Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Eleven


The first cock-crow found the Poet in the courtyard. He was more surprised than relieved to see the doors of the kitchen and Haroon’s room shut. All the windows were closed. The rope and the pillow had been removed. Who had done all this? The Poet’s confusion verged on madness. His heart beat violently. Suddenly, he rushed to the entry door and opened it quietly. The dogs barked. The Poet turned left and headed for the stable. He peered into it and his confusion all but doubled when he did not find Haroon’s white horse. So Haroon had not yet returned. What’s this? Does this mean that it was Sarah herself who had closed the doors and the windows?
      On his return from the stable, the Poet found the boys at the entry door. They greeted him and he echoed the greetings listlessly. When the boys left for the sheds, the Poet closed the entry door and went upstairs and fetched the sweeping tools and began the sweep. His heart throbbed fit to burst. His thoughts clashed with one another in his mind. As the morning rays grew thicker, rain clouds appeared in the sky.
      Sarah reappeared at long last. The Poet, who had already begun the courtyard, saw her more with his heart than with his eyes. Once out of her room, the mistress just stretched and yawned and ambled up to the fountain. She sat there with her back to the Poet. What to do now? Every piece of the Poet was now shivering. His heart asked him to go to her and apologize. His mind commented: “What would you say to her? Keep away!” He kept away and endured his torments.
      The mistress rose from the fountain's edge and went into the kitchen. After moments of hesitation, the Poet went there and stood by the kitchen door and coughed. The mistress came out and asked about the milk. Without a word, the Poet leapt round and flew to the tool-room. He fetched a pot and set out for the pastures. For he had forgotten to ask the boy to leave him a cow in the shed. In no time, the pot was by the kitchen-door, full of milk. Sarah came out, took up the pot and said: “Away with you!” The Poet bowed and went back to the broom.
      After that, the Poet was asked to bring water, vegetables and so on, to his mistress. He also did the ordinary, monotonous daily chores. That day went peacefully by. No one beat the Poet. No one barked at him. Even Haroon, who came back in the mid-afternoon. Even Sarah herself. Only Sarah had changed. No more smiles. No more gentle words. The once mild voice had grown hoarse. Sarah no longer looked the Poet in the eye, but in the tooth! (The Poet had carious teeth.) Sarah no longer called the Poet by his name. “Shalman” had turned into “you”.
      When the Poet went to sleep he could not sleep. He could not rejoice that the war with his mistress was over. Yet his fear abated remarkably  as soon as night had fallen. Still in bed, he tried hard to find a convincing answer to a bewildering question, “Why?” He wanted to explain to himself the strange behaviour of Sarah in the last two days. Many answers came to his mind but none was convincing. So he slept on a bewildered mind.
      Sarah on Sundays was as much the same as Sarah on the day before and in the days after. Her strange behaviour had muddled up all the Poet’s logic. Anyone who saw him could easily feel that there was something wrong with him. Even the boys had noticed that and asked him why. “I’m a little bit ill,” he said. “Your climate has affected my health.” The boys did not dwell long on that. But Marqus, who seemed to have reasons of his own, kept touching on that sensitive spot until the Poet, after five days’ hesitation, let out the secret.

      So it was a Thursday afternoon when the Poet decided to unfold his story to Marqus. Both men were seated cross-legged, facing each other, on the thick red rug in Marqus’ room. The story was wonderful, because the Poet recounted it with the instinctive exaggeration of an involved narrator. Marqus had kept unusually silent from the beginning unto the end of the story. But no sooner had the Poet finished his tale than Marqus burst out:
      “Here we go! Sooner or later you’ll be trapped, old chap! That vamp in your master’s home has driven a nail into your coffin!”
      “Really?” The Poet paused and thought for a while. “What would you do in my place?” he asked at length.
      “I would run away!” Marqus said, gesticulating.
      The Poet stared, then bowed his head and thought again.
      “I can’t,” he said after a pause.
      “Why not,”
      The Poet hesitated before he replied:
      “Haroon showed me the cut head of an old slave of his who had attempted to escape.”
      Marqus laughed and said:
      “And you believed him, you noodle! Hasn’t it occurred to you, by any chance, that he might have come across that head in a battlefield or in the wild desert or anywhere else?”
      The Poet kept quiet and stayed with a bowed head.
      “Listen to me, brother!” Marqus broke out desperately. “Let’s put hand in hand and run away!”
      “I wish I could. But I can’t.”
      “Why ever not?”
      “Well, let me think about it!” the Poet gasped , rising from the mat.
      “There’s not a moment to lose! Mind!” retorted Marqus as he stood up and led the Poet out of the room. “We shall escape, whatever your decision is! If you don’t want to go I’ll let out your secret!”
      Alarmed, the Poet turned and stared at his teacher. But he was too confused to speak. So he simply hung his head and walked away, back to his master’s house.
      The Poet took Marqus’ threat seriously. Only he could not understand why Marqus had never mentioned this subject before. It looked as if he had only been waiting impatiently for this very opportunity  to burst out. It was unbelievable, the way Marqus had snapped out his threat. But why? Why hadn’t he escaped before the Poet’s arrival in Tlemsen?
      The Poet stood between two fires. On the one hand, Marqus could well carry out his threat. On the other hand, if any attempt to escape fell through, Haroon would not only burn the Poet’s thigh, but certainly lynch him. So what to do? This question pained the Poet to the marrow in the rest of that afternoon and all night long.
      Friday was a rainy day. It had already rained enough in the last days for the early grass to grow. Some people had ploughed their fields, and Haroon was preparing to plough his. Haroon’s largest field adjoined one owned by Marqus’ master. The Poet and Marqus had met there several times, when the Poet had to bring firewood from the shrub-trees that edged Haroon’s field. And now that the Poet would have to work in that field, he would certainly come across Marqus more often than ever before. And this the Poet had begun to apprehend. He no longer wished to meet his teacher again, although he knew only too well that he would still be compelled to see him at least twice a weak. Wasn’t he his teacher? This explained why nothing but the thoughts of the future meetings with Marqus preoccupied the Poet’s mind throughout all the morning of this troublous Friday. And all the while he tried hard to find a suitable solution to the silly problem he had caused himself by telling his secret to Marqus.
      At lunchtime, when the Poet received a bowl of chicken soup from his indifferent mistress, he was seized with an impulse to apologize and tell her about what he had said to Marqus. But the mistress had gone away into her room before the Poet could summon enough courage to speak. So he went up to his room, frustrated.
      That afternoon the Poet thought of how he could reconcile with Sarah. Although her bitter indifference had provoked him into swearing within him that he would never be the one to talk first, the situation now necessitated an abject compromise. One mind said to him: “Wait for a hint that Sarah is willing to forgive you and talk to you.” But time was running out. What was needed now was an all-out effort to overcome one’s fear and excessive hesitation. In truth, the Poet thought seriously about all possible ways to reach Sarah’s heart. Down in his heart, he not only wanted reconciliation but also affection. Day after day, Sarah had crept an inch further into the bottom of the Poet’s heart. And the Poet had begun to think of Sarah as he had thought of Sultana in the remote past.
      That night, the Poet thought again about the same things. But he slept enough to give his heart a rest. The next morning, he thrilled at seeing Sarah make eye contact with him. That was the first time in days! Sarah did not smile at him, but her voice was sweet enough to put new heart into him. Sarah did not speak any extra words, but she did not pout either. The Poet was happy. He could not help smiling at his mistress, although she did not smile in reply. But the Poet did not go so far as to apologize or tell his mistress about Marqus’ threat. The Poet’s heart still ached him. But whatever ailed him now, it wasn’t Sarah’s behaviour. “Oh no!” he thought, “I love you, Sarah!” 
      After a happy morning, the Poet made for Marqus' room in the mid-afternoon. And on the way, he sighed and sang and driveled. Although he had no guarantee that all was well, the Poet looked as if he no longer feared Marqus’ threat. Sarah had darted at him amorous looks. Those were by far enough. One mind said to him: “Be careful! Don’t misread your mistress’ intentions!” But he paid no heed to that warning. He went into Marqus’ room and waited impatiently for Marqus to moot that question. At long last, the lesson was over and Marqus hastened to mention the subject.
      “Have you thought about that?” he said.
      “Yes,” the Poet replied confidently.
      “So?”
      “I shall stay!”
      “Why?”
      “I have no reason to do otherwise.”
      “You’re a donkey! You’re a bloody numskull! There’s but rubbish in that musty mind of yours! Don’t you see that what’s happened is by far the most convincing reason for one like you to escape! Then you must be stupid if you think otherwise!”
      The Poet just lowered his eyes and said firmly:
      “I shall stay!”
      Then he fell into silence. Marqus broke out into more serious threats. But the Poet stood his ground. When he could bear no more threats and insults he simply burst out:
      “If you keep straining my nerves with your unnecessary threats and insults then I’m finished with you! I said I shall stay, then I shall stay!”
      “Right!” Marqus bellowed, glancing at the Poet’s trembling hands and then gazing at his red face. “Keep shivering and blushing like a teenage bride! Get out! Go to Hell, you nasty beetle!”
      The Poet bowed and rushed out of his teacher’s room and flew back to Haroon’s home. In the rest of that afternoon, the Poet thought himself a hero. He had never imagined that he could say no to Marqus. And he had said it this time. Just with a bit of effort he had been able to show that he could not be a slave to a slave like himself. He came to realize that he had painted things blacker than they actually were. “Now,” he thought, “my behaviour toward Sarah must change entirely. I should no longer grovel before her!”
      Sarah at dusk had little in common with the Sarah the Poet had seen in the morning. The dusk Sarah returned to her indecent, infuriating habit of looking the Poet in the tooth. This came as a rude shock to the Poet, who had already developed a strong passion for his mistress. So what to do now that he had failed Marqus? He thought about this several hours far into the night, and still in the morning he had not yet hit upon any good idea.
      As this morning broke, the rain started to fall in thin showers. Then the rain clouds lifted and the sun came through, shining brightly. The courtyard, the balcony and even the backyard soon dried out. Haroon, who had not left home, as was his wont on Sundays, called to the Poet some time toward noon and commanded him to fetch a wood-and-leather chair from a room upstairs and take it to the orchard in the backyard. As the Poet went there and placed the chair, as usual, in the shade of the huge fig-tree, Sarah joined him with the rope and the pillow in her hands. Without a word or smile, she signed the Poet to attach the rope to the thickest bough coming horizontally from the fig-tree. As he finished that, he started at the sound of Haroon’s voice. “Stay!” he said. “It’s you who will push her!” Sarah placed the pillow on the swing and beckoned the Poet to push her, without a word. She smiled. But to whom? The Poet could make nothing of all this. Haroon had sat in the chair, between the swing and the flowers. He was wearing a black light robe, a white turban and yellow slippers. As soon as he had sat he began reading from a thick book, in silence. Sarah too was silent. And the Poet pushed her silently. This funeral silence struck the Poet as funny. His mind wandered back to what had happened before and thought of what might still come soon. He tried to explain to himself the strange behaviour of these two people here. On the previous evening Sarah had looked him in the tooth, today in the eye. Why?... What was Haroon reading now? This was the fourth or fifth time that he had come here and sat in this same chair under the same tree, facing the flowers, and reading from the same brown-covered book… So all three were silent for a long time. Then, Haroon said, without looking at anybody:
      “How is your teacher?”
      The Poet knew that the question was addressed to him. So he replied at once:
      “He’s good, Sir.”
      “And your Turkish?”
      “Improving, Sir.”
      “So you’ll soon run away– both of you?”
      The Poet started up. Had Marqus told him anything? The time now was not for thinking. The Poet plucked up enough courage and said in a halting voice:
      “Neither of us will run away, Sir!”
      Haroon fell silent for a good while. He went on reading from his book. Then, suddenly, he glanced at the Poet and said:
      “This afternoon, you will start plowing my lands.”
      “Right, Master!”
      The Poet could not help heaving a deep sigh of relief. No one took notice of his sigh. He had imagined everything, and death above all. Haroon spoke again, as he closed his book, rose from the chair and moved to stand beside his wife. His eyes followed the movement of the swing as he said calmly:
      “Tell me, Shalman, what does your prophet say of Moses?”
      Bewildered, the Poet replied hesitantly:
      “I’m sorry. I don’t know, Sir!”
      Haroon opened the book, and said, turning a few pages:
      “What did he say of Jews?”
      “Believe me, Master. I don’t know.”
      “Then, what do you say in your prayers?”
      “I’m not a good Muslim, Sir. I don’t pray.”
      Haroon turned and began to pace back and forth calmly; then he suddenly turned to the Poet and said:
      “Would you be a Jew?”
      Startled, the Poet replied with a gulp:
      “That would make me very happy, Sir!”
      Haroon laughed and scoffed:
      “Poor slave! You’re not up to it!”
      Then, Marqus moved a few paces and placed the book in the hollow space between the boughs of the fig-tree and turned toward the swing. He ordered the Poet to leave, and he began to push his wife– who had released an incomprehensibly wild laughter. The Poet went straight to his room, struggling with his dim thoughts.

      That afternoon the Poet collected two oxen from the pastures and yoked them to a plough and set out for Haroon’s farthest field. Haroon had four pieces of land. Three of them (the pastures) lay a little distance behind his home, and the fourth adjoined one owned by Marqus’ master. And it was here that the Poet started the plowing. As the afternoon wore on, Marqus appeared in his master’s field; but neither he nor the Poet talked to the other. When the Poet returned home at sunset, Haroon met him by the entry door and told him that he would have to work in the fields from sunrise to sunset. But he would have to come back to the house from time to time to see whether his mistress wanted him to do something for her. Haroon warned him that he should keep a whole piece of land unplowed for the animals to graze. He also exempted him from going to his teacher until further notice. As soon as Haroon had finished speaking and gone away, the Poet heaved a deep sigh of relief.
      That night, it rained cats and dogs. The Poet was very tired, but happy. After all, wasn’t he still alive? Also he would not see that wicked Marqus for days. Sarah had made eye contact with him and all but smiled at him when she had given him his dinner. Haroon patted on his shoulder when he had last spoken to him. So what else could a slave aspire to? Freedom? No, not yet.
      When the Poet awoke in the middle of the night he found himself thinking of his wife Sultana. But the rain that was still falling heavily soon drove his attention away from that gloomy past. So he found himself thinking of Sarah again. He wondered why he had not said any verse on her so far. Many other things went through his mind and he was soon asleep again.
      Right from the following day, the Poet began to acquaint himself with his new duties. He was happy having strenuous work. This would probably turn him into a wiry, stout man. The acme of his desires now was to become a man with a manly heart. On that same day, he amazed the boys when he joined them at lunchtime. While the boys were eating, the Poet made after a ewe and strove to catch it. He caught it at long last and struggled to hold it in his arms. This time he failed. But he swore within him that he would hold one ewe or ram in his arms and carry it from one side of the field to the other. The boys asked what made him do that. “A good man should be strong,” he panted. “I want to train myself to carry things as heavy as that ewe. See?”
      That was the beginning of a number of happy days. In these days the Poet went on with his work sedately. In the mornings, Sarah would greet him and ask him to do her bidding. After that, he would go to work in the fields. At lunchtime he ate and cracked jokes with the boys on the pastures. In the evenings he finished the remaining home chores and had his dinner. And then nightly he thought, dreamt and slept. No problems, no fears, no remorse. And thus he implemented his decision of enjoying his life by day and thinking about it by night. So when he thought again and again, he believed that he simply could not say for sure why Sarah and her husband behaved the way they did. As to Marqus’ bitter indifference, it could easily be ascribed to the Poet’s refusal to escape.  

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER


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