Things don’t happen, it depends on who comes along. – Paul Bowles.
Things don’t happen, it depends on who comes along.
THREE TIMES DEAD
She tumbled onto the ground and shut her eyes tight against the unforgiving Sahara sun.
Gypsy bitch, he yelled.
He slammed the car door, the motor roared and her face was stung with sand propelled from the tires. She lay there on the ground until she could no longer hear the engine in the distance. No crying, she told herself, no crying.
She opened her eyes and cried anyway. Miles and miles of flat, pale sand interspersed by a few tenacious bushes. Tire tracks in the sand, but no road, no sign of civilization. Far in the distance loomed the Atlas Mountains. Behind her was a tall, rusted fence laced with weeds and shredded plastic. The fence enclosed a pile of stones and a mud structure that had partially collapsed and now tilted in odd directions. Mounds of sand obscured the carcass of an old truck.
Fucking Arab, she whispered.
The desert was so bright, it was impossible to think. Under her arm she found her sunglasses bent into an irregular shape. She put them on.
A faint sound murmured in her ears. She thought the wind was playing tricks, until she saw the black gleam of the Land Rover heading back in her direction, a cloud of dust unfurling in its wake.
She ran to the fence, flung herself against it and crawled up to the top strand of barbed wire. One of her shoes dropped to the ground, the other wedged and stuck between two links. She looked behind her at the approaching car and grabbed on to the wire, for once glad of her height which allowed her to swing her leg up, up and over. Metal barbs pierced both her hands. Her other knee caught on the wire, ripping open a gash of red skin. As she jumped down, her dress hooked on to the wire and a wide swatch tore from the hem, leaving a piece flapping on one of the spikes like a signal flag.
She ducked behind the pile of stones. A lizard stared at her indignantly before scuttling away. The Rover stopped in front of the fence and he stepped out, shouting.
Get in the car. Get in now, or I really will leave you to rot in the sun.
He hesitated a moment and kicked a spray of sand in the direction of the fence.
He walked around to the back of the car and reached inside. First he took out her make-up bag, the gold tone one from the big store in London with all the lights, and threw it toward the fence. It hit a pole and split open, lipstick, shiny compacts, tweezers spilling into the sand.
He lifted her leather suitcase out and it flew open, dumping everything into the dust. He kicked her sweaters until they were grey, ground her sequined mules into pieces, ripped her silk underwear with his hands.
Next was the matching hanging-bag, which he unzipped, heaving each dress separately into the air. Sheer fabric caught in the wind and hung shadow-like for moment, rhinestones glimmered falsely, bright colors became dim.
He spit in her direction, tripped over his robes and got into the car, reversing backward and forward over her suitcase several times before gunning the engine and taking off.
She emerged from behind the structure. The sun had beaten her hair into a liquid cap that dripped down her temples. A green silk sarong lay withered in front of her toes; she bent down and wrapped it around her head turban style. She rocked back and forth on her feet, noting the sand was burning the soles of her feet without moving to the shade.
Her life had come to a stop. She could never get back into that car. And no one would ever find her here. So, she told herself, it would be here that she would die. Again. She had died twice before and was not afraid of a third death.
The sun had started its descent without abating its glare. Two large birds with hooked beaks glided over her. Next to the rocks were a rotted hosepipe and a metal chair strung with a corroded plastic seat. She sat in the chair. It would be a fine place for her third death.
The lizard appeared again and twitched its head. Lili stared into its wide eyes. It stared back, its unflinching gaze and ancient wrinkles making it seem unmeasurably wise. She watched the lizard a long time hoping it would tell her something she needed to know. It lifted its body up and down in a caricature of a pushup, it took a step toward her, she leaned closer, craning her neck–once again the roar of the engine echoed across the flatness.
The lizard disappeared. She jumped out of the chair and ducked behind the rocks. He threw on the brakes, the car spun in a half circle, encasing her in a film of dust. She could see his lips moving through the car window and seconds later he burst out, holding up her purse which was on fire. Her snakeskin bag from Italy. A wild moan escaped from him, he hurled the bag high in to the air where it twirled like a crazed firework, spinning out the contents before dropping and extinguishing itself.
Lili, I know you’re here, he said and grabbed the fence.
He started to climb up, but only the tips of his shoes would fit between the links and she knew he would stop because he was wearing his favorite handstitched loafers. A moment later he cursed and jumped down, lost his balance and sat ungracefully in the dirt. He took off a shoe and ran his fingers over the scratches.
Bitch, bitch, bitch.
His head jerked in an odd way that made her worried. A tremor shook his shoulders. What if he had a stroke or a heart attack?
Cunt, he choked out.
He was sobbing.
Stay away, she yelled.
Look what you’ve done to me.
Reduced to a broken donkey. A CRAZY broken ass. That’s what I get for mixing with you, a foreigner, a non-Muslim. Oh, yes, I knew you were not a Muslim. You lied to me and tried to trick me and now Allah will punish both of us.
She whispered, I haven’t done anything.
Damn you, get in the car, Lili.
Leave me alone.
Get in the fucking car. What do you think you’re going to do out here?
Maybe I’ll decide to die.
