By ALA HLEHEL
Translated by ALICE GUTHRIE
The Second Battle
The women were weirdly dressed: short, revealing, feminine dresses over naval uniform trousers. An attractive French woman was topless, her lower half crammed into a pair of tight military trousers, while some of the soldiers living it up down in the belly of the ship were wearing women’s silk negligees, once bright white but now so heavily stained with vomit, urine, and semen that they were closer to dark grey. On board the Josephine—over the many days of her voyage so far—a professional, serious, and accurate reenactment of some of Sodom and Gomorrah’s wildest days had been performed. Thus the Josephine rocked heavily on the surface of the sea, her cargo consisting of dozens of woozy French women and dozens of French soldiers who were “guarding them,” while the port of Saint Jean d’Acre blinked on the distant horizon.
Captain Thomas was picking his wary way between the piles of discarded meat in the hold of the ship. He couldn’t help staring, at length, at the tangled jumble of breasts and buttocks and thighs all around him. But when he glimpsed the pimply buttocks of one of his soldiers leering up at him from one of the heaps of flesh, he turned aside sharply, only for his gaze to fall on another of his men—this one sprawled facedown on the wooden floor, a little stream of vomit trickling from his mouth, while the air expelled by his loud snores blew little bubbles in the disgusting slop covering the floor of the hold. The worst thing about the smell down here was the fetid humidity that came with it, seeming to settle inside his nose and stubbornly cling to its lining. Captain Thomas put his hand over his nose and mouth and rubbed them violently. The smell of decay was slightly softened by the smell of tobacco on his hand, and he drew a bit of comfort from that beautiful, familiar scent, as the strong urge to roll himself a cigarette was immediately sparked. From the depths of the large, dark hold came gales of loud laughter: shrill, shrieking women’s peals, and men grunting and snorting violently like ravenous pigs.
Before he reached the far corner of the hold, he thought he could make out, through the gloom, a group of bawdy revelers actually rolling around in a pool of accumulated scum and excrement, and when he got over there he found that indeed they were. The scene being played out was, in fact, even worse than he’d thought at a distance: empty and half-full wine bottles lay all over the floor; big, voracious rats gnawed on a discarded chunk of sausage, not taking any notice of the equally oblivious humans surrounding them; filthy clothes were drenched in strange liquids, which were dying them murky and previously unknown shades. The stench of putrefaction filled his nostrils more than ever, here, and he felt a strong urge to throw up, which was suppressed only by his sense of dignity and his determination to act in a manner befitting a solemn and imposing leader, one who would not lower himself to such sleazy and contemptible human depths as these.
Captain Thomas gagged, but managed to swallow his rising vomit, and looked away, only to catch sight of a naked woman sitting on a skinny artilleryman’s lap. He was disgusted by the sight, and felt a strong aversion to the whole scene, but for a moment he surrendered to his memories from eighteen years ago: as a puny and delicate new recruit in the navy, his scant manliness had been raided and exhausted—in less than a minute—by an experienced prostitute who straddled him in a stinking Paris backstreet. He smiled a little to himself as the memory washed over him. In the sordid and repulsive scene in front of him he caught sight of a faded image of his distant erotic memory, and so he felt a passing wisp of sympathy with this outrageous wallowing in such abject human filth.
He turned to go back up on deck, but his way was abruptly blocked: two soldiers were chasing after a naked woman, and the three of them formed a little circle with the Captain in the middle, hemming him in. Laughing and swearing at each other as they went, they were blissfully unaware that the uniform they were smearing with muck as they stumbled around it was on Captain Thomas himself. The Captain knew they were blind to anything other than what their extreme state of inebriation allowed them to see; so he drew himself up and succeeded, with an adroit move and quite some ingenuity, in extricating himself from this uninhibited little party and getting himself over to the ladder.
He had climbed just a few rungs when he felt a hand grab his foot. He looked back over his shoulder, jerking his foot away violently. He was afraid of getting his new army boots dirty before landing at Haifa and handing the ship over, along with its cargo, to Supreme Commander Bonaparte.
