She sleeps through the morning, into the evening, she sleeps through most of the day. Then she stays awake for the best part of the night: it is an intermittent wakefulness, with moments of brief lucidity and others of delirium or abandon; she often faints. She is like this, day in, day out, for weeks. She is completely oblivious to the passing of time. Whenever she is able to stay conscious, she tries to open her eyes, but soon falls back into the depths of sleep, a heavy sleep from which she finds it hard to come round.
For days now she’s been hearing voices in her moments of lucidity. They sound distant, as though they were coming from another room or the deepest end of her sleep. Only occasionally does she hear them near her, by her side. She cannot say for sure, but it sounds as if the unknown voices are speaking in Arabic. They talk in whispers. She doesn’t understand a thing they’re saying, but the sound of those voices, far from being disquieting, is comforting to her.
She finds it hard, very hard to think straight. When she makes an effort to understand where she is, she feels a great tiredness, and very soon falls back into her dreaded sleep. She struggles to stay awake, because hallucinations torment her. Over and over she is seized by the same image: the nightmare of the scorpion. Even when she’s awake she fears opening her eyes in case the arachnid has survived the dream. But however hard she tries, her eyelids remain sealed.
The first time she manages to open her eyes she cannot see a thing. The dazzling light of the room blinds her, as if she’d been in a dungeon all along. Her eyelids grow heavy and give in. But now, for the first time, she is able to tell reality from reverie.
‘Skifak? Esmak?’ says somebody, very softly.
It is a soft, woman’s voice. Although she doesn’t understand the words, the tone is clearly friendly. She recognises the voice as the one she’s been hearing over the past few days or weeks, sometimes very close to her ear and at others, in the distance, as if coming from another room. Yet she has no strength to reply.
Still conscious, she cannot rid her mind of the image of the scorpion, which is more troubling than an ordinary nightmare. She can even feel its carapaceand legs creeping up her calf. She tries to convince herself that it is not really happening. She tries to move, but has no strength. In reality the sting was short and quick, like the prick of a needle. If it had not been for that woman’s shouts of warning; ‘Señorita, señorita, careful, señorita!,’ she wouldn’t have seen it at all. But she turned to look as she was slipping her arm into the burnous, saw the scorpion hanging from the lining and knew that it had stung her. She had to cover her mouth so as not to shout, and was distressed by the voices of the women who, sitting or crouching down, stared at her in horror.
She’s never sure what posture she fell asleep in. Sometimes she wakes lying face up and sometimes face down. And so she realises that someone must be moving her, no doubt so that she won’t get bed sores. The first thing she sees are the shadows in the ceiling where the plaster is coming off. Dim light comes in through a small window situated high up on the wall. She doesn’t know whether it’s dawn or dusk. No noises can be heard that might indicate life outside the room. Against the opposite wall, she discovers an old rusty bed. Her heart jumps when she realises it is a hospital bed. There’s no mattress on it. The bedsprings openly display signs of neglect. Between the two beds is a metal night table, which must once have been white but is now tainted by decay. For the first time she feels cold. She strains to hear a familiar sound. No use; there’s nothing. She tries to speak, to ask for help, but cannot utter a word. She spends what little strength she has trying to attract someone, anyone’s attention. Suddenly the door opens and a woman she has never seen before comes in. She realises that the newcomer is either a doctor or a nurse. A brightly coloured melfa covers her from head to toe, and over it the woman wears a green gown with all the buttons done up. On seeing that she is awake, the nurse flails her arms in surprise, but takes a moment to react.
‘Skifak? Skifak?’ the nurse blurts out.
Although she doesn’t understand the words, she assumes she’s being asked how she’s feeling. But she cannot move a single throat muscle to reply. She follows the nurse with her eyes, trying to recognise her features underneath the melfa covering her hair. The nurse leaves the room calling out for help, and presently returns with a man and another woman. They talk between themselves hurriedly, though without raising their voices. All three are wearing medical gowns, the women over the top of their melfas. The man takes the patient’s wrist and feels her pulse. He asks the women to keep quiet. He lifts her eyelids and meticulously examines her pupils. He listens to her chest with a stethoscope. The metal feels flaming hot against her chest. The doctor’s face shows he is perplexed. The nurse, who had left the room a moment ago, returns with a glass of water. The two women help her to sit up and drink. Her lips barely open. Water runs over the corners of her mouth and down her neck. When they lay her back down, they see her eyes turn white and she falls fast asleep, just as she has been for nearly four weeks now, since the day she was brought in and everyone thought she was going to die.
‘Señorita, señorita, careful, señorita!’ She’s heard the voice in her dreams so many times that by now it is utterly familiar. ‘Careful, señorita!’ But at first she didn’t know what all the shouting was about – until she saw the scorpion hanging from the lining of the burnous. At once she knew she’d been stung. The shouting spread amongst the women, and they covered their faces and uttered laments as if a terrible tragedy had taken place. ‘Allez, allez,’ she shouted for her part, trying to make herself heard above the screams. ‘Come with me, don’t just sit there. Allez.’ But the women either couldn’t, or were refusing to understand her. They covered their faces with neck scarves and would not stop moaning. In the end she lost patience and started insulting them. ‘You’re a bunch of ignorant idiots. If we don’t get out of here they’ll rape us. It’s outrageous that you let them treat you like this. This is worse than slavery, this is… this…’
Discouraged, she fell silent, because she saw that they did not understand her. At least they weren’t shouting any more. She stood still and quiet in front of the twenty women who, frozen with fear, avoided her gaze. She waited for a reaction, but no-one took a step forward. On the contrary, they huddled together like pigeons at the back of the cell, seeking comfortin each other, praying and covering their faces. For the first time she thought about the scorpion. She knew that of the one thousand five hundred living species only twenty-five are poisonous. She quickly swept the thought aside.
There was no time to lose. Now it seemed certain that if no one had responded to the shouts it was because they’d been left alone, unguarded. She finished wrapping the burnous over her shoulders and covered her head with the hood. ‘You can do what you like, but I’m leaving.’ She pulled on the door and, just as she’d thought, found it padlocked. But she’d had it all planned since dawn. With a kick, she broke the lower planks, the wood was so dry that it splintered into smithereens. She waited a while and, seeing that no one was coming, gave it another kick. The hole became considerably larger. Shegathered up her burnous and crawled out. The midday sun was intense. ‘No, siñorita, no,’ was the last thing she heard before walking away. Her legs trembled; they felt weak. It had been more than ten days since she had walked such a long way without being watched – ten days that she and the other women had spent locked in that windowless hut built with bricks and cement blocks, with an asbestos ceiling that made the air unbreathable. Although she’d only seen the small oasis on the morning they’d brought them over as prisoners, she knew every inch of it through its sounds. The well was at the centre with a pulley to extract water; a few metres away was an enormous canvas which served as a tent. It was there that the men drank tea at all hours, chatting and arguing. There was rubbish everywhere. Under the palm trees, a more solid tent, with a rug at the entrance, provided shelter for Le Monsieur. Over the past nine nights, amid the silence of the desert, she’d heard his spine-chilling snores go on for hours. Near the tent she now saw the metallic glimmer of the Toyota. There was no one around. There was no sign of the truck except the tracks leading out into the inhospitable hammada. She tried to stay calm and curb the euphoria she felt at being free.
She barely noticed the intensity of the sun in its zenith. She didn’t think twice: walking faster, she headed for the four by four. She did not run but walked decisively, without giving in to the terror that was beginning to seize her. Not once did she look back, or even sideways. And so, when she heard someone call out to her from behind, her heart jumped. Nevertheless she didn’t stop; she walked on and only turned her head when she recognised the voice following her. It was Aza, the only Sahrawi of the group. She was running behind her, clutching her melfa, which was slipping down her shoulders, with both hands.
