The Long Night Of A Penitent
Translated from the French by Peter Schulman.
“When peace reigns, the bellicose man makes war with himself.”
Abou Seif gingerly touches the blade of his knife as he carves a barely noticeable oval incision within the lines of his finger. Slowly, a minuscule drop of blood hatches, grows, drips down his thumb before trickling down to his palm. Abou Seif licks it luxuriously, then, with demoniacal laughter, throws his head back and advances towards the woman tied to a chair.
“I’m going to rip your guts out.”
Matching action to speech, he lifts her chin with the tip of his knife and, in one swift move, slits her throat from ear to ear. The pain is so intense that the torture victim is thrown brutally into the air. Her eyes are popping out of their sockets. Abou Seif has to move aside to avoid getting splashed by all the blood. All of a sudden, the wall gives way behind him as he tumbles down an abyss.
“Abou Seif… Abou Seif… wake up.”
Abou Seif indeed wakes up. He is sitting in the middle of the bed, his throat on fire. His breathing resonates throughout the room as though it were a subterranean rumble. With a feverish hand, he wipes the sweat from his brow and lets himself fall back onto his pillow. His wife leans over him, takes his hand, and holds him tightly.
“Another one of those damned dreams?”
“Leave me alone.”
“Why do you refuse to see a doctor?”
“I’m not a nut job.”
“Shut up, will you!”
Abou Seif’s eyes bulge with rage, then, feeling completely wiped out, he hides behind the palms of his hands.
“I’m sorry,” his wife says.
“It’s not a big deal.”
“I’m worried sick about you. You’re wasting away; you’re not eating and you can’t fall asleep for more than a second without waking up and hitting the roof. There’s no shame in seeing a doctor. He can prescribe some sort of treatment and, in a few days, you’ll feel better.”
“Stop talking about doctors, okay?” Abou Sief becomes agitated once again. “I’m not crazy, dammit. Watch what you say…”
Filled with rage, he gets out of bed, hastily puts on some underwear, and, as he gets dressed, grumbles: “Do you think I enjoy this shit?!”
He goes towards the bathroom and turns the light on. The harsh brightness makes him squint. The mirror hurls a disturbing face right back at him. Abou Seif notices that he has in fact lost a lot of weight. His face is but a dried-out mask that a stubbly beard has made even uglier. He slaps himself a few times to fully wake himself up before addressing his reflection:
“You’re not going to let that scum ruin your life, are you, Abou Seif? You really sealed their lips once. Now let them rot in their mass graves… you don’t have to worry about running into them around here. You know the dead are yesterday’s news by now. Once they’re down there in their little holes, they’re out of sight, out of mind. If they come back to wander through your memories, what do you think you should do? You give them a kick in the ass, that’s what. It’s that easy. They don’t deserve another look. They weren’t even worth much when they were alive.”
He pats down his moustache, scowls intently to psych himself up, and then, feeling a bit more cheerful, turns towards the bidet to urinate.
“You weren’t afraid of anybody. And it’s not some rotten stiff who’s gonna stop you from sleeping. You’ve seen a lot worse, my friend. You dealt with so much crap that you don’t even have any more saliva left to go spit on them. So relax, okay? There’s nothing to be gained by bringing them all back. You knocked them off, got it? Dead, gone. They can’t step on your toes anymore; you’ve got to tell yourself that once and for all.”
He goes back towards the wash-basin and turns the faucet on. No water. He bangs on the sink, all put out: “More stinking water rationing. Why don’t those shithead politicians build some desalination factories around here? When those dirty demagogues open their big fat mouths, they’re at their absolute best. When it comes to actually doing something, however, well, that’s too much to ask of them apparently.”
“Go back to bed,” his wife orders.
“Come on, get back in here…”
“I’m good right where I am.”
“You’re worried that you’re going to have some more nightmares, aren’t you?!”
“Stop provoking me, you bitch.”
“That’s it, you’re scared of your nightmares.”
Abou Seif lets out another curse and stomps into the bedroom: “Are you gonna shut your mouth, you slut?!”
His wife won’t let him affect her. She remains on her knees in the middle of the bedroom. As she holds on to a candleholder, an aggressive look crosses her face.
“You’re not going to touch me with those butcher’s hands anymore.”
“You really want to see me flip out, don’t you? That’s what you want, isn’t it?!”
His wife lowers her arm and wistfully looks at the candleholder. Confused, she ventures: “I’m exhausted. I’m trying to help you, and you, you always take things the wrong way. Does that seem like a life to you? I’m sick of having to walk on eggshells all the time. Everything I say seems to wound you in some way. It’s unbearable. As for myself, I worry about you. And you, you’re ready to pounce on my every word. This can’t go on any longer, Abou Seif. I’ve had it up to here. Either you turn in a more positive direction, or we go our separate ways. I don’t feel like getting my head blown off just for trying to help you.”
“I didn’t ask you for anything.”
“I’m your wife, in case you forgot. I’m supposed to be sharing your life.”
“Not my past. And that’s where I’m having all my problems. Believe it or not, it’s not easy at all. You don’t slam the door on your past just like that. You try to get far away from it, and all you have to do is turn around to find it latching on to you. If you really want to make yourself useful, put a zipper on your mouth and get lost. That way, at least, there’s no danger of your coming out with any more crap like that. In case you’ve forgotten, I’ve just come back from a really distant place. I fought a war, for God’s sake! And just so you know, war is no fun at all… I guarantee it. Once they hit you deep down there where it hurts, it’s impossible to come out of it fully intact. You can’t look at the world with the same eyes anymore. You turn right, you turn left, there’s no way to keep track of the hundreds of ghosts you leave behind in your wake. I tried, however. God knows how many times I closed my eyes so tight my temples cracked. Nothing doing. In the darkness, in bright daylight, wherever you go, wherever you retire to, they’re there, stubbornly lodged in your memory banks, desperately hitched to your guts. I feel that even if I were to burn a hole through my brain or immolate myself with a flame-thrower, I wouldn’t be able to get rid of them. And all the guilt in the world could never reconcile you with them. It’s true, I did really rotten things-evil, unspeakable acts-but I’ve repented, for goodness’ sake! I’ve asked for forgiveness… what good does it do? Nothing… yet, at the time, I was convinced that I was on the right side, that I was fighting for a noble cause. I had decided to sacrifice my life for an Islamic state. I had faith! I dreamed of a pure race, of a colossal nation, of an unbeatable empire, handsome and strong like a god; I dreamed of a sterilized planet that was finally rid of its vermin, its lowlifes, its freaks; a splendid society with its sublime men, with purified gazes, with faces so radiant they looked like summer suns. I wanted to contribute to that glorious goal, make myself useful instead of drying up hanging around street corners, harassing passersby and acting like a smart-ass all the time. Can you imagine? A race of kings, a community of the just, and me, valiant, courageous, proud of my commitments to eternity. No one ever offered me such a fabulous proposition; I never thought I was up to such a task.”
His wife is moved. She tries to calm him down.
“Don’t touch me!” He pushes her away in disgust. “You’ve got nothing to say to me. Someone who hasn’t fought a war can’t possibly understand what I’m talking about.”
He goes back to the bathroom. He spits, and the faucet lets out a long whistling sound. Suddenly, a reddish streak streams down from it; effervescent blood floods the sink and starts cascading onto the tiles with an unbearable hissing sound.
Abou Seif takes a few steps backwards. He’s incredulous. Blood flows in all directions, splatters all over the walls, squirts with increasing volume, and even reaches the ceiling… Terrified, Abou Seif holds his head in his hands and starts screaming, shrieking…
“I’m here, dear. Abou Seif, Abou Seif, wake up. It’s just a dream.”
Abou Seif wakes up. He’s in bed. In a state of shock. A wrinkled blanket is wrapped around his waist, dripping with sweat. His entire body is shivering and his teeth chatter uncontrollably with a strange intensity. He climbs out of bed, determined to put an end to all of this, rushes towards the bathroom but stops in his tracks, stunned by the immaculate whiteness of the walls.
He rubs his eyes, vigorously, furiously.
His wife is right behind him and takes him by the shoulders. He recoils in horror, as though he has just been electrocuted.
“Darling, it’s only me.”
“You scared me.”
Abou Seif is at the end of his rope when he finally weakens and bursts into tears. His wife takes his head and rests it tenderly against her shoulder.
“I can’t take it anymore…”
“It’ll be okay, dear.”
“What the hell do you know?” he screams, pushing her away from him.
The rest of his cries are choked by a gurgling sound. His wife’s physiognomy has changed. The woman who is holding him in her arms is somebody else: an old Bedouin woman. She is small and haggard. Her face is decorated with sinister tattoos.
“Who are you?”
The stranger tries using her hands to tell him that she is unable to speak.
“Where do you come from, you…?”
She raises her chin all of a sudden: Her throat has been slit from one end to the other.
Abou Seif cries out, and retreats behind his hands. As he reopens his eyes, his wife is lying on the floor. The stranger has vanished. The only sound comes from some clear and bizarrely troubling water streaming from the faucet.
“This is not happening. Nora, this is absurd… absurd…”
His uncertain fingers sift carefully through the sleeper’s red hair, touch her forehead, and stop dead in their tracks. Immobilized. Nora is ice cold. Abou Seif falls over. The walls disappear. He’s on a street.
“What’s this carnival all about? I’m really losing it.”
