I. The Rock
One day in the dry season, that is, three dry seasons back, the white man said that he must go to Nkotoven by the Mebem path. When Nzwango heard this news he said he, too, — he must go.
And the white man said, ‘When has Nzwango carried a load?’
For Nzwango was not a youth, that he should carry a load, but a real person. White was upon his head.
‘Even so, if you go by the Mebem path I must go in your company. For I was born in the country that lies between Mebem and Nkotoven—I was born at Mbekom. When I was a child my tribe still lived in that neighborhood. Many nights my heart has desired to return to Mbekom, that I may again see the place where I was born. And the rock where God passed and the mark of his foot on the rock.’
‘Who passed?’ said the white man.
‘God,’ said Nzwango, ‘Zambe. If you have never head that the mark of God’s foot is on the great rock at Mbekom you are indeed a stranger.’
‘I have not yet heard that news,’ said the white man. ‘Since I was born I have never seen the mark of God’s foot. You must certainly walk in my company and show me this strange thing.’
Because of this word Nzwango carried a load when we went to Nkotoven. He carried the white man’s bed. And every day he walked behind our master on the bad path that goes from Mebem to Nkotoven. Close behind him he walked and every day he told him about the things of the past—the things that he had known when he was a lad in Mbekom. We people who walked in the caravan had never heard Nzwango speak so much; he was a person to sit still in the palaver house or to hunt by himself. Already white was upon his head. But now he spoke all day to the white man about the river of Mbekom where there were many fish, so that the women had always a little fish to bake in a leaf, and about the cliff where the dwarf fell off when he was nutting, and about the rock where God slept one night on his way out of the forest to the sea. In that place is the mark of his foot and the feet of the goat that walked in his company. No real person of our tribe but has heard news of this thing. Nzwango because he was born there felt pride in his heart that he was showing the path to the white man.
All day for four days he spoke of these things. On the fifth day in the morning we came out of the real forest into the plantain gardens of Mbekom. We walked through gardens, those that were old and those that were new, until the sun was in the middle. Nzwango showed the white man the hills of that country.
‘They are as I left them,’ said Nzwango.
And the white man believed.
When the sun was in the middle we passed the great cliff where the dwarf fell. We very much remember this thing because it is strange that a dwarf should fall.
The white man believed.
When we came near the town of Mbekom we met little boys and Nzwango asked them news.
‘Are there still fish to be caught beyond the place of reeds in the river?’
‘Éké! but plenty!’ said the little boys.
‘Do you cross the river by the log of the duma tree that my father felled?’
‘How should we know your father?’ said the little boys. ‘There is no log where we cross the river. We cross on our feet.’
‘It was in felling that tree that my father died. Are the palm trees that my father planted great trees in the street of the village?’
‘Éké! We don’t know all these questions that you ask,’ said the little boys, because they were tired of the black man’s questions and they wanted to admire the white man.
That day the white man said that he felt heat in his body—the old sickness that we all know. And Nzwango said, —
‘There is a great palaver house in the village with many doors. You must rest there.’
But when we came to the village there was no such palaver house, there were no palm trees in the middle of the street, and Nzwango could not find the path to the spring. A woman of the town brought us water, not such water, Nzwango said, as the women of the past used to bring from the old spring.
There was no one in the town who knew Nzwango, they were all people of another tribe. They told us that this was a new town, that the old clearing was left at the right hand; it was deserted.
Our master slept in the middle of the day. Nzwango sat thinking the thoughts of a man in a deserted clearing.
That afternoon we passed the great rock. It is a great rock—as great as a great garden. No little thing finds root and grows there, only the rain stands in little pools where there is place. We wondered to see it so great, though we had heard many words of its greatness. And the mark of God’s foot is certainly there—greater than a man’s foot—and the little pointed mark of the goat’s foot is there also.
The white man said, ‘Since I was born I never saw the mark of God’s foot,’ and he looked at it. ‘Very good,’ he said. He sat upon the rock, for long he looked to where the sun went down its path to its setting. From that great rock you may look far every way.
Of our company every man raised his voice in praise of the rock and of that strange thing—the mark of God’s foot. Only Nzwango did not speak. He stood away by himself, all alone. The way he did not speak after so much speaking was the way the rain ceases on the roof. You wonder at that silence. Only when we were on the path again he spoke. He spoke to our white man about the rock and his speaking was the speaking of a man who meets grief.
‘My master,’ he said, ‘I am a man who hates a lie. The people of my town believe me when I return from hunting alone. And when I told you that Mbekom was a great rock I told you the truth—it was a great rock—not as you see it now, but exceedingly great. It was indeed white, as I told you—exceedingly white, so that the whiteness of it was not to be borne in the sunlight, and in the moonlight a great company has danced there to the sound of many drums. These things are true though it will trouble you to believe them. But it is when I speak of the mark of God’s foot that I feel shame. For the mark of God’s foot is not deep as it was; it is a little shallow trace like another.’
Then the sound of Nzwango’s voice ceased like the ceasing of rain.
The white man spoke good words of a good heart. I forget his words. Nzwango did not speak again, except to everyone we met. He asked each was he of the tribe that knew his father. None knew his father. It was the time of the setting of the sun when we came to Nkotoven. Nzwango built the cloth house for the white man. Our master did not eat, though the women of the town brought him much good food in wooden bowls spread with new leaves. The heat was great in his body. He slept, and I lay with Nzwango by the door of his house of cloth. We lay upon plantain leaves, and a little fire burned between us. Night was at the middle when the moon came up. In the moonlight people passed who were carrying loads from the sea.
Nzwango did not sleep; he asked all the carriers were they of that neighborhood and did they know his father. And it happened that there was an old woman with a load of alt who was born in his father’s town. She was going to pass but Nzwango caught her by the ankle.
‘I ask you,’ he said, ‘was not Mbekom greater in the past?’
‘It was indeed greater. Many people used to dance there in the moonlight all the night to the sound of many drums.’
‘And was it not whiter?’
‘It was whiter—the whiteness of it was not to be borne in the time of great sunlight.’
‘And the mark of God’s foot—was it not deeper?’
‘The mark of God’s foot was deeper—the young cannot believe how deep that mark was.’
Nzwango rose and shouted with a great shout. He called our master at the door of the cloth house. ‘Come quickly!’ he told him, and the white man came quickly, his gun was in his hand, his body was wet with the sweat of his sickness.
‘What happens?’ he asked Nzwango; and Nzwango spoke to him of the old woman who knew all the truth of the great rock.
‘Sit by the fire and she will tell you the truth—the truth is one with my truth—it is good that you should hear it.’
Our master laid his gun upon the ground softly, softly. He sat on the plaintain leaves beside the fire. He bathed his hands in the warmth. When he spooke it was a soft speaking, eh did not look at us.
‘Go sleep in the palaver house,’ he said.
‘But the old woman of my tribe will be gone in the morning,’ said Nzwango, ‘and it is good that you should hear her before she goes.’
Even so the white man did not speak again. Strange thing—tears ran out of his eyes—I saw them in the moonlight. Presently he began to tremble with the cold of our old sickness. We felt grief in our hearts to see him so sick. Because he did not speak again we went away, the old woman, too. We trimmed the fire before we left. It was a bright night.
Nzwango said to me, ‘Strange thing he had no words to ask of the old woman.’
‘It is his sickness,’ I said. ‘When I am sick with the heat and the cold I hate to see old women.’
II. The Kettle
The time Ela lost the kettle we felt grief in our hearts. But we said any real person would have done the same. The white man gave the kettle to Ela the night before we began our walk to the big path.
He called us and he said, ‘Show me your feet! They are good,’ he said. ‘The walk we are going is a long walk. We will cross the Nlong River and come to the big path. Many nights we will sleep by the way.’
And he said, ‘I know you. You must always be talking a kettle palaver—who will carry the kettle. I can never start out in the dawn but I must hear your voices loud about the kettle—your own kettle out of which you yourselves eat. Myself I will say Ela must carry the kettle. Not one man one day and another man the next, but Ela every day. And when we come to rest at night there will be the kettle as it should be.’
So it was that Ela carried the kettle.
Éké! the trouble we saw those days when we walked to the big path! And the great thing it is—the big path! Since you were born you never saw such things. Tribes and tribes as many as the leaves of the forest, and each tribe after its kind like the trees of the forest. People carrying burdens and people walking free and people wearing things on their heads and things on their feet like a white man. White people on great beasts and white people on things that were not beasts though they breathed like a beast and like a beast they walked—you cannot know what I mean. We certainly were stunned to see the things we saw. And we were shamed at, the laughing people laughed at our loin-cloths of beaten bark. None but us on the big path worn that old thing of beaten bark. All wore the things bought of the white man. We felt shame. And none spoke our speech.
We said to the white man, ‘It is well that you make haste for we will die on this big path. The sun shines upon us all day and we wither. We remember the shade of the forest.’
We did not say, ‘Shame eats us,’ for shame is a thing of the heart, and the white man’s heart is the heart of a white man. But we said to him, ‘It is well that you make haste.’ And he said, ‘In three days we will turn back to the forest.’
We saw black men with things on their heads like white men. And these black men had this custom: when they saw a white man they took these things off their heads. So we asked our white man, —
‘Why do they always take the things off their heads?’
He said, ‘They do this to honor the white man. It is the custom.’
Aha! we thought in our hearts, it is the custom.
That is why Ela took the kettle off his head. He carried it always on his head in the morning and in the evening, for then the sun was not strong and this was the way he had said he would carry it in the morning and in the evening. He was carrying it so the day we met the white woman.
The white woman came on a beast. We saw her coming and we said, —
‘It is a question—what is this coming—it should be a white person—is it a child?’
And our white man said, ‘It is a woman.’
So we knew it was a woman.
Éké! but little around the body! You would say no bigger than your wrist. Strange hair strangely dressed. All her little body covered with a cloth. Since you were born!
Our white man left the middle of the path and where he stood he took the thing off his head. When the white woman came near he bent his body. They spoke together. How do we know what they said—do we know their speech? We stood stunned. Only Ela remembered the custom. He remembered that he must take the kettle off his head, and he did. He bent his body as our master had done.
The white woman saw this thing that I am telling you and when she saw it she laughed. Our white man saw it and he laughed.
Now I ask you—why did they laugh? If it was the custom. We felt shame in our hearts for our brother. And when he stayed behind to break the kettle, not a man of our company hindered him. We said any real person would do the same. He broke it with rocks.
That night we baked our plantains in the ashes and said nothing. White people are strange. He never asked—where is the kettle? But he bought us another at the house of sale on the big path. We carried it as we pleased, one man one day and another man the next.
Only Ela never carried it.
III. The Day
When our white man sickened, our chief went to him. It was night, and the white man sat out under the eaves. Osala said to him, —
“Tell us why you sicken. Is it the girl we gave you—has she poisoned your food?’
Then the white man called the girl.
‘Give me to drink,’ he said. Then she gave him to drink out of the gourd she carries to the spring. And Osala knew that it was not the girl. She was a young girl, very black, as slim as your wrist. The white man let her do as her heart desired, so she did not hate him. And Osala believed that it was not the girl.
‘Is it a witch, and who has given you the witch?’ Osala asked the white man. And then was still. The little moon was red before Osala spoke again.
‘Our hearts are hanging up; tell us why you sicken.’
The white man said, ‘I sicken for a day.’
‘The things of the white man are strange,’ said Osala. And he went away.
Then was the time of the great sunlight. Through every breach in the forest the sun was strong. In the clearing before the white man’s house the green things died and his thatch rustled always with the heat.
It is for a day of rain that he sickens, we thought. But when the stars that warn us of the great rains stood above the roof and the rains fell upon the thatch like quick hands upon a drum—even then our white man sickened. He would not come out to bargain for rubber. He would not come for the great tusks of ivory as thick as a man’s thigh and as high as his shoulder. Then we knew that it was not for a day of rain that our white man sickened. And we said to Osala, ‘Go and ask him for what he sickens,’
‘Am I a maker of days?’ Osala said. But he went.
They sat again under the eaves at the close of day. The girl brought Osala a little fish baked in a leaf, but he did not eat it. He asked our white man, ‘You say it is for a day that you sicken. Tell us for what day. Our hearts are hanging up.’
And the white man said, ‘Every man has hidden in his heart a day for which he sickens. My day is hidden in my heart. Are you a maker of days that you should heal me? Eat of the baked fish; it is good, and the little girl grieves that none eat of her baking.’
We never spoke to our white man again of his sickness. And he died. We buried him after the custom of our tribe; we did not know the custom of his country. We danced for many days, and the songs we sang were the songs of mourning.
The thatch above his house is thin—the sun and the rain go in. But all his tusks are as he left them. And we have kept the little girl to do with as you will. Since her master died she has sat in the ashes, she has not anointed her body with oil. Thus we have kept her and have not given her in marriage until the day when the brothers of the white man should come up from the sea to do with her as they will.
You may say that she poisoned his food. Or that some secret evil was cast upon him.
But he said to Osala under the eaves of his house that he sickened for a day. ‘All men,’ he said, ‘have a day hidden in their hearts and mine is hidden in my heart.’
Were we makers of days that we should heal him?
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