Ordered to shoot a protester, a Tunisian policeman struggles with his conscience in this taut short story by Emna Rmili.
The boy’s chest is mouthwatering, it’s luscious, that boy’s chest, provocative, in fact, under his simple striped shirt—damn! What’s making me focus on his chest? Since yesterday the orders have been absolutely clear: we will shoot. I look down at the weapon at my side, and feel like I’m standing on the edge of an abyss. But the law is the law . . . I reach out my hand to the weapon, touch it. It fills my hand. We will shoot. We’ve all heard the code words we had been told to listen out for: “Utter determination, utter determination.” The front lines have tear gas canisters, but the magazine full of bullets is on me: I’m behind the front lines, tucked out of sight of the mobile phone cameras, my weapon polished to a high shine, gleaming blackness. I can’t get enough of the way its bright black light shines.
I said: “But sir . . .”
He frowned. “We will shoot! Did you not hear the order?”
I saluted sharply.
“No one saw you.”
I saluted again, my body rigid with tension, all of these shitty days my body’s been tensed up like a tight fist . . . I saw them strangled, I saw them wounded, I saw them felled by rubber bullets—some got back up on their feet, but others didn’t. I saw them trampled underfoot by those young conscript cops: how do they survive that? They must have nine lives! “We will shoot,” he said. How can I keep out of sight of the mobile phone cameras? It’s as if the ground were sown with them, and the sky too—shit!
“How can you let them shoot that kind of footage? Where are your eyes? You deserve to be struck blind and deaf! You want them to burn me alive in the palace or slit my throat at the Ministry of the Interior? Man up! You can do it—what’s the matter with you? You’re freaked out by that bunch of little upstarts? Are you men, or what?!” My brain is burning, I have to dig up every last grudge against them just to carry out these orders . . . meanwhile they’re swarming at us like locusts, waves and waves of them. We will shoot: it’s an order. God protect us. I look down at my weapon dozing in its leather holster at my right hip, within hand’s reach, while I press myself back into a corner that faces out over the mouth of the broad sloping avenue. According to the reports that just reached us the crowds are massing in the square by the Ministry of the Interior, and then they’re heading on out into the main street, towards the security forces’ headquarters.
“What we’ve been through with them recently, the way they’ve been wrecking the country, it’s exhausted our patience: we’re done. It’s over.”
There was something completely arid about the boss, his rigid frown clamped onto his desiccated face; his eyes and his cigar blazed.
A question burst out of me:
“Are we to kill our own children, sir?”
He shot me a look so fierce and full of rage it seemed to slam me against the floor.
“We will kill the enemies of the homeland!”
The words rattled through me, snapping all of my senses awake. As their meaning took root, strange fumes seemed to waft through me. Enemies of the homeland? But the orders were clear, and the code words definite: “With utter determination, with utter . . .” Here they come—the sound of them diffuses through the space around me as I glue myself back into this corner, my weapon close at hand, my body a tight fist of stinking sweat and choking fumes. That bastard! Enemies of the homeland . . . We will shoot, we’re out of patience and we’re out of tear gas, and he’s in his striped shirt, leading the way with his chest, right at the front of the lines of people, offering up that chest. His muscles carve a clear line beneath the faded stripes of his shirt, and there are clouds in the sky, and an icy wind blowing. Where does he get all that heat from, on a day like this? He’s coming closer; why do I have to see you, of all people? Out of all the hundreds of chests on this freezing afternoon, I saw yours . . . Does the hunter single out his pigeon from the flock? Does he say “This one, and none of the others”?
“If, one day, a people wants to live . . . ” My eyes are focused on the muscles of his chest, and on that little bit of bare flesh exposed at the neck of his shirt, peeping out as if to affirm the youthful vigor and strength of his body. And my weapon is at my side. Who is he? Who might he be? A schoolboy? A student? A teacher? Someone without a job? A car salesman? A grocer? A butcher? Our national anthem says, “Let no one live who has betrayed Tunisia, and let no one live who does not serve in her army.” I’m in her army, my weapon gleams darkly, and I keep one eye on the man who I have just saluted and keep my mind on the code words, and on the ribbons and epaulets indicating his rank. “And let no one live who is not in her army”—the orders have all been exhausted. That was a lethal look he shot at me when I blurted out my questions:
“Will we kill our children?”
“Our children, you call them? Those saboteurs? Those masked gangs? Those stray dogs?”
I had no more words to say. My tongue shriveled in my gullet: how rash of me to have spoken out like that! The boss is the boss. I’ll be retiring in two or three months—I’m twenty years older than him: when did he suddenly get old enough to have that rank? I begrudge ending my long years of service this way. After enduring the burning heat and freezing cold of distant roads, sleeping in trucks in the middle of nowhere, on miserable iron bunks in cramped urban barracks and desolate rural training camps—did all those long years of toil have to end in blood? Killing our children? The question had rung out despite me, asked by neither my tongue nor my mind, but by my heart. His roared reply had shaken the walls of the room:
“They are ENEMIES OF THE HOMELAND!”
All I could do in response was to shake my head, my aching pounding head that feels now like it’s being hammered into by thousands of nails, as he advances, his chest filling his striped shirt, white, red, green, white, red, green, and my finger on the trigger, and I shrink back, drawing myself in tight to this sharp little corner that faces down the hill. He’s approaching, drawing closer and closer, it’s an order, you’ll have to do it, he’s getting closer, we’re out of patience, we’re out of tear gas, are we going to let them burn down the country? The boss said:
“A few sacrifices for the homeland are unavoidable, what matters is the homeland.”
And then, “Tunisia matters more than anyone,” and suddenly my mind was awash with the homeland, its villages and towns, streets and cities, its wells and seas, the eucalyptus trees lining the roads, the poppies reddening the edges of the fields for miles on end, the cafes teeming with people morning and night, the dams perched between the mountains and held in the green plains’ outstretched hands, the splendor of the hilltop palaces from Tabarka to Hammamet, barefoot little ones heading to school, dodging wolves on the way and giving a fearful, chipper greeting to a passing police car . . . And he’s coming closer and closer, with his strong alluring chest: Who is his mother? Is his father alive? My finger is pressing the trigger, and I am jammed against this stone on top of this building looking out over the sloping street . . .
© Emna Rmili. Translation © 2017 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.