A Trail of Shadows
Translated from French into English by El Hadji Moustapha Diop
I get out of bed early in the morning, while the city is still sleeping. At the back of the living room, I quietly edge my way through the French doors. Our balcony. Cramped. Cluttered. The worm-eaten wooden planks crack under my feet. Yesterday Myriem was washing Sydia's clothes, and the laundry, still wet, is hiding the street from view. I push it aside. Moving shapes whirl across the vacant lot. Neighborhood stray dogs. I heard them bark in unison, just before I jolted out of bed. As if on cue, in a single movement they look up toward me, and I can sense anxiety in their eyes. They're starved and dirty. They're scared of everything. They scare everybody. They may have rabies, you never know. This vacant lot is the last sign of life amid the concrete blocks. I enjoy contemplating its shards of broken bottles, its tufts of grass, its crackled and dry earth, burned black in some places. Its rifts, its scattered remains grip me deep in the guts. They bring back memories of my wandering childhood years, over there.
Of course the lot doesn’t have much longer to live. Last Sunday, two solemn-faced strangers came with people from City Hall. They were stomping the ground, casting wary glances at the surrounding houses, taking measurements, and talking among themselves, on and on. I know it, they're going to cut its throat and feed it to the dogs. I can already see blood on their hands. Soon they will bulldoze these dilapidated walls that look like decayed teeth, with their plain red bricks. Only God knows why. They're going to hit us smack in the face, with some damned building complex. Maybe even a tower. Sure, the lot is tiny, but these people can pull it off, nothing can stop them, they're completely nuts. Maybe it won't even be a tower, just a nice little mini-mart, the kind that is open until late at night, with ninety-nine-cent junk and bleary-eyed salesgirls. I dread their return here. Digging and boring holes. Siphoning off the air. Then one day construction workers simply jump down from their scaffolds and go elsewhere, helmets under their arms. Afterward, the restless streets will be caught in the grip of wilder dreams. You can hardly see the horizon on its downhill course to the abyss.
Clear skies, with winding spots of light in the distance.
A green neon sign is putting on a show, swinging to and fro, dancing amid the last fading stars. House blocks look like so many imbricate matchboxes. Some are gigantic and full of pretense, others are quite charming, with flowers adorning their balconies. Soft-hearted poets are probably meditating in there. What's really the point, I wonder. This silence makes me think of a grave.
After the morning prayer, here I am, standing in the elevator. It's cramped and stinks of urine and grease. Creaking dusty floorboards. Big dirty letters on the walls, hurling expletives at the world.
The morning breeze is brushing against my face. Is the city greeting me with a friendly pat on the back ? No, I’d rather say life itself is dealing with a hard blow. Upstairs, Myriem and the boy haven't budged, not even once, as if they were one single body in tiny bits, under the blanket, the same body scattered over couch, floor, and mats. Even in his sleep Sydia is facing the TV. Over the years, I have mastered the art of tiptoeing through the apartment. I can’t give them much, but I want them to sleep safe and sound. When they lie so peacefully, it feels as if I were resting my own tired head.
Every now and then, right over my head a car speeds down the highway, southbound. I can smell the gasoline vapors rising in the air. Then the whir of engines seems to draw closer to my ears, by the minute. It's as if the city were collecting and expectorating refuse from the night, to clear its throat and belch louder. Growl harder. The city is a young, sprightly predator about to leap on its prey.
The first dead have already risen from their graves. Here they come now, tumbling down en masse onto the boulevards.
You are on your way to work now, hands tucked in your coat pockets, head cast down. When you dodge your way through the ice-cold streets, you are like a shadow at the break of dawn. You meet few people on these soulless streets. Delivery trucks, often the same ones, let their tires screech loudly on the pavement. You recognize them by their variegated bodywork, they remind you of children's toys. Already the drivers look dog-tired. Birds are flying around, striating the morning sky with the patterns of their flight. In your ears, their chirping sounds like a scream of panic. They are dead right on the warning, you can feel it, but you cannot tell them so. You hop across the wet pavement to beat the cold seeping through your whole body. You don't like their city, but you have to admit it: this morning it smells of warm bread and steaming hot coffee.
