Burnt Sun

Elvira Dones

Illustration by Emma Roulette

Leila’s Diary

October 25, Friday

I always wanted to be a dressmaker, not one of those people who just sew things. I wanted to be so good that I could create my own designs, not just make things from a pattern. I wanted to invent patterns without copying them from fashion magazines or newspapers. Up Here they call them stylists. How did that word pop up in my head? Stylist. It sounds too grand for someone like me. Fashion designers go round the world, a catwalk here, a show there, they go from country to country, continent to continent. They never visit a dump like Down There. We call it Down There because it really is low down in every possible way. Low down in every possible sense. That’s what people think Down There. I didn’t use to but now I do. I think it’s best if I forget the real name of my country. Just remembering its name is like a dagger in my heart. So, like everyone else from Down There I think I’ll start calling it Down There. It’s a way to keep the pain outside my body. I actually feel less pain. I wonder whose fault it is? Is it us making our country suffer? Or is it our country doing it to us?

It’s too complicated. Let’s go back to being a dressmaker. Down There I did a three-year course. They said I was so talented I didn’t need to go back to school. Whatever my eye saw, my hand followed suit, they used to say. I didn’t need anyone to tell me, I knew I had golden fingers. To be a dressmaker you need golden fingers, but to be a fashion designer you need much, much more.

I think you need golden eyes rather than golden fingers to be a pro. Golden eyes and silver fingers, let’s say, and you’ll be a great designer. Just listen to me! I’ve got stuck on the words gold and silver, but I was just trying to explain what I meant. Lots of people can sew, but not many can create, that’s all I’m trying to say. Like architects. I mean, the builders have to be good at their job, but if the architect’s drawings are totally wrong, the building will fall down sooner or later, with all the consequences you can imagine.

I’d like to do something while I’m Up Here to help me become a stylist, as they call it. (I’m using the word to make writing my diary easier, because if I have to think of another word for it I’ll take all day.) 

I wanted to dress all the girls and women from Down There. I was good at drawing, and my head was full of patterns, thousands of them just appeared out of nowhere, without even thinking. Aurora used to say, Leila you’re a genius. How on earth do you manage to invent all these things? Will you make me a paper pattern, please? I used to cut out dresses, trousers, all kinds of skirts, all out of paper. From a silk dress of my granny’s I made two beautiful head scarves. The skill wasn’t sewing the scarves, because in the end they’re only head scarves, but in the way I put the pieces of silk together into a wonderful multi-coloured mosaic. Granny’s dress was really old, from when she was a young woman.

I wanted to dress women and girls. I dreamed of becoming a designer just for women. I wanted with all my soul to make them feel beautiful. Beautiful inside. To light them up with their own special brilliance, so they didn’t feel inferior to the women Up Here. Poor women on the other side of the sea. It is only fair that we too have the chance to be as beautiful as all the other women in the world. I wanted women to stay beautiful even after they’d got married and had children. I dreamed that the beautiful souls of those women could be dressed in soft garments, so that they wouldn’t suffer anymore when they saw women from Up Here on TV. I wanted them to stop thinking: those women are worthy of love . . . but we’re not . . . looking down at their old clothes, always the same ones, for every season and every purpose, at their shapeless shoes, all the same, all ugly, always the same ones for young girls and for old women.

I can’t describe how humiliated the women Down There could feel. You’d need to be a writer, a real writer, a woman writer. She could tell you. I can’t do it. I’m not good enough, though I’d really like to describe the pain, and by describing it, rub it out, because humiliation hurts, it really, really hurts. More than being beaten up, more than hunger, more than total exhaustion, humiliation dries up your soul. Or it drowns it in poison. There’s no third option.

And what about them? Men, these men (our men), the ones that torture us, their soul must be drowning in the poison of hatred too. Otherwise how could I explain such cruelty?

One of these days I’ll ask Him, my keeper. I’ll say: How could you do what you’ve done to me? You, who used to call me the light of your eyes? You, who used to say you were in love with me? How could you turn out your own light? I know you didn’t really think that, I know I couldn’t have really been the light of your eyes, because to be someone’s light you need to be beautiful, and elegant, you need to be more cultivated, capable, stronger than I ever was. I’m pretty ordinary, not particularly beautiful, and not particularly intelligent. I’m not even particularly tall—the girls today, with their giraffe legs, make me feel stunted. And as for culture . . . well, we all know I didn’t really finish school. So, let’s not call me your “light”, okay? At most I could have been your “flower” (there are flowers that aren’t particularly beautiful but which catch your eye, which fill you with joy when you see them). Yes, I was your flower, and what did you do? You trod on it, with no pity in your heart.

How could you do it? I’d like to ask Him every time I see Him, every time He sets his big eyes on me. I can’t look at Him for long, I might just discover a leftover crumb of love. And the thought horrifies me. Dear God, where are you?

How could you have trodden on me this way? What’s in your heart? What poison has got into your veins and made you annihilate us like this? It makes me want to cry. Maybe these men have their reasons. Maybe they’ve been humiliated at some time in their lives. Because the only other explanation is that they’re complete monsters.

I don’t know why I’m trying to understand them. I don’t want to understand them, I want to hate them, I want to kill them. I’ve got a thousand questions in my head and no answers. I’m confused. My heart and my head are tired out. Mum, please help me. Aurora, dear sister, why did you leave me on my own? I miss you. I even miss my rusty old bed with the broken springs.

Why did you wreck our lives? Why have you assassinated me? If I didn’t want to keep my vow of silence, I would ask Him. But I can’t speak to Him. My heart is made of stone and my tongue has turned to cement.

Your eyes plead me to talk to you. Call me once by my name, He begs. Leila, I’m on my knees begging you, have pity on me, call me just once by my name.

Leila. He whispers my name trying to find the tone He once had with me, but He doesn’t understand that the sweetness has gone forever. How can there be sweetness in the midst of all this horror?

I love you Leila, I love you with all my heart, I love you like my life.

Don’t lie. Your soul will go to hell.

Leila, do you hear what I’m saying?

No, I don’t hear you, I don’t want to listen to what you are saying, I answer with my eyes.

He grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me. Speak to me, He shouts. Tears on his cheeks.

No. No. This is the only word I’m willing to say. The more He suffers, the colder and harder I get. He tries to look at me, his tears a veil. Don’t you feel any pity for me, He asks.

One day I got some old newspapers and made a wedding dress for Aurora. There were articles with political commentaries on her breast, agricultural bulletins at her knees. She read the news and started laughing. We laughed so much that day. We were on our own, there were onions on the fire. We’d just cleaned the house, it was as shiny as a mirror.

I don’t want to talk about Aurora. I’d decided to write about normal things today but here I am writing about all this stuff which is so . . . so . . . you see, I can’t find the right word. I never became a stylist or a fashion designer. I need to set aside these grand ideas, and sew myself something small, like a little pillow. Yes, I’d like to sew a little, soft pillow to rest my heart on. My heart is worn out. (Did I already write that my heart was worn out?) 



“Hey, You!” one of the girls calls out to Leila. “Why are you so late? One of your johns came and was whining for an hour or more. Where’s Leila. When’s Leila coming? Leila here and Leila there. He’ll be back at ten. He says to wait.”

There are eight girls ready for the evening shift, after which they all go back to their collection points. Leila checks them all out.

“Why are you looking at us like that? Do you want to know our bra size?” Rudina smirks, making everyone laugh.

“Who was this client?”

“The banker.”

“Did the boss come round for inspection?”

“No, thank God.”

The girls re-adjust their belts, their hair, their bras. One of them, Buchia, says she’s got a tummy ache. She’s about thirty, the oldest of the group. They’re all beautiful, no exceptions. They’re the chosen ones.

“They’ve brought some new girls in,” Buchia says. “God, it makes me feel ill when I see them. There’s terror written all over their faces.”

“What are you trying to say?” Marieta, who is a prostitute by choice not misfortune, rebuffs. She’s wearing a peroxide wig that matches the unbuttoned white blouse revealing the full extent of her breasts.

“What have they got to be scared about? What is there to scare them?”

“Why don’t you just shut your mouth?” Leila snaps.

Marieta shuts up. Best not to cross Leila, she thinks, looking askance at her. She thinks she’s the Virgin Mary.

“I’m off then. I’m going to my spot, okay boss?”

Marieta stresses the word boss sarcastically, but Leila doesn’t rise to the bait, and looks at her with indifference. I’m not a boss, she’d like to tell her, but talking to Marieta is like talking to a wall.

“See you all back here at 2 a.m.,” Leila calls out placidly to the other girls, and walks over to her position.

“Idiot,” she says to herself, thinking about Marieta. If I weren’t here to protect them, God only knows what would happen to them. Protecting them is the only privilege granted to her by the traffickers. Since she is His property, she’s responsible for the group of eight girls, and this means she can look out for them from time to time.

She looks at the night, the soft light. Please God, make the banker come back. At least he’s not into the fucked-up stuff. He likes the classic positions. Lord, let him come before the other clients. Please, let this wish come true. It’s my only wish. I’m not asking that much, am I?



“All ten are virgins?”

“Absolutely, as agreed.”


“The youngest fourteen, the oldest eighteen,” Bajram K. answers.

“Ha, Ha. You don’t say there are still eighteen-year-old virgins around here?”

“I don’t get what there is to laugh about.”

“You don’t get it? Well, I’ll explain then. Up Here, girls at eighteen are already experts. So, either your tools are blunted Down There, or you’re all imbeciles.”

