04 - 13

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 44

04 - 13

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13

THE LIGHT WAS dazzling; it shuddered in waves off the rooftops dotting the white plain. So grand was it, so powerful, that we raised constant hands to our eyes, blinded by the haze.

It had all been a great mistake. Peter had arranged for a guide to meet us, but that man was nowhere to be discovered at the loud, bustling port. And so we were obliged to take rooms in Marrakesh while I wrote to Peter of the error, begging his assistance in procuring a second guide. There was little to do but wait.

In the slow, hot days we made several attempts to find Goff’s marine zoologist. We were led on many twisted routes, the last ending in confrontation with a man demanding heavy compensation. And so we gave up the hunt. Instead we began to explore the city, with its smells of clementine and dried leather and fresh plums, the stench of donkey excrement and the sweating pelts of camels penned at market. We passed a man pulling at a rope threaded through the nose of a furious camel, blood spilling from its head in dark-red stripes. How indignantly the beast lifted its jaw. It kicked and bucked and gave out guttural roars, and this made no impression at all on the noise and bright laughter of the bustling outpost. Tanna looked away, and seeing her turn her face, an onlooker came over to us with his shuffling gait and began to mime an explanation. But we could not understand him and finally, with a look of profound disappointment, he went away.

Later we strolled the markets, wondering about a possible return to England, though this struck me as a defeat. The stalls were all distinct: some were overhung with beautifully woven baskets, some with dusty red peppers, some with dyed wool bursting forth in a riot of crimsons and yellows and blues. In the rope stalls several rope makers sat fast at work, their hands flitting quickly over the hemp. The jewellers had a courtyard all their own, and from beneath the shadowed awnings their gems winked like human glances.

I discovered a jeweller who spoke broken English. All at once I began to ask after the strange Englishman in the desert, if he had any knowledge of this man. I asked also after Goff’s colleague. He peered out at me from his dark robes, his face vacant as a freshly washed plate. Then he broke into a sudden smile and, in a shiver of shuddering shrugs, said no, no, no, no.

All this we took in with the nervousness of having left the known world behind, of moving blindly forward. With each day I became more convinced that Titch was here no longer. We grew exhausted, and though I was careful not to show Tanna my fearfulness, she could no doubt sense it.

One morning I paused by the side of a market to wash my hands in a basin. I felt a man’s gaze on me, and lifted my face.

He stepped forward as though summoned. I stood and dried my hands uneasily on my pant legs. He was a slight fellow with an angular, jutting jaw, so that he appeared to always be disagreeing with something, though his eyes were kind.

He stood before me, the sun behind me gilding his brown eyes the colour of burnt butter. Tanna looked nervously across at me from the folds of her blue shawl.

“Washington Black?” said he, flattening the a’s to e’s.

To our surprise he was the very man who was to have led us to Titch in the first place. He had been sick these last days, he explained in his broken English. Now recovered, he had come to the city with the dim hope of finding us. How astonishing that it should actually come to pass.

And so he led us in a small, rattling caravan towards a seemingly empty horizon. The paths carved from the desert were vast and twisted, and as we creaked along the sandy passageways, away from the great noise of Marrakesh, I felt a sense of diminishment, as if we were disappearing in the heat and the light. The air felt very tight, full of salt. My eyes began to itch at their corners, and as the hours lengthened, a fine trace of blood leaked through a crack in my lower lip. I held a damp cloth across my nose, breathing.

“I promised your father I’d return you safely,” said I.

“And you shall keep the promise,” Tanna murmured, half-asleep.

I peered across the hazy plain. “How far do you suppose Dahomey is from here?”

But she was barely listening. Her blue shawl was draped over her head and face, and from the dark folds her eyes shone out incredibly clear, almost orange in the light. As we cantered through the landscape, all speech seemed to drain from us, so that even the instinct for it died. With each mile the terrain shifted, brightening and darkening, and every hour I became convinced we were lost, that even our driver must be disoriented by the changing light. I peered out at the plain, exhausted. Here again, through no volition of his own, Titch had brought me to a place of great unfamiliarity.

The hours passed. We stopped to eat and relieve ourselves, still not much speaking. In the arid wind I began to hear sounds, though there was no life for miles. Strangely I could not place the origins of the noises—the ones from the west seeming to emanate from the east, the ones in the south drifting from the north. My skull felt dry in my head; I drank. The heat was all at once suffocating then dropped away in layers.

Abruptly, night fell. It was as though someone had set a lid over the earth, so quickly did it happen. The stars came suddenly, like sparks, illuminating the plain. And just then, what looked like small buildings rose up in the distance; they were so much what I wanted to see in that moment that I felt I had imagined them. Mute, we cantered up to a series of sudden walls; it was some time before I realized the walls were actual houses. There were few windows to the street. I could just make out, through the narrow buildings, the wide circle of a darkening courtyard. We disembarked, our legs stiff, as the driver cut down our belongings in an explosion of dust.

It did not seem we could have come to the right place. This was no town as Peter had described it, but rather a few scattered dwellings, built almost as an afterthought at the desert’s edge. It was difficult to picture survival here, so far from the lushness of the city. There was a feel of desolation and abandonment, of darkening distances.

Just then a boy stepped out from the courtyard. He could not have been more than nine years old, his bones thin as ropes, prying from beneath the skin. He had an oblong but delicately made face in which the eyes were sunken deeply. He appeared both tired and fresh, like someone made privy to a damaging truth before he could fully make sense of it. Dust threaded the strands of his glossy black hair.

Our guide beckoned the boy in a sharp voice, and in an exchange that struck me as both plaintive and tender, something was understood, some agreement reached. The boy finally gestured for us to follow, and I glanced questioningly back at our guide, at the folds of sweat in his dust-caked face. He gave his friendly smile, nodded.

I began to drag our bags by the rope, so that an eerie sound echoed off the ground. We followed the boy in the direction of the courtyard. In the evening shadows I could see little before me, and an uneasiness rose in me, the hard knowledge of having arrived in a country in which I could not even speak to ask for water, into which I had brought Tanna unthinkingly and without defences. I stared at her veiled shape there, her body tiny and fragile.

It was as though the courtyard contained its own weather; the air was suddenly stiller, cooler. There was a smell of boiled peppers, of clean fabric hung in the wind to dry. The dusk seemed younger here somehow, and in the open yard, its swept stone so white it had the sheen of a frozen pond, a great covered object loomed darkly. We paused, startled by the enormousness of the shadow’s size. It was silhouetted against the starlit sky and the walls of the compound like a natural obstruction, yet one could see that whatever lay beneath the tarp was not natural. My eyes adjusted, and still I could not make out what it was.

There came some movement from the side of the courtyard. A man had stepped from a doorway, a live hen struggling in his hands. He held the bird by its legs, and in the darkness its feathers appeared very white, like wax. It was clear that the man meant to kill it for his evening meal; indeed, that it should have been brought inside alive in the first place struck me as strange. We watched in silence as he crossed the courtyard pinching and prodding at the chicken, testing for the meaty places.

He shifted, and in the dim light of the moon I saw him, saw his face. And before I even understood, a great pain passed through my body and I called out, “Titch.”

The man turned; in his surprise he let go of the hen. The bird flapped madly away, its free limbs scuttling across the courtyard and into the shadows.

He watched after it some moments, his harsh breathing filling the yard.

“You are late for supper,” he called back, but in the thin grey light I stepped forward and saw he was trembling.

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