Mandarins in April

Houssem’s yellowing teeth flicker like the flame rising from the pyre of Saharan cypress.

Stricter prohibition hasn’t stopped the nomads drinking. Tal bites through the mandarin peel and eats the surviving orange whole.

Houssem liked him to be well-fed. When there’s no fat on him and his collarbone protrudes, he’s less attractive. It’s Tal’s teeth that protrude now, teeth chiseled on hunger, the shade of a traffic light turning from amber to red. After the events of last June, they worry less about infringing the rules. No ‘diseased person, or venereal taint‘ is permitted here. Again, that hasn’t stopped them.

When the boys, sweet and good animals, come to what’s been left in shallow ditches, they forget the townsfolk in Tinghir and greedily sup on almonds, which they toast in a small, dry skillet over a fire made from cypress wood. They toss and stir frequently until the almonds take on a golden colour.

‘It takes three to five minutes. Be vigilant!’ Tal pokes Houssem in the midriff.

‘The almonds go from golden to burned so quick?’ Houssem starts. In the middle of that desert that doesn’t look like sand, there’s a cutting wind. They’ve covered twenty-three kilometres and Houssem’s eye lids sink into a mid-evening drift.

‘You know they do.’ Tal takes on a fatherly tone, ‘now take it all in four fingers. Tinghir isn’t far away, so no time to be stupid.’

Houssem gently cuffs Tal round the head, but it’s his right temple he catches.

Later, the whistle in the oasis sky quietens. The wilting palms slow to the pace of a competition waltz. The surviving almonds stop dancing on the grill. Tal unfolds the tapis his dromedary, the stronger of the two, must carry along with most of their other possessions. He places it next to a small fire he makes with the remaining grease. Houssem crouches on his knees; he wipes the lubricant from the cooling skillet, spreading it around the mouth of his anus with a non-abrasive cleaner. His finishing touch is to scent it with clementine’s zest.

‘Waste your’s, like that?’

‘I’ll eat the actual flesh for breakfast. Just for you, T.’

‘Later. We need to plan.’ Tal draws Houssem into his chest, stroking his straw hair.

‘I can’t, not in this cold.’

‘The Douss used to have mandarins. I remember the stories about the factories. South-west. We can aim to be there by Eid,’ Tal whispers, softly caressing Houssem’s nape.

‘Who says it’s not stricter there, that the Western Saharans haven’t done there what they do…?’

‘We’ve no way of knowing. Unless we try.’

‘I’m tired, T.’ Houssem closes his owlish eyes.

‘This is wasteland. We’ve walked three days. Nothing,’ Tal adds.

‘And we can walk thirty more and still, nothing.’ Houssem’s yellowing teeth flicker like the flame rising from their pyre of Saharan cypress.

‘That’s fear. And it’s understandable. But we have to place our faith in…’ Tal looks upward, taking comfort in the constellation of three neighbouring stars.

‘Like he’s placed his faith in us?’ Houssem lifts his head from Tal’s chest and unlocks their hands, shuffling free of his possessive grip.

‘You know what we used to hear at this time of night, when we were children?’ Tal skillfully wrestles Houssem’s back into position. Lifting his head so they’re level, like a fisherman seizing a prized squid from a net, he continues, ‘the Muezzin. It must be eight. Nine. No later.’

Houssem turns his back to his partner, to warm himself next to the embers of the fire.

‘Uncle would tell us this was the time for us to pray. But we didn’t know what he was talking about. Even then, so few of his generation did. Things had already turned by then.’ Tal stands up to sprinkle the almond shells where the dromedaries are sulking. For a momentary lapse, he wonders…

‘Almonds and mandarins, what life,’ Houssem mutters.

‘That’s why we need to find more of them, no choice.’ Tal grabs Houssem’s hair and digs his incisors into his supple neck.

At six, the animals stir and so do the boys. They rise under the oppressive clouds and walk twenty-three kilometres. The Mid-Atlas mountains rise to the north but without mountain goats, or lambs, or even hens, the boys prefer to head somewhere less inert.

The faintest whisper, ‘this settlement is only for the diseased.’ A woman peers through the spy-hole when Tal knocks at the cedar-wood gate.

‘And what do you think we are, without a woman by our side?’

Limping in, their joints cemented and not an agile muscle in their bodies, they’re relieved to be at a dinner without children and cannibals carving beneath their knees. Plate after plate is piled with almonds. Couple after couple, childless, hungry, but still hanging on to a solution.

Flash Fiction