“…how is this nonsense possible, that the enemies of Kush are copies of the Kushite enemies of Pharaonic Egypt?” ~ L. Török, “Kush and the External World”
Sarah sets the kettle on the hob. She bends and fans the fire, her face aglow for a moment, molten bronze. When she stands up, her color fades in the gloom of the little house with its high windows, that house built like a ship. Tight and trim as a yacht stands the little house, the wind beats hard against the high windows, and Sarah’s father with a blanket over his knees, her father the old seafarer with a black–bordered card grasped tight in one hand, draws his chair to the fire and clears his throat.
“Poor George, poor George! Well, he would keep his vow, he said; and so he has; we shall never meet again in this life. Poor fellow! Listen, my girl, when you go out, just stop by the Widow Cobb’s, you know the place, at the end of the lane, and see if she has any lilies. We’ll send them over to George’s poor wife. It’s kind of her to remember me after all these years—‘remember’ in a manner of speaking—we never met. George must have spoken of me to her, and kept my address among his papers… my God, Sally, but Man is a curious beast!
“I’ll tell you a strange thing. The first time I was struck by the mystery that is Man, this same George Barnes, whose death has just been announced, was at my side. It was in the Sudan, at Meroe, and the two of us were making our way north to Cairo for a bit of a holiday. We were young and hardy then, but even so, our recent misadventures in the forests had brought us both down—George was so green about the gills, he was practically silver—and we longed for entertainment and pleasure. There was little of either in the dusty villages we passed on our way up the Nile, but the tombs of Meroe promised a diversion. At the time, I considered myself an amateur archaeologist, and it was with great excitement that I packed our Spartan picnic of bread and dried fish. There was also a jug of the native beer called merissa, which George wrapped in a towel as if it had been an infant. I can still see him astride his donkey, his long legs dangling comically on either side, his head swathed in a turban of blinding whiteness…
“He was a child, you know. Little more than a child. His father, whom George described as a ‘holy terror,’ had sent him to sea at the age of twelve, and George, whose nose had been permanently flattened by the fist of this same father, had set off gladly enough. The sea washed him to and fro for a number of years, with its cruelties and privations, the worst of them brought about by the men he served on ship after ship—for sea life is unkind to the small and weak, as I know from experience, though I was twenty when I left home for the waves. I was twenty, and tall, and broad, and George was a slip of a creature with gingery hair, and when we met years later in the Congo forest, natives of the same city, employees at the same plantation, I was thirty and solid as an anvil, and George, though the same age, was still a child. Was it because he’d been robbed of his childhood? Perhaps some men never grow old. What pleasure he took in our excursion to the tombs! He named his donkey Annabelle. He could whistle like a lark—it was his crooked teeth, he said. To think that George, even young George, is dead.”
The kettle sings. Sarah takes it off the fire and brews the tea. Soft steam, loamy fragrance, while the wind blows. She fetches her father’s pipe from the shelf and helps him to light it. He grunts his thanks, a hollow rumble deep in his wintry throat. She takes the black–bordered card from his hand and reads it beneath a window. If there are lilies, she will take them to this address. She knows the street, a poor but respectable street much like her own. It’s near the Free Church—a building Sarah has passed often, but never entered. Once a young woman stopped her and gave her a pamphlet about that church, a dark and quiet woman with startling liquid eyes… The address on the card is just beyond there, not more than a few doors down. She’ll wear her large bonnet. She’ll knock at the kitchen door.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Lilies. For the funeral.”
For a moment, she will look into the woman’s face. Perhaps she’ll catch it before the expression twists, before it becomes like all the others, molded by the same stamp, indistinguishable. Part of the fog.
“Thank you, my dear. Would you help—just a little closer—yes, now I feel the warmth at last. I shan’t scorch my beard, don’t worry! Now George, as I was telling you… George who’s laid in a box, God rest him! I suppose it ought to make us grateful we can still feel the nip of this blasted autumn… George was a merry lad, for all he’d been kicked about the globe like a stone in an alley. Down where we worked, at the teak plantation, the natives gave him a name I can’t pronounce—your poor mother could tell you, if she weren’t in Heaven—but it meant, as far as I understood it, a type of squirrel. And he was just like that, a gingery leaping squirrel with keen black eyes. I remember once at Christmas, when we were invited to dine with the plantation owner, Vermeiren, a bloodless Belgian with fangs like a mastiff, he had a bit of fun with George over that nickname. ‘You do realize,’ he drawled, ‘that the natives eat these squirrels?’
“‘Ha, ha! They are funny fellows,’ laughed George.
“I laughed too, as would any man who had lived all year on millet porridge, and now found himself at the Belgian’s table facing a guinea fowl poached in French wine. I laughed, I tell you; I opened my mouth and howled.
“Vermeiren showed his fangs. ‘Oh yes,’ he went on softly (and George and I both cut our laughter off short, so as not to drown him out), ‘that little animal is quite popular with our dusky friends. Its stomach, I have been told, is full of oil. They prick the stomach—so!—collect the oil, and serve it to the chief.’
“When he said ‘So!’, he poked his finger in the air, toward George’s midriff. His nail was long and yellow, his hand elegant and, for the tropics, marvelously clean. I noticed George turn pale, and felt a little unsteady myself.
“‘They eat all sorts of disgusting things,’ said George, with an effort. ‘Monkeys. Grubs.’
“‘So they do!’ answered Vermeiren, with ghastly cheer. He addressed himself to his fowl, sawing his knife against the plate, red wine sauce mingling bloodily with the cassava that served us for potatoes. ‘And men, of course!’ he went on. ‘You will have noticed how they file their teeth. Personally I would find it perturbing to have the name of a squirrel. I would find it most unlucky to have this name. As for me, they call me One Gun. Because of my Juliette. This satisfies me.’
“He pricked up a quivering, reddish bit of meat with his fork, and motioned with his eyes toward the rifle hanging on the wall. This was his hunting gun, called ‘Juliette,’ after his wife, who resided at Marseilles, where, to judge from his furnishings, she embroidered quantities of tablecloths.
“I do not know why the Belgian chose to rattle George in this manner. Perhaps he was trying, in his rough way, to put some backbone into the lad: for George was Vermeiren’s overseer, charged with ensuring the productivity of the farm, and meting out punishment as required. In the early days of our employment, Vermeiren had often grumbled that George was too soft. On one occasion, I recall, the Belgian had brought forward, as evidence, a recently disciplined native called Francisco, and, exposing the native’s back crisscrossed with small welts, demanded if this was what George called lashes? George protested that he had lashed the black soundly, as anyone could see, and Vermeiren retorted that a native’s back was as insensible as teak, certainly impervious to George’s paltry strokes, and that if George dared shirk again, he would be taught a lesson in lashing upon his own person. So perhaps Vermeiren’s mockery that Christmas was meant to strengthen George’s arm. If so, it was hardly necessary, for George had taken his earlier lesson to heart, and routinely exhausted himself in his exertions with the whip, even putting the same Francisco—apparently an habitual malingerer—into the infirmary at the Catholic Mission.
“But perhaps Vermeiren had other reasons. Perhaps he was simply possessed by that devil which leads men to tear at each other in a small space. I have often encountered this devil on board a ship; and in that house, the only white men for miles, were we not as three sailors launched on a Stygian sea? The darkness, Sally, the closeness of the place! I can scarce describe it. The windows were sheathed in white netting against the mosquitoes, and not a breath of air came through: the flames of the candles on the table stood up as straight and motionless as pikes. After dinner, George attempted to lighten the atmosphere with a carol. His voice faltered reedily into the massy night. I joined him for a few bars, but soon stopped from depression of the spirits, and he went on alone. I gave my love a cherry.
“The suffocating loneliness, the density of the forest. You couldn’t see more than five yards in any direction. It weighed on you. It’s the reason we felt so lighthearted on that trip up the Nile, the trip I was telling you about, to Meroe… But the forest, my God: sickness and heat and work. I kept the accounts in an office with a tin roof, so hot I’d feel my brains boiling by ten o’clock. That heat! And George stood in it all day. It took its toll on him. His fevers were terrible, enough to break your heart.
“‘Get back, get it away.’ That’s what he said the night your mother came to see us. She wasn’t your mother then, of course, just a nurse from up the river. I’d sent word to the nuns at the Mission to rush somebody down to us, for I was sure George could not live another day. ‘Easy, George,’ I told him. ‘This is a nurse from the Catholics come to make you well.’ All the same I had to hold him down on the bed. Weak as he was, he thrashed in my arms like a seal. ‘Get it away, oh God,’ he moaned. And your mother bent over him in her white dress.”
White, like a lily.
Sarah fingers the silver crucifix at her throat. This is her inheritance from her mother, who died when she was three years old. This, and a few dresses, and two pairs of shoes. She has let out the dresses, but she cannot wear the shoes, which are too small. She keeps them lined up under her bed. When she was very young, she used to bring them into bed with her. She gave them names: one was called “Maiyebo.” To remember this now, this naming of the shoes, causes the heat of shame to slip up her neck.
She can no longer recall her mother’s face.
Her father gestures with his pipe, and she fills it. He has told her the sweet smoke does him good. She helps him light the pipe, then tucks the blanket more snugly around his wasted legs. She remembers a dream, a song.
If only it were possible to control one’s dreams!
If it were, she would dream the same dream every night. One that has only come to her a few times. Fragments of glittering color and a dry, delicate scent. A memory of swinging. A dream of a structure of light.
Light. Sharp pieces of radiance. No fog. A snatch of song in a lost language. Maiyebo. The name of a mushroom? A comical song. Someone bounces a baby on her knee. Mi a bi nga ro berewe te. “I’ll never see you again.”
“You’re not… you’re not too lonely, are you Sal? Well, I know, but I can’t help worrying. I think sometimes that we ought to have stayed in the forest. That I ought to have raised you there, among… But after we lost your mother, it was too hard for me, taking care of a child alone. I didn’t know what to do with you, and there was your aunt, too, writing to me about my Christian duty, and the life you might have here. And, of course, there was George. Passing me like a stranger, day after day. Three years like that. Without a word. I suppose a part of me thought that after your mother was gone… but no. He kept his vow. ‘If you do this thing,’ he told me, the night before my wedding, ‘if you enter into—that—you’re dead to me.” He was trembling, white, as if in the grip of one of his fevers. I thought he’d get over it.
“I thought he was still shaken up from the scare we’d had on the farm that year, and that he’d soften and come around in time. It must have affected him more deeply than I thought. I should have known, now that I think of it. I should have recognized the signs. The way he pounded on my door that night. ‘Come out, come out!’ That high–pitched scream. I tell you, I thought the house was on fire. I rolled out of bed and stumbled across the room, and when I opened the door he practically fell into my arms.
“‘Get your gun,’ he cried hoarsely. He had his own rifle, and a lantern in the other hand. As I stared, our employer Vermeiren slouched into the circle of light, casually carrying Juliette over his shoulder.
“‘Stir yourself, if you please,’ he said pleasantly enough. ‘It seems we must make a little show of strength.’
“‘For God’s sake, get your gun,’ repeated George, looking over his shoulder. I obeyed, donning boots, a shirt, and trousers for good measure.
“I joined them outside and locked the door behind me, and was immediately struck by the peculiar silence. There used to always be a little noise on the farm, voices of the native families, and lights, too, from their fires. Now the place was entirely deserted.
“‘What’s happening?’ I asked softly.
“‘A little fuss from our savage friends,’ said the Belgian. ‘Not to worry.’
“George stood so close to me, I could tell he wanted to seize my arm, though he couldn’t, being encumbered by his gun and lamp. His teeth were chattering. ‘Look here,’ I said, alarmed by his evident panic, ‘do we want to carry a light about, and make ourselves a target?’
“‘By God, you’re right!’ cried George, and, looking at his own light in horror, he made as if to fling it to the ground.
“The Belgian snatched his wrist. ‘Don’t be stupid. We must not appear to be hiding. In our position, a show of fear would be catastrophic. Instead—stand up straight, little squirrel! Are you indeed a squirrel, or a caterpillar?—we must appear calm, and above all, we must shoot accurately, and to kill.’
“‘Shoot at what?’ I exclaimed. ‘It’s black as Hades.’
“Before us stretched the teak grove, like a columned ruin in the faint starlight, and beyond that, invisible to us, the damp tangle of the forest.
“‘Only wait,’ said the Belgian, and a spark flared as he lit his pipe.
“And so we waited. And waited. And whether it was the sound of George muttering prayers at my shoulder, the way his voice went up and down, full of little sobs, or the smell of fear that rose from him, thick and hot, I cannot say… Whether it was the darkness and silence around us, or the brooding, hostile forest, or the soft black of the sky in which no moon hung… I cannot say, Sally, why it was, but I felt something close around my heart, squeezing tight like a devil’s vise. Tighter and tighter it squeezed, and my head grew light, and my body cold, and I thought of your mother, and was glad that she was away at the Catholic mission, where the nuns had given her thread, she said, to embroider a wedding veil. I clung to the thought of her face, as if it would save me… And perhaps, you know, it did save me. I held to that face, the face of my own Maria, as something began to happen in the dark. The darkness seemed to ripple, to stretch itself like a long snake. ‘Ah,’ breathed Vermeiren. ‘Now it comes.’
“You were so little when we left the plantation, Sally. I wonder if you remember the soldier ants? George and I called them siafu, as the Belgian did, though among your mother’s people they had another name. Black they were, a black and moving river, and when that river came across your path, you had best get out of the way. They’d appear after the rains, long streams of them crisscrossing the earth, and none could say whence they came or where they went. Their determination was terrible. They used to march up the walls of the house, under the roof, and straight through, across our parlor floor. I had an old Turkish kilim there, purchased at Istanbul in my merchant–seaman days, and where the siafu crossed it, they’d leave a swath clean as the noonday sky. Your mother would always laugh and say the ants proved how dusty the kilim was, and she’d haul it outside and beat it with the broom. But the siafu were nothing to laugh at. They were voracious: if they bit you, they’d draw blood. They killed chicks in the nest, and even, I heard, human babies…
“‘Quiet!’ I heard myself say. I hadn’t meant to speak, but George’s whimpering was breaking down my nerve. He’d given up praying now, and was simply staring at the darkness saying ‘No oh no oh no oh no oh no.’ The light was pitching and bobbing in his grip like a ship’s lantern, and his face in the glow sweated pale as melting wax. Behind him, that ice–blooded Belgian was saying something about the seasons, and how these native disturbances came up each year as regular as the rains. It made me remember the soldier ants, which appeared after the rainstorms. Still the darkness swelled and coiled among the trees. And suddenly George let out a scream, followed an instant later by the report of the Belgian’s gun: ‘What the hell is that?’
“Such a cry, Sally! My legs gave way.
“I saw the darkness bulge. It was leaking toward us, it was coming out of the trees. It was coming like a vast ocean of siafu, intent and ruthless and obscure like that, with a deep and cold intelligence. The terrifying thing about siafu is their will. They are utterly united, utterly faithful to their purpose. Once, I tried to snatch a tomato out of their path in our kitchen, and three of the ants went up my arm like fire.
“The Belgian was cursing. The light had gone out. I felt a kick in my ribs, the toe of Vermeiren’s boot. I’ve never felt so grateful to be kicked. ‘Get up,’ he was shouting, calling us bloody cowards and other things I won’t repeat in your presence.
“I realized George lay beside me on the ground. ‘George, George, are you all right?’
“‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ he sobbed. ‘I’ve got to get out.’
“Somehow, each supporting the other, we staggered to our feet. The Belgian had retrieved the fallen lantern and lit it again.
“‘See!’ he said triumphantly.
“There, at the edge of the teak grove, a native lay dead, shot through the heart. The darkness was natural now, empty, no longer the sentient thing it had been.
“‘But—but—’ stammered George, ‘it is Francisco!’
“He had abandoned his gun, and clasped my arm—whether in terror or some other emotion, I cannot say.
“‘Who?’ inquired our employer with a frown.
“George seemed unable to speak; I explained, therefore, that Francisco was the native George had put in the infirmary.
“‘Nonsense,’ said the Belgian. ‘As if you’d recognize him!’
“‘Turn him over,’ whispered George, finding his voice at last, ‘and let me see his back.’
“The Belgian refused to indulge what he called my friend’s ‘womanish horrors’; George, to my surprise, insisted passionately; but the Belgian stood firm, finally exclaiming: ‘What difference would it make? You’ve lashed the lot of them, as well you should.’ These words seemed to throw George into a sort of frenzy. It was with difficulty that I persuaded him back to his room, and into bed. He kept repeating that Francisco commanded an army of shadow selves, which, now that their master was dead, had swarmed across the world. ‘One is another,’ he babbled. And though I knew he was not well—he was so broken down, indeed, that I successfully petitioned the Belgian for a holiday—I could not shake my own sense that the darkness among the trees was multiple, and that George ought to have shouted, not ‘What the hell is that,’ but ‘What the hell are those?’”
Sarah puts on her bonnet at the glass. Neat black silk, with a generous brim that casts her features into shadow.
The wind beats the high windows. Her father sighs. Sarah touches her mother’s cross.
Tonight, she will dream of tiny black eyes. A river of tiny black eyes. They’re coming toward her. She lies on the grass, unable to rise. She’s struggling and weeping. The eyes advance.
Waking, she will remain motionless in bed, her limbs icy. She will listen to the beating of her heart.
She will get out of bed. She’ll find the matches and light the candle before the glass. Her own face will bloom toward her out of the dark. The same face that now regards her from the parlor glass, a face she has searched so often for a hint of her mother’s ghost. This nose, this curving eyelid. Tonight she will take her candle and leave her room, she’ll go to her father’s room and shake him awake. “You called me an ant,” she’ll say. And he, sitting up, framed by wild white hair, “Why, Sally, what’s come over you, are you mad?”
“I’m not an ant.”
“But I never—”
“You said you saw her face.”
“You saw her face. In the forest. You said it saved you, the night the darkness came.”
“Well, yes, I—”
“Was it the face of an ant?”
“Did you see the face of an ant?”
And when he says nothing: “No. Of course not. An ant’s face is too small.”
He stares at her. White hair, white nightshirt, white wax from her candle dripping on the sheets. And his face in strange white motion. His skin quivers. She’s never spoken like this to him before—has the disturbance, and the accusation, brought on some sort of attack? Gripped by remorse and terror—for how often has he told her, “Poor Sal, you have no one but me”?—she leans to touch him, and realizes just in time that his arm is also trembling, his shirt is alive, a mass of pale creatures swarms over his body.
Sarah steps back with a cry. She beats her hand against her nightdress, the hand that almost touched him. She is safe: her hand is dark and whole. She gazes at the thing in the bed, the thing in the shape of her father. It hisses softly, its tongue and teeth made of writhing maggots. “Help me.” It arms make the motions of caressing something in its lap. A few red hairs protrude from the teeming pallor. “Help my baby,” it hisses, before she wakes sweating in her bed again. “Help my little child. My baby boy.”
“Yes, take a little extra with you, for the lilies. For poor George. Ah, I never told you about the trip to Meroe. Wait, before you go… this is what I meant to say, about that trip, the last time George and I were together as friends. Yes, the last time, for when we returned to the forest, I told him about my intention to marry, and he said those final words: ‘You’re dead to me.’ He couldn’t get over it, though I explained that your mother was a good woman, a trained nurse and a Christian convert… Well. But at Meroe we were quite happy. George clambered about on the ancient stones, whooping like a boy. I was afraid he’d get sunstroke, to tell the truth. We sat in the shade of a cracked mausoleum wall and ate our little picnic. George was cheerful, energetic, telling me all his plans. He was going to save enough to buy a cottage back home. Enough to marry a pleasant girl. You know I almost told him about my engagement then, but for some reason I held off… Ah, are you leaving? Well, bring me the big book on Kush before you go. That’s the one. This is a treasure, my dear, bought for a song in Cairo, probably worth more than everything else in the house put together, remember that when I’m gone! Now look here. These are some of the paintings we saw in the tombs at Meroe. Marvelous, the way the desert air protects the color. In your poor mother’s country these pictures would be eaten away by the damp. Look, here’s the king, and under his feet, bound captives—a conquered people. Look how they fall beneath him in a line. And their arms and legs, twisted and broken, but repeated in the same pattern, as if with a stencil. Such precision! But the odd thing, you see, is that the same images appear in the tombs of Egypt. I recognized them as soon as I saw them, for I had visited the Valley of the Kings. As I said, I thought of myself as a sort of archaeologist, and I remember I was very excited on that trip with George, thinking I might have made an important discovery. But when we got to Cairo, I found this book, and saw that the discovery had already been made. Egypt conquered Kush, you see, and the artists of Kush adopted Egypt’s painting style. And generations later, these Kushite artists used these images, images of their own people, to depict their enemies! Isn’t that odd? As if the images have no character at all. As if they are vessels that can be filled again and again. Simply the enemy. And what is required of the enemy’s image? Only that the figures are identical, and that they are many.”
Sarah goes out. She locks the door and tucks the key in her glove. She walks with her eyes fixed on an imaginary horizon. A pale face passes her, blurred. She senses a sneer, but does not see it. She allows it to melt away like fog.
At the corner a man snarls something at her. She steps aside quickly, avoiding his lunge. He shouts at her back. Muffled by her bonnet, his voice is the honk of a goose.
There are lilies at the Widow Cobb’s. Sarah buys a dozen. She will not look at the Widow Cobb’s pinched, resentful face. Let it blend into fog. She takes the flowers, but she does not go to the address on the black–bordered card. She goes to the harbor.
She sits on a bench. A cold wind blows from the water.
Sarah sets the lilies beside her and takes off her bonnet.
Cold. And the sound of the gulls. She never takes off her bonnet outdoors. Her heart races. She can hear children shouting somewhere nearby. Are they coming toward her? She picks up the heavy, funereal lilies, she begins to break the flowers from their stems.
Stems fall about her feet. They shift in the wind.
Sarah takes a lily and tucks it into the black band of the bonnet in her lap.
One by one, she tucks the lilies into the band. It’s delicate work, and she takes off her gloves, her skin tightening in the raw air. She continues until all twelve lilies encircle the edge of the bonnet. She puts on her gloves and places the bonnet back over her hair.
Sarah is crowned by fragrance and by snow.
Across the water, a streak of gold slips stealthily through the clouds. Sunset soon. She will sit in the cold and wait for the clouds to break, saying her usual prayer for her mother, and adding one for the man known as Francisco. She will murmur a melody under her breath, pentatonic and strange to this place. And afterward, walking home, she will pick up a low, throbbing hum in the darkened street, a hum with the same pentatonic shape as her half–forgotten song, and she will follow it through the door of the Free Church at last.
For now, she sits and waits. And the light begins to grow, to change, to take a shape rarely seen except in dreams, a shape that allows one to see, really see, and Sarah breathless and radiant in her crown perceives for a moment a world without fog, undimmed by this—that—those.
(Editors’ Note: In this issue, Sofia Samatar is interviewed by Deborah Stanish.)
© 2015 Sofia Samatar