A Slippery Coffin

By AHMED SHEKAY
Translated by ADDIE LEAK

I hear a sound at my apartment door, and I just know it’s her. I follow her down the stairs. As I put my left foot onto the first step, I see the tips of her curls as she rounds the bend and, a moment later, glimpse her sneakered left foot as she takes her final step between the stairs and the exit. Then she’s swallowed up by the trees in the Ostpark. I tell myself, Good for Ababa, getting some morning exercise, and run after her, looking for her among the trees and in the forms of the other people out jogging. Every time I see a thick derrière, I’m sure it’s her and no one else, but when I get close, they start looking nervous, fear visible in their eyes, and jump out of my path. It takes me a full hour of looking to figure out why they’re acting this way, at which point, I’ve almost frozen from the cold. My breath has left frost on the tip of my nose, my tongue is parched, and I begin to cough violently. But I have absolute faith that she knocked on my apartment door and then ran away: Who else would do that? She’s the only visitor I’ve been wanting.

An old man walking his dog says, “If you don’t put some clothes on, you’ve got about two minutes before Mother Nature kills you.” I suddenly realize I’m bare-chested, wearing only a pair of Adidas basketball shorts; on my right foot is a house slipper, and on my left, nothing. For nearly an hour, I haven’t felt the cold; all I could think about was following her, grabbing her by the hand, dropping to my knees, and stringing together two sentences: “I’m sorry. Glory be to God you’re alive.”

I turn this scene over and over in my mind until I’m convinced it really happened. Now it’s a quarter past six in the morning. The sun is still sleeping below the horizon, the distance between me and home is considerable, and the cold is crushing me.

I stare at the old man’s jacket, but the words refuse to leave my mouth. He understands from my eyes, which are practically popping out of their sockets, and says, “You’re welcome.”

I run with all the energy I have left, cover the distance in record time, and find myself panting in front of the building. Oh my god, I left my key inside. This fucking morning!

I press the doorbells for every apartment in the building, and an old lady comes onto the intercom: “Who is it? Do you know what time it is?” The first words out of my mouth are “I’m freezing to death!” She lets out a string of scheißes and verdammts, wishes me dead, and says that the world will never be at peace till all the beggars and panhandlers have kicked the bucket; then her voice disappears. I try again, and a man whose voice sounds young answers. I tell him I’m his new neighbor in the building and that I forgot my key in my apartment.

“Great,” he says. “My name is Herr Müller. I live on the second floor, apartment 7; my name is on the door. I’ll be expecting your letter of apology and thanks. I’ll open up now.”

By the time I reach the halfway point on the stairs, my strength has completely given out, so I fall to my knees and crawl the rest of the way to my apartment. I turn on all the heaters in the place: the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, all four burners on the kitchen stove. Those first few minutes waiting for the apartment to warm up are more than I can take. The idea of a hot bath occurs, and I convince myself that it’s my only hope.

I head for the bathroom, whose door is always open, because its outside handle is missing, has been ever since I moved in two months ago. I close the door behind me, fill the tub with hot water, and throw myself into it. It takes only a few moments before I feel warm, and then, almost immediately, I feel like my skin is peeling off as the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other.

When I try to press down on the inside door handle to open it, it comes off in my hand, and the remaining piece of metal on the outside clatters to the floor. The handle is in my hand, and the door is shut, and from a very small opening, I can see light filtering through from the kitchen.

 

The bathroom is two meters long, one and a half meters wide. The sink is directly opposite the door, the mirror above it; to the left is a switch for the light above the mirror; beside this is the toilet, then a small tub in the back left corner. Walls on three sides, and the fourth halved by the door. No windows, just a ventilation fan set into the ceiling.

Now I’m lying on the bathroom floor. The door to my apartment is bolted, with the key still in the lock, keeping anyone outside from opening it. I live alone in my apartment, and no one visits me or even knows my new address. My phone is on the table in the living room, beside the last book I was reading. At this point, I’m staring death right in its bony face. I’ll die in here, and eventually the neighbors will get annoyed by the nasty smell wafting from my apartment and call the police. That’ll be in a week, or maybe a month, or more, especially if the fan is on.

I think about turning it off, but discover that it’s connected to the light switch outside the bathroom, outside like everything in my life now, except the soul that rises into my throat and then sinks back down into my feet. I establish that turning off the fan is a no-go, and that I’ll meet my end in an emptiness of waiting.

The idea comes to mind of playing with memory, calling it up, and—when it begins to speak—changing the track; this game will help me pass the time, and maybe, by playing with my memory, I can come up with a solution to my death. All I can think about right now is that it has to be natural, or at least look that way to my family and acquaintances. I don’t want it to be a death people remember as weird, or to become some cautionary tale, forever immortalized in hearts and minds because of how I died.

 

The first thing I remember is that little old man, the tomato and lemon seller. His wares lay on the ground, and no one would buy from him. Above his damaged wares were his burn-marked face and gouged-out eye, a hole through which you could see his brain pulsing: reason enough to be disgusted by both him and his wares.

He was skinny, like a stalk of barley, his clothes tattered; he reminded me of nothing so much as of death, as if he were a dead man returning from a short visit to the grave. At the moment, I hate my memory for fixating on him, but it does make sense: I’m facing death, and he’s the reason I’m in this mess, isn’t he? I met him on a sweltering day when the sun, beating down, joined forces with my city to flay people alive. I worked in the vegetable market back then, selling plastic bags to shoppers, especially workers buying produce for their families.

I remember that it happened on a Thursday, because the workers only bought things on Thursdays; the rest of the week, their wives shopped at the neighborhood greengrocer. This was the day of the week I would sell out three times over; every time I sold a set of bags, the merchant I worked for would hand me a new bundle along with a look of fake kindliness, accompanied by a wink tinged with the sort of sick lust you only found in men who trembled and stuttered when they saw the strong, beautiful women at the market. From time to time, I was told I was less of a man because I worked for him, and maybe that’s why my fellow plastic bag sellers got together that day to beat me up and steal everything I’d earned and, if that wasn’t bad enough, the merchant’s capital, too. The leader of the gang of kids—the oldest—said, “Just let the old man slip it to you like always, and he won’t even ask where the money went.”

My nose was bleeding, the blood intermingling with snot and my tears and running down to my chin. Nobody cared about a semi-homeless little boy crying under a semi-demolished wall, no one except that ugly man, one eye tinged with red and the other basically just a hole that showed off the roof of his skull.

“It’s okay; you’ll grow up and forget all about it in no time. Here, drink some water and wash your face.” After that, it was a partnership that lasted for months; I would sell bags, then direct people toward his rotting vegetables. We planned for a great future, getting out of this hole we found ourselves in. I was twelve, and, as he put it, he was ahead of me by thirty summers. Now I’m looking back at him as I stare down death in this bathroom with three and a half walls and a heavy door. He’s the reason we later thought to emigrate and take a series of boats to a new life. I quickly squeeze that memory out and exchange it with another, free of that mutilated face with its gouged-out eye, free of a person fresh from the death I’m heading for. “Sorry, ‘Amu Ismail,” I murmur. “Not now.”

 

I dig into my memory to bring forth the beautiful, shapely girl from Addis Ababa. I met her in Zawia a few years later, in a migrant detention camp just feet from the sea we all hoped to cross. Whenever I fix the image of her disheveled hair on my closed eyelids, her golden brown face and skin rise like steam into the darkness. Oh, those perfect, happy moments I’ll soon bid farewell to forever. Her name was Ababa, a beautiful twenty-two-year-old girl who looked at me with mixed emotions: those of the lover afraid of the difference in religions, culture, and language, and those of the sweet older sister.

Once, during a long, cold night, my longing for her became too much to bear, and I decided to visit Ababa in the women’s area. Everyone, including ‘Amu Ismail, told me to get the idea out of my head; tomorrow would be a new day. But I felt deep down that if I waited until morning, I would never see or speak to Ababa again.

I snuck past ‘Amu Ismail, then crawled on all fours from the men’s quarters to the women’s. After less than twenty meters, I started feeling like I was pointlessly wasting time, so I stood up and made a break for it. I ran all the faster to escape the bullets of the lunatic guard who’d started firing randomly into the darkness as soon as he registered movement. The lunatic guard, a hash cigarette dangling permanently from his lips, was so named because even the head of the smuggling operation feared and respected him. The guard had killed the boss’s dog once, and still got hired back three days later. People heard the boss mutter, “This lunatic’s the only thing that can control these pests,” and the name stuck.

I dodged his bullets and made it to the women’s area as the guard sat down again in his chair and reloaded his gun, waiting for a new pest to scurry by. He would see in the morning whether the first one was dead or not.

 

I entered the ladies’ quarters, terrified, with nothing in my mouth but Ababa’s name and my shallow, hot breaths. She was standing at the inner door and said in a voice that carried all the fear in the world: “I knew it was you getting shot at. Damn you!” Then I spent the night sobbing into her lap.

Two hours before daybreak, the smuggler’s ugly broker entered, short and foulmouthed, waking all the women by kicking and beating them. When he kicked Ababa, I got smacked in the face by her bombshells, as I called them. The broker read the instructions: “You will take nothing with you except the clothes on your back. Food and water are waiting for you on the boat. No lighters, no blankets, no sharp tools.” Everyone was quiet, and then Ababa said she couldn’t leave the blanket, because she was cold. He answered, “Leave the blanket, or I strip you and you go naked.” Then he grabbed the blanket, and I popped out, horror stamped across my face. Ababa begged him to let me ride in the boat with her, but he gave a contemptuous laugh and said to me in a language that only we two understood:

“You’re no man after this.”

He grabbed me, and she held on to me tightly; we were both weak, but her presence made me stronger. Then he said to her, “If you don’t let go of him, I’ll call the guard standing outside.” The women cried out with a single voice, “No!” Ababa didn’t want to see my skull shattered by the lunatic’s bullets, so she pushed me away as hard as she could.

For three days and three nights after we heard that the boat carrying Ababa sank, I didn’t leave the shore. The lunatic tired of me, and my friends tired of trying to coax me back to the men’s quarters. My response to them was always the same: If the boat really sank, the waves would bring me her body.

 

I hear the sound of water in the neighbor’s bathroom. I pound my fists raw against the wall, but though the sound of water is still audible, my voice isn’t. Maybe my voice is already feeble from thirst, so I drink chlorinated water from the tap. The sound in the neighbor’s bathroom stops. I wait for hours, but nothing new happens.

This is it.

This is how I die.

 

Ahmed Shekay is an Eritrean Sudanese writer and storyteller. He won second place in the Mohammed Saeed Nawed Short Story Award for writers in the Horn of Africa in 2017. He was born in Port Sudan, Sudan, in 1986 and has lived in Germany for seven years.

Addie Leak is a co-translator of Mostafa Nissabouri’s For an Ineffable Metrics of the Desert and Hisham Bustani’s Waking Up to My Distorted City, and her translations from French and Arabic have also been featured in Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, Words Without Borders, The Common, Exchanges, Shuddhashar, The Huffington Post, and more. She is a former Fulbrighter in Jordan, where she lived for six years.

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A Slippery Coffin

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