My mother leaned across the table and placed a hand on my cheek. “What your father and I want, Aysha, is peace. That is all. That is why we are going to France.” Her small brown eyes held something I had not seen in them before, something close to anger, but different. Upright. Proud. “Enough questions, binti,” she said. She straightened up, began stirring again. “Do not listen to gossip. Listen to your parents.”
So she knew — she had to know, then. I wanted to ask her how — had Khalida’s father said something? Had she simply guessed, the way she so often did with me? Or did everyone know, everyone else? But the warning look in her eyes kept me quiet. I wanted to tell her I did not believe them, that Khalida was no longer my best friend, no longer even a friend, but when I began to speak she hushed me. Yet I was comforted. I was not alone in this terrible knowledge, and if my mother was not afraid, what reason had I to fear? Unless of course she did not understand what they did to harkis. She was not in the store when the man without a tongue visited.
I picked up some stray scraps of dough and began shaping them into tiny worms, with crumbs of walnut for eyes. When she asked if I wanted to go to Khalida’s house I shook my head, my fingers busy.
I became very watchful. When the bell on the door tinkled, I leapt to the storefront to see who had arrived. New customers were the most alarming, but even those who had been buying sweets from us for years were not immune to my suspicion. Even taciturn Mr. Mameri, with his hunched shoulders and drooping lower lip — what might lurk behind his reticence? In the Casbah, the denunciation of a traitor would be considered honorable.
When my father returned from the Kabyle, I spent as much time as possible near him. I watched him in the store, adroitly layering samsa on the silver platters behind glass, greeting customers with a respectful dip of his head, squinting nearsightedly at the register as he picked out prices. I watched him when he prayed, eyes closed and lips moving, his face wearing an expression like pain. I watched him with my mother, how he touched her on the shoulder when he passed her in the kitchen, how his voice when he spoke to her was firm, but his eyes were soft.
Who was this man, my father? Was he a harki? If he could betray Algeria, could he betray us, too? Yet my mother knew the accusation, and still she looked at him with loving eyes, answered his calls with the same mild tone, the same occasional tinge of impatience. I wondered briefly whether she too was a harki, but I did not think a woman could be one, and I did not believe my mother capable of betrayal. She was too clear, too trusting. Perhaps she was too trusting to see the truth about him.
Did my father know the accusation?
Once he caught me watching him in the store. He was tallying receipts, hunched on the stool behind the register, his brow drawn. I thought he was too absorbed to notice me. As soon as he looked up I dropped my gaze to the counter, adjusted a doily of baklawa on a platter.
“Yes, binti?” His voice was gentle. “What is it?”
“Do you have something to tell me?”
My father was not a demonstrative man, and he did something unusual then. He set aside the receipts and came to me, knelt until his eyes were level with mine. My forehead prickled, my palms felt slick. I prayed he could not sense my suspicion.
He took one of my hands in his, held it as if he was not quite sure what to do with it. “Life does not always give us easy choices, binti,” he said.
I was mystified. Did he mean the choice to leave Algeria, or the choice to betray Algeria? If he knew they thought he was a harki, why did he not deny it? How could he leave such a job to me, his daughter? Or had he denied it — had there been a confrontation? But I could not ask any of these questions. His proximity was too intimidating, too precious; I did not want to lose it, and I did not have the courage or recklessness to ask such audacious questions.
He made no effort to explain himself. “Life does not give us easy choices,” he said, “and we can only do our best.” He took a deep breath, exhaled in a soft whistle. “You are a good girl, Aysha.” He gave my hand a squeeze, then let it drop. “A good, dutiful girl.”
My love for my father swelled in my chest and I wanted to weep. I lowered my eyes like a good, dutiful girl. But was I a good, dutiful girl? Good, dutiful girls did not question their fathers. Or did they, if their fathers were harkis? Should they, if that was the case? I wanted to trust him, I wanted nothing more than to believe in my father, but I could not help wondering: was this what a harki told his children when they began to suspect the truth?
The bell on the storefront door tinkled, and I started in alarm.
The nightmares continued. Some nights the man without a tongue was my father, and he ran the store as if nothing was out of the ordinary, responding to the customers’ questions in ragged croaks. They smiled politely and commented on the weather. Other nights, I myself was mute, or choking on a piece of makrout I could neither taste nor maneuver. But I no longer woke my mother with my sobbing. As if to protect my parents from further worry, I suffered through these dreams in silence. I would jerk awake in the middle of the night bathed in sweat, my muscles taut, and will myself to stay awake until the sky beyond my pink-striped curtains lightened to day.
I did not speak to Khalida in school, did not even look at her. I stopped playing with the other girls, too. I sat alone during break, slowly eating the sweet my mother had wrapped in my satchel. Let them be jealous — of my sweets, of Paris. I did not need these friends, anyway. I would make new friends in France, better friends.
But a week after our argument Khalida caught up with me as I was walking home. She said my name, her voice nervous. She tugged at my sleeve but I only walked faster. “Don’t you want to see what I have to show you?”
I spat in the gutter like Bassam and his friends, and kept walking.
“Please stop, Aysha.” She had to jog to keep up with me. “Please.”
I stopped. I wondered if I was being a harki to my own family, but I stopped.
Khalida looked down at her feet in their scuffed sandals. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I said nothing. But I felt the brittle wall of my resistance cracking, a longing for my best friend seeping through.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said, and her eyes rose until they met mine, for a second, before darting off.
I had to clear my throat to find my voice. “Do you believe it?” I asked.
She shook her head, looked at me again, her eyes bolder. “No.” A breeze rippled through the street, and the nimbus of curls around her face lifted and settled.