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The Mysterion

by Gary Inbinder

Table of Contents
Chapter I, part 1
appears in this issue.
Chapter I

part 2 of 3

“Did your uncle tell you anything about the richest man in Timbuktu?”

Olivier came out of a trance having been mesmerized by the dusky velvet and gleaming platinum moonlit night, sultry wetland musk-scented breeze and the ceaseless ca-chug, ca-chug of the engine and splish-splash of the paddlewheels. He sat up on the edge of his reclining deck-chair, stretched his arms and yawned, “Sorry, old man, I almost dozed off.” He toyed with his glass of now flat B&S and took a sip before speaking. “Uncle told me little. From what I’ve heard, Sayyid Ali is quite wealthy and important in these parts, trusted by both the Tuareg and the Colonial Administration. I’m afraid that’s all I know.” Olivier lay back in his chair and waited for Oudinot to continue.

“The man has an interesting past. He’s from Oran, the scion of a rich family of Jewish merchants who fled Spain in the late fifteenth century at the time of the great expulsion. Instead of taking over the family business, he pursued a life of adventure among the Berbers.

“Eventually he converted to Islam, changed his name and was adopted by a Tuareg chief. Oddly enough, he maintained good relations with his family, the Silvas, and the government. His network of agents and business contacts stretches from Timbuktu to North Africa, through the Near East and into Turkey and Europe.

“Following our annexation of the French Sudan, Sayyid Ali was instrumental in developing and maintaining peaceful relations among the Tuareg and our administration. From my own experience, I’ve found him helpful in mediating minor conflicts that might have flared up into full scale insurrection.”

“He must be a remarkable man.”

“Remarkable indeed, and that’s to your benefit. As Sayyid Ali’s guest, you’ll be safe in Timbuktu and any business you transact on behalf of the count will be blessed by the administration, the local merchants and the Tuareg. Whatever items you receive from him to carry back to Europe will pass through customs without question, including when you board your steamer at Dakar and when you debark at Marseilles.”

Olivier smiled. “You make it all sound so easy, my friend, but I still haven’t a clue why the count chose me for this job, or what the job is for that matter.”

Oudinot lit a cigarette and then inhaled and exhaled with a wistful sigh. “My dear Olivier, when one deals with men like the count and Sayyid Ali, it’s best to do what one is told, without question. Act honorably, transact your business quickly and get back home safely. That’s my advice.” Oudinot stared for a moment at the glowing red tip of his cigarette and then turned to Olivier. “When you do get home, my friend, wink at a pretty girl or two for me.”

* * *

The following day at ten a.m. the Princesse d’Afrique gave a few piercing blasts of her steam whistle as the captain navigated from midstream to the boat’s dockside mooring. There was a flurry of activity on board as the deck crew hauled in lines and porters scampered topside carrying the passengers’ baggage in preparation for landing.

As they lined up on deck waiting to debark, Oudinot turned to Olivier. “I wired ahead to Fort Bonnier before leaving Koulikoro. There’ll be a carriage waiting for us at dockside to drive us to Timbuktu. When we get there I’ll take you to Sayyid Ali’s house and then return to Bonnier for my meeting with the Commandant.”

Olivier did not reply; instead he stared vacantly in the direction of the wharf. Oudinot noticed his friend’s rather gloomy morning face and tried to cheer him up.

“Don’t look so glum. In a couple of days your business will be completed and you’ll be headed downriver. From there it’s a pleasant railway journey to Dakar and then the steamer to Marseilles.”

Olivier turned to his friend and smiled. “I’m alright. I’m just a bit tired and woozy from the heat.” Olivier wore a white linen suit, a broad-brimmed panama hat to shade his blonde-haired head and fair skin and dark glasses to screen his light blue eyes.

Yet despite his comfortable attire, as they moved closer to land he felt crushed by the sultriness of the desert. It seemed as though the world had turned upside down with all the water drained out and dry waves of heat breaking on a shoreline of smoldering sand. Oudinot, clad in his dark blue officer’s tunic, red trousers and képi tilted jauntily to one side, remained nonchalant about entering the southern Sahara’s fiery furnace.

As soon as the passengers emerged from the boat’s gangplank onto the dock they were surrounded by a scurrying flock of smiling, gesticulating and jabbering guides, donkey cart drivers, porters and a beggar or two. Oudinot waved them away and he and Olivier were soon joined by a Senegalese private detailed from the Fort. The soldier helped load their baggage in the carriage and then sat with the driver as an escort on the seven-kilometer journey from the port to Timbuktu.

They lurched over a rut-filled road in an old rattling black barouche drawn by a bony gray nag. The vast emptiness surrounding Olivier overwhelmed him. The sky seemed an immense canopy and the cloudless blueness of it was like nothing he had ever seen. Perhaps in August on the Mediterranean he had viewed such a sky, but at its terminus there was the deeper, cooler blue of the ocean into which it blended. Here, where the sky ended, there was the razor’s edge horizon of hot yellow sand. For many kilometers in any direction there was no relief to the torrid desolation of drifting flats and dunes except for a few date-palm fringed oases.

As they continued north, Olivier could see, in the distance, the dun-colored crenellated walls, towers and minarets of Timbuktu shimmering in the heat like a mirage. To his left, and behind him now, was the French fort that guarded the port entrance. Beyond Timbuktu stood another fort guarding the caravan trade routes that snaked over the burning sand from as far away as Marrakech in the Atlas Mountain foothills, hundreds of kilometers to the northwest.

Olivier shaded his eyes and stared toward the northern fort. He saw something odd, like an inchworm slowly creeping through the sky. Olivier pointed in the direction of what he thought might be a mirage. “Will you look there and tell me if I’m seeing things?”

Oudinot lifted his kepi and scanned the area where Olivier pointed. “You have sharp eyes, my friend. Would you like to apply for the position of lookout at Fort Bonnier? I believe I could get you the job.”

The Senegalese turned around for a moment and gave them a big toothy grin.

Olivier leaned back in his seat and smiled. “Very funny, Oudinot. Now will you please tell me what I saw... or didn’t I see it?”

“Sorry for the little joke. What you saw is a caravan on its way to Timbuktu, and it could be quite far away. The desert plays tricks when it comes to objects seen at a distance.”

Olivier looked again in the direction of the caravan but it seemed to have disappeared, perhaps behind a far-off dune. “It certainly does play tricks, my friend, and I suspect not only with objects at a distance.”

* * *

The driver parked the carriage in the shade of a tall date palm near the main gateway to the city. Oudinot ordered the Senegalese to guard the vehicle while the driver carried Olivier’s baggage and accompanied the captain and Olivier into Timbuktu. As they left the carriage Olivier noticed a few Tuareg dressed in their distinctive dark blue robes, turbans and veils. The Tuareg seemed proud and indifferent to their surroundings as they sat on their grunting, ruminating camels high above the milling throng of white-robed natives.

There was something about these “blue men” of the desert that appeared noble, heroic and fine, as though they were formed from the same mold as their sometime enemy the Chasseurs d’Afrique. Glancing from Oudinot to a particularly tall and graceful young mounted Tuareg, Olivier thought: They could be brothers.

The towering tan-colored battlements of Timbuktu rose from the desert like an organic outcropping of sand, or perhaps some vision conjured up from the Arabian Nights. Yet the harsh reality of the place belied the romantic image. There was the blazing orange sun that turned the land below into an enormous bake oven; there were windblown gritty grains of sand that entered one’s eyes, nose and throat; and there were clouds of buzzing, stinging flies.

Once inside the city walls, they entered a rabbits’ warren of narrow winding alleys filled with people going about their daily business: hawking, trading and purchasing goods of both local manufacture and from as far away as Europe. Robed and turbaned shopkeepers sat in the shade of awnings; the men were drinking tea, smoking water-pipes and conversing in languages foreign to Olivier.

He noticed few women. Those he assumed were women lurked in the shadows, clad in robes from head to foot with only a tiny slit in the dark covering material from which their black eyes could peer furtively into the outside world.

They passed a metal-workers shop and heard the rhythmic clink, clink, clink of hammers on the anvil, saw flying red sparks and reddish yellow flames of the forge and felt a blast of searing heat as they walked by the open doorway. The place was an oven within an oven.

They also passed by the houses of weavers identified by the incessant click-clacking of the loom, squatting potters at their wheels forming vessels with clay-spattered hands and the dyers’ yards with bright, multi-colored strips of cloth hung out to dry in the sun.

At times Olivier raised a handkerchief to his mouth and nose to defend against flying particles of grit and sand, the ever-present flies and the pervasive fetid odor of human and animal excrement, putrid meat, rotting rubbish and boiling fat tinged with the pungent scent of heavily spiced cooking.

Finally, they came to a halt before an immense wooden door decorated with large round brass studs and a ringed knocker at about eye level. The doorway opened directly onto their path and was located in the middle of a four meter high brownish mud-brick wall that stood at the end of an alley barely wide enough for two men to walk abreast.

Oudinot turned to Olivier, smiled and held out his hand. “Here’s where I leave you, my friend. I’ll say a few words to the hall porter, but there’s no need for a formal introduction to Sayyid Ali. I’m off to make my report to the Commandant at Fort Bonnier. I’ve enjoyed your company and I wish you the best of luck.”

Olivier took Oudinot’s hand in his. “Thank you for everything, Roland. I hope we meet again some day, on a boulevard in Paris or a café on the Côte d’Azur. Then we can talk of our adventures over Pernod and perhaps meet up with a pretty girl or two.”

Oudinot shook his friend’s hand warmly, grinned and whispered, “From your lips to God’s ears; until we meet again.” Then, Captain Oudinot told the driver to set down Olivier’s bags and knock on the door.

The hall porter soon answered, bowed and gave the customary greeting, “Salaam Aleikum,” to which Oudinot and Olivier answered “Wa Aleikum es-Salaam.” Oudinot said a few words to the porter and then turned and walked back up the alley with the driver. The hall porter called for another servant to take the baggage and then gestured courteously for Olivier to follow him into the home of his master, Sayyid Ali.

* * *

To be continued...

Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder

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