The Day Azrael Committed Suicide

By ARTHUR GABRIEL YAK

Translated by SAWAD HUSSAIN

Note: The following story contains graphic language related to war and sexual violence.

News of the clashes poured into the Gudele district police station from everywhere, not least from the general headquarters of the People’s Army, conveyed by the intermittent, staccato rattling of Kalashnikovs and DShK heavy machine guns, and the roar of tanks that left gutter-deep tread marks on the main roads in their wake. Thick, dark columns of smoke soared skyward from the city of Juba, visible from a distance to Colonel Franco just as he was ending his call with his sister Christina, who told him of how their youngest sister, Rebecca Majok Majak, the doctor working in Bentiu hospital, wife to a Nuer tribesman, was at risk.

“There are pockets of rebels trying to seize power, Your Excellency!” barked the military police officer who entered the office and found the Colonel deep in thought, his head cradled in his large hands, staring at the phone nestled in front of him. For the first time, the officer noticed the three stubs on one of Colonel Franco’s hands. It was said he had lost those fingers during the civil war, when an anti-personnel landmine exploded, transforming the communications officer, who was carrying a wireless radio on his back, into mere chunks of meat scattered on the shoulders, arms, and legs of his surviving comrades. That day, Franco ordered the soldiers to stay where they were; his hunch that they had entered a minefield was spot-on. He scanned the area and saw the ends of many wires sticking out, tangled—barely needing someone to pull or touch them for dozens to go off. He ordered them all to retreat, for each soldier to retrace his steps. And that’s how they miraculously cheated death, at the cost of the dead communications officer and Colonel Franco’s three middle fingers.

As she watched the Colonel’s colleagues, who had fought alongside him, become the country’s dignitaries, his sister Christina was bowled over by despair. Her blood pressure would shoot up as she screamed at him, reminding him of their childhood; of how, with those now-lost fingers, he used to draw falcons, doves, and flocks of sheep crossing a street crowded with worshippers coming from church on a Sunday. Now, he was just a seven-fingered colonel, tossed into the dumpster of oblivion. He should have never allowed Rebecca to follow her heart.

“Your militancy and the loss of your fingers were a waste of time!”

One of the things that the Colonel hated most in the world was for someone to mention the stubs on his hand; it flung him into a strange maze. A maze that led him down the path of sacrifice for the sake of his people, who were now blessed with freedom; a maze that made him see things Christina’s way, that losing his fingers had been all for nothing. Especially when he’d see his peer Colonel Jeremiah lavishing his largesse on people, as if he’d come into a fortune.

All at once, he felt as if his three stubs were starting to bud, grow, lengthen, and move in different directions. He was overwhelmed with a joy that flooded him with the feeling of being two colonels at once: Colonel Franco Majak Majok with stubs for fingers, and Colonel Franco Majak Majok with five fingers on each hand. He wasn’t sure which one he was anymore. “Wallah, I swear, I was two colonels at once!” That’s what he told his friend William, who was doing his best to make sense of what Franco was recounting to him about his fingers a week later, after the massacre at the Gudele district police station. William’s efforts to comprehend Franco sobered him up from all the alcohol he drank from five in the afternoon till ten at night, to the point that his eyelids chased away all hints of sleep till five the next morning.

“Brother, you’ve run my brain ragged and made me lose 150 pounds’ worth of alcohol!” William said, disgruntled.

The Colonel continued to contemplate his fingers, raising his left hand up until he could make sure they were really there. Suddenly, he saw them, and then they completely disappeared, as if they were panicked by the looks of the red-capped officer, whom he found standing in front of him, his mouth agape as he stared in amazement at the stubs of the Colonel’s hand. The Colonel felt pain where his fingers should have been, and didn’t know if he was floating on clouds of dreamy thought or barely keeping his head above the crashing waves of bitter reality. But he soon remembered that the source of this pain was nothing more than the phone call he had just had with his sister. Christina’s agitated voice, heavy with worry over what would happen to their doctor sister Rebecca, still rang in his ears. At the same time, he was gazing at the moving lips of the officer repeating what he had just said after he was certain that the Colonel hadn’t heard him the first time around. The Colonel shot him a hard look that ordered the officer to leave him be.

The Colonel pondered how to reach Rebecca, who worked in the area belonging to the Nuer tribe; he was afraid that the fighting now going on in the capital would spread to the other states. That was the gist, the very essence of Christina’s phone call; she’d poured out her anger on him, as usual, ordering him to do the impossible and bring their sister back, even if it meant him doing it all by himself.

“I know you. You won’t do it. As if you’ve ever done anything good for our family!”

Colonel Franco wished that he could pull back the wheel of time a little, stopping it in the month of May of last year, when Tut Galwak Tut asked for his sister Rebecca’s hand in marriage with the family and church’s blessing, so that he could explain to Christina how he too was opposed to it, in agreement with his uncle, Majak Majak, who had said, “It’s not possible for an educated girl from our tribe, a doctor at that, to marry a Nuer!”

That’s how Majak Majak forcefully made his argument to Rebecca’s family, consisting of her cousins who had come from far-off villages to give their opinions on the offer of marriage from the family of Tut Galwak Tut. Despite his high familiarity with English and his passable Arabic, which he wasn’t very good at writing, Majak Majak had used flowery expressions in Dinka that he had mastered, feeling satisfied with himself. As for the Colonel, he was stauncher in his opinion, diving into the dossiers of the struggle’s history to pull out names of his colleagues who had been martyred in the split of 1991, which nearly led the popular movement to its tragic demise, where his peers who belonged to his tribe were eliminated at the hands of the dissidents hailing from the Nuer tribe. And so he was far more hostile when giving his opinion, in a raised voice that made Christina, standing next to their sister, retreat and almost say that she agreed with their objections. But then Rebecca, having eavesdropped through the back window to the room where the elderly men of the tribe close to her family had gathered, suddenly appeared before them like a djinn and voiced her opinion, which left everyone panicked. “Either you marry me off or I kill myself!”

There were no words to express how the Colonel felt as he married his sister off to a Nuer man; what a betrayal of his friends, who had been martyred in the areas that the dissident forces had taken control of, martyred for nothing, or rather just because they belonged to the Dinka tribe!

Consenting to his sister Rebecca’s marriage to Tut Galwak Tut was a stain on his family’s reputation, an insult to its history of having the blood of his kinsmen spilled at the hands of the Nuer.

The Colonel remained immersed in his coma of yore, in which he found himself face to face with his colleagues who had been martyred by the bullets of dissidents, until a young officer yelling for the fifth time jolted the Colonel from his thoughts. A scream that laid down a sharp marker between the history that he had lived through in the lengthy liberation war and the reality that so chimed with that history!

The young officer was tottering so precariously that the other officers stopped for a moment what they were doing to indulge in stifled laughter. No one knew if he was staggering from the local wine that he had been nursing since noon in the straw mud houses that formed the police station’s premises in the Gudele district, or if the sight of the pools of blood splattered across the spacious courtyard was making him dizzy. This yell was his only way to express his objection to the Kalashnikov ammunition running out, he who had been asking the quartermaster squad for more than an hour to give him more rounds because his mission was sacred—“In the sight of God,” as he put it: getting rid of the “frogs” and “gerbils” and “insects” that filled the station’s courtyard was an ongoing mission.

The Colonel rose from his rickety wooden chair, bleary-eyed like he’d just woken up, his sister Christina’s phone call still echoing in his ears. When the Colonel finally came out into the courtyard to see if his orders were being carried out, the night was pitch dark, except for some minuscule, glittering stars that were trying desperately to pierce the heavy rain clouds drifting toward the northern horizon. This station hadn’t seen an electric light since its inception, unless you counted the faint flashes emitted from cigarette lighters that allowed him to see the human mass moving along. Sounds could be heard from the men crouching at the corner of the fence, akin to women wailing. The junior officer who had screamed out earlier about needing ammunition now came out of a small room near the toilet, in his hand a cleaver, its blade gleaming as sad clouds collided, creating shiny, jagged lines running up the peak of Jebel Kujur before disappearing into the vast courtyard of the sky.

A smile formed on the Colonel’s lips, one of satisfaction and approval at the young officer occupied with sharpening his blade on a large rock in front of the office. But the Colonel’s smile held no interest for the young officer: anyone in his place, who’d just shot his last bullet into the head of someone he saw as a pig, deserving of death, wouldn’t be concerned about smiles in an atmosphere overshadowed by wails of those expiring.

The Colonel was speaking to the officer in the red cap who had come to inform him that their forces had driven away the pockets that had tried to seize the headquarters. The Colonel didn’t respond, because he had already received the news from his superior, General Clement, who had ordered him to be on guard because the forces repelling the dissidents might need a reinforcing platoon, or a squad at the very least, at any given point. But the Colonel’s attention was elsewhere; he was interested only in asking the red-capped officer the name of that young officer who had just finished sharpening the blade of his cleaver and hurried away, as if he was in haste to make a date with his lover.

“Jockey,” said the officer, who then clarified that his name was Ajak, but that the officer liked to call him Jockey.

The red-capped officer called out to Jockey, who had been swallowed up by screaming voices and the pitch-black night, a light drizzle, and a flash of thunder. He had been the last one to go sharpen his cleaver, after shooting his last bullets at three of the young Nuer men. He hadn’t heard the orders issued by the Colonel, which the military police officer conveyed to the soldiers, that they should switch to bayonets until ammunition arrived—an hour at the very latest.

The courtyard of the Gudele police station was now a large slaughterhouse where every kind of murder abounded. A massive officer roamed between the bodies soiled with blood and mud, searching for any frog that had a trace of life left. He thumped a gerbil with a knife used for slaughtering cows, cutting its head, arteries exploding in his neck. White flesh came into view, with no blood in sight. The victim, a young man, thrashed about and trembled. Provoked further by this squirming, the massive officer plunged the tooth of his sharpened knife into the neck of the young man, who had snorted loudly; his blood poured out. The massive soldier pivoted towards another victim, who spat curses in Nuer. As soon as he drew close enough, the other man spat mucus in the face of the soldier, who just stood there stunned, as if this disgusting glob of mucus didn’t just sully his face, but that of his Dinka tribe, too. The massive soldier wiped off the mucus with his right hand and glared. The mucus was green, with flecks of blood, which made the soldier curse everyone and anything that didn’t belong to his tribe.

“Soldier!”

The Colonel called him with such a loud voice that its force shook the bodies of those dying in the courtyard, according to the soldiers who were there that night. The only one whose ears went deaf, unintentionally, was that giant of a soldier, who was standing foolishly in front of the victim who lay before him, unsure of how to respond to that sticky spit. The soldier dragged his feet with indifference, and for the first time, he felt the heaviness of those muddy, bloodstained military boots. He stood before the Colonel and looked him in the face. The Colonel reprimanded him before advising him not to be so childish in how he treated the enemy, and added that getting rid of them as swiftly as possible was of the utmost importance, because so many of them were still lurking in neighboring homes, with death most certainly their destiny!

The soldier returned to the large slaughterhouse, groping his way through the dozens of butchers, who were amputating fingers or popping eyeballs, before their victims were shunted to the world of the departed. He reached the victim who had spat in his face just minutes before, and kicked him with his military boots after using a cloth to wipe down his bayonet, which was tainted with blood. “This animal had better enjoy his death, and I’ve got to enjoy killing him!” he yelled to himself as he pulled the tongue of his victim out of its oral cavity and sliced it off with one swift movement. The body didn’t move an inch; the man was already dead, a sarcastic smile frozen on his lips, which the soldier translated as a provocation and disdain for him personally. He stood looking at the body with great regret; if only he could bring him back to life and get his revenge, not with a bayonet or a bullet, but by defecating in his mouth so that his filthy tongue would taste his shit. His eyes shone with the tears of dissatisfaction and powerlessness one sheds before a dead body, unable to do anything—this would gnaw away at the square-shouldered soldier’s conscience for many years to come.

The silence drawn on the lips of the corpse lying before him so irritated and worried the soldier that he didn’t even feel the Colonel patting his shoulder and telling him in English, “Next.” He was lost in the details of the decision that he’d made without a second thought.

He unbuttoned his green camouflage trousers, opened the zipper, and pulled down his trousers. He removed his stained underwear, moist from sweat, and then squatted above the face of the corpse, making sure his ass was right where the corpse’s mouth was. Cursing in Dinka, he let out a monster of a fart, which splattered, with a gale’s force, particles of shit on the dead man’s face and mouth, after which the soldier heaved a sigh of relief and let out a laugh from the pit of his belly.

The massive soldier’s colleagues were preoccupied with chopping off heads, slicing legs with machetes, and clobbering heads of those who had refused to die by having their heads smashed in with large stones. The way death occurred with such a startling simplicity made one think that God had recused himself from the proceedings, or that, perhaps for a moment in time, He was no longer able to protect humanity. What was happening had nothing to do with “A day will come when God has written for you to die!” You were dead meat already, as long as you were of the Nuer tribe. Such brutal murders with no whispers of regret required more than simply stripping the victims of their humanity by calling them toads, or donkeys, or mosquitoes, or gerbils.

The screams of the victims were piercing as they sought sympathy from their executioners—maybe, just maybe, God would drop into their hearts a shred of mercy. The soldiers were now accustomed to such yells, which at first had been incredibly annoying, then boring, like a song that had been repeated dozens of times, until such sounds finally became vapid, so much so that a soldier would say that death was dreary if it wasn’t accompanied by a chorus of yells and groans! Consequently, when the new ammunition arrived in the dead of the night, many of the soldiers deliberately eschewed firing their weapons to kill their victims, now crammed into the courtyard of the Gudele police station, because, as they put it, ripping a person limb from limb was more enjoyable than shooting him in the head, where he’d die a swift, painless death. For hours afterward, the sounds of gunfire in the courtyard of death faded away, and all that could be heard was the bang-bang of hammers, the slice of machetes, the rasp of shovels, the shrieks of those cut into pieces, and the throaty gurgles of those who lay dying, mingled with yelps of pain, groans of terror, and skulls shattering on the cement walls.

Colonel Franco favored not using live ammunition; it might draw more attention from those living in the houses adjacent to the Gudele police station, especially after he saw a few people stealing looks from behind their bamboo fences, spying people being dragged off and not coming back out. But the Colonel, after the clock had struck two in the morning and he’d seen the number of gerbils being brought in by soldiers unabated, changed his mind and ordered his soldiers to use their guns so that they could get rid of the toads crouching by the main door after the courtyard of death had closed in on them.

Black chunks from disfigured bodies were placed atop one another, here and there. The Colonel had to get rid of them before the sun came up and the Gudele police station became an open, rancid mass morgue. There was one Land Cruiser, the Colonel’s. He could use it to move the lifeless bodies and those that were still clinging on to this world, witnessing their loved ones and relatives being brutally murdered.

Fatigue and exhaustion etched into their faces, their green military uniforms begrimed with blood, sweat and mud, the soldiers began to pick up the crumpled bodies and throw them onto the bed of the green, camouflage-patterned Land Cruiser. Heavy as the bodies were, the rear tires of the vehicle grew loose, and were tinted red from the little rivulets of blood leaking through small openings in the bed of the truck.

“Where should we throw them, sir?” the soldier in the red cap asked Colonel Franco in English. The Colonel had been reading a report on the Nuer horde trying to storm the army’s general headquarters. Some of them had been killed, while others had run off to hide in the many small thickets alongside the road leading to Terkeka.

Most of those who had been killed in front of the headquarters were students, in whose pockets were new banknotes allegedly paid to them by one of the leaders of the coup attempt before the students were ordered to attack the headquarters.

“Take them to the Republican Palace, because the authorities are waiting for them!” Colonel Franco ordered the military police officer without raising his head from the report he was reading.

 

Corporal John, who had been worn out by the scenes of death, started his car’s engine. The car slowly advanced and left the police station, to be swallowed up by the darkness of the night. After a quarter of an hour, the vehicle came back, the soldiers having dumped the bodies at the intersection of Gudele and Referendum Streets, where women sometimes piled up mangoes, papayas, maize, and bananas—a place bustling with sellers and buyers during the daytime hours and a small part of the night, too. The soldiers believed that this dark corner of the capital was the perfect spot to dump the bodies, scattering them to make it look to passersby in the morning that they were no more than victims of a ferocious battle that had broken out right there. They threw the bodies around haphazardly and then shot heavily into the air to camouflage their deeds.

As the soldiers transported the bodies for the sixth time, after having nibbled on yesterday’s leftover bread and exchanged cigarette butts that had almost died out, Colonel Franco left his office to see if the courtyard, which had been piled up with cadavers, was empty. The hands of Colonel Franco’s clock indicated three in the morning, leaving only two and a half hours until the birth of Tuesday.

The Colonel couldn’t help but choke back his surprise when he saw black heads moving slowly, right there next to the toilet, looking at the bodies piled up inside the Toyota Land Cruiser. Heads perhaps praying for a miracle to rescue them from certain death. Colonel Franco didn’t want the coming threads of dawn to meet those gerbils still sitting there, their eyes moving sharply from one side to the other, glittering with the glint of death in the dissipating darkness. He had to issue another order, this time necessitating the use of gunfire.

