Roussel: The Death of Jizme

The storm had already drawn near; bolts of lightning followed each other in quick succession, followed by increasingly loud bursts of thunder.

Rao, who had gone on ahead, soon reappeared with his men, who were straining under the weight of a curious litter that they set down in the middle of the esplanade. By the flashes of lightning, we could examine the strange composition of this object, which looked at once comfortable and terrifying.

A bed frame, raised off the ground by four wooden feet, supported a soft white mattress entirely covered in fine individuated designs, in shape and size not unlike the tailpieces that close the chapters of certain books. The most varied subjects were gathered in this collection of minuscule, independent, isolated images; landscapes, portraits, starstruck couples, groups dancing, ships in distress, and sunsets were treated with a naive and conscientious  art by no means lacking charm or interest. A cushion was slipped under one end of the mattress, raising it to support the sleeper’s head; behind the place nominally reserved for the occiput stood a lightning rod, its shining stem rising high above the long berth. A metal skullcap, connected by a wire to the base of the tall vertical needle, was apparently intended to encircle the forehead of some convict sentenced perish on the lethal couch; at the other end, two metal shoes, placed side by side, communicated with the earth by means of another wire, the tip of which had just been sunken into the ground by Rao himself.

Having reached its peak with the meteorological rapidity peculiar to equatorial regions, the storm no unfurled with extreme violence; a terrible wind shuttled fat black clouds, from which burst an incessant cataclysm.

Rao had opened the prison to release Jizme, the graceful and beautiful young native, who, since the triple execution earlier on, had remained alone behind the dark bars.

Offering no resistance, Jizme lay down on the white mattress, placing her own head in the iron skullcap and her feet in the stiff shoes.

Prudently, Rao and his aides edged away from the dangerous contraption, which then stood completely isolated.

Jizme grasped with both hands a parchment chart hanging by a thin cord from her neck and stared at it at length, taking advantage of the occasional flash of lightning to exhibit it to everyone with a defiantly joyous expression; a name in hieroglyphics, inscribed in the middle of the supple rectangle, was underscored at a distance, to the right, by a small triple drawing depicting three phases of the moon.

Soon, Jizme let go the chart and shifted her look away from the front of the red theater, settling her gaze on Nair; the latter, still imprisoned on his pedestal, had abandoned his delicate labors since the appearance of the beautiful convict, whom he devoured with his eyes.

By then the thunder was rumbling continually, and lighting flashed often enough to give the illusion of false daylight.

Then, with a horrible roar, a blinding zigzag of fire jolted across the sky and struck the tip of the lightning rod. Jizme, whose arms had begun stretching toward Nair, was unable to complete her gesture; the electricity coursed through her body, and the white litter soon supported nothing more than a cadaver with staring eyes and inert limbs.

During the brief silence the storm observed after the next deafening clap of thunder, heartrending sobs drew our attention to Nair, who shed tears of anguish while keeping his eyes fixed on the deceased.

The porters removed the apparatus without disturbing Jizme’s corpse, and we waited in pained stupor while the elements gradually receded.

The wind continued chasing the clouds southward and the thunder moved swiftly away, losing more of its force and duration with each passing minute. Little by little the sky cleared and the moon shone brightly over Ejur.

From Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, 1910. Trans. Mark Polizzotti, 2011.

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