The End of Illusions, Part 1
by Ryan Miller
When I was very young, I liked to stand on the beach with my arms straight out from my sides, looking up into the unfaltering blue of the North African sky. I closed my eyes tight and began to spin. Slowly at first, gradually faster and faster, I kept spinning in ever-widening circles until I wobbled, dizzy and breathless, and tumbled weak-kneed into the sand. Even after I fell, the perception of turning lingered and I felt the heat of the blistering sand on my bare back and legs. Twitching, unnamable colors danced against the scarlet flesh of my eyelids upon which blazed the too generous sun. I listened to the rote of the surf, the marriage of silence and the whispered breath of waves. After a brief period, I opened my eyes and shielded them against the shadowless glare and rose a little unsteadily and ran to where my parents lay on their towels near the edge of the sea. I flung myself down onto the hard-muscled chest of my father and he hoisted me into the air, twisting and turning and dipping me from side to side. I laughed giddily. His enormous hands encircled my rib cage, and I had no reason to doubt that he possessed the strength to hold me suspended above him forever.
I settled between my mother and father. Like stalwart bronze gods, they glistened unimaginably in the relentless mid-summer light, and I could imagine no parents more handsome, more loving, than these two dazzling golden creatures.
I peered out across the Mediterranean, its surface alive with shimmering light, and gestured toward the horizon. "What's on the other side?"
My father raised his head, squinted, and saw where I was pointing. "France, of course." His words were infused with unvarnished pride and spoken as if I should have known without asking, and I wondered about that unseen place, both foreign and familiar, of which I had heard so much.
My mother rose to her feet and smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. She had a graceful build and was breathtaking in her crimson maillot. Reaching one slender arm out to me and the other to my father, she said, "Let's go for a swim."
Hand in hand the three of us ran into the translucent waves.
At five my vision of the world suggested a vast and magic place of luminous beauty and innumerable possibilities.
- - -
I was ten years old in 1954. I attended the Ecole Dordor on the Rue Levacher in Algiers. One spring morning we stood as our teacher, Monsieur Lurçat, entered the classroom. In a melancholy voice he asked us to remain standing. He lowered his stack of books and papers onto his desk and went slowly to the blackboard. In his elegant and careful script, he wrote, "On this day, May 8, 1954, Dien Bien Phu has fallen."
He turned toward the class and gazed at us for a long while. "Mes enfants," he said at last, "you will always remember this date."
It was a moment of telling emotion. France had just lost one of its overseas possessions. I glanced around the utterly silent room and saw that the faces of all of my classmates had altered. Though I was too young to understand the wider repercussions of the humiliating blow that the mother country had suffered at the hands of the Viet-minh, I could begin to grasp the grave injury to our sense of national pride.
- - -
In 1957 the Battle of Algiers was waged. In January, General Jacques Massu and the French forces he commanded had begun their fight against the campaign of terror being waged by the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) and targeted principally against the European inhabitants of Algeria. The FLN sought through a violent insurgency to bring an end to French rule and was comprised primarily of members of the indigenous Algerian population.
The city still gave, at first glance, the appearance that life was normal. The sidewalks swarmed with activity, the streets clotted with automobiles. Stores displayed in their windows merchandise indistinguishable from that which could be found in Paris. Cinemas screened the same films that could be seen concurrently in the métropole. The armed patrols and soldiers crouched behind sandbags were in equal parts reassuring and alarming. I knew that all around me a murderous folly disfigured Algiers, but I had been somehow able to keep the war mostly at arm's length.
One Friday after school, I had accompanied my mother to a department store on the Rue d'Isly. We emerged from the Galeries de France carrying our purchases in big, bright shopping bags. Nearby, on the sidewalk an army lieutenant was hectoring an Arab man, a street vendor selling cigarettes. In very precise French, the officer was asking questions concerning the importance of obedience and politeness. The man looked straight ahead and remained silent. This obstinate refusal to speak infuriated the officer, who then slapped the man so hard that he staggered under the blow. I was startled by the unexpectedness of this and felt as if it had been my cheek that had been struck. The man wiped blood from his lip and the lieutenant slapped him again and again.
I heard my mother say, "Come, Lucien, let's go." There was a quaver of emotion in her voice and when I turned to her she was quite wan.
In the summer of my thirteenth year, a new wave of aggravated violence began.
On Sunday, the 9th of June, I went to the beach club at Pointe-Pescade not far from the Casino de la Corniche. In the pure brightness of a limpid day, I swam out with two of my friends, Alain and Frédéric, to the farthest of the gigantic square rocks that stood in the water and had once formed a sort of jetty. There on the dark surface someone had scratched in bold, childish letters, "Vive le FLN!"
"Salauds," Alain said fiercely and he spit onto the stone where the words were written.
"You take things too seriously," Frédéric said with a good-natured laugh.
"Maybe you don't take things seriously enough." A withering look from Alain, a brief tense instant, then Frédéric was silent. Alain turned quickly to me, his eyes flashing, a challenge to see if I had anything to say.
I returned his stare and said nothing and he kicked away from the rock with a splash and made his way toward the beach.
We swam on our backs toward the shore densely crowded with sunbathers. Amid the throng we found places and stretched out on the blond sand. I drowsed, a kind of half-sleep, yet ever conscious of the heat of the sun on my body. I awoke to find that Frédéric had gone. Alain was sitting up and observing the girls as they strolled by.
"Look at her," he made a motion with his hand toward a sensuous dark-haired girl wearing a canary yellow bikini and black plastic framed sunglasses that wrapped around her very round face, itself adorned with a prominent beauty mark high on the left cheek near her nose. She was probably about eighteen, three years older than Alain. "Her name is Annette." My eye was drawn to her exuberant movements, the elastic bounce of her small breasts, the exaggerated rise and fall of her nates.
"She's cute," I said stoically. She was much more than cute and she was aware men were admiring her and it was obvious even to me that she enjoyed it.
"She works as a typist in my father's office," Alain said.
I was convinced that she was bad-tempered and demanding and very sure that she could get away with it because of her arresting beauty. I was drawn to her and I knew that, had I been old enough to go out with her, I would have willingly put up with her sulky moods, her pouty behavior, just to be near her.
"Where's Frédéric?" I asked once Annette had passed from sight.
"He's waiting for us," Alain said with no trace of unpleasantness, then stood.
We showered and changed and it was a little before five when we climbed the steps that led up from the beach to the roadway above, the Boulevard Pitolet. Then on to the casino and from a distance we heard the lively music of the band playing there.
Alain and I stood in the shade under the palm trees on the terrace across from the congested dance floor. The doors had been thrown open and we watched with envy as people, only a few years older than we were, danced and laughed and drank colorful iced drinks with little umbrellas in them. I beheld the pretty girls, resplendent in their light summer dresses, and mused that someday, when I was old enough, I too would be among them.
I tapped Alain's forearm, "Look, it's Frédéric." I gestured toward our antic, dancing friend. He had somehow slipped inside. He spotted us and waved, gesturing for us to join him.
"And there's Annette," Alain said. She had changed into a shimmering chartreuse dress and was sitting at a table near the stage with another girl and three men. She gave the impression of being bored. She smoked her cigarette with an air of detachment and paid no attention to the conversation of those sitting with her. Her gaze ranged across the room, searching for better company, a chance for more stimulating distractions. The more I looked at her, and the more enamoured I became of her, the more I came to realize that I disliked the kind of person I perceived her to be.
Alain took two steps toward the building to get a better look at her.
There was a flash of brilliant, blinding light, and the sound of the explosion, which I perceived to have arrived a discernible moment after the initial burst of flame, was deafening. In that jarring split second of disjunction -- where one world was starkly, irrevocably separated from another completely different, when everything was changed into something else -- I continued to hear the band play and to see the dancers move and I caught a glimpse of the alluring Annette one last time. A thundering, impelling force knocked me off my feet and I was thrown back onto the sand at the edge of the terrace.
I gazed up at the sun-faded sky. My ears rang and pounded in an unmerciful frenzy. My mouth was full of sand. After a moment I attempted to stand. I teetered in a half-raised position and rolled in a small arc and fell. I put my head down and closed my eyes against the late afternoon sun. Vivid flecks of color darted and squirmed against my darkened plane of vision and I had the overpowering sensation that I was spinning.
I woke to a scene of inconceivable horror. Figures in military garb moved with authority through the acrid gray-brown smoke that came from inside the casino. Others, attired more casually, wandered in stupefaction, uttering low moans or sobbing. Some sat, knotted in silent, bewildered groups in beach chairs scattered in haphazard patterns along the terrace. Two soldiers were lifting someone onto a stretcher, the burned and bloodied legs were torn open revealing sinew and muscle and bone. A medic attended to Alain, whose head was wrapped in gauze. He had suffered a concussion and had numerous cuts all over his body, none of which were serious.
Frédéric had been dancing very near the stage, under which the bomb had been planted. He was among the eleven who died in the blast. Inside the casino, much of the ceiling above the stage had collapsed and the long mirror that ran the full length of one wall was shattered. A grand piano had been split in two, each half some distance from the other. Jagged spikes of glass and cigarette butts, many with telltales of lipstick, and fillets of splintered wood littered the floor, as did human shapes, some mortally still. Other victims twitched and jerked in intermittent convulsions, unaware of the white-clad figures kneeling above them, attempting to give them aid.
Two soldiers carried Annette past me on a stretcher. Her right hand was missing along with about half of her forearm. In a vacuous morphine daze she stared with unfocused eyes and saw a world in which order and understanding had been completely overthrown. Her face was unnaturally, ghastly pale and much of her dress was spattered with blood. Someone walked alongside the stretcher, clumsily attempting to apply a tourniquet. I turned and stepped into a pool of something dark and slippery and spongy, then stumbled against an upended chaise longue and vomited.
I was sickened by the stench, by the blood and the blistered flesh -- all that I had witnessed -- and by a feeling of guilt. Only moments earlier I had judged Annette a vapid, ill-natured creature, vainly interested only in her own beauty. I imagined her self-absorbed and manipulative, using her impossible good looks to get what she wanted. I was now ashamed to have had these thoughts. Her life, and the way she had lived it, had changed forever.
About the author:
Ryan Miller has lived in New York, New Orleans, Fort Worth, and Paris. He lives now in Los Angeles. His work has appeared or is forthcoming online at, among others, Carve Magazine, The Paumanok Review, Cyber Oasis, Opium Magazine, 3 AM Magazine, The Dana Online Journal, Pig Iron Malt, Facets Magazine, The Starry Night Review, ken*again, and American Feed Magazine. In print his work can be found at The Raven Chronicles, Steam Ticket, The Wilshire Review, New Rag Rising, Shades of December, Indigenous Fiction, The Dallas Observer, and others.