Standing at the Crossroadsby Charles Davis
Two people, two faiths, one hope, one destiny . . . .
A white woman and a black man, stranded in the desert in a land laid waste by an undeclared war. She is a campaigning academic and believes in justice, absolutely. He is a barefoot librarian and believes in books, just about. Hunted by The Warriors of God, they must take refuge in the mountains and learn to
Two people, two faiths, one hope, one destiny . . . .
A white woman and a black man, stranded in the desert in a land laid waste by an undeclared war. She is a campaigning academic and believes in justice, absolutely. He is a barefoot librarian and believes in books, just about. Hunted by The Warriors of God, they must take refuge in the mountains and learn to live with their divergent beliefs if they are to survive.
Examining themes broached in Charles Davis' first novel (Walk On, Bright Boy), Standing At The Crossro a d s explores the parallels between walking and reading, the nature of belief, and the transformational power of storytelling.
As the two protagonists are pursued across the mountains, they discover an unlikely love that is of itself their best riposte to the fanatics who want to kill them, and which reaches its climax in the shattering, final confrontation.
A novel of evasion and pursuit, set in Africa and written in the spare, allegorical style of Davis' first novel,Walk on, Bright Boy(2007).
The unnamed narrator is an itinerant black librarian traveling across a sparse and desolate landscape. He hides books for safekeeping in a dry well but carries a shoulder bag of classic works that he admires and freely alludes to, his special literary loves beingMoby Dick,Great ExpectationsandJabberwocky. For largely unknown reasons, but perhaps mainly because he represents a despised intellectual and cultural tradition, he's being pursued by the Warriors of God, a group of religious fanatics bent on destroying him and all he represents. Along the way, he meets Kate, an idealistic foreigner who wants to expose the corrupt government by documenting atrocities such as the killing and raping of women and children. While Kate is ferociously independent and motivated by a strong sense of injustice, she remains naïve about African culture. Their fates intertwine when it becomes clear that despite her feistiness and fervor, Kate would find it difficult to survive both the harsh conditions and the relentless pursuit of the Warriors. Kate and the librarian eventually link up with Mara, a vulnerable young girl also being tracked down. Complicating the psychology of the characters is Jemal, who had grown up and been friends with the narrator but is now one of the Warriors pursuing him. Kate and the narrator establish a love relationship, one that Davis makes both inevitable and plausible, a neat trick indeed. By the tragic end of the novel, the narrator, who has been preoccupied with the power of both words and storytelling, reaches the conclusion that "writing is memory, reading is memory rescued, but it cannot be rescued until the writer has let it go." The narrator discovers that he needs to "let go" in this, and in many, ways.
An absorbing read.
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STANDING AT THE CROSSROADS
By CHARLES DAVIS
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2011 Charles Davis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOK, 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, so absorbed that it would seem she has lost something inside it. I should leave. Jemal's men are no friends of mine. But I need new books and the foreigners have always given books for my library. They like to picture their novels crossing the desert on my back. So I walk toward the white woman.
Souk is the word we use, but it is not the sort of souk featured in tomes 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.
"Excuse me, madam. May I be permitted to speak with you for one moment, please?"
Kate looks up, a little startled. It is sometimes this way. I have been told by other white people that I speak too formally, my language dated like the writers on whom it has been modeled. I have, at least, learned not to ask to have intercourse with them. That does not work at all. It would seem that that which was once communication has dwindled to mere coition in the modern world.
She does not reply, yet watches me in a manner that suggests assent. 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.
I explain my purpose, ask her for old paperbacks, careful to display the forms of courtesy that I have learned from the novels of Mr. Trollope and Mr. Galsworthy. When my speech is finished, she says she has heard of me, The Barefoot Librarian. The way she says it, the words sound like the title of a book, one she would perhaps like to read or that has been recommended by a fellow reader, but she does not elaborate.
I wait, not wishing to seem importunate.