“Come here, my beautiful Captain, come here,” Marie was murmuring, slightly slurring her words, as she tried to grasp the Captain’s gleaming boot once again. The Captain instinctively drew back, his hand flying to his sword handle, but he stopped there and didn’t draw the sword from its sheath. He felt the weight of the moment bearing down on him and an intense flood of irritation spreading from his chest up through his nose and mouth and eyes. He looked around him, to make sure that he really was on board a ship of the French Republican fleet and not in some putrid, filthy brothel that licked the pus from the wounds of a rundown African port. The odor was hard to pin down: shit, perhaps; piss, for sure; cum, of course; acrid male sweat so pungent that it seemed to rip open the arteries and veins inside the nose on inhalation…. That last odor was unmistakable: the smell of male armpits had seemed to corrode his nose like acid during the last battle, when he had carried two soldiers, one after the other, off the field to where they could get treatment. The army needed to do something about the smell of male sweat—especially in the East, where the blazing heat turned their soft white French bodies into sickly, sticky, stinking lumps. That was how convinced he was that this Eastern inferno was not remotely suited to the French: Eastern armies, from over there, should be broken in so that they could stand in for the soldiers of the Republic and carry out military duties in their stead. But taming the Eastern armies to that extent would demand long years of intensive language teaching, inculcating the essentials of administration, instilling military discipline, and above all fostering a fundamental and unwavering loyalty to the Republic and its constitution. He always came up against the same brick wall when he thought like this, because of his limited understanding of these strange, barbaric cultures that hadn’t even heard of trains or printing presses yet. Whenever he got to this point, and remembered the full extent of the abominable East’s ignorance, he felt such anguish that he would abruptly give up all these ideas and instead allow himself to sink back into relishing the thought that he would one day have the honor of serving at Supreme Commander Napoleon Bonaparte’s side, and maybe even the honor of giving his life for the cause.
Captain Thomas felt Marie’s hand reach for him again, this time as if to start fiddling with his thigh. When he felt her hand trying to slink its way up toward his crotch, he pulled away from her with a furious flash of impatience and drew his sword, raising it above his head, where it froze in the air while he looked into Marie’s swimming, alcohol-clouded eyes. He felt the sweat begin to gush from the backs of his knees and his armpits. The mere thought of becoming part of the sweaty scene in front of him filled him with hate, and so he turned and bounded up the ladder immediately, leaving his soldiers and the women to knead each other’s flesh in that carnal furnace that he found so depraved, and so fiercely detested.
On the horizon, some distinctive, arid contours were flickering, barely visible, that were surely the East—or at least that was what Captain Thomas kept repeating to himself. He was longing to set eyes on the coast of the Holy Land, and he had had enough of all this chaotic clamor raging on board the Josephine. Those women had corrupted his shameless crew and made the voyage from Malta an intolerable hell. It was true that he had, in his capacity as Captain and the highest in command, sampled the most delicious of the bodies on offer during the early days of the voyage, but he’d quickly gotten bored. Initially the situation was far from clear: were the women on this newly commissioned warship—named after the Supreme Commander’s beloved wife, no less—at the service of her crew and the soldiers on board, or were they to be preserved to reward the exhausted soldiers in the field? Were the soldiers on board theJosephine the equals of the fierce, brave, and deadly soldiers already stationed in the distant, blazing-hot East? Did they therefore deserve to share the present sent from Paris by the Republic to reward the brave sons of Gaul?
Captain Thomas had struggled to keep things under control on the first day at sea. There were nearly 150 women, most of them succulently beautiful and fresh, filling the ship above and below deck, with at least thirty sailors and soldiers hovering around them from the very first instant. When Captain Thomas was summoned by the French naval command in Malta, he had thought he was going to be assigned an intelligence task, as a spy in the Mediterranean pursuing the ships of the English, who were undoubtedly planning some sort of ambush. Like any other soldier in the new French Republic, Captain Thomas was full of pride in his valiant Supreme Commander’s bold and unprecedented campaign. The aim was to secure lasting power bases for the new Republic in the Far East from which to fight against the English and their greedy ambitions. And so any task that aided this campaign would provoke powerful feelings of pride and a fierce nationalism in the soldiers and officers involved.
When Captain Thomas emerged from the headquarters of the naval command, he had felt somewhat dazed, and puzzled. But, like any soldier loyal to the Republic and its Supreme Commander, he had pressed on toward the military barracks in the harbor, and climbed up onto a platform on the quay to address his troops. Lieutenant Bayar, who was at his side, shouted sharply, “Attention!”
In a moment, the scattered soldiers began to assemble in front of their leader, and Lieutenant Bayar busied himself with getting them all neatly lined up. Before long, more than thirty soldiers were arranged in four tight rows, all of them standing perfectly at attention.
“We have been given an order from naval command: we will be setting sail in the next day or two for the Holy Lands, where our Supreme Commander, our officers, and our soldiers are already fighting with great courage. This is a difficult mission… and no ordinary one. It calls for the utmost caution, care, and discretion. You are the vanguard of support for our army and its leader in the countries of the Levant, and you must be very well prepared for that honor, as to fail the Republic at this historic juncture would not be acceptable. I will personally cut the head and limbs off any man who allows himself to be negligent in carrying out this task.”
Captain Thomas had stopped talking and taken a slow, calm breath, ensuring that his words were having the desired impact on his soldiers. He noticed that they were frightened, but keen at the same time. This was the best state for a soldier to be in: scared and cautious and vigilant, but also at the peak of alertness, quick-witted, and ready for the tumult of war. There were strange and crazy moments in which one felt capable of swallowing a whole mountain or drinking a treacherous ocean. When a soldier was equally full of fear and an insane drive to defend the reputation of the Republic or the commander, he was a deadly weapon, with the bloody-minded fearlessness of a charging bull. And there they were in front of him, thirty strong bulls, with war flashing in their blue and green eyes, ready for any challenge—but suddenly he was afraid of exactly that readiness and force. When he remembered the nature of the task with which they had been entrusted, he instantly regretted his rash rallying speech, so he changed tack a little, continuing:
“What I’m asking of you is thoughtfulness, deliberation, calm, and discipline. This is an extremely dangerous mission, which cannot be successful except with self-discipline and the behavior of true gentlemen, and not an uncivilized mob. The Republic herself is watching you: so—are you ready?”
“Ready!” The soldiers bellowed so enthusiastically and so loudly, as one, that a wave of alarm shot through the Captain once again, along with another burst of regret at his recklessness in pumping his troops up to such a degree, but he realized that he was incapable of talking to his soldiers in any other way. When sending someone off to their death, it’s best to make them keep on shouting with zeal the whole time, so they don’t hear the sound of their own frightened heartbeat. But neither the shouts of the soldiers nor the repeated slap and suck of the waves on the side of the ship could drown out the sound of singing already rising up from its unlit and stagnant belly:
Les aristocrates à la lantern!
Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira!
Les aristocrates on les pendra!¹
The Captain raised his telescope to his right eye, smiling at the thought of his crew—how loyal and naïve they had seemed, yet unexposed to the vulgar French flesh that now consumed them below deck. He immediately started, as if he’d spotted the flag of a ship; but then a spasm of shock shot through him, jerking his whole body, when a strong hand grabbed hold of his balls and squeezed them hard. It was Marie, laughing her boisterous drunken laugh as she maintained her firm grip.
“Hey, Captain! Hey, not gonna fuck today?”
The Captain felt dizzy and slightly queasy. He seized Marie’s wrist and clenched it in his fist to make her release her powerful grip on his testicles. He felt an excruciating pain flash between his legs and shoot up to his hips, then spread right through the pit of his stomach. Despite his agony, he could still smell the sweat and semen and vomit in Marie’s tangled hair; but instead of retching in reaction, he drew his sword and swung it at Marie’s head. Her head rolled away across the deck as her body collapsed and sank to the floor, her neck spurting blood in violent arcs, which soon weakened and then slowed to a stop. Only now did Captain Thomas notice that Marie’s body was naked from the waist up: the top half of her dress was undone and had slipped right down to hang off her hips. And there she lay, a corpse on the deck of his ship, the ship he loved, and as quick as death itself she had breathed her last.
With his left hand he wiped away some droplets of blood from his nose and cheeks, and then, with a feverish rage, he shouted:
The hustle and bustle on board the ship halted instantly. Captain Thomas was stunned by what he had done. He was rooted to the spot, looking back and forth between Marie’s head, which rolled along the deck until it came to a standstill against the wall and lodged there in a corner, and her body, slumped in front of him like a heap of disgusting meat. Blood soaked Marie’s dress and covered her naked torso and the deck around her, and Captain Thomas’s heart pounded. This was the surely the end. He had killed a French citizen who had been on her way to serve the soldiers of the Republic in their war on the Levant. He had executed her with a sweep of his sword, without any trial or any charge or even any convincing military justification. He had lost control, and now he would lose not only his job and his rank but his ship. His ship, whom he loved boundlessly, especially after they had changed her name toJosephine, and commanding her and supervising her had become a first-class duty. Without thinking, he raised his head and swept his gaze over the whole ship from top to bottom, pausing a little at the huge cotton sails and the dozens of long, dangling ropes that made up the rigging, some of them twined around the sails from all sides, and some attaching the towering highest mast to the sides of the ship or the big, tough flaps of the sails.
So submerged in his miserable contemplation was Captain Thomas that he took no notice of Lieutenant Bayar carrying Marie’s headless corpse on his shoulder—with difficulty, given the voluptuousness of her white figure—and heading for the rail at the edge of the deck. Then, gathering all his strength, he managed to hoist the body up onto the rail and heave it overboard. The Captain barely even heard the splash the body made over the noise of all the commotion on board and the persistent slapping sound of the light wind flapping the sails. Marie’s corpse bobbed on the surface for a little while before calmly disappearing into the depths of the sea with a startling docility. Lieutenant Bayar hurried to grab Marie’s head; he held it up in front of him and stared at it sorrowfully. Eventually he murmured, “How I loved those lips of yours, Marie….” Then, still holding the severed head in front of him at the height it would have been if still attached to its body, he kissed the twisted, bloody lips, walked quickly toward the railing, and threw it far out into the sea. And then, with the mechanical movements of an exemplary soldier, he hurried back down below deck.
As it started to dawn on him what had happened, Captain Thomas felt stunned. What had Bayar done? Wasn’t this concealing the evidence? Didn’t the law apply to everyone, and wasn’t justice the shining beacon of the new Republic? How had Bayar dared to do such a thing? He would have to hand him over to the military court straightaway. How could he have thrown the decapitated head and body of a fully legal citizen of the Republic into the sea like that, in the blink of an eye, as if she were merely… merely… a whore?
Lieutenant Bayar returned from the hold of the ship carrying a pail of water and a large cleaning rag. He poured the water over the big patch of blood on the deck and then stooped to wipe it up, wringing the cloth out into the bucket like someone who did this as a job. The Captain was still nailed to the spot, transfixed by what was happening, watching his Lieutenant meditatively as he mopped, experiencing a state that was utterly foreign to him, as if he were witnessing a crime that he would be reporting straightaway, and delivering those guilty of it to court. He saw his Lieutenant empty the pail of bloody water into the sea then go back and stare for a moment at the section of the deck where Marie’s blood had been. Then he set the bucket and cloth down and came over to the Captain, rapped his heel hard on the floor as his right hand flew to his brow in a sharp salute, and shouted:
Captain Thomas was still stupefied. He stared into the Lieutenant’s eyes for quite a while. What he should do now was reach out and rip the stripes off this Lieutenant’s shoulder, and then issue an order for him to be incarcerated in the ship’s cells until they reached land. And once there, he should admit to what they had both done, put himself in the Supreme Commander’s hands, and let him settle the matter. That was what he should do now, as a senior and respected officer in the Great Republic’s army.
“Dismissed,” Captain Thomas said languorously.
Lieutenant Bayar turned on his heel and disappeared into the hold of the ship. The Captain looked around him and discovered that he was by himself on deck. Completely alone. There was no doubt that all the soldiers who had been here a little while ago had chosen to hide below deck so that they could say, when it was necessary, “We didn’t see anything, and we didn’t hear anything.” Had they done this out of love for the Captain, or fear of him?
They did love him. He had seen it shining in their eyes when he was addressing them on the beautiful quayside in Malta before embarking on this mission. He’d seen himself reflected in their pupils, and he’d been amazed by his own image gleaming back at him from those obedient soldiers’ eyes. Even when he’d shouted out, with an exaggerated fervor that burst out of him despite his rapid attempt to contain it, “To Saint Jean d’Acre!,” they had screamed it back at him with an even wilder passion.
“To Saint Jean d’Acre,” the Captain murmured to himself as he smiled feebly without quite knowing why. He looked around him, alone for the first time in ten days, and smiled again, more strongly this time, at the unexpected comfort of his solitude. He turned toward the ship’s rail and looked ahead to see if he could make out the coast of the Holy Land, where his Supreme Commander was, at this very moment, defying death in his attack on the city of Saint Jean d’Acre, but instead he heard a terrified voice screaming down at him from the crow’s nest:
Bewildered, Captain Thomas slammed his telescope up to his eye, and sure enough he saw a huge warship flying the hateful English flag, bearing down on them. Captain Thomas couldn’t take in what he was seeing when the body of the soldier on lookout crashed down from the crow’s nest onto the deck beside him. Before he had time to even think about turning and summoning his soldiers from the hold, an English cannonball was launched and he heard it whistle more and more shrilly and he saw it for an instant, less than an instant, coming straight toward him.
“You must shout louder than the sound of your frightened heartbeat—that’s the trick,” the Captain repeated to himself, without the faint smile leaving his lips. He would have carried on concentrating on shouting loudly, except that the cannonball cleaved him in two, splitting him neatly down the middle of his chest then continuing on its way and dropping onto the wooden deck, to burst violently out of the far end of the hull. Shouts and wails went up from the soldiers and the women, and the ship’s many rich odors were suddenly cut with the smell of hot gunpowder; then a gruesome hail of cannonballs began to pound into the ship, raising skittish arcs of shot-up sea around it like a celebratory gunners’ salute at a royal palace.
 Take the aristocrats to the lamppost! /Ah! It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine!/ We’ll hang them high, those aristocrats
Ala Hlehel was born in a village called al-Jash in Galilee, and now lives in Akka. He has a BA in mass media and fine arts from the University of Haifa, and is a graduate of the School of Screenwriting in Tel Aviv. He has worked for many years as a press, radio, and Internet journalist, and he is editor in chief of the cultural website qadita.net. His latest book is the novel Au Revoir, Akka.
Alice Guthrie is a British translator, editor, journalist, and event producer specializing in Arabic-English literary and media content. Her work has appeared in a broad range of international publications and venues, with an increasing focus on Syria, where she studied Arabic.