by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents
Chapter I, part 2
appears in this issue.
part 1 of 3
A friend of Joseph of Egypt came to him from a journey. “What gift have you brought?” asked Joseph.
“What do you not have already? Is there anything you need?” asked the friend. “Nonetheless, because there is nothing more beautiful than you, I have brought you a mirror so that you can see your face reflected every moment.”
What does God not have? What does He need? One must take a polished heart to God so that He can see Himself in it. “God does not look at your forms or at your deeds, but He looks at your hearts.”
— from Signs of the Unseen: Discourses of Jalal-ud-din Rumi, translated by W.M. Thackston, Jr.
French Sudan, 1914
Olivier sat in a wicker chair on the screened veranda of his uncle’s trading post. He watched an ant-like procession of laborers carrying goods to a river steamer berthed at the wharf. The porters droned a work song and their lean almost naked ebony bodies glistened in the waning sunlight as they marched down a dirt trail to the dock.
The young man lit a cigarette, leaned back and observed the moored steamer, an ancient paddle-wheeled scow silhouetted in mauve shadow. Bales of cargo — kapok, cotton and peanuts — accumulated on the wharf in neat man-high stacks. A small gang of stevedores hoisted the bales, walked up a gangplank and loaded the cargo on board the boat.
“This bloody heat,” Olivier muttered. He lifted his straw hat and wiped his damp forehead with a sweat-soaked handkerchief. It was the rainy season and the only time when the river was navigable. In this brief spell between showers the air was heavy and humid as a Turkish bath. The surrounding jungle’s acrid-sweet rotting stench was like an old woman who never bathed but tried to mask her odor with strong perfume.
“What’s wrong, nephew; still not used to Africa?” Olivier’s uncle sat next to him. “I’ll have the houseboy bring us refreshment.” The uncle snapped his fingers loudly and gave an order to his servant.
The servant went to a liquor cabinet in the living quarters behind the shop and came back presently with bottles and glasses on a teak tray that he set down on a small table. He served the drinks and then returned to his other duties.
The uncle took a sip of his brandy and soda, relaxed in his chair and gazed at the sunset. The cloud-streaked sky flushed scarlet that bled into darker tones of gentian violet and purple. A blood-orange sun descended; dense green foliage on the opposite shore faded in viridian shadows. The silver river sparkled in reflected moonlight.
“I hope, Olivier, that you can at least appreciate the beauty of an equatorial sunset?” The uncle had survived fifteen years in West Africa, longer than most Europeans could endure. He was a tough, wiry little man with a white-bearded, leathery, wrinkled face and ice-blue eyes. He smiled at his nephew as he waited for an answer.
“I’m sorry, uncle, I’ve seen finer sunsets from the balcony of the Hotel Métropole in Monte Carlo. On the whole, I’d rather be there.”
The uncle laughed. “That’s where you met the count, isn’t it?”
“Indeed it was, uncle. And that is where I agreed to undertake this journey on the count’s promise to pay travel expenses and remit his note on all my gambling debts.” Olivier shook his head and smiled wryly. “My God, uncle, who could imagine traveling to Timbuktu? The count might as well have sent me on a polar expedition, or a trip to the moon.”
“Olivier, as far as I know there’s no steamship service to the poles or the moon.” The uncle took a sip of his drink and looked in the direction of the steamer. After a moment’s pause, he turned back to his nephew. “The count must have had you in mind for this job when he bought up all your gambling notes. Do you have any idea why?”
The uncle eyed his nephew keenly. He’s a good-looking boy, like his father, he thought. Clever enough and honorable like his father too, but he also shares his weaknesses for gambling, drink and the wrong sort of woman.
Olivier grimaced. “Damned if I know.”
The uncle sighed, “At least the steamer will get you where you need to go and you’ll have Captain Oudinot to keep you out of trouble.” Oudinot was an officer in the Foreign Legion with official business in Timbuktu. While staying with his uncle in the administrative capital of Bamako, Olivier became acquainted with the captain and his army crowd. The officers proved to be good card-playing and drinking companions.
“Yes, uncle. I’ll be happy to have Oudinot’s company. He knows the land and the native lingo, and he has good relations with the Tuareg chiefs. He also knows Sayyid Ali, the merchant I’m to meet in Timbuktu. Oudinot’s agreed to help expedite the transaction and clear my way through customs. I’ll be glad to get this business over with and be on my way back to Nice.”
The uncle reclined in his chair and gazed across the road toward the tree-lined boundary of a neighboring plantation. His eyes glanced up toward the shadowy tops of the towering kapok trees, their umbrella-rib like branches thick with dormant dangling bats.
After a moment, he took a gold cigarette case and a box of matches from his waistcoat pocket. He lit a cigarette and watched the servant light the porch lamps. Yellow kerosene flames flickered feebly in the encroaching darkness. Flying insects that penetrated the screening appeared instantly, drawn to the gleaming lamplight.
Looking back at his nephew the uncle smiled and lowered his voice. “Will you accept an old man’s advice?”
“Of course, uncle.” Olivier had genuine affection and respect for his father’s older brother, while at the same time realizing he could never emulate the prosperous colonial trader.
“I know Henri left you well-provided for, nevertheless your small inheritance is insufficient to support your way of life. If you didn’t know that before this trip, surely you must have learned your lesson by now.”
Olivier nodded in agreement. “I’ll admit I ran with a fast set and it was hard to keep up with them on my income.”
The uncle grunted, expressing a barely disguised distaste for Olivier’s financial and social predicament. “In my opinion, a man in your position ought to do one of three things: moderate his habits and watch his expenses; enter a well-paying profession or trade; marry to his advantage.” The uncle fixed his eyes on his nephew, lifted his cigarette to his lips and inhaled and then expelled a white cloud of tobacco smoke. “Doing all three would not be a bad solution to your problem.”
Olivier grinned. “Sage advice, sir, but I enjoy my life too much and I have no profession or trade. As for the third proposition I’m always alert for opportunities.”
The uncle laughed mordantly as he stubbed out his cigarette on the porch railing. “If it’s a rich woman you want, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I could set you up in business with some friends in Marseilles. They’re not millionaires, but quite well off, and I know one who is still burdened with three daughters of marriageable age.”
Olivier shook his head, leaned over and took his uncle by the hand. “Thank you, sir. I know you mean well, but I’m afraid a lifetime of trade and bourgeois domesticity lacks a certain charm.”
The uncle frowned and withdrew his hand. “Well then, my boy, you had best find yourself an heiress to a great fortune or a rich widow while you’re still young, healthy and handsome enough to catch her eye.”
* * *
Olivier stood by the starboard deck-rail forward of the paddle-box on the Princesse d’Afrique as she chugged and chunked up the Niger at a steady six knots. There was a light mist on the river and Olivier wore tinted eye-glasses to protect against the silvery early-morning glare. The previous day they had passed Mopti where the Bani joined the Niger: the last port before they reached Timbuktu. Now they steamed past low-lying, uninhabitable marshlands full of stagnant malarial pools and gnarled trees that swarmed with chirring insects and screeching birds.
“So, my friend, you’ve abandoned the sybaritic pleasures of our stateroom for a stroll along the fashionable First-Class promenade deck?”
Olivier turned to greet Captain Oudinot and smiled at the officer’s witticism. The “stateroom” they ostensibly shared was a moldy airless broom closet made no more livable by a crew-member’s perfunctory application of acrid disinfectant. The cabin contained a verminous double-bunk that could barely accommodate Olivier’s slight five-foot seven inch frame. The thought of Oudinot’s six-foot three inch muscular bulk corkscrewed into this rickety bug-infested berth made Olivier laugh, to the chagrin of the earnest carbolic spraying cabin boy. The ambiance was not improved by the heat from the boat’s boilers and the throbbing of the nearby engine made every loose object vibrate and rattle like tableware in a mild earthquake.
After taking stock of their cabin, Olivier and Oudinot prevailed upon the captain to let them live and sleep on the First-Class promenade, a cordoned-off section near the bridge. There they spent most of the trip in the open under an awning, sitting on deck chairs, playing cards, smoking, drinking and trading stories. At night they slept under the stars, lulled by the churning plash of the paddlewheels and the chugging, hissing, pulsating heartbeat of the engine.
“Stateroom, indeed: Do you remember the look on the poor cabin boy’s face when I burst out laughing?”
Oudinot smirked. “Yes, I think the fellow actually took offense, as though we made light of his housekeeping.”
“I’m sorry, Roland. I know this is your posting and you’re bound here by duty, but for me, the sooner I’m away from this place, the better.”
Oudinot gazed wistfully toward the muddy riverbank. “You’re right about duty, my friend. I long for home as much as you, but as long as France needs me here, this is where I’ll stay.” Suddenly, Oudinot pointed and exclaimed, “Look there, Olivier. Do you see the crocodile? Bloody big bastard, isn’t he?”
Olivier looked to where his friend pointed. What had appeared to be a three-quarters submerged log had transformed into a scaly gray-green prehistoric monster slithering up the shoreline onto the mudflats. “I see him. He must be all of three meters and more.”
“Yes, look at him. If I had my Lebel handy I’d bag him. He’d fetch a good price in Timbuktu.” Oudinot continued staring at the crocodile. “Who knows, Olivier? Maybe his hide would be made into shoes and a handbag for some fashionable shop on the Rue Saint-Honoré. There, a lovely young woman might buy him....” Roland’s voice trailed off in a whisper. He closed his eyes as his mind drifted to some distant place.
Olivier looked sympathetically at his friend. Soon, Olivier would be on his way home. Captain Roland Oudinot, on the other hand, was wed to the Legion. He might very well die in this place without ever seeing France again. Olivier clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Well, old man, are you up for a B&S and a game or two of Bezique?”
Oudinot raised his head and smiled. “Of course I am.” They walked to the top deck while discussing the best way to shoot a big croc, the current market price for hides and the relative merits of Bezique versus Pinochle and B&S versus Gin and Tonic with lime.
* * *
After a few hours of Bezique accompanied by several rounds of brandy and soda, interrupted by their mid-day siesta under the deck awning, Olivier and Captain Oudinot grew bored. Finally, Oudinot got up without a word, went down to their cabin and fetched his Lebel and an ammunition box. He returned, rifle in hand, walked over to Olivier who dozed in his deck-chair, and shook him. “Wake up, old man. Let’s have some sport.”
Olivier grunted and his bleary eyes flickered open. Glancing at the Lebel he mumbled, “Sorry, I’m blotto, couldn’t hit a damned thing.”
Oudinot grinned and slapped Olivier’s shoulder. “That makes it more of a challenge.”
“Oh, alright,” Olivier grumbled as he got up unsteadily from his chair.
The pair walked to the starboard railing and stared for a moment at the riverbank. There didn’t seem to be much worth shooting. Nevertheless, Oudinot pulled back the breech-bolt and loaded the magazine. He closed the bolt, held the rifle in port position and scanned the shoreline until he saw something in the branches of a stubby tree. “See that big bird?” he cried as he took aim and fired in one quick fluid motion.
There was a bright orange muzzle flash and an acrid whiff of smokeless powder. Olivier saw an explosion of dark feathers in the distant tree branches as the Lebel went off with a loud crack that sent unseen creatures scurrying for cover and a flock of startled birds soaring into the silver sky.
On the bridge the captain and a couple of the crew members turned and stared for a moment at the two passengers. The captain grinned. “Let the gentlemen have their fun, as long as they don’t shoot us, or each other.” The captain and crew had a little laugh and went about their business.
Oudinot pulled the bolt, ejecting the spent cartridge and chambering another. The empty brass casing jumped and spun in the air and then fell onto the hardwood deck where it clinked and rolled until it came to a stop. “Not a bad shot after six rounds of B&S,” Oudinot boasted.
“Yes indeed. Damn fine shot.” Olivier gazed in the direction of the exterminated water fowl. “What was it, I wonder?”
“Damned if I know; maybe it’s the last of its kind.” Roland took a flask from his hip pocket, flipped open the cap and took a swig of brandy. Then he closed the flask, turned to Olivier and handed him the rifle. “Here, you have a go.”
Olivier took the Lebel gingerly; he wasn’t much of a shot. He reconnoitered the river and the mud-bank in search of something he might have a chance of hitting. Suddenly, he spotted a couple of huge, gray half-submerged hippopotamuses grunting and splashing in the shallows. Olivier took aim and was about to shoot, when Oudinot knocked his arm upward. The Lebel went off harmlessly, shooting into the air.
Oudinot laughed, “Wouldn’t do to shoot at a Hippo old boy.”
Confused, Olivier turned and asked, “Why not?”
The captain took the rifle from his companion. “You might have winged him and made him mad. Then Monsieur Hippo, and perhaps one or two of his friends, would have come after us like a squadron of dreadnoughts and we’d all be in the drink.”
Olivier grinned. “Speaking of drinks, I’m ready for another B&S. Then at last you can tell me all you know about Sayyid Ali.”
Oudinot took a moment to look downriver before answering. The boat trailed a long cloud of gray smoke that faded on the horizon. The silver sky darkened into a magenta twilight. “You’re right, Olivier. We’re losing the light and I haven’t seen anything worth bagging since that giant croc. Tomorrow we’ll be in Timbuktu. It’s time to tell you the tale of Sayyid Ali.”
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder