Read an Excerpt
1: The Bastard’s Last Day
Every morning at dawn they emerge from the desert, black women with earthen red jugs, tall, thirsty jugs atop their heads, their hard-calloused bare black feet squeaking as they pound down the long, broken road, through the floury red dust.
See them in the pulverizing sun. Wrapped in shawls of white cotton, two long and tremulous forms start up the mountain, their tall jugs making them look like giants in the distance. Miles they will walk up this mountain, then miles back through the volcanic desert, and all for one jug emptied upon arrival by begging children and fiery, wooly-haired men in raw cotton tunics carrying long black spears and heavy daggerswhite-eyed warriors who snatch and gulp their fill.
But today it is not just the water that brings the women out of the desert. It is the news, the gossip, which is juicy, like a burst mango, especially on this, the Bastard’s last day. If it is his last day, that is.
On this point there is much debate, competing rumors, the biggest being that the Spice Woman, the very girl the Bastard dishonored, will at last confront him. Avenge herself. Humiliate him in some way. No one wants to miss that, the humiliation of the frangi, the foreigner.
“Look at the sun,” says the taller of the two, a quick, sharp girl, pretty, with a wide gap between her front teeth. She slaps a vicious fly. “Come on. If we don’t hurry, he will slip away.”
Then at the next pass, a third joins, then a fourth, then a fifth, this one carrying a basket piled high with juicy datesdates with pits they spit, pthu, when they speak about him.
“This is the day,” insists the date woman, bossy and a big talker but often right about such matters. “A woman from the caravan told me. Five men pulling twelve camelstwelve.” Her eyes grow wide with irritation. “Don’t you understand? The Bastard needs four camels just for his gold.”
“Just once,” says the youngest, staring at the sky, “just once I want to see his face. Frangi devil.”
“No,” squeals the oldest, a very beautiful woman, a real looker. Scared of the devils and jinns, she wears on her chest an ornate silver cylinder containing a message written by the sheik himself, abjuring any who might cast doubt upon her virtue with the evil eye. “I will not look! Never, at those eyes of hisof that blue. But please, if an evil urge makes me look, promise! Seize me hard by the hair!”
Then everything changes. With just a few feet more of elevation, suddenly all is green and cool, jungle palms, date and banana trees and, on the ground, a small clan of the long-faced gelada baboons, several with babies clinging to their backs. Then, round the next bend, a bad omen. Hunkered atop a white-boned tree, four enormous vultures can be seen, slouching black heaps with absurdly tiny headswhite, like centipedes. Then the young woman squeals, ducks as they hear:
The great shadow swoops. Seizing the jug upon her head, she looks up, to see him silhouetted against the sun. Amazing, the creature is almost the size of a man, an angel with two pumping swells of wing. And higher, circling in the clouds, wings cutting like scimitars through the blue sky, dozens more of these magnificent birds can be seenthe great kites of Harar, godlike birds, rulers of all the sky, the kings!
Beware, butcher. Turn even for one second and the swooping, spade-tailed kite with his hand-sized claws, he will snatch your meat, then perch nearby mocking you, tearing it with claw and beak. And way up there, high on the bluff, there is where the kites live, on the walls of what looks like a great mud ship; there it is beached on the great massif from which one can see for a hundred miles. This is the ancient mud-walled city of Harar, a place of some 12,000 souls, thousands of goats, and innumerable dogs. And now, as the women see, it is a city suddenly blocked. No reason. What reason? The gate is blocked, as always, by the sheer arbitrariness of life in this part of the world.
As the sentries push people back, it’s chaos, what with the market-day crowds bumping and buzzing and shouting. Men with goats slung over their shoulders. Bawling camels piled impossibly high with firewood and bananas and hempen bags. Donkey carts with wobbling wooden wheels tall as doors. And people bringing strange birds and boys holding dik-diks, tasty antelopes the size of rabbits, their long legs bound like sticks with leather thongs. And blocking them, at the head of the great gate, in their old white uniforms stand the impassive Egyptiansnow mercenaries, their cohorts driven out some years before by the vengeance of the great Menelik, Menelik the Merciless, the capturing king. Holdover former occupiers from the north, the Egyptians stand with their rusted rifles and purple fezzes tightly wound in white cloths to combat the sun. Going You and You. Or Not you, if they do not like your looksout.
“Look at this mess!” The date woman spits. “Late. I told you.”
The other shades her eyes. “And today it is the day? Are you sure?”
“Silly girl. Was sure ever sure?”
But five minutes later, pushing through this river of people and animals, mud and husks and rinds, they arrive at the Feres Magala, one of the town’s two squares, and there at the well must be fifty women, all waiting to catch a glimpse of the Bastard, otherwise known as our luckless hero, Arthur Rimbaud. Alas, Rimbaud is hastily concluding his self-exile in this African Elba. Hiding behind those arched green shutters. Treed!
“Yes, it is true!” shouts the date woman, holding her wares over the crowd. “Today he goes, the Bastard! Look, dates, fresh dates!”
“But no, you are wrong,” dismisses her rival, another date seller. “They say tomorrow he goespthu. Away, the thief.”
“But how?” asks the youngest, pressing her shawl against her face, poor girl, as if to ward off some dreaded contagion. “But how can he go when his leg is so fat and sick? He cannot ride.”
“Ride!” sneers another. “With his money he will buy a golden leg! Two! The devil, he will find a way.”
Out is the way, and hastily, too. For even now, upturned on sweaty backs or balanced atop heads, the last dregs of A. Rimbaud Ltd. are being rapidly disgorged into the street: desks, crates, hempen bags, tusksyours, at a fraction of their wholesale cost.
Two stories above this scene, the besieged proprietor peers outwell back from the peeling, rickety louvers, his face striped with bars of sun and shade. Ah, but not back far enough. For just then the rising sun illuminates his silhouetteexposed! With that an ululating cry can be heard. It is the chorusing, cicadalike cry of fifty female tongues clucking.
Unfortunately, our hero has lost the element of surprise. For although it is not the actual day of his departure, it is the last full day of his tenure at this torrid, misruled school. And a downcast day it is, too.
How sad to be misunderstood, when for years, in his missionary way, he has tried to be good. Not great, he would hasten to add, but merely goodgood enough, living a modest, human-scale existence that might be characterized, if not by faith, exactly, then by its very simplicity and decency. Good works. Even charity. Well, of a kind . . . if he could manage even that, hang it.
And indeed, until only very recently in these parts was there any stain on his otherwise faultless reputation for actually good goods, for fair dealing and sure delivery within days or weeks, as opposed to months. A. Rimbaud, known as far as Cairo and Nairobi as a steady man. A handshake man. A man who honored his word, paid his debts, didn’t whine, and ran a tight shiprare in this land of fugitive oddballs and crooks. But look. Even now as a woman, keening Ayeeeeeeee and suffering some kind of spasm, is gesturing horribly at him.
The crutch groans. As he turns away, it spins like a peg on the rough wooden floor, his one crutch and his one good footthe left. It’s his right leg that is now the problem, specifically the knee, now swollen to enormous size. Merde . . . les varices! Varicose veins! This continues to be his stubborn diagnosis, and even now, incredibly, he remains wedded to the idea against considerable medical and commonsense evidence to the contrary. Why, even as recently as a week ago, obstinately he had marched on the bad leg. Stamped on it. Rode with it until it was numb. Varicose veins: this remained his steely reply when people presumed to inquire or insisted on staring.
And when at last, to relieve the swelling, he was forced to tear open the knee of his trouserswell, fine. Indeed, the knee was purple, but a commanding man, a deliberate man, he does not change his answer. Never, even as he dispatched his poor mother to scour Charleville, their town, and even Paris if necessary to find a special sock. A medical, elastic stocking he had seen in some months-old newspaper. Just the thing to compress the veins. Pressure. For him, this is always the answer: pressure.
Alas, when said sock arrived ten weeks later in a mildewed package mauled beyond recognition, the sock did not work, hang it! In fact, just as his mother had predicted, the sock only worsened the condition. And then last week came the final blowa crutch.
It was the leg that had started this nonsense with the women. Arrogant frangi! This was not just bad fortune. To them, it was God’s retribution for his having chucked the girl out three months before. Because the girl could not give him a child, not even a girl child, let alone a male child, the frangi, the foreigner, he had thrown her out, but see then how Allah punished him! As anyone could tell you in Harar, the backed-up man poisons, the poisons from his bad seed, they had seeped down his leg. Allah, who sees all, Allah the Just had turned his leg to stone, his business had failed, the girl had triumphed, and every day now female justice waits outside his window, praise be to Himal-hamdu lil-lah!
Oh, it’s bad, quite bad, and he knows it. But it’s not just the leg, it’s his whole life, even the state of his room. Papers strewn. Drawers hanging out. Bags half packed. It’s life with the stuffing pulled outevicted. For yes, admittedly, he had done
Or rather, it had so happened
Fine then, he had let happen a rather stupid thing. A rash thing. An obstinate thing. And, perhaps most unforgivably for his European colleagues, a rash and unnecessary thing, ejecting the girl. “Good heavens, man,” as one English bloke had put it. “What are you thinking? Have you a positive wish to die?”
The girl also had a family, and a large one, so throw in “impolitic,” too. And yet, having found the girl, this flower sprung in the mud of the bazaarwell, for once in his life, Rimbaud had done the brave and honest thing and followed his heart. And yes, it was regrettable, but certainly he had made copious amends to the girl and her family. Hecatombs of amendsGod! People had no idea what he had paid to her peoplefor monthsin his vain efforts to hush it all up. And all too characteristically he had thought, I can fix this. Set her up freshin Egypt, perhaps. Find some wealthy man. Une belle situation. A governess or mistress position, perhaps. I’ll fix it.
Pack of dogs! Bandits! And after all his generosity to the town, too.
Anonymous, most of it. Oh, they didn’t know the half of it, ignorant savages. The leper colony, for example. Had he not donated bandages, then even frocks to his friend Father Lambert and the little children in the school adjacent to the quarantined “hot” compound? Quite beautiful healthy children, too, even as their parents, earless, noseless, fingerless, boiled in their own skins. The children! Among whom he would sit, as if among wild monkeys, when he was feeling low. Voices raised in songremember? On his birthday? How they had sung to him so beautifully!
But it wasn’t just the orphans to whom he had been so kind. Thanks to him, ten, twenty, probably thirty men had been inoculatedalive merely because they worked for him. And the food! Piles of food he had given away during the famines, why, openly in the streets, stopping the wildfire of hunger before mobs sacked his store, or worse. Could they, could any of them, appreciate his generosity, his sacrifice?
No more. Tomorrow, after long years of comings and goings in the region, he will leave it, all of it, the reputation he wants and manly competence as he knows it, and all in the hope that his mother and Roche, even Francethat this time it will be good, or at least better than it was before. For a man with the pride of Lucifer, it is a point of particular pride that he himself has organized his rescue, himself and his gold, kilos of the gold protected by a dozen gunmen, wild Yemenis and Somalis, mostly, bound to him through a local chief whom he had long supplied. Ruthless, efficient men. Blooded horsemen personally armed by Rimbaud himselffive of them with the Remington lever-action repeater rifles so prizedhe loves to point outby the American cowboys. Rimbaud was proud indeed that he could procure such weapons. And tomorrow at dawn they will come for him, a dozen men with guns and spears and bandoliers of ammunition. A trotting armory, each man carrying, athwart his hip, the long Danakil dagger, a heavy, J-shaped rip of steel that curves like a sideways smile. Reaper men. And reliable men. Or so he hopes, carrying all his gold.
Before dawn, they will be off, with him leading the caravan. And not walking or on horseback but carriedcarried on a stretcher. This will be his ordeal, broiling in the trackless desert under the unending sun. Twelve days later, ten if they are very lucky, they will arrive in Zelia by the cobalt blue sea. Then away he will goaway on the first steamer smoking back to France. Away from these vulturous women keening, “Ayyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”