After all the money I invested in you, you turn out to be as stupid as I always thought you were. Fine. I’m going to leave you here to die, as you deserve.
A small snake emerged from the sand next to him, flicking its forked tongue. It blended perfectly into the sand, its back laced with muted triangles of brown and tan.
Look, she said, It’s like my handbag you burnt.
He turned to look and his face drained of color. She could hear his breathing, in and out, in and out, faster and faster. A high-pitched whine escaped from his throat, he jerked his hand away. The snake sprung into the air striking him on the cheek, he knocked it away and it latched onto his hand. He shook his hand, the snake whipping back and forth through the air until it released its hold and landed with a puff in the dust. He sat back against the fence and watched it vanish into the sand.
Sweet Allah. Help me.
Why do you say that? Get up and go away, you’ll be fine.
Baby, you’ve got to get me to the hospital.
You know I can’t drive.
Why did you have to call me that?
I told you there was one thing you couldn’t ever call me and you called me that.
I don’t remember calling you anything. Please, the car.
Gypsy bitch. You called me a gypsy bitch.
It had nothing to do with you. Baby, you know I loved you.
Loved? Even if she didn’t love him, why wouldn’t he love her? She was eye-catching, graceful, educated – just as he ordered. She couldn’t stand not being loved, especially not by him. Maybe it was her height; it was always her height he had hated. Why wouldn’t he love her?
Loved, she said. Why do you say loved?
I’m dying, Lili.
Don’t be silly it was a little snake.
Little is worse. Look at you, little girl. Bad little girl.
You made me bad.
Help me. I gave you everything.
His face was very swollen, one eye almost shut and a purple mound on the cheek and jaw where he had been bit. Maybe he was going to die. It wasn’t fair for him to die first, this was her place to die.
Get up, you can’t die here.
This is your fault. Climb back over that fence and help me.
He propped himself against the fence and dug into his pocket for his red pocket-knife.
Are you watching? We have to get the poison out. I can’t get it out myself. I have one bite on my hand, I’ll show you what you have to do.
He pulled a shoestring from one of his shoes and tied it around his forearm; already his hand had swelled into an ugly balloon shape. Sunlight glinted off the knife blade as he ran the tip across the purpled bump next to his thumb and a red line the same color as his knife, appeared. The red line split, widened and spilled over the back of his hand. He drew another line, so the two were in the shape of a cross.
I don’t think that is the right thing to do, she said.
Shut up and watch. You’re next.
He put his mouth to the cut and sucked at the wound. His neck convulsed and he spat out a mouthful of blood where it lay for a moment and then dried into a spot the color of rust.
Lili, sweetheart, come over here.
Listen. This is a matter of life and death. Fhemti? Understand? You’ve got to come over here, do as I say and then drive me to the hospital. If you don’t, you’ve killed me as much as this viper has.
What do you think will happen to you after I’m gone? You, alone in Morocco: no passport, a murderer. You will be beaten, jailed, raped, tortured.
I hate you.
We are in the middle of fuck all. In no time, my eyes will be swollen shut and then where will I be? Blind and driving a car.
She stood up and wandered half-heartedly around the enclosure.
Maybe I can climb back over.
I’m tired, baby. Hurry.
The back of his neck looked pale and vulnerable. She felt a moment of tenderness for him. His head slid to the side and his eyes closed, he breathed slow and even. The skin around the bites turned a darker purple and looked almost black in the dimming light.
Wake up, she said, wake up.
She pressed against the fence and screamed right into his ear. Wake up you bastard. Listen to me. You don’t know me, I’ve hidden myself from you. I lied to you. I fooled you. The me you know, is not me.
Several thick, gold chains hung around his neck catching sparks of light from the sun. She undid the clasps with her fingernails and slid the chains out from around his neck. The metal was hot and ran through her hands like liquid. One of the chains caught, she tugged, tugged again and it released, bringing with it several curly strands of black hair.
He twitched, flung his arm against the fence and she jumped back, but still he lay there, his hand now the size of a boxing glove.
Wake up. Oh God, I’ve killed you.
A piece of his shirt stuck through the chain links. She took it between her fingers and held onto it.
I’m sorry, she whispered.
DEATH OF THE Arab
I have killed the Arab.
That one sentence brings great joy to me for two reasons. First it means that I am rid of his rapes and smells. His smell was the worst; sour, pungent, consuming. I still taste it in my mouth and feel it stick to the walls of my throat. I couldn’t let him know how I felt, he would have discarded me and that would amount to slaughtering me in this Muslim land. I was tolerated because of who he is. Was.
Yet, I do not blame him for his rapes and smells. He has paid for it all and I am the receipt. In spite of my great height, he kept me and at times was proud of me. He did not treat me badly, I had food, nice clothes, I traveled in luxury. He beat me infrequently and desired me time after time. Still, I hated him.
The second reason is best of all; there is still a me inside of Lili. Even after Madame Mer and him. Even after all those years. His death has released me.
Me, who left Russia when I was 12. Me, who was handed my personality, on a sheet of paper, by Madame Mer. Me, who was sold to the Arab at 17. Me, who was told I was lucky.