Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
“I revere my father, and the memory you have of him,” the Most Royal Lady responded, “but I believe that the time has come to teach our sons to live. I fore-see that they will have to do with a world of the living, in which the values of death will be scoffed at and bankrupt.”
“No, Madame. Those are the ultimate values, which will still have their place at the pillow of the last human being. You see that I am injuring the life in your young cousin, and you take a stand against me. For me, however, the task is not agreeable, or easy. I beg you not to tempt me, and to leave its firmness to my hand. After this deep wounding, from a hand that is fatherly, I promise you that this child will never wound himself. You will see from what stature he too will dominate life, and death.”
ONLY THE TEACHER HAD REMAINED IN THE silent cabin. With twilight, the disciples had taken flight in quest of their evening meal. Nothing stirred except, above the teacher, the swallows fluttering among the smoke-blackened lattices of the thatched roof. Slowly, the teacher rose. The crackling of all his joints, stiff from rheumatism, made a sound which was mingled with the sigh wrested from him by the effort to get up. In spite of the solemnity of the hour—the teacher was rising in order to pray—the teacher could not restrain an inner laughter over this grotesque misery of his body, which was now balking at prayer. “You will get up, and you will pray,” he said to himself. “Your groanings and your noises will avail you nothing.” This scene had become classic. The teacher was failing physically. More every day, his body emphasized this sorry propensity to remain glued to the earth. For example, he no longer had confidence in the joints of his feet, which refused him all obedience.
He had resolved to do without them, and his knee joints had become dry and stiff like the dead wood that the disciples burned. For this reason, the teacher’s gait had taken on the curious rolling motion of web-footed birds. Every time he bent over or straightened up he had to pull himself together again, so as not to take account of the pressing pain that he felt at the level of his kidneys.
The joints of his knees and his elbows were still functioning, though they crackled in an incongruous fashion. Paradoxically, all this suffering, and this rebellion of his body, aroused in the teacher’s mood a gayety which left him perplexed. Although he was bent in two with pain, he had trouble in remaining serious, as if the grotesque figure he was watching were not his own. Once more, this laughter in him was held back. At this moment the teacher, who had raised his two arms toward the east, to begin his prayer, interrupted himself, suddenly sobered by a suspicion: was this laughter not impious? “Perhaps,” he reflected, “it is an evil vanity which inflates me so.” He meditated for a moment. “No,” he thought, “my laughter is loving. I laugh because my old companion does pranks with the cracking of his joints. But his will is better than ever. I believe that even when he is completely bound to the earth, all the length of his body, his will must still be very good. He will pray, I love him very much; let us continue.” Restored to serenity, he recovered himself and began his prayer.
When the emissary came, the teacher did not see him. He merely heard a voice at his back:
“Great master, the chief hopes that you will do him the honor of a visit, if your high preoccupations leave you the leisure …”
Slowly and as if regretfully, the teacher’s thought detached itself from the lofty summits it had been contemplating. In truth, the teacher was returning from far away.
“So long as my body obeys me I shall always respond to the chief,” he said. “So tell him that I am following you, if it please God.”
When he entered the chief’s room he found him still in prayer. He sat down on the mat, took out his beads, and waited.
Spiral curves of odorous incense were escaping from the big white bed and were slightly dimming the light from the storm lamp. Everything in this room was clean and pure. The chief, clothed in a great white bou-bou, was now seated motionless, facing the east; without doubt it was the day’s final witness. The teacher settled himself in his place and, in thought, repeated with the chief, perhaps for the millionth time, the great profession of faith:
“I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Mohammed is His prophet …”
The chief finished his prayer. He turned toward the teacher and with both hands extended saluted him at length.
“I should have given myself a pleasure and performed a duty in coming to visit you, if you had not one day expressly forbidden it,” the chief said. “You told me, as I remember, ‘Stability is at the same time a privilege and a duty for you princes of this world.’ ”
“In effect,” the teacher rejoined, “you are the landmark and you are the recourse. Put that a little to the test, chief of the Diallobé. Has one man alone the right to monopolize what belongs to all? I answer, No. If the landmark moves, where do men go?”
“They do not know.”
“It is the same with the recourse, the presence of which reassures them.”
The two men, the similarity of whose natures brought them together on essential points, were trying out once more the solid ground of their mutual admiration.
“Master,” the chief asked, “am I a landmark sufficiently fixed, a recourse sufficiently stable?”
“Just so. I am the authority. Where I establish myself, the earth yields and is furrowed under my weight. I dig myself in, and men come to me. Master, they believe me to be a mountain.”
“You are that.”
“I am a poor thing, who trembles, and who does not know …”
“It is true, you are that also.”
“More and more, men come to me. What should I say to them?”
The teacher knew what the chief was going to talk to him about. He had approached the subject with him a thousand times. The men of the Diallobé wanted to learn “how better to join wood to wood.” The mass of the country had made the reverse choice to that of the teacher. While the latter was setting at naught the stiffness of his joints, the pressure on his loins, setting his cabin at naught, and recognizing the reality only of Him toward Whom his thought mounted with delight at every instant, the people of the Diallobé were each day a little more anxious about the stability of their dwellings, the unhealthy state of their bodies. The Diallobé wanted more substance …
Substance, weight … When his thought abutted on these words, the teacher shuddered. Weight! Everywhere he encountered weight. When he wanted to pray, weight opposed him, the heavy load of his daily cares over the upward sweep of his thought toward God, the inert and more and more sclerotic mass of his body over his will to rise, then to abase himself, then to rise again, in the
motions of prayer. There were also other aspects of weight which, even as the Evil One, revealed diverse visages: the distraction of the disciples, the brilliant enchantments of their young imagination, as much as those essential properties of weight that were desperately eager to hold them to the earth, to keep them far from truth.
He answered the chief’s question:
“Tell them that they are gourds.”
The teacher repressed a smile as he spoke. In general, the mischievousness of his thought amused him. The chief, however, was listening attentively, knowing by long custom what bases he must find for the venerable man’s changes of mood.
“The gourd is of a droll nature,” the teacher went on after a long pause. “When young, it has no other vocation than to achieve weight, no other desire than to attach itself lovingly to the earth. It finds the perfect realization of itself in weight. Then one day everything changes. The gourd wants to take flight. It reabsorbs itself, hollows itself out, as much as it can. Its happiness is a function of its vacuity, of the sonority of its response when a breath stirs it. The gourd is right in both instances.”
“Master, where are the gourds of the Diallobé?”
“That is for the gardener to answer, not for me.”
The chief remained silent for a moment.
“If I told them to go to the new school,” he said at last, “they would go
. They would learn all the ways of joining wood to wood which we do not know. But, learning, they would also forget. Would what they would learn be worth as much as what they would forget? I should like to ask you: can one learn
, and is what one learns worth what one forgets?”
“At the Glowing Hearth, what we teach the children is God. What they forget is themselves, their bodies, and the futile dream which hardens with age and stifles the spirit. So what they learn is worth infinitely more than what they forget.”
“If I do not tell the Diallobé to go to the new school, they will not go. Their houses will fall into ruins, their children will die or be reduced to slavery. Extreme poverty will be entrenched among them, and their hearts will be filled with resentment.”
“Extreme poverty is, down here, the principal enemy of God.”
“Nevertheless, master, if I understand you aright, poverty is also the absence of weight, of substance. How are the Diallobé to be given knowledge of the arts and the use of arms, the possession of riches and the health of the body, without at the same time weighing them down, dulling their minds?”
“Give them the weight, my brother. Otherwise, I declare that soon there will remain neither person nor thing in the country. There are more deaths than births among the Diallobé. You yourself, master, your hearths are becoming extinct.”
It was the Most Royal Lady speaking. She had come into the room without making a sound, as was her custom. She had left her Turkish slippers behind the door. This was the hour of her daily visit to her brother. Now she took her place on the mat, facing the two men.
“I am delighted to find you here, master,” she said. “Perhaps we are going to bring matters into focus this evening.”
“I do not see how, Madame. We move along parallel lines, and both are inflexible.”
“Yes, indeed, master. My brother is the living heart of this country, but you are its conscience. Envelop yourself in shadow, retire into your own heart, and nothing, I declare to you, will bring good fortune to the Diallobé. Your house is the most scantily furnished in the countryside, your body the most emaciated, your appearance the most fragile. But no one has a sovereign authority over this country which equals yours.”
The teacher felt terror overcoming him, gently, in time with this woman’s speech. He had never dared to admit very plainly what she was saying, but he knew it to be the truth.
Man always wishes for prophets to absolve him from his insufficiencies, but why should they have chosen him, a creature who did not even know what to abide by on his own account? At this moment his thought went back to his inner laughter at the solemn instant of his prayer. “I do not even know why I laughed,” he reflected. “Was it because in conquering the weakness of my body I was conscious of giving pleasure to my Lord, or was it from vanity, and nothing else? I do not know how to settle this question. I do not know myself … I do not know myself, and it is I to whom they choose to look. For they do look to me. All these unhappy people spy on me, and, like chameleons, take on for themselves the color of my moods. But I do not want that: I do not want it! I shall compromise myself. I shall commit some notably unworthy action, if it please God, to show them who I am. Yes …”
“My brother, is it not true,” the Most Royal Lady was saying, “that without the light of those hearths nothing could be done for the happiness and welfare of the
Diallobé people? And you know very well, great master, that there is no means of escape that could liberate you.”
“Madame, God has closed the sublime line of His envoys with our prophet Mohammed, may blessing be upon him. The last messenger has transmitted to us that ultimate Word in which everything has been said. Only the insensate expect anything further.”
“And along with them the famished, the sick, the enslaved. My brother, tell the master that the country is awaiting his acquiescence.”
“Before you came in,” the chief responded to his sister, “the master had just heard me say, ‘I am a poor thing, that trembles and does not know.’ This slow vertigo in which we turn about on ourselves, my country and I—will it come to an end? Most Royal Lady, tell me that your choice will be of greater worth than the vertigo: that it will cure us of it and not, on the contrary, hasten our ruin. You are strong. The whole country lies under your great shadow. Give me your faith.”
“I have none. I merely draw conclusions from premises which I have not desired. A hundred years ago our grandfather, along with all the inhabitants of this countryside, was awakened one morning by an uproar arising from the river. He took his gun and, followed by all the élite of the region, he flung himself upon the newcomers. His heart was intrepid, and to him the value of liberty was greater than the value of life. Our grandfather, and the élite of the country with him, was defeated. Why? How? Only the newcomers know. We must ask them: we must go to learn from them the art of conquering without being in the right. Furthermore, the conflict has not yet ceased.
The foreign school is the new form of the war which those who have come here are waging, and we must send our élite there, expecting that all the country will follow them. It is well that once more the élite should lead the way. If there is a risk, they are the best prepared to cope successfully with it, because they are the most firmly attached to what they are. If there is good to be drawn from it, they should also be the first to acquire that. This is what I wish you to say, my brother. And, since the master is present, I should like to add another word: our determination to send the noble youth to the foreign school will never be followed by the people unless we begin by sending our own children there. So I think that your children, my brother, as well as our cousin Samba Diallo, should start the procession.”
As he heard these words the teacher’s heart was strangely convulsed.
“Lord, can it be that I am so much attached to this child?” he prayed in his thought. “Then at my hearth I have preferences … It is so, Oh, my God! Forgive me … And they look to me, wishing me to be their guide.”