Drawing by Judith Wolfe

SYLVIA PETTER

No Man's Land



            Dak was the only member of the family whose name did not appear on the list tacked to the door. The names of all men, women and children living in the house had to be on that list. Dak was family, Dak was a dog. It was 1957. Algeria. I was nine. SOLDIERS WERE COMING.

            I tugged at my father's sleeve. "Papa, they can't take Dak!"

            "Inside! Get inside!" he said and closed the wooden louvered door. The grey sheet of paper tacked on the outside fluttered as he shut out the dusk.My father dropped to his knees before me. He placed a square calloused hand on each of my shoulders. We were eye to eye.

           I was determined. "No Papa!"

            My father's eyes drooped like his black mustache and held my tears. "Samir. We have to hand her over. We have to."He rose and drew my mother close to him. My sister, Aicha, clutched our mother's skirts and sucked her thumb. She was too young to understand. "If Dak makes the slightest sound, we're all lost," my father said.

            "I've trained her, Papa," I said. "She won't make a sound."

            My father looked at my mother's upturned face, then at me, then back at her. She nodded slowly, one hand around his waist, the other stroking the top of my sister's head. My father turned his face down once more to my mother's. "What about Aicha?"
            "She will be all right," my mother said. "She knows Dak is one of the family." And she kept stroking Aicha's head.

            I think Dak was the only dog left in our village. The soldiers had made us round them up. Then they'd take them away. In the early days we'd heard shots in the night. The soldiers feared the dogs would warn us. They would go from house to house - once, twice, sometimes three times a week, their jackboots thunk-thunking in the dust. If they heard a dog bark, they'd haul it out and shoot it. One of them would sling the carcass over his shoulder, like a goat to be readied for skinning and skewering. But I had trained Dak to keep quiet. A tiny twitch would signal movements outside the house, but never did she make a sound, not even when she was huddled under carpets and swathes of sheeting.

            That day, the soldiers rapped on the door and barged past my father. They kicked cushions and carpets aside and poked through the house. Dak was hidden under a pile of sheets and blankets, tucked away between cushions in the corner of the room where we all slept. The soldiers did not go into that room. My mother was in the kitchen. My father stood in the hallway. Suddenly, two soldiers pinned him to the wall. One soldier went into the kitchen. He hit my mother with the back of his hand across her cheek. My father strained against the khaki arms holding him back. Aicha screamed and buried her face in the back of my mother's skirts. I just stood there. They did not hit my father, not my sister, not me, only Mama. The room was red before my eyes. Then they left. Dak hadn't made a sound.When the soldiers had gone, my father wiped the blood from my mother's mouth. Her eyes were wide. He kept shaking his head slowly. I couldn't speak. The only sound was Aicha sobbing dully into my mother's knees. I found Dak. She was motionless underneath the sheeting bales. When I stroked her, she twitched an ear and opened her eyes. Something in them said she understood.

            Our house stayed silent. I think it was my mother who first spoke.

            "They weren't older than early twenties," she said to no-one in particular, then looked at me. "They were scared, Samir."

            I nodded.

            "Scared of the NLF," my father said. He thumped his fist in his palm. "Scared, just like us."

            My parents explained that we'd been caught between the National Liberation Front and the French; in the middle somehow. I nodded. We didn't speak about the incident again. On the day we got independence, Dak barked. I think she understood.

            When I was twenty-five, I moved to France. I never married. Never owned another dog.


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