“Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”
Recently I read, for the first time, Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. It was part of a collection, the others being Youth and The End Of The Tether, but those two can be safely disregarded; the first is merely trite, and the second not just trite but the denouement predictable to almost the very letter. Which, I suppose, is why they’re not exactly famous; not like Heart Of Darkness.
I had heard of Heart (to keep its name conveniently short) before. I had also heard, in considerable detail, of the history of the so called Belgian Congo. In the 1880s, the European imperialists decided to hand over the Congo territory, which of course belonged to the native African tribes, to the bearded war criminal so-called “King” Leopold II of Belgium as his own private property. This creature then spent the next couple of decades, until he sold the territory to Belgium, treating the Congo as a resource to be ruthlessly exploited. I am not going to go into details of what happened during this time, except to say that, for instance, African villages were required to collect a quota (always unrealistically high) of rubber, and if they did not do so, they were “punished” by executions of the children of the rubber tappers. As proof of the “executions”, the Belgian regime of Leopold II, which supplied their troops with limited ammunition and didn’t want it wasted on hunting, ordered said troops to submit the chopped off hands of those they had killed. The troops, of course, used the bullets to hunt anyway, and simply chopped off the hands of living Africans, adults as well as children, as “proof”. Some quarter of the population of the Congo was massacred during “King” Leopold II’s “ownership” of the territory. Conrad’s book, scathing as it is in its description of Belgian atrocities, is extremely mild in its description of the horrors of the European mission of “civilisation”.
Can you understand why I – the product of two centuries of colonial rule of my own homeland, myself – have my own doubts about the benefits of European “civilisation”?
To get back to the book, here is the brief summary, with no attempt to avoid spoilers: one evening, on a yacht that’s moored on the Thames waiting for the turn of the tide, several friends, including the narrator, are listening to Marlow, one of their number, tell one of his tales. Years ago, likely the early 1890s, Marlow had obtained employment as the captain of a river steamer on the Congo river, voyaging upstream to various colonial outposts, delivering cargo and picking up loot – Conrad, an anti-imperialist despite his somewhat right-wing leanings, has no hesitation in labelling imperialism as looting – all the while getting closer to a quasi mythical outpost headed by a man called Kurtz. Kurtz is either regarded in worshipful admiration by everyone Marlow talks to, or else is loathed as someone whose excesses have “ruined the district” and has set himself up as a god. On the way, Marlow picks up a colonial manager, a number of “pilgrims” (European passengers whose only purpose seems to be to try and find a way to make a profit), and a crew of Africans he refers to as “cannibals”. Whether they are really cannibals is unknown. They don’t eat a single person in the story, though the Belgians make absolutely no attempt, Marlow says, to provide them any food. And finally, after surviving an ambush by Africans firing arrows from the river bank, they arrive at Kurtz’ outpost.
What do they find there?
They find an unnamed Russian adventurer, who regards Kurtz as almost a deity, despite him having repeatedly threatened the Russian with death. They find a lot of African warriors, who seem to obey Kurtz’ every command. They find Kurtz himself, a giant whose house is faced with staves mounted with the severed heads of Africans, and who is wasted away with sickness. And they find...
“...a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.
“She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.
“She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow fell to the water's edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle, a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if her heart had failed her. The young fellow by my side growled. The pilgrims murmured at my back. She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon the unswerving steadiness of her glance. Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer into a shadowy embrace. A formidable silence hung over the scene.
“She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of the thickets before she disappeared.”
Who is she, this nameless African woman? According to some reviews of Heart I read, she is Kurtz’ “mistress”, though the story gives absolutely no evidence to prove that. She could be his “mistress”; she could be his “mistress” in another sense entirely. As soon as I read of her I needed to find out more about her. Who is she, what does she really want, what drives and motivates her? She has one of the three most detailed physical descriptions of the entire tale (more than Kurtz; the other two are a totally superfluous accountant early in the voyage, in a station where African workers were literally being worked to death and left to die in a forest, and the Russian), and of the three of them there is the least attempt to give her a voice.
At any rate, whoever she is, she terrifies the Russian, who leaves the party to journey on further. She makes another appearance a few pages later, when Kurtz, dying of fever, has been loaded on to the steamer and it’s about to start on the return journey downstream:
“...the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance... I pulled the string of the whistle... They broke and ran, they leaped, they crouched, they swerved, they dodged the flying terror of the sound... Only the barbarous and superb woman did not so much as flinch, and stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the sombre and glittering river. “
And that is all the mention she gets, this beautiful and mysterious African woman. In the hands of another writer – H Rider Haggard springs instantly to mind – it would be she, not Kurtz (a rather tiresome character, to be honest) – who would be the focus of the story. Heart would be her tale, for good or ill. As someone else once wrote, I don’t recall who, Rider Haggard’s stories always had two women, one boring and bland and “good”, and one mysterious and compelling and “evil”. Well, the bland and boring woman appears soon afterwards. It’s Kurtz’ fiancée, who lives in Belgium and is still in mourning for him a year after his death, and who is so pathetic that Marlow does not bother to dignify her with a name. He, however, lies to her that Kurtz’ last words were her name (which he doesn’t bother mentioning to his listeners). She is simply that unimportant.
What were they really, Kurtz’ last words? Nobody knows, because they aren’t there when Kurtz dies. His passing is announced to them by the contemptuous words of the African steward: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”. But the last words he speaks to Marlow are “the horror – the horror”.
What could they mean?
I decided to explore the question for myself, in a quasi-review of Heart. I also decided that there was another story that needed to be told, a story distinct from that of the European colonial invaders. It was time the African lady got to tell her tale, that she got the voice denied her.
Here is that story.
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I remember the first white man I ever saw.
What is my name? You who call me, respectfully, Madam, you who want me to tell my story, you want to know my name, so that you can put me down in your little book, and label me. Well, you cannot have my real name. He tried to give me a name, too, once; he decided to call me Jeanne. I refused to answer to it. You can call me the name I agreed to be called by him, the name under which I have lived for so many long years. You can call me Emeka. That should be label enough for your story.
I was telling you of the first white man I ever saw.
I was a young girl, whose monthly blood had only a year or two ago begun to flow. Our village, on the bank of the Mother River, was large then, large and important enough to be visited by a wandering storyteller, one of those known among other peoples as griots. Everyone was always excited when news came that one was soon to arrive; the village took on quite a festive air, both men and women stepping as though with new blood in their veins, while we children boasted to each other that we would each remember the griot’s tales better than anyone else could, afterwards.
That year, though, there had been other whispers, of men who had arrived far down the Mother River where She met the sea. They were, it was said, men the colour of flayed flesh, and the hunger of devils. They had weapons against which our arrows and spears were as tufts of grass, it was said, and tools that stripped the jungle bare and ripped the red earth from the breast of the world so that those men could satiate their greed. But their greed, it was said, was insatiable.
But those whispers were of lands far away, of other peoples and other tribes. None of us had seen the sea into which the Mother River merged Herself. None of us had journeyed to any of the places that the men the colour of flayed flesh were now ripping apart. The tales were like those of ghosts and spirits that were told to us children, to keep us afraid and compliant, but which instead entertained and excited us enormously.
At any rate, one morning the griot arrived. He was a very old man, dark as dried leather, his flesh shrunken over his bones, shambling along with the help of a stick. He had an apprentice with him, who carried his bundles on his back and helped the old man whenever, as was often, he had to pause on his way for breath. He had been given his seat of honour in the middle of the village, his gourd filled with sour wine, and after he’d rested he had told his stories.
Of course we’d heard all of them before. That was the importance of it, the retelling, with not one word out of place, so that the tales and history was not lost to memory. Then, in those days, memory was important; we did not write it down on little books as you are doing, so that our minds were not kept vacant, to be stuffed full of mischief. Not transferring our knowledge and history to scraps of paper that can be burnt up or torn away, got us called savages. But that was all right; the recital of the old tales was always soothing, and after the griot had finished, there would usually be a feast for everybody.
This day, however, after the end of the last of his stories – a description of the glories of the Amazon women warriors of Dahomey, and how no man, no matter how fierce, could go up against them and hope to live – the griot had paused and shaken his head. “Now all those things are in the past,” he’d said, “and I thank you for listening to me tell them. I shall not be back to tell them again. Nobody will.”
There had been a collective gasp of shock. “What do you mean?” someone asked eventually.
“The time of telling the tales of old are over,” the old griot had mumbled, his eyes filming over. “New tales are eating the old, and they are being written.”
“Whatever are you talking about?” several voices clamoured. “Old master, what new tales?”
“Show them,” the griot had mumbled to his assistant. “Show them the new lord from the west, who is eating the old stories and vomiting out the new.”
The assistant, a blunt-faced young man from one of the villages further down the Mother River, had fished in one of the bags and finally taken out a piece of stiff paper, holding it out to us. I had been one of the closest, and so saw what it was at once. And it was so ridiculous that I burst out laughing.
It was an image – I did not know then that it was a photograph – of a man. He had strange clothes, all festooned with ropes and glittering things, and he had a nose like a vulture’s beak, and a great square beard that fell over his chest like the blade of an axe. All that was ridiculous enough, but what was funniest was his skin. On the paper it looked as dead white as the belly of one of the frogs that sang nightly on the banks of the Mother.
I was not the only one to laugh. “Nobody can look like that,” my father had said, forgetting to cuff me for my impertinence. “Someone has been painting him with white clay.”
