As soon as Linda, one of the girls in our group, saw the dead body slide out from behind the steering wheel, she started to cry and hid behind two of the boys. A strangled cry. A young plainclothes officer grabbed the cadaver by the hair and spit in his face. Then he turned to us and said:
“No, what are you crying for? This guy was a real shit. Nothing happened, everything’s okay. Nothing happened. Don’t cry.”
Ever since then, I’ve had trouble believing those scenarios of forensic police who wear gloves and tread softly, careful not to displace any powder or shells. When I get to a body before the ambulance does and gaze on the final moments of life of someone who realizes he’s dying, I always think of the scene in Heart of Darkness, where the woman who loved Kurtz asks Marlow what his last words were. And Marlow lies. He says Kurtz asked about her, when in reality he didn’t utter any sweet words or precious thoughts, but simply repeated, “The horror.” We like to think that a person’s last words convey his ultimate, most important, most essential thoughts. That he dies articulating the reason life was worth living for. But it’s not like that. When you die, nothing comes out except fear. Everyone, or almost everyone, repeats the same thing, a simple, banal, urgent sentence: “I don’t want to die.” Their faces are superimposed on Kurtz’s and express the torment, disgust, and refusal to end so horrendously, in the worst of all possible worlds. The horror.
After seeing dozens of murder victims, soiled with their own blood as it mixes with filth, as they exhale nauseating odors, as they are looked at with curiosity or professional indifference, shunned like hazardous waste or discussed with agitated cries, I have arrived at just one certainty, a thought so elementary that it approaches idiocy: death is revolting.
In Secondigliano everyone, down to the little kids, has a perfectly clear idea of how you die and the best way to go. I was about to leave the scene of Carmela Attrice’s murder when I overheard two boys talking. Their tone was extremely serious.
“I want to die like the signora. In the head, bang bang, and it’s all over.”
“But in your face? They hit her in the face, that’s the worst!”
“No, it’s not, and besides, it’s only an instant. Front or back, but in the head for sure!”
Curious, I butted into their conversation, asking questions and trying to have my say:
“Isn’t it better to be hit in the chest? One shot in the heart and it’s all over.”
But the boy understood the dynamics of pain far better than I did. He explained in great detail and with professional expertise the impact of bullets.
“No, in the chest it hurts a whole lot and it takes ten minutes for you to die. Your lungs have to fill with blood, and the bullet is like a fiery needle that pierces and twists inside you. It hurts to get hit in the arm or leg too. But in the chest it’s like a wicked snakebite that won’t go away. The head’s better, because you won’t piss yourself or shit your pants. No flailing around on the ground for half an hour.”
~Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah
Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
YHWH struck down Sodom and Gomorrah, but Sodom is hardly forgotten. Its name is not far from the lips of any child of the West. Yet Gomorrah was erased from our collective minds as thoroughly as YHWH erased it from the valley of Siddim. Lot lived in Sodom, and it was there that Abraham went to seek out the ten righteous people, and was unable to find them and spare the city the wrath of God. Sodom is mentioned by Ezekiel, by Luke, by Flavius Josephus, by Philo of Alexandria. Gomorrah is an afterthought of Jeremiah and Mark.
Sodom’s Hebrew root means burnt, while Gomorrah’s is a ruined heap. And this is what I always think of, something ruined and lost. Like the ruined and lost children Saviano describes, the people, even the sins themselves of the residents of Gomorrah are lost to us. Their lives are expendable; Abraham and Lot do not even go there to search for five righteous men.
The rabbis teach that Sodom and Gomorrah are there to represent the two classes of sin; Sodom, sins of commission, and Gomorrah the sins of omission. That lesson is borne out by the attention we give to each. Endless sermons are delivered about the Sodomites, those who do evil. Few if any are spoken on our sins of inaction, of that which we ignore and overlook.
Our cities, our nation, and our world are filled with too many of these people. Too many of the forgotten and ignored, who like the children of Secondigliano are occupants of a reality divorced from our own, divorced from the consideration of politics or the reach of policy.
We sin in forgetting them, all too often.