She waits, too, watching me with a cool, distant curiosity, the degree of which I cannot yet determine. It is always a delicate moment, the period between request and bequest, for it is then that potential donors decide whether to fob me off with a token contribution or really try to help.
Still she does not speak.
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.
Yet Kate says nothing.
Simply waits and watches, her figure partially obscured by my shadow, a slender ghost that slouches over her knees and folds itself across the far corner of the bench. Her own shadow is distorted by the wall of the chai shop, twisted awkwardly, an unfamiliar creature trying to fit itself into an incommodious space not fashioned for it by nature.
I explain again what I need and why.
Abruptly, she loses interest or patience, I do not know which, or appears to, at least, says quietly but firmly: "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, dismissing me by taking refuge in technology. I later learn that she has collected many facts about my country—dates, names, numbers, places—but she does not read them right. Otherwise, she would know that 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 once more, 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 unruly companion, 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. He is always seeking enemies to challenge—like Kate, as I will discover shortly. 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 field workers, foreign teachers and contract personnel, 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 store them all in 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 my only resource—words and you.
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 its further end, there is a man, and between Kate and myself, two more. They are walking at her, talking angry words, saying insults she cannot understand. They are Warriors of God, nomads who have always raided villages in search of cattle, and who 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 yet independent, even at the cost of safety. Beauty may be found in the happenstance of flesh and bone, but it must be quickened by more than blood if it is to move us.
Kate's courage 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 reach below her knees, but her hair is showing. Time before, this was allowed in a white woman, but not now. Too much has changed, the world become too fragile, to permit exceptions. 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 like they have killed so many others before, 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, the muscles made abnormally large by the many years of carrying books, and I learned how to fight well enough in the orphanage. 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 want me dead. 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 hast 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.
Excerpted from STANDING AT THE CROSSROADS by CHARLES DAVIS Copyright © 2011 by Charles Davis. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
CHARLES DAVIS is the author of Walk On, Bright Boy (2007), Walking The Dog (2008), and numerous walking guides.
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His name is not Ishmael, but he is a witness, narrator of Charles Davis' novel, Standing at the Crossroads. The story begins with man, woman and child, in Africa, surrounded by people who believe in God and guns. It ends soon after, when the past of their meeting, rescue and flight has been told, when the world, large and small, receives and perceives the telling. And therein lies a beautiful journey, the scenery of African Paradise, and the story of what we tell; how we make sense of things; why and where we belong. Kate is white, opinionated, idealistic, determined to see justice done. The narrator is black, a reader and carrier of books, a teller of stories that peel back layers of truth. He and Kate argue over whether violence is senseless, or whether the list of villages pillaged and burned is unpredictable. They wander the African desert, fleeing soldiers, hiding from helicopters-she seeking a town where her tale might change the world, and he just seeking to be true to his vision of the world. Each knows different truths and tells them different ways. But in the end, relationship is what lasts, the only known and knowable-though even that can be colored in different tones. The story is told through the eyes of an African man. His language is built on a foundation of classical books; his metaphors come from the land and from fiction; his strength from carrying books; wisdom not only from reading but from telling; he sees an ocean in the desert's waves and no God but that of stories. Purpose comes from Kate, who is sure the world will stop injustice when it sees what's going on. Ishmael, ever-pragmatic, asks if we don't already know and keep our eyes turned away, as if that's the only way we can live with ourselves. Kate wants answers. Ishmael wants story. Kate wants action. Ishmael's just watching the path. Meanwhile the plains spread truth, shifting and thin, while mountain climbs reveal how far we've come. Standing at the Crossroads is a mountain climb of a story, not one of Ishmael's disparaged airport novels of "flat" simplicity. It's a Paradise lost of human endeavor writ small in the lives of the few. It's a feast of words in famine and fresh water in the desert of oft-repeated news. And it's beautifully told. There's an "eternal present" in books where all the characters continue their lives through story; Charles Davis' characters deserve to be heard and to live on in his words. Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, the Permanent Press, in exchange for an honest review.