:: Article

The North African Unit

By Nicholas Rombes.

My temporary apartment. The sand. The blue water. Agadir.

Bugged and over-bugged so many times that I can practically hear myself through Schneid’s ears. Best not to talk. Best not to think. Retrieve the loaded handgun stashed between the mattresses. Go to the cafe on the corner where the Marxist students used to congregate, before I wrote poems that identified them by name, that gave them over to their tortured futures. Their dialectical futures. Their electroshock futures. In the hot sun at Aitswal Beach there are three men waiting for me, each one dedicated to murder in his own way.

A warpath of words, my poems. Poems giving shape and substance to ideas that out-revolutionize the revolution itself. The bartender’s face is scarred. Africa is no longer the same. The signals are weaker. The patient is dying. I remove the folder and place it in front of me. The bar door is propped open with a broken cinder block and there is a warm breeze coming in and I use my glass of illegal beer to hold the papers still. A young woman with pink palms appears and takes a place at the bar next to me. The African sandflies described in the Bulletin of Entomological Research in 1938 have returned.

The enjambment of just one line could make the difference between a prolonged death and a short one. The television above the bar seems to switch channels on its own. The bartender is cutting lemons right before our eyes. The code Schneid gave me implicates him. I don’t know if Schneid knows this. That he has asked me to break a code that, once broken and revealed, condemns him to death. The bartender removes the quartered lemons and wipes the counter. There is a phone ringing from the black depths of the back of the bar. I have never shaken fully the soft sand from this part of the Sahara. It falls from my hair like thunder. The West hears it now, too late.

The insurgents or whatever they are called at any given time have developed a code that the weaker among us believe unbreakable. It travels across the lines in the old analog way and to decipher it means re-harvesting equipment discarded long ago as useless. According to Schneid I am the poet of the counter-revolution. I have been sent to Chad, to Garoua. My memory sloshes from one side of my head to the other. From Garoua I am driven through impossible sand north to Mokolo. Then further north, for weeks, deeper into shallow blinding light. There is dissent in the caravan. There is a fight over the safest route. A sparkplug is stolen during the night and we languish for days.

Schneid is the theorist of our movement. He is interested in typology and time. When new thought blossoms he exterminates the thinkers. He sends us all across north Africa to do this. There are other units, in other continents. He speaks of Black Easter and cosmic dread and speculative annihilation. He sends us white papers on the psychological archaeology of repulsion. His favorite weapon is a flare gun, used up close and in the face. There is no other way to say this.

I arrive, at last, back at the café. I can hear the ocean waves in the distance. There is an American show from the 1990s on the television, Wild Palms. For the usual reasons we pretend not to watch it. The three men from Aitswal are there, too, sitting in the back in plastic chairs. They are wearing loose white shirts. One of them is smoking. These are likely the new men that Schneid has sent. They are semioticians, and I am just a poet. I can see their axes beneath the table. Now the one who exterminated the Marxists must be exterminated himself. I understand this.

Somewhere in Europe Schneid practices with his flare gun on one of the students I’ve named in my poems. Right before my eyes, the bartender makes an alien symbol with his hands and one of the men from back comes over and sits beside me. There is sand blowing in through the open door and collecting in the corners of the café. Wild Palms still plays on the television. Two men walk across the screen in the bright sun beside a blue pool. One of them wears a white track suit. A voice off screen—a woman’s voice—says, “Love among consenting holograms?” What will become of the North African Unit without me, without my words?

And then the other two men from the back approach me, one of them holding an axe. And what happens next, there is no poetry to convey the tenderness by which they seize me, laying their hands upon me, the animal they have been given to destroy.

Nicholas Rombes writes for The RumpusThe Oxford American, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor and writes the Blue Velvet Project. His work has appeared in The BelieverWigleafExquisite Corpse, and other places. He teaches in Detroit, Michigan, and can be found here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 16th, 2013.