Coincée dans une coquille/Trapped in her shell

Coincée dans une coquille    

 Elle s’assoit tous les jours sur le sable en regardant la mer. Les vagues tournent comme des danseurs faisant leurs arabesques et tombent sur le sable. Elle fume, pensant. Est-ce qu’aujourd’hui serait le jour où elle marcherait dans l’eau et finalement disparaîtrait ? Elle observe les mouettes qui volent au-dessus de sa tête. Elles sont libres. Elles sont imprévisibles. Pas comme elle. Elle écrit négligemment son nom dans le sable et regarde les vagues lavant le gribouillis ; comme pour laver ses péchés. Elle n’aurait jamais dû y aller, elle n’aurait pas dû essayer, elle aurait dû rester dans sa coquille. Elle traîne ses pieds plus près de l’eau en regardant les vagues se briser et tourbillonner. Quand elle lui a parlé, elle a signé son propre acte de décès. Pourquoi n’a-t-elle pas vu un signe ? C’est trop difficile de changer. ‘Il est vraiment un agneau’, ont dit ses parents. ‘Il ne l’a jamais fait auparavant’, a déclaré son meilleur ami. ‘Ça doit être moi’, se dit-elle. Elle ne peut pas revenir en arrière, elle ne peut pas avancer mais elle peut aller à la mer. Et pourtant, si elle meurt, il a encore tout le pouvoir. Cela ne peut pas se passer comme ça. Il ne compose pas son destin. Elle respire et tourne le dos à la mer.

Trapped in her shell:

She sits on the sand every day, staring at the sea. The waves seem to move like dancers doing arabesques before falling on the sand. She smokes, thinking. Perhaps today will be the day when she walks into the water and dissapears forever. She watches the seagulls flying above her head. They are free. They are unpredictable. Not like her. She writes her name carelessly in the sand and watches as the waves wash away her scrawl; like it is washing away her sins. She should’ve never gone, she should’ve never tried, she should’ve stayed hidden in her shell. She drags her feet closer to the water, watching as the waves breaking and swirling. When she spoke to him for the first time, she signed her own death certificate. Why didn’t she see a sign? It’s too difficult to change. ‘He is really a lamb’, said his parents. ‘He has never done it before’, said his best friend. ‘So it must be’, she decides. She cannot go back, and she cannot go forward. The only choice she has is to go into the sea. But then, if she dies, he will still have all the power. That cannot happen. He does not have control over her destiny. She takes a deep breath and turns her back on the sea.

*I wrote this very short story for a French writing competition and won the first prize. As it was originally written while thinking in French, chances are the English is not as good. Hope you like it nonetheless.

 

Jeanne’s Modigliani

Paris, 26 January 1920

Jeanne stared at the painting Amedeo had left on the canvas stand. The tiny apartment constantly reeked of fresh paint. It was of her. He had painted her eyes; something he did very rarely. He believed knowing the soul of a person before painting their eyes. He would often paint them empty with a haziness to them. He’d gone walking in Montparnasse Cemetery two hours ago and had not returned. He was most likely drinking with Chaim Soutine. Soutine disconcerted Jeanne. The French-Russian expressionist liked to paint dead things; be it cows, rats, bodies from the morgue…

Jeanne stretched putting her hands on her lower back. She surveyed herself in the mirror. She was eight months pregnant with Amedeo’s second child. Their first-born daughter, also named Jeanne was staying with her parents for a while so that Amedeo could get some work done. Her parents never approved of Amedeo. Her father said it was because he was a poor artist who couldn’t provide for her but she knew that it was because Amedeo is Jewish. God forbid a Catholic marry a Jew in this day and age. Jeanne sighed and walked to the window, picking up a piece of bread to nibble on as she went. She frowned, outside it didn’t look like Montparnasse at all.

The door opened and her mother walked into the room.

“Mother, what are you doing here?” Jeanne demanded, shocked.

Jeanne’s mother was taken aback. “I’ve brought you something fresh to eat, my darling-”

“I can cook for myself in my own apartment!” Jeanne snapped at her. “Please leave–”

“Oh, Jeanne”, her mother said, softly. “You’re not feeling well, please…you should have some rest for the baby’s sake–”

“I’m feeling fine”, she fired back, instinctively putting her hand on her stomach. “Where’s Amedeo?”

