Read the 1st Prize Winner 2022 - The Last Fall by Caroline Passingham

 The Last Fall
by 
Caroline Passingham

It was a keen blade that made such cuts. Sheets of wrapping paper severed with surgical precision hung down each side of the box. Ripped sticky tape had stripped away some of the brown skin of the cardboard, exposing ribs. The opening flaps, once rigid, now drooped limply. Innards spilled out.
    Habiba angled her head this way and that, as if it would help her to see differently, as if the things before her eyes could change if she would only allow them to. Her mother had told her that acceptance would come, that her marriage would begin like a rushing waterfall, hitting rocks on the way down, but that the water would eventually reach the last fall, and then calm.
    She turned to it again but could only see his butchery as the knife cut through the ribbon, the knife that he kept razor sharp, the blade that he sank into the goat’s soft throats and then their underbellies.
    ‘Your mother has sent you a gift,’ he said.
    ‘For the festival.’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘I should have opened it.’
    She saw the shawl shimmering and green like a slippery fish in a splash of ocean.  As it slithered through his fingers some of the delicate thread snagged on his rough skin. She rushed forward to rescue it, but he was quick and kept her away.
    ‘This is of no use.’
    ‘I can wear it when we visit.’
    ‘It is of no use here.’
    ‘When I visit my mother.’
    ‘We will sell it.’
    ‘It is my gift and not yours to take.’
    ‘It is mine to take. I am your husband. We need a new hoe. You may keep this until the morning.’ 
    With eyes ablaze, Habiba snatched it from him and salvaged the wrapping paper.
    Despite the heat she beat the rugs with vengeance, heedless of her tears tracking through the dust. She tended their land, her resentment fuelled by strains of music penetrating the mountains from the town far below where others celebrated the coming of the almond blossom. Defiantly, she made zaalouk, her favourite salad, using the best oil and purposely risking his anger. Determined that the tagine would be a worthy celebration, she was over generous with the last of their dried apricots.
    They sat in their courtyard, beneath the mountains and the stars. Their chickens patrolled the walls like murmuring sentries. To her surprise Amir said nothing and they ate in silence. When the meal ended, he passed her something. She opened the waxy paper that crackled through their quiet. Four fat dates nestled there, oozing almond paste and honey. Someone had arranged them carefully and sprinkled cinnamon and mace.
    ‘To celebrate.’
    She decided that she would make them last and only eat a small piece. She reached for a knife.
    ‘No.’
    ‘No?’
    ‘Today you eat a whole one.’
    ‘A whole one?’
    ‘Yes. You have a whole one, now, to celebrate the blossom.’
    Without hesitation she pushed it into her mouth, the entire date. Her cheeks bulged and she took fat, sumptuous minutes to eat it. Her eyes grew wide as she chewed and slowly worked the flavours across her tongue. At the end she licked every bit of stickiness from her lips.
    He threw his head back and laughed. Still licking her fingers, she looked at him and found herself laughing too. 
    He rose from the cushions and walked across the courtyard to his lean-to, reappearing with the two broken pieces of the hoe’s head and a black rock that he held out to her.
    ‘It’s the basalt.’
    ‘Basalt!’
    ‘Basalt is hard. Very sharp. Although we are in the foothills, we still have some basalt from the Atlas. Bring your hoe down against it and the basalt will win.’
    ‘Everything here is hard.’
    ‘I can use the handle again. Maybe the smith will give me something for the head pieces. Your mother’s gift will not be wasted. We cannot work our land without this. We have many expenses. Habiba, I need to tell you….’
    Before he had time to finish, she had walked away, wrapped her dates carefully and cleared the room of celebration.
    In the morning she looked at the steep track snaking down to the town. He had the donkey ready with saddle bags in place. She held the package between them. ‘I thought that this might obtain a better price wrapped, as if straight from the souk.’
    She gave it up to him, and he took her gift without a word or a look.
    At noon she sat on the shady side of their compound, her back against the cool walls of rammed earth, admiring them. Her father had promised that Amir would build the best house in the village, and he had. She remembered carrying the lime, the straw, the goat’s blood and working the earthen mix for the bricks. The house was big, in expectation of many children. He had heeded her instructions concerning the position of the riad and the design of the clay oven. She knew that most Berber women would be proud to own such a home. Nothing could stop it though, her thought. The heat of it breached his crafted walls and struck her full on. ‘It is sold.…it is sold to another...and now we have a hoe.’ Focusing on the low pile of kindling her stare intensified as if it would set the wood ablaze.
    He was late. She climbed the stairs to the roof terrace and looked for him. The stars were showing. Her fingers slid through her hair wet with washing, and the warm breeze took it. She scanned the track until it disappeared into shadows and realised that she was anxious. This surprised her.
    At last, he was there unloading the donkey. He pulled down the hood of his djellaba and washed. She saw the tiredness in his shoulders, added sugar to the mint and brought tea. Eventually he slumped into the cushions and although she questioned him about the day, he remained quiet. She had cooked his favourite bean stew with two plump tomatoes, salted lemon, garlic, harissa and cumin. He ate hungrily, mopping up the juices with freshly baked bread. Afterwards she offered the dates, but he declined and left her alone. 
    At breakfast he said little, but again, went to his food with enthusiasm. She watched him test the knife for sharpness against the pad of his thumb and then cut cleanly through the soft heart of the loaf. He mixed olives and honey into his fried egg and scooped them onto his bread. When she cleared away their meal, she was surprised to find him still there, lingering, and watching her as he stole time from his work.
    He lowered himself onto the beaten rugs and sat crossed legged. He invited her to sit with him and she did. Excitement ran across his face as words streamed from him. They had met in the cafe, men from the village and the electric company. All the electricity poles had arrived. But the French men said that there was a problem. They had surveyed it. The last miles of track to their hamlet were too steep and there was danger of landslide. They could not risk their vehicles and helicopters were not cost effective. Amir had persuaded them that if they took the poles up as high as they could, he and his neighbours would use donkeys to bring them the rest of the way. They took some persuading that donkeys could do it, but in the end they had agreed.
    ‘Electricity and the telephone are coming to our village!’
    ‘If the donkeys can carry it.’
    ‘Our mountain donkeys are able, but it will need careful planning.’
    ‘A washing-machine?’
    ‘Next year perhaps if the harvest goes well. I’m not sure if the donkeys could get a washing machine here.’
    ‘You say that they can get the poles and cables here!’
    ‘Habiba, one day soon our village will be connected to the outside world, to far away countries and people. We will hear their words and see their pictures. You will speak to your mother on the world-wide web!’
     Habiba stared ahead, struggling to see her mother's hands resting on a keyboard, to see her mother smiling from a computer screen. The image was forced and would never be. It was too late. Instead, it was easier to see her mother’s hands working the vertical loom against the mud walls of her house. She used threads, finer than she'd ever used before, working for hours and hours to make the cloth for her daughter’s shawl. Suddenly, Habiba had nothing to say to him and turned her back.
     Days later, when the dawn sun fired the sky, women gathered excitedly on Habiba’s roof terrace, and looked down on the melee of men, carts, and donkeys as they kicked up dust.  They saw that it was not like other times, when their men were slow in the heat, moving through the day as its routine took them. Today, a frisson of fellowship and purpose energised every action. And somehow, gradually, out of the brouhaha, a long orderly train emerged and slowly began the descent. Some of the women shouted after them and waved. As he rode out, Amir felt anxious. The whole village had placed their trust in him, and he prayed that his carefully made plans would succeed. He looked up, searching for her along the roof's edge, but she was not there.
     Habiba brought mint tea for her guests and then they took to the shade, busy with preparations for the evening meal, happy to be together, united by their anticipation.
    As the sun began its descent, someone cried out and they ran to the side of the terrace pointing. Habiba pushed her way to the edge, her heart racing. She strained her eyes, and yes, there it was, a donkey with a pole attached to one side. She then made out another donkey behind, attached to the other side. The weight was distributed between them, and men attended the pole at either end, helping the animals negotiate the tight bends. Slowly more donkeys appeared until there was clearly a whole train of them, working in pairs, easing their way up the mountain. Gradually, the poles were being released at the appropriate points along the track with large roles of cable. Habiba couldn't stop herself laughing with the other women who fussed excitedly. Much later, as the light was failing, Amir’s donkey carried the last pole into the village. People cheered and the children ran beside them laughing and screaming as one was hoisted up to ride the pole.
     ‘He has done it,’ she thought.
     For once, the donkeys were released onto the best pasture by the river, and then the men carried their lanterns to Amir's courtyard where they were greeted by enticing smells of roasting goat and rosemary wood.
    Well into the night, Layla, an old woman, settled into the circle of women. They gently touched the beautiful green shawl wrapped around her, praising the quality of the weave, delighting in the colours and the sheen. She told them that her husband had brought it back from the town. They giggled and insisted that to bring such a beautiful gift was a sign that her marriage was alive and vigorous. They playfully probed, asking what she had done to deserve such a prize.
