Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Twelve


Those were ten happy days. The eleventh day was strange enough for the Poet to think it would probably seal his fate. Sarah had changed suddenly. From morning to evening she did not greet, smile or say a good word to the Poet. Haroon was absent all that day long. So when the Poet had finished all that day’s work he regained his room to sleep. He was deeply dismayed at Sarah’s abrupt change. She had not even given him his dinner this night! And this was enough to shatter his morale. Sarah was his beloved. He had never entrusted this secret to anybody, but he loved his mistress secretly and deeply. Even when he had told Marqus abut Sarah, he had not said that he loved her. He had told him anything but this. So the Poet thought about this for two or three hours that night.

      Suddenly, in the middle of the night, a light filled the Poet’s room. So he removed the sheet from his face and turned toward the door. It was Sarah, carrying an oil-lamp in her left hand and a bowl in her right. “You madam?” said the Poet, having nothing else to say. Sarah glanced at the floor, then at the Poet’s face and moved forward and sat on the bedside, close to the Poet’s feet. She put down the oil-lamp on the floor and turned to hand the bowl to the Poet, who had now gathered himself and sat upright, close to his mistress. All his fears had revived instantly. So he began to eat from the bowl with a shivering hand. He did not wash his hands before eating. He did not ask questions. He merely sat beside his mistress and beloved and ate silently. In the meanwhile Sarah had cupped her chin in her right hand and rested her eyes on the floor. She looked absentminded. Now and then the Poet glanced furtively at her. She was wearing a blue nightdress and her hair hung on her back. At long last, she turned to the Poet and asked, as she glanced at the bowl:
      “Finished?”
      “Yes madam,” replied the Poet, slightly puzzled.
      Actually, he had not finished. But his fears pushed him to say yes. Without any more words, Sarah took the bowl gently from the Poet’s hand and picked up the oil-lamp and left the room. She did not say good night. The Poet’s heart beat fast. He was once again amazed and thoroughly captivated by this inscrutable woman.

      Then, the Poet lay on his right side and wrapped all his body but the face in the sheets. He resumed his thoughts by muttering this: “I live a life of adventure.” So far nothing dangerous had happened, though. The mistress had merely brought him his dinner. And the master was still away. But why had Sarah herself brought him the bowl until the length and breath of his room? This had never happened before. And what had she been thinking about when he had been eating? The Poet had affected not to care. But all his body was shivering with fear and desire. A woman could easily discern such an affectation of indifference. Soon afterwards Sarah put an end to these unending thoughts by her new coming into the Poet’s room. This time she came without the oil-lamp. She just coughed at the door to indicate her presence and immediately afterwards blundered toward the bed. The Poet rose, aghast, and asked in a shaky voice:
      “Is there any problem, madam?”
      Sarah hesitated, then said:
      “No, there’s no problem. I only need to be- well, I’ve suddenly felt lonely. Haroon’s away, you know. And- shall I sleep with you?”
      Stunned, the Poet could not reply at once. He just frowned, lowered his eyes and thought briefly before he replied uncomfortably:
      “You’re welcome, madam. Come!”
      Sarah removed one side of the sheets and lay beside the Poet. And they slept together in utter darkness.

      The first cock-crow found the Poet and Sarah alone in their respective rooms. When they met again, in the morning, the Poet found it hard to look his mistress in the eye. Sarah smiled at his shyness but did not comment in words. She only said, when she gave him his breakfast: “Haroon will be back in the afternoon. Don’t look abashed before him!” The Poet nodded lamely and moved away.

      The Poet had not had such a good, rich breakfast for months. This morning he ate bread with butter and honey, two eggs, nuts and almonds, and drank a big cup of hot milk. Later in the day Sarah gave him two sweet, succulent apples. And she smiled at him a smile that cleansed his heart of all past sorrows. Indeed, when he was working on the fields that day he felt more overjoyed than worried. He knew for sure that his master would return in the afternoon. So he prepared himself for that decisive moment. At last, Haroon came back and the Poet met him near the alley leading into the house.
      “How’s the work going?” asked Haroon, as he alighted from his horse and handed a basket to the Poet.
      “Everything’s doing well, Master.”
      Haroon frowned slightly and asked again:
      “Mm. What were you doing now?”
      “I’ve been finishing the sowing, Sir,” the Poet stuttered.
      Haroon looked up and gazed at his servant for a while. Then he moved into the house. The Poet followed him silently, with the basket in his hand.
      As Haroon stepped into the house, he called:
      “Sarah?”
      The Poet nearly went mad with fear. But he knew that he had to keep mastery of his wild heart. Otherwise he could not fight against the impulse to do what should not be done. Sarah appeared at the door of her room and then moved toward her husband. They met beside the fountain and greeted each other. The Poet’s heart was about to break down.
      “Has this one done anything wrong?” Haroon asked his wife, pointing at the Poet, who was standing at a safe distance.
      “Oh, no! Why?” Sarah snapped with a Satanic smile.
      “Well, I see he’s stuttering and-”
      “No, no,” Sarah interrupted, to the Poet’s great relief. “There’s no problem. Let him be!”
      Haroon roved his eyes from Sarah to the Poet, then back to Sarah. But Sarah intervened.
      “Shall we stay here like this? Go, you, go to your work!”
      The Poet bowed and fled away. He led the horse into the stable and flew back to the field, with a dark face. He went on with his work and waited impatiently for Haroon’s last word. His verdict.

      Sunset came, then the evening and the night, and nothing happened. But the Poet could not yet heave the deep sigh of relief until Haroon appeared on the following morning and asked him to take the wood-and-leather chair to the orchard.

      All that day, too, went peacefully by. Four days later Sarah told the Poet that Haroon would spend the night away. And he understood easily. For he began to wait impatiently for nightfall. The night fell and Sarah came to sleep with him.                   

      The next day the Poet felt on top f the world. He had told Sarah that he loved her and replied: "And so do I!" And on the morning of this very day he had confided to her that he was afraid, and she advised him not to worry. "As long as I am alive," she said, "there's nothing you should fear." All this happened at the kitchen-door. Now the Poet was with the boys on the pastures. He was tooling happily, and the boys sang to his tunes:

      For your soul, for your eyes, for you only,
      I still sing, I still smile; I'm not lonely!
      For you're nice; oh warm and lovely!
      O please don't laugh if I loved you madly!

         

      When he was on the way back to his master's home, he was gripped by an irresistible impulse to go to Marqus and tell him about all hat had happened during these last six days. But Haroon had not yet allowed him to go to Marqus. Even if the Poet had the permission to go, would he really be able to breathe just one more word to Marqus? Certainly not. Yet, the Poet fearfully wanted someone to confide in. He felt that he could not resist this wild desire for a long time.

      The last eighteen days had passed like a dream. Sarah had done the unthinkable. At first the Poet had imagined only in dreams that this queen of beauty would one day gather him in her arms like a baby. And in so doing she helped him push out of his mind any thought of running away. Now, he wanted earnestly to stay, at any rate. For he now loved Sarah as deeply as he had loved Sultana before her. Oh Sultana? What could he do about her? He had not come here of his own accord. Then, what could a slave, like himself, do far away from his home?”

      Once the Poet had finished plowing and sowing his master’s lands, he was commanded to work henceforth in the house in the morning and in the fields in the afternoon. Indeed, there was little to do in the fields. Even in the house Sarah would not bore him with unnecessary chores. Sarah and the Poet were on their best terms these days. They had suddenly become like real friends. But they knew that this must be concealed from the master and Marqus. Of course, Marqus had no idea of what had happened after that latest row over the thought of running away. But the Poet still wondered how their next meeting would be like.

      A few days later Haroon was away, and so Sarah came by night into the Poet’s room carrying the oil-lamp in one hand and the dinner in the other. She had come to dine with him. So they sat on the mat and put the tray with the bowls and plates between them and the oil-lamp on their side. On the tray were also a cup of water and two of wine.
      “Where has he gone, your rascal of a husband?” the Poet said, somewhat confidently, when he had begun eating.
      Sarah gazed in amazement and then replied gently:
      “Rascal? How dare you say that of my husband?”
      The Poet smiled confusedly. Then there was a long silence, after which Sarah spoke.
      “What are you thinking about?” she asked, chewing.
      “Of you,” the Poet replied simply.
      “Really?”
      “Then who else?”
      “And your wife?”
      “You said I had none!”
      “I was just joking. Now I believe all you’d said to me.”
      The Poet felt happy. Now he could no longer resist the impulse to ask his beloved the question that had long puzzled him.
      “Madam,” he began hesitantly, “I have a question to ask you. May I?”
      “Yes, speak.”
      “Well, I don’t understand you, madam. You are my mistress. You are very, very beautiful. You have a kind husband and he’s a Jw like yourself-”
      “I see what you’re aiming at,” Sarah interrupted, and lifted the cup of water to her beautiful mouth. When she had drunk, she continued: “I am not a Jewess.”
      “What!” the Poet exclaimed, surprised.
      “My real name is Yamna. It’s only him who called me Sarah.” She sighed.
      Puzzled, the Poet said:
      “I don’ understand. Do you mean you’re –you’re a Muslim?”
      “I should say I was born a Muslim,” Sarah sighed. Probably to avoid more questions, she continued in a clearly melancholic tone:
      “I was born in Fez to a poor family. We lived in the outskirts of Fez. One day I happened to be with my father downtown Fez when a fight suddenly broke out. I was only five or six years old then. In no time I saw people dashing in every direction. Men clashed with men. Some men soon fell dead or injured on the ground. In a flash my own father disappeared. As to me, I just howled, having nothing else to do. And in the midst of the mad crowd someone picked my by the arm and flung me to his chest and flew away. It was an old man. He hid me somewhere and when the battle seemed to have been over he took me by night to a house a short distance from Fez. And there he reared me like a daughter until I was ten or twelve. That old man lived only with his old wife. So when I was that age he came one night and raped me. And thus, he said, I became his second wife.” At this point tears gushed from her eyes. She could utter no more words.

      The Poet was astounded. What should he say or do? He merely rose and left the room. He bent over the balcony-wall and stood weeping. After quite a long while Sarah left the room with the lamp and he tray. And before she went downstairs she said to the Poet in an unsteady voice: “I’m coming back.” The Poet just nodded and waited a moment before he regained his bed. Sarah came back and lay beside him on the bed, in the darkness.

      As soon as day broke Sarah prepared breakfast and invited the Poet to sit at her side on the edge of the fountain, where they ate together. Sarah looked confident and grave.
      “Don’t be afraid,” she said to the Poet as he sat beside her. “Haroon won’t come now. Besides the entry door is closed, you see.”
      “How should I be afraid when you are with me, Yamna!”
      Sarah swung round and said in a loud whisper:
      “Sh! Never spell that name again. Mind! Do you want us to perish here?”
      “Your wish is my command, madam. I’m sorry.”
      “Then, tell me: have you ever told that fellow of yours anything of me?”
      “Oh, no! How could it be, madam?” the Poet snapped, alarmed.
      “Be careful!”
      After a little silence, the Poet spoke.
      “May I know the rest of your story?” he asked, somewhat hesitantly.
      Sarah, who seemed to have been waiting only for this of all questions, replied in a moving voice:
      “Yes.” Then she paused and after a sigh, she added: “That wicked old man enjoined me to be confided to his shack. Two years after the rape, the old woman –I mean, his first wife- disappeared. At sixteen or seventeen I bore him a girl and two years later I bore him another girl. At the age of twenty I was pregnant again when, one night, a band of four men erupted into our room and pounced upon the old man and me. We were sleeping together. So two of those men fell on me and closed my mouth with a scarf that they fastened round my head. The other two fell simultaneously on the old man and strangled him. To make sure he was dead they ran a sword several times through his body. One of the bandsmen carried me like a child in his arms out of the house. Then another one folded my eyes and drugged me and when I recovered consciousness I found myself in a smart house.
      “Later on I learnt that I lived in Wajda. Do you know where Wajda is?”
      “Yes,” replied the Poet, interested. “Go on!”
      “Well,” Sarah sighed. “I was delivered of that third child in Wajda. The child disappeared immediately after birth. Then I found myself living with the man you know by the name of Haroon. He married me, he said. And I lived like a recluse in his house, which then abounded with people. I hate them all and they all hated me. I hated their habits, their meals, their odours. And then when Haroon impregnated me he drove me away from his family. We lived two years in Taza, where I bore him his first child, a boy. The following child came into the world two years later, in Cosantine. After that we came here. I bore him the third child in succession.”
      “Where are they, these three children?” the Poet asked, curiously.
      “They live with Haroon’s family in Wajda. I see them only once or twice a year. Haroon fears that if they lived with me I would give them an Islamic education. In truth, I have grown to hate them, too! What makes them even more hateful to me is that they all three bear Jewish names. Their names are respectively Moshe (six years), Hayim (four years) and Laura (two years). Now, let’s leave it here; I’ll tell you more next time. But mind! If you let out one word both of us will be burned!”
      “Oh no, how could it be, madam!” the Poet said, smiling uncertainly.
      After breakfast, the Poet went on with his daily work in some confusion. He had believed every word Sarah had said. But he could not understand why she had chosen to tell him her own life-story. Perhaps what had happened to her in her unhappy life accounted for what had happened on his own bed. But why him personally? Had Sarah (or Yamna) done such things with other servants before him? Certainly there was nothing which would make Sarah favour him above all the other slaves who had served her. A big piece of the puzzle was yet Haroon’s habit of changing abodes. Why had he gone from town to town? And so went on one question after another in the Poet’s mind as the day wore on…

      In the afternoon Haroon came back home with a dark face. The Poet had just glanced at him once and taken the basket into the house. Then he led the horse into the stable and headed for the pastures. The lands had already worn an impressive coat of green. Migrating birds filled the air with their merry twitters. The lambs were beginning to fall. Indeed, everything was there to inspire joy. But the dark colour of Haroon’s face today had started the Poet thinking deeply of every likely reason. Soon he was back into the house. Sarah told him at the entry door that Harron had called for him. So the Poet begged her to go and see what Haroon had wanted him for. She went into her room and came out to tell the Poet. “Go and take the chair to the orchard,” she whispered. “And mind out! Don’t stay there. He’s very angry today.” The Poet flew upstairs, took the chair to the orchard, placed it against the trunk of the huge fig-tree and vanished out of the house.

      He went again to the pastures. One of the boys there asked him why he looked so abashed today. “My master is ill,” he replied unconvincingly. In truth, the Poet was deeply apprehensive. There was no doubt in his mind that Haroon was undergoing some nasty experience. He had spent more nights away in the last few weeks than in all the previous time since the Poet’s arrival. Why? Was there anything wrong with his family in Wajda or anywhere else?

      Haroon stayed in the orchard, reading and probably thinking, until the evening. In the meantime Sarah and the Poet had exchanged looks that spoke of their great uneasiness and anxiety. For the first time Sarah had betrayed to the Poet that she was afraid. How much more was the Poet, who was by nature a coward? The night came and the Poet had plenty of time to ponder these mysterious happenings. Well after dawn he was still sleeping.

      The next morning Haroon went to sit under the fig-tree in the orchard. He stayed there until lunchtime. “Keep calm,” Sarah warned the Poet at first. Then she warned him to keep a sharp eye and a sharp ear. The Poet had replied meekly: “Whatever you say, madam!”
      Haroon left home in the afternoon. At night Sarah came into the Poet’s room with light and dinner. That night the Poet ate very little but drank too much. He drank one gulp of wine after another as Sarah, sitting in front of him on the mat, unfolded another chapter of her tale.
      “…At first,” she said in a moving voice, “Haroon had no trust at all in me. He would not eat from my cooking unless I ate first. He would never allow me any contact with other men, including  his two brothers. Still in those first days with him he had nearly lost me when, one very beautiful morning, he led me into one of his private rooms. He made me to stand near the door and he stepped over to a big iron safe  in one corner of the room. He opened the safe and took from it a dazzling gold necklace. He stepped back to me and fastened the lace round my neck. I felt some pleasure in that. Then he insisted that I go myself and take from the safe whatever piece of gold I chose. Since he insisted too much I went toward the safe with a beating heart. And no sooner had I opened the safe and looked into it than I uttered a deafening scream and then fainted. Do you know what I saw in the safe?” The Poet   just gazed as he listened dumbfounded to his beloved’s story. “I saw an adder wriggling on its every side!” Sarah gasped. The Poet just gaped as she continued: “Later on I found out that Haroon’s a master of deception.
      “When we went away from his family he made it his habit to bring into his house one servant only. And even such a servant, I have noticed, must be weak in build. No slave has served us more than one year. You too will go one day in the few months to come. This, of course, if nothing odious happens in the meantime.”
      Suddenly, Sarah broke off. She had probably noticed that the Poet could hear no more. So he simply added:
      “Just forget all about this now and let us have a good night.” Then she rose from the mat, picked up the lamp and the tray, and left the room. After a moment she came back without the lamp and nestled in bed against the Poet.

      Early on the following morning they met in the courtyard, where they had breakfast together. Then Sarah took the Poet on a tour round some of the many rooms of the house. They stopped first at the door of the room where Haroon and Sarah usually spent their day and night.
      “You must have noticed that Haroon and I spent most of our time in this room,” Sarah said, pointing at the golden curtain. “In fact this serves us as a living-room, a dining-room, a dining-room and a sleeping-room at the same time. I can’t show it to you, but it’s really smart.”
      “Why don’t you want to show it to me?” asked the Poet smilingly. “Don’t you trust me? Haven’t I given you my word?”
      “I do trust you,” replied Sarah uneasily. “But I know Haroon. If he had any strong suspicions he wouldn’t hesitate to wring confessions from you. Besides, I don’t see any point in showing your master’s room to you.”
      “I know, madam. I was only fooling.”
      “Then let’s move on to that one.”
      And thus they moved from one door to another. Sarah showed the Poet where Haroon placed his money and gold, his clothes, medicines, furniture, arms, dry-fruits, drinks, and so on. After that, Sarah advised the Poet to join the herd-boys. But before he left he begged his mistress for a cup of wine. She brought it to him and he gulped it down and went out.

      At the pastures he tootled and sang with the boys. And he stayed with them until they warned him that it was high time for lunch. He brought them their lunch and ate with them, absentmindedly.

      Haroon did not return in the afternoon. Both Sarah and the Poet wondered why. Night fell but they could not dine together or meet in the Poet’s room. “I’m quite sure there’s some dreadful thing in the offing,” Sarah had said to the Poet when she gave him his dinner. The Poet’s reply was: “May God keep us!”

      The following day passed and there was no sign of Haroon. In the middle of the night Sarah slunk into the Poet’s room in the darkness.
      “Salman, wake!” she whispered.
      But Salman was already awake. How could he sleep? So he rose quickly and made a place for Sarah at his side. When Sarah sat next to him, she said in an uneasy voice:
      “I’m afraid, Salman.”
      “If you are afraid,” replied the Poet, “what should I say, I? We’re all in the same boat. Both of us are fellows in misfortune.”
      “I don’t know what’s going on,” said Sarah gravely, pausing after each utterance. “The Haroon of these days frightens me. For weeks now the main topic of his talks with me revolves around the Turks, the Arabs, Islam, war. I don’t understand. Sometimes I say he fears for his business.” The Poet wanted to know what this business was, but he preferred to keep quiet and let Sarah continue what she had begun. “But I can’t say for sure what’s happening to him. Haroon has altered a great deal since you came, as if you were an ill omen! He no longer eats with appetite, or sleeps at ease. Try as I would I can’t make him enjoy his nights with me. If we do anything of that we do it silently. Sometimes if I dare speak he would immediately be wound up to a fury. I should admit that sometimes it wounds my heart to see him suffering. And since he doesn’t want to tell me what he’s suffering from, I just content myself with putting my questions to myself. And I drown my sorrows in drink.”
      “And yet,” the Poet commented quite naively, “I find you a very wonderful woman. You keep cheerful even when things are at their worst.”
      Sarah pressed the Poet’s hand as she glanced at him, and said, with a sigh:
      “This time I will crumble to death.”
      “Oh, no! Why should you?”
      A deathly silence descended on the room. After a while Sarah said in a dismal voice:
      “Some things are better left unsaid.”
      “You have lacerated me now, Yamna. Why don’t you want to tell me what’s going on in your mind?”
      “I don’t see any point in telling you.”
      “Why ever not?”
      After a pause, Sarah replied, looking fixedly at the Poet:
      “I have thought of running away. What could you do about that?”
      The Poet was at a loss for a time. It all looked as if Sarah had poured on him a bucket of cold water. Sarah understood. So she spared him the reply.
      “I know you can do nothing about that,” she said, now looking in the direction of the floor. And after a pause, she added: “It never entered my head to ask you to take me away from this house and this land. You’re still a weakling and I don’t blame you for that. Both you and I are in affliction and need someone else to help us.”
      The Poet, who felt slightly affronted by Sarah’s untimely remarks, braced himself and asked in a shaky voice:
      “Are you serious- do you really mean to run away?”
      “Don’t you see I’m deeply agitated? I don’t know what’s happening around me and I’m night and day agog for news. What should make me cling to life here? But where’s the man who can save me and take me far away?”
      The Poet, who was now deeply provoked, just looked on in agony at his mistress. He thought of Marqus. But what should he say of him? He couldn’t have the heart to mention Marqus as a probable saviour. Wasn’t he a man himself? But Sarah interrupted his thoughts.
      “What are you thinking about?” she asked in a gloomy tone.
      “I really no longer know what to think,” the Poet replied with a sigh. “I myself want to run away.” And after a brief moment’s hesitation, he ventured to add: “Marqus has once mentioned this subject to me.”
      “On what occasion?” interrupted Sarah, alarmed.
      “I don’t know,” the Poet stuttered.
      “Have you told him anything-”
      “Oh, no! How could it be?”
      Then there was a long silence. After that Sarah lay on her back and said: “Let’s sleep.” And there they slept until cock-crow.  

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER


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