in the presence of death

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: August 14, 2016

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Submitted: August 14, 2016

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In the presence of death

I looked at Théo when we were standing at 5 Rue Nicolas Appert at the 11th arrondissement of Paris. It was January 7th and this was our first encounter.

Théo had been on missions in dangerous places such as Jerusalem, Gaza and Hebron but also Syria. Working there as a photographer. I had often feared for his life. His father had died young for some reason of which I was still unaware.

Théo’s face suddenly burst open into a big smile and he stepped closer to me.

He was now close enough for me to be able to sense his smell of tobacco and myrrh perfume which lingered there on his skin. Wet from the light rain which drippled onto the pebblestones we were standing on. I smoked too, usually cigarettes. I had also tried other stuff such as LSD and still smoked pot from time to time.

Théo and I had found each other on the internet, as is so common nowadays, but that did not bother me. Although my life had been far from ordinary, it was not much I was ashamed of and I had few regrets. Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” could be heard from a nearby café. I smiled as I heard the music.

Théo seemed to be an explorer and I liked to think of myself as being one too.

He was the first to break the silence.

  • Fancy going to a coffee shop, Ana?

  • Take me to the one with Edith Piaf’s music!

We stepped into the “Telescope” which had lots of red cushions and little round tables inside where people sat and savoured their coffee as a way to gently ease into their day. Paintings hung up on the walls, the works of local artists. We ordered two black coffees and sat down at one of the tables just outside the “Telescope”. It had stopped raining now so Théo lit a cigarette.

  • Tell me about your travels, I said.

  • The time I spent in Gaza had a great impact upon me. I remember especially when I came to a police station there and the whole street was covered with dead and severely hurt policemen. Since I was the first photographer in my team of four to arrive at the scene, I took some pictures.

Théo put his hand in his pocket and gave them to me. I looked at the pictures one by one, saw the blood and inanimate bodies stocked upon each other. 

  • It is macabre, I almost whispered. Théo continued his story.

  • When I was in Gaza I worked for the French news agency AFP and we were five photographers sent out on a mission there. The situation in the region quickly worsened, we found bodies of numerous dead women and children. Many of them not intact. Whole families obliterated in their homes.

  • It was like being in the midst of a massive lunacy of blood and horror that never seemed to end. The most terrifying was when I found a dead girl, just about two years old. Only her head was visible among the wrecks of a demolished house. That scene still haunts me.

He lit another cigarette and so did I all while saying:

  • I smoked a lot during my time in Gaza, it was a way to calm down and cope with things.

    I nodded in agreement, remembering that I had begun to smoke when I dropped out of high school at the age of seventeen.

     

  • I have also a lot of memories from the Arab Spring, Théo said.

He gave me the backgrounds first. It started in Tunisia in 2010 and then spread like a virus to some 21 countries in the Arab region. The conflict got a more violent and complex turn when it came to Syria. The slogan of the demonstrators in the conflict had been “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam” (translated into “the people want to bring down the regime”).

  • I came to Syria in January 2011, the same month in which my father died. Very few expected that what started as a civil uprising would soon transform into a full-scale civil war.

  • I have witnessed some of the disastrous effects of that war, Théo said. The first time I went there I stayed four months and when I left I felt emotionally scattered to pieces. At first I could not look at the pictures I had taken there. It took time. I recently heard from the colleagues in my team that the death toll in Syria has reached 320,000 people. That’s more than a quarter of a million.

     

  • Did you choose to go to Syria? I asked.

  • Not the first time. I was dispatched there by the AFP together with another two photographers.

    The second time I went there was year ago now, in 2014. This time it was more a personal demand rather than a choice. I felt that I had to do something constructively to help out in the region.

    I wanted to inform the world of what was going on in Syria. This trip was very much an emotional turmoil for me since it was there my father died. Shot by jihadists in January 2012.

     

  • How was it to go back there?

    Théo gave me a brief look and continued.

  • The second time I was better prepared. I knew many of the terrains quite well and had knowledge of the complexity of the conflicts. I was now more than ever before determined to follow in my father’s footsteps and continue the work he was never able to finish.