The griot had raised a hand, and the laughter had cut off as though at the stroke of a knife. “That,” he’d said, “is the lord of the men who are coming up the Mother River, eating their way up Her banks. He is, they say, the lord of all this land, of the river and the forests, owner over you and of me. He controls spirits of air and water, and death and fire are his slaves, consuming those he tells them to devour.” He’d heaved himself unsteadily to his feet. “Now I am going on this last journey of mine, to tell the old tales for the last time, and then to warn those I can.”
There had been a long silence, if the feast afterwards had been held, I do not remember it at all.
The next morning the griot had left, and I never saw him again.
Time passed, though, the moons ate themselves and grew full again, and little by little the griot’s warnings faded from our minds, as did the image of that ridiculous bearded man with his rope-draped metal-studded clothes, his spade of a beard, and his skin the colour of the paper he was displayed on. But the whispers still came up the Mother River, that the men the colour of flayed flesh were eating the land, and the more that they ate, the more their hunger grew.
But then one day – I remember that day well – a small party of our young men, who were hunting down the river, found a man lying on the mud of the bank. He was a very sick man, in rags and thin almost as a skeleton, and they almost didn’t think it worth carrying him back to the village because they didn’t think he’d survive that long. He did, though. When he was carried into the village he was unconscious, and our healers set to trying to bring him back from the borders of the hereafter. We all crowded around to watch. Or would have, if the healer women hadn’t shooed us away.
“From his ritual scars,” my father said, “he’s from one of the tribes down river. They mark their cheeks with slanting scars like that.”
“But those aren’t ritual scars on his wrists and ankles,” his friend said. “They were made by something that rubbed the skin away.” We had not, you understand, ever seen shackles then; we did not know what they were.
“Doubtless he will tell us what, when he recovers,” my father replied. “If,” he admitted honestly, “he recovers. It doesn’t seem likely.”
He underestimated the skill of our healer women. Over and over, every day, they bathed his wounds, wiped his fever-closed eyes with wet cloths, kept fanning the insects away from his face and wounds, and even chewed his food to mush before pushing it bit by bit between his lips. Then one day his fever broke, he began mumbling words, and finally he opened his eyes.
You may be sure that everyone was eager to hear his story, but our healers insisted he was still too weak and demanded that he rest a few more days before he be asked any questions. After so many days of caring for him all the time, they, however, were also tired, and for the first time relaxed their vigil. And that night the man rose from his sick bed, stole out of the grass hut in which he had been nursed, and tried to get away further up river. But he was so weak, still, that he had to crawl, and we found him lying within sight of the village within the hour. Later, after he’d been brought back and the healers – with a weary sigh – had brought him round again, it was time to get him to talk.
At first we had a problem, because he was from a different tribe and with his first words we discovered that none of us spoke his language. Some of our old men, had, however, travelled down the Mother River for some distance, and they knew enough of the languages of the peoples there that in the end they found a language both they and the man could understand.
At least we thought that they had found such a language, because the things the man said were such that at first we couldn’t believe that he was really saying what we thought he was saying. We thought it was a mistake in translation. His voice was hoarse and weak, anyway, and he had to take frequent breaks. And when he did speak, he would keep interrupting himself with desperate pleas to be allowed to run away further up the river and keep going.
It was his very fear that convinced us in the end, I think, that and the half-healed lacerations on his ankles and wrists. He would, he said, rather die of starvation or fever, snakebite or crocodile, rather than fall into the hands of the men coloured like flayed flesh ever again.
I no longer recall his name, but we will call him Segoue. They had come to his village, he said, only three or four of the pink men who looked like flayed flesh, but they had a lot of black men with them, and both the black and the pink flayed looking men had had guns. Of course they knew what guns were, the Arab traders to the east and north had muskets, and the villagers had known that resistance would only have meant destruction. The invaders had said that they owned the land now, and that everyone was there only as tenants. And they could start paying their rent by carrying loads further upriver, all the men who were old enough to carry anything.
After that they were there all the time, demanding work every day, so that nobody had time to grow food or repair huts or weave cloth or do anything else for themselves. At first the villagers had thought of fleeing, and had in fact abandoned their village to try and move further inland, away from the Mother River, much as they hated to do this; it was like a sacrilege. But they had not even selected a new spot for their village before the pink men and their black minions were back, and had rounded them up and brought them back. And told them that in order to be allowed to live on the Lord Of The West’s territory, they would have to provide labour; they had written up some kind of treaty which, of course, none of the village elders could read, and had them make their mark on it. And then Segoue, and some twenty other young men of the tribe, were marched off downriver to provide part of that labour.
