Long ago, my father told me that there was a place in Paris, behind a bush, where you could glimpse paradise, which you only saw once because men went there to die. This place was located somewhere in Montsouris Park, he said, hidden between two paths where someone walking would be swept along by the wind, while the dying man entertained his last conversation with himself before ending it all.
On September 6, 2042, I found myself there. Stretched out on the damp grass with a pigeon nearby, whose cooing took the place of my very ordinary dirge, I was unsure which end of the film of my life to start unrolling from. For a while I’d been contemplating one of the more elegant ways to die, when suddenly the image of my brother tore me from what should have remained a heart-to-heart with myself. Another face resurfaced too, followed by a name I tried in vain to banish. That name had been inside me so long that the idea of dying with it filled me with fear.
J’avais vingt ans
Je gaspillais le temps
En croyant l’arrêter
Et pour le retenir
Même le devancer
Je n’ai fait que courir
Et me suis essoufflé
The words had surged up in me, as they used to do, bringing with them a calmness I’d take refuge in every time my brother’s memory burst in. They’d accompanied twenty-five years in prison, had been the only link I’d kept up with the world. In my darkest moments, shrouded in the fear of dying, I’d whisper them at the least suspect movement. They’d been my hymn to life, the thread that had kept me hanging on to this recurring dream, in which the winds of freedom would whip at my face as I lay down in a field of budding flowers. Now they overflowed with the strange feeling that life was worth all the suffering if you had someone to share it with. I already felt like an old man. And yet I couldn’t help thinking that I might have had a beautiful life with Ching.
“Bastard world,” I swore.
My awkward position made it hard to breathe, so eventually I propped myself up on my elbows, attentive to the cooing of the pigeon, which brought a little emotion to the last moments of my life. I was still thinking of Ching. He no longer loved life, or human beings either. They’d released him before me, and in the end Ching had committed suicide. Often, we would bury ourselves in each other’s arms, not moving, not talking, not able even to see each other. The memory of youth passed through our bodies, painfully at first, and then we’d chuckle to ourselves. “Stop pissing about,” he’d whisper, when my fingers caressed his earlobes in the night. “What is that?” The image of a proud prisoner, in his uniform ravaged by longevity, neither tall nor short, Ching was just right. He had the skin of a baby, soft to the touch, an aquiline nose, his mother’s small, slanted eyes and his father’s very dark skin, which, contrasting with the shape of his eyes, reminded you he was Serer. The contrast had earned him the taunts of school friends early on. Calling him “Chinaman” because of his eyes—something he’d still rebelled against in prison—they’d decided on that nickname for Mamadou Sarre, which he’d ended up answering to, after his mother had explained that he owed this difference to his maternal grandmother, who had Vietnamese blood in her veins as well.
To keep him alive, I’d resolved to lose myself in him, so we’d become one—Siamese twins, for as long as our captivity lasted, because to venture alone into a warden’s firing range with his good looks was unthinkable. Since gay-bashing was routine, on the next day’s walk we’d keep our words and gestures curt, content to sing very softly, one after the other, first Charles Aznavour then Freddie Mercury, or sometimes Freddie Mercury first. The show must go on, said Ching. Having taken so many beatings, he’d realized he’d never be safe from them, as long as he was what nature had made him: a man who loved men.
I’d have hanged myself, if you weren’t there! One sad night, in the cell’s half-light, Ching sat astride our bunk, with me stretched at his feet, my face turned toward his. At intervals, the glowing end of his cigarette exposed the top of his face. That evening, he didn’t care that life went on outside, in the distant barking of a stray dog that had just broken prison laws.
“Silence, silence! Shut your mouths!” came the voice of a warden on the other side of the door. A scream was lost in the racket of dozens of pairs of wardens’ boots tramping down the corridor, while another pierced the night. Sobs, muffled at first, then more sobs, beaded with pain, then someone begging his father and mother for help. A moment later, his howl was engulfed in the braying of the donkey who’d just raped him.
“Shut it!” the warden went on. “Get to sleep!”
Ching and I had been listening to the dog howling at the moon for a while when he shook his head. With his usual nonchalance, he took a long drag on his cigarette and inhaled the smoke. His eyes scanned the other four prisoners ranged on the same bunk. They looked like sardines in a tin too narrow for any contact between them that might acknowledge a shared destiny. Inhabited by the same fate, they were all asleep. Spitting out his cigarette smoke, Ching grinned.
“They can’t stop him howling,” he said. “Who’s going to tell a dog to shut its fucking mouth? No one. He’s got the right to show he hates his life. And that other one, you think he’s enjoying his bitch of a life? Do you enjoy it, life in here?”
I was in no mood to talk, still less to compare my life in prison to a dog’s, outside, a dog no one was going to tell to shut its mouth. All day and into the evening, Ching hadn’t uttered a word. Nestled in his silence myself, I’d waited for his usually mischievous sense of humor to return, but during the walk, some inmates had threatened to shove a stick up his ass and a warden had kept calling him asshole, which happened often. Every time it did, Ching would retreat into silence. He’d stay that way for hours, on his lips that cynical grin, meant to defy the prison authorities, and his eyes staring off somewhere I had difficulty finding him. Then he’d start wringing his hands.
“That moron’s as gay as I am,” he went on. “You’ve only got to see him leering at us in the showers. Trust me, I can spot these repressed homosexuals a mile off. Eat shit, is what I say, and that’s the end of it. He can just go fuck off somewhere else.”
He was quiet for a moment and leaned over me, until his mouth grazed my ear. He was breathing so heavily I felt his warm breath spread over my face. Sexual desire slowly began to build, making me reach over for his lips. I was about to kiss him when he suddenly lifted his head and, for a moment, appeared lost in thought.
“That screw would kill to be in my position,” he said. “But he’s forced to hide how he feels from the world, to keep his job. That’s why he never stops insulting me. But I know he’s no better than any of us. What does he have that we don’t? His freedom? And what’s the good of it. At least I accept my homosexuality.”
For him the hardest part was not the names, or the threats he’d got used to by now, but not being able to protect himself from them, or retaliate against a warden who was gay himself. He took my head in his hands and, in a voice free of any resentment, went on whispering. Yet again, he started listing all the homosexuals within the prison compound, where no conjugal visits were permitted.
“The governor, his assistant, the guy who runs the shop, the two wardens we hate, the ones joined at the hip. All the cons in A, B, and C block. Everyone’s queer in this bloody prison! All of them fairies!”
He sat up straight again on the bunk, lit a cigarette, and handed me one in the dim light. Back to his teasing, he raised his cigarette and said, in a whisper: “A toast to the twats!”
That night, there was no toast to any twat.
Somewhere in heaven, Ching must have been laughing at his old friend. Stretched out again on the damp grass, I was still summoning the courage to kill myself, or perhaps I was hoping to confide in someone before I died. What, and tell them I’d killed a man? That my life was over. That, tired of carrying the burden of what I’d done, the only thing left was to go and join Ching, the only lover I’d ever had, in that corner of heaven where I hoped that the man who loved men had found his place. That without him, the world had been stripped of any tie that might have held me. Could I admit to someone that my hands, which quivered now at the slightest anxiety, had squeezed a man’s throat until the life went out of him? That these eyes, now consumed with pain, had fastened on that man as he suffocated and begged me to ease the pressure of my hands around his throat. I’d only removed them once the begging had stopped. Then I’d grabbed the man’s ears and squeezed his earlobes. Perhaps I’d been chasing down a last sign of life, which I wouldn’t have hesitated to take. All at once, my body had begun to throb. The urge to piss had made me clench my buttocks, and taking me by surprise, a violent orgasm propelled me onto the desk, which I’d had to lean back on so as not to fall over. Once my nerves had subsided, I’d arranged the chair behind the desk and carefully replaced the dead man’s hand on the files in front of him. I’d looked at the corpse, without remorse. Inert at the end of his arm, his other hand still rested on his knee.
“I’ve done it. This time I’ve really done it.”
My body, ruined now after twenty-five years of prison, my face creased with wrinkles, each of them harboring a story from my life, made me look like an old man. Could people detect a murderer’s past, behind this old age? All you notice in an old man is the wear and tear, all of it indicating the respect you’re obliged to show him. But since we know that murderers get old too, doesn’t that invalidate that source of tenderness? The question had been hounding me ever since my release. Never having so much as occurred to me before, while I was doing my time, now it forced me to stare at my shoes, producing a fresh form of guilt every time a stranger addressed me. For as long as I was in prison, my body’s degeneration afforded no grounds for compassion. Far from affording me some kind of respect, the young inmates, newly condemned to sentences of twenty-five to thirty years, would rather watch me die, my old man’s face seen as moral apostasy. The code by which the old are venerated made them refuse to accept I was one of them; my downfall cordially revolted them . . . on the outside, someone smiling at me in the street, an adolescent generously giving up his seat on public transport, the prying eyes of a child on its mother’s arm, even the sympathy of a real old man, made me feel profoundly fraudulent, and just as uneasy. As if my aging body had erased twenty-five years of prison, which should have been proof of my rehabilitation. Didn’t the life I’d taken from that man weigh more than my being locked up, for however long?
If someone in the park had been made aware of all this, and the rest, perhaps his disgust for me would have forced my hand that bit quicker. Or maybe he wouldn’t give a good goddamn, and his indifference would attest to my uselessness on earth. But for the time being, I was alone with the pigeon. Since speaking to a bird wasn’t enough for me, the image of Ching reappeared. Ching, to whom I’d have repeated the words my mother used to say when I couldn’t get off to sleep at night and she’d take me into her bed. And that way, I’d show him that even a woman could be loved. The throat of the prison governor reappeared too, or the throat of the man I’d killed, or his ears, I didn’t know anymore. Everything got confused at the moment I instinctively put my left hand on the pit of my stomach; a lacerating pain had just shot through that part of my body. It spread the length of my cock, to the end, where I felt the usual droplet form. Then the inevitable trickle of blood. That bastard prostate asserted its supremacy once more. That tiny bit of nothing at all, wedged between my bladder and urethra. Its failing, which I’d been suffering for three years already, was all that my prison years had given me. It was making me piss blood. Bent over double, I found the strength to press harder on my stomach. As soon as the pain became bearable, I propped myself up on my elbows again.
Still nothing around me, except for that pigeon cooing even louder. What was it dreaming of, I wondered, in the time it took me to be rid of the mad temptation to get up and leave this hidden corner of the park, to escape the fear of dying that had just assaulted me. One gulp of air later, I lay down again on the grass. Feeling another proof of my prostate’s dominion coming on, I put my left hand back to the pit of my stomach. Instead of the need to urinate, this time my sickly organ reminded me, via the noise in my pocket, of my urologist appointment, which the prison governor had given me the previous week.
He’d ushered me into his office. That day, I’d been searched the same way as I had been twenty-five years before. I stood naked in front of two policemen. They made me spread my legs, raise my arms, hop, and finally let me get dressed, to be presented to the governor. The latter, who was taller than the average Senegalese man, had a reputation for toughness in managing a team of wardens whose paltry sense of power over prisoners undeniably got the better of them.
As soon as he saw me he stood up, smiled broadly, and motioned me to approach.
“Come in, come in, please,” he said, by way of welcome. When I was close enough for him, he sat down again.
“So, you’ve paid your dues!” he declared. “You are now relieved of all obligation to society,” he went on. “How do you feel, Mr. Diouf? It’s a big day for you. Here you are, ready to face the world at last. I’d say you’re free!”
This rather dubious statement hit me full in the face. It prompted my first questions, even as it convinced me my freedom was a long way from being won. That day, which was just as terrible as the day I was imprisoned, inaugurated another new life I’d have to adapt to, except that this time, I was too worn out to learn how to fit in to a universe I hadn’t had time to get to know. When had I left it, and what did I have left of it, apart from the stories my mother would tell me when she came to visit, and the barking of the stray dog that Ching and I would listen to, before he was released? I had no expectations of this world either, since there’d be no freedom in it so long as I wasn’t free of the indescribable consequences of my action. Knowing that I was still sick, still under the sway of that abundance I’d once felt, as my hands sank into the man’s throat, I knew that I was equally incapable of controlling my urges on the outside. That abundance, drawn from the man’s lifeless eyes—so magical, far outstripping any orgasm—was what I’d sought every night, lying next to Ching, my hands on his ears, fantasizing that I’d just strangled a man. From it had come a feeling of complete control over the world, so intoxicating that while my fingers squeezed Ching’s earlobes, the memory of it swept me away, while the fact of startling him lifted me to the heights of a power whose pinnacle I longed to attain. Suddenly, glimpsing a corpse in my cellmate’s frown made me squeeze harder, until Ching pulled free of my grip and, in what might have been his last sigh, pleaded: “Stop pissing about!” His helplessness made me come. Then the flicker of that power I’d experienced in killing reared up, except that it never reached its peak, in spite of the willpower I exerted, imagining my lover succumbing to the pressure of my hands. When, after, I clung to the mattress on the floor with all my might, Ching’s corpse lay at my side like an invitation, the stillness of his body reminiscent of the man I had killed. What would have happened if, instead of his ears, it had been my lover’s throat I’d held in my hands?
If those ears had been enough to satisfy my prison hungers, on the outside there’d be others, tens of thousands of men’s ears, of every kind: fleshy, skinny, pointed, standing proud, curved, all of them alluring targets for my passion. I’d always loved men’s ears, loved holding the lobes between my thumb and index finger. The pressure of my fingers on their skin titillated the beast in me. I did not, of course, mention this to the governor. Absorbed in contemplating some figures in the number he’d noted, his elbow had inadvertently knocked the register he’d swiftly produced, which fell, taking with it a pencil escaped from its jar. It hit the ground.
“Excuse me a minute,” said the governor. “One moment, and I’m all yours.” Leaving me to ruminate on my gangrene, apparently careless of the danger outside—to others, to myself—once my demons were roused, he bent forward, then resumed his original position, looking annoyed. Let him take his time, I was thinking. Instead, he put the notepad on his lap, and brought his chair forward, toward the desk. The governor had difficulty fitting his long legs under the table. Then he rubbed his hands together vigorously, as if anxious to be rid of any traces of dirt the pad had left.
“So, I was saying, Mr. Diouf. Now you’ll have so much time you won’t know what to do with it. As you may know, it’s part of my job to support your reintegration process. . . . You see, I—”
“Yes sir,” I answered. “Thank you, but—”
I was about to tell him I didn’t want to be released.
From Demain, si Dieu le veut. © 2015 by Khadi Hane. Published 2015 by Editions Joëlle Losfeld. By arrangement with the Pierre Astier Agency. Translation © 2016 by Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.