By Amran Gaye
And lying there in the dark he understands. He sees his life, as he lived it before the Night. He sees all that is behind him, the corrupted path that brought him here: the death of his father, his discovery of alcohol, his falling-out with his mother. And he understands now how all those years have been wasted. He sees before him the decades of incarceration, spread out like an endless field. And seeing the field before him he thinks of all the time he will spend looking upon this field, its size never decreasing, flowers never blooming in it, a desert of despair. And he thinks about all Maur has said, and all he has heard outside the prison, and he sees a way to get through it, a way to persevere until Death arrives, and even beyond that, for he would never truly die.
If he could not escape his captivity physically his spirit could soar, rise above the walls holding him, penetrate through the roof, into a space where the people who waited for him outside were. And while the outsiders grew old and died in his absence, they would not be gone, would never be lost to him, for in this new space he could already feel them, waiting. The thought leaves him breathless – he is amazed that he has never seen things this way before. And holding it in his mind he gradually falls into sleep, a deeper and more contented one than he has had in a long time.
In the morning when Maur rises to pray fajr Modou Boy rises with him.
– Did I wake you? Maur asks, I’m sorry.
– No, Modou Boy says shortly, and taking the kettle goes into a corner of the cell.
There is a small smile on Maur’s face but he says nothing, sitting on his bed and waiting for Modou Boy to finish. Then he leads them both in prayer, his enunciation crisp in the early morning air, a melody in his voice that reminds Modou Boy of Ramadan evenings spent waiting for permission to break the fast from the TV set, and afterwards, sitting around with full bellies while an imam in Makkah led the naafila, sighing with the pleasure of having conquered another day of fasting, and stood strong through it…
On Tobaski day Maur receives a presidential pardon: permission to leave the next day. On their last night together he inducts Modou Boy in the wird, explaining each part and the number of times it is to be repeated. He runs through it three times, and makes Modou Boy repeat it to him each time. Finally, when he is satisfied he nods, and places a hand on Modou Boy’s shoulder.
– It is the thing you must return to, at the end of each day. It is your hope, and the hope of your future. You must perform it each day, and each night – to open and then to close.
Modou Boy listens studiously, a serious expression on his face.
– I will leave you with one final thing: pray!
– I will insha’Allah.
– Pray! You hear me?
– Good. Nothing lasts – Allah will open all the paths and all the ways, in His own time. I will leave you with my kettle, and my mat. Use them, you hear me? Pray!
– I will insha’Allah, Modou Boy promises a third time.
Maur fetches a book from under his pillow, green cover with Arabic script on it, the pages looking worn and much-read, each divided by a line: on the left the Arabic script and on the right its English translation.
– Here, Maur says, – Take this. It is the lower surahs, from Ammayata to Naasi. And here (Maur flips to the back page) – Here are the Names. You must know these, in order to reach a fuller understanding. You cannot read it too many times – much that is hidden will be revealed to you.
Modou Boy takes the book and stands there looking at Maur: the bags beneath his eyes, the way he will occasionally crack his neck in the middle of a sentence, the Senegalese accent with which he speaks, deepening his h’s and cutting words short to their stem. And for the first time in a long while he feels like he will miss him when he goes; will miss their nightly conversations and the company he kept him; will miss waking up with him to pray fajr in the morning. He wishes he could explain this to Maur, explain how much it means to him, the kindness he has shown him.
But years of living in Banjul have left him laconic, so he finds he can say none of these things, even with great effort. And so he stretches out his hand to shake Maur’s. Maur takes it and instead of shaking pulls him into a hug, holding him for a long moment, his hand on Modou Boy’s head. Then Modou Boy pulls away, and now suddenly there is a blur in his eyes. He wipes it away and turns away from Maur, pretending to be busy with the mat. When he turns back again Maur is gone. He climbs into his bunk, closes his eyes, and turns to face the wall. It is then he cries, the tears squeezing themselves out from under his tightly closed eyelids, forcing their way out and onto the bed, the snot gathering in his nose. He tries to stop it, but it is so powerful it sends a spasm of shock waves through his body. And so he lets it out, weeping like he has not since he was a child. Afterwards he feels lighter, and lying there with swollen eyes he drifts off into a merciful sleep, filled with forgettable dreams with no meaning.
It has been three weeks since Maur left. The Names come to him now, even when he is without the book. They each strike upon his mind, and start a ripple that courses through his veins and makes him feel warm. After fajr he sits in his cell reading them from the book. In the beginning he would squint and trace them out with his finger, but now that he has almost committed them to memory he only needs the suggestion their shapes make on the page, to remember. Once when he was a child he had learnt to read Arabic script, and the memory of this comes back to him now, as if out of a thick fog. He mouths the letters he reads, handling them clumsily at first, struggling to hold them together, not allow them to fall apart. Then he reads the English half, making sense of the translation. Sometimes he will pause in his reading and think deeply, his brow furrowed. And then he will reach a resolution, the lines of worry disappearing as he advances to the next one.
He asks the guards for their names, and greets them when they bring him food, or to open the door of his cell so he can leave it for work or exercise. He asks after their families, and they reply, halting and suspicious at first, but with a growing openness when they see he is genuinely interested. They smile sometimes now too, when they come, getting rid of the default scowl they use when they interact with the other prisoners. They hand him the plate through the window in his cell door, and then afterwards linger, for a moment or two, to chat, bringing him news of their families and the outside world. He is glad for these moments, and looks forward to them.
When he thinks of the world now and his place in it he thinks of the Maker writing His Creation into being, from nothingness, creating time, and the world, and filling it with things each more wondrous than the next. He thinks of all the people in the world, each on their own path, yet with their destinies linked and intertwined. A plan written for all their lives, roads with no turning-backs or diversions, leading ever onward according to the Creator’s design. It relieves him, this new way of seeing things, fills him with a calmness he has never felt before in his life. And it does not stop with him – it is a feeling that flows outward, embracing all the other people around him, in their frailty, their loves and hates, their many flaws.
It is the 40th night of Modou Boy’s incarceration. While the country sleeps, decisions are made. Papers are signed, orders transmitted down the chain of command. The squad that is assembled to execute the will of the state is meticulously chosen: steady men, men who can stare into the face of death and not flinch; men who do not have a history of asking questions of their superiors. Men who could snuff out the light in a man’s eyes in the morning and go back home in time to eat lunch with their wives and daughters, loving husbands and doting fathers.
A hush has descended on the prison today. News of the planned executions arrived this morning, its source unclear – but by midday all the prisoners know.
In the afternoon the men are let out for exercise. The seven inmates move around the yard, instantly recognisable, a space like a bubble forming around them. Their burden seems to hang heavy on them, pressing down on their bodies so that they slouch, and on their expressions so they cannot smile. The other inmates look away awkwardly or try not to make eye contact, not knowing what to say to them: in their lives they have spoken to the ones left behind, the ones who grieve. But nothing has prepared them for this, for the right words to say to the ones doing the leaving.
Out in the yard Modou Boy walks around in a daze. All the guards he passes nod supportively, and some of them even look a little sad, but he barely notices them. His head is filled with thoughts of his former life, and of what he will lose.
There are things he missed, in the beginning, that he has gotten used to not having. And then there are the things he cannot stop missing, even if he were to spend the rest of his days here. His childhood comes back to him and he understands for the first time what a place of safety it was, what a place of warmth and love. An image of his mother, sitting in the living room, dispensing orders to his sisters, as they ran the house. The feeling of coming home from a nawetaan match, storm clouds thundering and flashing lightning above the whole day, the heavens finally opening up just as you arrive. The comfortable weight of domoda in your stomach as you lay down afterward, a fresh breeze coming in through the window and lulling you gently into sleep.
And now this: To never breathe again, to never feel the air making its way through your nostrils and filling up your chest. To never feel the sun on your face, the wind on your cheeks, the sand beneath your feet. To never wash nyambas covered in mud, to never hang out with the guys at the beach, the air thick with the stench of weed, reggae music blaring over the sound of the crashing waves. To never get into a van again, negotiating with the aparanteh because you’re missing a dalasi.