“Listen, Mister, we had an agreement, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve delivered the goods, now I want the money, that’s it. I’m not interested in any of your comments.”

“Okay, okay, you don’t need to turn to vinegar. Give me your bank details and I’ll get the payment to you right away.”

“I want cash. Like last time. Or it’s game over.”

“Hey, listen carefully now. Until I’m sure they’re authentic virgins I won’t give you a penny, do you hear me?”

“What do you mean authentic?”

“What do you think authentic means? It means not false. Authentic means authentic. Doesn’t the word exist in your vocabulary? It means not penetrated even by a finger, do you get my meaning?”


“I’ll bring the doctor and you bring the girls. Without the doctor I’m not going ahead. Our clients are high end and I can’t take any risks.”

“Where and when?” Bajram K. asks, more calmly than he feels.

The trafficker gives him the address.

“See you in two hours.”

They go off in opposite directions. The guy from Up Here whispers something into his bodyguard’s ear and they both start laughing. Bajram K. looks at them with disdain.


“Yes, boss.”

“This is the last time we’re doing business with this bastard. I don’t trust his shit face anymore and I’m fed up with sharing our profits with him. From now on the music changes.”

“What if they don’t want to break up the business, boss?

“Who gives a fuck what they want.”

“Well, what if they’re in cahoots with an even more powerful group and they decide to teach us a lesson?”

“We’ll squeeze them out of the market. We have the means.”

“So we’re stronger than them, then?”

“Don’t worry, I’ve done the sums. Maybe at the beginning we’ll lose a bit, we can’t avoid it. But then . . . ”

“You decide. I’ll do whatever you say.”

“From now on the others will have to do what I say. You’ll go and do cleaner work with Aranit.”

“What others?”

“The ones who found the virgins. They’ve done a good job Down There, without leaving a trail, clean as a whistle. They deserve to stay Up Here, and anyway, they’re compromised Down There now.”

“Okay, great,” the newly promoted assistant exclaims. The new job means more money. A lot more money to take back Down There.

“You’ve got one more job to do though.”

“Whatever you say, boss, I’ll do it.”

“These new girls. They need breaking in properly. And I mean properly, do you understand?

“Of course, boss. I’ll get right onto it.”



They decide to go and take Aranit to the airport together. They say something to Milica so softly she can’t hear what they’re saying. Or maybe she doesn’t want to hear. She just nods. They get ready to leave the apartment, not all at once but in pairs in order to be less conspicuous. The less you know the less risk of being killed or beaten up or . . . While she’s dusting the sitting room she stops for a second with the rag in her hand. Her waif-like figure is reflected in the television screen that has just been turned off, from her belly button to just above her breasts. Her head is not in the picture. What else could they do, apart from beating her or killing her? Nothing. Liar, she says to herself, you know perfectly well what they can do. Worse than being beaten up. Worse than being killed. Best not to think about it.

Since you’re their servant, Luna says to her every time she sees her, you should try and find out as many details as you can. Who knows? It could come in handy one day. Why don’t you come and see for yourself? It’s not that easy you know. Come and see for yourself, Milica says sourly. If they’d let me I would. I’m not a coward like you, I’d definitely do something. Go on then, be my guest, Milica answers sarcastically. What’s the problem? Why don’t you just say: Listen, boss, my friend here is shitting herself because she’s too scared to spy on you properly, do you mind if I come and take her place and then I’ll take care of things properly. Forget it Luna. Don’t make things difficult. You’re just talking for the sake of it, that’s the only thing you know how to do. You think it’s easy because you don’t sleep under the same roof. You girls, at least, all sleep together. It’s different here. Spy on them? Why not? It’s easy to say. Thank God we’re still alive, more like. Yes, alive. That’s what Luna used to say. Now she doesn’t use the word anymore. We’re like broken records, all of us.

It’s better to be deaf to the world, mark my words. Milica is convinced nobody would listen to their story anyway. Not even if they had the chance to go to the police, turn in the traffickers, bring in evidence. Who would bother to listen to a bunch of . . . 

No, Milica doesn’t want to use the word, not even under torture. What’s the big deal? Marieta asks her with a scowl. Is there any difference between what we are and what we call ourselves? Whether you like it or not, whether you say the word or not, the substance of the matter doesn’t change. You are what you are. Milica and Marieta have a communication problem—they just don’t understand each other. Marieta chose to become a prostitute, while Milica, and all the others, didn’t. That’s an important difference.

I’ve lost my train of thought and I’ve got behind, Milica scolds herself and gets back to the house cleaning. The last two men leave the apartment. She follows them from the corner of her eye, looks down on them through the net curtains in the window, making sure the curtains don’t move, holding her breath. These guys have eyes in the back of their heads. Four of them get into the car, while two others set off on foot. She runs to lock the door. She wanders aimlessly around the apartment, stretches, does a few exercises, twisting her back and pelvis, first to one side then the other. She opens all the windows wide to let in some fresh air. She strokes herself and congratulates herself: well done Milica, good job Milica. Then she sits in the armchair and stares out at the strip of sky that is visible from the window. The sky is bilious, it looks a bit drunk. What’s wrong, sky? Sky doesn’t answer. The roar from the street rises aggressively from the depths of the earth into the sky. What a city. I’ve never seen the city when it is calm, never, not once, the girl says out loud. She’s talking about the only part of the city she’s been allowed to see. One neighbourhood, at most two. How did the word neighbourhood come to mind? The right word would be quarter maybe. For such a big city it’s wrong to use a country word like neighbourhood. Down There, there are neighbourhoods. Down There everything is different, and I’m not talking about the fact that people are poor and dirty, I’m talking about the way they live. Even crowds are different there. Down There. I miss you. Mum, I miss you too. Of course there are crazy guys Up Here too. Specially the clients. It’s just that the crazies behave differently Up Here. Up Here they hide it, whereas Down There the crazier you are the more important you are. Here they give other forms to madness, they paint it in bright colours and smother it in perfume, whereas Down There . . . .

Hey, that’s enough. All these senseless thoughts are boring the pants off me, Bessa would have said.

Bessa reads your mind, though she doesn’t know it. She doesn’t need to get inside your head, she’s not one of those girls who stick their nose into everything. She gets into your mind without realizing she’s doing it. Bessa know exactly what’s going to happen in a day’s time, and when her predictions come true the next day everyone gets pissed off at her.

It’s not my fault, girls. I don’t do it on purpose.

Bessa predicted all the punishments and beatings that have taken place over the last two months. But the girls, unfortunately for them, never listen to her warnings. They pretend not to hear, and then blows rain down on them, they are beaten black and blue, exactly as she predicted. That’s what happened at the beginning at any rate. Now the girls on Milica’s corner of the street avoid Bessa like the plague, just in case she tells them about the beatings they’ll get the day after. Why look for trouble? It’s better not to know than to know when they’re going to beat you. At least you’re not nervous about it. Yes, you’re scared, but only when the time comes.

Actually, they’re not even scared anymore. Their skin has got thicker, it’s like leather. When a boss asks you, “what punishment do you deserve for this mistake?” they always say “a beating.” Is there anything easier? When they beat you up until you are swollen, the hatred they carry inside them deflates a little bit. It even happens that some of them, sometimes, feel a little bit of guilt. Just a little, mind you. And not for long. And there’s another thing. When the beating leaves marks on your body, you get to stay home for a couple of evenings and not go out on the street. Clients want perfect flesh, not skin with leopard skin spots.

Are leopards yellow or black?


Nobody remembers who invented the expression leopard skin spots. Now they use it so they don’t have to say “a beating,” which is so boring. Leopard skin is much more exciting, it makes you think of an adventure in the jungle, that kind of thing. It makes all the disgusting stuff almost more bearable.

She hears steps on the stairs. Milica shrinks into herself. Back already? The steps, accompanied by two voices, moved on to the floor above. It can’t be. The time it takes to get to the airport, a hug and a wave, meet the guys whose job it is to carry suitcases of money back Down There, the return trip with a stop-over at a bar for a quick drink, there’s time. There must be more time. Calm down, Milica says out loud. Two hours at least. She could do what she liked in these two hours. Except go out of course. That was absolutely prohibited. She could study a bit of grammar from the language Up Here—yes! That’s what she’ll do. She hated the fact that most of the girls couldn’t even speak the language, as if everyone from Down There was thick or something. She liked speaking the language of the place well, even though she had a bit of an accent. Well, she couldn’t help that.

Milica got up and closed the window. She sprayed a bit of deodorant around the room. Down There, if she’d had all these things—deodorant spray, grammar books, pristine bathrooms, flowery sheets and soft garments—she would have been happy. But she’d never had them. The only thing she’d ever had, she thought as she snuck her grammar book out of its hiding place, was freedom. But she hadn’t known what to do with it. It had been useless, and very poor in quality. She settled down into the armchair and opened the book. Now why did she feel like crying? I don’t want to cry, she said crossly. I told you. When you feel like crying, Luna had once told her, scream. That’s what I do and it works.

Milica screamed and screamed and then screamed some more. Until her tears got scared and ran away. And then she felt sleepy, and fell asleep curled up in the chair, with the page open on the future perfect tense.


Letter from Laura’s mother to the Italian Police

Down Here, December 20 1995

Egregious Police Up There,

I’m a mother who’s going mad with desperation in this country forgotten by God but not by criminals. They’ve kidnapped my daughter. My name is Viola Isufi. I beg whoever is reading this letter not to tear it up but to take it to an office where they can devote a bit of attention to it. My daughter, Laura Isufi, eighteen years old, was kidnapped in the capital city of this state where we live and which you know quite well because of the bad reputation it has earned itself in your country. They kidnapped her and I’m sure they’ve taken her away to some other country—maybe yours—to force her to do things I don’t dare even think about, but which I think about anyway even if I don’t want to. Help me. I beg you, help me find Laura, if she is in your country. You are the Police in a strong country, you’re not corrupt like our Police.

Laura is a good girl, well brought up, sweet and polite, obedient and a good worker. She would never have left the country and travelled the world without telling us. I can’t list the reasons why I think Laura has been kidnapped here, it would steal too much time from you and you need time to find Laura and the other girls from Down Here that have been taken away to be made into slaves. Families here are going mad with desperation. Every day lots of girls disappear, but our Police do nothing about it. They’ll never lift a finger to help. Neither will the government, all our politicians do is argue like dogs in the street and steal whatever they can steal from the people.

The person writing to you is not mad. I’m completely normal, but I have to live with this heavy heart and I have to bear it on my own. My husband, Giorgio Isufi, Laura’s father, emigrated years ago to a faraway country across the ocean. I haven’t told him about this calamity, because he’d go mad with desperation. He can’t leave the country where he lives or they’ll never let him back in again and what little money he sends we need to live on.

If you can’t help me, my Laura will vanish from the face of this earth. They kidnapped her, Mister Policeman, Mister Prosecutor, Mister Judge. Believe me. The Police here say it’s true, but they can’t prove it. A mother’s heart doesn’t need proof. Here there’s only terror. Parents are scared to leave their girls on their own at home, never mind let them go out and about. This country has gone mad. Don’t let your country be infected by the same virus. Help us find our girls. Think of them as your daughters.

My Laura is five feet eight inches tall and very thin, with straight, black, shoulder-length hair. She has a scar under her chin. This may help you find her. She fell into the foundation of a building when she was little and you can still see the stitches. Put a hand on your heart and help us. Our people have always been friends with your people. We’ve been friends since the beginning of time. Laura has just turned eighteen. She was about to enrol in university here. Maybe someone will put a hand on their heart and decide to look for her in one of the cities Up There where they do all those terrible things. I, Viola Isufi, and Laura’s grandmother, Bejte Isufi, have only one hope: that you will help us. Laura is alive. I know. Thank you Mister Policeman and Mister Judge. Please Help.

Viola Isufi


Soraia heaved a deep sigh of relief, so deep it made her shiver. Luckily her heart didn’t leap out of her body any longer, nor did it climb up the walls or wander around street corners like it used to, driving her mad. Soraia was normal. Totally normal. She was also very practical and did what she had to do very efficiently. She had always been like that, ever since she was a child. She had always been sensible and prudent. Starting in her first year at primary school she was entrusted with taking care of the house. Both her parents worked, her father as a crane operator in building sites and her mother as an accountant in a company in town. She grew up with the house keys around her neck. Straight after school she would run home, heat up her lunch, shake the carpets, dust, wash the landing and the flight of stairs outside the apartment that the family was supposed to keep clean. When she’d done all her jobs, and still had a little time left over, she would go out and meet her friends, who were hanging about outside the front door, still in their black uniform aprons, chatting away about all their great secrets as if they hadn’t had all day to chat at school. Soraia would join in the conversation enthusiastically until her mother came round the corner.

Mum, I’ve done all my jobs, she would shout as she ran to meet her. They would hug and kiss as if they hadn’t seen each other for centuries. You’re a good girl, Soraia. You’re your mummy’s best girl.

Thank God her heart stays put. This minute it is sitting inside her body, as if it had been pinned down. Back then, when her parents praised her for a job well done, her heart would take a running leap, and dance around her, skipping to the tune of her joy. Her heart was nice and crazy, it sometimes just wanted to dance. Now her heart doesn’t care a bit about Soraia. For ten months it has done nothing but hide in the shadows of the walls, or in the dark windows of her clients’ cars. Sometimes even under the wheels. Especially when she was on the street with the other girls, waiting for her regulars, and she caught a glimpse of one of the bosses coming for an inspection. Even when everything was as it should be, and there was no possible reason to expect any punishment, her heart took a flying leap out of her body. Soraia would follow its path, furious at its behaviour and terrified of the consequences. Come back here you coward, she would shout through her clenched teeth, her knees caving in with anger and fear. Her heart would run off, spinning recklessly into passersby, or vanishing into piles of garbage. It would try and throw itself under the wheels of passing cars. Soraia was shocked to see that her heart was a bluish colour. Maybe it was a gypsy heart and that’s why the colour was so strange. It looked like it had pneumonia. Soraia felt tired and empty without her heart.

Meanwhile, a client arrives, she gets into his car, tells him how much for this and how much for that in a pained voice, as if she were speaking a language she didn’t know. She lets the client do what he wants with her flesh, and she does whatever he tells her to do. It’s the same every time, with a terrifying vacuum in her body, until the client is done and she gets out of the car and stashes the rolled up banknotes in her handbag.

[ . . . ]

Without her heart Soraia feels as if a cruel woodpecker has pecked her and pecked her until she has no soul left. As soon as she gets out of the client’s car, she feels her soul again, and watches as her blue heart comes back into her body like an overgrown Tom Thumb. When her heart is back in place, she feels secure—until the next time.

Since they nearly beat her to death, and broke her arm while they were at it, her heart has stayed still, and she feels less shaky. She feels normal. Absolutely normal. Not at all mad. You are normal, girl. Say it with me: I am normal. Go on, say it! When they broke her arm, her heart had gone missing for two whole days. This was the longest betrayal ever. Then Soraia understood, as if by telepathy, that the muscle that governed her life had felt terribly guilty and had now decided never to abandon her again.

The blows that led to the fracture, despite the pain, had saved her from all that humiliating fear. Now fear was no longer lodged in her head. Besnik, her keeper, had realised that even if they beat her to death Soraia would no longer beg for mercy, and so he ordered them to stop.

“If you complain to your clients, and don’t do what they ask, I’ll kill you. Get it? Don’t you dare!” he barked at her the last time he was there. She had looked at him without a hint of fear. It had gone, as if a surgeon had cut it out of her body.

Besnik had got rich. One of the girls had told Soraia that he lived in a really nice apartment now. But he’d put on tons of weight. He had spare tyres on his belly and a double chin. He was a pig.

[ . . . ]

It wasn’t actually Besnik who broke her arm. He and Giafer were there, but the “job” was done by Lenin. Lenin beat her with scientific precision, methodically, with no emotion, for two whole days. The reason was that she had complained that ten clients a night were too many. She had asked them to halve the number so that her job might be more humane. A foreign prostitute had told her that they had organised a kind of union. Why couldn’t the girls from Down There do the same? Soraia had tried to talk to the others, but they had looked at her as if they didn’t understand the language she was speaking. Maybe her big mistake was starting the conversation without Leila there.

“What do you say girls? Why don’t we get organised?”

Buchia, one of the girls who brought in the highest takings, had told her to shut her trap if she didn’t want to end up in a grave.

“What about the others? Don’t you think we work too hard? Look at the foreign girls! They work less and with better working conditions.”

“You’re boring the tits off me,” Buchia had said. “What’s the difference between screwing ten or twenty-five of the bastards?”

“There’s no need to be so rude,” Soraia had said with distaste. “What do you girls say?”

“Listen to her . . . she thinks she’s the Queen.”

Some of the girls had sneered at her, others had run off while she was still speaking and approached some clients who were cruising slowly in their direction. It had been the shift for the regulars, the ones who told their wives on Saturdays they were going to meet their mates and then went out for paid sex. In a last ditch attempt to get someone to listen to her, Soraia had grabbed Minira by the sleeve.

“Leave me alone,” she had murmured through clenched teeth.

“Minira, at least you. Won’t you listen?”

“Don’t touch me,” the other girl shouted without looking at her. “Piss off, now!”

“You were the one who said we can’t go on like this.”

“I never said anything of the kind,” Minira objected, both threatening and terrified.

Two girls who had not hooked up with a client came back to the position.

“Did you hear me?” Minira shouted even louder so the others could hear her, “I never said anything of the kind. You’re a liar!”

Soraia had gone back to her corner until one of her regular clients had arrived.

As soon as her shift had finished, the traffickers had been there waiting for her. Besnik too. They had shoved her into their car and had taken off.

In hospital, after the torture, she felt liberated. She didn’t feel any pain because they had stuffed her with pain killers. She prayed that she would be left alone with the doctor for a few minutes, but evidently her prayer was too weak for God to hear it. The young doctor in the emergency room had done the X-ray without looking at her, put the cast on her arm and, rather than asking her how she felt, he thought it more opportune to address Lenin.

“She’s my wife,” Lenin said, pretending to be upset. “You know how it is, Doctor, what can I do if my wife is a whore? Put yourself in my shoes . . . It’s in her blood, in her family. Her mother’s a whore and so is her aunt . . . One of her clients broke her arm. I don’t want the police involved in this. I’m scared, you understand, right? We don’t have anyone here . . . ”

How dare he say these things? Soraia wondered, dozy from the painkillers.

“Please let us go, let me take this bitch home. I’ll pay you, don’t worry, I’m pretty generous.”

The doctor didn’t think twice. Why get involved in something that has nothing to do with you? The gangs from Down There were dangerous. Best to leave things be. Anyway, I’m only a trainee here. There are no beds in the hospital, let her go home. Thank you, thank you, Doctor. You see, I really love her, I could never leave her, that’s the trouble . . . Listen here, let’s just leave it at that. I’m tired and things are busy here, take your wife home.

Soraia would have liked to whisper something to the nurse, but the nurse didn’t even deign her a glance. Help me, she pleaded with no voice. Lenin walked out behind the doctor, followed by the nurse. It’s over. Help.

[ . . . ]

They took Soraia to one of the distribution points for the new girls. Mira was her watchdog and Minira was appointed to look after her. Minira, please help me, Soraia begged, but they didn’t even look at her.

“Shut your mouth if you don’t want your other arm broken.”

“Why don’t you kill me then? It would spare me.”

Mira came and sat next to her, lighting a cigarette. Her hair was dyed electric blue and her skirt rode up to her crotch.

“I’m asking you, why don’t you kill me?”

“I’m not the one to ask, dear.”

“Why have you reduced us to this?”

“This what?”


“Remember I’m one of you. Or have you forgotten?” Mira said, getting up and walking to the window.

Talk, bitch! Soraia thought. Say it’s not your fault, play the victim. Minira was back with a duster in her hand. If she only had a bit of time on her own with Minira she might have been able to talk to her. She just wanted to say two words. She was going mad not being able to say them to anyone.

Minira’s gaze was absent, expressionless, and she moved like a robot. Minira, please. Talk to me.

“If you talk to her you won’t ever see your baby again, do you hear?” Mira threatened Minira, “Today is visiting day, remember?”


“So, you fucking useless bitch, you got yourself arrested, huh?”

Angelo goes on firing abuse at Minira, shouting, striding around the perimeter of the apartment like a lion in a cage. Minira closes her eyes. She’s sitting on a chair, so tense that if someone pricked her with one of those big needles for sewing sacks they wouldn’t be able to pierce her skin. She’s waiting for the first blow, but Angelo is deliberately holding back. If he started beating her straight away it would be much better for her. Minira prays he will start soon. The silence in the room is deafening. When he beats her to a pulp he’s so focused he forgets all the other ways he can hurt her. Apart from Angelo’s voice there’s only silence, like a delicious white onion on a plate ready for dinner.

“I’ll give you the Police, you ugly bitch. You want to play with my nerves, huh? I’ll show you where your mother’s arsehole is.”

If she weren’t poisoned by those words, the room would be peaceful. Like Down There when she had to scrub her crippled father’s back in the tub, or when she had to wash the sheets. There was peace Down There when she did these things. It was like the smell of snow. Snow she has never seen. One day, when she’s dead, or maybe even before, if anyone asks her what her last wish before dying would be—because they ask you that when you’re dying, right?—if anyone asks her what her last wish before dying would be she would say to see snow and smell it. That’s not how it will go. She knows that. But anyway, if they ask her, Minira will say that her last wish is to see the snow. When they shoot her, or suffocate her, or who knows how they’ll end her life, she’ll dream her body is covered in snow. She’ll rub her body with it and the snow will give her light. It will make her cleaner than any bath. She wants the snow inside her too, in the two places where they have dirtied her, so that when she dies her flesh will be clean inside and out. When Bled comes to visit her grave, he must be sure that inside the grave there’s a clean body, that the flowers are not growing in dirt, but over a clean body.

Angelo has gone to the bathroom, still cursing at her. Minira sits upright, hands balled up tight, back rigid, eyes closed, heart still. She’s grateful that Angelo has taken Bled out of the room this time. She doesn’t know where he has taken the baby, but at least he won’t have to watch his mother being beaten. Minira doesn’t want to hear the little boy’s nails scratching on the door behind which he has been locked.

“Come here, you useless whore.”

She gets up and goes to the bathroom. Her eyes are half-closed, just enough to see where she’s going. Angelo has filled the bath tub.


Minira strips. There’s no foam in the bath. Other times he’d put bath foam in because he likes fucking her when she’s slippery. The water must be cold, she thinks, there’s no steam. He goes out and then walks back in with a whip in his hand. He scratches his belly and waits. Look me in the eye, he orders. She looks at him. He winks at her and sniggers. He turns round and goes to a cupboard at the end of the corridor. He pulls out a rubber hose. Minira’s stomach clenches. Now she’s not so keen on getting started. The pain will be worse than the fear, and she’ll try and concentrate on the pain, on the blows, on her hair being pulled out. As long as she doesn’t let the fear in.

When you’re being tortured, Delina had told her, one of the few times she had been able to see her, don’t think about what is happening to you. Think about something else, and, most of all, think about when the torture is going to come to an end. Because Angelo—God blast whoever gave him that name to Hell—sooner or later will get tired. Do you understand, Minira? Do you understand? Even giving girls a beating tires them out, right? I’ve heard there are big problems with a rival gang of traffickers. Maybe someone will kill them and we’ll be free and we’ll get Bled back and run away all together.

We’re never going back Down There, Minira tries to tell her. They’ll find us, or another gang will get us and it’ll be even worse. There’s no going back for us.

Think of a song, Mini, when they are beating you. When he hits you with a stick or he rapes you, think of a song you used to sing when you were a child, okay? You never know, we may be saved one day. We’ll find a way. We won’t go Down There, we’ll go somewhere else and forget all this stuff and Bled will grow up strong and handsome, a star in the sky.

And where is this place, Delina?

Obviously she never asked.


“Did you hear what I said?” Angelo shouts. It’s as if she’s been slapped awake. Get in the bath! He blows air into the hose pipe. Minira dips a foot in the water. Wait! He yells. She stops. He throws the piece of hose onto the floor and starts unbuttoning his flies. You thought you’d get away without getting wet this time, huh? He laughs at this little play on words. Get out of the water. She pulls her foot out. Kneel down. Lean your body on the edge of the tub and get down into the horse position. Which do you prefer? My cock or the hose pipe? I bet you want both. You never get enough, do you? I’m talking to you! She keeps her mouth shut but tears roll down her cheeks against her will. I’ll show you where your stubbornness gets you, you fucking whore, I’ll show you the Police. Did they fuck you too, huh? Did you get the policemen to fuck you? Did they get a fuck for free? Talk or I’ll kill you! He penetrates her forcefully. The pain flashes up into her brain. He thrusts his cock into her arse first and then into her cunt. Ten thrusts behind, ten in front. He pummels her breasts and she can hardly hold herself up. He thrashes her thighs.

“I suppose you think you’re better than us, you whores from Down There? Better than us, huh?”

He hits her and tortures her as he has done endless times before. As long as it’s just this it doesn’t matter, even if it’s painful it doesn’t matter, as long as Bled isn’t in the room and can’t hear Angelo’s words. These aren’t words, Delina would say. They’re filth, vomit.

So you think you’re better than us, huh? You’d like to be like the bitches Up Here who have cut the balls off their men with all this talk of emancipation. Who knows what goes through your heads full of shit. We’ll show you what’s what. Come on, move your arse. Come on, help me come!

He can’t reach an orgasm, and gets even more agitated. He pulls his cock out of her, grabs the hose pipe and pushes it up Minira’s arse. She screams. The rubber penetrates her body while he masturbates himself, rubbing furiously at the shrivelled little thing between his legs, yelling all the time. Until the poison finally pours out. He sprays the come over her hair.

“Take that fucking clasp out of your hair. How many times do I have to tell you?”

He pulls the hair clasp out of her long, wavy hair and wipes his cock on her curls, shouting at the top of his voice.

The girl is now on the floor, fainting, the rubber hose pipe still up her arse. There’s blood coming out of her anus. He yanks the tube out and blood stains the rug.

“What the fuck have you done, you fucking bitch? Jesus Fuck.”

Blood everywhere, bright red blood, darker patches of blood. He gets up and goes over to the basin. He washes his limp cock under the tap. The cold water is pleasant, but he doesn’t take his eyes off the girl lying in the pool of blood.

“What the fuck is going on? You’ve got the cheek to faint now?”

“Talk for Christ’s sake! Don’t tell me your arse is so delicate, come on bitch.”

He goes into the living room, gets dressed slowly and makes a call. It takes a while before anyone answers.

“This girl of mine is bleeding like a stuck pig, send someone over. Yes, yes. No, I haven’t beaten her yet. I wanted to, but I didn’t get round to it. Okay, I’ll wait, yes, yes, don’t break my balls, okay? I’ve had enough today.”

When the other man gets there Minira is just coming round. They walk around her. Nothing serious, the doctor says, maybe you stuck the hope pipe in a bit too far and you damaged her large intestine. You think so? Yes. And so? What do I do now? Go on to the next thing. Right.

They lift her up between them and drop her into the bath. Minira lets out a little suffocated whelp. The water turns red. They throw the hose pipe into the water.

“Fuck you, bitch. Look how dirty the pipe is. Wash it.”

She washes the tip of the rubber pipe with her trembling hands. She lifts her head a second to look at them, but is blinded by her tears.

“Do you really want to beat me now?” she asks weakly.

The two men look at each other and burst out laughing. The doctor takes his linen jacket off and hangs it on the towel rack.

“No, no, we were just joking.”

They whip her with their trouser belts. The water froths as if there were a swimming championship taking place, they whip her some more. The water means the skin is less marked and she can go back to work sooner.

Their trousers and shoes are soaking. They get angry and strike her again. They pull her out of the water and beat her senseless on the tiles of the bathroom floor.

“Who do you think you are, you bitches? You think you can do what you want, huh? You think you can behave like the bitches Up Here?”

translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford