By Amran Gaye
In a fit of anger one night Modou Boy murdered a man. He was drunk, it is true, but being drunk had never muddied his thoughts the way it did that night, that he could remember. It happened in a nightclub: he staggered about, a bottle in his hand, his thoughts heavy and difficult to take to their conclusion. All night long something itched within him and he could not keep still. And then at the end of it, after a minor scuffle, what had been lurking in him finally came gushing out, and he broke the bottle he held over the man’s head. As the man collapsed its splintered edge went into his neck, his weight drawing Modou Boy down with him, before he could let go. There was blood everywhere, afterward, so much blood that Modou Boy slipped in it and fell as he turned away, and when he lifted his hands to the filtered light they were covered in dark patches.
When he left the club Modou Boy did not go home. Somehow he made it on foot to his blind grandmother’s house, a long walk away. All the people he passed stopped to look at him, but he paid them no attention. Some spoke to him, uttering half-formed questions, but their voices came from a faraway place and never quite seemed to reach him, and he made no answer. His grandmother was sitting outside in a plastic chair, telling her beads, her cataract-filled eyes staring blindly at the pockmarked wall as the dawn came in. When the police arrived they found him with his head lain in her lap, while she soothed him and tried to get the blood off him with a wet cloth, her left hand guiding her right, her mouth still reciting her prayer.
A death sentence, everyone expected, and a death sentence the judge handed down to him, without any fuss on the part of his lawyer, who explained to Modou Boy before he was led off that all it meant was life in prison – no one ever got executed. Modou Boy’s mother had stopped talking to him some years previously, and the few aunts and uncles he had viewed him with extreme disapproval, and would have nothing to do with him. All that was left was his grandmother, who had not set foot outside her house in years. And so no one was there when the judge handed down the sentence, and in the weeks and months that followed no one would come to see Modou Boy, or even call for him.
He shares a cell with a Senegalese man called Maur, who prays incessantly and carries a kurus everywhere with him. In the beginning there are only courtesies shared between them, but gradually they begin to trade more words, filling up the long empty hours with conversation.
– Pikine, Ndarr, Sandaga – I went everywhere, Maur says, as they sit together on the bottom bunk after they have eaten their lunch. He shakes his head as he lists the places, ticking each one off with a finger.
– And then I came here, and they locked me up. What are you in for?
– I killed a man, Modou Boy says shortly, turning to face him. Maur’s face does not change, and his eyes hold Modou Boy’s.
– Allah knows best, Maur replies. – Now Modou Boy I want you to tell me – you have been here a few days now. Yet I’ve never seen you pray – why is this?
Modou Boy rises, and stands facing Maur.
– Look, he says – Don’t start doing the marrkaas thing with me.
– What marrkaas thing?
– Some of the boys joined marrkaas… and after that no one could get them to shut up about it! I’m not taking that, trapped in here with you.
– It is only a question, Maur says, his tone non-confrontational, – between two friends and Muslim brothers.
– I’m not interested, Modou Boy says. He takes off his regulation pants and shirt, stripping down to boxers. Then he climbs into his bunk and turns to face the wall.
In the first evenings, there is no escape. He remembers the sound the bottle made, as it connected with the man’s skull. It was a sound he had never heard before, had never even imagined. He does not remember it in the way of his other memories – it seems to have wrapped itself around his mind, placing itself at the forefront of his thoughts, so he finds himself thinking about it at the oddest moments. He has never slept much before, and now he lies awake entire nights, while Maur snores in the bottom bed, oblivious. Sometimes he will drift off for a bit, and when he regains consciousness Maur will be in the middle of his Fajr prayer, knees and forehead on the ground. When Maur rises once more and recites the Fatiha Modou Boy closes his eyes and thinks of growing up, of Saturday mornings and running off to daara with the other kids, of coming home to sowe and bread, while he waited for lunch. With these thoughts in his head he will drift off again, sometimes staying out until the guards come to the cell door to yell yard time.
In the night he sits with Maur, talking. There is no moon in the sky, and the cell is bathed in darkness. But it is a light darkness, filled only with the breezes after the heat of the day has all evaporated away, the Sun long disappeared.
Maur drives the conversation tonight, narrating the story of his journey here.
– And so I found employment with a Narr, in Pikine, he says.
– A shopkeeper?
– Yes, but wholesale. He supplied all the shops in Pikine with their goods.
– Did he pay you well?
– Yes. He was kind to me, and gave me free room and board. But he gave me something else, something even more valuable.
– What was it?
– With his guidance I found my Lord. For such a long while I had walked by myself, and did not call His name. And so I was alone, always alone, even in the midst of crowds, for no one saw me as I truly was, no one understood me even as they understood themselves. And there on the floor of the Narr’s boutique I found it, I found what I was looking for, what I needed, without even knowing it, all those years, Maur continues, – It was a thing I had not even known I lacked, in the beginning. In the mornings the Narr would wake at the first call of Fajr, and wake me. We would pray together. And this would set the tone for the rest of my day. You know what it gave me?
– What did it give you?
– A peace of mind. I do not need to worry – I have a Lord, and He watches over me. He knows all that is good for me, and all that is bad. And so in that time much sin fell away from me. I understood much, that had been hidden from me before. Allah chooses who He saves, and who He will burn, in His eternal flame.
– Then we know how He chose for me, Modou Boy replies, his tone dry.
– Don’t say that. Never say that. You must never judge, not even yourself, no matter how great your crime. To Allah alone is Judgement.
– And yourself, Modou Boy says, his tone half-teasing, – Where was your Lord when you were committing this crime of yours, that brought you here?
– Ah Muhammad, Maur says, smiling wryly, – The Lord is perfect – we are not. It is ours only to ask for forgiveness, and try not to repeat our mistakes.
Modou Boy laughs, and Maur echoes it, and as the sounds die in the darkness they sit each lost in their own thoughts. It is Maur who sleeps first, moving from a sitting to a lying position, muttering peaceful night in Modou Boy’s direction. Modou Boy gets up, and climbs into his own bunk.
Under the midday Sun Modou Boy works on the outside, laying bricks, his brow dripping wet with sweat. There are guards all around them, and beyond the guards people and vans pass, faces peering curiously out of windows at the prisoners in their threadbare clothes, trying to match faces to stories they have read in the papers. Some of the boys that pass Modou Boy know him, from vous gatherings and warrga-warrgas. They nod at him and he nods back and they look quickly away. A few – Modou Cham, Peh, Kuchaa – do not look at him at all, stonily ignore him as they walk past. After a while there is only the heat of the sun and the rhythm of the work, and it is with surprise in his eyes that he looks up to see that the sun is almost all gone, and the guards are rounding them up to go back.
Tonight is a humid night, the air moist and heavy with stored heat. They both have stripped to the waist, sitting half-naked in Maur’s bed, their bodies wet with sweat that cannot evaporate. It is Modou Boy’s turn to speak today – Maur listens in rapt attention, not interrupting. Modou Boy speaks haltingly, stopping and starting again, only slowly revealing himself.
– I watched him die, Modou Boy says. – That night, after I hit him and he fell. Everything before that moment seemed a blur… a haze through which I walked all night, strange shapes looming out of the dark, their words incomprehensible until the dark swallowed them up again…. and then I hit him, and he fell, and everything came into sharp focus.
He no longer leans back on the wall. He sits up now, his hands on his knees, looking down into his lap as if he can see the scene he narrates there.
– They say I hit him in anger, and ran immediately afterwards. But it was not like that. I watched him die…. I could not run away from that anymore than I could stop breathing.. I was stuck in place… something compelling me… I saw the whites of his eyes. I saw his mouth hang open, drool forming at the corners. And then right before he went his eyes came back down and he looked at me… He looked at me, and I could not turn away…
Modou Boy trails off and falls silent, taking a heavy breath. Behind him Maur sits completely still, silent except for the sounds of his breathing. The top of the moon just clears their cell window now, and a harsh light bathes the floor, setting it against the walls of darkness. After a while Modou Boy continues.
– I had seen dead people before, empty corpses laid out on metal tables as people walked past them crying… But that was the first time I saw Death itself, in that club. I’d thought about it before, about how I would die, but never truly felt Death’s presence in my life until then. I feel it now, everywhere I go, following me around, waiting, patiently biding its time… It slept and I woke it. I took a life – I’ll pay with a life…. It is only a matter of time…
His voice has gone soft now, in the almost-silence – he sounds almost resigned. Maur clears his throat.
– And after its time has come?, he asks, – When it finally gets you? What happens then?
– The void. A final escape, from my thoughts, a return into nothingness, and bliss.
They are silent for a while. When Modou Boy does not speak again Maur offers up his words to him.
– You cannot escape it. It is within you… In a way it is you… You cannot run from it because you carry it within yourself… You gave birth to it, with your actions…
– If you are right and there can be no escape what then?
– There is only one way, the true way: to place yourself under the protection of the Lord. Only thus can you arrive at a peace with yourself, and with what you have done.
A cockroach runs out of the left darkness onto the lit part of the floor. In the middle it stops, its antennae twitching. And then it continues its run on into the right darkness.
– I wish I was like you, Modou Boy starts, then stops.
– I wish, he tries again, – that it came as easily to me, that I could just close my eyes and have someone watch over me, and believe everything without question…
– Oh Muhammad, Maur says softly, – It comes easily to no one. It is a constant striving, both within and without. Faith itself is the answer to a constant questioning.
He pauses, then continues.
– In any case it is late… I should get some sleep… the fajr is even earlier now. When you are alone with yourself think about what I have said. There is no compulsion – you must make your own decision. Sleep in peace.
– Sleep in peace, Modou Boy replies, barely audible.
After a while Maur begins to snore softly, the sound seeming to start in his bunk then circulate around the tiny space, finally coming to hit Modou Boy’s ears where he lies awake above him.