One afternoon, a man named Achour suggested that I go to the plains with him to gather grass for the animals. He was a big, strong man, about forty years old, with a round face aged by the sun. He was wearing a little wool hat that he took off from time to time to scratch his head. When he smiled, you could see his toothless purple gums. The man was a colossus, and on several occasions I had witnessed his extraordinary physical strength. He was followed by his ten-year-old son, who already seemed used to the tough farmwork. I asked the boy if he went to school, if he liked his teacher. But he just glared at me suspiciously and wiped the snot from his nose with the back of his hand. As we walked, Achour talked to me about my father, to whom he owed so much. He treated me with a deference that made me uncomfortable, and I barely said anything in response. I was seized by the beauty of the landscape, by those wheat fields shining gold in the dazzling sunlight. In the distance, I could see the outlines of the Atlas Mountains. I almost said something, but I knew that Achour would just shrug: these fields were all he had ever known. We walked past a herd of cows so thin that I could count their ribs. Their ankles had been tied together with rope to keep them from running away and they were chewing on a bramble bush, immobile and disillusioned.
We got to work. Achour taught me the least tiring way to fill the big jute bags we had brought with us. I was daydreaming, enjoying the silence, when we spotted a woman, only a dozen yards from us, silhouetted against the sun. At first, I thought I was hallucinating. I wondered if the stories I’d heard in the village had affected my mind, if I was seeing a mirage. But the figure came closer: it was a young woman, shuffling toward us. Achour turned to me and from the look in his eye I guessed that, like me, he was thinking about the mysterious girl that the villagers were always talking about.
“This one’s for you!” he shouted, suddenly excited. “You don’t get a chance like this every day!” Like a man dying of thirst who suddenly finds water, Achour started running toward the girl. She watched him without reacting, weighed down by fatigue, resigned to her fate. She did not try to run away. And, now that I think about it, where could she have gone? How could she have escaped from Achour, in the middle of those empty fields, half an hour’s walk from the nearest house? I said nothing. I did not try to dissuade him. Partly because he didn’t give me time, and partly because, deep down, I wanted something to happen to save me from the deathly dullness of that summer. Achour reached the girl and beckoned me over. When I came within a few feet of them, I could hear him threatening to hit her if she screamed or if she didn’t do what I wanted. He made her sit down amid the wheat stalks, which hid her face, and brutally tore off the harem pants she was wearing under her djellabah. Then he gestured with his hand. The same gesture you make to your guests when you want them to taste a dish that you have prepared. A gesture of invitation, with his huge, red, calloused hand. Without a word, I accepted.
Today, I cannot explain what was going through my mind at that moment. All I can do is recount the facts and acknowledge that I knelt down in front of the girl and that, while I was unfastening my pants, I heard Achour walking away, calling to his son to keep a lookout. I cannot be certain that my memories of her correspond to the reality, but when I think about it I have the sense that she was barely sixteen years old. A child’s full, round cheeks. Dark rings under her long-lashed eyes. Unlike most country girls, she did not look worn out from working in the fields. Her skin was soft and cool.
She did not say a word. She did not resist me. As I moved closer to her, as I lay on top of her slender body, she turned her head slightly to the side, as if her only act of freedom were not to see me. She seemed to have accepted the idea that she had no choice. I penetrated her, and tried to kiss her, but she did not respond. She abandoned herself, not in the sense of someone who is offering her body out of love but as someone who uses her mind to escape a terrifying situation. I cannot say why, but I had the painful impression that I was not the first, on that beautiful, sun-drenched day, to press her against the ground and possess her. I withdrew. As I got dressed, I became aware that my hands were stained with blood. The sight of that blood, on my fingers, on her thighs, shook me from the torpor that had enveloped me up to that point.
Hurriedly, I helped her to get dressed. I grabbed her harem pants, which Achour had thrown to the side, and handed them to her. I looked away while she put them on and, to cover my discomfort, attempted to make conversation. I asked what her name was. I tried to find out where she had come from, where she was going. How old she was. All she said was “I’m hungry.” I leaped up, as if entrusted with a divine mission. Achour, who had seen me getting dressed, was coming toward me. I beckoned him closer, eager to find something to satisfy the vagabond’s hunger. But Achour cheerfully misunderstood my gesture, and, like a beast, threw himself on the young woman, who this time tried to resist. She screamed and scratched the peasant’s face. She was ready to gouge his eyes out. I stepped in and managed to calm them both down.
“She’s hungry,” I explained to Achour, who shrugged. “So?” he seemed to ask. In his mountain village, hunger was a constant state, a habit formed in childhood and staved off by smoking hash or brewing homemade alcohol. But I insisted, and, in the end, Achour sent his son to the village to find something to eat and drink. “Say it’s for the young man, you understand?” He smacked the boy sharply on the back of his head. The boy mounted a donkey and yelled “Ra!” before clicking his tongue. The donkey set off.
The three of us sat in the wheat field for nearly an hour. The girl was a few feet away from me, and more or less the same distance from Achour. She sat with her legs stretched out in front of her and stared straight ahead in silence. Achour chewed on a stalk, stood up to survey the horizon, and sat down again, cursing his son, the slowness of donkeys, and the stupidity of women. Finally, the boy arrived with a round loaf of bread, some butter, and a steaming teapot in a wicker basket. We could have given the food to the girl and left then and there, especially as it would soon be dark. But the boy kept repeating, “Mama said we have to bring the teapot back with us. She said she’d beat me if I forgot.” We sat down again and drank our hot tea together, like one happy family. She the gentle, loving mother. Achour the brave and faithful father. And I the elder son, who would take care of his little brother. As we drank, the girl kept looking up at us with fearful eyes. She seemed afraid that we would go, leaving her alone in that dark and deserted field. Several times, our eyes met and I had the feeling that she wanted to say something to me but did not dare speak in front of our two boorish witnesses. Had I been more courageous, had I been a good man, I would probably have gone over to her so that she could speak to me in confidence.
The sun was sinking toward the horizon, and the sky had turned fuchsia. Before our eyes, the countryside was lazily fading into night. The boy picked up the teapot and tossed it into the basket. Holding the donkey’s bridle, he insisted that I ride the animal. Watched by Achour, I feigned indifference. I wanted to appear manly, so I barely even said goodbye to the girl. But in the half-light of dusk I turned around several times and saw her, standing there in the middle of the field. She had covered her hair with a black head scarf and crossed her arms to keep warm. All the way back, I kept thinking about her, and about the cold night ahead of her. About the predators who would attack her: men, animals, members of her clan seeking vengeance. About the blanket I could have fetched for her. About the money I could have slipped into her hand that she could have used to buy a bus ticket out of this place, which had trapped her and was eating her alive.