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from the May 2021 issue

Barzakh: The Land of In-between

A time traveler finds himself in a harsh new society in this excerpt from writer and critic Moussa Ould Ebnou’s novel.


That night I slept a troubled sleep, and when the time came to dream, my memory and consciousness recalled the beyond-time. I began to cry and scream with all my might, calling for the Master of Time: “Khidr! Khidr! What disaster have you caused to befall me?! Take me from here! You know very well that I am traveling through the beyond-time searching for a better people, and you know that this is the evilest of civilizations. Don’t leave me here!” After much begging and pleading, he finally heeded my cries and appeared, his features obscured by his green aura.

“Gara, did you forget our agreement?”

“No, I didn’t forget anything!”

“Then you must recall that I allowed you to travel to the future in order to change your nation.”

“Yes, but I pictured the future as better than its past.”

“That’s why you chose to explore the future, and I allowed you to explore two periods if you so wished. You said you wanted to leave the period of Awdaghost, so you used up your first chance. You found yourself nine centuries ahead of the period you escaped from. As returning to the past is impossible, it was within your ability to either settle in the period you arrived in or to use your last chance to travel further into the future. This came with the possibility of finding yourself in the midst of a nation more wicked than the one you escaped from and with no way to leave. Was this not the agreement? Despite that, you left the period of Coppolani and found yourself in the period of Tanval, and here you are urging me to give you another chance! I am reminding you of the agreement and confirming that your travel through the beyond-time is over and you will stay here until you die!”

“Save me! I must leave this cursed nation! I never saw such evil, and so up close!”

“You no longer have any refuge! What person before you had the opportunity to live in three different civilizations far apart in time? You only got what you deserved for your iniquity and ignorance! You can’t escape fate forever, and you have nowhere to run. You are compelled to live with your people. At any rate, what you are witnessing is the last face of the Earth. If you kept moving through the future, you would find that the Earth has become a heap of ash, and the Sun has been snuffed out!”

Khidr gradually vanished into his green aura.

“No! Wait! Wait! Khidr! Khidr!”  

I woke up shivering violently. My head was as heavy as lead and felt like it would explode from the intensity of the pain. Anmad had taken my hand.

“What’s wrong? Who were you calling for?”

My tongue was thick, and the back of my throat was dry and sticky.

“Give me something to drink!”

After I drank he repeated his question:

“Who was it you were calling?”

“Me? When was I calling for anyone?”

“Just now. You were screaming ‘Khidr! Khidr!'"

“That’s strange! I don’t recall a thing.”

“You scare me! I need to watch out around you.”

 

The supervisor came to us early the next day. He was armed and threatened us repeatedly as he marched us out.  

“I am taking you two to the disinfection room to prepare for work. You are now on the day shift on the squad that monitors the wells. Let’s go, hurry up!”     

We were the first to arrive at the disinfection room. The supervisor pointed to some lockers and said they were for our clothing. He then ordered us to wash in cold, filthy showers. I felt my body as the water stung it with sharp jabs. We dressed in our work clothes: two smooth white jumpsuits and knee-high pull-on boots. We put on safety masks and gloves and waited on metal benches, bent over and with our heads hanging, for the rest of the team to get there. The workers arrived in droves, silent and walking as though hypnotized. Terrible pain was etched on their faces, but they remained silent. They took off their clothes and stored them in the metal lockers, then got in line in front of the putrid showers, each of them doing as we had done. We were all given two pills and ordered to swallow them. I felt a lump in my throat as I gulped them down . . .

The sun had settled around the peak of the mountain when we disembarked from the airway at the site of the wells. There were four of us, counting the supervisor. We inspected the area, noticing the cracks that had formed in the rock since yesterday. We found several fissures, some of which had become deep grooves.

“This is how the work will be organized. You two!” the supervisor pointed at me and Anmad. “You will gather large rocks from the top of the peak. I said the large rocks and not the small ones! Put them in the grinder. And you!” he pointed at the other worker, “Turn the grinder, melt the stone, and rotate the platform to pour the melted stone into the fissures. Hurry up! Let’s go! I am watching you, you lazy asses!”

At the end of the day, when the shadows of our uniforms stuck to the height of the mountain as if they were giant ghosts, we heard the end-of-work whistle. I felt my body as I took off my uniform in the disinfection room, unable to believe that it still had volume, that it had remained solid and not melted.

 

The residential area was perched on the sides of the mountain, rising and falling with its peaks and valleys. It consisted of prefabricated sheds that were unreachable except by the airway. They guided me to my spot in the sleeping area. It was a sleeping pad resembling a military cot, and beside it was a steel dresser of the same type I saw in the disinfection room. I flung myself on the bed and stayed there for a while, unconscious, until I started awake at a sudden alarm bell. At first I thought it was in my head, but then I saw people heading for the exit doors. I got up and followed them down a long hallway.

It led to an open door flanked by large blinds parallel to the wall and controlled by two steel rails positioned above and below. There was writing above the door in illuminated script explaining the purpose of the dining hall. Then, to the left, above the door, was a blackboard with writing in yellow chalk: “December 20th, 2045: Potassium soup, beefsteak, boiled fungi, Agreijitt dates.”

© Moussa Ould Ebnou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by July Blalack. All rights reserved.

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