Bodies in the Storm | Lerato Ramodike

It is the peculiar sensation of a slap that wakes him, that violent combination of heat and sound exploding against his ear, followed by humiliation. He almost topples into the open air outside the building, frantically steadies himself against the remainder of the fallen wall. Hurt clouds his darting eyes and settles like a hot, bitter stone in his throat.

His neck is stiff from hanging asleep – for perhaps an hour? He doesn’t know. No one seems to have noticed. He resists the urge to rub his burning cheek and looks around, trying to spot a knowing face – and he does. There, at the very back of the rowdy, congested room, a man with a long, sanguinary and mangy-looking tooth laughs impishly at him.

Abdullah looks away from the man and blinks rapidly, erasing the disturbing man from his thoughts. His eyes sweep the room again for something more sensible; it is the caved-in revival of what was once a flat. Situated on the second floor of a half-collapsed building, it is hard to get to, like climbing a mountain. The first three floors of the building have been punched through by a missile, and an abandoned, improvised cannon can be spied through the gaping cavity of the fourth wall, the remainder of which forms a corner for him to sit and drink in, to stare out at the cityscape. Greater Damascus is destroyed now, a shattered mass of Ozymandian concrete. With the war officially over – but not quite – the flat became a tavern when, two weeks ago, the presiding barman had announced that he will be selling homemade arak.

The men had come in their multitudes, tipping themselves into the remaining three walls (one of which was defensively smeared with the national flag). They all came, even the ones mummified with dirty, bloody bandages, shuffling over the bullet casings that roll under their sandals, the bronze picked up and presented as toy offerings to their surviving children.

They come now, indifferent to the sandstorm that hangs, paused cruelly over the city, embedding grit between their teeth and ruffling their hair with dust. Amongst them, the barman has singled out Abdullah to befriend and almost every monologue he gives is about his wife.

“She is a good woman. Her cloth is always clean – even now, in the war. You will always find her – yes, yes, one thousand per cup – where was I? Oh, yes. You will always find her praying, Abdullah.”

The barman hands a tin – the cup – to a ripe-faced elderly man whose entire countenance puckers stupidly to take a sip.

“And she is one of those women, eh? She can sense things like you wouldn’t believe. She has a sixth sense, I promise. Yesterday I got home to find that she had made a meal for me. I was hungry! Would you believe? And normally I eat here with all of you.”

Abdullah has never seen him eat at the tavern, let alone with anyone. There isn’t any food and bread is scarce, with stores running out every morning, regardless of people waving their money and shouting.

“And there was a stick of cheese and an olive – a whole olive, eh? What do you think, Abdullah?”

Abdullah thinks of the olive tree growing in the backyard that he used to have. How, a week after the airstrike, his wife had gone back to search for an olive to plant. She found that the entire tree had burned down. She wept as though she had lost a son.

“But… but let me tell you, you will come with me tonight, eh?”

It is a gesture that the barman extends with Abdullah’s every visit. Abdullah looks the other way. Once again, his eyes lock with the man with the tooth, who is now slowly edging his large canine with his tongue, still staring at Abdullah.

Abdullah quickly looks at his feet that are chalked with sand and cement. For the first time, he is seriously considering accepting the barman’s invitation. There is no more food at home; waiting for bread that he may or may not get each morning is torture and here is this pockmarked idiot eating olives everyday.

The barman walks off, loping long legs over drunk bodies that are emblazoned with the orange hue from the sun and the airborne earth, too squashed together to make room for his passage. He reaches a group of youngsters who are sharing one tin amongst what looks to be ten of them. One of them holds out the empty cannister and the barman pours out a measured amount of liquor from the yellow five-litre bottle, counting three seconds under his breath. He lifts the bottle and makes his rounds to more tins thrusting themselves at him. A mercilessly powerful gust of sand flings itself into the room through the hole; the men shrug their shoulders against it, fruitlessly shielding their drinks and spitting out sand through pursed lips.

Abdullah attempts to rub out the grains now clawing at his eyelashes. The barman returns, unaffected.

“Aaaahh, Abdullah! What’s this? You see those children over there – the ones without manners. They drink, too. Worse than men, because their freedom is boundless. But… no, no perhaps grown men are worse. We drink from hatred. But even them, they hate their mothers – they must hate them, because they steal and wrestle the money from them. What do you make of that? Everybody drinks in Damascus, but not my wife – not even in front of her husband. Not even alone. She says Allah is always watching, but I think she has no desire for many things. Come now! We cannot speak about our wives like this, Abdullah. It is inappropriate. What do you make of those boys drinking over there? They wanted more. Perhaps I will hire one of them. But no. My wife will say that Allah loves the children, even if they are drunkards. What do you make of them?”

And he falls silent suddenly, his face contemplative.

Abdullah thinks about how he wrestled the last of the money from his wife’s clothes that morning.

“Tonight. Tonight, I will come with you.”

The barman does not respond. After a few seconds, he walks off to search for more tins to fill, not returning like he usually does. Abdullah attempts to catch his eye several times, but the barman seems to no longer notice him. The afternoon passes into dusk without the barman looking at him, and Abdullah gives up on trying to get his attention. He doesn’t even refill Abdullah’s tin, despite refilling the tins of the men sitting next to him.

Abdullah, now disgruntled and not drunk enough, throws his tin on the ground and it is immediately snatched up by a man who had been waiting his turn to drink. He glares unseeingly at the sky as darkness devours the sun, heaping itself endlessly upwards. An awful, red moon levitates into the abyss.

The grainy night drags on, frigid and stiff. A caustic hunger gnaws at his sides. His feet are numb with cold. Sand scratches against his groin, pinches his natal cleft, chafes his neck. His mind is now completely sober and heavy with a migraine. The barman still has not spoken to him, but having forgone many opportunities to disembark with the men who leave for their families, Abdullah is now determined to go with the barman. That or he sleeps here with those who remain behind.

At some point he falls asleep again. This time, he is shaken awake.

“I have a body.”

It is the barman. He is crouching low, rasping, his face uncomfortably close. There is a hushed silence over the lightless room – the men are asleep. The liquor has run out.

“It is at my home. My wife doesn’t know,” he whispers.

The barman’s eyes glitter at him. Dread and then fright floods Abdullah’s congested chest and he is unable to respond. The barman licks his lips, and then –

“It is not mine. The body. It isn’t mine, Abdullah. Someone left it there, in the dead of the night. It is the body of a soldier – American or Russian, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. The body won’t leave me alone. I bury it. I cut up the pig and throw it’s limbs every which way into the ground, here in Syria, where it does not belong, it does not – but the next day it is there. Whole. Rotting. Sometimes, I can feel –”

Here, his breath fails him. A dreadful silence follows this extraordinary tale. The barman releases one of his hands from Abdullah’s shoulders and covers his face and an acute sound of strangled weeping bursts through the barman’s chest.

“You will still come?”

Abdullah does not want to go with this cursed man, but now that he knows his secret, he is afraid that he will be killed.

“It will not… the trouble… the trouble is that it will not leave me alone. I have… I have tried to bury it. Many…”

Abdullah realises that he had been holding his breath.

“Many times. Many.”


Abdullah follows the barman through the fragmenting building; in some parts they crawl over fractured walls. The barman walks tirelessly, in a haphazard, determined rhythm. The storm unleashes its passion, undulating towards its zenith. Sand surges through the building like an ocean, muting their footsteps, blurring the night. It beats against their bodies, stoning them, the grains pricking their skin. The barman jerks forward, impervious, even when they pass by exposed cliffs. Behind him, Abdullah coughs, uselessly dusting sand from his nose, his ears, his now watery eyes; some of it is swallowed up by his lids and lumping itself painfully beneath them.

The walk is up, up towards the non-existent top floor. Abdullah huffs and contemplates sitting down when he notices that the barman had stopped and is waiting for him.

“Here, Abdullah!” the barman shouts into his ear when he reaches him, grabbing his shoulder for a second time that night. “Follow me!”

Releasing him, the barman crouches down and then squeezes through an obscure, tiny opening in a banged-down wall just below Abdullah’s right shin.

Abdullah considers running away and never returning, but he does not know how to manouver through the building that well. He does not remember the way. He could fall and die. Even if he made it out, the sandstorm would kill him.

He crouches down, and follows suit, wriggling and twisting himself through the wall.


As the barman grabs Abdullah under the shoulders and hauls him face first into his home, Abdullah notices three things in quick succession: the warmth of the room, the absence of the sandstorm, and the overwhelming, cloyingly sweet smell of a decaying body.

His legs topple in after him and horrified, he scrambles to his feet.

It is almost completely black inside the barman’s home, the only light emanating from the fissure in the wall through which they came. Abdullah’s body shivers involuntarily, releasing the tension of the cold and despite himself, he takes several, deep lungfuls of the slimy air.

The sound of a struck match. A flame illuminates the room.

The tiny, tiny room. So tiny and oblong. Flooded with the broken everything that once filled up a home.

The barman delicately places the flame on the wick of a candle that is perched on top of the fractionated remains of a table, too small to eat on. He is talking. At the table sits his unmoving wife. Even her eyes are wrapped in cloth and –

“Abdullah – this is Abdullah. He has a wife, also. A family. He always goes home to her, but not tonight, because he wanted to help me – to help us. To see you. He is a good man. A servant of Allah. Come, Abdullah! We must eat.”

And the barman lifts a rag from the mess on the floor, removes the candle, and wipes the burned surface of the table. He places the candle back onto the table, carefully balancing it. He then perches himself on an upturned, rotund object that puts him at an awkward, higher position than his wife.

Abdullah stays where he is. Dumbfounded. His body too rigid to choke on the oppressive stench. The barman says the evening meal’s prayer, and then opens his eyes. He remains silent, gazing meditatively at the motionless flame of the candle, rocking slightly on his round, quiet chair. Abdullah notices, for the first time, how emaciated he looks.

A sudden energy takes hold of the barman’s features.

“Abdullah! Abdullah! The body!”

He is speaking almost freely about it now.

“The body!” he says, springing to his feet and then sitting down again. “It’s over there!”

His face whips up at Abdullah and he motions urgently to him with his arms. Abdullah shuffles forward, stepping gingerly over wooden things, smashed pottery, clinking cuttlery. Ash hisses loudly against his ankles and feet where he disturbs the debris.

“Over there!”

He is pointing at an indistinct, but obviously corpseless corner of the room.

Abdullah looks down at him, and then at his dead wife.

“Abdullah – do you think me an unholy man? Look, look. There it is. And my wife–”

Again, he falls silent.

“Abdullah? Abdullah, the truth Abdullah. I will tell you, because you will understand! I see that you want to know the truth. You caught me, then. Haha.”

The barman stands and sits, stands and sits. Bites his nails. Inhales deeply, unbothered by the odour of the body putrifying beside him. Beneath an aggressive cut in her cloth, Abdullah sees her ripped chest; a corner of her red heart pulses with maggots.

“It – he… he… he tried to kill my wife, Abdullah. She is barren, you know? We do not have any children, but I love her, Abdullah. Tell me, what is that, eh? A man who loves without sons – that must be true love, Abdullah. Allah sees me – He sees me, Abdullah. He sees me. He sees me. He sees –”

He needs to get out of there. Blindly, Abdullah crashes towards the crack in the wall with the barman chanting, “He sees me, He sees me” in his wake. He throws himself onto the ground, wriggles through the tight wall. It is painful. He gets stuck a few times, but finally, finally he spills out into the sandstorm and the ruptured, grey world. He coughs. Cowers. Struggles to breathe. His face split wide open with ugly tears that melt the stones in his eyes.

Lerato Ramodike is a recent law graduate from the University of South Africa. She is an aspiring novelist and a member of the writing communities The Write Life Community and Writing Launch.