The Honey Soldier

Monday, January 15, 2018

Translated from the French by Matthew Brauer.

The main thoroughfare, lorded over by bulky state buildings and sometimes overrun with councilors and senators, is almost deserted. The square, usually swarming with job-seekers, punctuated by the occasional beatings of protesters, is without commotion, quiet as a Sunday. The last of the homeless, who haven’t yet drained last night’s bottle, lean their backs against the high wall. Famished storks are perched above in the barren, ancient plane trees. I walk nonchalantly, dragging my body along, my mind scattered. The mokhaznis, in repurposed vans, keep watch dutifully, or near enough.

Off in the corner, not far from the newly renovated train station, there is an unusual encampment. Retired soldiers, battered, grim, and toothless, silently, almost shamefully, demand a little more of their due and their dignity. I glance at them without staring too directly. A discreet guard, with his eye on the cars, the passers-by, and the indiscreet, explains to me that they have been there for days, with their rotten food, their cardboard boxes, their butane, their prayer rugs, their faded photographs, their poorly scrawled messages, and their checkerboard.

In the middle of this crowd of expended souls and hunched shoulders, a man with grizzled hair and a spindly silhouette stands and looks me over for a long moment. I avoid him. I have always feared the unequal, arbitrary, and destabilizing confrontation with an agent of authority, even when he looks insignificant.

Don’t panic. This man before you, shifting his weight from foot to foot, is completely unarmed, powerless. No matter, I can’t stand his gaze, uneasy and empty, that leaves me bare. But he is insistent.

You don’t recognize me?

No, sorry.

It’s been a long time.

You must be mistaken.

The desert.

That doesn’t mean anything to me.

The soldier from the desert.

You all are.

And the hive?

What hive?

The honey.

You’re supposed to be the honey soldier?

Yes, exactly.

How can that be?

Just as you can see.

Can I help you?

If you decide to bring me out of the shadows . . .

With that, he slips off. I stay for a long time, stuck in place, waiting for him to reappear. Nothing doing. Perhaps it was a hallucination. The honey soldier never existed in real life. He is a character locked away in an unpublished story that I had no sooner written than buried, more than fifteen years ago. The text wasn’t devoid of meaning, but it didn’t have enough flair. I have abandoned it, ever since.

I turn, desperately, to his comrades, all ill at ease. Do you know the honey soldier? They don’t even look at me. Two of them, their minds elsewhere, are playing checkers, concentrating on the next move. Three others are preparing an umpteenth banner so as not to go unnoticed. And the others cook a plat de résistance, as they did on the hills of battle in the past. They are used to fighting and remaining silent, but here they have decided to come out and shout. Some of them almost believe they are lying in ambush, readying for an uncertain battle. But most don’t believe much at all.

What does he really expect from me, this soldier that I concocted and forgot all about? Could it be that he has come out of the text and changed into a real soldier, among his peers? I stay there a moment, unmoving, muttering my doubts, when, suddenly, one of them sidles over and hurriedly hands me a crumpled piece of paper on which he has scribbled a few barely decipherable marks.

The honey soldier has an address: 34, Helmsmen’s Avenue, Souissi, Rabat.

Dumbstruck, I try to get more out of him. He shrugs me off without a word and turns his back to me. I can only follow the path set forth.

Back at home, not far from the camp, I rush to rediscover this mysterious character that I carefully consigned to the shadows long ago. The pages are slightly yellowed. The sentences are still in place, and he is still just as ambivalent. A soldier who spent most of his time caring for bees, harvesting and selling honey. Never fighting. At first glance, there appears, out of those long descriptions that I scarcely recall, a sensitive being, lost amid a virile world of warriors. He even had his own philosophy, which secretly helped him to heal an old, undisclosed wound. I reread:

He was reluctant to live among humans. He preferred by far to be among his insects, protected from their stings and ready to gather their sweetness. It was the only moment when he was not afraid to let himself go.

Over time, out in the desert, he figured out how to do nothing but that. Instead of going to the front, he cared for his bees. He bought his superiors’ silence by offering jars of his refined nectar to the most influential among them. He managed, through the years, to impose his barter system. But at what price? He became indebted to an ever growing number of officers, and so everyone ended up calling him the honey soldier.

Some of his fellow soldiers, noncommissioned officers, would draw out the first word and then stop short at the second, insinuating uninterrupted coitus. He was under greater and greater suspicion. He was supposed to have bought the silence of the highest ranking officers by paying with his body. He allegedly became homosexual, despite himself, to avoid getting shot at. But silence being the rule among officers, the suspicion was never confirmed or disclosed.

All of that is recorded in the text, described, worked over in every way. Rereading it, and seeing again the scene of our fleeting encounter earlier that day, I hesitate to make my way to the address given. I don’t know if he would resent me for exposing him or thank me for showing him off, distinguishing him in that way. No doubt in asking me to bring him out of the shadows earlier, he wanted me to reveal his story to everyone else. But how could it be that he exists in real life, that he lives in a clearly identifiable place? Could he have existed before the text that gave him birth? Could I have invented him on the basis of some distant, unrecoverable memory, erased and replaced by my imagination?

With the manuscript stuffed in my bag, I retrace my steps and examine from afar the scene of gathered protesters. The anonymous soldier who gave me the honey soldier’s address is still there, alone, off to the side, filling in the grid of a crossword puzzle. He seems deeply caught up in this game of signs that has no bearing on his apparently monotonous life.

The first taxi driver willing to take me to the distant Souissi neighborhood resembles those porters who, at the beginning of the last century, knew the comings and goings of the city so well that they competed with journalists as transmitters of firsthand information.

Those retired soldiers are going to strike camp tomorrow.

How do you know?

They received a letter.

From whom?

Who knows.

What do you think of it?

Of what?

Those protesting soldiers?

They should all go back to the desert. That’s all they’re good for.

But they’re retired.

Human rights, it’s all shit.

He chews his gum awkwardly, his teeth are so weak. He keeps cursing, turns on the radio, and then blows the thick smoke from his cigarette out the window.

We drive by palatial villas. I am anxious to find out if this man living in the lap of luxury is the same as the one who abruptly hailed me this morning before vanishing. And if the person and the character are one and the same, how did he manage to go from being a coward on the margins, slinking around at the feet of his masters in the desert, to a nabob reveling in a sumptuous villa? How is it that, unlike the other soldiers who valiantly fought the enemy, he can afford a gilded retirement by means of his honey alone?

I ring the bell. No answer. I ring again. I hear a strange sound. Not a man’s cry. No. The sound of a subtle, whistling buzz, a strange, vibrating siren, a discordant throbbing, and when the door opens, an overwhelming din of bees. The whole house has been turned into an enormous, open-air hive. The surrounding cloud of bees obscures my sight. I feel my way along until I stumble on him, there in front of me, his limbs splayed, on the ground, unchanging.

He does have the same silhouette as the strange man who approached me in the morning. His face is covered, his limbs swarmed, his navel invisible. His body, pierced by so many bees, is already rotting, at the mercy of ants, who were only waiting for the flower to lose its petals and fall flat. Gradually, a hollow forms between the dark cloud of bees and the unbearable silhouette gnawed by diligent ants, a halo that my fragile body occupies alone from then on. Perhaps this is the barzakh—a bridge or border, as the Qur`an has it—the in-between separating the sweet pleasure of life from the unfathomable bitterness of death.

Even as I move away, I remain in admiration of this division of labor among insects, before these ants who revel inthe cadaver delivered by the bees. Could I, in turn, be an undertaker feeding off the disappearance of his character? A scribe who awaits the demise of his protagonist to unearth his text?

The dry scent of the pages long forgotten in the bottom of my drawer is dissipated by the pestilential odor of the man who emerged from them. Was he privileged or plague-stricken? Hard to say, so equally repulsive was the smell that came off his unwashed fellow retirees in their improvised campsite. In my head, these smells mingle: the smells of dishonor and death, of men living out the end of their lives exposed to the elements and of a corpse hidden away, of their losing battles after the war and of his ruse to win peace.

The next day, the public square where the retirees were squatting is emptied, washed clean with soapy water. In the cemetery, I walk alongside two of his former brothers-in-arms, completely mismatched. When the honey soldier is about to be buried a second time, the mysterious officer who had given me his address approaches the tomb and slips a second crumpled paper into my pocket. The same faltering, sloping handwriting: “He loved nature too well. And it responded in kind.”

RIP, honey soldier.

Monday, January 15, 2018