Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Ten


Sunday went by uneventfully. On Monday, the Poet made a decision. He decided to enjoy his life by day and think about it by night. Although he had been a frequent guest at Abu Sufian's palace, which was often full of people, he had not really been a sociable man. He would shun society whenever he could. Now, he would be forced to deal with people. He had to be affable, beloved by all. If the mistress smiled at him he had to smile at her, too. If the boys played with him he had to play with them, too. If the Jew fumed at him he had to bow and be quiet. If the Christian teased him he had to put up with him. And this was exactly what he did on Monday and the following days.
      As early as this, the Poet learned that the mistress was named Sarah; that he would have to clear the sheds on Thursdays; that the boys came to take the cattle and sheep out to the pastures everyday except on Fridays; that two milkmen came every Tuesday to milk the cows and that they sold the milk in town; that this town was called Tlemsen and ruled by the Turks. But up to now, until this time, the Poet had no idea what Haroon's job was. Also he could not understand why his mistress was called "Sarah" and not "Sharah".
      Day after day and night after night the Poet strove to teach himself how to be a good slave. Within a few weeks of his arrival at Haroon's home, the mistress said to him: "You're the best servant we've ever had!" The Poet appreciated that. Indeed, he appreciated everything Sarah had done and still did. Sarah had suddenly become used to giving him an apple everyday, to his great delight. Sometimes, when she handed something to him or took something from him, she intentionally allowed her tender hands to touch his. And this thrilled him. Not only their hands touched. Their  bottoms, too. Sometimes the Poet himself sought for such opportunities. 
      By night, the Poet would reminisce about what happened by day. Although he often thought of Sarah, his mind would now and then go to Sultana, Ida, his brother, Marqus, the head in the box, and so on. Very seldom would he think of Haroon or Abu Sufian. Sarah seemed to have hit upon the right path leading to the hidden caverns of his heart. Wasn't she a witch? But this might endanger the Poet's life. And he was aware of that.
      If the Poet's attraction to Sarah was somewhat involuntary, his admiration of Marqus was rather spontaneous. Marqus was a strapping, brawny-armed man. And the Poet was jealous of him for that. He wished he had been as strong and healthy. Although he himself was tall, he now looked rather small by the side of Marqus. But that was not all. Marqus' piercing, guttural voice and dour looks, which were abominable to the Poet, were largely offset by his liveliness and jerkiness. These last two qualities often made the Poet blush, because he saw in them the virility he had always lacked. Indeed, Marqus was a good example of man. He was not a coward. He was at times hard and domineering, but not aggressive. He seemed to be white at heart. All these virtues fanned the flames of envy in the Poet's heart.
      Fortunately, the Poet did not live all the time with Marqus. So far, he had seen him several times. When they were together the Poet would not only seek to learn Turkish but also to learn how to be a man with a manly heart. Marqus often scoffed at him, but this hardly rankled in his mind. A good pupil should not be angry with his teacher. Three weeks after the first meeting with Marqus, the Poet seemed quite to have developed some sense of self-confidence.

      And thus everything ran rather smoothly until a Friday morning, about two and a half months after the Poet's arrival. On the eve of this day, nobody hit, barked or jeered at the Poet. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Poet was happier here than in Lehreem. Even Haroon was no longer a problem. Marqus was now so friendly that the Poet just opened his heart wide to him. The boys were frolicsome and respectful. Sarah was a very sympathetic, good-hearted woman. The climate, which had not agreed with the Poet two months ago, was now milder. So what happened?
      Sarah. She and the Poet were alone in Haroon's house. Sarah was wearing a light, transparent yellow robe girt up at the waists with a silver belt. Her hair was flowing down her back. She was wearing gold rings round her fingers. A gold necklace glittered at her throat and gold earrings swayed under her ears. She was sitting halfway upstairs when the Poet was coming from the direction of the cowshed. The Poet's heart roared. Not because Sarah was sitting there. That was not the first time. What made the Poet's heart roar was the sight of a long rope which Sarah was holding in her hands.
      "What about playing in this beautiful morning, Shalman?" said the mistress as the Poet stopped at the foot of the stairs and gaped.
      "Playing?" the Poet thought. He smiled uncertainly, but only in an attempt to conceal his confusion. He knew what Sarah wanted to play. She was fond of swinging. But Haroon was not at home now. The Poet himself had brought him a horse from the stable and he rode away. And Sarah had never had a swing during her husband's absence.
      “Now?” asked the Poet, rubbing his nape.
      “Yes, why not? Let’s go!” said Sarah as she rose and picked up a small pillow she had been sitting on and went upstairs, signing the Poet to follow her.
      The Poet had always dreamt of such an opportunity. He had always been filled with envy whenever he saw Haroon pushing Sarah while she sat on the swing. Now the opportunity had come. The Poet was happy, but afraid. He followed the mistress as she pranced on her way toward the orchard. There, the Poet took the rope from Sarah and fastened its two ends on a bough coming from the trunk of a huge fig-tree. The mistress was smiling, the Poet trembling. Now, Sarah placed the small pillow on the swing and sat on it. “Push!” she said. And the Poet pushed her forward. His heartthrobs were now ruthless, but he was happy.
      “Push! Like that! Once again!” These were the same cries the Poet had heard before. And his heart had jumped within him at each cry, out of envy of Haroon. Now it was the Poet himself who was pushing this queen of beauty. And yet his heart still jumped violently within him, this time out of fear of Haroon. The house entry door was ajar and Haroon could erupt at any moment now. The Poet was in great suspense. On the one hand, he wanted to enjoy these happy, transient moments with Sarah. On the other hand, he dreaded what Haroon might do if he caught him there. Sarah, who had probably been aware of his uneasiness, was now filling the air with joyful cries. Not only that. She deliberately sought to touch his hands, which were clutching the rope. She even asked him to push her on the back. Sometimes her snow-white arms and legs slipped out of her robe, and the Poet took notice of everything. After some time, Sarah said:
      “Now slow down the pace! Push gently!”
      “Right, madam!” replied the Poet, wondering what Sarah would do next.
      Then Sarah coughed twice and said in her usual bewitching voice:
      “Are you afraid of Haroon?”
      “Ye-es,” the Poet replied in a hesitant tone.
      “He’s away. Don’t be afraid. Tell me, how have you found us?”
      “Kind people.”
      “Really?” Sarah paused, and then said, “Shalman, you said you’ve been married. Can I know when and where?”
      “In my homeland,” the Poet replied hurriedly. “Three years ago.”
      “You were both of you slaves?”
      “No. My wife had been one of our Amir’s maidens and he gave her to me and I married her.”
      “He gave her to you? For what?”
      “I was his favourite poet.”
      “Ah then you are a poet!” Sarah roared with laughter.
      “I was, madam!”
      Sarah stopped laughing suddenly, and said:
      “And what happened next?”
      “Well, my wife chose to be a good Muslim woman. She gave up all her past habits. Only she, perhaps, pushed a little too far.”
      “How?”
      “She began to advise some of the women in the neighbourhood against letting the Amir take their daughters away from them. For the Amir used to take away all the most beautiful girls he clapped eyes on.” Sarah did not laugh, contrary to what the Poet had expected. She only listened attentively as he went on speaking like a sleep-walker: “The Amir didn’t like that and he imprisoned my wife. I tried to persuade him to liberate her, but in vain. Three years after that, I could bear no more. And so it happened that I galled the Amir during a party and he dismissed me from the palace. Then he tried me. I was sold into slavery. And here I am a slave of yours.”
      “Did you have children with your wife?”
      “She was pregnant when the Amir imprisoned her and I don’t know what happened afterwards.”
      “Don’t worry! Now, push! Push hard!”
      And the Poet pushed hard. Sarah’s joyful cries came back and filled the air. When she had swung enough, she cried: “That’s enough!” And then she put her feet to the ground and swung round and asked the Poet to unfasten the rope. He unfastened and carried it with the pillow in his hands. In the meanwhile Sarah picked figs and then gave two to the Poet. He took them with a trembling hand as he glanced at Sarah’s glowing face.
      “Do you have figs in your homeland?” Sarah asked, chewing.
      “We have dates,” the Poet replied in a tremulous voice.
      “And figs?”
      “The Amir and his richest men have some.”
      The mistress turned aside and went toward the flowers. She bent down to smell some and, as she rose up, glanced back at the Poet and said:
      “And flowers, don’t you have them?”
      “The Amir and his richest men have some.”
      Sarah laughed. She picked a red rose and stepped back toward the Poet, who was leaning his back against the trunk of the fig-tree.
      “See?” Sarah said, looking at the rose and then at the Poet’s face. “What’s the red for you, you poet?”
      “I like it.”
      “What colour was your wife?” Sarah asked, fingering the rose-petals.
      “Brown. She had black eyes and brows. And a red mouth and white teeth.”
      The Poet could not quell a sigh as he said this. Sarah understood. She turned and began to go toward the well but she halted and beckoned the Poet to come and go at her side. The Poet was by her side in a flash. He was still carrying the rope and the pillow. Sarah resumed her sprightly walk and was soon sitting on the coping of the well. The Poet stood in front of her. From time to time he glanced round at the rear door. Although he felt somewhat happy in his heart, his eyes were now sad and pleading. The head in the box had come to his mind and he wondered how he couldn’t have the same destiny if Haroon had to come in just now. Sarah seemed to have read all these feelings on his face and probably had deliberately kept quiet for a moment to see how he would react. Apart from flickering blushes and uncertain frowns the Poet’s face did not show much signs of alarm. But at the sound of the first dogs' piercing bark he started up and leapt round to glance at the rear door. Sarah laughed. And then she said, swinging her legs against the coping of the well:
      “I said Haroon is away! Simmer down! Don’t you believe what I say?”
      “I believe you, madam. Only I’m not accustomed to such situations.”
      “I’m surprised to learn that the favourite poet of an amir should be frightened so easily!”
      The Poet felt deeply ashamed. And confused. His illusive, transient happiness had gone altogether. He did not know what to say or do. The mistress spoke in his place.
      “Last time you told me you are a Saharan,” Sarah said sarcastically. “It seems there’s no Saharan blood in your veins at all!”
      The Poet kept unmoved. His mind wandered back to the day he and Sultana were heading for Bani Abeed. That was the first time he had plunged into the desert without the company of another man. And that was only a little more than three years ago. Sultana had asked him to take her to Bani Abeed and have their wedding there and he could not say no. He had already fallen deeply in love with her and was then ready to die with her in the desert. He had heard stories about wild animals sowing terror in some parts of the Sahara and yet he had gone.  Sultana had perhaps sensed his fear and did all she could to encourage him. The Poet still remembered up to this day that his heart had begun to throb violently as soon as they had left Lehreem and it had not calmed down until they reached Bani Abeed.
      “I see your mind has gone somewhere,” Sarah said abruptly.
      “Eh?”
      “I said, what were you thinking about?”
      “Nothing.”
      “How nothing? Weren’t you thinking of something just now?”
      “Eh? I was thinking of my wife.”
      “Your wife! Emm! Your wife! Which woman in the world would wish to be your wife? I can’t believe you’ve ever had a wife!”
      The Poet raised his eyes and looked at the mistress dumbfounded. He spoke no word. He only waited for her to finish speaking.
      “Just let’s suppose you had a wife,” Sarah said unmannerly. “Have there been any other women in your life? Don’t say there have!”
      The Poet, whose feelings were deeply hurt by Sarah’s unexpected acerbities, stalled a moment before he spoke.
      “Yes,” he said in a rather defiant tone. “Several ones.”
      Sarah roared with laughter, and said:
      “Several ones, indeed? If I can believe you, these must be certainly prostitutes who wouldn’t be taken even for free!”
      What the Poet had said was not a lie. He had had access to several maidservants, by permission of the five Amirs. He had also meant Ida. And yet he was more incensed than surprised at Sarah’s latest remark. He had just bowed his head and kept quiet. For he was too angry to speak. So it was Sarah who spoke next.
      “Just tell me one, only one of your several stories?” she challenged.
      The Poet’s patience and endurance had now really been exhausted. He could burst out at any moment now. He had just failed to understand what the mistress had to do with his own life-story. What would be the difference to her if he had had a wife or not, if he was a coward or a brave, or if there had been women in his life? He was really worked up. Yet, he found Sarah’s latest question worth an answer.
      “Our Amir had many maidens but only one wife,” the Poet said, staring Sarah into the face. “This woman proposed to marry me.”
      “The Amir’s wife proposed to marry you?” Sarah screamed. She then burst into laughter. For a few moments her sides kept shaking with hysterical laughter.
      The Poet was infuriated by Sarah’s impudence. He felt a satanic impulse to push her into the well but he resisted it just in time. He paced a few steps backward and shouted:
      “Your remarks have hurt me deeply, madam!”
      Sarah jumped to her feet and shouted back:
      “You shout at me, you nasty donkey!”
      As soon as Sarah had finished those words, the Poet frowned at her and hurled the rope and the pillow to the ground and swung round and flew to his room. He jumped onto his bed and lay full length. Anger and fear shared his heart between them. In no time Sarah barged into his room with a stick in her hand, shouting madly:
      “What do you think you are, you nasty, stupid donkey?”
      She did not wait for an answer, for she had already lammed into him and begun to hit him hard blows on the legs and arms. The Poet just jumped out of the bed and began to dodge about in the room as Sarah pursued him, brandishing the stick and snarling:
      “Tell me, you son of prostitution! Do you think I was bantering with you? Eh? Where would you escape now? Today you’ll see the real Haroon! The Haroon who will gouge out your intestines! If only he came back just now!...”
      Suddenly, the Poet burst out in a shaky voice:
      “I’m not a nasty donkey! I’m not a son of prostitution!”
      And he flung himself on the mistress and pulled the stick out of her hands and broke it across his leg. Both he and the mistress were now panting. The mistress then just leant her back against the wall and stood speechless, but kept glaring at the Poet’s red face with her fiery eyes. As for the Poet, he darted a last glance at his mistress, and then he buried his face in his hands and blundered towards the bed. He sat on the bed, rested his elbows on his knees and burst into sobs. Soon afterwards, Sarah pouted and flung out of the room, shouting:
      “If only Haroon came back just now!”


      About a quarter of an hour later, the Poet was resting in bed thinking of what had just happened. Fear had petrified him. He thought of running away, but the remembrance of the head in the box in the other room was strong enough to dash all his hopes. Also the boys had told him at the pastures that all the outskirts were infested with Turkish patrolmen. And now time was running out. Haroon could erupt into this room at any moment now. And with him death. For the Poet no more questioned this eventuality.
      He remembered Sarah’s latest red face and baleful looks and then the head in the box and then he simply stopped thinking.
      Like someone who suddenly emerged from a long-time coma, the Poet stirred on his bed nearly half an hour later. He rubbed his face with the palms of his hands and rose up, sighing. He glanced at the two pieces of the broken stick lying on the floor and moved toward them. He bent down and picked up each piece with one hand and wore his shoes and left the room silently. He glanced onto the courtyard and at the kitchen door, but saw nobody. His heart throbbed. He ambled toward the backstairs and then went down into the backyard. He went straight toward the rope and the pillow. He picked them up and drew near the rear outside wall and threw the two pieces of the stick in the direction of the heaps of manure. Then he had a walk round the house and put the rope and the pillow down beside the kitchen door, and coughed. He waited a few moments. The house entry door was open. And so was the door of Haroon’s room. The Poet waited and waited but no one came or spoke to him. So he simply turned round and went back to his room. He lay down again in his bed and began to wait impatiently for Haroon’s return.
      Night fell and Haroon was still away. The Poet, who had not been able to stay all the rest of the day in his room, had had several strolls both in the courtyard and around the backyard. The mistress had merely disappeared. Until nightfall the rope and the pillow were still by the kitchen-door. The Poet didn’t know what to do with them. So he left them there. At this time, he had closed the entry door. But the doors of the kitchen and Haroon’s room were still open. The Poet could do nothing about them.
      Although the Poet had given up his five daily prayers for months now, he had always resorted to deep informal prayers whenever he found himself in a difficult situation. So today again he prayed. And his prayers were the only comfort to him on this black day. Unfortunately, his fear was tremendous. He did not want to die young. So his most recurrent prayer was, “O God preserve me!”
      After long hours of weary, hopeless waiting, the Poet decided to go back to his room and not get out until cock-crow. So he lay in bed hungry and profoundly apprehensive of Haroon’s return. Haroon, for some affair or other, had spent many nights away in the past. But even if he was absent this night too, the unhoped-for battle with the mistress was not yet over. The Poet’s thoughts were, therefore, far dimmer than ever before. These thoughts followed one another in his mind until he fell asleep, some time in the middle of the night. 

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER


No comments: