The two men were alone now. Or was it two women? The night stretched on endlessly. So did the mountain. And the frosted sky lying lightly over the mountain began to pale. The mountain stood facing them, bristling with rocky spurs, with clusters of thorn bushes: snow-dusted specters, already white-congealed.
The men (the women?) were two lone figures. The silhouettes that had been climbing for quite some time now might well have been taken for two phantoms. Just the two men, alone, cut off from the others. Or the two women, alone, cut off from the others? More like souls lost in the still-blind solitude of the night than individual actors in the world of the living, the men (or the women?) climbed on, following close on one another’s trail, bumping into each other. Sometimes one of them would use his hands to climb-the probability of a woman, therefore; one could only presume that the leading figure was a man. Was it steep? Terribly steep. When they weren’t both getting snagged in the needlelike spines bristling on the plants, they both stumbled over loose rocks.
The whining shells, snickering machine guns, countless bombs falling, must have been pulverizing, gouging out acres of the Bounab maquis. All that was over now, far behind. The frenzy of helicopters overhead and tanks below was all over. And now they were but two; let’s say a man, a woman. Just the two of them. Even the hellish din that had pursued them was over now, since the blows that shook the earth only sounded off in the distance. That was only natural; they hadn’t hung around for long. And now-nothing; they were survivors now. It was just the two of them now. They were scaling the mountain, it was like a wall. They toiled up, almost scraping their noses against the stone parapet. Slowly, they dragged themselves up and neither of them was complaining.
In raising their noses to the sheer ring of alabaster framing the sky, they would have seen the mountain. Not the sky, a snowy whiteness still yearning for day. The only smell it exuded was the chill cold. Such cold. Freezing virtually all smells, freezing all sounds at their very source. It was as if the air, remaining so still, was holding its breath, as if the air was hoping no one would notice its existence. The man, the woman climbed on, shinnying up with their knees; sometimes using their hands, the woman. And the man too at times. The man and woman that they seemed to be-taking each step carefully, putting their feet down in just the right place and not breathing any more than was necessary either-made very little noise. Very little noise, even way out here in the mountains, in the snow that muffled their footsteps. Man and woman, if indeed they were ordinary mortals and not living phantoms (admitting that phantoms might have been the same size).
Which, due to their nature, the deformed rocks and dwarfed bushes could not have been, being able to only stand there draped in shrouds, merely playing at being evil spirits and barring the way.
Nevertheless, the snow that drifted down so lightly around them, upon them, was losing no time. The snow that would soon bury under its sugary coating the rock faces, dwarf oaks, mastics, arbutus trees, rockrose shrubs, blot out the mountain. They were losing no time either-the two lone living beings that had not yet seen the end of their trials, climbing on. Climbing, gasping, sweating, endlessly on. Not exchanging a word. Not a Shit! or any such profanity. The woman trying especially hard not to let the distance grow, deepen, between her and the man up ahead, and succeeding. Although he was in the lead, she stayed close on his heels, sticking to him like a shadow.
Then the sun slipped a razor’s edge in the east; that was all. Whatever he was, the being turned as if to throw-what?-to his companion: a Kalashnikov he held up in his hand? But the initial movement lost momentum and in the end he simply passed the object into the other’s hands. Hardly a graceful delivery. That would have beat all, if such a gesture had been graceful. And then, grim and hasty, in a tone of voice that left no room for discussion, he snapped: “Hold this for a couple of minutes and stay exactly where you are. Do you hear? Stay-ex-act-ly-where-you-are.”
In the slanting rays of dawn his face could now be distinguished, hidden by the wild beard that crept all the way up to his eyes. A mask that was natural for him, no one could have torn it off. Now instead of a vacant look, the dark magnetic gleam of his eyes darted here and there.
In an even lower tone, he mumbled between his teeth:
“I need to get a little air.”
The woman translated mentally: “He’s got some urgent business to take care of, business that’s twisting his guts.” The very young woman did not raise her eyes, she kept them fixed on the ground and she shouldn’t have seen what she saw there in the snow, she saw herself doing what she shouldn’t have done. She-me is taking, ripping jewelry off of women with their throats cut, dead women; she is me, and I’m robbing them of their jewelry; we, the other girls in the attack unit and I, step in after they’ve been slaughtered, finished off. We have to do it, we’re forced to, once the men have finished their work. Peasant jewelry. Very rarely gold. Gold, that would be funny. And the blood that covers them is still fresh, the gaping gashes in their throats, still throbbing.
He was deciding where to drop his drawers in some out of the way place.
“Stay exactly where you are and keep an eye out,” he grumbled. “You understand? Keep an eye out! If not . . . ”
She stood there saying to herself and thinking just as much: “Ruthless Bou Benani, I’ll stay right where I am.” Sarcastically, and thinking just as much, “A murderer, a rapist, but he can’t say I’m going to take a shit, he says I’m going to get a little air.”
She fired off a short round at his feet.
An AK-47, she’d learned from experience how to handle one.
“Just shit right where you are. It won’t bother me! I’ve seen worse things, don’t you agree?”
The great leader let out an Aaah! The cry went bouncing off everything across the countryside, except the echoes. He fell flat on the ground and bit the thin snow on the slope from where he looked down at the girl. And then, he shut his fat mouth, that’s the smartest thing he could have done; he was holding his ankles and squirming his ass around.
The girl to herself: “This is my chance. My last chance. I shouldn’t do it? Lord, it’s now or never.”
“Go ahead,” she coaxed, “go ahead, do your business. Just go in your pants, who cares, this is war.”
She had moved farther away to be out of his reach.
The old guy just sat goggling with those icon-like eyes of his, so impenetrable you couldn’t imagine them reflecting or being clouded by any thought. “Even when he’s cutting people’s throats; even afterward. After he’s lined up a row of corpses. Those eyes fringed with thick lashes like a woman’s.”
She still didn’t understand him. He had laid claim to her just after she had been kidnapped along with other girls from her village. That was why she was the only one of the lot that was still alive. She didn’t understand him. Didn’t understand why her? But what difference did it make now?
“I’m no more than a doormat for you, isn’t that right? Well, now it’s my turn, I want to see you shit in your boots and eat it.”
As if the outlaw’s gaze were being sucked into the depths of his being, his eyes did not turn away or waver under the fearless, sharp look of his prisoner.
He growled: “Cursed girl. Just wait, you’ll see . . .”
“I’ve seen it all.”
She discharged another burst of fire into his shins. The snow was suddenly studded with beads of bloodred dew. Not being able to hold it back, he opened his mouth again and shrieked.
She said: “What did you expect?”
Gasping, he began to foam at the mouth: “By God, I swear I’ll get you and when I do I’ll feed you to the dogs!”
“Don’t shout so loudly. You know the army is close by. You’ll get us caught.”
From where she was sitting, the girl thrust her shoulders forward and craned her neck to hiss those words at him. The faded shawl covering her head and knotted under the chin gave her face a heart shape and made her cheeks look rounder than they were. Those cheeks, glowing from the effort of climbing, that heart shape tapering to a fine point, flushed with the same warmth, and the mouth, small, full, childlike, that opened and closed, red too: from her face, fifteen or sixteen? From her body, pardon me, but so little could be seen of her figure under the remnants of the raincoat strapped around her waist with a rope, she might just as well have been a street porter.
She was no longer looking down, now she kept her eyes leveled straight in front of her. Narrow almond-shaped loopholes, almost like an Asian’s eyes. She observed the man on the ground as he continued to scream making short regular snorts through his nose, keeping his mouth closed. She watched him coolly and, in the end, without even seeing him. She-me like the other girls on duty, running from body to body, still warm bodies, relieving them of their earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings–anything that could be called jewelry. But she-me encounters some trouble with one of the bodies, no way to take off the string of gold pieces, it is stuck in the open wound at the throat. Got to get it though, got to take the necklace off. Take the necklace, if not it is my life that will be taken. If not the devil sprawled out there in the snow would have made me pay for it. A devil that kept a keen watch over us all, men and women alike. I wouldn’t wish someone like him on anyone. In spite of my frantic efforts, I just can’t, the woman’s necklace won’t go over her head, no matter how hard my fingers–sticky with blood–pull in every direction. No way, it just won’t come off. I inform the emir. The moron that calls himself an emir, the same that’s writhing his ass around in the snow. Because you’ll really have it coming to you if you neglect just once to inform him about the slightest little thing, even if it’s just that you have to take a piss. So, I inform him. Scowling, he motions to one of the other bastards with a jerk of his chin, the man comes over and, with a single blow of his machete, whacks through what is left of the poor woman’s neck. I can retrieve the lousy goddamned necklace now. Severed from the rest of her body, the head is no longer an obstacle. God, the gold pieces are all so sticky, dangling from the blood-soaked, matted silken cords. Was she coming back from a marriage or something?
Snuffling into his hominoid beard, now the emir was either spouting off dark threats, or mouthing long laments, it all depended.
“You bitch! You’ll . . . You’ll see . . . I’ll get even with you . . .”
He had been thrown onto his back by the last bullets that had hit him; yet he had managed to pull himself back up into a sitting position.
She, having come back to her senses, effortlessly retorted, “And you, what are you? A stinking jackal? At least you’ll have learned that about yourself: a stinking jackal that did nothing but glut itself on corpses and then come and wallow on me.”
“Guttersnipe! Shameless hussy! Child of . . . grra! grra! hum!”
He was seized with a fit of coughing and the words mingled with phlegm in his throat.
She reminded him, “Didn’t you have to take a shit? Don’t save it, don’t hold back, go ahead. Shit on yourself right where you’re sitting. A pile of shit, you’ll be your true self when they find you. The biggest pile of shit ever seen in this country.”
He retorted, “You’ll see what I do to tramps, to enemies of Allah. You’ll see.”
“The army is right behind us. If you feel like showing them your ass before you’ve finished dropping your load, take your time and yell a little louder. Is that what you want, Great Leader?”
“Listen, enemy of God. Know that . . . grra! grra! hum!”
Another fit of coughing made his voice crack. A bickering jerk, was that all a great leader was?
Then a plaintive shriek, wrenched from his entrails with forceps, made him exclaim:
Glory be to Allah who has chosen us over many of his faithful servants
“May your mouth, the mouth that is fouled with human blood and filled with the name of our Lord, be forever closed. That name should not even touch your lips. Now, you listen to what the surah of the Night Journey says:
Glory be to God! He has not taken a son; He has no abettor in the kingdom. He needs no protector to defend him against humiliation.
“Hetaera! Priestess of Babylon!”
“Today the hand of God has come down to fell you. And ‘spera ‘spera, when you appear before the One, your mouth dripping with the human blood you have drunk, you will learn of his might . . .
“You sow! So this is how you speak to your master? To me, Adel the emir? To me, who spared your life? Who named you ‘God’s protégée’? Who saved you from the hell to which your peers were doomed? My curse is upon you! I, Adel the emir, repudiate and curse you!”
All objects, as different as each was from the other, began fading into the same whiteness, merging with one another under the identical icy flakes sifting imperturbably, steadily down upon them.
“You can curse me as much as you like. But guess who is soon to be cast into hell? Your Honor! The welcoming committee has already begun right here on earth. Surely the Emir of Believers will have no objection to submitting in his turn to the pleasures he unsparingly bestowed upon others.”
The woman, choking back her sobs, aimed a long jet of spittle at him: “Such fierce pleasures that they brought death!”
“Infidels is what they were, and now the sacrifice has purified them.”
“The Divinity enjoys seeing blood flow, is that it?”
“Yes, the blood of his enemies. It is God’s will. It is God’s command.”
“Shit in your pants, relieve yourself, it will be your last prayer before the Army that you can hear blasting your skunk holes comes up to collect what’s left of you. You’ll have earned your place in the realm of everlasting fire where, in my opinion, they’ll wonder who this poor devil who can’t shit straight can be, this poor devil who is so convinced he is a lord, who so acts like a lord, and not just any lord mind you, but a warlord!
“And you, you’ll see what you will earn . . .”
In the snow around the man, the spatter of bloodred dew had spread. He was hardly aware of it. His mind seemed to be concentrating exclusively on the movement of the hand, a slinking creature, that he was worming toward the scabbard hanging at his waist. And now it closed over one blade, probably more than one, he tightened his fist around it. He hadn’t, all that while, stopped heaping insults on the girl.
She showered that hand with bullets, and his abdomen along with it.
The old bird motioned as if to brush away something repulsive: shaking his smashed fingers stupidly. A hundred new crimson stars bloomed in the pure white snow. He seemed far from comprehending what was happening to him; he tried to move again. But realized he was no more than a cripple and gave up.
A dazed, sullen bear waggling its head about, he was resting. Whether it was going to drag out, be brief-this rest of his-remained to be seen. He regained control of himself. Started in again, still waggling his head, inebriated with words, spouting off anathema after anathema, after insanity. He was panting, his voice was ominous.
“You, all of you, evil-minded instruments of Shaitan, the mere sight of whom offends the Creator, you will soon know your fate, all of you! He who heeds not God, misfortune will befall. Offences will meet with offences, thus will be the Judgment. Thus will be your end. Your punishment!”
Out of breath, he still had the strength to croak, “As for you, I’ll get even with you myself, no matter what you do.”
“The Devil’s advocate pleading God’s cause. Now, you Abyssinian goat, it’s time to give the devil his due. You’re going to lead the dance, you’ll go first.”
Even little girls, when there happen to be any, are sacrificed, and afterward, well we simply take off their tiny earrings. Oh god, that last one . . . In the yawning pit of darkness, Azrael! Ravish this demon’s soul in the yawning pit of darkness! The sweet thing, her little body punctured all over with stab wounds, I drew near: she was still sucking her thumb. Her arm had been severed at the shoulder and on the end the thumb, dead just as she was, the thumb was clenched between her teeth. Laying there calmly, with her eyes shining out in all their blueness, among the others, adults.
But upon the young woman’s face, the bitter, hard look was imperceptibly changing into a mysterious childlike expression. And even her eyes took on a certain (or uncertain) smile that hovered over her features below the almost unbroken line of her eyebrows stretching across the width of her face from one temple to the other, while her gaze remained trained on the man she thought she had defeated, no: she had neutralized. Yet the eyes lingering upon him were simply attempting to examine beyond, everything that was not him. Beyond, snow was powdering the world. A fine, light, misty, barely visible and-one might have thought-harmless snow, except that mountains and valleys were being smothered in its white dust. And beyond, even realer, too real, astounding, there blazed still another level of white. Where were they? Had they slipped over to the other side of the world? And where was everyone else? Vanished? All of them?
Not that guy, not that tough brute sitting with his ass in the snow and becoming indignant, calling himself emir and croaking ever louder.
“What is it? Why are you gawking at me like that? Come on, let’s get on with it! What are you waiting for, come on now, just get it over with!”
Then, pronouncing each word very clearly, probably in order to convince himself, he proclaimed, “No matter what happens, you’ll never forget me. Ever.”
“You monster, damned right I’ll remember you!”
Again the girl noticed the crack that broke her voice whenever she addressed the horrid bearded figure, the scarecrow, and again she ignored it:
“I will remember how you put newborns, and others, to death. Clubbing them with tree limbs. You, with your own hand, I’ve seen you. Without ever once allowing their yelping like young pups stop you. No, forget you? Does one forget cholera and the plague after his bones are burned?”
“It was an act of compassion toward the offspring of the infidels. I save them today from having to bear the sins of their parents and, as time goes on, being driven to commit new sins tomorrow.”
He cleared his throat, stopped talking, and a thin trickle of blood ran from each corner of his mouth.
And yet he started in again:
Glory be to God who has chosen us Over many of his faithful servants . . .
A fourth spray of bullets silenced the voice of arrogance at its source: the man’s chest.
The girl: “You profane the divine word!”
He remained motionless under the impact. He sat there glaring at her darkly. Tears began to gather in his eyes and then, one by one, they rolled down and were lost in his beard, that beastly, scruffy, filthy beard.
The girl laid the Kalashnikov down in the snow, right out in plain view. The man didn’t budge-a log. She walked around him. The smells were no longer secret, odors had begun circulating again. Odors? She wrinkled her nostrils, it came from him, he reeked with perspiration, a crust of old grime, and something else, what? Maybe that was it, the stench of death that fills the house on the holy day that the sheep is butchered.
The adolescent struck out again, climbing the mountain. She needed to use her hands to pull herself up.
She hadn’t yet reached the top when a phosphorescent glow of igneous iron lit the jagged geology of the peaks. The sleety snow pelted down obstinately making small nicks all over the girl’s face, then, as she straightened up, she realized she was gazing out over the serene grandeur spread before her. And to think that there’s no one to see it, no one to bear witness, mumbled the more or less forlorn human girl. And me, am I no one? What I’m saying, stupid, is no one to disturb it all. And what if I disturbed it? Try and figure what it thinks about that.
Her name, as if in response, came thundering out to her from all the mouths in the land: Ama-rilla! A-ma- riiilla!
No, the emir. He was calling her. From that moment onward no more rock salt stung her face: enveloping the mountain, flakes fell busily, like soft, slow-moving wings.
From Comme un bruit d’abeilles. Copyright Editions Albin Michel S.A., 2001. Translation copyright C. Dickson 2005. All rights reserved.