The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

Wilma Stockenström

Illustration by Leif Engström

In two low huts with collapsed roofs we lived, the slaves, all together, not separated by sex. From sunrise to late at night we toiled for him, the spice merchant. The work was what separated us. The men worked in his warehouse on the waterfront and the women in his residence. From far and wide we came, we spoke a variety of tongues, but here we got along by mangling the natives' language and turning it into our idiosyncratic workers' language. We were acquired second-hand, third-hand, even fourth-hand, mostly still young and healthy, we women fertile and rank. At night it was legs apart for the owner on his sweaty skin rug. Some of us welcomed it. Not I. He was clumsy and rough. I envied the slaves exempted from this sort of service. It brought a certain freedom along with it, after all, to be unmanned, I thought. I did not mind standing in front of the fireplace. I did not mind toiling with pick and hoe in the garden in the murderous heat to keep it neat around his mango trees and yam vines. I did not mind tidying his house under the eye of his shrew of a wife, obeying her expressionlessly, keeping my murmurs for the sleeping quarters, and even there being careful, for there were tell-tales amongst us. And to be discovered meant that your tongue was cut out.

I kept myself to myself. Lived as much uneasily as patiently. I was a coward and refused nothing.

With a stiff face I listened on his skin rug to the noise of the sea. I became a shell plucked from the rocks but kept my oyster shell of will, my thin deposit of pride, kept myself as I had been taught. I did not give in. I did not surrender. I let it happen. I could wait. I listened to the beat of the waves far behind his groaning, and it lulled me. I was of water. I was a flowing into all kinds of forms. I could preserve his seed and bring it to fruition from the sap of my body. I could kneel in waves of contractions with my face near to the earth to which water is married, and push the fruit out of myself and give my dripping breasts to one suckling child after another. My eyes smiled. My mouth was still.

Always still. Frightened mice in the middle of a great roaring, that was what we were, the subordinates of the system, apparently docile, our children taken away from us and sold while still infants, while our bodies still hungered for them, our past a past of pitiless mistreatment or the sarcasm of gifts, our present without prospect. We were all one woman, interchangeable, exchangeable. So we comforted each other and each other's children, so we shared, so we looked for lice on each other's scalps and wore each other's clothes and sang together, gossiped together, complained together. Without prospect. Once someone tried to run away. She was caught and her feet chopped off. A second time someone tried. She got away. The eunuchs deserted regularly.

There were stories current about a colony of deserters far from the city in the middle of the great swamp, where the escaped slaves lived by hunting, where they built mat huts and survived unbearable heat and loneliness to die there eventually as free people. It was said that they had developed their own system of government, with a headman and advisers, that they considered themselves safe, protected from the pursuit by the impenetrable swamp infested with mosquitoes and leeches whose secret paths only the initiated knew, that they knew the authorities winked at them seeing that it would have cost a great deal of money to bring them back, seeing that those who had escaped would always be looking for trouble, would always grumble and rebel, and that it was wiser to punish such rebellious souls with oblivion in the wilderness, seeing that there were anyhow always fresh consignments of slaves coming from the interior. And that the eunuchs did not allow slave women among them.

One day a storm blew up worse than any I had yet experienced. It felt as if the heat were taking possession of me. It felt as if my eyes were going to bulge and stand out on stalks like a crab's. I pressed my palms hard against my eye sockets, for it felt as if sand and glass splinters were rasping over my unprotected stalk eyes, as if they beheld too much and too tenderly, therefore I tried to press them into my skull, but they throbbed so violently in my head, they rolled around inside my skull, and when my eyelids opened, I saw nothing, I saw only heat, and that made everything roll and heave. I could no longer hear anything. I could only feel in the pitch-black air that came towards me and drew away from me and began to push me around, to tug me in gusts this way and that way, to bring me face to face with rending lightning bolts that transformed everything into gaudiness and in a flash blacked everything out again and left me totally confused as to the direction I had been taking. I saw a bitter-orange tree where none had stood before. I saw a grey cloud consisting of crested terns and a second cloud thick with glistening sardines. I saw fishes rain and jellyfish tumble down and flotsam performing tricks and saw how a hut sucked in air till bursting point and suddenly collapsed and was flattened and suddenly began to whirl away in pieces.

Then I fled before the wind that was snatching up me and the refuse and everything that was frail, and I struggled onward at a slant, half-crawling, reeling from one support to the next, tree, pole, gate, building. That I could be blown into space, I, the peels, the tatters, go up in the whirl into all eternity. The sea beating. It fought with itself. It drew apart and clashed and balled together, it drew itself up high into the sky, it beat thunderously down on the high-water mark and rolled over and over covering the city's shanty quarter and the luxuriant woods there, and hurled pieces of wreckage from dhows and skiffs that had been made for and dedicated to it, down between the palms and rosebushes of the gardens of the rich. The wind tore the sails loose from the trees where they tried to hide like the ghosts of birds and blew them far away into the strange interior.

The sea drew back hissing over its destruction, drew in a last tortured, foaming breath, and subsided to a gloomy calm, and the wind subsided too, leaving such a rarefied stillness that a sob could have shattered it.

This brittle peace lasted only briefly. There was a patter of drops. At once it became pouring rain. Dense sheets came racing on over a sea that had totally forgotten its brief calm and heaved swollen and confused as the tide dragged it one way and the wind pushed it another. Pouring rain, gouts of water, hard and vertical, drops that mutilated the surface of the street into pockmarks, water that streamed and scoured out and washed away what the wind had forgotten to blow away and ran off in clattering furrows. A thorough, purposeful, seething rain. A storm rain with a mission.

Someone must have heard me moaning. Someone must have heard me whimpering where I lay trapped under a branch of a kudu-berry tree, a tree that, under orders from the storm, wanted to claim me as sacrifice because I had always resolutely ignored it and never tried to seek the favor of its spirit, because I ignore all spirits save that which lives in me. Probably because I did not know better. Perhaps. Perhaps I was obstinately defiant where I had brought nothing of my own with me and local rituals appeared without content, and I created my own rituals for my own indwelling spirit and without preknowledge went and picked up a white shell and a black shell. Placate the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the house, of the air, bring an offering of atonement, recite rhymes, mumble a formula, placate the spirit of the tree, he listens, he notes your gesture of sacrifice, he will watch over you, only be careful when you talk—no, that meant nothing to me. I smiled at the gestures. I walked nonchalantly past all the kudu-berry trees, which had after all been planted here and there on street corners only for their fierce autumn colors and had not come to grow here for my sake. I walked past them head in the air and offered them nothing. No, I laughed at the other women who bowed before them and reverently set down a handful of millet grains on the great leaf of a fever tree beside the silent tree trunk and muttered over them. I did not mutter at all, not for any tree spirit in the world. My tongue is meant for me, my tongue, my mouth, my whole self is mine. I pressed my ear against the grey-brown trunk of the kudu-berry and listened attentively to hear if its spirit had anything to say, but I heard only wood slowly groaning, slowly expanding the chronicle of its year rings, and I knew he would not have anything to say one day about a woman who once pressed her head against him, just as little as he would have stories to tell about other simpletons who begged his blessings. This was my considered opinion long, long before I myself was looked upon as the spirit of a tree.

And then the kudu-berry punished you, my benefactor joked, he who sent his slaves to free me from the branch after he had been notified of the accident right in front of his house. He gave me shelter in his slave quarters till the broken bone I had suffered healed. But even then before I was literally back on my feet he became my third owner.

translated from the Afrikaans by J. M. Coetzee

Used by permission of Archipelago Books.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree will be out in bookstores in April 2014.

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