Echoing through the humid air of August a rooster signals the inevitability of a new day. With its cry, a pungent smell welcomes the sleeping villagers to the same old toils. In a stucco hut, tucked in an alley along to his six siblings, Amaru lies with his eyes open waiting for a few more minutes of peace. The rooster’s persistence finally wins upon his senses; he gets up and heads outside. The sun’s rays pierce his eyes, still unaccustomed to light and he covers them with a hairy and sweaty elbow. He hears bugs flying, buzzing, and swarming around a nearby tree. Every morning the rooster cries, the bugs buzz, and the light baths this small stucco house’s backyard as Amaru heads out to work. These are the gears to his internal clock, every morning he can be sure of these four elements occurring in this specific succession, all the rest is chance. Amaru does not know whether his uncle will be man enough to provide for their family or whether one of his little brothers will run away and get lost in some unknown neighborhood. He does not know whether his mom will fight with his uncle, also step-father now, or whether she will hide herself in some place he’d rather not know about. His father died when he was three and his uncle was nothing but a disappointment in the role of the man of the house. Amaru was a street vendor, it wasn’t much but he got a chance to fight for himself and his own every day. Sometimes the fights would be physical, sometimes the weather would strike him hard and he had to endure and other times he would simply think, and plot and scheme. All the while he had to keep an eye for officers patrolling and savagely beating any street vendor they could get their hands on.
He drops his elbow and now his eyes are more accustomed to the warming light, from inside the small hut he hears the screeching voice of his younger sister Nina.
Amaru ! Wait.
Don’t leave yet! I have something for you!
Ok, but don’t yell you little brat, brothers and sisters are sleeping.
Yes – she whispers as she walks up to him standing at the doorway.
What is it?
Take this – With her tiny, skinny, pale hands she gives him a wooden box of matches with some engravings resembling the ones Amaru has so often seen over the wooden archway of the central mosque.
I don’t need this.
I know you don’t smoke. It’s just a gift. – giving of a big bright smile the young girl hugs him and goes back.
Amaru stood there thinking of his sister, where did she find this small wooden box? Had she gone wandering about near the mosque? Was it worth anything? He turned around and he walked outside just as his sister warned him not to try to sell it. She said it was special and with the memories of what he perceived as special when he was young Amaru smiled.
Down the road he heard the robust noises of some distant machine guns and he remembered how that had been special to him, a special kind of fear which sometimes made him cross entire blocks over the dried mud of countless of huts just so he could get a glimpse from where did that strange noise came from. The noise was not strange anymore after 3 years, after the day he met Ali.
-Hey Ali! – Amaru greeted the big broad shouldered and baldheaded black man standing outside a small carpet tent stuffed with wooden boxes, each slightly tilted and showing a different variety of fruits ranging from common apples to exotic mangos which always guaranteed to be sold out within a day.
-Hello my friend. – Ali stood up and his towering figure surpassing Amaru and the tent.
Ali stared at him with a blissful smile which never fails to warm those who took a second to see it. This smile stood amongst Ali’s other features as odd. Ali had big hands, strong and long arms, broad shoulders and higher by at least a foot from anybody in the market. He was nicknamed the Old Ox. Ali had been a mufti and at the height of his career he had found himself editing important manuscripts books, and one time had had a close friendship with the most prominent Khadi of Morocco. The Old Ox worked with Amaru now, he provided the connections to get the fruits while Amaru sold and kept and kept an eye for police.
-Fine, straight, always – resounded the strong voice of Ali
Amaru took his usual place sitting on the left of Ali and staring and the muddy street which under the first rays of light promised a busy and filthy morning.
-What about this Amaru, listen. There is a man who walks always round the market on midnight. It doesn’t matter what day it is or if it rains, he never fails to skip a day and he is not a guard.
-When did you see him?
-It doesn’t matter, but I know of him. And I know that he is a recluse, never wonders outside his home, that is if he has one, if not than he has a great hiding place no-one in this city knows about. What is he?
-Umm, a homeless guy? A mad man?
-No, that is an idealist. He stands just outside of what he wants and always goes round it.
-Umm, yes, ok, but why doesn’t he like company?
-That I don’t know.
-So an idealist is bad?
-Bad? Hah, no actually he just is there.
-Then is he doing anything wrong?
-No, but he could do more; he could try to change what he sees. But if he is detached from reality, he never will.
Ali turned around staring at the street, watchful of any possible interest in any of the early walkers. He had taught Amaru everything he knew about taking care of fruits and selling them. They had first met nearly twelve years ago in a dirty neighborhood street where policeman had cornered and were beating Amaru with wooden crate sticks. Ali had intervened, stopping them and taking the blows himself. Amaru remembered the stink of blood and piss in the street. He remembered Ali pushing the policeman and sheltering him with his own body. Ali stood there sitting down with his long arms attached, fists clenched and pushing tightly into the ground, he stood there and took the punches, planks and kicks everywhere, till the unfamiliar noise became familiar. Till two masked man had shot killed the two policemen. They both had come slowly, one going for the policeman’s possessions and the other coming closer to Ali and pointing the rifle at his head. Ali stood, looked up and in the bloody mess that his face had become he gave the smile which was his own. The gunmen flinched, stepped back and shot once in the air just before they both ran from the scene.
-It’s probably going to be a quite day; I heard they caught someone yesterday. – Amaru remarked.
-You never know, but we will handle it if we have to. We’ll probably know when they’ll be close, policeman are noticeable after all.
-I nearly forgot about this, Nina gave this to me today, and I wondered if anything is written on it or if it’s just scratches. – Amaru hands over the wooden box of matches.
-Hmm, it’s strange I remember this from my days in Morocco, it’s nothing special but I’m surprised to see these things here. It’s just a box of matches of course, and on it is written “Hope”, or “Salvation” it depends, but it’s a nice Arabic word. Keep it close, you might make of it your lucky charm. – said Ali once again giving a brief smile.
Amaru nodded and stared with resoluteness into the crowded street. He stood up and started yelling to draw customers. The day was good; they sold nearly everything by midday and did not encounter any police. They had sold everything just before the improvised market street was rounded by four policemen. Ali had heard that goods and everything was confiscated, they gave back only bruises and spit.
He walked home to a ruined family and to his hungry brothers. He walked towards it and opened the narrow door. Black fumes teased his nostrils and he had to stand back as his sight slowly adjusted to see the blackness the room was shrouded in. He called for his mother but he got no answer. He called for Nina but still no answer. Taking a deep breath he went inside and palming the floor he felt an ankle, then a knee. He came outside and cried amidst the smoke induced coughs. After awhile he went inside to count the feet. They were all there, his brothers and sisters, probably like he left them, probably no-one had beaten them, and hopefully they died in their sleep suffocated by the black smoke. Amaru couldn’t tell which feet belonged to whom; their skin was burned and tough. He came outside once again, this time with black stains on his knees, palms and elbows. Crying he raised his palm and inhaled the smoke on his hand, assuring himself that probably he could smell Nina in those black fumes. The house had been burned, one of the increasingly frequent raids, carried either by militia, the secessionists or the police itself. The only clue was something painted in the wall of his house, an acronym probably to one of the righteous groups. In these times it was strangely normal. The thought could not console Amaru, his knees dropped and his forehead hit the dirt as tears and dirt mixed with the black smoke of his hand.
By midnight he heard shots coming from the marketplace. Instinctively Amaru ran and sprang up on the roof of one of the huts. He ran past the mosque with its tall and slender minarets. He ran under the stars on a clear night following the familiar sound and the faint lights in the center of the marketplace. He felt the cold air and all the stars staring at him. Running he felt free, from his obligations and from his life. Amaru stopped at a hut from where he could see three distinct groups shooting at each-other. He stared with interest at men, wishing and seeking murder. He sprang down and broke into one of the huts where he knew he would find incense oil of the kind he needed. Stealing a jar he jumped back where the stars could see him. And drenched himself in with the sweet scented oil. Amaru looked back at those stars then on the square. He stood upright, moon on his back and a big tall shadow running in the middle of the market. He smiled and remembered the tough burned feet and the black smoke. He took the wooden box of matches out of his pocket and yelled at the warring groups down in the square.
-This is my hope now!
The blazer burned bright and shed enough light to stop the shooting. Amaru sat down and touched his ankles; they crackled under the touch of his hands. His body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his skin aflame and from within leaving out the essence of his last breath, his head blackening and in the air there was smell of burning flesh. Stars stared and felt the burning of another soul consumed.