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from the April 2006 issue

from “The Belly of the Atlantic,” Chapter One

The first free kick goes to the Italians. Madické's delighted. They've rallied, he thinks, and that reassures him. But his optimism's soon frustrated. The Dutch value their honor. They defend their goal like a nun defends her fanny. The Italians have to deal with it. This sublimated war on the turf demands nerves of steel and it's not easy hanging onto them for ninety minutes. Especially in these last moments of the match when every action counts. Madické sweats, it's hot, and besides, that stink of fish is beginning to turn his stomach.

The ref whistles an end to the ninety minutes, the adversaries will have to wait for extra time to fight on. Although their thirst for glory keeps them on their feet, their flustered faces beg for rest. Like a protective mother, a sister moved to tears or a devoted wife, I'd like to offer them a drink, sponge their faces, bandage their cuts and give them a hug. I'd like to tell them their frustrating match is like life: the best goals are always yet to come, it's just that waiting for them is painful.

Covered in mud and streaming with sweat, the players go back to the dressing rooms, their shoulders slumped, crushed by so much unavailing effort.

The break before extra time. The group of young spectators who've stayed in front of the television becomes animated. The match is upsetting their forecasts. The nervous ones are keen to assert their point of view, waving their hands about. The advertising jingles ring out. The kids from before rush over, the old fisherman picks a quarrel to kill time. With a teasing smile, he taps Madické on the shoulder and, stroking his beard, says:

"What's happening, Maldini, eh? Eh? Not up to it today, huh? Your opponents are looking pretty solid."

Madické looks up at the man before fixing his eyes on the dusk-filled horizon. There's something disarming in silence, in knowledge too. The old man's feeling inspired and won't back down. Coming over all learned, he keeps preening his beard and pronounces a philosophy he's just adopted:

"You know, Maldini, the greater the obstacle you overcome, the more dazzling your success. The quality of the victory depends on the merit of the opposition. Beating a coward doesn't make a man a hero."

This ranting is hardly a consolation to Madické. He's heard this Neanderthal philosophy before - this exotic verbiage, falsified a thousand times, dumped on us by westerners, the better to sideline us. Enough already with all these convenient proverbs. Didn't the old fisherman know, conversely, that losing to a brave adversary doesn't make a man a hero either?

The sun seemed to flee human questioning and threatened to plunge into the Atlantic. The sky, fired up with passion, looked lower than usual, leaving a hanging trail of reddish light over the tops of the coconut palms. The sea breeze, in its mercy, brushed the skin almost imperceptibly. Only a few women on their way back from the well, late with their domestic chores, noticed the dusk's light wind which swept under their cotton pagnes to caress them where the sun never sees. It was devoted women such as these, too, who dared ruffle the village's incipient calm with the last pounding of their pestles. Thump! Thump! Thump! These pestles, distant and repetitive, echoed in the depths of Madické's heart. Because he'd heard them all his life, he recognised them, could even decode them: they always precede the call of the muezzin and the owls' song. For all the islanders they've become the music that heralds the night. But in this superstitious universe, they also mark the hour of the evil spirits, and the moment ancestral fears slip into the shadows.

When, as a kid, he'd hear the pounding of the pestles, Madické would leave the improvised playgrounds, following his friends, and run back to our mother. He knew exactly where to find her: she was always in her kitchen at this hour, at the far end of the back yard, busy cooking supper or grinding a fistful of millet to make the milk curd porridge for the next day. If by some unhappy chance she wasn't there, he'd take his little bench and settle down in the kitchen in front of the fire, to avoid his dread of the creeping shadows outside. Impatiently, he'd stave off his boredom by feeding wood to the fire, marvelling at the dancing flames until a voice, feigning severity, reached his ears.

"Hey, stop that, Madické! What a blaze you're making! You'll burn my supper!"

Time had passed; the uneasy atmosphere of dusk still drove him to search the reassurance of skirts, but no longer his mother's. In any case, on this 29th June 2000, the most beguiling of nymphs couldn't have held his gaze.

The magical curtain of ads is torn. The younger boys scatter, echoing the last notes of their favorite song: Miko! Miko! Sunk in black, the yard looks like a marine graveyard. Only the blue-tinted beam from the old television weakly illuminates the spectators' faces. Silence is appropriate for contemplation. The muezzin yells himself hoarse for nothing. He'll just have to have some mint tea afterwards, it'll do him good! The stadium reappears, the faithful cheer their gods. The old fisherman noisily clears his throat, shakes his neighbor's arm and announces, as if confiding in him:

"Maldini, my son, the moment of truth is upon us."

Madické gives the requisite faint smile before taking his arm back, irritated by a foul by Jaap Stam, a Dutch player.

"Red card!" he yells.

But the ref's satisfied with a yellow.

"Shit, he should've got a red card! That ref's a right b -"

The sentence is left unfinished; no one knows where anger will end. The Dutch are undeterred. They're more and more audacious. Aron Winter makes his point forcefully and gains a corner. Eighty-four caps earns you a lot of experience, especially in cheating. Seedorf fancies himself to take the corner. Delvecchio rushes forward, proving to his mum her milk wasn't wasted: she definitely suckled a hero, capable of restoring hope to the entire Italian nation. But the Dutch mothers have done the same, and their sons, eager to make them proud, go back on the attack. Cannavaro blocks and gets it away; Maldini sprints off, Madické peels off his bench, imagining he's right behind him:

"Come on! Go for it! You can do it! Go!" he shouts, practically rupturing his vocal chords.

Everything you want you've got it!

A cousin who'd been deported from the USA never stopped listening to that song and translated for anyone who wanted to hear: where there's a will there's a way. Madické's beginning to have his doubts, and justifiably so.

The two periods of extra time remain goalless. Now a penalty shoot-out's inevitable. Madické knows this, and his heart's beating wildly in his breast. He presses his hand to it but that doesn't help, the palpitating increases.

The mistress of the house calls everyone for supper. The meal here isn't reserved for those who live in the house, everyone who's around when it's served is welcome and automatically invited to share it. A young girl brings a small calabash filled with water where everyone in turn washes their hands, while her mother places a series of steaming bowls in the middle of the yard. The fisherman briefly rinses his hands and makes a beeline for the head of the family. Discussing how bad the catch has been lately, he positions himself cross-legged on a mat and begins to pay tribute to the housewife's efforts. Mmm! You can smell the spices in the talalé, a dish fit for a king! Our women are the only ones who can make such delicious fish couscous, and that's a fact!

As for Madické, his stomach's in knots. He pretends he had a late lunch so as to decline the invitation politely. Besides, unlike the older generation, he doesn't like sharing other people's meals whenever circumstances dictate. If this match hadn't gone on, he'd have extricated himself before supper time. While some wolf down mouthfuls of couscous and compliment the cook in order to justify their greed, he savours the calm created in front of the TV.

"Great," he says to himself, "I can watch the penalties in peace."

But the weather decided otherwise. He'd hardly had this thought when a series of lightning flashes ripped through the sky. A violent tornado whipped the coconut palm branches. The white sand, the islanders' pride, became their worst enemy, a whirlwind flagellating their skin and carrying off everything in its path. The people eating quickly deserted their mats which were either flung against the fence or swirled above their heads. Then big rain drops began to fall: one of the first June rains, often short-lived but always unpredictable, that let Sahelians know it's the start of the winter season and time to work in the fields.

Madické hadn't waited for the first drops of water to seize the old set and carry it into the living room, but in vain. At the first flash of lightning, the TV had blinked and then, letting out a last beep, had abruptly gone dead. He didn't want to think the worst: that beep wasn't a last sigh, the TV couldn't have given up the ghost. He told himself it was an electrical whim, just a shock, a kind of heart attack brought on by the virulence of the lightning flashes. In the living room, he attempted a long, solitary resuscitation, without success. He needed to hear the owner's verdict to convince him to leave the patient's bedside:

"I think it's dead, there's nothing you can do, it doesn't like the rainy season. Last year, too, it died on me at the first clap of thunder, luckily I managed to get it going again. This time, I think it's finished."

With his hand resting on the television, the man smiled as he talked on. Glancing at the living room clock, Madické realised bitterly that the penalty shoot-out was finished too. He politely stammered some excuses and left.

Read more from the April 2006 issue
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