Rachida al-Charni
Rachida el-Charni
Life on the Edge

After we had let the sheep out of the barn and taken them to in the pasture next to our fields, we heard the voice of our mother warning us: “Don’t go too far, it’s going to rain soon.”

Invigorated by the return of the warm sun after a few grey days, the sheep moved quickly, pushing each other gently forward. As they grazed they spread out through the pasture, watched by our vicious dogs. My two brothers, Ammar and al-Amin, played with a ball made of old socks while I lay on the tender grass smelling the scent of spring and basking in its splendour.

The hills that surrounded us were bordered by high mountains, which we considered to be the end of the world. We believed that the hereafter, the world where hell and heaven existed and where God judged the dead surrounded by His Angels, lay behind them. Our parents’ warnings to us to stay close confirmed our suspicions.
As I gazed at the mountains, examining their height, I wondered to myself why I should not go to the end of the world and eavesdrop on the inhabitants of the hereafter? I felt that at the age of ten I should be able to conquer my childhood fears more than at any other time. I called my brothers and discussed the idea with them. At first a deep sense of fear ran through their every pore, then al-Amin, the elder of the two, agreed to join me in my adventure. We left Ammar to guard the sheep and walked toward the nearest point that would lead us up the mountains.

We walked for a long time but the mountains seemed even higher, which made us feel that the hereafter was quite far. Dark clouds began to gather behind the mountain peaks, filling me with fear as they formed shapes of strange creatures, menacing us with cruelty and anger. I thought of this as a warning message from the inhabitants of the hereafter and my heart was thumping with terror. When I suggested to my brother that we go back he agreed immediately. His lack of enthusiasm, which he tried to hide, comforted me. There was a sudden and very heavy downpour, and soon everywhere was deluged with rain. We ran with all our might as we were concerned about the sheep. When we reached Ammar we found him trying to round up the flock with a small stick.

We herded the sheep together, making them to move as fast as possible to avoid being caught in floods from the nearby valley of Majrada. The muddy ground through which we were all stumbling hampered the movements of the ewes and the lambs. As we approached the house we could see my mother’s anxious face. She wore boots and had covered her head with a woollen shawl, and was trying to hide her advanced stage of pregnancy. She was so worried about us that she was really very angry. Her reaction to what we had done was motivated by her fear of my father’s harshness in all matters concerning his sheep. He was very attached to them and was more saddened by any illness among them than by the death of a relative.

As we herded the sheep into the barn my father arrived back from the village. He started hurling insults at us when he discovered they were wet. I do not know how, but he also quickly discovered that some were missing. We glanced at his angry face and trembled with fear as he counted his sheep. His voice thundered: ”You devils, I will kill all of you tonight. Two ewes and three other sheep are missing. Where are they? Where did you lose them? How could you fail to guard them? Oh, my ruin! Oh, my shame! Go and look for them – and do not come back until you find them.”

Fear pinned us to the ground and we could neither talk nor even raise our eyes to look at him. When he realized that we were paralyzed with fear he grabbed a stick and came towards us, threatening to kill us all. We ran from him, leaving our mother to plead with him in a trembling voice: “ It’s dark and raining, they can search for them in the morning.” To which our father replied: “Stop, or I will send you out with them. You let them go out. You’re responsible for what happened, you are bad luck.”

We left the house and walked towards the pastures where the sheep had grazed earlier. We took small and careful steps, stumbling as we felt our way over ground that was saturated with water and where large pools had formed. We searched for the lost sheep in the hills and among the trees, but to no avail. By nightfall we were weighed down by fatigue, and our fear and confusion increased as it became difficult for us to see through the heavy, incessant rain. It seemed the rain was going flood the whole world.
We walked back home, preparing ourselves for the dreaded confrontation with our father. We were scared to death as we walked slowly towards the house. We soon saw our mother holding a storm lamp and calling on us to come inside. We were dripping wet and shivering from fear and cold as we entered the house with our heads bowed.

When my father saw us returning without the sheep he came towards us full of anger. He unbuckled his leather belt to give us a thrashing. We tried to escape his grip but he came after us and beat us; even my pregnant mother, who was trying her best to protect us, was not spared. That night we fell asleep to the sound of our sobbing and my mother’s crying.