‘I’m coming with you, wait, I’m coming,’ she said in good Spanish. She waited for Aza and took her hand. They ran the rest of the way to the Toyota together. The woman opened the driver’s door and motioned to Aza to climb in from the other side. The Sahrawi quickly did so. They sat for a while in silence, looking around, as if in fear that someone had seen them run towards the vehicle.
‘Let’s go, Aza; the nightmare is over.’ She fumbled around the ignition, looking for the key, and immediately went pale.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked the Sahrawi. ‘Are you afraid?’ She showed Aza her empty hands.
‘The key’s not there.’ Aza took a moment to understand. But she didn’t seem worried; she gestured with both hands and placed them on her heart. Then she bent forward and slipped her hand under her seat. A black key covered in dust appeared.
‘Is this what you needed?’ The woman took the key and inserted it into the ignition. The four by four started with a roar. She was about to ask the Sahrawi something, but Aza spoke first: ‘That’s where we keep them in the camps. Keys should be kept out of children’s reach. Children are naughty; they’re children.’ The vehicle jerked forwards. If there had been a guard, he would have already reacted to the noise of the engine. They were definitely alone. She took a moment to get used to the controls and pedals. She followed the tracks left by other vehicles and gathered speed towards the distant horizon. Sweat dripped down her forehead, but instead of feeling hot she felt increasingly cold: she put it down to her anxiety and nerves. ‘Not that way,’ shouted Aza.
‘Why not? Do you know any other road?’
‘There are no roads in the desert, but there’s no water that way, and we’re not carrying any.’ Aza lifted her hand and pointed to the southwest. ‘That way.’ The woman obeyed without saying a word. She took a sharp turn in a direction where there were no tre tracks. By chance she glanced at the petrol indicator: they had a quarter of a tank left. Aza kept her eyes fixed on the the horizon. The vehicle lurched along, making the two women bounce. They did not talk. Inexplicably, her sweat stayed cold and she started to shiver. She started to feel a burning sensation on her neck where the scorpion had stung her. She had difficulty breathing, but thought it was nerves. Aza soon noticed that something wasn’t right. The woman, who was clutching the wheel, noticed that her legs were trembling, and her heart was beating arhythmically. In profile, her face looked worn. The Sahrawi knew what was happening, so when the Toyota stopped she didn’t ask her anything.
‘I can’t go on, Aza, I have no strength,’ the woman said after being silent for a while. ‘You’ll have to drive.’
‘I’ve never done it, I couldn’t move it a metre. You’d better have some rest and try later.’
‘I don’t feel well, Aza.’
‘I know: you were stung by a scorpion. It was bad luck.’ Suddenly, they heard a much louder noise over the idling engine of the four by four. A truck appeared in the distance, and it was coming towards them, lurching up and down over the dunes. ‘They found us,’ said Aza. Making a tremendous effort, the woman pressed the accelerator and held onto the wheel as firmly as she could. The four by four was faster, but it stumbled against the dunes, zigzagging, and was soon losing ground to the other vehicle. The truck, on the other hand, pressed forwards in a straight line at a steady speed, getting closer to the two women. It was only a matter of time before they were intercepted . When they were close enough, the men on the truck started shouting at the women in Arabic and French. Le Monsieur, in his old-fashioned Spanish legionnaire’s uniform, was wearing a frown that turned into the hint of a smile. He was sitting by the driver, pointing out the way over the sand or around the boulders. On his knees, he held a fully loaded Kalashnikov with both hands. As the woman drove on, her vision became clouded with more and more black spots. She had barely any strength left to press the accelerator. Eventually the vehicle crashed into a sand bank and came to halt. Aza’s head smashed into the dashboard, opening a cut on her forehead. The Sahrawi tasted the blood on her lips. Before the woman could react she saw Le Monsieur’s men surrounding the car. Their eyes shone with a rage barely concealed by their fake smiles. They opened the two doors of the vehicle, and Le Monsieur shouted at them to get out. The Sahrawi obeyed at once, but the other woman could barely move.
