“No Harbour” by Celia Neri

12 min read

The corpses were washing down on the shore, brought by each relentless wave, piling up upon themselves, pathetic packets of fabric and flesh.

Alassane was suffocating, a mass of bodies pressing down on him, a sleeve soaked with salted water pushing against his nose and his mouth. He tried to move his arms, but they were pinned down by the weight of the dead. He managed to flex his legs, feeling, as he did so, the sad burden shifting beneath and above him.

Slowly, he succeeded to extricate himself from the heap, pulling with him shoes without feet, tearing clothes attached to no beating chest. He crawled onto the pebble beach, breathing hard.

After a moment he rose, dripping the sea that had tried to kill him. He looked around with tired eyes; a grey dusk showed a scene of heartbreak and carnage. A shingle shore stretched as far as he could see, filled with bodies lying on their bellies, arms extended, legs still moving as waves animated them. Behind him, yellow rocks knifed into the steel sea that had claimed these men, women, and children. Overhead, seagulls were turning, their sharp cry tearing the air.

He walked north, towards the buildings lining the beach, his wet trainers squelching with each step. All dead, all dead, was the drum beating in his head. He alone was alive and had finally arrived on the promised shore.

Putting the first foot on the asphalt felt like a deliverance.

He was here, he thought, finally here.

Alassane didn’t feel elated, though. He was numb from the wreckage and his morbid awakening. Before they were becalmed, before water was all drunk, before the storm, before the small boat broke into splinters in view of the land as if tentacles had risen from the sea bed to drag them below, the smuggler on the southern shore had said that someone would wait for them on the other side. But the promenade bordering the beach was deserted.

Alassane was wary, his chin tucked into his breast, looking cautiously right and left. Yet no one was coming, not the smuggler’s help, nor the police. The man had said that if, for a reason or another, they got lost – and he had laughed shrilly here, how could you be lost when you were to spend a week on a four meters long dinghy – they should rendezvous at an address in the city: Via Carso, 23.

He had to find this place, then.

Alassane crossed the road and found himself surrounded by somber, tall houses. Night had fallen. Sodium lamps, hung across the street, shone orange round glows which interrupted the long linear darkness stretching in front of him. He turned to look at the buildings; there were shops on the ground floor, their signs in faded bright colours, metallic security grilles pulled down. The upper floors showed closed windows, black gaps revealing an emptiness he could only glimpse from below. He stared further down the street. Here and there, a bright light emanated through. It felt like it was the dead of night, inhabited only by a couple of insomniacs and a lost man roaming the city. In these homes, people lived and laughed and loved. Alassane longed to go up, knock on the door; longed for one to open and someone to smile upon him and invite him in with welcoming words. He longed to enter again a world of warmth and light and friendship. But he was adrift—alone, unwanted, invisible.

He turned in an alleyway. Tired beyond words and thoughts, he squatted by a wall, between two dumpsters, in the shadows. Before he realised it, he was asleep.

Alassane was woken by a growl. He slowly opened his eyes, ready to find before him the muzzle of a savage dog. But he could only see the wall, decorated by flowers of piss and vomit, on the other side of the alleyway.

He gingerly rose to his feet, every bone and muscle aching, his stomach cramped from hunger, his mouth turned to sand from the thirst. It was still night; or maybe it was night again. Whatever daylight there had been, it hadn’t reached him.

He looked around: still no dog. He sighed of relief; a fight with a feral animal was certainly something he couldn’t face right now. The growl had seemed very real and very close though.

He left the alleyway and found himself again in the same long dark street with its patches of orange light every few metres.

Via Carso, 23. He started walking and the streets stretched and crossed, all identical with their dark buildings and closed shops. Alassane felt like he had been stumbling for hours, and still he met no one. After days in the overcrowded dinghy, he was unsettled by this vacant city in which he found the traces of humanity yet without any actual people.

He stopped at a crossing. It all looked the same. Leading nowhere. He was about to sink to the pavement, dispirited, when he heard noises to his left. It sounded like revellers. Laughter and chatter, someone burst into a song, a cork popped. He couldn’t understand a word, or maybe it was just that he couldn’t understand the language. It came in waves, carrying the noise of happiness.

Tired and desperate for human presence, Alassane followed their tantalising babble and banter. Their voices drifted to him, leading him. A turn here, another there. Yet the streets always stretched before him, deserted, the revellers just out of sight. They were now singing a song: an old tune of hope, freedom and resistance, laughing between the verses. Alassane lengthened his pace, driven by an urgency to reach them.

And as it had come, the noise went, carried upon a breeze that dissolved into the night.

Alassane found himself once more alone and marooned in an island of light a sodium lamp was giving overhead. He was at the entrance to a street. On the right side, at the first-floor level of a building, a sign read: Via Carso.

Finally! Finally! Alassane let a small whoop of joy escape his lips. The revellers had led him where he needed to be. He would at last find the smuggler’s help; he would continue his journey; he would leave behind this strange city and its cursed shore. He would meet people, settle down, and all the lies recited by the smuggler – a long list of clothes to wear, of money to own, of prestige to acquire – as he had counted the banknotes given to him, would become a reality.

With a spring in his step, Alassane raced down the street until he reached the house with number 23 scribbled carelessly.

A narrow and steep stairway rose into the dark bowels of the house. He hesitated. But behind him, he heard the growl again. Alarmed, he turned: nothing but the shadows. Unsettled, Alassane started climbing the dim steps.

The first landing was nothing but three large creaking boards nailed to each other with a wooden door on each side. He started turning the handles, but both were locked. He rattled them; it only resulted in flakes of burgundy paint detaching themselves and falling upon him.

Anger slowly built up in him.

Thirst and hunger, death upon death, abandonment and mazes. Had he survived only to die of loneliness in this place he didn’t understand?

Alassane shouted of frustration as he kicked one of the doors. The wood trembled but stood, impassive. He wildly took the rest of the steps, rushing upwards. This staircase was just as bewildering as the rest of the city: dead ends, closed doors, deserted.

Panting, he finally reached the last landing. A corridor hidden in gloom opened to his right. His hands outstretched in front of him, he walked until he reached a single room illuminated by the sodium lamp in the street below. The orange light revealed walls covered by a greenish wallpaper peeling in places and bare floor boards. It was empty except for cathodic televisions, heaps of them, stacked upon each other, each pile precariously leaning onto the next one.

Static suddenly filled the room and the televisions came to life, one after the other. Through the static, a man silently filled the screens over and over. Middle aged, white, dark hair and a finely trimmed beard. He was talking forcefully. In each display, it seemed a different speech; the shirt was subtly different, or he was agitating his hands this way, or that way, making a fist that banged silently on a pulpit before him or that he brandished. And then the sound erupted in a cacophony of his voice, bringing down Alassane to the floor, his hands desperately trying to cover his ears. The man roared and shouted, the man ranted and harangued. What did he say, Alassane couldn’t know. It was just a deafening clamour of hate; an aggression of discord. Prostrated on the boards, Alassane just wished it would stop, for the relentless verbal attack to finally cease. It was drowning him in wave after wave of uproar.

But upon the man’s voice the growl sounded again, a low bass, rising and rising until the window shattered and covered Alassane in a shower of broken glass.

Shouting in fright and pain, Alassane found the energy to stand up. He fled, down the corridor, down the staircase, until he reached the deserted street again. Cuts on his arms were bleeding.

In the middle of the road, he sat down and wept until he fell asleep again of fear and exhaustion.

He woke to a greyish light that could have been dawn but felt like dusk again.

A sob wracked his body. Alone, all alone. Hunted, rejected. Where was this land, this promise of safety, of food on the table, of clothes that weren’t torn or dirty, of sunny mornings with a job to go to? He sat as a beggar on the asphalt of a road no car ever drove on, in a city that both tantalised and shunned him.

Again, the growl resounded behind him. Alassane didn’t even turn. He breathed in and out, in and out, trying to find the strength to go on again. He stood up stiffly, his eyes empty. The growl at his back accompanied him as he slowly wound his way south again through the hollow streets until he reached the beach.

His trainers crunched the pebbles as he walked to the shoreline. The bodies still lined it, from the rocks to the west, stretching eastwards. The waves swelled, carrying bloated corpses that failed to reach the land.

Alassane approached the heap he had emerged from.

He had left them behind. He hadn’t wanted to look at them. But now he took the time.

