Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

 

The weeks with Mr Cruz were an abyss of unhappi­ness. I lived in death. I stayed in a garden shed behind the funeral parlour, a cubbyhole full of tools and jugs of weedkiller which stank of lawnmower fuel; the gener­ator for the cold storage chamber was behind my wall and its vibrations woke me up every night. Mr Cruz would lock me up in the enclosure when he went out at night, and would free me when he arrived in the morning – with rare exceptions he limited my move­ments, from fear of identity checks by the cops or social services. When I needed something – clothes, toiletries – he’d buy it for me himself. I didn’t have any visitors. After 7 p.m., when Mr Cruz got into his 4×4 to go home, I was alone with the coffins.

I never got used to contact with the corpses, which fortunately didn’t come in very often – you had to unload them, take them out of their plastic bags, a mask over your nose; the first time I almost fainted, some poor young guy who had drowned, he was in a horri­ble state; fortunately Cruz was there – he gently turned the body over on the stainless steel table, placed the remains in the waterproof zinc box, got out the electric screwdriver to seal the casket, all in silence. I couldn’t breathe. The special mask was suffocating me, its cam­phor or bleach smell mingled in my throat with the mustiness of the Strait, and the cadaverous fetidity of sadness, the decay of the forgotten carcass, and even today, sometimes, years later, the smell of cleaning products brings the lingering odour of those poor creatures again to the back of my throat, creatures that Cruz manipulated without blinking an eye, without trembling, respectfully, calmly.

Then the Imam would come, and we would pray in front of the remains or the coffin, depending on the state of the body, one behind the other, as is the custom; Cruz would leave us. The Imam was a Moroccan from Casablanca, a middle-aged man to whom the solemni­ty of the task gave the aged and well-worn appearance of serious business, without a smile, without a mark of sympathy or antipathy, sure as he was of the equality of all before God, perhaps.

Praying for the unknown dead, for the vague remains of the existences of total strangers, was sadly abstract. Some of them we weren’t even sure were Muslim; it was presumed, and maybe we were sending them to the wrong God, to a Paradise in which they’d be illegal immigrants yet again.

After praying, we would line the waterproof zinc cof­fins up in the cold storage room, where they joined the other ‘pending’ deceased. The oldest one had been there for three years, another who had drowned in the Strait.

The government paid sixty euros per body and per day of storage: that was Señor Cruz’s cut.

Once he’d received the money for repatriation or had discovered the origin of an unknown body, Mr Cruz would organize ‘a load’; he’d put two or three maca­bre boxes in his van and would take the ferry from Algeciras; the customs formalities were fussy, he had to seal the mortuary crates with lead, declare the freight, etc.

The parlour was surrounded by tall walls surmounted by broken bottles, which encircled a little garden; Mr Cruz’s house was a few hundred metres away – at night, I was locked up with the dead, in this suburb next to the highway, and it was sad, sad and frightening.

I also took care of the cleaning and gardening; I washed Mr Cruz’s car and fed his dogs, two handsome, blue-eyed, polar mutts that looked like wolves of the steppes – these animals were wild and gentle, they seemed to come from another world. I wondered how they bore the crushing summers of Andalusia with so much fur. Cruz was a mystery, sombre and shifty; his face was yellow, his eyes shadowed; when no bodies arrived, he would spend all day behind his desk, whisky in hand, listening absent-mindedly to the police radio scanner so as to be the first one on the scene in case a body was discovered; he drank nothing but Cutty Sark, hypnotized by the Internet and hundreds of videos, war reports, atrocious clips of accidents and violent deaths: this spectacle didn’t seem to excite him, on the contrary; he spent his time in a kind of lethargy, a digital apathy – only his hand on the mouse seemed alive; he was stu­pefied by bestiality and whisky all day long and, when night fell, he would stagger a little when he got up, put on his leather jacket and leave without saying a word, bolting the door with two turns of the key. He called me his little Lakhdar, when he addressed me; he had a tiny voice that contrasted with his large size, his corpulence, his thick face: he spoke like a child and this false note made him even more frightening.

He was pathetic, and I didn’t know if he inspired fear or pity in me; he was exploiting me, locking me up like a slave; he spread a terrible sadness, the rotten smell of a lonely soul.

I had to get out of there; the first time he let me stroll around town one afternoon, I thought for a while of dis­appearing without leaving a trace, of getting into a bus headed north, or a ferry to go back to Morocco – but I had nothing, no money, no papers, he had kept my passport, which I had been idiotic enough to give him, and I would probably have been arrested and thrown in jail before being expelled if I was asked to produce my documents.

I confided in the Imam from the mosque who came to pray for our dead; I explained that this Mr Cruz was pretty strange, which he did not deny, only shrugging his shoulders with an air of powerlessness. He told me he thought my predecessor had run away for this excel­lent reason, because Cruz was a strange man, but one who had respect for the dead and for religion. That’s all.

Seen from here, the long days on board the Ibn Battuta seemed like paradise.

I imagined climbing the wall, after all it wouldn’t be so hard, Cruz wouldn’t go so far as to run after me; but first I had to retrieve my papers and some money.

One day, Mr Cruz left at dawn with the hearse; he returned with a load of dead bodies – seventeen, a patera had capsized off of Tarifa and the current had dotted the beaches with corpses. He was very happy with this har­vest; a strange happiness, he didn’t want to seem happy to be getting fat off the backs of these poor stiffs, but I could sense, behind his mask for the occasion, from the way he stroked his dogs, and called me my little Lakhdar, that he was delighted with the resumption of business, but was ashamed at the same time.

Seventeen. That’s a huge little number. You don’t realize, when you listen to the radio or the TV, the num­ber of corpses left by some catastrophe or other, what seventeen bodies represent. You say, oh, seventeen, that’s not so much, tell me about a thousand, two thousand, three thousand stiffs, but seventeen, seventeen isn’t any­thing extraordinary, and yet, and yet, it’s an enormous quantity of vanished life, dead meat, it’s cumbersome, in memory as well as in the cold storage room, it’s seventeen faces and over a tonne of flesh and bone, tens of thousands of hours of existence, billions of memories gone, hundreds of people touched by mourning, between Tangier and Mombasa.

One by one, I wrapped these guys up in their shrouds, and wept; most of them were young, my age, or even younger; some had broken limbs or bruises on their face. The great majority looked Arab. Among these bodies was a girl’s. She had tattooed a telephone num­ber in henna on her arm, a Moroccan number. She had long hair, very black, a grey face. I was embarassed; I didn’t want to see her breasts, her sex; I shouldn’t have been the one to place her in the casket, a woman was supposed to do that. I was afraid of my own gaze over this female body; I imagined Meryem dead – it was her I was placing in the coffin, her I was burying finally, alone in the night of my nightmares, I imagined the police calling this tattooed phone number, a mother or brother picking up, an almost mechanical voice inform­ing them, repeating very loudly to be understood, of the end of their sister, their daughter, just as the phone will ring one day for us, too, one after the other, and shyly, tenderly, with shame and precaution, I placed this unknown girl in her metal sarcophagus.

Perhaps we can’t really picture death unless we see our own corpse in others’ bodies – young like me, Moroccan like me, candidates for exile like me.

At night I would write poems for all these dead peo­ple, secret poems that I would then slip into their coffins, a little note that would disappear with them, a homage, a ritha’; I gave them names, tried to imagine them alive, to guess what their lives had been, their hopes, their last moments. Sometimes I saw them in my dreams.

I never forgot their faces.

My hatred for Cruz grew; it was irrational; aside from my semi-captivity, he wasn’t mean; he was crum­bling beneath the weight of the corpses; he just had this strange perversion that consisted in watching, in scrutinizing extraordinarily violent videos all day long; beheadings in Afghanistan, hangings from the Second World War, all kinds of car accidents, bodies burned in bombings.

I had to get away as soon as possible.

I thought of Judit, sometimes I sent her texts and called her; most of the time she didn’t reply to the messages or pick up the phone, and I felt as if I were in limbo, in the barzakh, unreachable between life and the beyond.

For books, all I had was the Quran and two Spanish crime novels bought used in town, not great, but OK, they helped pass the time. Then I had three days off because Cruz left to deliver a load of corpses on the other side of the Strait. He couldn’t leave me locked up the whole time, so he gave me a little pocket money (un­til then I hadn’t yet seen any of my wages) to amuse myself in town, as he said. I spent my days at sidewalk cafes, quietly reading and drinking small beers.

I wrote a long note to Judit explaining in brief my slave’s life in Algeciras; I didn’t mention the corpses, just the gardening, cleaning and the strange Cruz. I told her I hoped to see her soon.

I called Saadi, inviting him for coffee in downtown Algeciras; he had a visa, he could come and go as he liked, that was the injustice of administration: the older you were and the less you wanted to, the easier it was to move around. He was happy to see me again, as was I. I asked him if there was news of the company – he told me the Moroccan government was going to find a solution any day now. There was still time for me to take advantage of it, he said.

I hesitated. That was one way to leave Cruz; it would also mean saying goodbye to Judit. I was sure that if I returned to Tangier it would be almost impossible for me to return to Spain.

Saadi guessed the reason for my hesitation, he didn’t insist.

I told him about my days with Cruz, the great sadness of this terrible job, he listened, opening his eyes wide and shaking his grey head; well son, he said, if I had known, I wouldn’t have sent you into that cesspit – I tried to reassure him, without much conviction, telling him it would allow me to make a little money to go to Barcelona in a month or two.

We stayed there till evening, sitting at the same cafe terrace, enjoying the breeze and the slow swaying of the palm trees that shed a little shadow on the square. And then he left. He hugged me and said, sure you don’t want to come back with me on the boat? It’s not easy for me sending you back there.

I hesitated for a second, it was tempting to stay with him, to return to the floating cage of the Ibn Battuta, where nothing could happen to you, aside from inadver­tently crushing a cockroach with your bare feet.

In the end, I refused, promised to call him very soon, and after a final embrace I left to catch my bus.

I also took advantage of my boss’s absence to sketch out a plan. I knew he kept – at least when he was there – a certain sum of money in a little safe, so he could pay people without a middleman, that this safe had a key, and that he kept it on his key ring. The idea of stealing it came to me from the detective novel I was reading, from all the detective novels I had read; after all, wasn’t I locked up in a novel, a very noir one? It was only logical that these books suggested a way out.

 

*

 

Ibn Battuta recounts in his travels how, during his visit to Mecca, he meets a strange character, a mute the Meccans all know and call Hassan the Mad, who was touched with madness under strange circumstances: when he was still of sound mind, Hassan was complet­ing his ritual circumambulations around the Kaaba at night and, every evening, he’d pass a beggar in the sanctuary – they never saw each other during the day, only at night. One night, then, the beggar addressed Hassan: Hey, Hassan, your mother misses you and is crying, wouldn’t you like to see her again? My moth­er? Of course, Hassan replied, whose heart had sunk at the memory of her, of course, but it’s not possible, she’s far away. One day the beggar offered to meet him at the cemetery, and Hassan the Mad agreed; the beggar asked him to close his eyes and hold onto the beggar’s robes, and when he opened them again, Hassan was in front of his house, in Iraq. He spent two weeks with his mother. Two weeks later, he met the beggar at the village cemetery; the beggar offered to bring him back to Mecca, to Hassan’s master Najm Ed-Din Isfahani, by the same means, his eyes closed, his hands clutching the beggar’s linsey-woolsey robe. He made Hassan promise never to reveal anything about this journey. In Mecca, Isfahani was worried about the long absence of his ser­vant, two weeks is a long time – so Hassan ended up telling the beggar’s story and Isfahani, during the night, asked to see the man in question: Hassan took him to the Kaaba and pointed to the vagabond with a cry to his master, It’s him! It’s him! Immediately the beggar placed his hand on Hassan’s throat and said By God, you will never speak again, and his will was done; the beggar disappeared and Hassan, mad and mute, paced around the sanctuary for years on end, without saying any prayers, without making any ablutions: the people of Mecca took care of him, fed him like a strange saint, for Hassan’s blessing increased sales and profits; Hassan the Mad circled around and around the black stone, in orbit, in eternal silence, for having wanted to see his mother again, for having betrayed a secret. And in my shadows, near Cruz’s little corpses, among the dogs, I prayed that a magic beggar would take me out of the darkness for a while, would bring me back, to the light of Tangier, to my mother’s, into the arms of Meryem, of Judit, before leaving me spinning like a fragile meteorite around the planet, for years on end. I think today of that dark parenthesis, that first imprisonment in Algeciras, that antechamber, when around me spin the lost ones, walking, blind, without the help of books; Cruz was ac­tually taking advantage of the world’s possibilities, of the pomp of death; he was living like those dung beetles, those worms, those insects that swarm over corpses, and he had his own sort of conscience, no doubt, he thought he was doing Good; he was being of service; he was living as a parasite on misery: might as well reproach a dog for biting. He was the guard of the castle, the ferry­man of the Strait, a lost man, him also, in the depths of his deadly forest, who spun, endlessly, in the dark.

 

*

 

Perhaps it was this long familiarity with corpses that facilitated things; those two months of death made the prospect of robbing Señor Cruz easier to imagine – he had returned as planned after three days, exhausted, he said, by the truck journey into the depths of Morocco. He seemed happy to see me again.

He told me about his trip, which had gone well, he had brought his five corpses to Beni Mellal, all by chance to the same place, it was both practical and horrible. As usual, the women had cried terribly, their wailing had bored into his ears, the men had dug the graves, and that was it. He had only enough time to stop in Casa for a night to pig out, he said these words with such sadness in his reedy voice, pig out, that it could just have easily have been referring to his last meal.

Cruz poured himself some whisky.

He had me sit down across from him in an armchair, offered me a drink, which I refused.

He said nothing, the whole scene seemed to call for conversation, confidences, but he was silent; he drank his Cutty Sark, glancing at me from time to time, and I felt more and more nervous.

I tried to speak, to ask questions about his trip to Morocco, but when he replied his answers were monosyllabic.

He finished his drink and politely offered me another before helping himself again.

After an endless quarter of an hour of silence, which I spent looking in turn at my knees and at his impassive face, I left, asking him to excuse me, I had to feed the dogs; he motioned with his head, accompanied with a brief smile.

Once in the yard I breathed a sigh of relief, I was trembling like a frail thing. Through the window, I saw Cruz’s fat face, haloed by the electric blue of the com­puter screen, resume his stupefied contemplation of the forms of death.

I felt in danger; fear overcame me, powerful, irratio­nal; I went to kneel down with the mutts, their muzzles nosed into my armpits, the softness of their fur and their clear gaze comforted me a little.

 

*

 

Cruz always seemed to be hovering on the verge of speech.

I had never encountered madness before, if Cruz was mad – he didn’t launch into unreasonable diatribes, didn’t bang his head against the walls, didn’t eat his excrement, wasn’t overcome with delirium or visions; he lived in the screen, and in the screen, there were terri­ble images – old photos of Chinese tortures where men bled, attached to posts, their chests cut open, their limbs amputated by executioners with long knives; Afghan and Bosnian decapitations; stonings, stomachs ripped open, defenestrations and countless war reports – strange, I thought, fiction is much better filmed, much more realis­tic than documentaries or the photos from the beginning of the century, and I wondered why, above all, Cruz always looked for the mention of ‘reality’ in his pictures; he wanted the truth, but what difference could it make: he had his storage room full of corpses, he knew them intimately, he had frequented them for years, and I still wonder today what could have motivated this pathological virtual observation, he should have been cured of death yet he was gorging on endless scenes of tortures and massacres. What was he looking for, an answer to his questions, to the questions the stiffs didn’t answer, a questioning about the moment of death, the instant of passage, perhaps? – or perhaps he had simply been engulfed by the image, the bodies had made him leave reality and so he was burrowing into cyber-reality to find there, in vain, something of life.

As the days went by, he frightened me more and more, for no reason – he was the most inoffensive of creatures; he was gentle with me, gentle with his dogs, respectful of the dead. Every day I thought about ask­ing him for my passport and up and leaving, too bad about the cash, farewell Mr Cruz, the drowned and the bluish light of tortures on YouTube, come what may – but every night, in my cubbyhole, reassured by the company of the dogs, by the softness of their fur, by their panting calm, I would resume my dreams of theft, of the two or three thousand euros that Cruz’s safe might deliver to me. I had sketched out a plan, one of those schemes that only work in books, until you try them: go into town to buy a similar key, it might be a common design, and substitute it on the key ring, which he often left hanging around in the entrance – of course the new key wouldn’t open the safe, but when he realized it, with a little luck I’d be far away.

All the corpses I washed and put into their boxes jus­tified my petty theft, I thought – but Mr Cruz had an honest profession, he wasn’t killing these poor people himself, he was charitable, he didn’t bleed the families of the deceased dry, his prey was the state, the autonomous community of Andalusia that paid his per diem for the carcasses of my compatriots, but all the riches I saw him accumulating, his gold rings, the chains around his neck, his black shirts, his car, his two huskies with their blue eyes in the sheltering shade of his creeping vines, all that seemed to me to be stolen from the Dead, seemed to belong to those nameless stiffs who had dreamed for a while of a better life, who had thought, like me, that they could make themselves a place in the world, and out of respect for this dream I thought I could appropriate some of his cash, as a little revenge for these poor mar­tyrs who had known the torment of drowning, who had experienced agony in the black solitude of the waves.

The more my determination increased, the more the possibility of putting my thoughts into action kept me awake at night; how could I get hold of the key to the safe, when should I run away, how – I had to go by foot to the bus stop, three hundred metres away, and be at the whim of the very erratic Andalusian intercity transpor­tation system. That’s when I would be most vulnerable, just like in the novels. Books and prisons were full of guys who made huge blunders and who were nabbed without any difficulty whatsoever, just like that, at a bus stop or a sidewalk cafe. That wouldn’t be my way. The bus, the bus station, the 11 p.m. coach, and the next day I’d be in Barcelona, lost in the crowd.

I couldn’t make up my mind to act. Cruz was more and more hypnotized by the Internet; he stayed late, sometimes till ten at night, immersed in his deathly videos – he had discovered a site called faces of death where hundreds of violent deaths could be found: a young Iranian demonstrator killed by the forces of order, Egyptian revolutionaries beaten to death by the police, Libyan soldiers burned alive in their Jeep, Syrian children massacred – current events filled the Internet with documents for Cruz.

One particularly dark day, the Strait vomited up an old, very damaged corpse that people walking on the beach had discovered – the judge was sent out for, gave notice that this detritus on the sand could be chucked, the pathologist concluded death by drowning and Cruz rushed there with his hearse to take charge of the re­mains before any of the competition: it was very sad and very gruesome, the guy had tattooed ‘Selma’ in Arabic over his heart, that’s all that could be used to identify him: he no longer had a face, at least nothing recognizable, and we quickly, very quickly closed him up in his zinc box so as not to see him anymore. Señor Cruz threw on his rubber gloves, then his mask; he had a little tear in the corner of his right eye, which he erased by rubbing his face against his biceps, arm outstretched. He sighed, turned towards me without saying anything, crossed the yard to walk to my hut, the dogs followed him wagging their tails, thinking he wanted to play or give them some food; he re-emerged from the garden shed holding a bottle, I wondered if he had hidden a litre of Scotch there without my ever noticing it, but the container looked smaller than his eternal Cutty Sark. He made a sign to me to follow him into the office; he said in his tiny voice:

‘We’ve earned a drink, haven’t we, Lakhdar?’

He sat down as usual behind his screen, shook the mouse, entered his password; I remained standing.

‘Sit down, sit down, we’ll have a drink and talk a little.’

I searched for an excuse to escape, but couldn’t find any; I was too exhausted from taking care of the corpse to think – I ended up worn out every time.

I sat on the sofa. I looked at the bottle he had placed on his desk; it was a half-litre glass flask, the label was facing him. Mr Cruz needed a stiff drink; his long face was pale, his eyes red-rimmed. He put on a video, out of force of habit – he stared at the screen for a second before stopping the procession of images of death that I couldn’t see.

‘So, Lakhdar, a little whisky?’

Suddenly he was extraordinarily nervous, he went to the kitchen, returned with two glasses and some ice in a metal bucket.

I didn’t want to annoy him, so I agreed. It might do me good, too.

He immediately seized a bottle of Cutty on the shelf, opened it, poured whisky into two glasses, threw two ice cubes into each, and downed his in one gulp, even before I could pick mine up. He breathed out an ahhh of relief, poured himself another, handed me my glass before collapsing into his armchair, looking relaxed.

I emptied half the liquid in one gulp as well. I had never drunk whisky. For me it was a legendary drink you had to taste in a bar in London, or Paris, with a girl at your side. Taste of crushed stink bugs, burning sensation in the oesophagus. Hard to understand why my favourite authors were interested in this beverage. Especially in a situation like this.

Cruz was watching me, as usual, on the verge of speech; he always seemed on the point of saying some­thing that never came out, an eternal stammer. He began a phrase with my first name, said, Lakhdar? I answered yes Mr Cruz, and then nothing, he stared at me in silence.

I prayed to get out of this place as soon as possible. Too bad about the money, too bad about everything; I was going to get my passport back and leave. Go back to Morocco, find Tangier again, forget Algeciras, forget the dead, forget Judit and Barcelona.

I was just about to tell Cruz that I wanted to go home. It was the right moment, he looked a little calmer from the alcohol; he hesitated again, articulated Lakhdar?, without saying anything else. He seized the little flask, poured himself a large swig, and added a hefty dose of whisky until the glass was three-quarters full. Then he stared at the mixture; he swirled around the ice that hadn’t melted yet.

I got up, I couldn’t sit still anymore. I said, Mr Cruz . . . He looked at me with such a look of pain, such suffering marked his fat face, all of a sudden, that I muttered that I had to go feed the dogs. He passed his hands over his face, as if to wipe away some absent sweat.

‘Lakhdar?’

‘Yes, Mr Cruz?’

‘Come back soon, I’ll wait for you.’

And he downed his cocktail all at once, with an air of relief. He had one of his silent pauses, as if he were hes­itating about adding something, and then he whispered:

‘You’re in luck, you’ll see.’

The phrase was cryptic; I imagined, as I played a little with the huskies before getting out their food bowl, that Cruz had realized I wanted to leave, that he wanted to wish me luck for the future.

When I went back to the office after feeding the dogs, he wasn’t there; I heard a noise in the bathroom, like a vomiting sound; he came out staggering.

‘Are you OK, Mr Cruz?’

He swallowed with difficulty, his mouth twisted, his face so tense that his eyes were rolling around like marbles.

‘It’s starting, Lakhdar.’

He’s dead drunk, I said to myself.

He sat down on the sofa facing the desk; he seemed to be having trouble breathing; he crossed his arms over his stomach, looked as if he were in great pain.

‘It won’t last very long . . . Watch closely . . .’

His lips were drawn out, he was grating his teeth; his face reddened, his shoulders were overcome with trem­ors, he lifted his knees to his stomach to relieve the pain.

‘Mr Cruz? Are you sick?’

He looked as if he wanted to answer, but no sound managed to form in his throat; he lifted his chin towards me, his hands were nervously patting each other. A dew of sweat covered his forehead, a drop of blood trickled from his nose, his lips turned purple, his head began to shake from right to left, leaning forward, as if to chase away the suffering, as if he couldn’t believe what was happening to him – but the movement transformed into a terrifying contraction of the tendons in his neck, to the side first, then backward; his Adam’s apple rose and fell, vibrated along his taut throat, like a big insect.

He was suddenly seized by a huge spasm that threw him onto the floor, his arm flung out, his legs arced as if he wanted to jump, he began shouting, I went over to him:

‘Mr Cruz, can you hear me?’

He couldn’t manage to answer and I was overcome with terror – he couldn’t swallow, his neck was stiff, his chest lifted up, his back arched, his eyes looked as if they were about to explode. His body was a steel cable tensed with suffering, he was trying to speak, trying to grab my arm, but his wide-open hands twisted outward, the fingers stiffly spread apart – it lasted about twenty seconds, maybe a little more, and he went soft; he went soft, sighing, groaning, breathing very loudly, I shout­ed Mr Cruz, what’s the number for emergencies? The number for an ambulance? He didn’t answer, I rushed to the telephone, feverishly tried dialling 1-5, like in Morocco, but nothing happened; I looked quickly at his desk to see if there was a phone book, but no.

Cruz was suddenly overcome by a second convulsion, even more violent than the first, if that was possible; his eyelids drew almost completely back into the sockets, disappeared behind the eyeballs, it was horrible to see, his face was blue, his feet managed to fold the thick plas­tic of his soles like cardboard, he rose up, moved by the absolute tension of all the muscles, in a sharp cry that seemed to come from the depths of his thoracic cage – tears started to well up in my eyes, Señor Cruz, Señor Cruz, I didn’t know what to do, I thought I should go find a neighbour, ran outside, ready to run the two hun­dred metres that separated us from the nearest house, or to stop a car passing by on the highway; once in the yard I remembered that bitch of a fence was always locked, instead of going all out and climbing it I chose to turn back and take the key from Cruz’s pocket, to be able to open it for the ambulance.

Cruz was resting on his left side, his body formed a horrible half circle, his back curved like a bow without a string, pelvis forward, feet extraordinarily convex; he was a monstrous ballet dancer, whose round neck and wide-open mouth completed the atrocious pose. Even the tips of his fingers took part in this fixed contraction, whose energy could no longer be discerned. He was dead. I approached him, nothing came to my mind, not even a prayer.

Cruz had joined the drowned of the Strait.

The only movement on this mass of flesh was the second hand of his watch, which showed 6.43.

 

*

 

I remained stunned for a few minutes, kneeling before the inert body, before I gathered my wits, of course I didn’t understand, it took me years to try to understand the leprosy that was eating away at Cruz in his solitude; he had sprinkled me with his death, he had offered me his agony, an atrocious gift – I realized that he had poi­soned himself right in front of my eyes; I went to splash water on my face, thousands, millions of contradictory thoughts were spinning in my head, now what, I saw the little bottle on the desk, the label bore a white skull on a red background. I paced in circles for a while, come on, now you have to act; I recovered Cruz’s set of keys. I conscientiously searched through the desk drawers, but didn’t find anything important aside from my passport; I opened the little safe with the help of a key shaped like a cross, it contained a number of papers that had nothing to do with me and almost five thousand euros in cash. I was becoming a thief. I had enough to live on for a while in Barcelona or elsewhere. The money of the dead, that’s the kind of idiotic thing I said to myself.

Of course there was the police. I had left my finger­prints everywhere, even on the bottle of poison, I was the king of dunces.

I gathered my things together and put them in a pret­ty ridiculous-looking yellow and blue Cádiz football club sport bag that I found in the shed.

Anguish was becoming more remote. I avoided glancing one last time at Cruz, stroked the dogs for a long time to say goodbye to them, and left to wait for the bus.

 

*

 

A little later on in his travels, when he’s in the city of Bolghar, Ibn Battuta wants to visit the Land of Darkness, mentioned in the legend of Alexander the Great; he finally decides not to go there when he learns that in order to reach it you need a sled drawn by huge dogs, to cross the ice that surrounds it – he will be content to hear talk of it, to learn that the fur merchants trade for skins from its mysterious inhabitants, who live in total night: ‘After forty days of crossing this desert of ice, the travellers reach the Land of Darkness. The merchants leave large bags of merchandise some distance from their camp. The next day, they return to inspect their bags and discover in place of their things the skins of martens, squirrels and ermines. If they like the skins, they take them, and if not, they leave them there for one more night. In that case the inhabitants of the Land of Darkness increase the quantity of furs or, if they don’t agree with the terms of exchange, replace the travellers’ merchandise. That is how one does business in the Land of Darkness, and the people who go there don’t know if they’re dealing with men or djinns, for they never see a soul.’

I left Algeciras with the sensation that the world was empty, peopled exclusively by phantoms that appeared at night to die or kill, to leave or take, without ever see­ing each other or communicating with each other, and in the long night of the bus that brought me to Barcelona, city of Fate and Death, I had the terrible impression of crossing into the Land of Darkness, the real darkness, our own, and the further the bus advanced into obscuri­ty on the motorway in the middle of the desert, between Almería and Murcia, the deeper the horror I had just witnessed seeped into me; Cruz’s face, moist and purple in its contractions, appeared to me among the flashes of truck headlights, in the midst of the reflections on my window.

Cruz was among the shadows, and so was I.

Unable to close my eyes, pursued by funereal im­ages, bodies shrivelled by the sea and the face of Cruz projecting his agony onto me, I waited for the liberation of dawn, when the bus was already drawing closer to Alicante.

 

‘The Instant of Passage’ is an excerpt from Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK

Photograph courtesy of David Holt

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