The Olive Branch
He saw her through the leaves of an olive tree.
Sand dusted her feet. It soiled her red dress and the veil knotted at the back of her neck like his mother wore hers. She stopped her donkey and lifted a hand to her brow. She squinted, licked her lips.
He almost fell out of the tree. The basket on his arm slid to his wrist. Olives rained onto the dirt around her. She stooped to gather them up, and held them out to him, hands cupped. “Karim?”
He touched the amulet around his neck, a verse of the Koran inside it to ward off the evil jinn. Her name was Hayat. Everyone in the village knew it.
Karim chose a black olive from a branch and placed it inside the basket. The next one had the color of an eggplant, like her eyes. He picked another, a glossy black like the braid falling from her veil. A family could earn a living with 300 olive trees. His father had 500. Karim knew them all, climbed them all, the best picker in the family, the oldest son. He never swatted a pole at harvest time. In the village, the people said: Karim is too soft to hit a tree. He perches on the branches like a bird and plucks the olives one by one.
A wind blew dust from the south. Hayat brushed her eyes. “The desert’s coming.”
“For you, not for us.” Sweat dripped from Karim’s armpits and down his sides. His belt gathered it like a gutter. His father complained it was hotter in winter now than it used to be. Karim pushed a branch aside to check the wall of cactuses his father planted between his and Hayat’s family land. Shriveled trees rose up in the distance. Sick trees. Moths, he’d heard. Drought. He touched his amulet. “We have lots of water.”
“The desert swallows everything. I think it wants us to breathe it.” Hayat stroked the donkey’s mane. Jugs sloshed gently on its saddle. “There’s sand in our lungs.”
“Yours, not ours. A Berber woman cleans our house every day. My father washes his truck every week.”
“It must be a thirsty truck.” In the village, the people said: When Hayat smiles, she is a flowering cactus.
Karim stuck a black olive in his mouth. The juice calmed him, ripe fruit not as bitter as the green olives he left to age on the branch. His tongue snaked around the pit, scraped its flesh, sucked it dry. He clenched it between his teeth, ready for a colossal spit. He won the village spitting contest two years in a row.
Hayat watched him, shading her eyes from the sun. Karim wondered if he looked like a monkey in the tree, if Hayat saw the damp around his waist and between his legs. He spat the olive pit into his hand.
“Come down out of your tree,” Hayat said. She stretched her arms up for his basket.
He hung it on a branch, let it dangle there half full. Every olive was a coin, a new lamb, electricity. Hayat didn’t know the value of things.
“Why didn’t you marry Ali?” he asked. Ali, nineteen, fuzz on his lip, wiry hairs on his legs when he washed his feet before prayer. They were cousins. “What’s wrong with him?”
She unwrapped the veil from her neck. The sun caught the Hand of Fatima on a gold chain. The charm didn’t work. If it did, the desert wouldn’t swallow her land. She wouldn’t refuse to marry who her father chose for her.
“He still plays ball with the children,” she said. “His mother still tucks him into bed.”
“That’s a lie.”
“It’s a sin to lie. Come out of your tree.”
Karim slid his bare feet down the bark until he stood on the dirt. Hayat was taller than him by half a head.
“Ali can shake every olive off a tree with his bare hands,” he said. “I’ll do it too next year. I can read French, Arabic and English. I can drive my father’s truck to the spring and fill the water tanks by myself. Ali can’t drive a truck.”
Hayat brushed a fly from her dress. The Hand of Fatima rested in a dent at her throat that looked as if someone pressed too hard with his thumb when she was a girl. The necklace strangled her. If she was married, she’d have a longer chain. In the village, the people said: Hayat waits for someone. Only she knows who.
The donkey lowered his head, rooting for grass that didn’t grow there. Jugs sloshed.
“Where did you get that water?” Karim asked.
Hayat wrapped the donkey’s lead around her fist. “I took it from your father’s spring.”
He saw the hem of her red dress in the water, ankles submerged, her skin carrying the desert out of her cursed land. His mind lingered at her ankles. “Why didn’t you lie?”
“It’s a sin to lie.”
“It’s a sin to steal.”
“The desert swallowed our spring. We asked your father for help. He wanted more than we could pay. He charges the poor for their alms. He’s a miser.”
Karim twisted a branch from the olive tree. “He’s my father. He’s right.”
“Water is a gift from Allah. Did your father shake his stick at the earth and it cracked and a spring welled up? He should share for nothing what he got for nothing.”
“The water’s ours.” Karim sprang at the donkey and began tugging at the ropes. The donkey shifted its weight and gazed into the grove. Karim struggled and panted but the rope was stronger. In a year, he could do it. “Give it back.” He raised the branch.
“Our trees are dying of thirst.”
“Give it back.”
“My sisters are faint with thirst.”
He shook the switch over her head. “Dig a well on your own land.”
“The desert swallows them all.”
“That’s your own fault.”
Hayat turned the donkey back onto the path towards the cactus wall. Karim brought down the switch on her shoulder. Her veil fell away. A tiny gold ball dangled at her ear. She looked down at Karim, and her eyes weren’t violet olives. They were bruises in the sunlight. He licked his lips and raised the switch. She showed her teeth, then turned her back on him.
Karim whipped her shoulders and back. The donkey walked along the furrow, Hayat upright beside him, Karim thrashing her and shouting until the sand in the air clogged his mouth. He wanted her to scream. Groan. Beg him to stop.
Hayat raised her arm, and Karim struck. A red line slashed her skin as if it had always been there, except that the blood was fresh.
“You caress your tree and hit a woman,” she said. “A woman is more than a tree, you fool.”
Karim dropped the switch onto the dirt. Hayat pressed her veil over the wound. From the nearest tree, Karim picked a green olive and clamped it between his teeth. Its bitterness made him sick, but he understood it.
“It’s just water.” He waved toward the cactus wall. “Take it.”
Hayat opened the spigot on one of the jugs. Water spilled into her palm, and she held it out to him like a cup. In the mirror of her hand, his reflection. And a faint curl of blood. “Drink,” she said, “and grow.”
He saw himself in a year, half a head taller, uprooting the cactus wall in the sun. Hayat filled jugs in his father’s spring. Her skin was wet and cool.
Anika Scott is a journalist whose articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites in the U.S. and Europe. She grew up outside Detroit and now lives in Essen, Germany, the setting of her novel in progress. Her short fiction has also appeared in the online anthology Page 47.