Then you reach a crossing where the narrow side streets of Emptiness merge into the wide avenues of Infinity. The Neverland where lines don't stop. They are pressed together. Sharp, cold lines. Neverland of the ever-longed-for escape. Signs of their beamy pride. Fine, sharp-edged lines. Hungry-looking gargoyles, their mouths stretched wide, bulge out from massive stone blocks. They are trying to scare you, yet there is such grace in their meandering, sky-bound bodily extension. You try to subdue their twirling figures, if only for a second, but the little effort makes you dizzy. Or maybe it's you who are turning around them like a dead leaf. They are your lifelong partners, ever since dawn settled in your life, ever since...
How long has it been so?
How long and for what journey? You probably don't know anything about it.
You let your hands linger on the silver bannister.
As if nothing here were made for the touch of human hands.
I halt, panting, and rest my elbows against the parapet. In the terrarium of urban routine, my little ants come and go. If only they knew. Each one of them believes he's just a passerby, no more, on his way to the office or the factory. That's not true: the path itself is destiny. They have reached their destination, sure thing. Nobody is going their separate ways, for chance is secretly binding together all the loose threads of a thousand wanderings. What matters is the general drift of things, not the little moves each can make in private. I'm telling myself: they're gathered here to trace ovals, circles and triangles. The small pieces of the mosaic get wider or narrower. At times they brace up and yawn their boredom away. Often they scatter in all directions and I can see daggers, swift like lightning, protrude menacingly from their ribs. Funny how, from the great hall, with its restaurants, cafés and news stands, the little army of ants veers toward the escalator, in a thin column that grows more dense, blacker. Before stepping on the carpet, they let their legs hang hesitatingly in the air, for a split second, their eyes boring deep into the lower floors, where they never fail to behold an uncanny sight: an old black man, in a green and yellow uniform, casting a serene and ironic look at them. A floor cleaner. Me. Nothing really unsettling, right? I'm not guarding the Gates of Hell. In any case, they only saw me in their minds. Fleetingly.
How do they manage to reproduce the same mechanical gestures, every single day? It's a closed, sticky mass, so compact I hardly see it move. On a normal day, I see all sorts of hair on their heads: brown, blonde, red, salt and pepper; there are also long, windblown locks, or cut short, cropped, curly, plaited, braided, bound in a ponytail or tucked under a hat, a turban or a headscarf. Ah yes, I almost forgot about the hairless, bald ones, with nothing on their heads. They're usually of every hue, I'm telling you. So all this variety should have blossomed into a thousand shapes and colors. Not too much of it, one has to be realistic. Just a tiny little bit. Yet instead, there is only a forest of dark heads, stretching as far as the eye can see.
It reminds me of the times when Thierno Bâ the shepherd used to drive his animals across our community, looking for pastures. Sure, they were different, Thierno's oxen, I'll grant that. Still, that was hardly noticeable. Everywhere around us we saw the same animal: same odor, same finely curved horns, same look, alternately mocking and perplexed. Just a bunch of animals, you know. Sure, I'm no keeper at the Gates of Hell, and like folks back home would say, God isn't my sibling. But one thing I do know is, God has decided to punish these people by taking away, every new dawn, a bit of that variety which is the salt of the earth. Before long their city will be overpopulated with the same person.
He told me one day, Sydia, “Dad, evil lives inside these people.” Always angry, my little Sydia.
No, my son, they're not free. Me I just pity them. They're the slaves of their passions and their fears. That's all. One must break the circle. The day one of them will pause to shout anything at the world, you know, nice little obscenities, then on that day they'll be free.
Sometimes you catch loose bits of morning trivia, when they pass near you.
That one is a real asshole. But he ain't going to get away with it, is he? Wait until we nail his ass down, he's going to die like a rat, the son of a bitch.
Me, vote? Are you kidding?
You're right, they all stink of shit, telling us pure lies.
A bit expensive, don't you think?
Tu me manques in French means I miss you
It turns out they had eleven games fixed. God, you don't seem to realize how scandalous this is, do you?
Oh yes, I read it in the paper.
Or you catch silences.
The silence of mechanical ants, their jaws tightly pressed. So many hearts filled with hate, so early in the morning. The bitter silence of grim-faced, cold-hearted creatures. I find it really amusing: there are all these buildings, yet instead of raising their heads they keep their eyes glued to the muck oozing from the gutters.