He told us that the river itself began to turn the colour of blood as they were loaded on a boat. It wasn’t one of the steamers that were later to come upriver; just a sailing boat, almost as flat as a board, and they were made to sit in the bottom, wet through in the water that leaked through chinks in the hull. When the boat ran aground they had to get out and push, up to their necks in the water, and a crocodile took one of them. Another stepped into a hole in the river bottom, dropped in, and the boat crushed his skull. Their blood mixed with the red earth that was melting into the river as the pink men hacked away the trees, dug up the banks, and set up their own houses, of wood and stone,
At last they came to a place not far from the sea, where the Mother River had turned in a bend on herself, and at that place the pink men had cut away the forest and were making tracks of iron, and blasting away cliffs, and there the men were made to get off the boat and work. The work was unrelenting, from morning to night, and even after that by the light of torches. And they were not given food, no food for days sometimes unless the pink men felt like it. Finally, starving, Segoue stole a loaf of bread, and was found out. After that they put shackles on his ankles and wrists, chained together, and there was no food at all for him.
During this time, he said, he saw the pink men and their black minions come into the camp with ivory from up the Mother River, but other things along with the ivory, great heaps of rubber latex, and sacks. What it was in these sacks at first he did not know, but he always saw that the pink man who was always writing in the books and seemed to be in charge of payments – he was, of course, the accountant, though we did not know that then – was very interested in those sacks. They were taken right into the wood and stone cabin he used for his office, and when they were brought out they were closed again.
With no food and no rest, Segoue soon collapsed. At first he was beaten until he rose again and picked up his load, but the day came when he could rise no longer, no matter how much they beat him. Then, because iron shackles and chain were valuable, they struck them off from his ankles and his wrists, and just left him lying where he was to die. Later a couple of other men, less weak than he, had helped him to a little valley which was full of other workers, all sick or injured or starving, all abandoned and waiting for death.
Segoue should have died then, but he did not. Not even now, after all these years, do I understand why he did not die. Maybe the Great Mother spared him, gave him strength, so he could survive and crawl away as a warning. For a night and a day he lay in that valley in a stupor, and then, on the second night, he began to crawl.
That day there had sounded the screech of the steam whistle of one of the pink men’s new river steamers, the boats that travelled without oar or sail, so could only have been, he thought, driven by devils in their bellies. The steam whistle was the devil’s cry, announcing the arrival of the steamer or that it was about to depart. Segoue thought that the devil in the belly of the boat probably ate black men, and he’d been thinking himself fortunate that he had, on his journey down river, not had to travel by one of these craft. Anyway, from the edge of the grove where he lay half-dead, he’d seen the men on the steamer bring things up to the accountant’s office. There had been rolls of rubber, not many, but there had been some bundles of ivory tusks and several of those sacks. Segoue had seen all this as only something that was far away and did not interest him at the time, and shortly fallen into a sleep from which he had not expected to awake.
But not only had he woken, he’d found that there had been born inside him some source of energy, like a guttering oil lamp that suddenly flares up once more. It was not much, but it was enough for him to crawl out of that grove of death and crawl towards the Mother River. Why he went that way, he did not know, perhaps to die in Her bosom rather than on the despoiled land. The moon was almost full; it lit his way.
On his way, he had to pass the accountant’s hut. The moon was shining in through the open door, and one of the sacks was there, lying on its side and spilling its contents on the floor. Segoue thought it was a dried leaf at first, and thought it strange that the pink men should want to gather sacks of dried leaves. Then he took another look.
It was not a dried leaf. It was a child’s severed hand.
Segoue did not remember what had happened after that. The next thing he remembered, he could hear the devil in the steamboat’s scream, very close to his ear. He was lying among sacks and bales and pallets of wood in near darkness, and everything was vibrating.
Somehow, in the darkness, he must have blundered on to the steamer and lost consciousness in some corner where he was not discovered. And now the vessel, having delivered its accursed cargo, was going up the Mother River again. He knew he must stay in hiding, exactly where he was, because if he was found they would undoubtedly pitch him overboard.
It was on the next day that the steamer ran aground on a sandbank, just before dusk. And, knowing that he could not possibly avoid discovery if they began unloading the vessel in the morning to make it light enough to float, Segoue waited until it was dark, crawled out of his hiding hole, rolled on to the sandbank and by some miracle made his way to shore. The next morning he recognised the area; it wasn’t far from his village. He made his way homewards, thinking to at least die at home; but when he reached it, there was no village any longer. The huts were ashes, and of the people, all he found was one broken skull.
He had been fleeing upstream ever since, drinking the river water eating whatever he could find, feeling the fever consume him alive. And now all he wanted to do was move on again, before the pink men could find him.
The next morning, Segoue was gone. To this day I do not know where he went and what happened to him.
After that, of course, the men who were coloured like flayed flesh became much more than a distant, harmless, myth to us. I remember the loud and acrimonious discussions among the elders of the tribe. Some wanted us to stay where we were, others to move further up the Mother River. Still others pointed out that there were other tribes further upriver who would be less than welcoming, and, moreover, that there was nothing stopping the pink men from following us along the river no matter how far we chose to go. And there were those who suggested leaving the Mother River altogether, to move into the forest and set up villages there. Perhaps the pink men would not leave the water and follow us into the bush, at least not for a while. But would that not, the elders said, bring on us the wrath of the Mother River Herself? She had nourished us and our ancestors for as long as we could remember; would She forgive this turning of our backs on Her? Could She?
In the end some of the young men, impatient with the dithering of the elders, packed up and moved away into the forest, to set up their own villages there, and others followed them. Only a few of us were still left, and it seemed as though it were inevitable that we would leave, too, to join them in those new villages.
But then he arrived.
I can still recall the scream of the steamer’s whistle, still far down the river, echoing back from the forest. No wonder Segoue, and others, had thought that it was a devil’s scream. Although I had no belief in devils, it sent a shiver crawling down my spine too. The elders got together and were still trying to decide what to do when the steamer came struggling into view, scarcely making way against the flow of the current.
It was like a house, moving, a tower of wood and metal perched on hot smoking iron, and there were black men standing on the deck, besides piles of cloth and planks of wood. And standing in front, undoubtedly obscuring the view of the helmsman in the little wheelhouse, was he.
I am certain that you would like me to be able to recall every detail of that moment, the play of sunlight on the water of the Mother River, the splash of the steamer’s wake against the muddy bank, rocking the canoes that were left, the rumble of the straining engine and the smell of smoke and oil and hot metal. You would love me to describe him in detail, as though I could see him before me at this moment – the angle of his head, the wind ruffling his hair – he still had hair then – and, more, the clothes he had on stretched by his mighty muscles, the sun glinting off the barrel of the rifle in his hand. But I have no such memory. All I recall is a moving house of wood and metal on the river, a pink man standing in front, and if there was any sound we heard, any smell we smelt, it was the sound and aroma of fear.
He it was that decided that the site of our village would make a good spot for his outpost, and ordered the steamer to put to shore there. The helmsman, unsighted, rammed the bank – and reduced two of our dugout canoes to shattered fragments; fortunately there was nobody in them. And then he jumped ashore, his minions with him, and strode up to the village.
“This is my place now,” he said in our language. I do not know where he had learnt it. “This is my place, and you will do as I say.”
The first thing he did was order us to build a building for him, one of wood and stone, lifted out of the ground, sitting on the earth and not growing out of it like our grass huts. Our huts, in any case, were to go; he did not want us to live too close to him, not where he had to see us when he did not want to.
So for the first weeks, at his direction, we laboured to build him his station. His black minions, men from the coast who spoke not a word of our language and were almost as foreign to us as the pink men, stood guard over us. Our men cut trees and hauled stone and dug earth; we women brought water, built fires, and cooked the food that he and the other pink men on the steamer ate. And day by day the house was built, until it was done.
I have always had a keen ear for languages – as you can see, I can speak yours quite well, without need of interpreter – and I had been listening to the pink men jabbering to each other, and then comparing what they said to what he then told us in our own speech. Though I could not understand words and sentences as yet, I could understand that they were urging him to get something out of us as quickly as possible, and with what we had already heard of the greed of the pink men, it was not hard to decide what that something might be. And then, when it was all done, the steamer’s belly rumbled once more, the smoke puffed out of its tall stack, and, with the devil screeching a farewell, it turned ponderously in the stream and turned back the way it had come.
Only he remained then, just he alone among all of us, and you might have thought that we would have been easily able to overwhelm him. But we had heard Segoue’s tale, and now we believed every word, including the sacks of children’s hands. We had seen the pink men and their black minions, we had seen the steamer, we had heard the devil, and we had seen the canoes crushed at a touch of its metal hull. We knew that the vengeance they would take would be terrible.
So when the steamer sailed down the Mother River again, we looked to him for orders and awaited our fate.
“You will get ivory for me,” he decreed. There were no elephant herds right then in our territories, so we could not hunt any for him, but that did not matter; we had to get ivory. He did not care how.
(I will tell you now how we got the ivory; we looked for the skeletons of elephants where they died, dug up their tusks, and brought them back. Over the centuries there had been many elephants which had died in what were no longer – by the order of the pink Lord of the west – our lands, and their tusks had lain buried, for they were of no use to us, and we had no desire to disturb the resting places of the mighty beasts, who were children of the land as we were. But now we had no choice, and our men went looking for those skeletons and dug up the teeth with a quick apology to the spirits of the elephants, and a request that they might understand why we did what we had to.)
The more ivory we brought him, the more he wanted; and we had to hunt for more. And of course the more we brought the less there was to be had, and there would inevitably be the day when the last tusk would be dug out of the ground, dragged back to the station, and piled beside his house to await the steamer when it came to bring him his food and his clothes, his drink and his tobacco, and take back what he had to send. The pink men always seemed happy with the stacks of ivory that he had to give them, but never enough; they always, always, wanted more.
What would happen when there was no more? When there was no more ivory to be had, then, they would turn to other things, order us to grow rubber for them, and then there would be the harvest of children’s hands, just as down river by the coast. We all knew this, but nobody spoke of it, the elders least of all.
One night I was lying awake in my hut – we had made our village in the forest just out of sight of the station, so that he did not have to see us but close enough that he could demand our labour whenever he wanted it – watching the moon come crawling up over the trees. It was a gibbous moon, like a half-open eye, and it stared into my own eyes and I stared back. And the moon and I talked to each other a long time, through our eyes alone; and then I knew what I had to do.
(You will say that the decision was already made in my mind, that the moon was just a way of my telling myself in words what exactly I must do, and that is probably true. But had the moon not looked in my eye that night I might not have done it at all.)
The next day I went to him.
Even now, as you know, even when I am so old a woman, I am still considered a beauty, so that there are those who think it is the effect of witchcraft, that I keep myself beautiful by calling on the help of devils. There is no such thing as witchcraft; it is merely that my mother, who died giving birth to me, was a renowned beauty herself, and my father often said I am the image of her. And then I was in the flower of my youth. Even so, before going to see him, I beautified myself in every way I could, strung beads in my hair, accentuated the outlines of my lips and the lashes of my eyes with charcoal from the fire, and rubbed a smudge of red earth on my cheekbones to make them look just that much sharper.
I remember seeing him sprawled in a chair outside his hut as I came up, huge and pink, his arms bulging with muscle, his great long head bent over a sheaf of paper, an ancient yellow tusk leaning on the wall beside him, under a large picture of the spade-bearded man in the rope-behung clothes. I stood before him, waiting for him to acknowledge that I was there, I knew, of course, that he’d noticed me at once – I’d seen the flicker of his eyes as I’d come up from the river towards him – and I knew he was watching me, with little glances up under the shaded caverns of his eyebrows. But he would not acknowledge me until he was ready. He would make me wait until I spoke, and gave him the excuse to order me away because I had disturbed him by speaking when not spoken to.
I did not speak. I waited. The sun blazed down from the sky, and I waited, feeling the sweat crawl down my skin, watching his skin go from pink to red.
At last he gave in. “What do you want?” he asked, as though affecting to have only just seen me.
I told him in so many words. “I will make you a god among the people, if you want.”
He stared at me. His eyes were strange, blue or grey, I never could be sure about the colour. His mouth worked, and he licked the sweat from his lips. “I do not need to be a god,” he said at last. “I am already a god, in all but name. I tell your people to do something, and they do it.”
“You are no god,” I said, looking him straight in the eye, hard as it was for me to look into those strange light orbs. “You are as much a slave as we are. You serve the men down on the coast, who come in the ship; if they tell you to get them ivory, you must get them ivory, or they will put someone else in your place. If they want to punish you, they simply do not have to bring you your food and your clothes and your tobacco. And they are but slaves themselves; they are slaves of your Lord of the west, whose picture is on the wall above you. What kind of god is a slave of slaves?”
I saw his mouth tighten, and was ready to be struck. But he looked from me to the tusk, and then over his shoulder at the picture, and back to me. I could see his eyes travel from my hair to my toes and back again, lingering on my face and breasts. At last he leaned his chin on one huge hand and considered the ground.
“And you will make me a god?” he asked at last. “A slip of a girl, you?”
“I may be a girl, but I can do what I need to do. You will be a god amongst us.”
He thought for some time longer, and then stood up and beckoned to me. “We must talk over this more,” he said. “Come.”
He took me that first time like he took everything else, as though I was something to be possessed by force. Though I opened my thighs to him willingly enough, he pushed inside me like his steamer pushing up the Mother River, as though he was a conqueror plundering me, thrusting into me like an army storming a city. Afterwards he sat looking down at me, and then he shook his head.
“You really mean it,” he said. “You really mean what you said.”
“I do.” It hurt me when I stood, my hips and belly feeling stretched and twisted, and I was afraid that I was torn inside, or broken. I resisted the urge to touch myself to check for blood. “I will make you a god.”
“And what do you want for that?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you don’t want anything, you little savage. I will not believe it.”
“I will be your priestess,” I said simply. “I will rule with you, for you, by your side.”
And that was what I did. There is little point in going over everything I did and said over the next few days, weeks, and months, how I cajoled and persuaded my own fellow villagers, how in the end I threatened. I remember my own father, in the end, kneeling on the ground, pledging fealty to me through his tears, pledging fealty to him. Not because he wanted to, but because I had left him no choice in the matter.
Oh yes, I ruled over the people, as I had promised him, ruled with a hand of steel. I had assistant priests and guards, with spears and charms. I made sure that they obeyed everything I said, and everything he said. In the end I ordered them to love him, and they loved him, too. When I took him around the villages of my people, when I stood in front of the evening fire, raised my arms high, and called for them to chant praises of him, they did so, in the end, because they loved him, and they loved him because I told them to.
And in the end he grew to fear me.
He feared me because he knew by then how dependent his status as a god was on me, how in the eyes of the people I was part of the godhood they had conferred on him. And because he feared me, he tried to show his power in the one way he knew how; when he lay on me at night, every thrust of his hips was like the blows he dared not rain on my face, every hot spurt of his emission inside my belly like the fire he wished he could light to burn me.
Often enough he would open his packets of papers and show me the photograph of the woman he said was waiting for him at home, the one he would one day go back to. He called her his Intended. “Look at her, you n****er savage,” he would snarl. “There’s an honest, loving, Christian woman, the way women are supposed to be. Not like you, you heathen witch.”
I looked. Her face was as pale as the paper, her hair as pale as her face. She seemed as drained of personality as the paper had robbed her of colour. Her body was so draped in formless dark clothes that you could not tell how it was shaped. The women of the pink men seem to think that their bodies are something to be ashamed of; they cover the breasts that give life to the young; they imprison their feet in leather boxes, unwilling to touch the ground that gave them birth. I looked at her and looked at him, and he saw what was in my eyes. And for a few days he would not show me her picture again.
And he said he had plans, grand plans. What these plans were I don’t know, but I can guess. I planted the seeds of some of them myself. Why, I said, should he – a god – remain enslaved to a spade-bearded, rope-draped old man somewhere far away? He could have his own kingdom, proudly announce it to the world, when the time was ripe. For now all he had to do was keep preparing it, keep building it, with me by his side.
“Of course with you by my side,” he said. “You heathen witch, you’ve got your savage claws into me well and good, haven’t you?”
I did not reply. It was no more than the truth.
Of course he fell sick. That was only to be expected, and our healers did what they could to set him right. But they could not do everything. The pink people are not nurtured by the Mother River the way we are; they fall sick harder and recover more slowly, and sometimes they do not recover at all. Sometimes they recover, but not fully, and then something grows even more twisted and ugly inside them than it already was.
But I was determined that he should recover, and every time he fell sick, I stood over the healers to make sure they worked all their healing arts to make him as well again as they could. I knew that there were those among us, if only a few, who would harm him if they could do that, and I could not let that happen.
One day one of those, who had been ordered to dig out a tusk from an elephant skeleton so old that most of it had disintegrated, refused. “I will not touch it,” he said, his face dark and proud. “I will not curse myself by taking the Old One’s body to enrich the pink man.” His name, as I recall, was Ezugo.
The word soon went around the village, and I knew what had to be done. The next morning Ezugo’s head was on a stake outside his house, facing inwards.
“That’s so you can always see what happens to those who disobey you,” I told him. And he looked at me and shivered, and I shivered too, inside, for myself, at what I had forced myself to become.
There were others, too, in time, five more in all. Not all of them were even guilty of anything; I knew that to keep him sufficiently under my control, some sacrifices would have to be made. The Mother River would understand. And he grew sick and half-well and sick again, and he needed me and feared me, more and more.
All through this time the steamer had been coming more and more rarely, and finally it never came at all. Perhaps it had sunk, or perhaps – and I hoped fervently for it every day – my plan had worked, the plan that had hatched in my mind that night when I had gazed into the eye of the moon.
And then the Russian came.
I had heard of his coming, from whispers that came up the river. He was a pink man, too, though not like the others, not one of those who were slaves of the Lord of the west. He was a different kind, wandering around for the sake of wandering around, and the moment I saw him, I knew he was a new kind of danger, one I had not foreseen and was not ready for.
It was obvious from the beginning that the Russian was in love with him. It was dangerous because love was the one thing I could not permit, the thing that might break him free. I could not let that happen, and yet I saw the possibility yawning like a pit before me. Now when he fell sick, the Russian nursed him, when I took him to the villages, the Russian undertook to “care for the station.” It could not be allowed to go on; it would undo everything I had achieved so far.
I tried my best; I had him order the young men to attack and burn the Russian’s camp, down river. The Russian simply took up permanent residence at the station afterwards, closer to him than ever, so that I had to keep taking him away to the villages. And all that the travel meant was that he grew sicker and sicker, and it became impossible to keep him away from the station any longer. He could barely rise from his bed anymore, and it was all I could do to make sure that he did not die.
I told him things about the Russian, told him that the Russian wanted to keep him away from his Intended, the woman whom he said was waiting for him. He threatened to kill the Russian; the man merely kept out of his way for a day or two, and then was back again, like a loyal dog. It was impossible to get rid of him unless I was willing to kill him myself, and the death of a pink man at the hands of a black woman was a risk; it risked drawing retribution from down the Mother River, a risk I was not willing to take.
Day by day I felt him slipping away from me; either to sickness or the Russian’s influence, I could not tell. One day I found the Russian in the station, taking strips of cloth to repair his tattered clothes, and it was all I could do to not take a knife to him myself, right then. I was so furious that I screamed at him, sick as he was, to do something about this tatterdemalion creature who loved as men should not. The Russian did not speak our language, but understood well enough; and from that day I knew that I had terrified him. It was a small enough victory.
It was a small victory because only a few days later, one fog-drenched morning, word reached me that the steamer was once again coming up the river, was anchored only a little way down from the station. I felt the information like a blow to my heart; it drew from me such a cry of grief that it must have echoed from the forests and back until the sky had turned back the sound. Sometimes I feel that I can hear it still.
I wished I could take him away, hide him in the forest, in one of the villages furthest from the station. But I couldn’t even move him from his bed; he was like a skeleton by then, covered with shrunken skin. When I looked at him I could see the pulsing of his blood in his neck.
“They’ve come to take you away,” I told him. “They’ll take you back to their stone cities, where you’re nobody, and no one will ever think of you as anything again, let alone a king.”
“Stop them,” he whispered, because he was lucid for the moment. “Stop them.”
And so, in his name, I ordered the warriors to ambush the steamer, though I knew it would do little enough good; their arrows and spears would be of little avail against rifles and steel. At least they did not lose anyone in the ambush. That is one thing less on my conscience.
So then they came to the station, and they took him on their shoulders and carried him down to their steamer. And I tried one more time – one last time – to stop them, but he shouted (I could not have believed that he still had the strength to shout) at our warriors to let them take him. Then I came by one more time, to try and get on the ship, to ask him to come down, to stay among the people for whom he was a god now, much more than a mere king, like the spade-bearded Lord. But I could see that they would not let me board, the pink men on the steamer; though their eyes were nearly dropping out of their heads as they saw me come, dressed in my charms and my robes, not ashamed as one of their women would be, but as myself; the saviour of my people.
That night the Russian sneaked away somewhere, I know not where. I never saw or heard of him again. It makes no difference to me where he went. His influence over him was all I cared about; and though that was ended, it ended far too late to be of any use to anyone.
The next morning, then, they took him. And I had brought out my people, my guards and my priests, as the steamer slowly put off from the bank, to travel down the river to the sea, and then perhaps – if he should live so long – to the city where the woman without colour, in the clothes that hid her body, waited for him and thought herself a heroine for doing so.
Then they set off their whistle, the scream of the devil making my people throw themselves down, but I, knowing it for what it was, merely stood on the bank. I did not know whether he saw me, but in that moment – I still do not know whether it was a gesture of pity, or of apology for what I had made of him – I stretched out my arms over the water, and hoped that he might see. And then the other pink men on the steamer opened fire with their guns. But I knew their gunmanship, and I knew that I was perfectly safe as long as they were actually aiming at me; and so it proved. I felt the wind of their bullets, but all of them went wide.
I have no doubt that this convinced them even more that I was a witch; I have no doubt of that at all.
And now you are here to tell me that he never made it to the coast, never reached his Intended, that he died on the way and that they, for all the effort they made to come upriver to collect him, put him in a hole in a sandbank. I wonder how long it took for the scavengers to get to him after that, to eat that great body that had so many times lain atop mine, that had trembled in fear of me even as it trembled in the pleasure of its ejaculation inside my belly.
And you tell me that his last words, so far as anyone knows, were “The horror...the horror.” You ask me for an explanation, as though I were the witch so many thought me to be, as though I knew what was in his mind. But I think I know.
Remember the words I whispered to him, that last day; the truth I told him. He was always convinced, in the end, that we were mere savages, and that it was his superiority over us that had made him a god, albeit with my help. And then, at the very end, he knew the truth; that he was merely a tool, that he had served his purpose and that purpose being over, he was being thrown away.
For it worked out, you know, my plan, the one the moon and I worked out together. Against all odds, it worked, though I did not know for sure for many years afterwards that it had worked. Not until there were no more steamboats, no reports of hands being harvested, no men being left to die in valleys of exhaustion and starvation, did I know that it had worked.
Why, you ask me, did I do all that I did? Why did I reduce my own people to the subjects of a pink-skinned giant who served a king who chopped off children’s hands for rubber and ivory? Why did I kill six young men and put their heads on staves? Why did I make my own father grovel on the floor, begging piteously to pledge loyalty to him as a god, and me as a priestess?
Tell me this: if I had not made him into a god, if I had not kept him imprisoned with my wiles and between my thighs, how could I have possibly kept my people from enslavement and yet greater harm?
Copyright B Purkayastha 2021