    Habiba backed into the shadows, stifling her sobs. Ashamed of her tears, she was relieved when Nadeem, Layla's husband and senior man in their community, rose to speak. The women's laughter was hushed. His rasping voice cracked across the courtyard as he recounted the meeting with the electric company and took obvious pleasure in the telling. They had sat around a large table with the Frenchmen one side and the villagers on the other. All seemed lost when the Frenchmen insisted that it was impossible to reach the village. Some of the villagers had agreed that it must be Allah’s will and argued that their people had no need of electricity. Amir had jumped to his feet and would accept none of it.
     ‘I have been here before. My father argued that the old ways were best. He insisted that electricity would bring bad things and corrupt our people. I am newly married with a young wife. I remember my mother when she was like Habiba, full of strength and vigour, but the land and incessant hardship drained it from her until it could take no more. Without electricity you condemn my wife to the same. The very name of our people, Amazigh, means freedom, but we are slaves to the old ways.’
    He had then thrown a small pair of workmen’s gloves across the table. ‘I have just bought these to protect my wife's beautiful hands,’ he said. ‘She will work the hoe tomorrow, for hours, to place food on our table. I pray that electricity will come soon and save her from my mother's fate. I pray for a washing machine and all useful things that will make her life easier. We can bring electricity up the mountain. We will bring it. I will tell you how.’
    The old man stretched his arms wide. ‘Very few thought it could be done. Amir insisted that we try. Our brothers listened and eventually all agreed. And now, today, because of him, we have hauled a promise, a promise of new power and energy, all the way up the mountain. It is now our joint responsibility to complete the job that others would not, to bring electricity into our village. May, Allah grant you grace.’
    ‘May, Allah grant you grace,’ they cried.
    Amir looked across to Habiba and saw her clutching a lump of basalt. Her eyes were not on him but still with the shawl, wandering through the weave as it shimmered in lamplight. It came to her easily like a soft dream. She saw her mother's hands reaching out to grasp streaming threads escaping on the current and floating like weed strands. A rush of water parted them, and shoals of tiny fishes darted away, silver streaks swimming into the smooth swell before the brink of the last fall, where they spilled over. The water drummed on the rocks below. ‘My wife’s beautiful hands, my wife’s beautiful hands, my wife's....’ 
    It was late. Chatting women and children tidied the courtyard, said their farewells and wandered home, closely followed by their men.          Habiba and Amir sank into the cushions and watched their chickens squabbling over the pickings. 
    ‘Habiba, do you think they know that there is still much to be done before the electricity comes?’
    ‘They know. They will go to the work happily. The women are very excited.’
    He rummaged in the pocket of his kaftan and pulled out the gloves. 
‘I left these in the cafĂ© and today one of the Frenchmen brought them to me. There was some money left from the shawl.’ He quickly looked up as he mentioned it and she saw the concern in his eyes, but he continued and gave his instruction. ‘You will wear these when hoeing.’
She pushed her fingers into them. The gloves felt stiff and hard. ‘They will soon soften up,’ he urged.
    ‘I know. Thank you.’
    ‘There are some things that machines will never do as well as human-kind. Hoeing is one of them.’
    ‘Who knows? One day perhaps.…None of the other women wear gloves.’
    ‘None of the other women are my wife. You will wear the gloves when working the land.’
     The glowing firelight showed her small hands peel the gloves away, place them in her lap and rest her hands there. Sounds from the river, the constant rush of water from the snowmelt, caused her to drift towards moments in the evening, to moments after Nadeem’s speech, when she had suddenly known that there was love, when she had suddenly known that there might be a calm beyond the last fall. She sighed and spoke softly.
     ‘I saw my mother's hands tonight, as clearly as I see you now. I saw cracks in the dry skin, scars, hard horny nails and arthritic bone. I saw her life ingrained there Amir. I too have been to that awful place where you watch someone that you love decline, where your heart breaks because there is nothing that you can do to stop it. It brings me joy to know that I have a husband with vision, who works to change that, a husband who brings the poles that will carry electricity up the mountain, a husband who cares enough to protect his wife's hands.’
Slowly she held them out to him, and in turn he eagerly wrapped his hands around them and caressed her. ‘You will wear the gloves Habiba?’
    ‘I will wear your gloves, Amir.’ Her chin tilted upwards, ‘And I will have the washing machine.’


The End

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