We bought the kief from a Moroccan kid—probably a soldier—on the Tripoli-Rabat Express, handing over the quartered dinar notes for the four or five flat-rolled zagarettes, clipped and trim and even. We stood facing him, holding on to what we could, hand straps and seats and backpacks, rocking, swaying as we raced down through the date oases at the desert’s edges. We got it not so much for wanting it as for the bad way the kid had taken Roberts’ joke, Nous sommes Algerien, which made him frown and look as if he were reaching in his djellabah for something harmful. So we bought it out of shame, as a sort of apology. We hadn’t known how much the Algerians were hated, how fierce the battle had become with them for the Spanish Sahara.
Roberts, whose instincts I later would stake my life on, had said the wrong thing, the wise thing, the thing that could get your throat cut. So we were forced into being supplicants, which in the third world meant that most essential sort of other humans: consumers, customers.
Roberts was red-faced, downcast as the strong-chested boy stuffed the bills in the pocket of his gray striped robe. Jieux, joux, said my companion, searching for the word “joke.” Les joux sont fait said the Moroccan soldier: the game is up.
The whistle blew. The stop was a garrison of the militia, and he got off.
The stops increased. More and more people got off the train and the clusters of buildings thickened. I got out of my rucksack the books Halpern had given me, and which I was supposed to bring back for the magazine and translate: Yacoubi and Mohammed Mrabat, books whose loose, soft phrasing could build up your Moghrebi if you digested a line or two a day. Badi, my tutor, would ride the train with us from Fez to Tangier in order to correct my selections.
The books were full of invocations, benedictions, not just from North Africa but from the far West and South, from the Dinka and Pygmy tongues. I read some of them now silently to myself.
Somehow, when I wasn’t watching, Roberts had put the kief in a loose, thick catalog of birth and funeral songs. I snapped it shut. We had come to Centr`al, the great main station webbed in glass and iron.
Our hotel room looked out over the mamounia, the old tanneries and the drying and folding stalls that surrounded them. From there the lanes of the medina wandered up through the hills. The stink of the tanneries was legendary: a hellish, rancid stench that gave you tears and jagged fits of coughing. And we had two windows of it, the price of a cross breeze on a humid summer night.
But it also masked any odor one brought to the room. So after dinner that night Roberts opened the funerary and took out one of the sticks. As he lit it I could see its oval circumference, and as he passed it to me the brays of the donkeys pulling the tanning buckets grew louder.
The weed was ravishing. Beyond belief. My spine felt lined with something like a ridge of tongues, and honey poured along them, cooling and pulsing, cooling and pulsing like the morphine wash they had given me once for kidney stones. The sounds of the prayer callers had started and mixed with the donkey calls and creaking of the wood and ropes. It was the “violet hour,” the time the long day’s haze made all the buildings’ edges wash and seep up toward the giant, starless night. There was a knock on the door. Before the slowed-down sound of it ended the knocker had opened it, and Roberts made a sudden gesture toward the window, pointing or violently pushing.
“Control,” said the man who had entered. Behind him there was another man. The speaking man had large, scratched glasses and an open shirt. The one behind him had a narrow, sweating face, and his cotton dhoura was buttoned to the top.
The first man made a sniffing sound.
“Control?,” Roberts asked, his left eye cocked.
I watched the streams of sweat on the main man’s neck. His hand was open in the air, a plastine picture on the right and crooked typing on the facing side. No badge. No gun. But he was real.
Roberts asked again. My heart pressed up against the sides of my ribs, like some sort of swelling fruit.
“Do you want to see . . . . ?” the man’s voice trailed off, and he made a clasping motion with one hand over the wrist of the other.
Roberts shook his head, and I saw now it was a sort of cooperation, a disarming honesty he was going for. Something incredulous and American. He bunched his mouth to say: no disbelief, no disrespect intended.
When my eyes went out toward the roof Main Man’s did too. He waved his hand for the other officer to search it. But Main Man joined him when nothing presented itself, both of them leaning their palms on the sill. Then the lieutenant hobbled over and out onto the tiles, walking and crouching, bringing out a flashlight.
My heart was like a rabbit now. The seconds were long, dull flashes of panic. Looking at Roberts’ hands, making sure they were open, I thought of my first near bust in the relative comfort of my own country. Mounted police had come down to a circle of us in Golden Gate Park, their horses stamping and chafing as one of them dismounted. We’d thrown the joint away, but their hands went through our shirt pockets until they found the film canister in Marty’s. He was the one they took in. But we knew where to find him, and when, and how to go about it. There were no surprises inside the surprise.
The Control agents came back inside. They hadn’t found anything. Main Man was sweating more, clearly agitated. Roberts looked over at me, and I could see in his eyes the fear of a plant, a drop, a thrown-down something they were about to dangle in front of us.
They both sat down on the desk chairs. They were ready to negotiate, for all I knew, on matters they had yet to propose—-an offer waiting in a place they would haul us down to or had prepared in the room next to ours. I could imagine writing the rest of my travelers checks out to the two of them, or going to their own money-changer. Or worse: I saw myself locked away, outside the reach of diplomatic help, my twenties evaporating into something I’d know later only as static time—-a thing I’d never lived, a droplet I had never
But the two of them were winded from the search on the roof. They had nothing, and looking across the beds and desk and shelves gave them even more of an unnegotiable empty hand. They struck us now, with their heavy breathing and heaving, sodden shirts, as cops too young to pull off a plant, rookies too green for crookedness.
When they had left Roberts and I looked at one another, not speaking, reeling out the fear we could sense in each other. After a minute or two I could see his fingers shaking, a true tremor, like an old man with a disease. I had nearly shit myself, but what I thought was my own stench was once again the heavy offal of the tanneries, that hideous thickness in the air.
At first I thought Roberts was watching the spasms of his hands, which he certainly was. But I looked at the sight line he made along his index finger and down to the floor. He was pointing. The zagarettes were there in the middle of one of the squares, scattered like pick-up sticks, their paper color blended perfectly with the shade of the limestone.
Badi sat next to me on the harbor train, going through my notebooks, looking at the Moghrebi texts I had been working out into what I hoped was a lyrical English. The coral trees threw a checkerwork of shadows in through the windows. The dark patterns tumbled over Roberts’ face, sleeping across from us in the breezeless compartment.
Badi said we had been the victim of a scorpion, or scorpiones, hotel con men posing as federal police. We were going over some Dinka songs, and Badi made quick corrections as he spoke. He said we were lucky. Even young scorpiones were rumored to be good at set-ups. We had definitely gotten two who were off their game, or, more likely, were themselves too high and disoriented to remember their routine
Badi came to a song whose final lines I had not yet captured. He tapped his blue pencil on the already smudged, torn paper.
“They grow up in camps, in prisons themselves” he said. “They are like the Guardia Civil up in Spain or like Russian police. Good at getting criminals because they were hoods themselves.”
The lines of the Dinka song had to do with cycles and recurrence. The “fronting” couplets of the stanza spoke of rains that come, go away, wait in the place they have gone to, and then come again. The winds also come, go away, wait in the place they have gone away to, and then come again. I’d gotten those two
“They kill,” said Badi. “Scorpions all lived in the camps of the French, not knowing from one day to the next if they would be around. So they are not afraid. They will make the move without hesitation.”
Badi stopped his tapping.
“What happens to you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but there are places up in the Atlas. Riverbeds, full of bones.”
He changed the words of the final line, which speaks of [M]an/Who is born, lives, and dies/Goes away to the place he waits in/And does not come back again.
The cadence was gorgeous, the sounds of the Arabic spectral and cool, like echoes bouncing back across stone. I put my hand on Badi’s shoulder and he snapped the notebook shut. Soon he was asleep too.
It would be an hour or two before Tangiers, and hours after that waiting for the Algeciras ferry. When I closed my own eyes I saw the two men sitting in the room again. Then I saw lines and lines of the script I was learning, its sharp points and waving upward thrusts, like young grass just starting to come into its growth.
Richard Wirick writes and practices law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children. A three-time Pushcart prize nominee, his fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review, Northwest Review, Texas Review, Oxford Magazine, Berkeley Review and numerous other publications. He is the author of Many an Incense Bearing Tree, a collection of travel essays. His short fiction will soon appear in a collection of his work entitled Fables of Rescue (Routledge, 2004)