Copyright ? 2011 by Alan Cheuse
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Song of slaves in the desert / by Alan Cheuse.
1. Slavery--Africa--History--Fiction. 2. Slavery--Southern States--History--Fiction. 3.Plantations--Southern States--History--Fiction. 4. Jews--Southern States--History--Fiction. 5.Jewish fiction. I. Title.
Front Cover Title Page Copyright Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-one Chapter Twenty-two Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-four Chapter Twenty-five Chapter Twenty-six Chapter Twenty-seven Chapter Twenty-eight Chapter Twenty-nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-one Chapter Thirty-two Chapter Thirty-three Chapter Thirty-four Chapter Thirty-five Chapter Thirty-six Chapter Thirty-seven
Chapter Thirty-eight Chapter Thirty-nine Chapter Forty Chapter Forty-one Chapter Forty-two Chapter Forty-three Chapter Forty-four Chapter Forty-five Chapter Forty-six Chapter Forty-seven Chapter Forty-eight Chapter Forty-nine Chapter Fifty Chapter Fifty-one Chapter Fifty-two Chapter Fifty-three Chapter Fifty-four Chapter Fifty-five Chapter Fifty-six Chapter Fifty-seven Chapter Fifty-eight Chapter Fifty-nine Chapter Sixty Chapter Sixty-one Chapter Sixty-two Chapter Sixty-three Chapter Sixty-four Chapter Sixty-five Chapter Sixty-six Chapter Sixty-seven Chapter Sixty-eight Chapter Sixty-nine Chapter Seventy Chapter Seventy-one Chapter Seventy-two Chapter Seventy-three Chapter Seventy-four Chapter Seventy-five Chapter Seventy-six Chapter Seventy-seven Chapter Seventy-eight Chapter Seventy-nine
About the Author
An Eruption, the Stone
The shock wave jarred them from sleep and sent them stumbling to their feet. Next came the roarof exploding earth and a sky in flames. From that maelstrom in the heavens did a voice call outto them? Go! Hurry! The three of them, the man first, the woman following slightly behind, thechild trailing off to one side, hurried away across the steaming plain, making their firstmarks, footprints, in the yielding layer of ash.
Light shifted behind the veil of smoky sky. The rumbling went on and on. The man shouted at thegathering mist, coughing as he breathed. The girl slowed up, listed toward the plain, reacheddown and plucked at the ash. They walked, they walked. Light turned over, revealing a blue skystreaked with a long tail of smoke and ash. The girl pulled away from her mother, clutchingsomething in her hand.
This stone, relatively cool to the touch, born of an earlier eruption…this small, egg-shapedstone—black bluish purple mahogany cocoa dark fire within, three horizontal lines, onevertical, the same pattern carved into your high cheeks—take it and hold it to your lips.Taste earth and sky, the inside of a mouth, the lining of a birth canal, the faintest fleck ofsomething darker even than the blackness through which it has passed. You have now kissed
wherever this stone has been, and it has traveled far.
She said this to her child, as her mother had said to her, and her mother’s mother beforethat, and mothers and mothers and mothers, a line stretching all the way back to the firstdarkness and the first light, from where the stone had spurted up from the heart of the rift,in fire and smoke and steam, blurring the line where light of earth met light of sun, though atnight the line showed starkly again.
Who first carved those lines on its face, three horizontal, one vertical? Three horizontal—thetrek across the land. The one vertical—the ascent into the heavens. What hand and eye had keptthem straight, in both directions, across and up and down? What hands had passed it along fromtime through time, until it lay in the palm of a man sprawled on his back on the desert floorbetween the town and the river?
To the West!
A single bright star glowed steadily like a stone fixed in the firmament of ocean blue skyabove the red mosque, years and years back, when her grandparents were children. Their
children? The jar-maker and his wife, he was the potter, she the weaver who made the cloth thatheld the jars with the distinctive design—three horizontal lines, one vertical—and suppliedthe household wares to the sheik who paid for the mosque. The father of the jar-maker had puthim out to service with the sheik in exchange for the guarantee of an annual supply of grainfor the family. In the seventh year of his service, when his father had died and the grain hadrotted, the young artisan met the woman who would become his wife—because he noticed the clothshe had woven hanging in the market and imagined his jars wrapped in her weaving—a sign oflightning, a splash of rain, a distinctive design.
This turned out to be either a very good thing or a very bad thing. Her father would not giveher up without a large payment, and the young jar-maker had to pledge another ten years to thesheik in order to buy this woman as his wife. As the story went, after the sheik, or, to bespecific, his bookkeeper, agreed, the young jar-maker walked away, out to the edge of the town,where the river turned south—it flowed east from near the coast before bending around the cityin its southerly way—and looked up into the clear sky and saw a river stork pinned by thelight against the pale blue screen of air. He allowed his mind to soar up with the bird,wondering what the future might be like, and if he would ever become a free man, when in thedistance the muezzin sang the call to prayer. The potter returned to the town having decidedthat he would give up one thing in his life, in this case, ten more years, in order to obtainanother.
In a crowd of men dark-haired and white, he bent far forward and touched his forehead to thecool tiles of the floor, breathing in breath and sweat, sweet-wretched body-gas and tantalizinganise, and when he drew himself upright again he saw in his mind the weaver, the years ahead,and he knew that he had chosen the right path.
Who knows how to tell of the passing of ten years in happiness and some struggle in just a fewwords, so that the listener has a sense of how quickly time passes and yet still captures thebittersweet density of all that time together? Bodies entangled at night, hands workingtogether at their craft, cooking, washing, bathing, cleaning, praying, and now and thenstealing the time to wander along the river and do nothing but watch for the rising of thatsame stork he had seen on that day that now seemed so long past.
The weaver gave birth to their first child, a boy. And then another, a girl. And then, anothergirl.
(And oh, my dear, she said, try to tell you this about birth and you discover how far short ofreal life words fall, and yet how else to make any of these events known? Words! Words, words,words! The weight, the aches, the fears, the stirring, the shifting bleeding tearing pain andstruggle! And the cries of mother, and child! But what do we have but memories, and thesetranslated into words?)
And then there arose a situation on which everything else turned.
It had been the custom, as you may already have wondered about, that artisans such as the jar-maker and weaver might live outside the sheik’s compound, even as in other cities thesituation might be the reverse. The jar-maker found this to be a good arrangement. It gave himall of the seeming liberty of a free man, at least in that he could move about the city, andwhen it came time to deliver his goods to the sheik’s compound he faced the bookkeeper almostas though he were an equal.
“Six large water jars,” he said one morning in the cool season when the river in the distancehad become carpeted with migrating birds.
“Six large water jars,” the bookkeeper took notice. He recorded the transaction and with awave of his stylus seemed ready to dismiss the jar-maker.
So it had gone with every delivery of every variety of container the jar-maker had created forhis master, many times a year for a long number of years. Six water jars? Six water jars.Twenty cups? Twenty cups. Ten bowls? Ten bowls. He created them and delivered them. Anddishes—yes, now and then the jar-maker turned dish-maker, using what he regarded as hiswife’s family design—three lines horizontal, one vertical—for the plates from which thesheik and his guests would eat. Today, as was more often than not the case, it was diminutivejars. People drank from them often, which meant some got broken, always. Jars. The bookkeepercounted. And raised his hand to dismiss him.
Year in, year out.
All in the name of God.
The artisan in his soul felt as though his supposedly temporary arrangement with the sheikwould last forever. His family was growing. And still he found himself, as if in a dream ofcontinuous repetition sometimes talked about by street-shop philosophers in the town, arrivingat the compound, ordering the assistant, a blue-black slave from the South given to him by thesheik, to carry the pottery, standing before the bookkeeper, and waiting to be dismissed.
A free life seems so simple, filled with small pleasures! All he desired in those moments wasthe right to turn and walk away without having to wait for the signal that he was dismissed. Asdiscourteous as that would have been, he contemplated the delicious possibility of it.
But did that moment ever arrive?
Here in the shade of the courtyard, cool shadows drifting down on them and sheltering them fromthe direct rays of the sun and buffering the heat reflected off the red walls of the mainhouse, he enjoyed feeling liberated within the confines of his indentured state, so that, itseemed to him in his momentary fantasy, if he stood still the moment would never pass and hecould live within it, even push against its limits and enlarge them, until old age overtook himand he withered and died free.
A man never knew how free he might be until he became a captive, for a decade or a lifetime,and a free man never knew just how enslaved he was until he found himself behaving as thoughinvisible ropes tethered him to a routine of years and months and days. And so the artisanstood there, deeply immersed in the moment, poised to turn at the lowering of the bookkeeper’shand, fretting about the freedom he might never possess.
The bookkeeper cleared his throat, and the jar-maker shifted in his space, already turning.
“Before you go…” the sheik’s man said. “There is something…”
The jar-maker froze in place, fixed like one of the designs on his pots when the heat rose highenough to fix it forever. Freezing, heating—oh, he knew, he felt it in his blood, he wassomehow done, done for this world.
The bookkeeper again cleared his throat in such a formal way that the jar-maker believed inthat instant that he might be about to announce the sheik’s pleasure over the special designs.
“I should not be telling you this.”
The jar-maker, a man old enough so that if he were free others would address him with similarrespect, gave the bookkeeper his best attention.
“You must pack your bags. You and your family must pack your bags.”
The jar-maker felt the chill and thrill of surprise running in his veins.
“Why do you say this, sir?”
The bookkeeper narrowed his eyes and leaned ever so slightly closer to the jar-maker.
“I should not be saying this at all. But—”
Again, a world in an instant! We’re free! the jar-maker told himself, free before our time!The sheik in his wisdom—
“Yes, sir?” The jar-maker interrupted, and then cursed himself for interrupting.
The bookkeeper did not appear insulted.
“My master, who is your master, has, in his wisdom, arranged…”
The bookkeeper retreated a step and turned his shoulder to the jar-maker.
“As I said, I should not be speaking of this matter with you. You will hear tomorrow, and youwill obey.”
“Hear what, sir?”
The bookkeeper spoke again, and that bubble of the moment in which the jar-maker had stoodcollapsed suddenly around him, and he listened to the awful news the man delivered, though hewas already, in his sudden desperation, backing away from the man, walking out into the outercourtyard, and hurrying along in the direction of the market.
The muezzin called out over the rooftops.
“Time for prayer. Sluggards, hurry along! Time for prayer!”
“Time to pray,” a rough-faced warder told him, standing at a corner, directing men to themosque with a wave of a pointed stick.
“I am going,” the jar-maker said. His blood felt as though it had turned to water, a preciouscommodity on a summer day but for now a chilling reminder of what the bookkeeper had told him.
“Go now,” the warder said.
The jar-maker stepped past him, and just as the warder turned away to chastise another soul thejar-maker began to run.
“What a good man,” someone who saw him might have observed. “He cannot wait too soon topray.”
He ran to his house where he hastily collected some belongings in a small bag and without anyexplanation ordered his wife to gather up a few necessities of clothing and get the childrenready to depart.
“Where are we—?”
“Do not inquire,” he said, through clenched teeth.
He told her that she had only a few minutes and hurried out the door. When he returned with adonkey (for which he had traded the house and all their belongings!) he got the familymounted—one child on her lap, another behind her (the smallest in his own arms)—and ridingtoward the limits of the town, with him shuffling alongside even as prayers were ending and menbegan to move about the streets.
For the jar-maker, the trip to the marshes beyond the limits of the city took an eternity, andalways at their heels he could hear—did he imagine it?—the approach of mobs of worshiperscalling for his head. What was he doing but sundering the holy bond made between his latefather and the sheik? Did it matter what condition this bond led him to? No, it did not matter.All important was the meshing of the words of these two men. His life, and the life of his wifeand children, took second, third, fourth, fifth place to this pact. What kind of a world wasthis where such bonds tied people together, in fact, bound them hand and feet with invisibleropes?
They answered the question by the urgency of their flight. Never in his life had he rushed soheadlong into a plan, or, perhaps we ought to say, retreated so vigorously from the life he
knew. When the family reached the river it was time to stop a moment, and make a decision.
East or west?
To head east would take them deeper into the heart of the old world from which they werefleeing. Even though the river eventually turned south—or so the jar-maker had heard—and ledback toward the ocean near which it originally formed, they would meet too much danger, fromother sheiks and rulers large and small, in towns and encampments, in that direction. To thewest lay the sources of the river, in highlands where few people lived, though before thosehills and green-draped rises, another city—he knew, he had once heard directly from sometravelers who originated there—sat on the river’s edge, and, because of its slightly moreforgiving climate with respect to rains, a growing city at that.
Very well. He set the child down for a moment, pulled himself up to his full height, and thenbowed in the direction of the red turrets they had just put behind them.
Then turned to the west.
To the west!
The day grew hotter as they traveled with the sun, though the animal moved so slowly that thesun eventually left them behind in a growing ocean of shadows of scattered river-shore plantsand trees. Where did the sun go? The jar-maker knew there was an ocean some great distance inthat direction, he had heard of it, yes, this vast body of water filled with a life of its ownthat led to other mysterious bodies of land. And his mind wandered toward it as they ploddedalong, and he wondered if he would ever see it. For the moment he gave his best attention tothe river. The jar-maker, more and more aware of his wife’s fatigue and the children’sbewilderment, wanted desperately to make a crossing, but the water ran too deep in this season,and though they came to a ferry he decided it would be unwise to call attention to themselvesby making the trip.
Red mud, dark water, now and then a flight of white birds that broke across the face of thefleeing sun, leaving, or so it seemed from the point from which they watched, a blanket of redclouds resting just beneath the still fiery light. As much as he would have liked for them tohave kept moving, the jar-maker understood that it was time to stop. He helped the family fromthe animal’s back and took the bag of food as well before weighing down the beast’s rope withrocks he found at the waterside.
“I’ll bathe the children,” the weaver said, and she took them to the river while the jar-maker gathered wood for a small fire. Once the sky faded into the growing shadows of the nightout here in the flatlands near the water the air would turn cooler by the hour. Howeverdangerous it was, and just how dangerous he did not really know, no father wanted his childrento catch a chill and fall sick. He watched them play in the water, enjoyed listening to theirlaughter. Here was the difference between animal and man—the small fire he built, daring theodds of discovery, so that the children might stay warm in their sleep. Immediately uponconsidering this thought he sank into a deep pit of gloom.
“I could smell the fire,” the weaver upon returning with the children. “I wonder if it issafe?”
He told her what he believed, and she acquiesced.
In a moment she was serving the figs and flatbread she had snatched from the larder duringtheir last moments in the house. Not long after the food disappeared, the children lay downnear the fire. It was good that they settled themselves, because long before sunrise they allmust be awake and traveling again. However his daughter Zainab, a pale-skinned girl, tall forher sex, and prone to upset, could not find the handle of sleep. The weaver tried to sootheher, without success. In desperation her mother asked the jar-maker to tell the girl a story.
“I can make shapes and designs,” her father said, “but I am not good at telling stories.”
“I want a tale,” the restless girl said, speaking in a voice her father found slightlyintimidating because of its new impersonal tone. “And I want a story.”