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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes - Stories from North Africa

The Snake House
Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra

My Uncle Bushta lived in Wadzum, one of the greenest regions of Central Morocco. Umrbih River winds and twists up the center of that region and goes way up, somewhere beyond the Tadla Woods and the high mountains. Nobody from that region knew where the river comes from or where it goes into. When we were kids my father would always drive us there to visit my mother's side of the family and connect with the land and the animals and the local kids. In facts, whenever we went there, we came back home with an unforgettable story to tell or a useful experience to learn from.

One day my father was driving us there in his old, small French Citroen car, called Deux Cheveaux. By the way the car always broke down. Every morning my father would wake me up to help him start the car by pushing it down a hill. While I am pushing the car down, he would shift gears and the car would cough and pop, and would let out a lot of dirty smoke that I would inhale for breakfast. One day, for some unknown reason, I was tired to my bones and my father woke me up to push the car and I pushed it with all my might, but then after the car puffed and huffed, my heart started to play Jamaican drums in my chest. I couldn’t stand straight, but I could lie down on the ground and look at the morning, blue sky, thinking that I would die. My father came up to me and crouched down and said what’s wrong my son and I couldn’t talk to him because I was adjusting the inside of my chest so that I wouldn’t die. I told the story to my mom and my mom got so mad at my father and told him to never ask me to push his lousy, old car. Anyway, while he was driving us to Wadzum three men suddenly came out from the bushes and the embankment, and stood right there, in the middle of the road, waving for us to stop, waving as though they were stranded and needed help. My father slowed down the car to stop, but my mother, who was sitting right next to him, saw one of the guys carrying a big club, concealing it behind him. My mother screamed, don't stop! Don't stop! They’re thieves! And my father pushed down on the accelerator and the car went buzzing away in spite of its old age, almost crashing onto the men. The men jumped away from the path of the car and their clubs jumped off their hands and I could see them, clubs flying about the men and the men cussing and fussing, and I could see them all from the rear window as we were rapidly moving away. Even though we had that bad experience, my father kept on taking us to the country.

We lived in the capital city, Rabat, and every summer or two, we would go there to visit the family, eat good country food, and have a good time. I remember I used to swim the Umrbih River to cross to the other side. I would stretch my white, skinny legs down to the bottom of the river and I would feel the pebbles caressing the bottom of my feet. It felt so good floating over the pebbles, barely touching them, but I would sometimes get scared, because I had been once told by a local kid that if I kept on doing that, touching the pebbles with my feet, the water snakes that lurked around on the bottom of the river would get angry and they would reach for my toes and chop them off. I got scared when he told me that. I sometimes wiggled my toes when I went swimming, fearing the water snakes would nibble on them.

This river wasn't always shallow. In the summer it would draw in from its edges and the sand and pebbles banks would appear and shine under the hot sun. But in the winter, the river would swell like an angry pregnant woman, and would sometimes come out of its banks and tore down the edges of the farm lands and wash down whole acres of olive trees, cotton, and wheat.

Uncle Bushta had a wife and two children. One about five years old and the other was just a baby. Uncle Bushta was what we call in Arabic a Fiver--Khammas. He would work for farmers and for pay he would get one fifth of the farmers’ profit. He would work their land, tend their animals, and manage their farm. There was a guy who lived in that same area and had taken up a piece of land from a Frenchman and on that land there was a house and that house had been condemned, locked and abandoned for so many years. It had been locked since that Frenchman had been booted out from that region and probably from the country. Now for some reason or another, this local man owned that land and needed my uncle to work it up and live in the Frenchman's house.

Local kids had told me that there were many snakes and scorpions that crawled in the entire region, and I just couldn't see them because they hide, especially when the sun was hot and there was no wind to blow, or cool you down. I believed the kids, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking that they were just trying to scare me off, because I was a city kid with clean shorts and white legs. But one day I was sitting with my father and cousins in a large room when the rain came pouring down. The walls of the room were made of clay, but the ceiling consisted only of shrubs and hay. It was funny because during the summer, the rain hardly falls in that region, but for some reason it did on that day. After a few minutes of falling rains and blowing winds I could see big, black scorpions crawling down the walls. They were not baby scorpions. They were hefty, spiky, and ugly looking. And what made it worse, their stingers were long, curled up, and bumpy. I was petrified.

My father was as scared as I was. He was staring at them with his mouth open, his eyes popped out like he was stung by a dozen of scorpions and died that way. We right away got out of the room and my father suggested we sleep in the car on that night.

Uncle Bushta was happy to have a house to live in and a land to tend to in this rich, good arable land. He broke into the Frenchman's house and occupied it on the same day he met up with the new owner to discuss business and sign up government papers. The house had no furniture but it had a good roof, large windows, and white solid walls. It looked as though it was taken care of, but it is the inside of the house that counts, not the outside.
Bushta and his wife, Elkbeera, and the kids went to sleep on a blanket on the floor, and everything seemed to be in its place. But in the middle of the night, Elkbeera, woke up to the sounds of hissing snakes. She was a local and knew that the sounds were those of big snakes. In facts they were the sounds of vipers, the venomous snakes of the family Viperidae that lived in that region. Elkbeera lighted up an oil lamp and saw this fat of a snake lying full-length next to her baby. He looked awful and his head was almost as big as the head of the baby. Elkbeera screamed and the snake quickly slithered his way out into another room. Uncle Bushta woke up in a sitting position, his eyes popped out.
"What's going on?" he screamed to himself.
"I saw a big snake!" cried Elkbeera.
"Right there, lying next to Mustapha!" Elkbeera said, pointing her finger down to the ground.
Bushta put on his djellaba, picked up a club that looked like a baseball bat, grabbed the lamp from Elkbeera and started looking for the snake.
"We need to kill the snake," she said.
"If I find the snake, I am not just gonna kill him, I am gonna destroy him." Uncle Bushta said angrily, his kinky chest hair sticking out of the V shape of his djellaba.
They looked and looked but could not find any snake. The snake was nowhere to be found. The snake knew where to hide. Uncle Bushta went back to sleep, but Elkbeera could not close her eyes. She left the lamp light on and kept staring at the ceiling, thinking about the worst-case scenario the snake might have caused. After an hour or so, she woke up Uncle Bushta and said, "I worry about the kids, Bushta. I think I heard more than one snake. I think the snake might come back."
"Come on, Elkbeera, go back to sleep. It was just a common gray snake." And Uncle Bushta rolled over away from Elkbeera and grunted and went back to sleep like a big baby. Elkbeera couldn't do anything but stare at the ceiling and worry. When she was a teenager she didn't fear snakes much, but now having kids around, her fear more than doubled. She became a mother who had let be known clearly that protecting her kids was her first priority.

The next night, the Bushta's family had to come home late. They were at the new owner's house drinking mint tea and eating couscous, and they were too tired, and they just wanted to come home to sleep.
Walking back home, Elkbeera had been praying not to encounter that snake again, but from the sounds of all that hissing and whistling she had heard the night before, she knew she would maybe encounter the same snake again.

They now reached the house and opened the door. Uncle Bushta turned on the oil lamp and lifted it up high. After the lights from the lamp settled in the house and their eyes got adjusted to its luminosity, they saw many snakes in the house. Some were big and some were small--probably the babies. Some were on the floor and some on the stairs. Some were on the ledge of the window and some were even in the sink. Elkbeera screamed and Uncle Bushta jumped in his place with the scream. The lamp shook in his hand and swung about its handle making the whole light swing from one wall to the other.
The snakes started to squirm and slither about and you could see them everywhere and Uncle Bushta said, "Let's get out of here, quick!"
And they all got out of the house and walked hurriedly into the darkness of the field.
© Sidi Cherkawi Benzahra June 2004

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