    Perhaps most importantly, I went to Syria for a reason; to inform the world of the reality there. To show pictures of the conflict; death, bloodshed and horror. But also courage and unity. I admit that many of my pictures were macabre but they were real and did not disguise the truth.

     

  • How has your father’s death affected you?

  • It devastated me. I lost the only person in the world I confided in, my only family. My best friend and personal mentor.

  • What does death signify to you? I asked Théo.

  • I don’t know, maybe just the end.

    The end is important in many things. After all, I prefer not to think of death when I am on missions as a photographer in dangerous terrains. Death is a part of my work.

  • What are your thoughts on death, Ana?

  • I think death resembles a state of pre-existence. Perhaps we were all dead prior to our birth or at least in a state similar to such an existence as we perceive of death currently. It must be nice to pre-exist, floating around in a nothingness, out of reach.

  • That is an interesting viewpoint, Théo said and gave me a murky smile.

Our coffee had turned cold long ago and we both got up from our seats to move somewhere else. It was now 11.30 am and dark clouds had begun to emerge on the sky.

As we were walking we suddenly heard blasts from somewhere nearby. There were several of them and the sound was almost cacophonic. Théo and I looked at each other with fear in our eyes. We dreaded that something catastrophic had just happened.

5 Rue Nicolas Appert which had been almost deserted a few minutes ago was now filled with a vast crowd of people. Many of them screaming, waving their arms and panicking like a flock of sheep about to be slaughtered. We joined in with the crowd and were soon part of the pandemonium.

The crowd ran down to 10 Rue Nicolas Appert where it suddenly came to a halt  outside Charlie Hebdo. The French satire weekly magazine. It was on the second floor of a building and its two elongated windows were smashed to pieces. The broken glass depicted pearls scattered across the street.

Two armed dark-skinned men now came running out from the building and met with a policeman on the street where the rest of us were standing some distance away, some hiding behind street corners. The policeman opened fire on a car parked on the side of the road.

Whose car was it and why did he do that? I thought.

Before anyone understood what was going on, the policeman had been wounded by the armed men. He laid on the street, writhing in agony, tried to shout something which no one was able to hear.

One of the armed men then crept up close to him, kneeled down and carefully put the gun to his forehead, in-between the eyes. He then waited for what seemed like minutes. The trigger was pulled and so another man was dead.

This was the first time I witnessed a dead person and I felt so many things. Death was not just the end. It was foreign, irreversible and macabre especially when witnessed like this. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. This was too much!

Just like a vampire feeds on your blood, these people feed on our fear and even in the face of fearlessness, they will feed on us!

Where was Théo? I began to wonder. I searched for him in the crowd of people, all crammed together. He was not to be seen.

My thoughts felt shattered and I was very scared. Cold shivers went down my spine. I looked at the scene in front of me and tried to use my mind as a camera so as to register everything therein, the shootings, the destroyed Charlie Hebdo building and the broken glass scattered on the street. The attackers and the dead policeman. All the witnesses, blood and screams, the complete incomprehension we all shared. Why was this happening here?

I became aware that people now wandered restlessly around, some of them in a frazzle as if suffering from the mad cow disease. I could only stand still, trying to think of a way out of here.

Where were the attackers? Hiding somewhere among us?

I had just time to think of Théo again before a hand grabbed mine and pulled me away from the macabre scene.

I turned halfway around and saw that it was him. Théo was hurt, shot in the arm. Blood drippled onto the street. Since he was only wearing a t-shirt, I took off my cardigan and wired it around his wound.

  • We need to get you to hospital, I said.

The phone was still in my pocket, good! I picked it up and called Ambulances ADAM 75. Since they were operating in the same area as we were in now, help would arrive quickly!

  • An ambulance is on its way, Théo!

He tried to smile at me in response, but didn’t quite manage to since he was weak. So I decidedly just took his healthy arm in a firm grip and then we waited while the crowd of people were still screaming like slaughtered lambs.  

A bluish-white car soon ran to a halt just in front of us and two ambulance paramedics came toward us with quick steps. They saw Théo’s wounded arm and quickly put him on a stretcher which they then rolled into the ambulance.

  • Can I come with him? I asked.

  • Of course, replied one of the paramedics. She was young, perhaps about my age.

I jumped inside and had time to notice that several police cars now had arrived at the scene before the ambulance car drove off at high speed.

Whilst the ambulance was driving to Hôpital Croix Saint Simon, the paramedics were fully occupied with taking care of Théo’s severely bleeding arm. A dozen swabs were put directly on the wound and then covered up by gauzes wired tightly around it. His arm was then held up high so as to lower the blood pressure in his wounded arm and hopefully cause the bleeding to decrease. I observed all these things with recognition as I sat close to Théo in the ambulance. I had spent a year at the Health Care Programme in high school, just before dropping out.

Before I knew it, the ambulance had arrived at the hospital, just outside the emergency ward entrance. The stretcher with Théo on it was quickly rolled inside the building and once there he was received by doctors who took him to a room down the corridor. I was allowed to stay with him inside the room, at least for the moment.

  • Give him drip straight away, said one of the doctors hurriedly.

  • He has lost a lot of blood already!

 

A nurse went out to fetch this and the drip was turned on a few minutes later.

Théo looked absent-minded and I tried to say a few words to him, letting him know I was there. I didn’t receive much in response.

  • I am sorry, but we believe he must stay here for the night. His wound will be sown within eight hours, but Dr. Pascal wants him to remain here for observation until tomorrow morning, a nurse said to me.

  • Oh, ok, I replied. Can I come back to see him then tomorrow? Will he be discharged then?

  • Most likely, but we cannot say for sure, replied the nurse. If we can get your contact number, then we’ll call tomorrow to let you know how things proceed.

I gave it to her and said goodbye to Théo by gently touching his hand.

The nurse showed me out from the hospital but before she went inside again I managed to ask for the address to Hôpital Croix Saint Simon.

  • 125 Rue d’Avron, 750 20, was her quick response.

I called a taxi and whilst waiting I ate the french baguette that had been lying all day in my bag. The taxi arrived some ten minutes later.

  • Where are you going? the taxidriver asked monotonously.

  • Hotel du Chemin Vert, I said.

Since I had come to Paris solely for the purpose of meeting Théo and had planned to only stay a couple of days, I had decidedly picked the cheapest hotel I could find. I wasn’t going to spend much time there anyway I had reasoned initially but now I wasn’t so sure.

What if Théo had to stay in hospital for a longer period? What if his wound didn’t heal properly?

I pushed the thoughts away and looked out at the street and the cars which were passing us like flashlights. Who’d have guessed that my stay in Paris would get such a flying start? Wondering where this would end?

The taxi arrived at my hotel, I paid the 15 euros and got out of the car.

The check-in at the hotel had been done this morning so I went straight up to my room on the second floor.

Well inside I began to feel weird. Violent anger welled up inside me and I felt the urgent need to smash something to pieces. Hard, fast and violently. The feeling took control of me and I grabbed the vase which stood on the table and crushed it onto the floor. It didn’t make much of a noise since there was a mat which acted as a silencer. I cut myself whilst doing it and deep red drops slipped out onto the white mat. I wanted to scream, it was the killer instinct I felt. Again. It used to visit me every now and then. I burst into tears and laid down on the bed.

The sadness calmed my anger, tamed it somehow. Who was this Ana? Why was I like this?

One instant so vibrant and alive and the next just an endless sea of tears and desperation.

I sometimes felt out of reach, as if no one really understood me. The true me.

I couldn’t compare myself to anyone, in fact I refused to. I had always felt different, like a wild Arabian stallion which couldn’t be tamed. Too beautiful and too precious to be touched by people on the street.

The thoughts ran wild in my head. I wanted to get high, but had nothing to smoke.

I remained in my room for a few hours and then decided to go out for a walk. That would allow me to smash things behind some dark street corner.

The evening air did me good but I was still in a frenzied state of mind. Not really aware of the violent beggars on the street, the two prostitutes screaming four-letter words and the boy playing with a large butcher’s knife.

Perhaps I just didn’t care? My anger had hebetated me.

As I was walking the street which wasn’t empty although that was how I perceived it, I felt someone sneaking up close behind me. At first I didn’t care but suddenly two chubby arms grabbed my waist and tried to box me down softly onto the ground. It took me a while to comprehend what was going on but when the garments left my body one by one I began to see things more clearly. This chubby man, which obviously as I saw the brutelike face with only a few teeth in that dirty grin, was a street beggar and about to rape me. Me!

The wave of anger I had suddenly felt came rising up inside me again and this time it felt no boundaries.

Luckily I remembered the little knife I had in my jacket which was lying some distance away.

I told the beggar I had to pee and got out of his grip. Away I sneaked to my jacket and quickly got hold of the knife. I walked slowly back to the beast and without a moment of hesitation I sliced his throat, quick and in just one go. He was dead, it didn’t take much effort.

I was shaking but I knew I had done the right thing which for a moment seemed odd to me. I had been so shocked earlier today when the policeman was killed and now I had voluntarily become guilty of that same hideous crime.  Murder. But was it so hideous when someone threathened to cut scars in your soul by entering your most private area? Théo’s words suddenly came echoing in my head “Perhaps death is just the end. The end is important in many things.”

I cut off the thinking and wondered what I should do with the body? I moved it to a street corner and left it there. Walked away. Went back to the hotel. I was already slumbering.

Back in my room I was soon asleep on the bed. All clothes on.

The next morning I woke up with a heavy head. I had been dreaming strange things, nightmares. I could still recall some of it; mutilated bodies, screams, blood and the act of murdering someone.

Did I really do it yesterday night? I killed that beggar with the knife? Was he dead? Had I checked carefully? I suddenly got scared, what if someone would find out? Perhaps I had been seen by that boy with the butcher’s knife or the prostitutes? Was the police after me now?

It felt as if my head was about to blow up! I needed to clear my thoughts.

I checked my watch, 08.30am. Breakfast time!

I went downstairs to the breakfast buffet and once I entered the room I heard that the Goldberg Variations was playing this morning. It made me think of “The Silence of The Lambs” where Hannibal Lecter enjoys the sound of this very music just before he kills the two guards at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

At the breakfast buffet, I provided myself with both juice, coffee, toast and fruits. I then sat down at one of the tables and grabbed today’s newspaper that laid in front of me. It was “Le Monde” and its headline came as no surprise to me. “Attentat contre “Charlie Hebdo”: le récit d’une journée noire.” I began to read about the attack I and so many others had witnessed yesterday.

Two masked men dressed in black armed with Kalashnikovs had broken into the Charlie Hebdo office and there killed both journalists and cartoonists. Some ten or more people in total. One of them had been Ahmed Merabet. A police officer killed outside on the street while the attackers were fleeing. This had apparently been the deadliest attack in France since 1961.

I stopped reading and put the paper away. It felt odd to read about something you had witnessed with your own eyes. Surreal. My phone suddenly rang.

  • Hello? I answered.

It was the nurse from Hôpital Croix Saint Simon.

  • Théo’s wounded arm was sewn this morning and it went well so he is free to go now.

  • Oh, that is great news! I’ll come to pick him up now then! I said joyfully.

I put the phone back in my bag and went straight to the hotel reception.

-  I would like a taxi to Hôpital Croix Saint Simon, please.

-  No problem, the receptionist said. I was soon told that it would arrive any minute.

The taxi came and picked me up and drove in the direction of the hospital.

It stopped outside the emergency ward entrance, not far from where it had picked me up yesterday. I paid the same price again, 15 euros. Then it drove off.

I entered the building and was soon led by a nurse to Théo’s room.

  • Hi! I said to him smilingly.

  • Ana! How good to see you! he exclaimed and then continued;

  • I’m free to go now.

  • I know, a nurse called me to break the news, I replied.

I looked at Théo’s arm, saw the stitches around the wound. Skin cobbled together with needle and thread. Well, I knew too that the thread doctors used was called sutures and they were always accompanied by a special suture needle.

I took Théo’s hand and helped him down from his bed. In the corridor we said goodbye to the nurses and then got out from the hospital. The sun was shining now but I didn’t feel much lighter at heart. I carried a heavy burden, a dead burden. I wondered if I should tell Théo about it?

We walked for some time, none of us saying much to the other.

  • How do you feel now? I suddenly asked him.

  • I’m alright, my arm hurts a bit. But I am glad to be out on the streets again.

    With you, Ana.

I smiled upon hearing this. Théo was beautiful in a nonlinear way. His beauty was out of proportion with the standards of ordinary looking people. To me, Théo was like the Sahara desert, mystical and beyond my reach. He was wild and I couldn’t tame him. A rebel and I felt that he reflected me in that sense.

He had a fine sculpted face framed by large, black and bushy eyebrows. A mustache and beard had begun to take shape. Black tresses hung down his face and they always seemed to get in the way of his leppard green eyes. Théo was of Moroccan descent, he had told me that when we were still chatting on the internet.

  • Théo, please tell me about Morocco!

We sat down at a bench nearby.  It was still warm outside.

  • I come from the city Chefchaouen in the north of Morocco, also known as the blue city since large parts of its old Medina is painted blue. We moved to France when I was 14, but I have always wanted to return to Morocco.

    It is a largely mountainous country with rainbows of colour, spice market smells and an urban orchestra of sounds. Morocco can be quite overwhelming to first-time visitors.

Théo smiled curiously and I was instantly charmed by this faraway land in Africa.

  • Morocco is deeply influenced by Islam but the freedom of expression is nonetheless very prevalent there in comparison to other Arab countries. There is a huge difference between urban and rural areas. Poverty is widespread but the hospitality of the moroccans is adamant.

  • What if we should go there, Théo? Think of it, wouldn’t it be fantastic?

  • You’re right, we should! Paris doesn’t feel the same anymore, not after that attack we witnessed. I’m glad we’re together.

Then suddenly he kissed me. His lips were soft and slightly chapped. His playful tongue left me lingering for more. The warmth of his mouth sent a current running through my body. I took hold of his neck as I lost myself in his peppermint breath. He slowly pulled away from me and as he did so I noticed a stroke of blue in his green eyes. Something I had never noticed before.

We sat silent for a while and then I said:

  • I’m dying for some peppermint green tea.

  • Let’s move, Théo replied.

He held my hand as we walked down the street. It was still warm outside. After having strolled around for a while, we found a café. We ordered two mint teas and sat down at a table.

  • Why is Chefchaouen blue? I asked.

  • Well, it was painted blue by Jewish refugees in the 1930s so as to cool down the heat brought on by the summer months but also as a mosquito repellent. Chaouen is the most peaceful Moroccan city except for the persistent kiefs.

  • Kiefs? I asked.

  • The cannabis salesmen, Théo replied.

I laughed out loud, could not wait to get to Morocco. This was going to be fun!

  • When are we leaving Paris?

  • We could look for tickets tonight, perhaps? Théo asked.

We agreed on that, finished our tea and decided to head home to Théo’s apartment. I was not keen on bringing him to my hotel room with the crushed vase and my blood on that white mat. What if the dead beggar still laid in the street corner where I had left him that night? I did not want to think of it, it made me almost sick. How could I gather enough courage and strength to tell Théo of this hideous crime?

Théo had neither a car nor a driver´s licence and this did not put him at a disadvantage. Paris was much easier to get around by using either the tube, bicycle, taxi or simply just walking. Much like in Stockholm where I came from.

  • Where do you live, Théo?

  • Let’s catch a taxi! he said.

Some ten minutes later we were in a taxi and heading to Hipotel Paris Bordeaux Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissment.

  • Are we really going to Marocco, Théo?

  • Sure, why not? We need some relaxation and fun after all the tragic happenings in Paris.

I nodded.

It only took 15 minutes to get to Théo’s hotel. He paid the driver and then we stepped out of the car.

He was living on the third floor, so we took the lift up to his room. It was a beautiful room with a little pittoresque balcony included.

  • Gosh, you must be starving, Ana!

  • So must you, I replied.

  • Let’s eat dinner before booking our travel tickets.

  • I must admit that I never follow recipes when I cook, I always let my wild fantasy guide me, he said.

  • That’s so cool!