Maguett who had sung songs on the dinghy, his eyes staring glassily into a future that would never come; Fahia, who had been raped by the smuggler, her beautiful smile now frozen in a rictus of pain; little Aminata, who talked endlessly of the school she would go to; Haydar, whose scars on his face the soldiers had sadistically given him standing white against the blueish tint his skin had taken.

Alassane squatted next to them. He remembered the song the unreachable revellers had sung; he hadn’t understood the words, nonetheless, he knew it spoke of death too, of a death chosen when fighting against oppression with your comrades. This crowd had been happy and carefree; it was an ancient song to them, one of a glorious past they had never lived. In the here and now, wherever that was, it was nothing but hypocrisy as they had all remained aloof.

So Alassane’s voice rose in turn. His was a love song, slow and sad, telling that every letter, winter and the stars, reminded of the person that filled one’s heart. Maybe it made no sense in the situation he was in, he didn’t care. He sung it for his companions who had embarked with him on a voyage of hope and who were now discarded, forgotten litter, on the beach.

Alassane left when night fell. The moment on the beach had felt like a goodbye. He was now determined to walk away, to leave this city and to continue his journey to reach the dream he had given everything he had for. Except, maybe, his life.

As soon as he put his foot back onto the asphalt, he heard the growl again. He walked northwards, the growl behind him. It rose higher with each step. It was pressing him, intimating of torn limbs and mangled carcasses. Yet only this brutish shadow was affirming he wasn’t a wandering vestige, set aside from the world.

He started talking to it, telling it of his childhood, of his mother, of his village; telling it of war too that had destroyed that home, barely a few walls standing now. He told of body parts falling on him in an explosion, of camps, of the relentless hunger and of fear that stupefies after a while.

The beast never answered but kept growling.

Alassane roamed the streets. At some point he would find a way out of the city. But the roads crisscrossed, and turned, and as much as he walked in a straight line, he always seemed to end up in the same area, a few blocks large, at the border of the shore. The city was a labyrinth he couldn’t escape.

A slight breeze carried again some human sounds. This time, though, the crowd didn’t feel joyful. Alassane stopped and listened. The noise came from behind him. People were shouting, some were singing too, a martial song that told of order and unity. It was a mob. It was coming for him, he knew it. He lengthened his stride. Still the angry voices followed him, and the growl of the beast dogged his steps.

Alassane started running. He turned right, and left, and left again, hoping to lose the invisible people who hunted him down.

Behind him, the mob was coming closer, and now he could hear the paws of the beast pounding the asphalt, pursuing him.

He turned another corner. The screams and shouts vanished, carried away to another outrage. Still the beast hounded him. “Leave me alone!” cried Alassane. “I’m just passing through! I’ll be gone if you just let me!” But the darkness stole his words.

The beast didn’t heed him. It was growing bigger, the sound of its paws hammering the road with its weight. Soon, he could feel it panting a humid breath on his neck.

He turned again and found himself back on the promenade, the sea an inky black roaring in the distance. There was no escape.

He swung his back to the beach, facing the beast. It was now appearing in front of him. It was a bull and a dog. It was a wolf and a bear. An immense creature made of nightmares, bigger than him, and its opened jaw would devour the world. Rows upon rows of sharp canines. Its eyes two void pits fixed on him, its coat a brown fur. Its smell came in wafts, putrid as a rotting forest. Saliva slowly dripped onto the road, viscous, acidic. The beast roared and Alassane flinched from the force of it.

Terrified beyond words, he watched it approaching. Its jaw cracked even wider. Alassane thought briefly of a blue, fragile flower, growing next to the road that used to lead to his village before the beast was upon him and ravaged him.

When the beast was finished, it sat on its haunches. The asphalt was full of blood and remnants of flesh the night would clean. As if no one had ever been here. It stared ahead, beyond the sea, and opened its mouth again. Its foul exhalation was picked by a wind, transforming itself into dreams of comfort, riches and happiness, and was carried above the salted waters.

On the southern shores, beyond the beach where the bodies had disappeared, beyond the storms hidden in the steely sea, a thousand other Alassanes, mired in the slimy sand of a millennium that moved forward without them, breathed in the glittery promise of the beast.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Celia Neri was born in 1978 on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in a multicultural family. She studied Comparative Literature in Paris before coming back to Southern France where she now lives.

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