“Jeanne, you should sit down now, please–” her mother pleaded.

“No, I want to see Amadeo!” she insisted. “He’s been gone for hours now–”

“Jeanne”, her mother said, gently. “Don’t you remember?”

Jeanne froze and looked again around her apartment, only this time time it looked nothing like her apartment at all. It was her old room in her parents’ house in Paris.

“I need to go home right now”, Jeanne insisted and started making her way to the door.

“No, Jeanne”. Her mother blocked her way. “There’s nothing for you in Montparnasse anymore–”

“What are you talking about?” Jeanne moaned. Glancing back at the window, she noticed the painting she admired before was her own face in the mirror. “Mother…Amedeo…is he…?”

As Jeanne started to cry afresh, her mother put down the bowl of stew and exited the room, quietly.

It was starting to come back to Jeanne. Amedeo clutching her on their bed in the apartment, delirious with fever when a neighbor found them…Hôpital de la Charité…the funeral in Montmartre…the smell of paint just a memory…

Jeanne walked back to the window and stared out again. She opened it and looked out onto the cobbled pavement. She saw Amedeo beside her and took his out-stretched hand. She remembered the joy they felt that time when they jumped into the pond with all their clothes on in Giverny when visiting Monet. She smiled at Amedeo with that same joy  and jumped…

In memory of two great artists, Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hebuterne. In Pere Lachaise Cemetery, there is a single tombstone honouring them both. For Amedeo it reads: “Struck down by death at the moment of glory”.  Jeanne’s reads: “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice”.

*Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918 by Amedeo Modigliani. I do not own this photograph.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning into emptiness

He’s tall, dark and handsome. He always sits in corners, cigarettes hanging limply from between his lips. He’s relaxed to the point of indifference. He’s confident; beyond comfortably–he’s cocky. He’s cool, he’s collected. He conceals his feelings, his hopes, his dreams, his mistakes. He doesn’t dwell on them. They are fleeting. He’s achieved much but he is unhappy. He orders another coffee, and glances at the young boy arguing with his mother. He doesn’t ever remember arguing with his own mother. He doesn’t remember much about his childhood; he doesn’t remember much before his twenties. But he must have been a child at some point. Was there a point in his life he didn’t feel pain?

The mother and child are having dinner by themselves for the third night in a row. His father has left to go live with his mistress and since then his mother cannot find the strength to cook, or work, or sleep. She cannot bare to look at her son who watches her, accusingly with his father’s eyes. How can anyone love and hate so much in the same breath? The door opens and closes as the child and his mother leave.

The young woman behind the bar sings as she dries the drinking glasses. She smiles but nobody acknowledges it. She makes the most of a job that is just a job while she studies. The man arrives every day in the same suit with the same gold watch around his wrist at the same time. He sits down exactly two tables away from the bar where the young woman sings and dries rhythmically. He packs out notes from his suitcase and pretends to work. He orders the same glass of whiskey and ice, then watches the young woman pour it. She has been working in the bar for two weeks and he has been watching her every night for half the time. He doesn’t order another drink and the girl doesn’t pay attention to him again. The man stays in the cafe until the girl swaps her shift to take her nightly English class. Then he packs his notes back into his suitcase, glances at his gold wrist watch and leaves.  Can he still tell the difference between admiration and jealousy?

Who am I? I don’t know.

salvation_in_the_void_by_inextremiss-d6fe666

Copyright of image to inextremiss.deviantart.com

The Conquest: The Secret Will Kill Us

Viking painting by velespainter on Deviant Art

Viking painting by velespainter on Deviant Art

Germany, 780 AD

Kimla stared with apprehension at the viking in front of her who referred to himself as Gunnar of Ludak.

Her curiosity once again won over her need for self-preservation and she posed the question that had burning her once more. “Where have you come from? The east?”

“The North”. He grinned.

Joyous that she had managed to learn something from him, she continued hastily. “What’s it called?”

He surveyed her quietly.

“She clenched her teeth, frustrated. “Why have you come here?”

He rolled his eyes and sank down in a chair at the table. “If you’re going to keep asking me the same questions, it’s going to be a really long night”.

She pursed her lips. “You haven’t given me answers-“

He sighed, heavily. “Have you ever killed a man?”

“Of course”, she answered, warily.

“Do you raid?”

“Yes-“

“Why do you look at me with such judgement when you live the same life I live?” He raised his eyebrows at her, expectantly. “Or is it because this time…it’s your people, your land?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I have the right to protect my home-“

“As does everyone-“ He agreed. “Even those you choose to attack-“

“What?”

“You don’t remember me-“

She stared at him, incredulously focusing on his full beard, tight muscles and intense eyes. “No-“

“I was younger then-“ He pulled on his beard, thoughtfully. “Perhaps eleven-“

Kimla bit her lip, anxiously. What was he talking about?

“You were a young woman eager to prove yourself during your first raid, I’m sure-“

Kimla swallowed under his dark scrutiny. “Do you remember the boy you killed?”

Kimla’s heart beat frantically as he rose from his seat.

“No!” She gasped.

“You embedded your axe in his lower back-“He stepped towards her and she clenched her fists in preparation.

Unexpectedly, he turned his back on her and pulled the leather wrap around his hips down to expose his lower back and the smallest amount of his backside. There across his lower spine was a thick, aged scar.

He smirked, turning back to face her. “In reality you’ve failed three times to kill me-“

Kimla was determined not to run even though every ounce of her being was willing her to. “You killed my friends”, she spat at him. “We’re even”.

“Not exactly”. By the throat, he pushed her roughly into the wooden wall; dust travelled into the air as she made impact with it. “Unfortunately I’m prone to holding a grudge -“

She struggled against his python-like hands, furiously.

“You should’ve killed me-“he hissed. He squeezed her throat too hard for her to speak. Black spots flickered across her vision and she started to feel faint. “I might have a proposition for you-“She was barely aware of his words as she felt she was starting to lose consciousness. “I won’t kill you if-“ He released his choke-hold on her throat and she coughed, relieved to clear her breathing passages. “-you accompany me to Norway-“

“What?” she demanded, hoarsely.

“You can earn your life by fighting under my command-“

Kimla gaped at him.

“Or you could attempt to kill me again-“ He gave a throaty laugh.

“I was ordered to kill you”, Kimla said, stiffly. “Something you seem to know nothing about gallivanting about by yourself-“

He grinned, amused. “I have no reason to follow orders anymore-“ He sighed, impatiently. “Let me make this clear for you…you fight under my command in Norway, or I kill you—the choice is yours”.

She squared her shoulders. “The choice is simple then”, she said, confidently. “I will not follow your orders-“

He nodded, curtly. “I understand”. He pulled his axe free from his leather wrap and swung it twice in the air. “Arm yourself, woman-“

She still had no idea where her weapons were but she knew the fight would most likely end in a stalemate again. She knew she should run if she didn’t want to die but she couldn’t bring herself to act so cowardly. Gunnar shook his head and sighed; before she could defend herself he knocked her on the side of the head with the blunt side of the axe…

The crisp, chilly wind woke Kimla up. Her head ached painfully and she blinked away the tears in her eyes. She could smell salt in the air and she swayed from side to side inexplicably though she was lying deadly still.

She was alerted to nearby voices, grumbling but she dared not open her eyes in fear.

“Raise the sails!”

The sails? She was on a boat!

“Land!”

How long had she been asleep on the boat? Kimla opened one eyes to see that she was indeed on a boat. The boat was abuzz with men and she was lying in the corner on the hard wooden deck. Abruptly, someone squatted beside her.

She looked up warily to see Gunnar smirking down at her. “Welcome to Norway!”

Kimla stared at him with a mixture of shock and loathing yet said nothing.

“Welcome home, Lord”. A man dressed in sheep skin and leather stood beside him.

LORD?

With dread Kimla realised Gunnar was a chief and cursed her fate, silently.

Aside

The Conquest

 

viking

Viking painting by velespainter on Deviant Art

Germany, 780 AD

He stepped out of the mist, roaring ferociously and beating his fists upon his bare chest, sprinkled lightly with dark hair. His piercing eyes sparkled with viciousness as he glared intently at the group of men surrounding him. A fierce, thick beard covered his wide jaw and slightly chubby cheeks. He was inhumanly tall with broad shoulders and large hands that held an enormous axe that he swung carelessly around in his hand. His long dark hair was shaved clean at the sides and hung in a single, long braid that swung against his neck with every turn of his head. The leather wrap around his hips covered only that which was most important to him, leaving the rest of his skin exposed to the elements in a silent cry of confidence. He bared his teeth at his attackers.
Who would be the first to step forward and swing their sword at the gigantic viking?

Kimla looked around at the men flanking her, all shrinking back with fear. She would not leave here without killing the viking. She had risen that morning with that sole purpose. She had pulled on her leather armour and braided her long auburn hair in preparation for the battle. Once again it seemed she was going to have to lead the men. Stepping back, quickly green eyes shining with anticipation, she unsheathed her sword and swung it at the viking’s thick neck. He blocked the blow easily with his ax and knocked her off balance. Only then did the remainder of the men spring into action. Kimla pulled herself off the ground as fast as she could and struck a blow to the viking’s kidneys. He fell down hard on his knees. The men crowded around him, raising their swords but Kimla called for them to stop. They retreated, obediently as she stepped forward and raised her sword, holding it steady against the viking’s main artery. She looked momentarily into his hard eyes and could suddenly not bring herself to swing the sword.

Noticing her hesitation, he jumped up from the ground and struck her on the back of the head with the blunt side of his axe…

Kimla’s head was pounding when she awoke in the dimly lit room. She reached slowly to touch the back of her head and felt it tightly bandaged with cloth. Ignoring the pain in her aching head, she looked around for her companions but instead found the massive viking sat at a heavy wooden table, slurping loudly the contents from a bowl. Her breath hitched in her throat as she stared at his strong back with a mixture of fear and determination. He had taken her weapons; she was defenceless. She rose, taking hold of a wooden chair and took soft steps towards the viking. She raised it above her head and prepared to bring it down over the viking’s back.

“Sit down”, he said in her own language. “Have some food-”
Caught-offguard by his words, she paused and he easily knocked her off her feet with a sweep of his foot. Dazed, she pulled herself back onto her feet by supporting her weight on the table.
“Sit down”, he repeated, stronger that time.
Kimla swallowed, tightly. “You bandaged my head?”
He nodded, unsmiling and stuffed a piece of bread in his mouth.
“I’m not hungry-”
“Eat”, he commanded.
“You’ve poisoned it”.
He chuckled, throatily. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead”.
That was true; she had been knocked out for sometime and he had no reason to bandage her head if he was going to kill her.
Still anxious, she sat down at the table and drew the bowl of broth closer to her.
She swallowed a few mouthfuls before asking the question that was tormeting her. “What do you want?”
“Do I have to want something?”
She frowned, suspiciously. “Every man wants something-”
“Women do not?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Am I your prisoner?”
“You’re free to leave”.

Kimla sat watching him, unmoving. She had too many questions to ask before she left. “Who are you?”
“My name is-”
“Not your name”. She tutted. “What’re you doing here? Where do you come from? Who are you?”
“Where I come from is of no importance”, he replied, swigging from a clay mug filled with pale ale. “As for what I’m doing here–we plunder when and where we see fit. Who am I? I think you know the answer to that-” He grinned.
“Who does this house belong to?”
He shrugged. “It was empty when I entered”.
She shook her head. “You take whatever you want”.
“Correct”. He raised his cup in a mock salute.
“You have no regard for life-”
“I kill only those who attack me”.
“I attacked you!” She crossed her arms, deviantly. “Why didn’t you kill me?”
“Do you want to die?”
“Of course not!”
“Then stop asking questions to provoke me”. He rose and to Kimla’s surprise started washing his bowl and cup.
She finished her broth and watched with shocked intrigue as he washed her bowl as well.

