To the Border: a Story in Three Parts
Just keep the sea in sight and follow the sun and you will be on your way, said Monsieur Graveaux. There was no sun when I got up, so I listened for the sea and looked out for the spraying white lace, the details of waves, to keep me on course. I was surprised how cool it was. Little fires glowed from spots near the roadside as mothers heated up some stew, basins of water, for tea maybe or as a treat for a shivering child, exaggerating the cold as his mother bathed him and readied him for school.
Young girls swept the fronts of houses I couldn’t see, reassembling domiciles, sweeping the sand with brushes made from dead branches, the noise of the strokes sounding like an effort to erase the dark, to clean it away as if the day were not inevitable but had to be wrought into creation. The brushing sound coincided with the gradual appearance of objects out of the dark, so that it seemed the young, voiceless girls, their arms and backs bending, were constructing the town piece by piece from the playful sleepiness of night. This was the clearing of the dark, of the unconscious, the wild dreams. I wondered if every place, every city, lost itself like this in the night, and I felt stupid in never before realising the great physical effort it took to maintain the world day after day. I listened out for the sea, staying a few metres from the side of the road, walking on, nodding my head or murmuring to anyone I passed. I tried to kick up a decent pace, I had to get as far as I could before the sun, so I drove myself on past the edges of the town to the outskirts.
Walking wasn’t a good aid to thinking, it was an equivalent to thinking. My body had ideas by the buildings vanished again – I’d left the town behind – and the black sea. Vultures swept the shore. Cuts of colour broke the sky, I quickened my pace. Battered, near-empty minibuses passed, slowing, beeping the horn, the youth in the front passenger seat calling out eager to fill up the vehicle. Learning my error I crossed to the other side where I faced indifferent oncoming traffic, closer to the sea.
The fields verging the road were wet from the night’s rain, so I walked on the tar whenever I could. I had my first baguette, smeared in boiled egg, and bought some sweet tea in a polythene bag from a stall, pouring it into my empty water bottle so I could drink it as I walked.
The water on the fields grew deeper, until at times, dazed by the sun, I became disoriented, looking out either side of the road on stretches of water meeting the sky, unsure which way was the ocean.
The sun was growing higher – I knew I should stop soon, at the next settlement I saw – there had been nothing for some time. But I couldn’t see anything. The road, at one point, was the only platform left on a drowned world. All around was the sea, silver, and the slightly raised road lay just above it, though ahead, clouds of water were bearing down on me, my forward march was a suicide mission, I was walking into water.
If any vehicle passed I wasn’t aware of it. I kept walking, slowly now, head down, bearing painfully into the sun. When I next lifted my head, finishing the last of my water, I saw the reeds and grass on the other side of the road, and ahead there was a set of structures built into the marsh. People were moving within them. When I arrived, exhausted, I saw it was a village constructed on stilts, founded on the water and raised several feet above it to save it in the floods. Men waded knee-deep in the reedy water, and pushed out little boats of crops. A series of ditches barely protected the road from the submerged fields. One more deluge and the road would go under.
I spent the whole day travelling, picking up speed, moving west along the coastal road, and every tiny bus, of the thousands passing, seemed to express the strangeness of travel and the endless bravery of human pursuit, the odd arrangement of two people to meet, to come together across vast tracts of land, over expanses and unknown populations and wildernesses. To locate one another, across all the chaotic possibilities, and believe in home, comfort, meaning. People had messages, goods in bags, appointments to keep as they travelled for many hours in the confines of their vehicle.
Cars slipped on the wet roads, the lines of concrete mapping the green watery fields giving them a way through. At times, on the Atlantic edge, the wave-spray hit the road. Lagoon lay on the other side, shallow water populated by dozens of species of water-bird. Avocets, kingfishers waded, looking out to the ocean, less than a kilometre away over low land. Islets, bumps of earth floating in the lagoon, were breeding grounds. As in Aneho, the wetness and proximity to the ocean changed the shape of the towns and villages verging the narrow road. Buildings were falling, churches by the waves, the old forts decimated by salt. Cooling myself on the shore I saw low walls jutting out onto the wet sand, ad-hoc divisions in the sea, tips of a drowned city.
It was evening, I’d been walking for eight hours and the capital, directly on the border, was only 10 km away. And though the road signs continued counting down, the distinction between the capital and non-capital was proving meaningless. The outskirts moved in, the capital strode. On one of the signs the distance had been erased by a marker pen, and a new, shorter distance written over. Traffic was static on the road, endless rows of white minibuses and taxis on either side. Street hawkers weaved in and out selling water-bags, cloth handkerchiefs and micro-packs of PK chewing-gum through open windows, the perfect refreshment package for the end of a long and sticky journey. Bars spilled onto the roadside, middle-aged men in berets sat out in red plastic chairs smoking, watching high-volume political debates on small televisions. European football fixtures were listed in blackboards propped against empty cardboard boxes, and numerous advertisements pointed the way to Guest Houses, Inns, carpentry shops, restaurants, mechanics’ huts, hairdressers and banks.
The Galile hotel was fringed by an extravagant garden I’d barely noticed on arriving in the evening. The green would have hung in the dark, invisible and solid, changing the consistency of the air.
I was refreshed. Even my feet were ok. I took another shower and went out for breakfast into the dry bright air, surprised again by the amount of green I’d been oblivious. Scooters buzzed. The streets and sandy lanes were arranged in a grid system, I could easily walk around and find my way back.
I passed a dozen cafes on Boulevard du 30 Aout, a vast street moving north and curving back to the coast in a horseshoe shape, before eventually retracing my steps to the first cafe I’d seen, a friendly place with an open-air counter and bar-stools, where two middle-aged men sat singly, sipping coffee in tall glasses and eating omelette and baguette listening to transistor radios. A boy wiped down the tables and a young woman emerged at the counter and asked me what I’d like.
The coffee was incredible. She first cleaned the glass with a splash of boiled water, put in a tablespoon of Nescafe and more boiled water. Then she wrenched open an outsize tin of condensed milk, big as a paint-pot, and poured half a glass of the thick oozy stuff in, handing it all over with a saucer and spoon.
Even this early, the border crossing was chaos.
Dozens of teen-boys huddled in scooters waiting to take travellers from the other side, calling to anyone emerging from the border-line. Some looked at me; their instinct was to goad me and rip me off – there was money to be made – but as I was going the other way, going out, they decided the
energy would only be a waste, so they nodded and looked away. There were rows and rows of beat-up yellow taxis, drivers out calling to each other, striding back and forth across the puddles and the mud, and on the road, already, an infinite stretch of traffic approached the border-lines. Traders and hawkers sold breakfast and any assortment of goods, while the heads of border guards in official caps and shirts pointed out from the buildings and tolls of the gateway.
I was bewildered. So many little offices and registration points led west. I didn’t want to waste time by queuing at the wrong point, but equally I didn’t want to bypass a necessary round of form-filling and get myself into some confusing and possibly dangerous or expensive trouble. There were several barriers along the border-road, each about fifty metres apart from the next one, and it wasn’t immediately clear at which point the new country began. Groups were emerging from various offices, looking for pens, filling in reams of paper, getting in and out of vehicles, and the barriers were going up and down. I knew I had to officially exit one country and officially enter the other. But I didn’t know what bit was what. Everything was being recorded and copied in duplicate, triplicate, filed in what must have been enormous store-cupboards or even buildings that had been cleared out and were now solely devoted to holding the paper records of the people passing through. Soon enough everything would have to be discarded, otherwise the paper would simply overflow, they’d have to burn it, bury it, or haul it into the sea. For now the border-clerks stamped with great care, engraved with treasured biros, and folded expertly and neatly, like artisans, their tributes to the journey in or out of the land by every individual.
I chanced a couple of offices and was pointed by bored guards under a barrier to another office, where a large woman scrutinised my passport, asked me what I was doing in this country (that question, again), what address I was staying at, what my profession was. These character examinations were deeply dispiriting – I appeared, to myself as well as to the madame, unsure of who I was, what I was doing, where I was going and for how long. Somehow I stumbled through.
Strangely, after the first couple of barriers, having gained my exit stamp, the noise and chaos receded, as if this undesignated concrete, flanked by the ocean, was spared the passion and excesses of citizen-hood. I walked along the road, countryless. Reassured I was now able to actually make it through, I turned to the ocean, the main border-crossing on the water.
In a chilling laboratory experiment Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili injected a radioactive tracer through an IV line into eight Tibetan Buddhist meditators who had signalled, through pulling a string, that they were at the peak of their spiritual experience. Brain imaging technology allowed Newberg and d’Aquili to observe an increase in blood-flow to the ‘attention association area’ in the frontal cortex of the brain, and a decrease in the amount of activity in the ‘orientation association area’ in the posterior superior parietal lobe. Thus, attention powers increased at the same time as an understanding of self-limits was made more difficult. The mind focuses intensely on not being itself.
There is a clear insinuation present in the experiment. The idea that naturally occurring wonderment in the form of intense aesthetic or religious experience may be different from artificially induced euphoria merely in the means by which it is achieved is potentially debilitating to ideas of agency, motivation, progress, meaning.
The potential compassion, empathy and alertness of the perspective meet their material existence in capsule form. It is interesting and disturbing; a paradox, a wall.
Lay down or else threw the things away.
Wind picked up, blowing and scattering rice and ligament and sand and cloth and paper. One small water casket, all of the other containers empty.
Lifted the sheets of paper piled up and put them in containers. Some managed unfolded but others had to be folded in new ways just to keep the material, hoping that the original crease-maps survived.
The largest sheets, rippling in the wind, tied directly down onto the camels’ backs. Two camels were used for this. The third unstable animal was left naked.
Lined the layers of clothes with paper, inside legs and against chests. Large and capacious robes better for holding paper. Still too much paper.
One day later arrived at the well. Well was dry.
Black blood and bones lay around the site. Rampant rounds of hoof prints. The three camels nosed and picked at the mess. Very quiet without the wind.
Original escarpment visible in the distance. Had left our food there.
Shared the last water sitting by the well with legs crossed. Got up and walked slowly. Crunched at the joint-parts walking, trying not to break paper. The paper against the face, drawn by breaths.
Wind blew the sand heavily and further. Eyes had to close. Nothing ahead to walk into but the possibility of going off at an angle in the wrong direction and becoming lost. The wind louder and louder. Eyes opened later when it grew very loud but still everything was dark. Straining in the dark. Soon enough the sandstorm passed. Afternoon sky composed of long red clouds.
Found a tree before the night, and lay there. Tied the camels to the tree; might not have been able to reach them, now, when they wandered. Started to sing, a low, parched lullaby to the camels, staring at the naked one. Breaking against the blisters of lips and making a dry cracking sound. Took the skin container underneath the camel, and strained hands against it, and after some time a small amount of milk came.
Vomited up the yolky milk.
Red clouds grew fatter and bigger in the night, lesions drooping over the day. Air grew increasingly corrupt, fat and bloodied as the red clouds. Walked slowly. All of nature wore a dreary aspect.
Took out the knife. A large knife. Sliced forward with the knife and entered the skin of the naked camel very easily and supplely, like a surgeon, tearing away a large rectangular sheet. Pulled out the shape and tore it away at the bottom with a second slice. Red veinous blood drew from the opened skin.
Took the water casket – empty save the remaining milk – and collected the blood that flowed. Covered over the wound with paper.
Shrieked and roared and heaved at the ropes that bound to the tree. Sang, and sang, and bore its red eyes into the glow of the small fire and abated.
Roasted strips of the meat and ate at it, barely cooked, burning fingertips and lips and the roofs of mouths.
Remaining strips of cut meat wrapped in paper and laid on the camel’s own back, sutured in a loose graft. Drank a little of the mixture, spidered by red threads, released the ropes, and resumed walking.
Flies feasted through the damp skin of the paper on the camel’s open wound, fattening on the blood. Looked straight ahead, west, quiet now, less volatile. Manner was soft, ignorant, plodding. Falling off, falling apart. Load carried on back – back – dismantled and consumed. Sun burned in through the paper and blue heads of flies into the glimmering red wound. Continued to walk, sifting through light sand.
Distance left to travel unknown. Become lost, forgotten. Blood smeared the lower faces and the paper carried, blood of identities of eaters and animals following, carrying less and less, fading into day.
Sky becoming darker sand in turn came lighter, whiter. High sun everything shone white. Snow everywhere, fields of snow marked by steps in red.
Washed the mouth with blood, other’s blood, blood from a bank carrying through the desert.
Disintegrated faster. Trailed itself, leaving dark strip of flesh and wing along desert floor. Thinner, less itself. Others stared ahead, neither watching nor averting eyes from the sight.
Bells ringing in the night, ringing, and the moaning of animals.
Could not sleep with the sounds. Long and persistent intrusive moan. Mined what milk and blood there was in the morning and lifted up once more.
Finally finished. Grey-blue coloured, lined with flies, inside exposed to the draining sun. Behind it, surprised, walked into it, went partially through it, crushing hind-legs, the right one breaking off under the knee. Fractionally merged with the dying, stepping into in violent intercourse. One leg entered another. Came down, dead. Quickly cut the neck and scooped up the black-blood until gone if not already.
Stripped of skin and flies. Carriage still large, broad. Ate and packed the rest on the two others. Better to carry more paper on bodies than fix strips of flesh there, impressed to faces.
Coated faces in paper. Put it under and over the masks in many layers. Between each layer flies and eggs and moving things. Nothing to be done.