Of all the celebrations we held year round, all the feasts and commemorations we had, the one I looked forward to the most was the Festival of the Lamb. Fasting during the day for Ramadan was a struggle, but the night more than compensated for that: music and dancing on the streets, everyone sharing food with friends and families. The Prophet’s birthday was special because of the presents we received: colorful jilabas to wear, heavy silver necklaces with opal and topaz and jade stones. But seeing the city full of snow-white lambs, one for each family, hearing them clop-clopping down the streets, the smell of dry grass brought in from the countryside to feed them, nothing could compare to that.
In the course of just a few days, the conversation would change from the horrible summer heat or the gossiping about the new teachers at school to the fluffy new pets. All the families paraded back from the market with their lambs by their sides, a frayed piece of rope or a rusty chain tied around their necks. Big ears, crooked teeth, clumsy feet and a deep bellowing. Wooly as rugs, playful as mice, naughty as any of us kids, they were.
Everyone laughed at the eccentricities they put on display, the small feats of almost superhuman intelligence. For us children, all the games on the streets revolved around the little stumbling animals; my sister and I couldn’t help but feel like the unwanted guests at the party, invited only out of pity. “And where’s your lamb?” a neighbor asked me once. I just stared down in silence.
Some afternoons, while mom was still at work, we went to our neighbor’s, Hakkima, and she watched over us. She braided our hair and tattooed our hands with henna. Hakkima would take the opportunity to pretend she had children of her own, just as we pretended to have a lamb of our own. Hakkima always let us ride the lamb for a little bit. I would hold on to the wooly creature’s neck and it knew I wasn’t afraid: it walked me from one end of the patio to the other, under my surrogate mother’s constant gaze.
Going to sleep those nights, after mom kissed us on the forehead, the light would go out, we closed our little eyes, and against the silence of the night there rose an empire of bleatings. In each terrace stood a lamb; at times they sang, all together in harmony, a strange lullaby for my younger sister and me. At times they took turns, as if talking about who knows what lamb-like ordeals. I would fall asleep, counting on one day having my own.
The few times school started right before the festival, I would try my hardest to be the best student in the class. I did all my homework, always raised my hand, memorized the Quran, hoping that my teacher would tell mom how dedicated I was. Every year I asked mom, with my sweetest voice, if we would get our own lamb this time. Her invariant reply, a melancholic “Maybe next year,” and then she would turn around, as if hiding a strong emotion.
Only as an adult, many years later, did I realize the way mother had been acting in an attempt to keep everything hidden from us daughters. Making it all seem so casual, Mom would whisk us away from the city on the last day of the month, taking us to a remote cabin at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, or having us travel the whole day by train, from Tangier to Essaouira — almost the whole length of the country. When there was money for nothing else, she locked us up in the house without even the chance to peek our noses out through the window.
That year was different. Mom had been feeling sick, staying in bed until late in the afternoon, without being able to cook or pay much attention to us. The day the festival was set to commence, the fever she had been harboring rose so high she was unable to leave her bed at all. The eldest of the house, I took charge of the situation and provided care for my mother and little sister. Determined to buy some ice for cold compresses to soothe her temperature, my chest swelled with pride as I opened the door to leave the house.
With every step I took outside in the direction of the Socco, I felt, more and more, an eerie atmosphere hovering around in the Medina, in the alleys and the dead-end streets. There was a sweet smell in the air, a sweetness not belonging to sugar nor honey, not figs nor azaleas. After passing two or three corners, my shoes started to stick to the ground, which was covered in an opaque film. Then the screams: bellows that started out joyful, until suddenly they lost their strength like a balloon with its end untied. When I turned that last corner before the Socco, still walking up the narrow street laden with rugs and silverware and spices of eight different colors, I could see, in the heart of the Socco, the scene of the Massacre.
People dressed in white jilabas congregated in a semicircle. All in the pure color of white, but their clothes screamed out that something macabre was happening. Each family waited for its turn, with their white lamb next to them, playfully expectant the poor beast, like any other day. And in every family, the father stood proud sometimes, concentrated other times, playful or solemn, but always with a sheathed knife in hand. One by one, the families took the spotlight, and effecting that rite so symbolic and so concrete at the same time, would lose the newest member of their family. Sometimes the children cried, sometimes the mothers had the caution of making them look away.
Back in bed at the end of the day, the spectral silence of the night made the hair on my skin stand up. I kept my eyes shut in a vain attempt to force myself to sleep. Not one of my lambs had been spared.
That night was the first time the thought occurred to me, going against years of feeling just the opposite: I was grateful not to have a father. Despite the laughter thrown upon us, the scorn, the discrimination and my mother’s lonely sobs and sighs at night, I was grateful.
Because had I had a father, I myself would have taken the knife from his hands. I would have laid Father on his side on the street wet with blood, would have bound his four limbs together to keep him from kicking, pushed his head up forcing him to bellow one last time, and then opened his throat, liberating the torrent of trapped blood with one swift upwards motion of my childish arm. I would not have him hurting my lamb. Furious, I commanded under my breath: no, Father. Not my lamb.
GEZA FUCHS is a Hungarian-American vagabond, roaming the world in search of inspiration. He teaches English in Italy and has never been published before.