Albert Memmi: So the war had caught up with us, a celebration in honor of death
From Pillar of Salt (1953)
Translated by Edouard Roditi
Outside, the horror had taken on the quiet and sinister disguise of a machine. Regular and even flights of bombers came over us in waves, dropped their bombs on the hills and flew off again. During all this relay race, the machine guns kept quiet and there were no accessory noises. Death, at this stage, seemed to neglect all the smaller means that were at its disposal…
We were once more alone with the war, which was steadily catching up with our torn feet. Now that the bombers had made sure of the silence of their former objectives, they were aiming closer to us on the left. Clouds of thick gray smoke rose slowly and hung in the air, and the whims of the wind brought us the acrid smell of bomb explosions.
The fighter planes! We forced our swollen feet to run and threw ourselves into the ditches. Intelligently and diabolically, the planes passed over us, changed their minds, came back, then swooped and fired wherever they saw any sign of life. A German courier was racing past on his motorcycle, both he and his machine wrapped in striped oilskin camouflage like a fabulous caparisoned beast, when suddenly a Spitfire dived and flew low, riddling him with bullets till it rose again and left behind a human torch. I closed my eyes. But there were neither screams nor spectacular convulsions. The machine silently went on, left the road, cut straight across a field, then lay down on its side, still burning. So the war had caught up with us; any encounter now was dangerous.
Evening fell before I expected it. Night imposed silence on the cannon and machine guns and engines all along the hills and within the arc of the front. But this sudden peace seemed to me so false and so heavy that I regretted the daylight…We entered a field of ripe wheat which nobody dared pick. We arranged to take turns at standing watch and hid ourselves in the wheat. I was still chewing a thistle stem which was sour in my mouth when the war, for a moment silenced by the night, started again, more terrible and cynical than ever. A magnificent fireworks began: magnesium flares blindingly white, yellow, and then red, like dying stars; straight bright red streaks of machine-gun fire; elegant and clear lines of bullets traced like fugitive neon lights; and scarlet, sinister rugged patches from anti-aircraft artillery. Then the noise: after the solemn, promising silence of the flares came the mad disorderly reaction of the inhabitants of the earth to the regular, obstinate sounds of the invisible motors in the sky.
The airplanes replied to the nervous coughing of the machine guns with great battering blows that shook the earth. It was a celebration in honor of death. On the other side of the road a tribe of Bedouins rose from the middle of a field like a flight of partridges whose nest had been wrecked by a storm. These fugitives were perfectly silhouetted against the intermittent and richly colored flashes of light, until they disappeared, pursued by their fate, chanting monotonous prayers…