“To hell with all of them—NOW!”

The soldiers were worn out, the smell of blood having exhausted them by the time they began to shoot at those bowed heads. It all seemed so quotidian to them, so much so that their daily game of dominoes would be a much more challenging form of entertainment than the killings they were carrying out now. The number of victims that they had disposed of till that moment was well over a hundred, and yet the numbers kept rising—more and more to be tossed away at a distant location. When the Colonel saw that the number of those seated away from him, waiting to be killed, was more than the number of those who had bid farewell to life, and that the thick threads forming the pitch-black night were starting to recoil in the face of the crawling sunrise, he couldn’t keep it together any longer, especially when he remembered the strict order that the General had given him: “Tomorrow, I don’t want to see a single Nuer in the unit!” As he swam in those words and the hordes of Nuer that kept gushing in from the part of town where the battle raged, as if those who had been executed had come back to life, he snatched his Kalashnikov, settled it on his right shoulder, and went down himself to the slaughterhouse to help his soldiers.

The soldiers stood riveted in place for a moment as they watched Colonel Franco make his way toward a group that had just been brought in. Blindfolded, handcuffed, and sitting on the ground with their heads bowed. The Colonel shot out burst after burst from his weapon, and in less than half an hour, he had reached the last line, despite feeling that those thirty minutes were no less than half a century. And when he saw another group had arrived, he trained his Kalashnikov at them, this weapon that was worn out, its hot bullets tunneling into the heads of its victims, of whom he knew nothing, save for the fact that they were from the Nuer tribe. The Colonel’s anger had reached its boiling point. All at once, he felt goosebumps standing up on his trigger finger as he considered how this finger had been tirelessly pressing on that half-arc piece of metal, an appendage that conspired against him, having compassion on that victim who smelled of urine, feces, and sweat. The victim who knelt down, sobbing, begging for mercy, for the Colonel not to dispatch him the way he had just killed his comrade moments before.

The Colonel stared at that smart-ass finger, which had seemed like part of a stranger’s body, in the faint moonlight filtering through from behind the mango tree. It filled him with a hatred greater than what he’d inflicted on his victims. He then bit down on that finger till he could smell and taste hot blood, while the malice radiating from his eyes, red due to sleeplessness, nearly pierced through the head of his victim, right where he had angled the mouth of his gun.

The ripples of numbness refused to halt at the finger of Colonel Franco Majuk Majak; they slithered slowly and plowed through the thick, icy, blood-like mud. As soon as this numbness hovered over the surface of his skin—whose pores had closed at not having been bathed for more than twenty hours—it morphed from minor tingles that ebbed and flowed along the topography of his body into a taser-like electric current that struck his head and his mind. Images of men yelping like children, but he couldn’t hear them. The zinging of his bullets drowned out the screams of death erupting from the mouths of his victims, their pleading tears, while his soul was intoxicated, suspended in a space between pleasure and happiness, as if he were playing football, which he had adored as a child.

A hysterical sort of laughter came over the Colonel while he looked at his victim, the desperate man’s voice now having transformed into the shrieks of a foundling wrapped in a rag, tossed by his mother to the bottom of a trash can in the marketplace. It was the kind of laughter that made the police station—which had been devoid of such a sound and which no one knew when it had become a military camp, an unforgiving one at that, splashed a deadly red hue—and all those inside it stop in their tracks, halting the arbitrary executions. The laughter then bore down on the necks of the soldiers like an order from a superior, and their guns halted their neighing, while the victims, lined up and sitting on the ground, were astonished. For the first time, an odd funereal silence cocooned the place.

Those who had been laughing, taking pleasure in the laughter of their victims, forcing them to bid farewell to life, fell silent. They stopped fiddling with those machines that harvested souls, and felt the pricks of their consciences, which had awoken all at once, relaying how life was terribly ugly if there wasn’t something to make a man laugh! And that a killer, no matter how cruel or savage he was, in the end was human, with a heart that grew tender, even if it was after some time—he’d smile, laugh, feel moments of joy, love life just as much as the next person.

In that very moment, Colonel Franco ejected a shriek of laughter; those who had been sleeping under beds that were now makeshift trenches, protecting them from the rain of bullets, swore that it must have been the laugh of the happiest man on Earth at that hour! He relaxed his Kalashnikov on his shoulder, which had started to go numb, while his fatigued, bleary eyes remained trained intently on the face of the man kneeling before him, this man, whose voice came from the bottom of the garbage can, a voice that thrummed in the Colonel’s mind.

The Colonel was unable to explain to his soldiers, frozen in place before him, what he had done next. They stared at him when he pulled out his member—crooked from his masturbation addiction—and, with complete ease, pissed on the head of his victim. When he felt that his bladder was about to burst, he undid the buttons of his khaki pants and violently pushed out all of its contents onto the head of that man kneeling before him, with neither the Colonel nor the soldiers, who turned their faces away, knowing how long he spent pouring his hot urine on the head of his victim. But, once he had squeezed out the last drop, and had started to slacken, he felt a sweet air fill his being, and he felt certain that there was no happiness that could match the feeling of relief after relieving oneself!

As for the victim, he was happy in his belief that what the Colonel had done would save him from death, and he recited a short prayer of thanks to himself. When he raised his head up, and saw the mouth of the Kalashnikov directed at his face, he let out a loud yelp, a scream similar in rhythm to the yell that the Colonel’s mother had released more than thirty years before, on a night that came to haunt the sleep of the boy Franco.

 

The sky was weighed down by autumn clouds when the boy Franco entered his mother’s room, propelled by the cockroaches of hunger that were gnawing at the insides of his small stomach. He thought he’d be able to quiet them down with some of the mango that she had brought home earlier that day, but he didn’t get his way that night. That night remains lodged in his memory, down to the details of the toads croaking, the grasshoppers chirping, and the snarl of the thunder clouds, especially when that tremor ran through his finger, which let him down at the last moment, failing to pull the trigger.

His mother had been sitting in a dark corner, the gasoline lamp’s faint light illuminating some of the curves of her naked body, as she sat moaning, her voice muffled. Her breasts hung low, and lacerations were visible on her back. There was nothing on his father’s naked and drunken face that told of what he had done, just a dull, angry smile on his cleft lip. His strange rituals left young Franco immobile, slack-jawed, his young mind stormy, trying to absorb what he saw: a troubling dream being personified right in front of him.

His mother naked; his father too, his wooden, veined, slender member rod-straight. A whip of hippo hide in his hand, digging into mother’s back. Franco remembered seeing that whip in the classroom of Mr. Gabriel, his second-grade math teacher; he had rejected that teacher, because, whenever he saw that whip, he’d see his mother submissive, kneeling, his father’s hand rising and sharply falling on her back. His father would then place the whip to one side and kiss his mother tenderly, gently picking her up from the floor to place her on the bed, and begin his satanic rituals, which, at the very least, could be described as rape.

Clouds of ecstasy floated around his father’s face while she whimpered and yelped, trying to get rid of the fist of that violent beast that had sunk his poisoned claws into the contours of her body, roasted with raw torment. What was strange, even though young Franco didn’t grasp its strangeness, was that his father, after finishing these rituals of his and dismounting from his victim, would roar with hysterical laughter, indifferent to the rumblings of the neighbors, who would express their outrage and displeasure, knowing full well that, when he laughed this way, he had emptied out the contents of his groin three times into the depths of that poor soul.

After that sickening peal of laughter, he would lick the scars that the lashes had left on her back, no different from a stray dog whose backside had been torn apart by scabies. He would then take her face, wet with hot tears, and kiss her moist lips, while she sighed with quick, muffled breaths. He would lavish her with apologies and ask for forgiveness, for her pardon, just like he did every other time, ending his apologies with cries of regret, heartbreak, kissing the cross and the picture of the Virgin Mary that sat on the small nightstand. He would implore her, promise her that this was the last time.

But all those promises would melt away the very next day in the glasses of wine that he would drown himself in before he began, once again, the rituals that the family, relatives, friends, and neighbors knew him for. Promises that his wife had accepted with a smile sprouting from her tender heart, despite her knowing that such words would prove empty the following day. Or, perhaps, Ashoul Shoul was used to all this, so much so that the neighborhood women believed she relished all kinds of torture. Loving her husband that much more after every round: from whipping the soles of her feet to pruning her pubic hair at the roots with surgical tweezers brought expressly for this purpose. Sometimes, when he was ecstatically drunk in love, he wouldn’t hesitate to use pliers to grab her prominent nipples, surrounded by small black bumps, and then encircle her neck with a chain that would dangle down to secure her hands from behind, as if she were on her way to be sold at the slave market.

At sunrise, Ashoul would be the first of the neighborhood women to wake up and kindle the fire for morning tea, something that made their neighbors slap their cheeks in amazement. She would be active and limber, making tea for her husband while humming love songs to the melody of the twittering, colored birds, birds that broke into song celebrating new life on a new day. It was as if the whimpering and wailing that had pierced the thick walls in the silence of night weren’t Ashoul’s at all, but from the ghosts and sprites that imitated human voices in the dark.

But, truth be told, when Ashoul Shoul was whining, wailing, whimpering, and groaning during the five hours of their passion-making, only to fall silent in the wee hours of the morning, she would inevitably express her bliss upon reaching the peak of her ecstasy, suspended in a vast space of joy, delight, and pleasure.

That is why she would welcome the next day with a face brimming with friendliness, sparkling cheerfully, shining with happiness. Her cheer wasn’t only evident in her smile, her activeness, and her loud laugh, but it was even more clear and disorienting for neighbors when they’d see her at dusk, washing the instruments of her torture, from the long chains to the pliers, or smearing the whip made of hippo hide with oil to prevent it from getting dull or flaking apart—keeping it as harsh as possible.

When he saw what he saw that night, young Franco felt so disgusted that he vomited despite the emptiness of his stomach. Then a coldness, of whose origin he was ignorant, overcame his frail body, and his eyes remained rigid, unable to relax to afford him the taste of sleep. The scene of that night nested in his head like a horrible nightmare that kept him up for many years. He would find himself tossing right and left, until he heard the neighborhood’s virile rooster crowing loudly in the morning, announcing daybreak, the birth of a new day.

 

When the red-capped officer shook Colonel Franco’s shoulders, he felt that frisson exit his body and the memory of that family night escape his mind. He placed his finger on the trigger of his gun and stared into the victim’s face, which was damp with urine. A glint slipped through the clouds and lit up the cowering man’s face as he let out a final death cry; Colonel Franco thought his face probably looked no different than his father’s on that fateful night so long ago.

The bullet pierced through the victim’s mouth and silenced him forever. The Colonel dragged the victim’s feet, walking between the bodies scattered in a disorderly manner in the station’s courtyard. He stumbled upon another corpse, mouth agape as if it had wanted to breathe a final farewell, or curse, before giving up its soul: a seventy-something-year-old man smiling in the face of his executioners before he departed this world. Colonel Franco entered his office. Cigarette butts that had been crushed underneath military boots, here, there, and everywhere, caught his attention. There were also traces of dried spit on the pale walls with peeling paint, not to mention empty, acrid-smelling plastic bottles piled up in a dark corner. The Colonel couldn’t fathom why he was only seeing these things now, even though a strong connection had been forged between him and this office for more than twenty-four years.

He flung himself, with all his weight, onto the wooden chair, almost crushing it. He pulled out a Bringi cigarette from the box belonging to the red-capped officer, lit it, and took a long drag. Then, with a grand flourish, he puffed out thick smoke that rose and rose before melting into the room. He glimpsed his mother’s face, which had departed some time ago: she smiled at him as she never had before; then she too melted into the last of the fine lines of smoke that crashed into the ceiling and vanished into the malfunctioning fan overrun by cobwebs.

For the first time since the failed peace agreement between warring parties in 2005, and with the futile wailing of the Colonel’s last victim still ringing in his ears and in the recesses of his mind—“Leave me, boy, leave me!”—Franco felt the doors of happiness open a crack for him. The world, no matter how harsh it had been to him of late, was, without doubt, still in good shape.

 

Arthur Gabriel Yak formerly worked as a journalist for Al-Masir, an Arabic-language South Sudanese newspaper. His novels and short stories are rooted in the modern history of South Sudan, depicting the country’s multicultural background, but also the political rivalries between the main ethnic groups of the South: the Dinka, Shilluk, and Nuer. For writing about these controversial issues, he was forced to leave his country. After a stay in Egypt, he moved to the United States.

Sawad Hussain is a translator from Arabic whose work in 2023 was shortlisted for The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, and longlisted for the Moore Prize for Human Rights Writing. She is a judge for the Palestine Book Awards. Her most recent translations include Edo’s Souls, by Stella Gaitano, and The Djinn’s Apple, by Djamila Morani. Her upcoming works include the co-translation of The Book Censor’s Library, by Bothayna Al-Essa.

 

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