At times there is like a small crack in the glary mass. On the same spot, almost. Like a desperate gasp for air. Somebody has dared to turn his head left or right. I recognize him. This young man is always in a rush. It's never fast enough for him. So he bumps into everybody, elbowing his way through the crowd, mumbling ”Pardon me, sir, pardon me, miss, I have to catch the six-nineteen-train.” It's like this every day, seconds before he boards his six-nineteen-train, and the funny thing, you see, is that the young fellow doesn't even cause a stir, his restlessness is one of the ancient tribe's mysterious rituals. I'm not going to mess with their business, but this young fellow here, he must be doing it on purpose, to always be seconds from narrowly missing his train, or else my name isn't Seydou Keita, son of Mouhamadou Keita and Awa Kanouté.
The crowd is leaning on one side, then on the other, like a small craft battling a storm at night. But I know theirs won't capsize, for they scare the sea so much that she recoils from them.
The ants, the real ants I mean, they don't think. At least this is how it looks to me. They go in the same direction, they charge toward the same goal. Which direction? Go figure. As for the goal, it's definitely no trivial private matter. These ants of mine, bustling in the glass jar, they are smoke puffs, whirling round before turning into a thin shaft, then the thin shaft becomes invisible. They are right, their earth is round. They turn around it. Here the kettle is boiling. The One is split into thousands of meaningless fragments. It's the second punishment from God: their differences won't be a nourishing element, but the deadliest venom. In their head, and in the course of their death-time on this earth, each one of them will destroy the world, from sunrise to sunset.
Blank looks pierce through your body. They are an open book, and you're reading it. Compassion. This old garbage collector, he spends his nights in a shed. Courageous. Hardworking. Not like the good-for-nothings who set my car on fire on New Year's Eve. I should get involved in one of those organizations defending the rights of our foreigners. Hate? Yeah, you're right. A good worker, and the vampires are sucking the blood out of him, as they say. What can I do about it? Four wives. Legions of kids. Family allowances stacking up, one after the other. And who is footing the bill, my dear? Dirt and filth all over the place. They're just different, why pretend they're not? It's hypocritical. I'm telling it as it is, screw intellectual terrorists!
Yet none of them knows your face. You're a green and yellow shadow. They instinctively step aside when you roll the garbage cart. When you bend to pick up their trash, you are like a tree swept by the autumn wind. You have even invented a sport for your own amusement. You don't pick up newspaper pages lying on the pavement. You wait for the wind to lift them up and place them right in your palm. You turn them over, you unfold them. Frail birds, harbingers of chaos. Soccer games. Horoscope. Weather forecasts. Through his workings, God brings you here, on this sidewalk, the beat of the world.
Friday, September 16, 2005. Racist crime in Dunkirk.
The victim, a young man named “Mohamed,” aged 17, wasn't known to have any ties with criminals or gangs. He was talking with friends in front of a Grande-Synthe bistro, on the outskirts of Dunkirk, when a 45-year-old drunken truck driver shot him dead. The killer has twice targeted groups of North Africans in the past. These racist crimes exacerbate feelings of insecurity among immigrants, who are living far from home, in a society where there has been, over recent years, a sharp increase in crime and violence, as well as a stronger and larger constituency for rejuvenated far-right parties.
I didn't write these lines. I found them lying on the ground. Theirs. The pavement is a huge mirror. The truck driver comes out of the bar, sees a young Arab and shoots him dead. He's just a miserable man, a stupid jerk. Then he tells himself: For real, I have been dying to do this for so long. Every time I tried the thing didn't come off, I was frustrated in my desire. Got fed up with the whole shebang, always bubbling and then petering out, like a battered old car. Fuck'em all, these white-black-beurgh freaks. The whole damn lot makes me sick. Got him this time, the bastard, didn't I? Now I feel good. Going to get me a freezing cold beer at Pierrot's, before the cops come and take me away. Then he takes a swill of beer, puts his glass on the table and burps his pleasure, loudly. That, too, stands written in the newspaper lying here on the pavement.
Here you are now, on the way home. At last. You think about the peaceful Arab kid from Dunkirk. Mohamed. Seventeen years old. Not even Sydia's age. You clean the floors. They kill. It's no joke: now they kill for real. The wind whispered it into your ears. That night he was busy stoking the flames of hate, on Rue du Roi Doré. You swear, he overdid it on this one. Didn't even pause for a breather, the old fool.
The earth is muddy. Ochre. Red flesh of the earth.
You're the child stalked by his own footsteps. See yourself there, running after the squirrel on the field path. You will never catch him: you cannot eat your playmate.