• • •

I do not know how much time elapsed before I woke to the frightening wailing of my mother’s cries which soon turned to exhausted moans. Worried, I asked her: “Mother! What’s wrong?”
“I think I’m about to give birth, but don’t worry, my daughter, I’ll wait until the morning,” she replied.

I could not get back to sleep with the anxiety taking hold of me as I listened to my mother’s moans that occasionally erupted into loud screams. Eventually she told me to find my father and ask him to fetch the midwife or call her parents.

My father was in the habit of retiring to the barn whenever he was angry. He would abandon us for days, sleeping near his animals, that he liked and considered more faithful and dearer to him than his family and friends. I felt my way to where he was sleeping and touched his feet, saying: “Father, wake up! Mother is in pain, I think she’s about to deliver.”

He replied with total indifference: “She couldn’t have picked a better night than this one to give birth?”
I begged my father: “Please, Father, go to her parents and tell them about her condition.”
“I will not go out now, it’s still raining. Let her wait till morning,” he replied.

I returned to my mother, where I found Ammar and al-Amin awake and staring at her in bewilderment. As I repeated to my mother what my father had said, I felt embarrassed by his attitude. She controlled her pain and turned to the handloom, holding it firmly to help avoid raising her voice, which would have scared us.

I continued to watch the expression on her tired face. As her screaming spells filled my ears, I realized that she would certainly give birth before morning. I went back to my father, begging him to go and see her, but he refused adamantly, saying: “That is women’s coddling.”
I insisted: “Please, Father, she’s in real danger and might die.”
His reply was worthy of an enemy as he said: “Let her die, her life is cheaper than the sheep she’s made me lose.”
His vindictiveness shocked me. I left disappointed, and wondered whether this was truly my father and how I could have been born to a man who had no conscience. In my mind I could find no excuse for his conduct. I decided that from then on I did not need him, I did not need such a heartless father. His wrath and anger had swept away all feelings I held for him and destroyed them with this final blow, plunging me into a profound state of sadness. Drying my eyes, I felt ashamed to be his daughter.

I met al-Amin near the door, he was on his way to try and convince Father to help Mother. I told him that it was useless, but he insisted on talking to him. He soon returned defeated, took his coat and announced in his nervous, childish way, his decision to go to his grandfather’s house. In her weak voice, my mother tried to stop him but he insisted on going and ran out of the house feeling his way in the dark and the rain.

My mother’s cries resonated in the stillness of the night, depressing me. Her pale face scared me. I was confused; I did not know what to do to help her. I searched my mind trying to recall matters related to life and birth, but I could only remember the hot water that the midwife took to my mother’s room when she gave birth to Ammar. I put water on to boil and no sooner had I done it that I heard her weak, plaintive voice calling me: “Bring the scissors and disinfect them with alcohol.”

I did what she asked, wrapped the scissors in a clean towel and placed them near her. I also told her that I had boiled some water.
I watched her suffer with the anxiety of the helpless. She walked back and forth in the room and later lay down. I helped her cover herself. She then raised her arms, held the posts of the bed behind her head, and opened her legs. She asked me to press hard on specific parts of her stomach and guided my little hands to where they were needed. I felt a movement inside her, making me wonder how much she was suffering. Her beautiful face had turned blue like the sky on a dark night as she tried to suppress her cries and to breathe deeply in order to push the child out into the world. Finally, in the midst of her pain she asked me to get the hot water quickly, and prepare the baby’s clothes.

As I was bringing the water I heard angelic cries. I rushed back with the water and when I entered the room I was surprised to see the baby near my mother. She had been able to cut and tie the umbilical cord. She had placed him under the covers to provide him with her blessed motherly warmth.

Translated by Aida A Bamia

“Al-Hayat ‘ala Haffat  al-Dunya” [Life on the Edge] is the title story
the author’s collection of short stories, published by Dar al-Maaref, Sousse, Tunisia, 1997

“Life on the Edge” is also published in the collection of short stories from North Africa, Sardines and Oranges.