He feels fear, like he has never felt it before. His heart seems to beat only at irregular intervals, and there is an icy coldness in the cavity of his chest where the fear resides, expanding, threatening to place its grip over his heart. He cannot walk anymore – he turns around again and goes back into the prison. The guard he passes at the door lifts a hand and opens his mouth to stop him, but when he sees the look on Modou Boy’s face he lowers the hand again and closes his mouth. Modou Boy walks past him and back into his cell, sitting on the bottom bunk with his face in his hands. He breathes in deeply, breathes out again. He tries to focus his thoughts, to get past the fear. And his brain gives him a way: to pretend that the executions will not happen, that it is only a threat, that come nightfall nothing will change, and he’ll go to sleep and wake up the next day. But he knows, deep down, that this is not true, so he rejects it. He gets up, and gets his book. He performs the ablution, and placing the book on the prayer mat he sits behind it, facing the qibla. And then he shuts the world out, and begins to pray.
They come for the prisoners in the dead of night. The moon bright in the cloudless sky as if to bear witness, the air leaden with heat from the day. The ones who come are not the familiar prison guards – they are from outside the prison, dressed in combat fatigues, impatience in their movements and their speech, as if this were only an interruption of their sleep. They start at Modou Boy’s cell – a crowd of them, two on either side of his door and one to open, the rest of the group moving on to the other cells. There is a commotion now – prisoners realising what is happening and crying out for help, others just waking up to the noise and confusion, adding their voices to the clamour.
They find him seated on the prayer mat still, in the middle of the ta’iya. One of the soldiers reaches out to lift him up, but the other stays his hand and shakes his head, and they stand waiting for Modou Boy to finish. When he is done he rises and folds the sajaada neatly, putting it on the bottom bunk, the book of names atop it. Then he turns to them, and wishing them peace he indicates that he is ready.
They escort him onto the platform – he is the first inmate led out. There are two dozen of them, and he is lost in their midst. When he stumbles their hands come to his shoulders and his arms, holding him steady. Once he is situated on the platform, they tie his hands behind his back, and all the soldiers step down, except for one, who stands before him and reads him the state’s record of his crime, and its subsequent decision concerning his life. Through it all Modou Boy stands looking into the soldier’s face, his breathing slow and deep, almost meditative. Then the soldier finishes reading, and another one steps forward and taking out a small sack places it over his head. The last thing he sees before the sack is lowered is the scowling face of the soldier and, deeper than that, the fear in his eyes. Modou Boy is trembling now, where he stands. Fear fills him once more, and he is surprised at its intensity. A spasm seems to start somewhere in his chest before it spreads to the rest of his body, until both hands are shaking violently. He feels a sudden sense of vertigo. Stumbling, he almost falls before he feels the firm hands of one of the soldiers holding him steady. Then their steps move away and he is alone on the platform.
He takes a deep breath, and closes his eyes, the darkness behind the darkness of the sack. He steadies himself, and tries to concentrate. He can see the Names now, all floating before him, the shapes and forms of the Arabic calligraphy, the diacritics on the letters sharply defined. In the background of his mind a part of him is still terrified, growing increasingly panicky as it hears the sounds of guns being loaded, orders shouted. But it is a small part, and with a thought he wraps it up and puts it away, as if into a drawer. The Names are bright now, in their intensity, where they hang in the air, and he scans them, his neck moving, and as he sees each one he reads it out loud. He feels time draining away, in this place without clocks, and he reads faster, sliding the ending of one Name into the beginning of the next, barely pausing for breath.
He feels the shots before the sound reaches him, a dozen pinpoints on his body that tingle for a moment before they explode, flowers blossoming in his flesh, their thorns ripping his skin open. And in his left chest the pain roars, a volcano about to erupt – he can barely withstand it. He fights it, even though he knows he cannot win. The Names are distant things now, hidden behind a red veil of pain – he has to descend deeper to get to them.
Yet somehow he manages to keep reciting, Name after Name, filled with a sense of urgency even as the pain seems to echo and re-echo in distant parts of his body, traveling far beyond the pinpoints with which it started.
He is on the 67th Name when the volcano in his chest finally explodes, and the darkness claims him.