Everything that I needed to know about life, by which I mean suffering, was taught to me in a single afternoon. It was summer, the heart of the rainy season the year I was nine. By the time those few hours had elapsed, I had abandoned childhood, I think, or else it had abandoned me. Unless, that is, I had simply abandoned the illusion that childhood cannot be monstrous and loathsome and sad in the way of adulthood, a stage I welcomed incidentally, when I came of age. And how quickly it showed me, as life always does, its most odious face, with detachment and ease, indifference almost. Still, I laugh. The tragedy has already been staged; every performance to come will operate, can only ever operate, in the comic mode. How sad. Still, I laugh. It suffices to take a closer look, though, because the two abandonments I mentioned above were one and the same. In any case, they had the same consequence: an unhealthy yet vital fascination with beaches.

After a few hours together, far from any houses, in a vacant lot where no one could hear us, we could imitate the sirens perfectly. Laay, Jaara, Aji, and me. We hadn’t needed to practice all that long. Soon enough we felt ready. Our desire to terrify supplanted talent and elevated us to collective perfection. We formed a chorus. Reproducing the wail of a police siren was the test to join the group, and I had succeeded on my first try. As soon as I arrived in the neighborhood, Laay had seen me for what I was: a stranger. A frightened creature begging to be accepted somewhere. I had practiced on my own for two nights in order to not be alone, and to learn the group’s secret, the secret they had promised they would reveal to me once I proved my ability to imitate the wail of a police siren. Then, when I presented the fruits of my efforts, they told me I was very skilled and that, thanks to me, their operation would be far more amusing because she would be even more afraid and her cries would be heard for miles and she would run like she had never run before and her pagne might even come loose, leaving her naked. Naked, alone, and scared in the middle of Soobu beach.

Of course, now I find myself about to return to the city after fleeing it all these years. One of the most persistent clichés of true crime is that murderers always go back to the scene. True or not, the idea strikes me as optimistic: it implies that a killer was able to leave the scene of their crime. I’m no murderer, at least not to my knowledge, but I’m surely guilty. Guilty and rather optimistic too, since I claim to be returning to this city when part of me has been stuck here for a quarter of a century on a little stretch of beach.

This morning, when I left the house, I told my mother that I would likely be gone for two days. You’re leaving already? You only arrived yesterday…Yes, but I have something I need to do for work, something important. More important than your mother who misses you terribly when you’re off photographing the secrets of the entire world’s beaches? Your face is the most beautiful of secrets, maman. Then stay and prove it, I might even agree to pose for you, I might even go swimming with you. That is emotional blackmail unworthy of a mother. It’s the only thing that stands a chance of working on you. And the mother and the son continued this little comedy a little while longer. When she asked me if I was meeting a woman, if she might finally dream of being introduced to a potential daughter-in-law, I told her yes, that I was going to meet a woman, but that this woman was probably older than she was. Then I thought: if she’s not dead, that is. A cougar or a corpse, interesting options, said my mother with a straight face. I hugged her, smiling. I thought I had said those words to myself, but they had crept into my voice, which I hadn’t even heard. Or else the mother is reading the son’s thoughts.

I got into the car and as I was about to plug my destination into the GPS, my hand paused, suspended above the screen. In the gateway, my mother was pouring water, her curved hand a ladle, from a white jar. The line of benediction was drawn in the dirt. I typed the direction that all mankind, whether we admit it or not, desires and fears, then started the car despite the confused GPS, which claimed address unknown. Please enter a correct destination. Verify that you are using a valid address. Are you sure you intended to write The Past? I hit mute. I knew the way by heart and I think my mother did too. In the rearview mirror, her face: the most beautiful of secrets, yes, and one of the saddest too. My talisman.


You’re not still sad and angry, are you? It was the third or fourth time she had asked me that day, but I had stopped listening to her. She knew what was making me sad. Forehead pressed against the window, I felt us enter the city as if it was a body gasping for breath under the sun, or the rotten leftovers of a nightmare. Though not mine—it was an invisible being’s nightmare. The air was warm, almost a texture on my shoulders. This city has the sea too, my mother said to console me. So why don’t I feel a breeze, then? I didn’t know why we had come here on vacation. I’d have rather stayed home and enjoyed our sea. It’s the same sea, my mother repeated, to which I screamed, tears streaming, that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be the same sea, since I would never be as happy here as I was in ours. I’d have rather stayed home and run along the beach with my cousins and friends.

My mother knew that. And the main reason she knew it was that she’d have rather enjoyed that same sea too. She always told me that she’d nearly been born in the water. Her mother had been carrying her for seven and a half months when, on the night she insisted on taking a midnight dip with her husband, she felt contractions mid-swim. My grandfather, despite his panic, had managed to get her back to the beach. Which is where my mother was born, premature, a wave clinging to her ankles, amid the smells of grilled fish coming from the nearby restaurants and food stalls. The ambulance arrived fifteen minutes later. My mother always told me that she should have died, given the circumstances of her birth, but the air, the sea air, she believed, had kept her alive. Her parents named her Maam Kumba, after the city’s protective spirit who reigned over the water. My mother was an exceptional swimmer. She’s the one who taught me to forget my weight in the water. I loved her with undying devotion until the day she told me that we wouldn’t be spending that summer at home, in our city, with my cousins and friends, beside our sea, but in another city located some two hundred miles away, farther to the south. All my questions were met with explanations that I didn’t want to hear. I had decided I would be angry with my mother for the rest of my life. Which is what I was thinking that day on the bus, nose glued to the window, as we entered the remnants of a sweltering, rotting nightmare: Soobu. You’re not still sad and angry, are you, darling?

Nothing, it would appear, has changed in twenty-five years. Nothing except me: I’m no longer entering the city angry or sad, but frightened. I don’t feel the same terror, though the impression of the nightmare’s gaping mouth is unaltered. No, this time, it’s dread of my own making. Why did I come here? To ask forgiveness from a ghost? To seek redemption through the impossible task of correcting the past? To revisit the city where my childhood perished? Or simply to take a photo of the beach I haven’t returned to since that unforgettable summer? I pause, debate turning back, decide that I’m being ridiculous and close my eyes, forehead on the steering wheel. A swamp of memories opens before me. I let myself sink. A message from my mother pulls me out: Arrive safely? How can I answer that? Yes would be a lie and a truth; no too. As I send a vague not yet, but soon, a siren echoes in the distance. I start the engine again and head toward the sea. I’ll get as close as I can by car, then finish on foot, as before.

What became of my friends? Years later I got in touch with Jaara by social media. We even flirted a little, in our early twenties. But we never talked about that afternoon again, or only in the broadest of terms, without going into detail. She still doesn’t know what really happened to me. She told me how the others were doing. Aji, after getting a degree in business and marketing, took over the family business, a successful jewelry shop in the capital. Laay joined the coast guard. Jaara was the only one who had gone back to Soobu, where she followed her calling as an ER nurse. But we hadn’t talked in several years. My fault; our flirtation hadn’t ended very gently. I sent her a message anyway, to tell her I was in her city and that I was thinking of her. I wasn’t expecting a response.


After a few days my anger with my mother had faded. I’d met other kids in the streets of the neighborhood where we were staying during that vacation. I’d accepted the maternal reasoning: she’d been offered a job opportunity she couldn’t turn down. She was raising me on her own and we needed the money. In any case, it didn’t feel so vital for me to go home anymore. I missed my friends and my cousins, of course, but now I was friends with Laay, Jaara, and Aji, and this was the day they were finally going to reveal their secret and the power of the siren. On the way, Laay had told me that everything we’d been preparing in the previous days would help rid the beach of its monster—Ami Police. It was the first time I’d heard her name, the enemy’s name; and while I didn’t know who she was or even if she was a person, that name rang in my ears like a secret, or a mystical menace, or the promise of a battle that would never be forgotten.

Laay continued and I learned that Ami Police lived in an isolated shack on the beach. Like one of the fishmonger shacks, clarified Jaara, except that this one didn’t sell fish. And before I had a chance to ask what the enemy was doing in a shack like that all alone, Aji said that she sewed necklaces out of eyes. I stopped abruptly and Jaara, who was walking close behind, bumped into me. Necklaces out of eyes? I must have given them a look of horror, a cracked moon gleaming in the black of night, because Laay, who had turned back with Aji, gave me a hard stare, then said that there was no need to be afraid, that it would be us who gave her the fright of her life today if we did exactly as we had planned. Then he resumed walking, determined. The sea, by the smell, the sound, the feel on our skin, was near. She really sews necklaces out of eyes? Jaara responded yes. I had yet to move. She added that as long as we didn’t touch them, the necklaces weren’t dangerous, even if they were very powerful magical objects. Magical objects? Well yeah, come on, otherwise why would we be trying to chase her out? It’s because she’s a witch. That time Aji spoke. Laay was several feet ahead by then. He called to us. In truth, we didn’t hear him over the sound of the waves, but he was calling us with a look. I had managed to take one step ahead. To encourage me, Jaara explained that the eyes came from dead fish washed up on the beach, not from children. I didn’t turn around to see her face, but in her voice, unless it was my own mind, I sensed a shadow of doubt.

I photograph beaches. My intuition tells me that the secret of the sea lies there, and not in the water. For if you probe the silent depths, you will find underwater cemeteries whose occupants watch us with wide eyes, and sunken ships and galleons, and heavy chains amid the wreckage, you will find prehistoric monsters and freezing abysses, primordial waters in which life germinated billions of years ago, and also lost cities and sperm whales sleeping vertically like monoliths.

But there remains the eternal and undiscoverable enigma of the waves that come to die on the beach, again and again. Which is where our gaze must die as well, finally, for having glimpsed something true. What is left on the beach each time a wave dies there? That’s my question when I photograph beaches or, more precisely, the states of the different beaches that exist everywhere on this planet, trying to capture what is left behind after each death. Perhaps also to see my own grave appear. That’s what I say when someone asks me why I’m so drawn to beaches. (Obviously I only photograph deserted beaches, beaches without humans.) And then there’s what I never say: Ami Police and her isolated shack on Soobu beach.

We walked a good length of the beach in single file, in the same formation: Laay as scout, followed by Aji, then me, and Jaara at the end of the line. We had to cross a quarter-mile of sand sizzling like a hot plate and smothered by a blanket of humanity—it was a Sunday—before we could glimpse in the distance, solitary, dilapidated but impossible to look away from, magnificent in its decrepitude even, Ami Police’s shack. Once we got close enough, once I could imagine the necklace eyes glowing and watching me from the gloom, Laay halted; we followed suit. He asked us if we were ready. No one answered, which he took as a firm yes.

We resumed our march. I turned toward Jaara then. I think it was at that moment that she struck me as pretty for the first time, so suddenly pretty that I said nothing and looked back ahead. Are you scared? she asked. No, I replied. So what is it? I was just wondering why Ami Police is called Ami Police. Jaara’s laugh was a cool shower down my back, and I didn’t turn around for fear it would stop. She must have taken me for an idiot. Even I was smiling at my stupidity. Because she’s afraid of the sound of police sirens, dummy. She’s afraid of the day the police will come to arrest her for sorcery, everyone knows that. That’s why the four of us learned to wail at the same time. She’ll run away and she won’t ever dare come back. I was going to ask Jaara something else, but then: the shack was there.

We lined up in front of the entrance. We couldn’t make out anything inside. No smell or sound. No light or movement. The doorway resembled a black mouth opening into infinity or oblivion. She’s in there, she’s hiding, said Laay. And he immediately began to wail, imitating a siren and shouting Police! at regular intervals. Jaara, next to me, chimed in with several high-pitched modulations, which were soon joined by Aji’s voice. The noise was nearly identical to a real siren: excruciating, mindless, and unsettling under the sun. All that was missing for the deathblow was my voice. Beside us, the sea had dimmed gray. It was too late to back out. I let out a strident whoop.

A few seconds later a woman came out of the shack and fell to her knees, eyes closed, hands on her head, body twitching with violent spasms, in the throes of some palpable though invisible suffering. She was wearing a red tank top and an immaculate white pagne. An impressive row of necklaces dangled from her neck, and in terror I noticed, shining like diamonds, roughly sewn onto tiny lockets along each chain, dozens of small eyes crowned with minuscule mirror shards. They seemed alive, all the more so as they were bouncing on Ami’s chest in rhythm with her convulsions. I was transfixed by this fantastical and tormented apparition, by the posture of her body, by her prayer addressed to the heavens for the sirens to stop.

Laay was angrily and triumphantly waving his arms to urge us to continue. Police! Police! The girls didn’t falter. Ami Police was on the ground before us like an animal with broken hind legs, begging to be put out of its misery. I had imagined a repulsive witch, mysterious and oozing poison. I found myself before a woman who could have been my mother, terrorized and pitiful, pain her only poison. Police! Sirens. She tried to plug her ears with her hands, but it did nothing to muffle the sound. Her face, of which I got an occasional clear glimpse, began to distort. She rolled onto the ground and in that instant my nine-year-old self felt a wave of intoxication, of supreme power, of unjust cruelty rise inside of me. I hoped this moment would never end, thereby delivering us, Ami and us, to an eternal torture. I wanted, by imitating the police, to keep Ami under my control. I howled even louder, eyes fixed on my young friends. We were forcing an adult to submit, and that adult was a witch. Police! Police! Police!

Our macabre game continued another two or three minutes, then Ami Police screamed. A long, glacial cry, a wail of pain and powerlessness, that robbed us of our voices. We froze. Even the sea went quiet: the scream had crossed the waters or been carried; perhaps it had even reached the other side. Our enemy let out a second cry as she rose. She was staring at us, and so were the eyes of her necklaces. Aji was the first to run. Laay tried to hold her back but she shook him off. He attempted to make the siren noise again, but Ami let out a third wail that quashed any hope of continuing to torture her. Po-li…His voice choked mid-syllable. Jaara took off next, soon followed by Laay, who took a second to tell me to run. How? My legs had stopped working and my body was sinking into the sand.

Ami slowly walked toward me, her face etched by what we had put her through. I thought of my mother, of the beautiful and sad face of my mother who was born in the water and who would never see me again, and whom I would never see again either, since it was clear that Ami was coming to gouge out my eyes, from which silent tears flowed. Ami stopped a few inches from me. This time not a word escaped my mouth, and I surrendered fully to her and her powers. She gently asked me my name, but I couldn’t summon a response. I believed my final hour had arrived. All I cared about was keeping my mother’s face inside me like a talisman once Ami carried me into the darkness of her shack. She stared at the sea and again I saw her cry. Finally, she asked me if I had a mother. I nodded. She told me to go back to her and never return to this place, after which she walked away toward her little hut.

That’s when I felt either my speech or my courage return. She was about to disappear into her lair. I stammered out the question I hadn’t been able to ask my comrades: Why did the police sirens scare her so much? She froze at the threshold a few seconds before slowly turning around. At the same moment, huge waves crashed nearby in a furious clamor of biblical punishment, but not loud enough to silence Ami Police’s voice. She only said a few sentences: I lost him here exactly. He drowned in front of me and I arrived too late. I was with him in the car and when the siren went off, the doctor told me nothing more could be done, that he would never open his eyes again. The siren announced his death before the doctor. The siren always announces his death. Ambulances. Not the police. He was about your age. That’s what she said. Then she looked at me and smiled before slipping back into her shadows.

I left at a run, terrified. My mind filled with wailing ambulance sirens. Several hundred feet away, I caught up with our little group, who took me for a ghost at first. They asked what I’d been doing that whole time, back on the beach with the mad witch. They had thought she’d turned me into a necklace. They asked me how I got away from her. I simply told them that she let me leave. Laay said, Did you yell Police? I said no. The conversation ended there. We all went home and for the rest of the summer, none of us returned to the shack.

It’s still there, desolate and magnificent at the end of the beach, as if forgotten by time. I photograph it from a distance, lots of photographs. Then I put away my gear and get closer. It’s dark, nothing emerges from inside, no smell or noise, no light or movement. And yet I know, I sense that even dead, or gone, she’s still here, with her necklaces studded with tiny open eyes, and from time to time she comes out to watch the waves. I’ll wait for her. My phone vibrates. Maybe it’s Jaara responding. I check; it’s a message from my mother, of course. So, did you find her?