by Nelson Lowhim
Since the war, I haven’t been able to sleep. For years I wondered why. Finally, I realized the disturbance stemmed from a book I owned—a gift from a kind-hearted older woman. I burned it, and as the flames licked its pages and curled them into ashes, a surge of happiness filled my heart. Before you go thinking I’m a barbarian, let me explain.
It all began while I was visiting the island of Corsica with a friend. Even though there is known magic on this island, my friend and I found none. We did, however, meet a writer who told us about a spell that was essentially a thousand words in a very specific order. When we asked him to give it to us, he refused. We didn’t think much of it until later on when we were visiting a specific rock formation. There was the sense that there were ghosts around. Nothing you could see, only sense. Looking around, we did find animal skulls and recently smeared blood. There was graffiti all over the rocks, most of which referred to “the endless death.” I tried to take a photo and couldn’t. Why is still a bit of a mystery. Needless to say, we left. Driving as fast as we could for some city lights, we saw that we were being followed. Until we left the island I had the feeling that we were being watched by at least a handful of eyes.
I recently read a news article on Corsica, a beautiful island if ever there was one, whereby some of the militias or mafias there wish to fight any Islamic influence creeping into their world. An odd piece of news from an emerald isle with so much to offer.
Looking back, I frequently travel down the narrow roads that penetrated the green heart of the island, like riding upon the back of a green sea turtle with an ancient brown crusted shell: a welcome change from the sweltering coast; and I remember an old lady we helped. Stranded, we pushed her car off the road and drove her to a cafe filled with her family or friends or both, all jumping at her command, one translated English for her.
As a token of her appreciation, she gave me a book. I didn’t open it until a few days later in the city of Ajaccio when I had a moment to myself. Brittle and yellowing, I wondered if she had given it to me to rid herself of a story written in a language she didn’t care for.
I finished reading the book a few days later, on a bright loud fecund night, and flung the damned thing across the room, angry that I had even bothered to read it. But later, as my friend harassed an entire bar while I played chess with a local in the corner, the book’s theme rushed back to me, and I lost an easily-defendable position because of this loss in concentration.
Back in my hotel room, standing on the balcony, I pondered what exactly the book was trying to say. It had started with a woman wandering—or lost—in a city (like many things, the book was diffuse or coy or post-modern about motivations) unknown to her. In her hands, she carried a box. We know nothing of the box or what’s in it. Sometimes she looked through the box’s contents and was filled with joy or grief. She also tried to touch others with the box to elicit emotional reactions, gaining some level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, depending on the person—though there was no pattern I could discern.
The interactions with her and the box are well laid out, and every character is worth a book of their own, but our protagonist moved no closer to escaping the city, which seemed to be an abstract goal—even as she met more people.
Most of the people she meets, however, point her to a house in the middle of the city. They do it for many different reasons, and, of course, as in the post-modern style of this book, some people claimed the house did not exist, while others try to warn her off finding it.
The last chapter has her in this house filled with mirrors and an odd dinner table laid out. Statues with undefined faces sit at this table in all but one chair—where she sits. The dishes are revealed to be platters for the heads of all whom she’d met. The faces of the statues eventually become clear: her family. She takes out her box, it crumbles, and she turns to stone. The end.
Do you see why I flung the book across the room now—even burned it? What I can’t account for is why the story has turned to glue in my brain folds, my bones, to this day. How can it be that something I want to label as a pseudo-intellectual-Euro-tripe is this permanent? I’ve tried to understand this. Even going so far as to reevaluate what I define as a classic—making sure that this book doesn’t get accidentally defined as one, such was and is my hate for it.
Indeed, there were a series of parallel stories, or rather methods that she tried using to escape the city. The first involved graffiti messages etched into specific cornerstones. At first hopeful, they become belligerent, then downright hateful at the end.
The shadows in the city, which move like ghosts, whisper riddles that seem philosophical, but mean nothing, even if she solves them. She tries to capture a few by using old spells she vaguely remembers, but she has no luck. The few times these ghosts help, they reveal a little about the city’s history: a battle won here, a love lost there. But these anecdotes often contradict earlier statements, and even though the sum of that paints the picture of a handful of families who control the town—or rather how the town acquired the bones and ligaments of its enemies to make the required mortar for its world-renowned buildings, or that it “purified” its water via a process that kept humans in a barely-alive state, nothing of real value for her escape is revealed.
Now, one shadow or ghost does whisper that all who escape are turned to stone, but in another story, she’s told a powerful, ruthless family escapes without turning to stone. All very unhelpful, especially for me, a soldier, having just returned from my first tour in Iraq, it was very discomforting.
It resurfaces here and there, the memory of this book, but only recently did I bother to do some research on the author. She had only written this one book, and she was killed a few weeks after it was published, likely by the Algerian OAS, though no one really knew why: she had never made any public statement about the Algerian War one way or another and neither had her family. A Google search, even in this miraculous age of internet and algorithms—revealed not a single other human being talking about her book.
A few days ago, I found out that the hacker group I&I was ready to release an algorithm that was created in her honor. Well, they didn’t name her, but it reminded me of her work in that it was intended to subvert by only releasing certain pieces of news: a word here and there (e.g.: government officials lied, instead of said) the sort of language that severs most trust in the world. I suppose this might not make sense to some, but I’m seeing enemies everywhere now, and I blame this book for undermining my previously status-quo views.
Though I burned the book, it still bothers me. I’m not sure why. Such are the reactions of barbarians, I suppose, but in reality, us civilized folk can fear those symbolic scribblings more than anyone. For the thoughts they implant can be too much at times.
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NELSON LOWHIM was born in Tanzania, of Indian, Seychelles, and Euro descent. He Lived in India for a year. At age 10, he moved to the States (all over) and currently lives in Seattle with his wife. He is a writer, artist, photographer, and veteran. His stories and art have been published in Red Rock Review, BlazeVox, Talking Writing, Omni, Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, Nine Line Anthology, Vet Lit: How We Remember War, Vet Lit II: So it Goes, SF Books, LA Review of LA, Seattle Poetic Grid, The Mantle, Intersections International, Medium, ItsComplicated.vet, Aaduna, Artists Studios, Flyway Journal, and Afterwords (forthcoming in Callaloo!). He also has a published novel titled, CityMuse. You can find him on Twitter @nlowhim, Medium, Intersections, and his Personal Blog.
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