Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Seven


After many halts and more than twenty night journeys the Poet was finally led to a very large house with gardens in the middle of the fields. Quite a big town was about half a mile distant from the house. The Poet was received with a “Shalom” and led into a room upstairs. It was quite a comfortable room with a bed and two mats and a few sheets. The Poet was given milk and bread. And the door of his room remained open, but he was ordered not to step out. He knew he was in the hands of Jews; so he prayed in silence.

      The Poet liked the look of this house at first sight. It was maddeningly clean and cheerful. The Poet had seen flower-pots on the floor and flowering plants on some of the window-sills. The house looked square in shape. In the middle of the house courtyard there was a small, tiled fountain with no water in it. In fact, all the square space around the fountain was beautifully tiled. But there was no roof overhead. The Poet had been led along a passage on the right of the fountain, between four or five wooden doors and about the same number of pillars, and then up stone-stairs, before he was ushered to the left toward the room where he was now, which faced the entry door. There was a short wall that ran along the edge of the balcony. The pillars under the balcony were all tiled blue. Those above were painted in the same colour. There was no storey above the Poet’s room. The Poet reckoned that the rooms on his right and left must exceed fourteen, just like those below. The outer walls of the ground-floor rooms were all breast-high tiled, mostly in green. Those above were only painted. And what paint! Very beautiful: pink trimmed in sky blue.

      Outside the entry door, on either side of which stood a chained dog, there was quite a long, straight alley edged on either side with beautiful flowers. Other plants and a lot of trees covered largely either side of the alley. For the Poet, that must be only one of a few gardens around the house. The nearest house to this one was isolated amidst other fields. In these fields, by the way, the Poet had seen little vegetation. But there were trees here and there…

      The Poet knew that this house was not his own nor his parents’, but his master’s. He was here as a slave. What would he be doing? He did not wait long to know.

      Soon after lunchtime, the man who had received him with a “Shalom” appeared at the door of the room with a bowl in his hands. Some sort of smile hovered on his face. The Poet, who had been reclining in bed, rose swiftly and sat upright on the bedside. The man at the door –surely the Poet’s new master– did not budge. His smile disappeared and gave way to a frown. Then, he eyed the Poet up from head to toe. The Poet understood that he had to stand up, and he stood up. The frown on the man’s face quickly grew more provocative. The Poet deduced that he had to step onward, toward the man. And he stepped towards him almost falteringly. The Poet came to face to face with the man.
       “What’s your name?” asked the man, staring the Poet into the face.
      “My name is Salman,” the Poet replied a shade shyly.
      “You’re welcome, Shalman! I’ve brought you this. Here!”
      The Poet took the bowl. He looked into it and saw two pieces of drumstick, olives and bread. Then, he raised his eyes and said:
      “Thank you, Master.”
      “My name is Haroon. Lunch and come downstairs. I’m waiting for you.”
      “Excuse me, Sir. What way is the toilet?”
      Haroon just frowned and moved away. The Poet stepped back and sat on one of the two mats. He put the bowl before himself and began to eat from it. In the meantime, he thought.
      
      Haroon was a Jew, like all the men whom the Poet had seen since he had left the palace. Haroon was a tall, stoop-shouldered man. He was slightly taller than the Poet. He was in his early forties. He had a white cheerful face with a dark, full beard. His voice was soft. He too spoke Arabic.
      All those Jews had been rather fair to the Poet. He had eaten and slept (by day) quite well. He had been allowed to go to the toilet…

      But the Poet didn’t feel at ease, though. He had begun to think and worry about Sultana more than ever before. He was not sure she was still alive. But down in his heart, at least, she was still alive. He had begun to regret his recent attitude toward Abu Sufian and Ida. He felt he had been reckless. And each time he thought about this he wished he could forget all about it.

      When he finished his meal, he rose to his feet and placed the white skullcap on his head and mumbled a few prayers and left the room. He turned his steps to the stairs. And on the way he glanced onto the tiled courtyard. There was nobody. He went sure-footedly downstairs. When he stepped onto the floor he walked straight toward the fountain and turned to face the only door he saw open. The door was in the row below the room where he had been all morning. Haroon appeared at that door and put his hands on the door-posts. His head was bare. He was wearing a smart, green robe and yellow Turkish slippers. He smiled. The Poet kept gazing at him. A young woman appeared fleetingly behind Haroon. The Poet’s heart gave a jump. Haroon removed his hands and moved slowly onward. The Poet’s heartthrobs grew quicker.
      “Shalman?” said Haroon in his soft voice, resting his hand on the Poet’s shoulder.
      “Yes, Sir,” replied the Poet shyly.
      “What’s the story of this skullcap on your head? Are you a Jew?”
      “I’m not. But I like it.”
      “I’m told you’re new to slavery, aren’t you?”
      “Yes, Sir.”
      “Well, I’ll do my best to make a good slave out of you! Come along!”
      Haroon walked tediously halfway toward the entry door and turned right to go along a narrow corridor between the outside wall and the main block of the house. The Poet followed him silently. Both men ended up in a wide space whence came bleats and moos. They stepped further toward a rough building. Haroon opened a small wooden door and stepped in. The Poet followed him. He saw cows, oxen and calves– all beautiful and healthy. One cow, unlike the others, didn’t moo. It only gazed at the Poet while it switched its tail. This moved him. “You see?” said Haroon, pointing towards the herd. “You’ll have to milk these cows. One cow every morning. And once a week you’ll have to clear up this shed. Come along!” The master left the cowshed and waited for the Poet to go outside, and then shut the small door and moved to the next building, on the right. Both buildings were low but very long. When the men reached the next wooden door, the master opened it and stepped in and waited for the Poet to follow. When the Poet was in the shed he saw nothing but sheep, goats and kids. “You see,” said the master in a commanding tone, “you’ll have to see to it that all the sheep and goats here and the cattle over there are well fed and watered when the herd-boys don’t take them out. Look over there!” He pointed at a large wooden door on the other side of the shed. “That’s the door the sheep go through. There’s a similar one in the cowshed. Mind they are always well shut. Of course, this shed will be cleaned up once a week, just like the other. Come along!” The master left, and so did the Poet. The door was shut. The master led his slave to a spot behind the room where he had spent the morning. There was one well, surrounded with green vegetation: mint and thyme, and the like. “You see,” said the master, “you’ll have to bring us water from this well. The animals in the sheds will depend on you. Water them when they are not watered by the boys! There are ponds near the meadows. Look: you have plenty of pots. Now, go there!” He pointed towards the space beyond the well. The Poet went there, looked about him and waited for the master’s orders. The master beckoned the Poet to him. The Poet went back to the master, who asked:
      “What did you find there?”
      “I found fruit-trees and flowering shrubs and some vegetables and a building in the far end.”
      “Good!” said the master. “At every lunch and dinner I want fruits and flowers on my table. Clear?”
      “Yes, Sir.”
      “And that building you saw is the henhouse. And there–” He pointed at a bare spot near the wall. “You will do the washing.”
      “Yes, Sir!”
      “You see there’s a door there.” He pointed at a big door in the rear outside wall, a little distance from the washing-place. “That will lead you out, where you can throw the rubbish and the manure.”
      “Yes, Master!”
      Here, the Poet bowed, for the first time. He did it almost instinctively.
      “And there–” The master pointed towards some sort of room between the sheep-and-goat shed and the rear outside wall. “You’ll find the cooking-house. Mind there’s always ample wood for the fire. I’ll show you where to fetch the wood.”
      “Yes, Sir,” the Poet nodded, wondering why the cooking-house should be isolated over there.
      “And there–” The master pointed at the only door in the rear of the block of rooms; it was to the left of the Poet’s room. “Go there and open that door!”
      “Yes, Sir!”
      The Poet bowed and headed for the door. He opened it quite easily and saw stone-stairs. He shut the door carefully and walked back toward his master, and said respectfully:
      “I saw stairs, Sir.”
      “If you mount those stairs,” said the master in an angry tone, “you’ll find yourself in the lane leading to your room. And mind next time you don’t speak until I ask you! I’ve now shown you almost everything. There’s a stable behind those trees over there.” He pointed towards the fruit-trees. “That’s for my horses. Clear?”
      “Yes, Sir!”
      “And next to that stable,” the master said in a subdued voice, “there’s the barn. And there are silos beside the henhouse and water-holes behind the stable. Now, go to your work.” And as the Poet turned and began to go away, the master called him back and said, “Ah no! wait! What tongues do you speak?”
      “I speak Berber and Arabic, Sir.”
      “Only?”
      “Yes, Sir!”
      “You’ll have to speak Turkish, too. Tomorrow I’ll find you someone to teach you Turkish. Now, go and sweep the floor. You’ll find whatever tools you need in the upper room next to the entry door. Go!”
      “With your leave, Sir!”
      The Poet bowed and walked away. 

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER

No comments: