Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Nine


A medley of yaps and cock-crows roused the Poet. So he rose with a stretch and a yawn. He was tired but ready to start a new day. He picked up the bowl which the mistress had given him the last evening and moved out toward the well. The air was fresh and cheerful. The Poet looked free of cares. He washed his face and the bowl and had a walk round the block of rooms. When he reached the entry door he heard the sound of two voices chatting just outside. Without hesitation or heartthrobs the Poet opened the entry door. The dogs were not barking now. Two teenage boys dressed in jellabas were standing there.
      “Good morning,” said the boys together in Arabic in a very gentle voice.
      “Good morning,” replied the Poet affably. “Who are you?”
      “We are the shepherds of Mr Haroon.”
      “And what do you want now?”
      “We want to take the cattle and sheep out to the pastures.”
      “Now?” the Poet asked, bewildered.
      “Yes.”
      The Poet thought and hesitated. He did not know what to say or do. But after all, the master had referred to such boys.
      “Yes, go and take them out!” the Poet said at length, waving his hand which held the bowl.
      The boys exchanged looks and smiles and jostled through the entry door, turned left and raced through the corridor. The Poet closed the entry door and followed them silently. In the cattle-shed the Poet saw only one of the boys; so the other must have gone to the other shed. This boy here had already begun to push the animals out through the shed-door. The Poet recalled that he had to milk one of the cows.
      “Hey, wait!” he called to the boy.
      “Yes sir?” the boy replied, glancing back at the Poet.
      “I haven’t yet milked the cow!” the Poet cried. “Wait!”
      “So be quick!” replied the boy without so much as turning round.
      Most of the cattle had gone out of the shed. The Poet just stood there and stared. He did not know what to do. The boy stepped out of the shed and shut the door, leaving behind only one cow and its calf. Perplexed, the Poet didn’t know what to do with this cow. He glanced at the bowl in his hand and then at the cow and then he left the shed. On his return into the house, he found the mistress sitting on the edge of the fountain, yawning and stretching. The Poet’s heart roared on seeing her beautiful young face gleaming in this mellow twilight.
      “Ah, you! Good morning!” said the mistress in her usual bewitching voice.
      “Good morning, madam!” the Poet echoed pleasantly.
      “Where have you been?”
      The Poet glanced at Haroon’s room and then turned to reply:
      “I’ve been in the cattle-shed, madam. The boys have come to take the animals out to the pastures. Now I’m going upstairs to fetch a pot to milk the cow.”
      The mistress chuckled at his slightly trembling voice, and said:
      “You’re lucky! Were it not the Sabbath today Haroon would have given you a good lesson!” 
      The Poet’s heart beat as the mistress went on:
      “You should have milked the cow earlier than this. Anyway, go and be quick! I’ll need you to make a fire for me.”
      The Poet bowed slightly and moved toward the stairs. He went up to the toolroom, got rid of the bowl and fetched a large, round earthen pot and bore toward the cattle-shed. The mistress glanced and smiled at him as he went past her. Her smile was so enthralling and her glistening eyes so beautiful that the Poet could but answer her with an even more moving smile. The Poet felt so happy that he found himself in the shed in a flash. And there he sighed again and again, happily. The mistress had already taken hold of him many an hour before, but now she had swept him off his feet altogether. “Wait, darling!” he was now saying to the cow. “Be wise and gentle! Don’t be afraid!” And so he went on driveling until he was squatting on his heels close to the cow’s udder, with the pot on his thighs. His mind whispered to him that the scene was ridiculous, but his heart said, “Go on!” And he listened to his heart. The beautiful roan calf was nestling closely to its mother and watching wisely. But when the Poet tried to address it, it simply cringed away and began to prance about. The Poet knew that he had to be quick. The mistress was waiting for him. So he hastened to go back to her with the milk.
      The Poet’s heart roared once again on seeing Haroon standing beside the mistress, who was still seated on the edge of the fountain. Hesitantly and somewhat shyly, the Poet halted and then turned toward the kitchen.
      “Come over here!” Haroon ordered.
      The Poet tottered a few steps toward him. Then, Haroon frowned at the Poet before he said:
      “Put down the pot and come along with me!”
      The Poet glanced at the mistress, who was looking at the floor, and then he put down the pot and followed on the heels of Haroon.
      “Have the boys taken the animals out?” Haroon asked, as he and the Poet were heading towards the stairs.
      “Yes Master!” the Poet replied.
      “So where have you brought the milk from?” Haroon asked, feigning surprise.
      “The boy had left me a cow in the shed,” replied the Poet.
      To his surprise, the master said nothing. He only led him into a room upstairs, near the one where the old slave had been the previous day. Now, the Poet’s heart began to beat. Haroon had stopped by the door of that room, whence came a strange stinking smell, and commanded the Poet to open a big wooden box that lay in the middle. And hardly had the Poet opened it when an appalling tremor of fear shook his body. He had seen lying on a pile of old dirty clothes in the middle of the box the head of a man, so frightening that the Poet averted his eyes before he could read its features. “You see?” the master said in a keen tone, as the Poet shut the box and turned round swiftly. “That’s the head of an old slave who attempted to escape. Mind!” The Poet felt as though he had seen his own head in the box. “Get out now!” said Haroon, scoffing. “Go back to your work.” The Poet went out of the room, half-demented. He tore downstairs and continued his way toward the kitchen. The mistress was waiting for him there. She gave him the brazier and a lit wick and sent him off to the cooking-house to make a fire for her. Her smile was beautiful, as usual, but it was not enough to make the Poet forget what he had seen upstairs. Now he thought of nothing but that. When the fire was ready he brought the brazier back to the mistress and she sent him to grind some corn for her in the barn. He went there and nothing on his way attracted his attention. He was still thinking deeply about the head upstairs. After that, the Poet was ordered to resume the sweep. So he fetched the sweeping tools and began to roam round the courtyard. The master had disappeared somewhere, and the mistress appeared now and then and she sometimes smiled to the Poet. But the Poet had now turned into a rather stolid creature. Neither the mistress’ smiles nor the flowers in the flower-pots nor anything else was now enough to draw his attention away from the old slave’s head in that box upstairs. Suddenly, Haroon appeared at the door of his room. The mere sight of him was now hateful to the Poet. In truth, the Poet had already begun to hate his master utterly. Haroon left his room and walked up over to the Poet, whose heart was swelling with boundless contempt, and then he turned toward the kitchen without speaking a word to the Poet. The mistress, who had perhaps heard the sound of her husband’s footsteps, appeared at the kitchen-door, with a smile on her snow-white face. Something passed between the two spouses in an inaudible voice, and then Haroon swept out of the house. When he had gone out of sight, the mistress called across the courtyard to the Poet, who turned round swiftly, but kept where he was. The mistress waited a moment, but when the Poet had not come toward her, she just went back into the kitchen. The Poet went on with his work, mindless of the consequences. He was still dragging the broom with trembling hands. After a moment, he was astounded to hear the mistress calling him gently and enticingly as she walked calmly towards him: “Shalman? Are you angry with me? Oh come on, Shalman! Take! Here! This is your breakfast.” The Poet could but turn and drop the broom and gape at the mistress, who was smiling beautifully. “Take!” the mistress repeated. “Just relax and have your breakfast at your ease!” The Poet was bewitched. His anger suddenly began to melt away. He took the small tray which the mistress handed to him and said to her: “God bless you!”, and he moved slowly toward the edge of the fountain. The mistress went at his side. His heart melted as the mistress sat at his side on the edge of the fountain. But she sat there only to say in her usual bewitching voice: “Believe me, Shalman! You’ll regret nothing if you choose to stay with us. No one will harm you as long as you don’t attempt to escape. And believe me, you’ll soon get acclimatized to life in our house.” The Poet listened politely until she finished speaking and then he raised his eyes and contemplated her finely drawn features, and said: “I shan’t escape!” Not only his lips and hands and voice but every piece of him was now trembling. The mistress left him to tremble there and got back to the kitchen. The Poet’s mind went back to the box upstairs. It came to him that to spare his own head he would have to dedicate himself with unswerving devotion to the Jew. But practically this was not feasible. The Poet had, he thought, boundless faith in Allah. So there must be at least one single thing that would make him live with the hope of winning back his freedom.
      After breakfast, the Poet finished the sweep and brought to his mistress water and some vegetables and then he was commanded to go back to his room. And there he lay in bed and thought of his life– past, present and yet to come. In the midst of his thoughts, he wondered how it had not occurred to him that one day or another he might atone with his own freedom and honour for cowardice and thoughtlessness. Only now had it become clearer to him that his poetic genius had never matched his personality.
      The Poet also thought again about his wife Sultana. He had left her pregnant and he had not had a chance to see his child. That child, if still alive, must be two and a half years old now. Where were they now? Endless thoughts. The Poet then thought of his past mistakes and shames and at each thought his heart jumped painfully within him and his face tensed up. It rankled with him to see himself behave as meekly as a lamb. He was now stripped of his freedom, his possessions and everything. Why? Simply because he was that coward. He was a man with a womanly heart, as his father had said. And now he would almost grovel before even a woman. Why? Oh why!
      At lunchtime, the mistress called to the Poet and sent him to get her fruits and flowers, before she gave him a small basket and said: “Go to the boys on the pastures and have lunch with them.” And after she showed him the way she reminded him that the master would be waiting for him to show him the man who would teach him Turkish. The Poet took the basket and went out of the house by the way of the back-stairs and followed the path the mistress had shown him.
      At long last he was beside the boys on a dry grass. The boys, who had been tootling on their flutes, sprang to their feet as they saw the basket. When all sat down the two boys began to vie with one another for the best part of the food, but the Poet just stretched his arm and picked up one of the two flutes and began to play on it.
      “Won’t you eat, you?” the boys asked.
      “No. Thank you,” the Poet replied in a quick voice, and resumed his tunes. He was too angry to eat. He merely wanted to pour out his heart through the flute’s tunes. These tunes were sad but beautiful.
      “Oh, what a beautiful tune!” said one of the boys with a mouth crammed up with bread.
      The Poet stopped tootling and smiled at the boy.
      When the boys had lunched, the Poet took the basket and went back to Haroon’s home. When he gave the basket back to the mistress she smiled and said: “You look as though you’re out of your senses!” The Poet’s reply was: “I’m normal, madam.” The mistress ordered him to go to his room and wait. He went there and waited in bed. He thought again and again, about everything. An amalgam of fear, anxiety and hope filled his heart. He also began to feel hungry. It occurred to him to go to the orchard and have a fruit or two. Immediately afterwards, he thought of abstinence. He was truly addle-brained. In sum, the head in the box had flung him down into the abyss of despair.         
      The Poet was swallowed up in prayers when Haroon called to show him the Turkish teacher. So the Poet rose from bed quietly and left his room with quite a sober heart. He had nothing to hide or stifle. He found the master waiting beside the entry door.
      “Have you had lunch?” Haroon asked.
      “Yes.”
      Haroon then moved out of the entry door, saying:
      “Come along!”
      The Poet followed his master along the long, straight alley. Haroon stopped at the end of the alley, turned to the Poet and said:
      “Can you see that house over there?” He pointed to the nearest house but one to his own.
      “Yes,” replied the Poet, looking in the direction of that house.
      “So go there,” said Haroon. “You’ll find a middle-aged black man. That’s your Turkish teacher. Go to him and say you’re my servant. And don’t stay there all afternoon. Your mistress will need you.”
      “Right, Sir,” replied the Poet listlessly. He did not bow this time. He just took a few steps onward and picked a path meandering across a fine sweep of country.
      The house to which he went was conspicuously smaller than Haroon’s and far less sumptuous. He found the middle-aged, black man near the house door. The only dog there was barking ferociously.
      “Good afternoon,” said the Poet respectfully.
      “Good afternoon,” replied the black man, frowning.
      The Poet noticed that this man was prematurely white-haired. He then thought of what words he should say next. When he found none, he preferred to keep silent. The black man did not look bewildered by the Poet’s silence.
      “You’ve come from Haroon’s home, haven’t you?” he said.
      “Yes, I’m his new servant,” the Poet replied rather dismally.
      “What’s your name?”
      “Salman.”
      “A Muslim?”
      “Yes,” the Poet replied, a shade surprised by this latest question.
      “Your master has asked me to teach you Turkish.”
      “This is why I’ve come here,” said the Poet in a more confident voice.
      “So come along.”
      The Poet followed him in silence as he walked toward a door in the outside wall. The black man opened that door and signed the Poet to get in. Both men went into a small, poorly furnished room and sat side by side on a red rug.
      “This is my room,” said the black man.
      “Good,” replied the Poet, roving his eyes round the four corners of the room.
      “I am now to teach you Turkish,” the black man chuckled, and fetched papers, a quill pen and an ink-pot.
      And now the Poet listened spellbound to his teacher as he began a lengthy lecture on the Turks, Islam, Christianity, slavery, mastery and the like before he came back to the Turkish language. And then the black man wrote something on a paper and began to teach the Poet how to say in Turkish, “Go, come, sit, stand up, yes, no, etc.”
      Neither the teacher’s lecture nor his teaching was boring. On the contrary, the Poet enjoyed everything he heard. He liked his teacher, who was a slave like himself, and even marveled at the extent of his knowledge. Teaching Turkish was not something that could be finished at a sitting, and therefore the Poet was delighted at the idea of coming here again and again. But these feelings were very much altered by what followed next. The teacher, as he told the Poet at the end of the one-hour course, was a Christian. His name was Marqus. He was from Nubia. He had been born free, but at the age of twenty he had been led into captivity in a small war between his tribe and some nomads. He was then sold into slavery and had since served, among others, Muslims, Christians and Jews. His current master was a Muslim. He had once tried to escape, but in vain. His master’s reaction was inhuman. There was still a reddish brand on Marqus’ right thigh. He had so far learned Arabic, Turkish, Persian and even Hebrew. His mother-tongue was Coptic. The Poet was profoundly moved by this woeful life-story, but he had spoken no word when Marqus was recounting it chapter by chapter. As to Marqus, he could not hold his tongue when came the turn of the Poet to pour out his own tale. Marqus could not believe, for instance, that Ida had loved and even less proposed to marry the Poet. Nor could he believe that the trial had actually taken place. “Today,” he said, “amirs just don’t try suspects. They kill them.”
      Although the Poet spoke with great feeling, Marqus just obstinately refused to believe him. When it came to Sultana, Marqus said: “This I can imagine. But in any event, I consider that you wronged your wife. I’m afraid but you’ve sold your wife down the river!” Here, the Poet felt as though his head was suddenly cut off and thrown down a steep declivity. After that he said only, according to the context, “yes”, “right” or “God willing”. He then left his teacher and went back to his master’s home, with a burning head.
      The mistress, who happened to be in the courtyard, smiled at the Poet as he walked over towards her.
      “Do you still memorize what that black has taught you?” the mistress asked, mocking.
      “Perfectly, madam,” replied the Poet in a sober voice.
      “Are you tired?” the mistress asked again, having noticed that the Poet looked absentminded.
      “A little bit, madam.”
      “So go and have a rest in your room. I’ll call you later.”
      The Poet went to his room and waited. In bed, he struggled with the torments of hunger and gruesome thoughts. All his thoughts now revolved around Marqus’ remark. Those bitter words he heard in Marqus’ room had started him thinking of what he had tried to forget. In the midst of these turbid thoughts, the head in the box came again to the Poet’s mind, but instead of declaiming against Haroon he declaimed against himself.
      In the rest of that afternoon, the Poet did about the same chores as the day before. This time the mistress’ words and smiles were appealing enough to raise his spirits. He got his dinner on time. And he slept early enough to be able to rise early the next morning. His thoughts did not spoil his sleep. He awoke once in the night, and for a short time, but he did not leave his room. So he did not say his prayers.     

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER

  

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