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prescribed destinies just like men, and seers who probe
the future know it. They have knowledge of the future,
whereas we griots are depositories of knowledge of the
past. But whoever knows the history of a country can read
"Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past any more, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice. With them everybody thinks he knows, whereas learning should be a secret. The prophets did not write and their words have been all the more vivid as a result. What paltry learning is congealed in dumb books!"
Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate
An Omega limited series by Marc Singer
[Washington, D.C. July 25, 1995. Eleven o'clock in the morning.]
Jack Russell stepped in from the sweltering summer heat, wiping the sweat from his forehead and slamming the door behind him. Days like this were uncomfortable even for an immortal, and Jack was glad to be back inside the mansioneven if it was the mansion whose owner was still unknown to Jack, the mansion from which Hannibal had disappeared, the mansion with a dead butler lying in the kitchen's walk-in freezer.
A few days ago, Jack had wanted to leave the place, but he knew he had to monitor it in case the owner, Hannibal, or Hannibal's kidnappers returned. However, Jack still wanted to get Hannibal's journals, the only things his mentor had hidden before he disappeared, away from the mansion; they were Jack's only leads, after all, and he didn't want to risk losing them to whoever took Hannibal.
Now that he'd moved the journals, Jack flopped down into a priceless Heppelwhite chair and picked up his afternoon's work: several large reels of tape which he hadn't moved with the rest of the journals. The tape seemed to come from one of those huge reel-to-reel machines of the sixties, but the label read "Mali 1217-1225." Jack hoped the tapes would give some clue to Hannibal's true origins, origins which had proved maddeningly elusive in the rest of the journals. Jack hooked the first tape up to an old but well-preserved reel-to-reel machinethe vaults of this house held almost every object Jack could imagineand he prepared to listen.
Hannibal had left a few explanatory notes with the tapes. Some partsthe very beginning and the very end -- were recordings of an old Mandingo griot, or storyteller, singing Mali's national epic. They were made when Hannibal had helped an African professor transcribe The Sunjata into the written word. Apparently Hannibal heard something he didn't like, for afterwards, he'd made a recording of his own and spliced it into the middle of his copy of the tapes.
Jack reached over to the ON switch, and his hand trembled for a moment. These tapes almost seemed to radiate power. Not because Jack thought they contained Hannibal's origin; he didn't really expect to find that in the journals anymore. But Jack, an American all his life, had never been to Africa.
He turned on the machine.
From the journals of Hannibal:
...I left the new immortal in Venice with another of the Vitalongae, but I had to flee Europe entirely, as a black man stood out far more than a white one. I suppose I could have gone anywhere in the world, but it had been so long since my last visit, I went home.
I travelled across the Mediterranean, across the Sahara, and across six hundred yearsat least on the calendars. For in my absence, much of central Africa had converted to Islam and was using its more recent calendar. The shrinking calendar only made me feel more out of place, for my memory stretched well beyond either calendar year.
It was not my first return to my homeland, which was now called Mali. Nor was it the last. But it was the longest, and the one I will always remember the most...
[Niani, capital of Mali. Anno Domini 1225/603 Muslim Era]
The little stiff-legged boy crawled into the hut, crying. The boy's mother did not need to ask him to know that somebody had been taunting him again. She stopped washing the laundry, so she could console her son once again. But first, she rested her head in her hands and steeled herself for a moment; dealing with Mari Djata and his disability was becoming increasingly trying.
When she was ready, she picked up her son and cradled him in her arms. "Hush, Djata," she said, "hush. What is it this time?" She didn't mean to sound as exasperated as she did.
Between sobs, Mari Djata said, "The other boys... they laughed at me... laughed at me because... I could not pick the leaves from the baobab trees. And then... the grownups in the garden... they laughed at me... and then..."
"Hush." She heard these stories all the time; she didn't need to hear another. Things had been different when her husband, Nare Maghan, was king; she had lived in the finest room in the palace, and nobody was permitted to even speak of Djata's inability to walk. But Nare Maghan was dead now, and the son of another wife had succeeded him. Dankaran Touman was not truly the ruler of Mali, though; the Queen Mother, Sassouma Berete, ruled the nation as firmly as she did her own son. And the first act of Sassouma's reign had been to move the late Nare Maghan's favorite wife and children out to a decrepit lumber- storage hut in the back of the palace grounds. Sassouma's second act had been to invite sightseers onto the grounds, precisely so they could laugh at the deformed boy whom Nare Maghan had been so sure would lead Mali to prosperity. Scheming Sassouma Berete continued to punish Djata and his mother for once having Nare Maghan's esteem, even now. For while Djata nuzzled in his mother's arms, a woman called from outside the hut.
The mother gave Djata to his younger sister, Kolonkanwho could walk and read and count numbers, though she was only fourand got up to answer the call. But first she drew her hood over her head; if Djata's disability inspired ridicule, at least she could still silence all hecklers. Hunching over and hiding her face, the mother pushed aside the curtains that were her only privacy.
Sassouma Berete was there, of course, carrying a huge calabash of baobab leaves. She could not contain her wide, mocking smile. "I heard you have a shortage of leaves," she said, "so I have brought you these. My son himself, who could walk when he was but seven, picked them for me. Take them, since your son is unequal to mine."
Muscles shifted under the mother's robe. It would be so easy to crush this mocking, grinning woman, to put her head in that calabash... so, so easy... but then she would have to live on the run again, and this time with the children. It would be so easy to use her strength, but she knew she would show far more strength by not using it. The mother smiled, and took the baobab leaves, and hardest of all, she thanked Sassouma Berete and her royal, leaf-picking son.
And when Sassouma Berete left and the curtains were closed, the mother screamed and crushed the calabash between her hands. Both children were startled (though only Kolonkan could jump) to see their mother so angry. "Kolonkan," she said sternly, "finish the washing. Mari Djata, you will come with me." The boy looked absolutely terrified, so she said, "We are going to see Balla Fasseke." But this time, the mention of Djata's personal griot and only adult friend did not calm the boy. He became even more worried when his mother added, "He has one last story to tell you."
Balla Fasseke was still allowed in the palace, but only barely. His father, Gnankouman Doua, had been Nare Maghan's greatest griot; when Doua grew old, he went away to the cave of the Long Ju Ju of Arno to retrieve Balla Fasseke from his magical apprenticeship. Balla returned alone, for his father had died on the journey home. The whole people of Mali mourned, for it was an open secret that Doua was much of the reason for Mali's prosperity under Nare Maghan. Though Balla Fasseke was Mari Djata's own personal griot, his father's name was so prized that scheming Sassouma Berete could not easily shut him out of her late husband's palace.
She could shut out Djata and his mother, though. They had to send for Balla Fasseke and wait for him to come outside. Balla Fasseke stepped out of the palace, and waved for them to walk over to the great silk-cotton tree that his father had planted. It had been Nare Maghan's court on warm summer evenings, though now it was eclipsed by the large baobab trees Sassouma had planted. The shade would be quite comfortable in the noonday sun, but even with Balla Fasseke's blessing, Djata was still reluctant to go so close to the palace. The mother cursed her timid child, and Djata started crawling rapidly toward his griot.
Balla started to chide her for screaming at the boy, but she would have none of it. Balla did not have to raise Djata, after all. Balla did not have to live in a converted lumber hut. "I want you to tell him the story now, Balla," she said. "He has to know about his heritage if he's ever going to live up to it."
Balla stroked the child's head. "But he's still so young," he said. "And telling him the truth might mean you will have to leave..."
"I don't care. Yourcharge is not going to spend his life crawling in the dust like a snake while other children pick leaves for him. He has to know now. I can accept my humiliation, but I will no longer accept his."
Balla gulped and said, "I suppose you're right." He breathed deeply; then, after a moment, he said, "Djata, come closer." Djata dragged himself even closer to the griot, then climbed onto his lap. "It's time for another story of kings," Balla said, placating the frightened child with his soothing voice. "You have heard of the kings of old, of the men who came from Mecca, Holiest of Cities, and made this place their home. Of the men who made this home into a city, this city into a kingdom. But now you hear the most important story of all, because this is the story of the royalty who made you."
Djata and his mother sat in the shade and listened to Balla Fasseke's final tale. Carved into the bark of the tree above them, the wooden faces of the gods listened as well.
This is the story of the royalty who made you.
It was eight years ago, and the great king Nare Maghan Kon Fatta, Maghan the Handsome, was holding court one warm summer twilight. He sat under the spreading branches of this very tree, a tree from the far north that was one of the many secrets his griot, Gnankouman Doua, had brought to Mali. Doua was there as well, and first-wife Sassouma Berete, and Sassouma's son Dankaran Touman, who was eight years old and already could almost run without falling and crying. The whole court was there, and one more as well, for they had a visitor that evening.
An old traveling hunter dined with the king that evening. In return, Doua asked the hunter to read the king's future, for Doua had an eye for spotting those with such talents. Here they are called Wraiths, for while we all have wraith spirit-doubles, theirs are much greater and have strange powers that make men tremble at night. This hunter was a Wraith, and he could read the future as well as Doua could read the past. The hunter pulled twelve bright cowrie shells out of a goatskin bag, scattered them on the ground, and in their pattern read Mali's fate.
"Oh, king, the world is full of mystery!" the hunter cried. "The mighty king can spring from the little child, just as the silk-cotton springs from the little seed. Tell me, griot, who brought this seed to Mali? Who fathers the mighty silk-cotton?"
Doua shifted uncomfortably in his seat under the tree, and said, "We are not concerned with the tree's seed, hunter, but the king's."
And the hunter laughed a secret laugh, and said, "Of course you are, and it is the next king of Mali of whom I speak. His seed is coming towards Maliin my eyes, griot, it is already here. Mali's destiny is borne by two strangers coming toward Niani.
"They are hunters too, but not hunters like me. They are the worst kind of hunters to me and mine. But their prize is a great one. King, I see you rule over the kingdom bequeathed to you by your ancestors, losing nothing from it but adding nothing to it." Nare Maghan's handsome face flushed, and he nearly told his guards to execute the insolent Wraith on the spot, but the hunter waved his hands to stave off the premature ending. "But your successor is not yet born, oh king!" This drew a hostile stare from Sassouma Berete, earning the hunter an even deadlier enemy, but he did not seem to care.
"The two hunters bear a woman, oh king," he continued, "and what a woman! She is said to be ugly, hideous, fearsome, with a great lump on her back. Her face is hidden from sight, but mystery of mysteries, she will bear the greatest king of all, he who will make Mali immortal forever. He will be the seventh star, the seventh conqueror of the Earth." Looking directly at Gnankouman Doua, the hunter said, "He will be more mighty than Alexander."
"I think I've heard quite enough of that," said Doua.
"I am sure you have," said the hunter, with a smile. "And so my message is done. Receive the woman as your bride, for she will bear a child who will grow to be as great as the silk-cotton of Doua. And now I must take my leave."
The hunter left before the dinner was done, and none too soon. Doua and Sassouma rarely agreed on anything, but this time they were both of a mind to remove the hunter as quickly as possible. Only Nare Maghan's pleasure at the prophecy of his son's greatness kept the hunter alive long enough to leave Mali. Over the next two days, Sassouma spread tales about the lies of Wraiths, and dressed her son Dankaran Touman in fine clothes suitable for a future king. Doua was also shaken by the prophecy, but he kept his own council and said little, perhaps hoping it would not come to pass.
Yet on the third day, two strangers appeared on the horizon, dragging a third person behind them. They were allowed to march directly to the great silk-cotton tree. The two men were also hunters, but their silver bows and magic charms and blood-soaked goatskins marked them as a certain kind: Wraith-hunters. Stalkers of the fearsome and killers of the strong. The third person was a chained, veiled woman, who had a man's muscles on her arms and a large hump on her back. She spoke no words the whole night. The court simply stared at her uncomfortably, and for all they knew, she may have stared back from behind her veil.
Doua, for once, was at a loss for words. His stares alternated between the bound woman and the hunters, who themselves eyed Doua suspiciously. Doua did not cross-examine them as he did the first hunter, he simply listened to their tale -- when he could pull his attention away from the woman.
"I am called Oulamba," said the elder Wraith-hunter, "and this is my brother Oulani. We were born in Mali, and we have walked from the kingdom of Do to bring this young girl as a present for our king."
Nare Maghan looked up to Doua, and Doua nodded skeptically. Oulamba spoke no Mandingo accent he knew, and he knew a great many tongues. Maghan asked them to try again, this time with the truth.
Oulamba sighed, and apparently decided that it was worth the risk. "My brother and I, as you can plainly see, are hunters of night terrors and mad Wraiths." The brothers sat down and drank as Oulamba told his tale; they might at least get a little rest out of this, if nothing else. Oulamba gulped down a calabash of cold water, then continued, "Last year, we heard of a great prize in the land of Do, where a fearsome buffalo was ravaging the countryside. Already a hundred warriors had died trying to slay it. The king of Do promised the most beautiful woman in his country to anyone who would stop it. We planned to take his own daughter, thus inheriting a kingdom ourselves.
"We immediately set out for Do. Just after we entered its borders, we saw an old woman crying by the side of the road, and we offered her meat. She accepted it graciously, and chatted with us, and to our horror we learned that she was a sorceress. But the sorceress was grateful to us, and told us how we could kill the buffalo."
Gnankouman Doua doubted their story of altruism. More likely, the brothers consulted an obeah woman on how to trap the beast, bringing her some sort of reward for her services. Even if the reward was meat... well, judging by the look of the brothers, it wasn't necessarily animal meat. But Doua listened on, as Oulamba continued his story:
The sorceress told us we could only kill the buffalo with the help of a magic distaff and a magic egg, which she just happened to have in her possession, and which she told us how to use. She also told us we had to cut off the buffalo's tail quickly after we killed it, for proof of our kill. The sorceress was about to hand us the distaff and egg when she snatched them back and named a price for her help: we had to agree to take a certain girl as our prize, a girl named Sogolon Kedjou. We had hoped to pick a princess, but the sorceress assured us this Sogolon was also royalty, and a beautiful woman who would serve us well. We gladly agreed to the price and took the charms.
Three days later, we finally met the buffalo on the plain of Ourantaba, under darkening skies. We first saw other hunters fleeing past us; they looked at us as if we were crazy, for we kept marching towards the carnage. Then we saw trampled earth, and shattered trees, and a dozen dead men in the tall grass. We stumbled over their gored bodies, and saw their spears and arrows had not drawn one drop of blood, but we kept marching. And then we met the buffalo.
She was nine feet tall and filled with hatred. She snorted loudly, spewing breath that glowed like fire in the dark, and she charged us. But Oulani waved the distaff at her three times, and my arrows pierced her hide. She bellowed, so loudly the children of Do all woke up crying, so loud that blood poured from my ears. But I kept firing, until she was almost upon us. Then we ran, and Oulani dropped the egg behind us. It turned into a gaping chasm, and the buffalo fell right in, wedged between the sides with her head sticking out. She started bleating like a babyan angry, angry babybut we unsheathed our spears and started stabbing her. It must have taken twenty, thirty, fifty thrusts to subdue her; we were covered in her warm blood by the time her eyes closed. The hardest part was actually pulling her out of the chasm, so we could cut off her tail. Then we strung the whole carcass to a litter, and dragged her back to the town of Do.
It was fortunate that the sorceress had told us to cut off the tail, for as we walked, the buffalo started to turn into a woman! An ugly, ugly woman to be sure, but a woman nonetheless. However, the large tail did not change. We were very grateful to the witch for so cautioning us, and as we anticipated the pleasures of young Sogolon, we laughed amongst ourselves for profiting so well at such a small cost.
When we reached the city of Do the next morning, the whole populace was out in the streets, singing and cheering for the death of the great buffalo. The city drums were beaten, and the entire populace gathered in the main square. We stared at the women, beautiful women of a thousand varieties: their hair free or braided or strung with beads, their lips thin or full or wide, their skin a million gorgeous shades from lightest brown to deepest black. And we wondered which would be ours.
The king appeared before the crowd, took the tail, and thanked us for killing the terrible creature. As a man of his word, he offered us the hand of any woman in his kingdom, and started parading them around the square for us. We were sorely tempted to name some of the girls who were pushed and prodded out into the square, especially some of the king's own daughters. But it is not wise to cheat a sorceress, and she did say Sogolon would please us. So I stopped the ceremony and told the king he could end the parade, for we wanted the fair Sogolon Kedjou.
The entire crowd fell silent. And then the king broke out in laughter. The whole city followed, roaring with derision. We grew quite angry, and demanded to know what was so funny. Between bursts of laughter, the king pointed to the girl we had picked. Sogolon Kedjou was the woman on our litter, the buffalo-woman we had just slain.
We became quite angry, and said that we could not marry a dead woman. But the king said that Sogolon Kedjou was not dead, and to prove it, he called a magician from his own court. The magician showed us that the buffalo-woman was still breathing, just very hurt. Then, when we said she would kill us after she woke up, he set the tail on fire and said he was burning most of her power. As the tail burned, the magician laughed, and his features started to melt like the tail. He turned into the old witch who had given us advice on how to catch the buffalo! She laughed, the king laughed, the the whole city laughed at the joke it had played on us.
We took Sogolon Kedjoupersuaded by the spears of Do, and the curses of the damned witch. She said we had accepted the buffalo- woman as our burden, and would only be freed if a king willingly took her from us. We were chased from the land of Do that night, with the buffalo-woman they forced on us, and neither she nor we can return for revenge until she is married off to a king.
So we have wandered for nearly a year, travelling from kingdom to kingdom, never passing this ugly wretch off on any of the kings we meet, for kings are of course wiser than normal men. When desperate, we have even tried to use her for our own gratification, but she is too strong and too ugly. So ugly is she, that our manhood goes limp at the very thought of her, making pleasure impossible. And her skin is similarly proof against our knives, allowing no penetration, making her murder impossible. So we are stuck with her forever.
"I would not try to deceive you, oh great Nare Maghan," said Oulamba, standing up to finish his tale, "and I would not force this beast upon you. But your regal power compels me to tell you this: when we fled the city of Do, the citizens laughed at us and said the only people stupid enough to take Sogolon Kedjou would be the people of Mali, and their idiot king Nare Maghan. They said the loathsome woman would be his perfect wife. We do not believe those lies for a minute, your majesty, and if you have need of warriors, we will gladly help you avenge this insult against your person and nation."
"Better to gain their land than this ugly buffalo bride," said Oulani, nodding his head in agreement.
After the tale was over, many people whispered about the supposed insult against Mali, and many people looked at the veiled, bound woman who could well have been the legendary Buffalo-Woman of Do. Gnankouman Doua, who did not whisper, just looked at the woman all the more. But soon, all voices died down and all eyes turned to Nare Maghan, for the decision was ultimately his.
It was not in Nare Maghan's ambition, or in his destiny, to increase his country's lands. Yet if he could not give Mali war, he could at least give it progeny. The prophecy of the first hunter still burned in his mind, but that involved bedding the buffalo-woman.... Nare Maghan was uncertain, and in his uncertainty he did the one thing that was always certain to yield an answer: he leaned slightly to the right, tilting his head upwards. Doua knelt down and whispered in the king's ear.
The king turned ashen, looked at Doua, and asked for advice once again. And Doua knelt again, and whispered, and when he was done, the king rose weakly to his feet and made his pronouncement.
Oulamba and Oulani were driven from Niani that very night, bereft of any reward or revenge but still pleased to be free of their burden. Sassouma Berete retreated to her quarters in an outrage, pleased to know that the fated wife was an ugly Wraith, but still angered to see that she existed at all. And Sogolon Kedjou was taken into the rooms of the old aunts of the palace, to be rested and groomed and dressed; for by the proclamation of Nare Maghan Kon Fatta, King of Mali, she was to be his next wife.
The nuptial celebration, which brought the people of all twelve villages of Mali together in Niani, was a joyous occasionalthough, it was rumored, Sogolon Kedjou cried the whole time. She never unveiled her face, supposedly by her own choice, although Sassouma Berete seemed to have some influence in the matter as well. But Sassouma Berete's influence ended when the wedding did.
Sogolon was led up to the palace by the king's two oldest aunts. The whole people of Mali crowded in the village streets to see her, and most of the parents kept their children from laughing at her. Once she reached the palace, Nare Maghan's brothers grabbed Sogolon and carried her inside, where Nare Maghan was waiting. Outside the people danced and sang, while inside Doua himself conducted the marriage rites. And when Doua was done, Sogolon Kedjou was no longer under the influence of the king of Do, or the Wraith-hunters, or the old aunts, or Sassouma Berete.
She was, in fact, the complete and total property of Nare Maghan.
Although it is doubtful that he even saw her as his property; more likely as his prophecy, and nothing else. Sogolon Kedjou was a route to a great son, and Nare Maghan desired to use that route as quickly as possible. After the post-wedding feast was over, Nare Maghan girded himself for the task ahead with a quick drink of palm wine, and then he marched proudly into his new wife's bedroom.
The next day, Doua found the king outside the bedroom, looking exhausted and perhaps even a little bruised. Once he was sure nobody else was around, the king told Doua that he had been unable to possess his new wifeshe repelled his advances, by her appearance and her Wraith-born strength. Nare Maghan was quite frightened by his new wife, and could not bring himself to go near her until nightfall. The king begged Doua to do as he always did, and fix things for him.
Though Doua was by his very trade a teller of tales, no word of this leaked out to anybody else. But others could still guess at what happened, since the old women who came for the virginity-cloth had to be discreetly turned away. And not just that morning, but for the next six. The whole week, Nare Maghan was not ablewas not permittedto consummate his marriage and fulfill his destiny. As his entreaties became more and more forceful, he was not even allowed into the bedroom, for Sogolon Kedjou began to drive everyone from her chamber. Everyone, that is, except for the griot Gnankouman Doua, who was crafty and could come and go as he pleased.
Gnankouman Doua first entered Sogolon Kedjou's bedroom on the very day he found Nare Maghan in the hall outside, bemoaning his fruitless wedding night. Doua calmed the king, and assured him he would smooth things over.
On the first minute of that first day he entered Sogolon Kedjou's room, Gnankouman Doua was frantically ducking to avoid the objects the new wife was hurling at him. But when she threw a fragile wooden idol, Doua did not try to dodge; he felt few things had lasting value in this world, but art was one of them. He let the idol hit him, cushioning the impact and saving the idol, but also falling the floor.
Sogolon Kedjou pounced on him immediately. The hump on her back swelled as she drew on the full amount of her remaining power. That would bode ill for any other man, but Doua patiently bore her blows, even though they bruised and cut him. Sogolon continued to assault him, until she could punch no more. And when the intruding man still wouldn't leave or die, she fell to the floor beside him, gasping for breath.
"If you're done," Doua said, also gasping, "may I speak with you?" Sogolon started to rise and attack again, but Doua waved her off. "Hold it," he cried, "think for a moment! Your blows won't do you any good! Looklook! Already my bruises disappear!" Sure enough, the purple lump on his forehead was fading away. "I'm a Wraith, Sogolon, just like you."
"Not at all like myself," Sogolon said, her hump vanishing. They were the first words Doua had ever heard her speak; she spoke them proudly, with a voice that was soft yet firm. "You don't have some king trying to mount you every night. You don't know what it's like to have a man climbing on top of you, panting --"
"That's where you're wrong," Doua interrupted. "I know very well what it's like, just as I know what it's like to be brought in chains before a king. To find his favor suddenly as uncomfortable as his wrath." He noticed Sogolon's skeptical stare, and said, "You may find this hard to believe, but I've been in your situation, and worse. I've been called worse than ugly, Sogolon. I've been worse than hunted."
"That was why you had Nare Maghan marry me, then?" she asked indignantly. "So you could talk to somebody else like you?"
"No," said Doua, "so you could."
Though it was one of the hardest things he had ever done, Doua left the room then.
[Niani, capital of Mali. A.D. 1217/595 M.E.]
By the third day, Sogolon had finally learned to trust Douanot as a griot, or even as a Wraith, but as the only palace functionary who spoke to her as a person, and not a bride or an abomination. He never talked to her about Nare Maghan, or her duties as his wife; he never asked her to go near the large marriage bed, or the king's great sword which hung above it. Instead, they talked about Africa, about Mali, even about other people in the palace. And when the sun dipped low in the west, and the tall savannah grass looked as if it were dipped in gold, they told each other stories.
Doua started first, enchanting Sogolon with tales of his many travels. He started with his most recent adventure, about an 'alchemist'a kind of juju-maker of the far northwho had just discovered his own Wraithly immortality. Apparently some local priests regarded the alchemist's experiments in the creation of 'homonculi,' little chemical men, to be blasphemies against their petty and vengeful white god. In this god's honor, the priests acted petty and vengeful themselves, and would have burned the alchemist had Doua not interceded at the last minute.
Doua spun his tales further and further backwards, telling of his rescues of new Wraiths and his clashes with old ones. Sogolon could not believe how many tales there were; everybody knew Gnankouman Doua was the greatest of griots, but she discovered just how far back his memory really went.
On the fifth day, Doua touched on one of his earliest adventures, when he helped lead an African army to a far-off place called Rome. But he would go back no further than the start of that adventure, when he was found and enslaved in the sand seas of the Sahara. When Sogolon asked how he came to be there, Doua simply averted his eyes and pretended not to hear the question. When she repeated it, quite forcefully, Doua answered, "I have told you about myself all day. Now the sunlight grows long, and I still know nothing about you." Smiling, Doua said, "Tell me who you are."
"You already know," Sogolon muttered. "You heard the hunters' tale before you put me here."
Doua stepped closer to Sogolon. He nearly placed his hand on her shoulder, but he pulled it back at the last instant, knowing she would have tossed him away. "I don't want a tale. I want to know who you really are."
"I might as well be the hunters' tale." Sogolon pulled back, folding her arms around her body and shrinking against a wall. "They have spread it across half of Africa, and the scum of Do have spread their tales across the other half. I am Sogolon Kondouto, Hunchback Sogolon, the Buffalo-Woman of Do. All you griots will pass this tale on from father to son, forever and ever, all you men calling me ugly and evil for all eternity."
"Well," answered Doua, "now is your chance to set the record straight." He always sought after true tales, but after the last few days, he felt a special need to know more about Sogolon. There was no explanation for this curiosityor no explanation that Doua would easily admit. He simply had to get close to her, close enough to see through her veil. "Let me know what really happened," Doua asked.
"What really happened?" Sogolon shouted. "Doua, the hunters saw what really happened, they just didn't understand most of it and lied about the rest. The old sorceress would have been a more reliable storyteller, but of course women are not allowed to tell stories."
For one thing, I was royalty, just as the sorceress said. I was once a princess of Donot just the kingdom, but the land itself. The djinn blessed my family with the power of the savannah beasts. I took after my mother, who could become a giant buffalo as I once could. We brought peace to the savannah, ruling it with the Diarra kings whom, woe of woes, we allowed to marry into our family.
Once the land of Do was stable, and the Diarras had found sorcerers to uphold their throne, they stopped treating us as family. The sorcerers, who had to study to empower their wraiths, feared us and our innate power; and the Muslim missionaries, who were slowly converting the people, believed we were abominations before Allah. Their lying tongues triumphed when Gnemo Diarra ascended to the throne, and deprived our family of its rightful inheritance. My mother called a family council to determine how we would protest this, and the king retaliated.
We did not even rise against the Diarras. We probably would have, but we were not given the chance. The king unleashed a great many magicians, Wraith-hunters, and djinn on the family council. None of the family survived the attack. None, save me.
I was only a small girl then, the youngest in the family. My parents tried to carry me out of the village before I could be slain, but the Diarra troops were too many. Having no other choice, my mother turned into a great buffalo, and she swallowed my tiny human body whole. I only remember the rest of that night as one long nightmare. I tossed and turned inside my mother's maw as she galloped, I nearly drowned in her spittle. I could barely hear the sounds of the battle outside, when I was not deaf from the bellows of my mother. But she charged out of the village, running along for a time and then coming to a complete halt. I wanted to get out once she stopped moving, but I heard men shouting and laughing outside. I huddled inside my mother, for a night that lasted an eternity. When the noise finally died down, I still huddled inside, for fear that men would be waiting outside. When I finally crawled out, it was morning. And my mother was dead.
She was lying in a pool of dried blood, still a buffalo, pierced with dozens of spears. In the distance, my village was burning. I screamed in horror, but I could not run or look away. I was immobilized by the sight my mother's body.
And after my first screams, she opened her eyes. She looked at me with great buffalo eyes, and saw I was still alive. And she wept. As she wept, she slowly reverted to human form. I now know that we become completely human once our buffalo bodies die, as a method of staying alivebut she must have clung to life for hours, not moving, not even pulling the spears from her side, so her killers would not discover I was hiding in her. When I was still hiding in her, she could not save herself without exposing me. But now that I was safe, she could die in peace, in satisfaction, in intense pain.
I screamed for hours, and wept over her now-human body. Then I went back to my village, and screamed more. After I finished screaming, I ran out into the plains. But even then, as a child, I knew I would come back to the villages of Do one day, to avenge my family.
Years later, when I thought I was old and powerful enough, I did just that. I must have killed hundreds; I suppose I thought I would topple Gnemo Diarra's kingdom a few people at a time. It worked for a while, but eventually his sorcerers found a way to get rid of me permanentlynot by weaponry, but by betrothal and marriage. In all the nations I have seen, it has always been man's most effective weapon.
The brothers Oulamba and Oulani were the first dupes to actually succeed in capturing me, with a Diarra sorceress's help. Then they were tricked into taking me away from Do, carting me from king to king in search of a husband. But every king I met said I was too ugly to wed. Perhaps the hump on my back did genuinely offend them, or perhaps my power frightened them. Either way, I did not mind their harsh opinion if it spared me from being wed into destruction. The brothers, too, called me 'ugly,' every time I repelled their attempts at rape. After a while, they truly believed I was ugly, for it must have been easier than admitting that they were sorry excuses for men. Soon, they started spreading tales of my ugliness, tales I did not discourage because they kept me out of the marriage-bed. Perhaps I even believe the tales myself now. I'm certainly deformed enough; I cannot remove the hump upon my back, as it is a sign of the power that was severed from me.
But for some reason you did not believe the tales, Gnankouman Doua, or you did not care; and now thanks to you the lies of those tales remain but the benefits do not. I must break in a new man and teach him not to go where he is not invited, teach him he cannot possess that which he does not truly own. I must endure the tales and the marriage, and so I still hide my face. Nobody sees my true self; nobody owns me. Even you don't get to see me, Doua, for after all the tales that have been spread about me, I've come to see that you griots are just a better class of master than the hunters.
Doua did not say anything for a few moments; he simply absorbed her tale. Parts of it sounded all too familiar to Doua, and for the first time, Doua admitted that he had brought Sogolon to Niani so he could talk to somebody else like him. Yet after hearing her tale, he saw her as much more than just another Wraith with a violent past. He'd heard her eloquence, seen her energy, and felt her emotion. After centuries of knowing nobody but himself, he finally saw a chance at a connection to another person. Bright Sogolon had burned through Doua's own masks; now he wanted to lift hers.
"I think I just saw part of you," he said, trying to approach the subject delicately. "If everybody else could see it, they'd stop spreading those tales about you. You've already come so farif you would just open up --"
"And bare myself to everybody?" Sogolon recoiled from Doua. "Then they would just have more material to twist and distort! I shouldn't have told you my story... you'll just turn it to lies! Why are you here, anyway? To soften me up for your king, or to find something to brag about over tonight's drinking?"
Doua answered with neither a total lie nor a total truth. "I'm here to find out who you really are. What you're like under that veil."
"That's not for you to find out!" Doua started to placate her, but she would not be interrupted; Sogolon ran around the room, circling away from Doua, her voice rising in anger. "What gives you the right to expose me? Why can you hide your secret pains, but tell mine to every child in Mali?" Sogolon charged across the room, her hump growing larger; she grabbed Doua, and in seconds had pinned him to the opposite wall. "Who are you to tell my story, when nobody tells yours?"
They stood there for a minute, Sogolon panting for breath, Doua recoiling from the fury of her words. But the silence calmed them both, and Sogolon released Doua. "I -- I'm sorry --" Doua stammered.
Sogolon held up her hand. "I think we've both said enough."
Doua slouched out of the room. They both might have said enough, but only one of them had been saying the whole truth.
The sixth day passed by very slowly; by late afternoon, Doua had still not come to Sogolon's chamber. Sogolon found herself pacing around the room, staring out the window, and generally trying to find some reason, other than Doua's absence, for why the day felt so empty. Why she felt so empty. But she couldn't find any.
Then, just when the sun had nearly sunk behind the huts of the village, there was a call at her door. Sogolon answered it with a speed that surprised her. It was Doua, of course; he looked haggard, as if he had not slept since the day before, yet he was strangely animated as well. He entered the bedroom, and Sogolon began to apologize, but he would not hear it. "I can't stop to listen to an apology," Doua said, "and I'm not sure one would be appropriate, anyway. I thought a lot about what you said yesterday, especially at the very end. Who am I to pry your life open, if I will not share my own?
"Who am I, indeed?"
And then Gnankouman Doua began his tale.
Do not ask for my true name, for my true name was denied me long ago. I lived in this land long before it was Mali, long before the Mandingo kings or the Muslim missionaries came here, long before the Prophet was even born. I had a simple life, although looking back, I did not think it was simple at the time. I grew up, I hunted, I fought, I farmed, I married and made love and raised children. I made the most of my life, for I believed I would die. If I could heal faster and better than anyone else in my tribe, I took it as a sign that the gods smiled upon me.
If only I knew.
I also did not age, and that too I took to be a sign of the gods' favor. Until my wife died in childbirth. But I thought that was a natural part of all life, and after a long time of mourning, I kept on living.
Then my younger son died of an illness. It is a terrible thing, to outlive your own child. Years later, my elder son died on a hunt. But he was already twenty-three by then, and he had lived a full life. I looked younger than he did the day his eyes closed for the last time.
The daughters, they were the hardest to watch as they died. And the grandchildren. I saw all of them die, often performing their burial rites myself, for by then my agelessness had made me the most venerated man in the village. Yet the other villagers began to fear me, their own priest, and they wondered if it was not a benevolent power that had so "blessed" me. I allowed them to exorcise my spirit, for by then I truly desired to grow old and die; but the exorcism did not take. Even as I closed the eyes of my youngest grand-daughterthen an old woman of thirty-four with two dead children, three live children, and one grandchild of her ownthe other villagers began to wonder what I really was.
My people, Sogolon, do not believe in the doctrine of eternity. They never have, and I suspect they never will, no matter how much they pretend to accept the word of Allah. Africa does not change so quickly as that.
There is no heaven or hell for souls. Humans come back as other humans, or animals or trees if they led evil lives. What, then, do you make of a soul that will not leave? It must have business on this world, Sogolon, and men believe that only the business of revenge can cheat death. Just as custom still holds that running a corpse around a village will cause it to fall in front of the house of its murderer, so did my fellow villagers believe that I was an avenging spirit. They thought I had been killed years or decades earlier, and replaced by my own dark wraith. And since my whole family was dead, and all those who had been alive when I must have died, they wondered who I would kill next.
So the headmen of the tribe decided to cleanse their village of evil in the most efficient way possible. They ambushed me, bound me in ropes, and carried me many weeks' march north. We finally stopped in the desert. There, the headmen thanked me for purging their village of evil, and told me I could leave the earth in peace. They staked me to the earth to insure my departure, and to prevent me from following them.
And then they did the worst thing of all. They took away my name, since names are for the living. And they left me to die.
Except, of course, I did not die. I had no food, I had no water, I could not even fight off the carrion eaters who came to feed on the ever- replenishing meal of my body day after day, but I did not die. I wished I could, oh, how I wished I could, but I did not die. Once the sand weathered the ropes enough, I broke them and could move againI think this was after a year or sobut I still had no reason to live.
For a while, I thought I had a reasonthe reason that cheats death. In the dead of night, about five years after I was left in the desert, seven huts in my village burst into flames. Seven headmen found themselves unable to escape their domestic pyres, for some fiend had staked them to the ground. They had believed me to be a spirit of vengeance, and in doing so they made me one.
I laughed that night, in the middle of the village, laughing at my revenge. But then I saw the faces of the other villagerswives and daughters and friends of the men I was killing. They were absolutely terrified of me. I had returned to my village, the place I had lived in and protected for over seventy years, and set it on fire. One boy in particular was scared of me, a mewling child who had the face of my long-departed wife. And I fled the village, I fled with his gaze and the heat of the flames both searing my back.
The village burned down completely. That place, like me, no longer has its true name.
My village and my identity were gone, and there was nothing left for me in this land. I returned to the only other home I had ever known, the desert; I felt it was no more than I deserved. For nearly twenty years I did penance, or at least I thought it was twenty years, though in truth I was quite mad at the time and could have been mistaken.
Then one day I saw a sight so strange, I was sure it was a mirage or a symptom of my madness. But it was real; a column of elephants marched across the desert, and strange light-skinned men in shiny armor guided them. I was so overjoyed to see other humans, I came running towards them, babbling in whatever I remembered of my old tongue. My insanity melted away as I realized I could be among people again, people who did not know me to be deathless and might not even hate me if they did. It was a new chance at life.
The first thing they did was to assault me, bind me, and make a slave of me. But Hannibal soon fixed that, and in his honor I took his name after his death. Except for my periodic journeys back to my homeland, when I take a name much closer to my first one. I hurt my land and people, Sogolon, and every now and then I try to vindicate that by building up this country. That is all I have allowed myself to care about, Sogolon. I have not permitted myself to care about people. I have taken women as lovers, and men, who present no danger of producing children whom I will outlive. But I am still deathless, Sogolon, and so I cannot allow myself to care about any one person.
That is my story. Now you may tell it any way you like. You may even become a part of it, if you are willing to pay the price.
...I know I am willing.
"...You may even become a part of it, if you are willing to pay the price." Doua closed his eyes. Then he opened them again, and looked at Sogolon, who was sitting on the floor with tears streaming from under her veil, and he said, "I know I am willing."
"Doua," she whispered. "Doua... you don't know... you don't know what you're saying."
Doua paced around the room, trying to stare anywhere but at Sogolon but somehow always coming back to her. "No, I do.... I know it sounds mad, after all that I've said, but... all the pain I have every time I get too close to a mortal..."
"But what?" Sogolon asked. But it's been so long since he's had a woman? But he figures he won't get too attached to an ugly freak? But he thinks he'd be doing me a favor? "What?"
"You're the only person I've ever met who would be worth it," said Doua. "Veil or no, I've seen enough of you to know that."
Sogolon Kedjou laughedit was the only lethal blow that anyone had ever struck Gnankouman Doua. But she kept laughing, and Doua realized that she found some inward joke amusing. "But Doua," Sogolon laughed, "you haven't seen all of me yet."
Before Doua could say or do anything else, Sogolon Kedjou stood up, and lifted her veil.
From the journals of Hannibal:
Ebony braids of hair fell around her soft brown skin. Her eyes were set in her smooth, rich face like two deep black pools. I fell into those pools, and never quite escaped.
In the hundreds of times I have circled the world, in the fifteen hundred years before I met her and the eight hundred since, I have never seen such a beautiful woman.
I would have stopped time, if I could have, and watched her forever. That, I think, would be the most pleasant kind of immortality. But we could not drop out of time, and our tale rolled on around us. For while I was still transfixed in her eyes, there was a call at the door...
There was a call at the door. Doua and Sogolon were still lost in each other's gaze; by the time they reacted, by the time they realized it was well past nightfall and time for the nightly royal visit, the door had been pushed open. Nare Maghan burst into the room, reeking of palm wine. When the king noticed his griot, he said, "Doua, haven't you broken her resolve yet? 'Sbeen nearly a week since the marriage, the people are starting to talk! I still haven't gotten her virginity-cloth! I need that damned cloth, Doua! I need my... son...." The fire in Nare Maghan's words cooled and died as he laid eyes on Sogolon Kedjou, whose face was still exposed.
Sogolon quickly pulled her veil back down, but it was far too late. Nare Maghan was staring at her. Then he turned to Doua, and started to laugh. "Doua," he said, "you're brilliant! You've made 'er beautiful! Maybe this won't be such a chore after all...." Untying his robes, Nare Maghan said, "Could you leave us for a few minutes? Or hold her down for me, if you want to stay and watch."
Instead, Doua hastily interposed himself between the king and his bride. "Your majesty," he said, "I beg youdon't do this. You already have a wife and an heir."
"An heir? That little oaf? I want a king, Doua! I want the greatest king since Alexander! She's nothing compared to my destiny."
Doua made one last attempt. "This is not your destiny, your majesty! The old hunter must have lied. And I only told you to take her from the brothers because --" Doua choked for a moment. He could say he took pity on the woman, and the king might even believe him; but Sogolon was right there, and would hear everything. Already, she might think he'd just been coming here to soften her up for the king. Or Doua could say the first words that came to his mind, the words he really meant, but at the cost of his position and perhaps even his freedom.
Doua thought of Sogolon bound in chains, or forced onto the bed, or angry at him, and all fears about the cost disappeared. "Because I love her, your majesty. And I won't let you do anything to harm her."
Nare Maghan's jaw dropped. But after the initial moment of shock, it all became clear to himDoua's odd behavior, his daily meetings with Sogolon... "I don't believe it," he screamed, "my most trusted advisor and my own wife... cheating on me! In my own palace!" Filled with rage, Nare Maghan ran across the room and grabbed the sword above his bed. "Griot and wife, you will pay the price for this infidelity!" Waving the sword over his head, Nare Maghan charged back across the room.
Doua again leapt to protect Sogolonand Sogolon shoved him out of the way. "I fight my own battles, Doua," she said. She also shifted her muscles, arching her back and making her hump seem even larger. In fact, her entire body seemed to swell with power.
Nare Maghan thrust his sword at her, but Sogolon casually batted it aside with the palm of her left hand. Then she swung her right arm forward, driving her right hand palm-first into Nare Maghan's face. The impact sent him stumbling back a few steps, then tumbling to the floor.
Doua quickly knelt over the king; he was only unconscious, fortunately for them. "But when he wakes up," said Doua, "we'll be in terrible trouble. We've got to get out of here now."
Sogolon simply stared at Doua and smiledand Doua blushed as he remembered she'd heard his declaration of love. "I'm not sure we should leave," Sogolon said. "Eventually, some more hunters would just capture us. I think I could like it here, if we could somehow convince the king that he'll meet his destiny."
"And make him forget what happened here tonight." Doua started walking towards the door. "I know a few spells that might fog his mind... perhaps I could get a bottle of palm wine, douse him in it, and convince him he passed out from intoxication." Then he smacked himself on the forehead. "But that still leaves the problem of your virginity-cloth, and the destined heir. Nare Maghan won't rest until you've been bedded."
"Yes, I will need to go to bed, but he's hardly in any condition to bed me now, is he?" said Sogolon Kedjou, watching Doua with a gleam in her eye. "Perhaps you should get two bottles of palm wine."
The rest of this tale, little Djata, must wait until you are older.
[Niani, capital of Mali. A.D. 1225/603 M.E.]
"The next day, a very hung-over Nare Maghan presented Sogolon's virginity-cloth, although even he could not exactly remember how he got it. The people rejoiced, and they rejoiced even more when a few months later, Sogolon Kedjou became pregnant. Nobody was happier than her constant companion, the griot Gnankouman Doua." Balla Fasseke's voice caught as he concluded his story, and tears welled in his eyes. "And when you were born nine months later, the whole nation cheered to see its seventh star, the Lion of Mali, finally come to lifebut again, none were so happy as Sogolon and Doua."
"And we are still happy," said Sogolon Kedjou, stroking her son's hair. "No matter how sad or angry we get, we are still happy to have you for our son."
Mari Djata was not a stupid boy, and his mother's "we" did not go unnoticed. "But Gnankouman Doua is dead now," Djata said, looking to Balla Fasseke for confirmation. When no confirmation was forthcoming, Djata said, "Doua... he was my father, wasn't he? That's what you were saying. Doua was my father."
"He still is," said Balla Fasseke, tears welling in his eyes. He knelt forward, touching his forehead to little Djata's. "And he loves you very much."
Djata clapped his hands gleefully. "Then you and I are brothers!"
"You're very close, little Djata. The whole truth will be apparent someday. I've tried to stay as close as I could, but to give you a normal life, I had to leave, before the headmen got suspicious again... but now you know who your father really is."
Sogolon Kedjou pulled Djata off his father's lap, and placed him in her own. "Now do you see why you had to hear this story, Djata?" she asked. "You needed to know your legacy, and your destiny. You have it in you to be the greatest ruler Mali has ever seen, if you only try."
Djata, confused, blinked his eyes. "But my father was not the king," he said.
"Your father was of Mali long before Nare Maghan's people came here. That gives you a prior claim. And be grateful that your father was not a drunken boor like Nare Maghan. Be grateful that your father could ignore any wound, and that your mother is the strongest person in the land, and that you are heir to all this power. Do you understand, Djata? Your power is too great to let other people pick your leaves for you."
Djata sat silently for a moment, and pondered this. Then he crawled away from his parents, toward the blacksmiths' forges. "Thank you, Doua," Sogolon said, resting her head in the griot's lap. "I hope it finally sinks in."
"It will, Sogolon, I'm sure. I should have told him sooner. I guess I still tend to hide that story." He kissed his lover gently on the lips. "You were wrong about one thing, though: it is right and proper that Sassouma Berete's family picks leaves for him. Soon, I'm sure, they'll be doing nothing else."
...Djata crawled directly to the forge of Farakourou, the Wraith blacksmith who made mighty tools, and ordered a long iron rod. Farakourou toiled in his forge all that day and night, and the next morning he had six apprentices deliver the rod to Djata's hut, for it took six grown men to carry it.
Balla Fasseke and Sogolon Kedjou watched as Djata received the rod. He crawled up to it and astonished everyone by picking it up with one arm. Some of the apprentices ran to tell the rest of the palace. Djata pulled the bar upright, then pulled himself up along it, hand over hand, until he was upright himself. The effort caused the seven-year-old boy to sweat tremendously, and his parents feared for him, but they would not tell him to stop.
Thenstill using his arms and the bar, not his stiff legshe pulled himself completely upright, and began walking across the palace grounds. His little hands were clenched so tightly, they bent the bar like a bow, but he still managed to walk. By now, the whole palace was watching his progress, and soon people from all over Niani came running to see what was happening.
Djata marched to the nearest baobab treenot to the grove that was used for picking leaves, but to the ornamental trees in the palace gardens. He walked up to the largest tree, which was outside the chambers of Dankaran Touman and Sassouma Berete. In fact, the idiot king and the scheming Queen Mother were watching from their windows as Djata pulled himself over to the tree's trunk. Then he let go of his bow, and collapsed next to the tree, and for a minute Sassouma Berete gloated in triumph.
But then Djata grasped the tree trunk with both his armsarms so tiny, they could not reach all the way around it. He heaved with all his might, and the leaves on the tree shook. Sogolon Kedjou wondered if he was shaking all the leaves down for her, and Sassouma Berete scowled.
But Djata strained even further. Sweat streamed down his forehead, and he clenched his teethsome still baby teethin agony. And then the agony ended, because Djata ripped the entire tree out of the ground. He proudly deposited the uprooted tree in front of his mother, giving her enough leaves to last a mortal lifetime.
From that day forward, Mari Djata walked with the aid of his iron rod. The Mandingo people treated him and his mother with great respect, and no longer mocked them for their supposed deformities. Mari Djata came to be known as Sogolon Djata, or Sunjata for short, and although another scheme of the jealous Sassouma Berete would send him into exile for a while (along with his mother, sister, and father), he soon returned to become the rightful ruler of Mali.
Sunjata expanded Mali through peace and learning and, when threatened by Sumanguru the Wraith King of Sosso, through war. He led his armies across Western Africa, bringing many lands into Mali and forcing many more to pay tribute to iteven the land of Do. True to the old hunter's prediction, people said Sunjata was even greater than Alexander the Great, but Sunjata himself never tried to live up to that standard, thanks to the cautionary words of his father and griot, Balla Fasseke.
But I must regrettably admit that Balla Fasseke did not always serve Sunjata so well. Balla was a traditionalist -- as all immortals ultimately areand he believed in the traditions of oral history. A secret is not a secret when it is written on paper for anyone to read, and the true story of Sunjata's birth was kept secret by never being passed on to anyone outside the family. This worked well to preserve the illusion of Sunjata's royal lineage, but it had some unforeseen side effects.
Contrary to what the old griots say, the spoken word may lie as easily as the written one, especially if there is no written word to correct it. There are stories within stories, but men have traditionally only told the stories of other men. This may not always be out of malice; perhaps it is simply because we cannot imagine what women must think, or we are afraid of getting it wrong. Whatever the case, men still do not say why queens ran off with Trojan princes, or French knights, or immortal Mandingo griots. After Sogolon Kedjou was gone, the griots reverted to old stories about her ugliness, and Balla Fasseke had left no record to correct them. Sogolon bravely removed her own veil, but more were erected in its place.
If I could do it all over again, I would tell Sogolon to write her own story. Leaving it to myself and the other griots, well-intentioned though we were, may have been a mistake.
And I would do it all over again, you know. The joys far outweighed the pains. True, I had to watch Sogolon Kedjou die at the end of her long and ultimately happy life. I even had to watch Kolonkan and Sunjata die, despite all their powers. It seems neither of my children inherited my Wraith, which is probably better off for them but worse for me. It is a terrible thing, to outlive your own children.
I have not taken any wives since then, or sired any children, or felt any love so profound. Not because I could not bear the pain of watching my loved ones die, but because the love of Sogolon and Kolonkan and Sunjata is enough for a lifetime -- even my lifetime. The thought of my family has kept me warm through many a lonely century. And it has been my secret, until now.
Whoever listens to this, heed my words. Cherish your own loved ones. Do not dwell on their mortality, because through your memory their love will be immortal. Your own secret history will keep them alive for all time.
But if you want history to remember you and them for what you really are, and not what the history-makers invent about you, then for Allah's sake, write it down.
[Washington, D.C. area. July 25, 1995. Eight o'clock in the evening.]
The words of Hannibal'sGnankouman Doua's -- tale still echoed in Jack's thoughts. He was beginning to understand how the old guy could be so cold and distant and yet still find his own existence bearable. Sometimes Jack thought he could learn what Hannibal did during his happy years in Mali; sometimes he thought he was learning the lessons of Sogolon, or Djata. In all likelihood, he was learning all three. Live up to your heritage; tell your own tale; don't isolate yourself from humanity. He could think of worse ways to deal with immortality.
But one lesson, one sentence even, kept repeating through Jack's head as he strolled through the antiseptic white halls of the Prince George's County General Hospital. The words had driven Jack out of the mansion, away from his investigation, and into the terminal care ward.
Jack had always hated hospitals; they had the impersonal, liminal feeling of airports, always kicking you out and forcing you on your journey, only this particular journey was always a one-way trip. The whole place smelled of deathfilled bedpans and slow, agonizing trips to toiletsand Jack knew this had been a mistake. But the sentence burned in his mind.
Jack slowly, hesitantly walked up to room 317, and peered through the small window in the door. A frighteningly underweight old black man was lying in a bed, hooked up to a dozen tubes. Jack didn't need to look at the chart on the bed to see it said A. RUSSELL, and diagnosed him with advanced lung cancer.
Jack gently pressed his hand up to the door. His breath slightly fogged the window. He pushed the door open, just a crack.
"It is a terrible thing, to outlive your own child." Jack wondered how his father reacted when he heard his son had been shot down in Virginia.
But Jack wouldn't find out that night. He reeled away from the door and started walking, almost running, back down the hall. I can't go in there now, he thought. I have important work to do. I'll come back later. After all, I have all the time in the world.
|"But never try,
wretch, to pierce the mystery which Mali hides from you.
Do not go and disturb the spirits in their eternal rest.
Do not ever go into the dead cities to question the past,
for the spirits never forgive. Do not seek to know what
is not to be known."
(Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate)
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next issue: Hannibal is taken to a brave new world.
The story of Sunjata and the Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate quotes come from D.T. Niane's Sundiata: an epic of old Mali, a transcription of the Mandingo national epic.
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