Ok, let's go, please.
Call me Ishmael. That's not my name, but you can call me that. I am a type of Ishmael. I do not mean an outsider. Africans are defined by belonging not isolation. But I am a witness, taking with words what would not be taken by other means.
Picture this. There is a man standing at a crossroads. Beside him, a woman. Behind them, a child. They are surrounded by men on horses. The men have guns in their hands and God in their hearts. They are the Warriors of God and they believe in perfection. Man, woman, and child have no weapons, no faith, only a story.
Ok, let's go, please.
I first see Kate at the souk. She is sitting on a bench in front of the chai shop. The Warriors of God are in front of the government rest house with their horses and the Landcruiser. We have many men with guns and horses, more since the drill was blown up. The Warriors of God are drinking cold things. Kate is peering at her cell phone, concentrating hard as if playing a game. I should leave. Jemal's men are no friends of mine. But I need books, so I walk toward the white woman.
Souk is the word we use, but it is not the sort of souk described in books of travelers' tales full of color, bustle, copper kettles, spices, and bolts of bright cloth . . . . Our souk is not like that. It is a thing of dust and dry beans and sacks of sorghum and powdered milk, 'A gift from the EC' sold by Idris the Madman, who dreams of islands. Sometimes we can buy tomatoes, sometimes only bread, sometimes not even that. There is chai and Coca-Cola, occasionally cold things, always people. With the camps full, the souk is a place of meeting, refuge and flight, but no commerce is done, or not the commerce of small moneys. There may be talk of mining, of minerals and oil, of guns and gold, but the business is the business of Business, not people.
Foreigners have always given books for my library. They like to picture their novels crossing the desert on my back. I ask Kate for old paperbacks. She is a short woman, with a strong face and steady eyes that do no dance of etiquette, but hold your gaze, as if candor is respect. Her time in my country cannot have been easy. Propriety is important here and deference is valued more than honesty. When my speech is finished, she says she has heard of me, The Barefoot Librarian. I wait, but she does not elaborate. Africans are good at waiting, but this silence is not normal for white people. White people do not like silence. In their books, they call it pregnant. They fear silence is the prologue to something that will grow beyond regulation. But Kate says nothing. Just waits and watches. I explain again what I need and why. She says: "I don't read novels. I only have time for what is true."
White people do not normally shock me. I have read their books and told their stories very many times. I understand them, have seen the places that made them, seen the lives they want to live, all in the reading and rereading and retelling. Sometimes my people call me 'doctor', for though my skin is dark, my mind is pale. But when Kate suggests fiction is not true she shocks me very much. Stories get nearer to the truth than facts.
"I'm sorry," says Kate, mistaking my dismay for the discomfort her directness must often cause my compatriots. "I'm busy. I must make a call. But there's no coverage at the moment."
She inspects her cell phone again. I later learn she has collected many facts about my country --dates, names, numbers, places-- but she does not read them right. Otherwise, she would know: when the cell phones stop working, it means someone, somewhere is about to die, and the killers do not want word to spread. Words, even simple words of warning, are powerful. That is one reason why the men with guns and horses hate me, for words tied into stories are words they cannot curb by shutting down a satellite.
Jemal appears behind his men, stepping carefully across the broken boards of the rest house verandah. He looks at me. We were together in the orphanage, but there is no kindness between us now. He will kill me one day. He has told me this. But it will not be today, I think. He turns aside, speaks brief words in the language of the north, and the Warriors of God get ready to ride into the desert.
The books I carried on my back have rubbed into my flesh and bones. Sometimes they leak out again. At night, falling asleep, I often dream I am reading. The book is in my hand, a known book by a known writer, I can feel its weight, I can see the words, and I am reading, and the way the words fit together matches the way the writer fits words together. Then I turn the page and the words make no sense or the page repeats itself, so I go back to the beginning and start again. But when I turn the page again, the same thing happens, over and over again, until I wake and realize that there is no book in my hand, and my reading is nothing but a dream.
I dream books in the waking world, too, willing them into being as I walk between villages, so that I am in sort walking with the characters from my books, picturing them at my side. Sometimes their presence is so strong that it even inflects the rhythm of my own walking. With Captain Ahab, for instance, I do not walk quickly, but I keep going for a very long time and rarely rest. His progress is hampered by his ivory leg sinking into the soft sand, but he ploughs on regardless, because he cannot relax and fears that, once stopped, he will never start again. Miss Havisham is slower than a government paycheck. Her dress is not suited to the qoz and she is a very old lady. She protests most bitterly, until I become peevish like her, and end up bickering with myself about which path to take. By contrast, Lizzie Bennet does not complain about the heat and dust, but walks steadily, holding her skirts clear of her ankles when crossing thickets of thorny grass, so that we proceed smoothly in a most pleasant concord of mutual sympathy. Huckleberry Finn is a cheerfully disruptive influence, darting back and forth, talking all the time, trying to spend his inexhaustible energy. His is a nervous search for a world in which he will be free and safe, as if the two can be found together. Don Quijote is congenial, but erratic. Like Kate, he is always seeking enemies to challenge. Steerforth is a bit wet. Barkis is willing.
Perhaps my choice of reading seems outlandish for this hot, landlocked place? But like all good things, my library was made by chance not choice, compiled through the impulsive generosity of strangers: consular officials, NGO reps, foreign teachers and contract workers, these have been my stockpilers, supplying the raw material of the road on which I walk. Thus I tell tales of oceans my listeners have never seen, of strange countries and alien rituals they will never know, and conflicts that must be retailored to match the fabric of their experience. But it is right that I bring them a world they do not know. Books should be written and read out of context. Only then do they properly engage the imagination. Mr. Melville wrote a story about a whale, but it was a book about the whole world, and he wrote it in front of a window in front of a mountain in the middle of Maine.
My own book must be a love story, a poem to people, and a celebration of the power of words. Yet I am telling a story of war, flight and murder.
Two days pass. I find no new books. I must take a place on the truck that is due to leave for Al Asher. It is too dangerous to walk now. It is dangerous to travel at all, but if you take the risk, it is best done in company. This is Africa: life is community and where there is no community there is no life; that is why they destroy the villages.
I will get off the truck at the crossroads and go to the well of books. Al Asher is safe, but it is not good for books anymore because very many consulates have closed and those that remain are bureaus of business rather than culture. I might be given the odd dog-eared spy novel or a spine-cracked Penguin classic, but not enough to remake a library, even a portable one. This will be my third trip to the well of books.
I stocked the well when the war got big again and the commercial agents withdrew and the consular libraries closed, abandoning all disposable printed matter. All disposable printed matter meant everything that did not contain a commercial or diplomatic secret, which is to say everything that might be interesting to a man like me. While other people fought over office furnishings and copper pipes, I foraged for books. I found very many volumes, so many that I could not carry them all back to Anahud. Instead, I took them to the crossroads.
The older paperbacks were falling apart, but I wrapped the newer books in plastic and stacked them in the wide mouth of the shallow well. The well is dry and nobody goes there for water now. Few even notice the low rim of sun-baked bricks. I left the broken paperbacks in the camps, distributing blocks of pages at random. They are good firelighters, but I like to imagine someone making a new story from the fragments they find. That is the way of reading: reading people, places, books, we are always piecing together patchy information and trying to make a pattern from it. That was what Kate was doing, taking snapshots of my country and trying to make a pattern. Sometimes the patterns we make are better than the pattern the author intended. Sometimes they are simply wrong.
I see her for the second time on my way to the truck park. She is in an alley off the main street. I say 'alley' and 'street', but there are no alleys or streets here, only ways stabilized by use, and even they may disappear if somebody builds a house in the gap. But these spaces serve a similar purpose to the passages that other people in other places call alleys and streets. My country is not well made for conventional representation. I am thinking of the European maps that purport to show the infrastructure of this place. They are works of marvelous fantasy, locating straight roads where ways a mile wide meander across the qoz and restaurants where a chai shack sometimes serves brown beans with roundels of flat grey bread. Like the mapmakers, I am telling a story using signs that can only approximate what I am describing. Forgive me. I am pedantic. But these days, words are almost my only resource.
Kate is in a narrow alley off the main street. There are no doorways, only two long mud walls, no exits save at either end of the alley. At the far end of the alley, there is a man, and between Kate and myself, two more. They are walking at her, talking angry words, and saying insults she cannot understand. They are Warriors of God, nomads who have always raided villages in search of cattle, and now raid in search of money and God. Like everyone else, they are trying to survive in a world that has changed, adapting what they know to the new world.
Kate is standing still in the middle of the alley. She is in trouble. She is scared. But she hides it well. And she is beautiful. Her features are regular, unnaturally symmetrical. She has a broad brow and large eyes, wide and widely spaced, and dark hair that defines her face with sharp lines. But most beautiful is the way she stands, the way she looks: stubborn, watching the men defiantly; she is vulnerable but independent, even at the cost of safety. Above all, it is her courage that moves me. It moves me into the alley.
I know what these men want. They want to punish her for the unspoken crime of being a woman. It is the easiest way they can find to fight their own fears. Kate knows enough to wear a loose dress with long sleeves and skirts that cover her calves, but her hair is showing. Time before, this was tolerated in a white woman, but not now. They will probably not hurt her badly. Not a foreigner, not here in the town. But you never know with men who are practiced in the incisive art of unwomaning a woman's body.
I should walk on, but I do not because I know that time to come these men will kill me, and it pleases me to upset them while I live. They are walking at Kate, talking angry words, when the man at the far end of the alley sees me, and warns his companions, who turn to face this new threat. They do not have their guns, but they will have knives strapped to their upper arms, knives with a ridge along the flat of the blade so that the wound will not heal cleanly. I have big shoulders and strong arms from carrying books all these years. I could beat them, I believe, even three of them. But if beating is necessary, it is better to beat a man's spirit than his body. Bodies heal quicker than the spirit. Besides, when the world is nonsensical, nonsense is one of the few defenses left to a poor man. Nonsense, walking, reading and, in the end, when nothing else is left, writing.
I take out the book, open it at the page that pleases so many children and those adults who have kept the better part of childishness in their hearts. Everyone has childishness inside them, childishness often made ugly by age, but the love of nonsense is a beautiful thing. I raise the book and the Warriors of God look troubled for they do not like books being raised against them. Warriors of God do not like people reading. It is a power they cannot control. That is why they will kill me one day. It is the reason they persecute women, too. They fear women. Women and books are stronger than them. Women and books possess secret, private places in which they worry some occult and unfathomable mischief is being done. Happily, they are right.
I begin to read aloud, reciting really. I know these words well, but the book is a weapon of sorts in itself.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jujub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
"And has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
I have seen the magic these words make on children and reason that children's magic will not go well with these men, for the child in them is the child of fear, not the child of nonsense. At first, the Warriors of God step forward to fight me, but they falter when they hear the Jubjub bird and Bandersnatch, and by the time the Jabberwock comes whiffling through the tulgey wood, the two men in front are glancing uncertainly at one another. The vorpal blade goes snicker-snack and they back off, so that Kate is between them and the beamish boy. It is the Callooh! Callay! that finishes them. They flee, terrified that some triumphant and terrible spell is being cast. 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe. Perhaps they are right.
At first, Kate is incredulous, which is as it should be with nonsense, but then she starts to laugh and it is the most frabjous sound I have heard since I was in the camps. You would be surprised how often people laugh in the camps. Displaced, dispossessed, hungry, risking rape or castration when they venture beyond the perimeter, yet still they laugh. Laughter and tears ghost one another; laughter can make tears of joy and tears of pain can make a face like laughter. Either way, life is made more bearable, and we find the strength to carry on. Kate's laughter is the laughter of one who wants to live long and well. She even snorts, her glee so immoderate that it must have a second outlet. I warm to this strange woman. I have loved many women, another misdeed in the eyes of the Warriors of God, for the love and loving of women is not admissible in their wing-clipped version of the world, but despite all the wives I had in the days when I walked from village to village, the feeling I have for this laughing, snorting woman is as alien as the place she comes from -- or would be were it not for the books that have made her place familiar to me and made old companions of many strange sensations.
The Battle of Jabberwocky, as Kate later calls it, is an easy victory given what happens afterwards, but I know my enemies. The Warriors of God are simple men, but they understand the power of words. They believe that words in an amulet will guard against the evil eye, that learning their book by heart will guarantee them a place in paradise, even that declaiming the beautiful names of God can protect them from the weapons of other men. But words can harm them, too. The men in the alley understand enough to know that Jabberwocky is made of words they cannot control because they are words without meaning. They are frightened by what they cannot control. That is why they kill.
For my part, I have long lived in words, perhaps too long, and know all too well their uses and abuses. Words connect, but they can also keep people out. Some books do not tell a story, but build a wall of words shielding the reader from the world, imprisoning as they protect. Sometimes though, words are a necessary defense. They are a poor weapon, a hit and miss magic, and in this place you only have to miss once and you're dead, but they are the only weapon most of us have.
The slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
We are sitting on a truck at the edge of the souk. Kate, myself and a score of other hopeful travelers. I told her she should leave Anahud and she said she was leaving anyway, had been going to fetch her bag. I did not expect her to take the truck, but she has no car and travels like one of us: on foot, on donkeys, on top of a merchant's wares. This is a good truck, loaded with sacks of dura, so we will sleep well tonight, and tomorrow if the way is slow. It will be crowded, though. Transport is scarce and there are many who wish to escape the conflict. More people are arriving all the time.
A Landcruiser crosses the square and stops behind our vehicle. The crowd continues scrambling up the slatted sides of the truck, thrusting bags into the hands of waiting relatives. They are so eager to get away that they do not notice Jemal; no curtain of stillness falls, there is no show of meekness, just the pushy agitation of people keen to escape. He ignores them and walks around to where Kate and I are sitting. She has covered her hair with a long scarf that she can also pull across her mouth, not for modesty, but against the dust.
He looks up at us, then says: "This is your woman?"
He knows Kate cannot be my woman and I cannot claim to be an approved guardian protecting my charge. Even if she was a woman that could be possessed and was possessed by me, I could not say it. Not now, not here. A black man with a white woman would not be permitted. Race is patrilineal, which is why the Warriors of God rape the women when they destroy the villages, to destroy the race, too. Any child will be Semitic, not Hamitic. It is a nonsense, of course, not the playful nonsense of Mr. Carroll, but a nonsense of feeling rather than meaning. Even Jemal with his milk and coffee complexion has African blood running in his veins. I know where he comes from. But it is a nonsense I cannot fight except perhaps in words and stories.
"She is not my woman."
Jemal looks at me long and hard, and for a moment I wonder whether he isn't, for the sake of the past, trying to give me an excuse for defying his men, pretending I am her muharram. As it is, merely being with her is risky. We are clearly not related and the morality laws can be read anyway men in power choose to read them. Whatever the text, be it a book, a body, or a landscape, how it is read can change everything.
"You scared my men with your magic," he says. It is an accusation, not a statement of fact. I do not smile, smiling is not wise with Jemal, but a snort escapes Kate.
"It was a poem," I say, "a simple poem," though there is no such thing as a 'simple' poem; even a bad poem, and Jabberwocky is not a bad poem, can say many complex things if it is read correctly, for there is as much poetry in the reading as in the writing. Jemal is right to call it magic.
He says nothing, only stares at me, and I can feel all the love we felt for one another turned to hate. But even if he did not hate me, for fear of words, he and his men would want to kill me. And they are right to want to kill me. If I was them, I would want to kill me, too. But as they say in England (I have read this expression and I like it very much), mustn't grumble. The Warriors of God want to kill everyone, after all, everyone who does not, by virtue of skin, sex and faith, fit the perfection they seek. They are very killing people.
Everybody scratches their bottom from time to time, but some people feel compelled to sniff their finger afterwards. Fr. Gianni was a sniffer, always scratching under his skirts then inhaling the holy aroma of piety. It was not so much his self he smelled as the sweet scent of sanctity emanating from a life sacrificed to a mission in the middle of nowhere. At the time, I did not understand this. And he did not understand me. We hated each other.
When my father was killed, a woman called Jenny came to see us. She gave my mother flour, rice and beans. She gave me a book called Tricycle Tim. It was about a boy with a tricycle who was looking for a man called Mr. Nobody who lived Nowhere. Except for the hand-pedaled carts of the legless men, I had never seen a tricycle, nor a house like Mr. Nobody's house with very many levels and very big windows. But that did not matter, because I believed in this Nowhere place, where Mr. Nobody had boarded over the stairs, turning his house into a playground for children with tricycles. Reading the story of how Tricycle Tim tracked down Mr. Nobody and the heady account of his first wild ride from the top of the house to the bottom, I forgot all about my own problems and lost myself in the boy's carefree joy. I had discovered the magic of books, that they can turn Nowhere into Somewhere and make Nobody Somebody and show that Everybody is Somebody. I still liked the tales told by the elders, but this book story was special because it was private and did not happen unless I made it happen. I read Tricycle Tim so often that I could recite it whole or continue the story from any given sentence. I still can.
Jenny kept giving me books, some written for children, others abridged for adult learners, until I was living more on books than on USAID rice and Canada Aid Soy Milk. Moby Dick, A High Wind In Jamaica, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations . . . I was born beside an African swamp, but I lived on the oceans and in the English countryside because I was happier inside a Simplified Reader than out. Then the war came back, bringing hunger and disease. The white people left, my mother died, and I began to walk, walking north because that was where the books came from, walking north looking for Nowhere.
I met Jemal in the grasslands to the north of the swamp. Nearly every living thing had been eaten, but one day I chanced upon a sickly looking chicken sheltering in the shade of a burned hut. As I was stalking the bird, I spotted another boy stealthily approaching from the other side of the hut. He saw me and the bird saw us and we rushed at the bird and threw ourselves at it and each caught a leg. We lay there, face to face, the bird between us, holding our respective legs, watching each other watching the bird watching us. Nothing was said, but we knew the energy wasted fighting for a whole bird would be more than the energy won by settling for half a bird. So we shared the bird and everything else we found in the weeks we walked north, trapping desert rats and scrub doves, eating grubs and grass and wild rice and the bitter leaves of neem trees. We walked north, Jemal seeking relatives while I wanted only to find Nowhere and a world of books, each dreaming of a place of greater safety. By the time we reached Fr. Gianni's mission, we knew there was no place of greater safety.
Fr. Gianni never liked me. My English was already better than his and my skin was dark. With words in my head and darkness in my skin, I was a creature of Satan. When he told us about guilt and damnation and explained that God manifested Himself in the shape of a thin biscuit, I laughed. He was a very funny man, I thought, full of good jokes. Particularly the one about original sin. But he wasn't telling a joke. He believed it. He had no faith in the messy ways of people muddling through the best they can, making mistakes, and forgiving other people's mistakes the best they can. He was obsessed by blame, tagging everything and everyone 'good' and 'bad', 'guilty' and 'innocent' to make the world more orderly.
Above all, Fr. Gianni was an ism man. His ism was Christianism. Like all isms I have seen and read about, Christianism is the choice of men who cannot stand human complexity. That is why I like words and books, because they deny uniformity. They are not one big thing, indivisible and absolute, but are capable of infinite combination and many interpretations. They are complex, like people, plural and impure and incorrigibly fecund, breeding with mindless optimism in a world where there is no room for them. Above all, there is no rigid system to telling a story, not one that cannot be subverted, and no one way of reading it. Everyone must find their own crooked way. But the ism men are always trying to straighten us out. That was Jemal's problem, too.
He never found his family and naturally wanted no part of a family in which Fr. Gianni was the father, so he hid inside the bigger family of his people's God and the wild hope that one day he would wake up dead in a lovely garden with lovely ladies washing his private parts. We were at that age when the prospect of lovely ladies washing your private parts is enough to recommend any crackpot scheme, no matter how preposterous. Actually, the words he used were maidens with swelling breasts. But the mischief was on me when he confessed his secret to me, the only person he could trust in the Christian orphanage, and I put my own construction on it. I told him that if he wanted lovely ladies washing his private parts, he'd better be nice to them now, here, on this earth, because there'd be no washing of private parts when he was dead. He was not happy. In fact, he was very unhappy. It was all true, he protested, God had told him. No He didn't, I said, it was the lads from the madrasa, and you only had to look at those poor boobies to see they knew even less about lovely ladies washing private parts than we did. Really very, very unhappy. He looked at me like I'd just gobbled the entire chicken in a single gulp, leaving him with nothing but a few limp feathers. Mocking his faith, I had betrayed his trust more thoroughly than if I'd informed on him. He never forgave me.
Nor did Fr. Gianni forgive the innumerable infractions he detected in my behaviour. They were so many that I became the rebel he required, cultivating any contravention liable to upset him, and making the most of it when I was found out, like the time he caught me drinking the communion wine.
"Why are you drinking the communion wine?" he demanded.
"Because there is no merissa," I said.
"You are preferring muddy beer to the blood of our Savior?" he sneered, attempting sarcasm I believe.
"I prefer the spit of a living woman to the blood of a dead man," I said.
Fr. Gianni was nearly sick over his soutane. Fermenting cereals with saliva was clearly not to his taste. He locked me in a hut for two days. But I did not mind. It was the book hut, so I read for two days, holding the books to the light from the crack under the door. I do not know what they did in the mission school during that time. Jemal would not say. He was distracted by God and the lovely ladies.
It was a lovely lady who precipitated my departure from the orphanage. I was thirteen, Mihad was twelve, and we were back in the hut, but instead of books, I was deciphering another stunning composition when the door was flung open with a triumphant shout. At the sight of Mihad's glistening sex, Fr. Gianni staggered backwards, so dazzled that he neglected to stand straight, and stayed crouching as he had been at the doorway. Silhouetted against the sunlight, his hunched profile reminded me of a dog defecating. But I did not tell him. I could see it was not a good moment for a confidence.
He said I was a black devil and would be cast into hell for my sins. I said he was a white spirit, like we used for cleaning the generator, best kept on the top shelf with the other poisons, and only taken down for dirty jobs. It was all a large mound of camel manure. There is no black, no white, only shades of light and dark, and one day we will all be brown on the outside like we are all brown on the inside, but I was pleased with my retort. Fr. Gianni was not. My departure was swift. I scarcely had time to snatch up a handful of books before he was hustling me out of the compound. There was no opportunity for farewells. Jemal and I had barely spoken since that business about paradise's sanitary arrangements for his private parts, but I would have liked to say goodbye. When next we met, he was a Warrior of God and I was The Story Man.
It began with the books I had liberated from the store hut. I have stolen many books, most often from the consular libraries because I dislike the way they confine books by classifying them in narrow categories, but none were so important as the half-dozen volumes I had taken from the orphanage, for they were the books that gave me my life. Walking away from Al Asher, I begged food from a family of cowherds. There was little to spare, but they spared it, and in return I gave them a copy of Great Tales From Shakespeare Made Simple. Though only the father could read and that very approximately, they fell on the book with such avid hunger that I realized I was not the only person with a thirst for stories -- and it is hunger and thirst. Reading is alimentary. We devour books and get our teeth into them and lap them up and feast on words if the language isn't indigestible . . . books are nourishment and, like all nourishment, there is always enough to go round; it's just not very well distributed. I resolved that I would remedy that.
My ambulant library began with the books I had taken from the mission, but I soon got new volumes from the expatriates. Books are given more gladly than food, because the hunger for books is an appetite that implies hope and independence not despair and dependence. It is good to give something that looks to the future, not the past. Very many times, when white people want to give something to Africa, they give because they feel guilty about the past, reaching into their pockets, as if they owe a debt that can be paid with money. White people are very guilty people. You only have to look at their literature to see that. The books of Mr. Hawthorne alone have got enough guilt in them to decorate a presidential palace; Mr. Poe has the stuff beating away under the floorboards, Mr. Hardy depicts it seeping through the ceiling, and Mr. Conrad stains entire continents with it; Mr. Stevenson, Mr. Steinbeck, Mr. Styron, they are all always worrying at guilt. Even their radio announces that guilt is up, as if it can be measured like water in a well. But giving a book, you get away from the guilt of the past and give something positive to the future, because all the unborn readers that will be are implicit in every book, like an unspoken promise. It is a gift of creation rather than consolation. In a short time, I had over eighty books, most out on loan, but with a score or so in my pack and more stored in my memory, and when my cotton cloth wore through, an English teacher gave me a canvas rucksack with a metal frame so that I could carry my stock from village to village.
The country people were too poor to pay to borrow books, but in Africa we are used to making a living where there is no money, so each community subscribed to my library by providing me with a cot, food and merissa. Later, out of kindness or disquiet, for every African understands the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, a wife would come with the bed, and with the wife a hut, a vegetable garden, and occasionally a goat. There was no permanence about these unions and most of my wives went on to marry other men, but while together we would live as husband and wife. I never fathered any children, though. The stories were my children. I watched them grow, saw them break out and away into other people's heads, and I was glad. That was what I wanted. I wanted people to make stories happen for themselves, like I had learned to do with Tricycle Tim.
Since many villagers could not read, I also performed my stories in public, reading aloud, telling from memory when the books were borrowed elsewhere. Reading each story as I traveled, I would tell different parts in different places at different times. Each village heard the story in a different order and no village ever heard the whole story in sequence. Some had to guess why Ahab hated the white whale, others had to work out why the gold doubloon was nailed to the mast, and when people from different villages met at market, they would tell each other what they knew, explaining Queequeg's coffin, the nature of the Parsee's riddle, or the horror that made Pip mad. It was not as good as reading, but they could piece the story together for themselves and show it back to each other.
To the villagers, I was The Story Man, but the white people called me The Barefoot Librarian. I was never barefoot, but I did not mind the wrong name. It meant something to them, like the roads on their maps. For thirteen years I walked from village to village. I believe I walked nearly twenty thousand miles. Then the war got big again and once again everything fell apart.
Beyond the backwash of the headlights, the distant village is shrouded in darkness. The truck pitches back and forth, bouncing between belts of track, swerving through patches of churned sand, skirting the scars of empty pools, and weaving between the lilac skeletons of dead trees. Our fellow passengers sleep fitfully, jolted in and out of their dreams by the lurching of the vehicle. I scan the horizon while Kate presses buttons on the back of her camera, transferring photos from the internal memory. I do not know what she means by this, but I like the words for they could as easily describe reading, which is a transferal from the internal memory to the external, unlocking what has been buried in the book and bringing it to light. It is a kind of archeology, unearthing what has been conserved in the accumulated layers of a narrative.
There is a copy of Moby Dick in my shoulder bag, a book in which I discover new treasures with every reading. I always have a book with me, even when I am fetching new stock. It is a necessary companion, like certain beliefs are necessary. I have heard of people who need words so much that they must read the labels on bottles of disinfectants when they sit on the toilet. Here we have few disinfectants, squat instead of sit, and flies would soon shift anyone who settled down to read in a toilet, but I understand that need. I am compelled to read everything. I have even been known to read government decrees pinned to the post office wall. Sometimes, I read trees, spelling an alphabet of my own making among the encrypted letters of the crisscrossing branches.
Waiting for the light to come, I gaze across the qoz toward the blue hump of the mountain, listening for the welcoming sounds of the waking village. Mine has been a footloose life, but I know the pleasures of sedentary living well enough to love the music of community. At night, the day fades to a declining harmony, the crackle of fires, the murmur of voices, snatches of laughter or chanted song, the cooing of doves, a goat or donkey giving voice to the intolerable fatigue of being, all gradually growing fainter until the only sound is the hum of cicadas and the intermittent barking of a dog. Come morning, the composition is played in reverse, cocks crowing against the dark, dogs, donkeys and goats stirring themselves, men hawking and spitting, women rousing unwilling children and going about their household tasks, pouring water into tin basins, clanking pans, sparking fires, the chorus growing to greet the rising sun . . . it is an orchestra of life blowing and banging and plucking and sawing its way into the rhythms of the day.
There is still no sign of the village, but a thin rime of light smears itself along the horizon then steals across the shallow undulations of the qoz, discovering the bleached bones of a camel, the scurrying, flitting, hopping progress of hectic gerbils, panicky mice, tiny scrub doves and thumb-sized sparrows, and in the distance a large black and white bird circling against the whitening mountain. Within an hour, the light will be so bright that the mountain will look small, as if squashed by the weight of the sun, and the qoz will have been smoothed into an apparently seamless carpet of flat scrub. It is not true, this trick of the light. The mountain is large and full of complex folds, and even the lowlands are laced with a web of wadis, like a shattered labyrinth scattered across the plain. It is these seasonal watercourses that bring life to the qoz, draining rainfall from the mountain and distributing it about a riverless landscape where human settlement depends on bore holes. The arid land looks bleak and empty, but it is full of life, both wild and domestic, and, in the gaps between what is native, I have sown yet more life, embellishing the terrain with characters and stories culled from books. I am a grower of stories, I farm them as I would millet, a way of surviving in the world, assuaging hunger and confirming the future.
There are nearly forty of us squeezed onto the back of the truck, so tight together that the white sacks of sorghum are almost hidden. One by one, the others wake, turning toward the mountain and the village, looking forward to the chai shack and the peck of fire, the wood fed tip first into the small flame to eke out the warmth. Chai and kisra will be served, and Kate will be called upon to repeat last night's litany, replying to the standard interrogation: Where are you from? What are you doing? Where are you going? What is your religion? Are you married? She will be plied with food and drink that she can probably better afford than her hosts, then the questioning will begin again in more painstaking detail, piecing together a sketchy picture of far off people in far off places employed in far out practices. Once more, she will reply with the deft fluency of one who has been quizzed many times before, ducking the question of God, but admitting that she has no husband. Like the other passengers last night, the people in the chai shack will be saddened by her single status, puzzled by the talk of gender studies and traditional societies, and mystified as to why she should write about such things to become a doctor.
That is how it should be, standard questions breaking the night's fast, but there are no questions asked when we reach the village. Everyone understands what has happened. The chai shack is no longer there. A dented pan, some charred shards of glass, a blackened back-broke bench, and a few sheaves of scorched grass are all that remains. Accidents are not uncommon. Thatch burns easily and, even when a fire is tended carefully, the bottles used as chimneys can catch the sun's rays and ignite the roof. But this fire is no accident. Behind the burned quitiyya, the cluster of huts that constituted the main village have also been destroyed. The walls of the mud buildings have caved in, everything that would not burn and could not be taken has been smashed, and there is a terrible stillness overlaid with a faint humming sound.
A woman near the front of the truck starts moaning. The sound is not loud, but comes from deep in her throat, like something leaking from a badly sealed container. She taps her chest with the knuckles of her clenched fist, rocking slowly back and forth. The driver and cab passengers descend, but do not move far from the open doors, as if fearing others will take their place. The rest of us drop lightly from the back of the truck, unwilling to draw attention to ourselves by any unnecessary noise, until only the woman and three children remain. There is nothing to do, nothing to see that we want to see, yet one by one we walk into the village that is no more.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace