Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Seventeen

The old man never came again to see the Poet. Nor did Yamna nor any of those new acquaintances. Even Ben Mahmood, whom the Poet had perhaps unwisely tried to keep at arm’s length, had now revealed his true face. For a whole week the Poet would see him only once a day. And even when he did come into the Poet’s room (at Ben Mahmood’s cottage), he would not stay more than a few moments. He would throw a few quick words to the Poet and leave. But the Poet kept receiving his meals in time. It was Ben Mahmood’s son who brought to the Poet his meals.

      During all this week the Poet was too weak to go out of the cottage. The eighth day found him still ostracised by the people around him. But late in the afternoon he managed to go out and he stayed a long while in the shade of the tree outside, alone. He did the same for the next three days, and then he was able to go even farther than that. And day by day he grew more worried about his beloved.

      A few days later, Iyad, one of the five young men whom the Poet had been acquainted with, came across the Poet sitting alone under a tree in a nearby grove. Iyad greeted the Poet and put down a load he had been carrying on his shoulder and sat down. After greetings, Iyad inquired about ‘the woman’. The Poet gave him an evasive answer and soon was filled with emotion and, little by little, he began to pour out his troubles. When the Poet seemed to have said enough, Iyad began to unfold his own version of the tale. He said that everybody around the lands was aware of the story. Some people, Iyad said, had peddled out strange news that with days accumulated and then were amplified to become episodes of a long tale. This tale, Iyad said, had gone from mouth to mouth until it reached some Turkish dignitary. And there were rumours, Iyad concluded, that a war might break out one day or another because of the coveted woman. The Poet implored Iyad to tell him the full tale, but in vain. Iyad rose to go, and took up his load and went away, after he had cried back: “I think you’d better leave the lands the soonest you can!”

      It was already dusk when the Poet returned to Ben Mahmood’s cottage. Ben Mahmood was squatting down by the door. The Poet greeted him coolly. Ben Mahmood echoed the greeting in quite the same tone. The Poet squatted close by and waited. A long silence fell between the two men. Neither of them looked at the other. At last Ben Mahmood rose to his feet and turned to enter his cottage. The Poet rose up and made to follow him. But as he was about to step into the house, Ben Mahmood swung round and pushed him back gently, saying: “No, you’ll not enter my house. Look for somewhere else to live.” Then he pushed the Poet backward and shut the door in his face. The Poet felt dizzy. He sank to the ground. His face clouded. After a while his mind became less foggy and he began to think… Where to go?  Who would accept to offer him shelter– after all that had happened…?...

      The Poet went back to the grove where he had met Iyad and sat under the same tree. And he thought. His thoughts led him to a decision. To go away. So he rose and trudged in the dark toward Larbi’s cottage. The Poet only wanted to get back the remaining horse, and it was only Larbi who could know where the horse might have been led in the last few days.

      The Poet knocked at the cottage’s door. El-Hussein came out and the Poet asked him to call ‘Mr Larbi’. Larbi appeared very soon afterwards, brandishing a thick, long stick in his right hand. The Poet dashed back at the sight of the stick.
      “Go away, you old bastard!” the old man snarled. “Go away!”
      “I only want the horse back!” the Poet cried from a safe distance.
      “What horse do I keep for you, you perfidious slave?” Larbi snapped back, raising the stick higher. “Go away, you nasty creature!”
      El-Hussein returned and stood at the door, watching. His grand-father waved the stick in the air and chased the Poet for a few yards. The Poet ran for his life and the old man went back to his cottage.

      The Poet went down the hill, panting. The moon had already risen and there was some faint light… So what to do now? After a brief moment’s hesitation the Poet decided to go around and knock at the doors of the closest cottages. He knocked at three doors but nobody accepted to house him even for one night. So he spent that night in the open. The next morning he knocked at four other doors but in vain. At noon he was very hungry and he had a bad cough. He wandered about until he reached the local mosque. He did not join the few people who attended the prayers. He only drank water from the mosque-well and washed his face and hands. Then he sat by the door of the small mosque. Nobody talked to him. The passers-by only glanced at him as they passed. The faithful came back for the next prayer. And yet not one came to the Poet, who just watched and thought. Should he beg people for bread? He, once a great poet, now a cringing beggar?... He thought of selling his clothes: Perhaps he could buy a humble jellaba and poor trousers instead and do something with the resulting money. But who would accept to buy from him?... He thought of working. But what kind of work could he do here? He thought of going round the markets: Perhaps he could live by begging for some time. But where’s the heart to do that?...

      The Poet  moved off. He went to the grove where he and Marqus had first stopped on arrival from Tlemsen. His cough worsened as the night cold began to blow. He slept very little that night.

      The Poet ate nothing throughout three long days. He only drank water at the mosque-well. And he spent the nights in the cold, lonely grove. He thought for a long time but his thoughts led him nowhere. So far, he could not leave these lands. His heart pleaded with him to stay and he hearkened to the voice of his heart. At no time had he so far tired of dreaming of Yamna. He also thought of Sultana. But Sultana was a thing of the past; now he had Yamna’s future at heart. The fourth day fell on a Thursday, the market-day.

      Weary, hungry and grieved, the Poet shuffled toward the market, halting at short intervals to take breath. When he was at last at the market-place, he whispered to five different men that he meant to sell some of his clothes and they all took him for a fool. Nobody accepted to buy any piece of the Poet’s clothes. But he was terribly hungry and he had no money on him. So what should he do? Beg? Why not– since there was no alternative? And he… begged! And he blushed each time he accosted a man. And what did he get after hours of begging? A few coins– scarcely sufficient to pay for a few cups of tea and pieces of bread. And when he sat in the tea-shop he could not hold his head up among the men around him. Someone poked fun at him…but he could not reply… Someone else tossed bread to the Poet. The Poet put the bread aside until he was alone, and then he ate it…..

      At night the Poet was in the grove. He was reclining with his back against the trunk of a tree. He was musing about his past, his present. He thought of the people he had known so far. He meditated upon life, religion… And suddenly he began to think aloud… Why? he cried. Why have I been treated so pitilessly? What have I done to deserve such a fate? Why–

      The Poet had no breath left to cry. He was very hungry and thirsty. Worse, he could no longer be on his legs. He was deeply grieved. And thus he went on thinking silently. But a particularly grim thought came up to throw him into an absolutely dark world. He thought of suicide… The temptation was wild and the Poet resisted desperately. All the gloomy images of his past and present unfurled before his eyes and yet he fought on stubbornly against the evil temptation… Since he was as good as dead, then why anticipate things?

      All of a sudden, the Poet hurled himself to the ground a few paces from the tree and then lay on his back. He feared he might dash his head against the trunk of the tree… 



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