‘Get out!’ shouted the Spaniard.
‘You have to take her to a doctor,’ Aza shouted back, mustering her courage, ‘she’s been stung by a scorpion.’ The legionnaire roared with grotesque laughter. The woman was barely able to hear him; she only felt his large hands grabbing her by the arm and pulling her out. She slumped to the floor and could not get up.
‘A scorpion, eh?’ He spat on her and made as if to give her a kick, but stopped a few inches short of her head. ‘Where the fuck did you think you were going? Bloody whores. You should know,’ he said, addressing Aza, ‘that there’s no escape from here. Or are you as stupid as she is?’ From the floor, the woman was trying to ask for help, but only faltering words came out of her mouth. Nevertheless, she had enough presence of mind to recognise Aza’s screams. And, although the woman couldn’t see her, she knew they were beating her
. She felt inexplicably responsible for it. Her throat was burningand she couldn’t utter a word. In the narrow field of vision left to her by the legionnaire’s boots, she saw the Sahrawi run off towards the horizon. Azaknew she should not run in a straight line, and stumbled on her melfa. She ran clumsily but gave it all she had. The legionnaire put down his Kalashnikov on the bonnet of the Toyota and asked one of his men for a rifle. Looking up from the ground, the woman saw the whole scene play out as though in slow motion. Le Monsieur rested the rifle on his shoulder, moved aside his long grey beard so thatit wouldn’t catch , and took his time to bring the Sahrawi into his sights. Aza was slowing down, as though she were certain that sooner or later she would be caught. The agonising run turned into a fast walk, she struggled not to look back or stop. Suddenly a short report was heard, and Aza’s figure slumped onto the stony ground of the hammada. As if in mourning, an unexpected wind started blowing and gathered strength little by little. The last thing the foreign woman saw, before her eyelids fell shut, was an enormous sand curtain that was beginning to cloak the depths of the Sahara.
The patient screams and then opens her eyes. The nurse takes her hand at once, without saying a word, just looking her in the eyes as one would look at a newcomer. She tries to guess the woman’s age: forty, forty-five. She knows that people elsewhere age better than in the Sahara.
She’s delirious, no doubt. The nurse touches her forehead, trying to calm her down. Now she’s certain that the woman can see and hear her. She whispers a few words in hasania, vaguely hoping that she will understd. She gives the woman some water, speaks to her in French, and tries to make herself understood in English. She tries all the languages she knows.
‘Aza, Aza!’ screams the woman again, now with her eyes wide open. ‘They’ve killed Aza!' When she hears this, the nurse shivers. She struggles to keep smiling.
‘Hola. How are you feeling? Are you Spanish?’
The woman looks at her and grows calmer. She grasps the nurse’s hand firmly.
‘Where am I?'
‘In hospital. You’re alive, out of danger. You’ve been asleep for several days.’
‘They’ve killed Aza.’
The nurse thinks the woman is still delirious. She hasn’t left the side of her bed for many days. That lifeless face caught her attention from the moment a military vehicle left her at the hospital. The nurse had been the only one who seemed certain that the woman would live. Now she is sure that God has answered her prayers.
‘You’ve got baraka,’ the nurse says. ‘You’ve been blessed by God.’
The nurse removes her melfa, revealing her shiny black hair. She cannot stop smiling. She doesn’t want to let go of the unknown woman’s hand, not even to go and spread the news that she’s finally conscious after all these weeks. She puts a hand on her heart and then places her open palm on the woman’s forehead.
‘My name’s Layla,’ she says. ‘What’s yours?’
Layla’s smile fills the woman with peace. She makes an effort to speak:
‘Montse. My name is Montse.’