The streetlamps twinkle. A voluminous moon emerges from the opaqueness, as white as a punctured eyeball. Anarchistic noises invade the silence; the grumbling intensifies and spreads throughout the night; Duhv! duhv! duhv!… the ground is vibrating. At the end of the street, first in little groups, then in large regiments, hundreds of mutilated, bloodied kids come forward, in tatters, then women and old men, emaciated shepherds with their flocks, with faces so pallid that they seem almost phosphorescent…
Abou Seif gets up and starts running through the fields as though he were possessed by a demon: “No, no, noooo…”
“Abou Seif… Abou Seif…”
He’s on all fours. At the foot of his bed. His wife looks down on him, tries to grab on to him so she can lift him up.
“I tried to restrain you,” she explains, “but you’re too heavy. You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”
“I’m not completely awake, am I? It’s those damned dreams again. They’re making a jackass out of me…”
“What bad dreams?”
“Don’t get near me, will you. I want to know whether I’m awake or if this nightmare is still going on.”
“You’re awake, my dear.”
“I’m telling you, you’re awake.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Come on, you must be kidding. You had a violent dream and fell out of bed.”
Since he refuses to take her word for it, she finds a small carafe and starts to sprinkle him with ice-cold water. “Do you believe me now?”
Abou Seif lets the water trickle down his face, down to his waist, down his pajama pants. He is attuned to its coldness, its flow… With his fingertips, he feels his wet skin, gives himself a pinch, is distinctly aware of his nails biting into his chest… there’s no doubt about it: He’s awake.
“What time is it?” he asks.
“When is that damned sun going to come up?
“Go back to sleep, love. We have a long trip this morning. You’ll need all your energy.”
Abou Seif remembers. This stimulates him.
“I’ll take you wherever you want to go, but I have no intention of going back to sleep. Sleep is untenable for me right now.”
He staggers into the living room, falls into an armchair, and turns the radio on. He is slightly comforted by Cheb Mami’s crystal voice. Unable to remain still, he goes towards the kitchen, finds some cheese in the fridge, and bites into it voraciously. He goes back to the bathroom. For a split second, he’s afraid of getting near the sink. He gets ahold of himself, and, with a firm grip, turns the faucet on, gets undressed, jumps in the shower, hums a little tune. Soon, a bubbly soap rises from his hairy chest. He’s thinking of the road trip that awaits him, of all the shortcuts he needs to negotiate; he smiles as he thinks of that good old mother whom he misses and whom he can’t wait to see again.
He quickly puts his bathrobe on and returns to the living room. The radio is sizzling. The bathroom door slams shut behind him. Someone has turned the shower on. Torrents of water inundate the hallway.
He opens the door, and stops dead in his tracks: Nora is lying on the floor with her arms crossed and her guts flying. Duhv! duhv! duhv! The floor shakes. A quiet crowd has gathered in the staircase. In one fell swoop, a ragtag mob begins to swarm excitedly all over the foyer. The walls disappear again.
“Have you bloody well finished!” Abou Seif roars. “You no longer exist. You’re dead and buried.”
A blistering hand scorches his shoulder.
“Let go of me,” Abou Seif demands as he tries to wrench himself free. “Let go of me.”
“It’s just me,” Nora tells him as she shakes him by the shoulder.
Abou Seif finds himself back in bed, with his wife watching over him benevolently. “No,” he nods as he pushes Nora’s hand away and leaps out of his covers. He is pale; his hair is disheveled; his knees are rubbery. “You’re not going to get me this time, you old witch.”
“But what on earth are you talking about?”
“Don’t even get near me!”
In a complete frenzy, he looks all around and finds the candelabrum.
“It’s me, Nora.”
“You’re not Nora. And I’m not fully awake. I’ve had it up to here and I’m going to squash you all, you bunch of scum, you.”
Caught in a tenebrous spiral, he throws himself onto his wife and starts to bang, bang, bang…
Outside their window, the sun rises and turns a deaf ear to Nora’s cries. Slowly, the city awakes. A truck growls somewhere. The early birds are making a groggy but steady ruckus. Abou Seif stares at the bloodstained candleholder now punctured with bone fragments. The phone rings, seven times in fact. Abou Seif continues to stare at the candleholder.
“I know it’s that wretched dream,” he says, crouching over his wife’s inert body. “I’m not going to let them do it to me again. I’m going to just wait here until I wake up once and for all.”
He waits, waits, waits…
He’ll wait a long time.
The new day has now fully engulfed the room. Its light ricochets off the furniture. The children’s screams smash against the window. Nora is no longer bleeding. The brownish pool in which she cowers has now coagulated. Abou Seif releases the candelabrum, which falls to the floor, hits his ankle, and rolls under the bedside table. “This isn’t happening,” the penitent grouses belligerently. At last, he realizes exactly what is happening to him and he holds his head in his hands.
About the author
A former Algerian army officer living in exile in France, Mohammed Moulessehoul, aka Yasmina Khadra, has had five novels translated and published in the U.S., including The Sirens of Baghdad (Nan A. Talese ‘07), and The Attack (Nan A. Talese ‘06). Wolf Dreams (Toby ‘06) may be of interest to readers of this story, for it too deals with a participant in the Algerian Civil War.