Théo opened his fridge and began to take out a mishmash of colourful ingredients. We ended up making a raw vegan lasagna with pesto, sun-dried tomato marinara, camembert cheese and walnut sausage. This was accompanied by a pomegranate slaw! It took neither much time nor effort for us to cook this delicious meal.

When we finally sat down with our plates at the dinner table and had begun to eat, I exclaimed:

  • Goodness, is this for real? I never tasted anything nearly as amazing as this in my whole life!

  • I know, I’m totally hooked on the whole raw food trend. For dessert we had limoncello and a selection of french cheeses.

  • This must be a pretty good hotel where the rooms are nicely furnished with a full equipped kitchen included, I said.

  • Yes, but you have to pay for it! It’s not that bad though, I’m not ruined yet, Théo exclaimed laughingly.

After the drinks we began looking for tickets to Morocco.

Théo grabbed his ipad and did not need to search for long before he found two tickets from Charles de Gaulle to Tangier for 200 euros. Departure in two days.

-That’s great, let’s book it! I exclaimed joyfully.

And so we did, in a few days we would be wandering around on the African continent – unbelievable!

We kissed again out of pure joy. He grabbed my neck and pushed me gently onto the bad we sat on. I began to giggle nervously like a little girl and soon felt his hands unbuttoning my blouse. Slowly. White, soft skin revealed, he stroke it gently and I purred out of pleasure. Just like a cat. I licked his ear and could tell he enjoyed it.

  • Let’s save some of the fun for Morocco, huh? he whispered to me.

I just smiled in response and asked him:

  • Can I spend the night here with you?

  • No need to ask, Théo replied.

It was 7pm already and we decided it was time for some wine.

I could still feel the effect of the limoncello, but I never said no to wine and especially not in this good company.

  • Let’s drink it on the balcony, Ana.

I followed him out. It was a simple Merlot wine from the Bordeaux district Saint-Émilion.

  • I bought it the day before we met, I thought it might come in handy.

  • Indeed you were right, I replied.

As we sipped the wine, the thoughts of my dark deed once again entered my mind.

Should I tell him about it now? How would I do it? Oh, he was sure to reject me if he knew what I’d done and thus become. A murderess. My eyes must’ve grown dim with heavy thoughts and despair because I was suddenly awaken by the sound of his voice.

  • Ana, what is bothering you?

  • Oh well, there is something I did whilst you were at the hospital. I did it to protect myself from being hurt.

Théo looked at me quietly.

  • I went for a walk nearby my hotel and there was this horrid man, he looked deformed like som sort of Frankenstein’s monster. He tried to rape me on the street and I prevented it from happening. I killed him with a knife.

  • -I mean, I was so scared and didn’t think straight. I was in despair and also in a frenzied state of mind. That evening had been weird, I wasn’t well. I know I did the right thing though, no regrets, I stammered.

  • You murdered him, Ana? How?

  • Sliced his throat. A sudden nausea struck me, but I kept my eyes at Théo. I wanted to see his reaction to this macabre relevation.

  • Death is irreversible, are you happier now when he’s dead? Théo asked.

  • Death may just be the end, remember you told me that the first day we met, Théo? The beggar doesn’t suffer now, he is out of reach of anything and everything.

  • Your suffering, Ana. It hasn’t stopped, has it? Can you bear it, the suffering of killing someone?

  • As long as I live, I must bear it, I replied.

  • What if the police finds out? The punishment of going to prison?

  • You know, I once saw a documentary with people on death rows in the U.S. They said deterrence lies not in the degree of punishment received though instead in the certainty of being caught. This is the reason the death penalty does not work as expected.

  • I agree. Are you susceptible to deterrence, Ana?

  • I am human, am I not?

At this we both burst out laughing!

  • Now, have some more wine, my dear. We’ll have time to discuss this grave issue more later on.

  • Yes, you’re right, I said all whilst feeling slightly ashamed of myself for what I was and not was.

  • To be, or not to be – that is the question, Théo sneaked in.

We drank some more wine and enjoyed the view from his balcony. The sky was beautiful tonight, shimmering in shades of indigo blue and velvet silver.

 


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