what extent something did or didn't happen. Whether you dreamt or lived it, whether it's your memory or it belongs to someone who's repeated it endlessly to you. That's why I've never been sure if I witnessed the strange incident or not.

If I did, then it went like this. If not, mother's memories must be mine as well and I'll never know where I intervened. It was like this. We were happy, I know that much. Mother says it all took place after we were visited by the wife of father's cousin who'd come to live in the local capital before we had. She'd brought us some biscuits and mother had never liked the way she looked at her. Everyone knew she was a witch because she was a snake-charmer's daughter or something of the sort.

Anyway, the biscuits were very tasty, and it was the first time mother had spoken to anyone apart from us or father. I don't know if she was pretending, but I thought she looked happy chatting away to that woman who dressed like all the women in that local capital and not like the women in the provincial capital. 'You ever seen such a short skirt?', mother said as soon as she shut the door behind her, biting her lower lip. God protect us from all that sinfulness.

After that visit I was always afraid of that lady, although afterwards mother had started to dress like women from the provincial capital. Father went to her house and must have stayed very late because it all happened when we were asleep. I don't remember if I was asleep or not when he arrived and suddenly started shaking mother to wake her up. They say it's never a good idea to wake someone up with a start, that when you're midway between drowsiness and sleep, frights like that can screw you up forever more. I don't know what that fright did to mother, but she's still pretty screwed up.

Father probably opened one can of beer after another while he bawled at mother; my brothers didn't wake up and neither ever knew what happened that night. I heard him bawling and didn't know what to do. I thought I could stay in bed and pretend I was asleep or try to get back to sleep, as if it had just been a nightmare. I clung to my blanket and curled up as much as I could on the metal base of a bed that went squeak, squeak.

But it was too late, I couldn't get back to sleep. Father kept bawling, sometimes you couldn't hear what he was saying while other times you heard a 'you'll tell me or else', and 'don't lie anymore because I know, I know you've cheated on me. I'm a laughing stock, everybody knows my horns reach to the ceiling'.

Mother was still in bed, sitting with the blanket over her legs while he paced around the bedroom. She said: 'Please, leave me in peace, I've done nothing, you've your mother and sisters as witnesses to that. Please, for your children's sake and the respect I have for your parents, let me rest.'

'You'll tell me or else.' His bloodshot eyes were no doubt bulging out of their sockets. I was in the middle of the passage when I saw him go into her bedroom. Mother told me, 'Go away', as best she could but I could see her, stretching her neck back and the knife touching her skin.

'Go away', and she gestured with her hands to me to go back to my bedroom, but I was probably having one of those moments when I can't move and am rooted to the spot unable to do anything. 'Come on daughter, come and watch me chop your mother's head off. Don't you want to?'.

I'd stopped breathing and mother said go away. 'Do you know what your mother has done to me? Tell me who it was or I'll cut your head off now. Either my uncle on one of his return trips or the neighbour with a car who drove to see your father, or else my brother? Who was it? Who was it? Who was it? You know I know what the answer is but I want to hear it from your lips. Come here, you can watch how your mother's going to die, come on.'

Then I think I turned around, went to bed and fell asleep again, or didn't, but in any case I realised death isn't as difficult as it seems.


Translation copyright © 2010 Peter Bush
© Serpent’s Tail, London 2010

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