A Thousand Tricks (an excerpt from the prologue of a novel-in-progress)
by Catharine Kozak
(Nelson, B.C., Canada)
The Sahara Desert, Morocco - 1973
The bus weaves south from Marrakesh through Taroudannt, slowing as it climbs the dizzying highway of the High Atlas. The girl is still awake, her only thought to get as far away as she can. She pushes a strand of hair back under her headscarf and watches the Nigerian asleep in the seat in front of her, his black head bouncing back and forth as the bus lurches toward the pass. Nothing disturbs him, not the roadblocks, not the driver fumbling with the spare tire, not the malevolent exhaust seeping through the space between the back doors. Not even the weight of the sleeping woman collapsed against his shoulder. Beside him, the priest squirms against the edge of the same seat trying to rearrange his legs so he won't slide into the aisle. He glances over his shoulder at the girl, his halo of white hair like a cloud at the back of his neck, and whispers a hushed Hail Mary as the bus loses momentum and heaves through another pothole.
The bus strains under the weight of too many people pressed three to a seat against each other. Even the aisle is full, jammed with bolts of colorful cloth, with bundles of raw wool and rolls of bright, silk thread, with hand-woven carpets rolled tight between the seats, with sacks of lusty apricots, almonds and soft, indigo figs. Crates of chickpeas are stacked one on top of the other on the stairs to the emergency door, and a young mother in a blue burka leans against them, the contour of her blue legs thrust into the aisle like a pair of soft, blue hills, her head bent intently towards an open book. Her son sits beside her and points to the pictures, watching as she turns the pages. He smiles for a moment, then frowns as a candy he has been chasing around his mouth with his tongue slips from his lips onto the open book. His mother scowls at him and he tries not to cry, his candy-stained chin trembling as he reaches up to be held.
Across the aisle from the priest, an old man in a yellow jacket stretched too tight across the shoulders cradles a sleeping child on his knee. He rocks back and forth in time to the rattle of the engine and pulls the child closer as the bus shudders over a bridge. Next to him, his wife is snoring and he elbows her in the side. She shakes her head and looks around wild-eyed, then lets her head fall back onto her chest as her throat finally quiets.
At the back of the bus, a teenage boy argues with his father, and two well dressed women argue in loud voices over the price of saffron. The tall woman with glasses too big for her face, sighs, as if this alone will put an end to the bickering, then she pulls a piece of folded plastic from her bag, pokes her finger into the golden pollen inside and shoves the finger into the smaller woman's astonished mouth. Licking her lips, the small woman rolls her eyes and smiles.
Everyone else on the bus is asleep, or pretends to be. When the bus finally reaches the summit it sways uneasily through a deep puddle, its back end threatening to slide sideways as the driver struggles to find the center of the road.
A shroud of rain and cloud enfolds them and the girl pushes her headscarf away from her face and peers out the window, but there is nothing to see. Nothing but a roiling wave of rainwater crashing against the glass. The girl has never seen rain with such fury. At home, the rain went on for days, indecisive and weak, crippling the landscape slowly. But this rain is different. This rain leaves nothing behind. There is no ground beneath them, no setting sun, no rising moon. Just a forgotten piece of sky hidden warily above the mist. There is nothing to see but her own floating reflection, pale and unkept, glaring back at itself like an underwater ghost.
The girl braces herself as the driver brakes hard to avoid a hole in the road, but one of the front wheels catches on its crumbling edge and the bus staggers sideways like a struck animal and lurches across the highway through rocks and mud and water, crashing to a stop against the edge of the steep bank on the opposite side of the highway. The wheels on one side are sucked deep into the mud tilting the bus sideways over the cliff.
The girl's chin bangs against the back of the seat in front of her and the old man in the yellow coat flops forward to stop the child on his knee from slipping to the floor. The woman in the blue burka abandons her book and pushes her son under the seat across from the emergency door as the top crate of chickpeas slides towards the priest who throws himself into the aisle to avoid being hit.
He lands hard on his ankle and cries out to the Nigerian struggling to free himself from the weight of the woman beside him. She is hit by a collapsing window frame and crumples onto him, pinning him to his seat. He tries to push her off but she is too heavy to move. Behind them, the girl has fallen to the floor and she wraps herself in her embroidered headscarf as if it is a golden river of armor, as if it will protect her when the world finally caves in on them.
When the bus stops moving, the girl shouts to the Nigerian, the first person she sees when she looks up. "Are you...okay?"
"I think so. But this woman..." He tries to turn his head, tries to raise his arms again. "And the priest," he whispers, his voice breathless. "I don't know..."
The priest lies groaning on the floor, his forehead bleeding, his foot twisted inward.
Then the wheels drop further into the cliff and the bus teeters back and forth over the valley like an out-of-control see-saw. A mounting chorus of women's cries rouses the driver, crouched on his hands and knees on the floor beside his chair, and he shouts instructions back to them, warns against sudden movements.
The girl tries to crawl towards the aisle, towards the high side of the bus where one of the windows shows a perfect view of the clouds parting hopefully around a stream of pale sunlight flooding the bus. But the hope is short-lived. The bus collapses deeper into the hillside until the earth meets the sky at the bottom edge of the metal window frames and the bus is left dangling more recklessly than before, ready to surrender itself to the misty valley below.
Everything in the bus slides sideways then, towards the gaping holes that were once windows, towards the panes of glass that shudder free from their frames and shatter down the mountainside. A bag of apricots bursts open and the sweet, bruised fruit splatters across the front of the old man's yellow coat and for one brief second he lets go of the child to wipe his eyes and in that moment the bus shifts again and the two are thrown against the crates of chickpeas. The impact splits one crate in half, slices off sharp splinters of wood as lethal as arrows. One of the splinters impales the old man's leg and he cries out for the child as his blood seeps through the layers of his kaftan and yellow coat.
The woman in the blue burka grabs at her son's leg under the seat and squirms towards him. The priest tries to protect his foot with one hand and reaches for the bar at the bottom of his seat with the other. And the tall woman at the back shrieks for her friend. 'My glasses! Allahhh! I can't see, I can't see, I can't see...'
And then the girl screams. A scream that makes everyone in the bus forget who they are, that mashes their fists against their mouths so their teeth have to chew through their fingers to escape. A scream that makes them cry out so that even the priest has to cry with them.
The last thing the girl sees before crashing back onto the floor is the Nigerian, finally yanking his arms out from under the heavy woman who falls sideways through the open window and tumbles down the mountainside like a boulder...