“Where are my companions?” she asked, nervously.
“They attacked me”, he answered, non-chalant.
She clenched her fist in rage. “You killed them all?” Before he could reply, she let out a scream and launched herself at him, her fist making contact with the side of his jaw. She punched him twice in the stomach before he shoved her back. Once on her feet, she launced at him again hitting him square in the nose and hearing a very distinct crack as it broke.
He let out an almighty roar as he grabbed her by the shoulders and pressed her into one of the wooden collumns holding up the hut. The wind was knocked out of her as her back made contact with it. Before she could snatch her breath back, he pressed his lips against hers violently. She pressed against him with her weight but he refused to budge as he deepened his kiss. She slapped him around the face and thrust her knee inbetween his legs.
Letting out a cry of pain, he stepped backwards and she kicked him over and onto his back. She grabbed the knife from the wooden table and jumped on top of him, holding it to his throat and baring her teeth at him.
He grinned at her, infuriatingly as she pushed the knife against his skin.
“What’re you waiting for?” He taunted her.
She hesitated again, staring down at him unable to slice the blade into his throat. She shouted, angrily and threw the knife at the wall.
He threw her off him and rose to his feet. “That’s the second time you’ve failed to kill me–” He laughed, deeply and offered her his hand. “Perhaps it is time I introduced myself–I am Gunnar of Ludak”.
Why couldn’t she kill him?

Die Gees van ‘n Boer (The Boer’s Spirit)

Image

An oil-painting by a French Artist depicting a caricature of the British Concentration Camps imprisoning South-African women and children during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902

Heidelberg Concentration Camp, South-Africa, 1901

I wiped the sticky sweat from my brow and stretched my arms out behind me before rising from where I was sat on a rock, cleaning the red South-African dirt from my Puttees. The afternoon sun beat down upon me relentlessly, my British Military Uniform already soaked through with my own sweat.

“Why will it never rain in this God-forsaken country?” I demanded of my best friend, Private Charles Rathbone as I stared up at the blue, cloudless sky.

“What was that, Corporal?” Charles asked, absent-minded where he was pumping water from a barren looking water pump to my left and took a drink straight from the faucet.

“I hate this place”, I grumbled. “When will this war end?”

“My thoughts exactly, old chap”, Charles replied, abandoning the pump. “Kitchener said it would be the easiest battle we’d ever fight and we’d be away from England no more than two months-”

I snorted. “And here we sit-” I complained. “Two years later–in the bloody heat with little food and all these stinking Boers-” I sighed and kicked at the dry ground, sending a puff of red dust into the air. “We’re not even out there shooting some–we’re in this camp wasting away right alongside them-”

“Chin up, Matt”, Charles clapped me on the back. “It’s lunch soon-” He walked off towards the makeshifts barracks set up behind the hill. In the midst of the British tents stood a bigger tent that acted as the dining hall.

I paused to stare out over the dismal sight that was the Heidelberg concentration camp in Transvaal. As far as the eye could see stood row upon row of small, off-white tents each crammed with more people that it could accommodate; some sick, some dying, some already dead as I stood watching. The rations of a type of yellow maize the Afrikaners referred to as ‘Kaboe Mielies’ were dealt out raw with a lack of fuel to cook it, lack of water to drink or cook with and even less for washing. Most of them slept on the bare earth with nothing for warmth or in some cases not even garments for decency.

“Rather you than me”, I announced anonymously to the camp of women and children, straightened my helmet and set off for the dining tent.

That night I was scheduled for a night patrol shift of the parameter around the camp; one of the most tedious actions ever performed by any soldier. It was intensely dark and I had only a small kerosene lantern illuminating no more than three feet in front of me. The night was deadly quiet which made it very easy to hear the soft singing coming from inside a nearby tent. On closer inspection, I could hear the Afrikaans folk song, familiar to me after two years in the country. No singing or speaking Afrikaans was allowed but I was impressed by their sheer strength of spirit under the circumstances and chose to pass them by without a word.

I yawned, removed my helmet and ran a hand through my dirty fair hair before replacing it. The next moment, a piercing scream tore through the crisp air and my heart leaped in fear as my legs kicked into action. I ran towards the sudden commotion in the middle of the rows of tents. I found Charles and another young soldier named Henry wrestling with a girl who was hysterically shouting in Afrikaans and scratching at their faces. Over the last two years I had come to understand a little Afrikaans and understood only two words of her shouting.

“Britse Varke!” British Pigs

Henry threw her to the ground and lifted his foot to kick her but I stepped in between the two of them. “Back to your post”, I barked at him and he left immediately without question.

Charles stood gaping at me as I helped her to her feet. She started swinging her fists, furiously yet limply at me and I caught her, easily and held her arms behind her back. She started kicking at my legs and I was breathless with her strength even though she was severely underweight and frail.

“Stop it, silly girl”, I ordered. “I don’t want to hurt you”.

She let out a surprisingly loud roar and launched herself out of my grip and at Charles who immediately aimed his Rifle at her.

“No!” I ordered, strongly. “Put that away–” Around us, people who had come forth from their tents to see what the noise was all about gasped and uttered outraged cries at the sight of the gun. Charles stowed his rifle with a grimace.The girl bravely turned her back on Charles and gazed upon me with hatred in her eyes, appearing to prepare to attack again but she finally fainted into my arms from exhaustion.

“Back to your tents!” I shot at the surrounding hungry faces. They scattered, fearfully back into their tents and I turned my attention to Charles. “What happened to her?”

“She attacked us on sight”, Charles explained, shakily. “I’ve never seen a woman attack a soldier before. She took us completely by surprise-”

“Any idea why she would want to hurt you?”

“They all want to hurt us, don’t they?” Charles replied with a shrug.

I narrowed my eyes at him, suspiciously. “What did you do?”

“If you are trying to imply that we attempted to lay with her against her will, Corporal”, Charles answered, crisply. “you couldn’t be more wrong–I have no intention of touching any of the Boer vermin-!”

“Of course”. I sighed, knowing full well that his reputation told a very different story. “Bring Henry back here!” I commanded him before turning to the closest Boer woman who had her head poked out from the tent. “Where does she sleep?” I demanded of her.

Frowning, she pointed at the tent furthest down the row. I carried the girl towards the tent to find it to my surprise completely empty.

There was nothing in the tent besides an empty bowl and mug; not even something soft to lay her on. I removed my jacket, lay it down in the dirt and placed her gently upon it. She seemed to be wearing what appeared to be a pillowcase. It was difficult to tell her age although her features led me to believe she was around seventeen. I imagined she would be pretty when her skin wasn’t pulled taut over her skeleton from starvation and she had washed. As I pulled my hand from under her head, a clump of her blonde hair came with it and my stomach turned in self-loathing.

I ran from the tent and straight into Henry who was waiting outside. I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. “Did you take advantage of that girl?”

“No!” he called in distress. “Never!”

“Why was she hysterical?” I demanded, shaking him once strongly.

“Her baby brother died this morning”, Henry uttered, quickly. “And her mother the day before, Sir. She has no one left now-”

I released him. “Never dare hit a woman again-”

“Yes, Sir”. He ran into the darkness. I stood breathing, heavily and glanced back towards the girl’s tent one last time before returning to my post. I vowed to never go near the tent again.

The following day I could think of nothing but her. I felt an inexplicable responsibility for her and I knew that she would die like everybody else in the camp if nothing was done about her conditions. While I was having my supper of bread, jam, soup and milk I thought of her eating the meagre maize rations, and that if she had any. Without so much as a second thought, I tucked the meal into my pack and walked over the hill to the concentration tents. I found my way through the darkness to her tent and stood outside it, uncertain of my actions. I teetered on the spot for a moment before pulling the flap aside and stepping into the tent.

I anticipated her screaming so I bent down and gently placed my hand over her mouth. Her blue eyes darted, anxiously from side to side. I had never seen anyone as scared in my life.

“I won’t hurt you”, I told her, softly. When I removed my hand from her mouth, she stared at me in frightened silence. I took the food from my pack and held it out to her.

She stared at it with nervous suspicion for a moment and looked up at my face. “Wat wil jy he?”

“I don’t understand Afrikaans well-” I told her, slowly. “Food-” I shook it at her. “Take it, eat it-” I gestured putting it in my mouth.

She sighed in resignation, took the food and placed it next to her. To my horror, she proceeded to lift the linen makeshift dress she was wearing.

“No”, I said in shock, pulling her clothes back down to cover her. I shook my head at her. “I don’t want that–I just brought you food-”

She continued to stare at me with distaste as she picked up the bread and jam, scoffing it gratefully.

I swallowed, sadly as I watched her and sunk down on the ground in the corner of the tent a few feet from her. Why would she think I wanted to trade food for sex? Is that what the other soldiers have been doing? I felt a wave of red-hot anger pass over me. The girl moved back from me, hastily picking up on my sudden hostility. “I’m sorry”, I said, gently. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I won’t hurt you, I promise”.

She narrowed her eyes, watching my warily as she quickly ate the rest of her food. She understood no English and I couldn’t speak Afrikaans but I felt like there was a lot that I needed to tell her.

“I’m very sorry about your family”, I told her, lowly. She looked at me as I spoke but didn’t respond except for glaring. “I assume your father is fighting on the Boer-side in the war. My name’s Matthew–do you have a name?” She continued to glare at me in silence. “Well I suppose even if you did understand what I was saying, you wouldn’t want to tell me your name. I understand that. I hate this place too. I really want to go home. I haven’t been in England for two years and I’m sick of the suffering. I don’t think anyone knows what the hell we’re doing anymore. As far as I’m concerned nothing is worth killing so many people over especially not a country so far from home that your people are fighting so hard to protect. I guess you grew up on a farm, didn’t you?” I paused for effect rather than expecting an answer from her. “Everyone around here grows up on a farm of some sort–I wonder what kind of farm it would’ve been…” She had finished eating and sat with her legs uncomfortably crossed, watching me with apprehension. “Did you have chickens?” I made the noise of a chicken, hoping it might help her understand followed by an awkward flapping of my arms. She raised her eyebrows at me in confusion and I laughed unable to help myself. “Cows?” I attempted a string of cow noises with no desired effect. “Sheep?”

My sheep made her giggle. “Jy’s van jou kop af”, she said with half a smile.

“Ah hah”, I grinned. “See–you can have fun-” Almost instantly her face became twisted in anger again.

I sighed, disappointed. “Hey”, I said, suddenly. “Why don’t you sing that song the Boers are always singing-” When she gave no reaction, I started to hum the tune for her. As I continued, her mouth dropped in shock.

“Am I doing it wrong?” I asked her, cautiously.

“Waar het jy dit geleer?” She looked utterly bewildered at me.

“I like that song”, I told her completely at a loss to what she asked. “I’ll hum and you can sing the words? I don’t know the words. For all I know you may be singing all sorts of derogatory songs about us-” I laughed.

She frowned at me as I started to hum the song again but that time to my delight she started softly singing the words with me. We sang it three times before I rose, reluctantly. “I have to leave before someone comes looking for me”, I told her. “Could I come see you tomorrow?”

She blinked quietly up at me, looking incredibly vulnerable all of a sudden.

“I will come see you tomorrow”, I told her, confidently. “It was a pleasure to share in your company–uh–meisie” I used the Afrikaans word for girl brokenly but she seemed as surprised as when I hummed their song. “Goodnight”. I prepared to leave the tent when she spoke and turned back to look at her.

“Ek weet jy’s die duiwel maar jy lyk soos ‘n engel”. Her blue eyes glistened with defiance as she delivered the line.

Puzzled, I excited the tent to find an older woman standing just outside probably to call for help if I threatened the girl’s life.

“Good evening, Sir”, the woman said in broken English.

I gasped, excitedly at the sound of English. “Did you hear what she said to me?”

The woman nodded, gravely. “I know you’re the devil but you look like an angel”. Without further conversation, the woman entered the tent next to the girl’s. I started my walk back to the barracks on the other side of the hill, trying to shake the need to cry.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Dance of Babylon

Image

A beautiful print from FineArtAmerica Find others like these on FineArtAmerica.com

What an honour, I thought as I hurried from the city gates down the wide cobbled street towards the palace set in the hills. I will dance for the King regent Belshazzar himself!

The sun was only just starting to set and mighty Babylon glistened in its wake. I drifted through the streets, gazing up at the majestic sacred temples of Apsu, Damkina and Marduk. All of the temples were built long before I was born by King Nebuchadnezzar I. I had never met the King regent Belshazzar but I had heard wonderful stories about him. He was told to be a man of intense power and bravery. He was said to be a god of as much status as Marduk and therefore Babylonians refer to him as ‘almighty’. Not only that but he was rumoured to be the most handsome man to ever live.

The market stalls were in the process of packing up for the evening and as I passed, a young man smacked my bottom and I winked at him. On my way to the palace, I stopped to gaze at the Hanging Gardens of Amyitis by her husband King Nebuchadnezzar II 43 years ago. The stories had not done the great gardens justice; a gigantic stone structure stood with hundreds of pillars lusciously covered in trees, shrubs and flowers. Exotic birds excitedly hopped between the branches chirping. Waterfalls poured into streams flowing between the stone levels recreating the moat surrounding the city’s high walls of 59 feet. A fact that had made Babylon’s inhabitants very secure in the knowledge that the walls can never be breached.

I was plunged into shadow as the sun disappeared behind the wall and my stomach churned with nerves. King Belshazzar will flail me! I ran towards the palace tripping on the slippery stone steps, my thin red robe splaying out around me. I pulled myself up and adjusted my gold plated belt around my hips and refastened the golden headband around my wild dark curly hair. When I arrived at the palace doors, one of the King’s guards took me roughly by the arm and dragged me to the banquet hall.

It seemed the great feast had started much earlier as the guests were already in full spirit. Wine was poured by the gallons and music, dancing and raucous laughter was enjoyed alongside Babylon’s most delicious foods carried on golden trays by Hebrew slaves.  Most of the men were already half-naked and violating the slave-girls while the rest gorged themselves at the banquet table. Stunning woolen and silk woven carpets adorned the walls and two vicious-looking caged black panthers sat on either side of King Belshazzar behind the banquet table. As I entered, the King instantly rose from his seat. He too had removed most of his clothes and wore only white cloth wrapped around his hips with a golden girdle and a thick purple robe over his shoulders. The King was a broad, tall man with bronze skin, midnight black hair and a thick beard. He was adorned with jewels and gold from Babylon’s many victories.

“Silence!” he called with a deep, authoritative voice and as expected a hush fell over the banquet hall instantly. My heart raced as I waited for the King.

“Woman!” My breath caught in my throat as he beckoned me closer with a gold-covered finger.

I hurried towards the King and bowed.

“Your name”, he commanded.

“Tiamat, your almighty majesty”.

“Tiamat, you’re late”. His eyes glistened with mischief and drunkenness. “Perhaps I will let you perform naked as a punishment-” Around us, his guests laughed boisterously.

“Anything to please your-” I started, quickly.

He held up his hand for me to be silent. “In private later”, he announced. “For now you may dance wearing your robe”.

I bowed again, disappointed and took to the floor.

The lyre started to play as I moved my hips sensually in circles. A female voice started to chant along as I swirled my arms gracefully through the air. As the drums added to the atmosphere vibrating deep in my heart, I spread my arms open and stamped on the ground in rhythm. A reed flute accompanied the other instruments and together the music swelled in its creation of tension. Hungry eyes followed me as I jumped, circled and enticed with my body. A male voice joined that of the female and the dance was brought to an intense climax causing the panthers to roar and the guests to applaud excitedly. As the noise died down, all the instruments ceased except for the reed flute which continued to play softly as I bowed.

King Belshazzar growing restless, ordered that I sit on his lap while he consumed wine from golden ornaments. The King lapped at his wine and entertained his guests by cursing the Hebrews’ God, Jehovah and telling stories of his own prowess and magnificence. The slaves remained silent in fear. The King offered me wine from his golden cup and I accepted it and drank from it, laughing at his curses. The King told the well-known story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s occupation of Jerusalem and the capture of their people many of whom were still imprisoned in Babylon. He boasted of his own bravery for even though Nebuchadnezzar was reduced to dust for his crimes against the Hebrews, Belshazzar feared no-one for he himself was divine and stronger than any other.

I examined the gold, curiously. “Your almighty majesty, is this gold from Israel?”

“You are a clever whore, aren’t you?”

Suddenly a deafening silence fell upon the feast. The panthers made no sound, the reed flute had ceased playing, not even breath could be heard as a cold thickness clung to the air. Every single being in the banquet hall’s attention had been captured by a disembodied hand appearing behind the King. Slowly it started writing on the wall behind the King’s seat in Aramaic.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

All at once, the slaves fell to their knees and praised Jehovah, every Babylonian screamed and in a sudden flurry of chaos struggled to flee from the banquet hall in panic, the panthers went wild in their cages and I filled with illogical fear crawled in under the banquet table and covered my head with my hands. A hand grabbed my wrist and pulled me violently from under the table.

I looked into the face of King Belshazzar though suddenly he looked nothing like the King. He had been reduced to a shaking, terrified man on the verge of sweating blood.

“There’s a Hebrew named Daniel!” he spat at me, lividly. “Find him!”