This is a story of a people on the eve of catastrophe. Others can tell of the catastrophe itself. I want to see the people in the last days of their innocence.
In human consciousness, where time has unimaginable contours, who can tell when events begin, and how they come to be?
My main intention in the writing of this novel was to imagine the time before the lives of Africans changed forever, just before the Atlantic slave trade. I wanted to recover a certain state of mind, to interrogate the spirit of a people and discover what made them susceptible to the catastrophe that was to befall them. I see parallels with the current environmental crisis, as we hasten towards an end that we refuse to see.
I felt I had to effect in the novel a mythical and poetic recovery of a civilization. I had to be open to the ordinary and the magical, for the magical is nothing more than an expansion of consciousness.
In this novel, first published as Starbook in 2007, I wanted to find a new way to write about the tragedy that diminished the life of a people. It was a tragedy they didn’t know they were going through. Families suddenly lost sons and daughters and there was no explanation for their loss. It must have seemed a fearsome mystery.
The conjunction of tragedy and mystery is at the heart of the way the story is told. There had to be a tone of unknowing, for the people were still steeped in the rhythms of their lives while something terrible was happening to them.
The vantage point from which the story is told is both human and cosmic. The tale comes from somewhere beyond history, from somewhere in the consciousness of the land and the people, where all things, all traumas, all wonders, are remembered.
When I came to rewrite the novel, it was the tone I concentrated on most of all. What was needed was a new clarity. In the original I wanted to do too much. When I rewrote, I made things simpler. Then the political dimensions of the novel could rise again from the fabular depths of the tale. For me, the political, aesthetic, and intimate should each have an equal place in a work of art, part of the unseen tapestry of reality.
What I was aiming for was a style at once poetic and lucid, rich and clear. The novel had to hover between the glimpsed, the remembered, and the lived.
The world is made of a stuff lighter than tears.
This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child, and never finished. The rest was gleaned from the book of life among the stars, where all things are known.
In the heart of the kingdom there was a place where the earth was black and sweet to taste. Everything planted there grew profusely. The village was built in the shape of a circle. In the center of the circle stood the palace of the king.
There was a thick forest around the village. Four rivers met in the forest. The shrinehouse was at the rim of the village, and a path ran past it from the outside world. Those who dwelt in the heart of the kingdom lived in a magic dream, an oasis of huts and good harvests, in the midst of an enveloping world of trees.
There is a saying from the village that my mother used to tell me.
“It’s not who you are that makes the world respect you, but the power that stands behind you. It is not you that the world sees, but that power.”
The village was small, but behind it, around it, stood the majesty of the forest.
At night it was rich with enchantments. In the day it was sunlit green. A barely audible music rose from the earth. Gifted children could hear the trees singing.
On certain nights, when the moon was white and full like the perfect egg at the beginning of creation, the wise people said that the trees whisper stories into the abundant darkness. Those stories, they said, take form and wander the world.
The people of the village rarely went into the forest. It was powerful and unpredictable, like the mythology of a strange god.
In a time when imagination ruled the world, there was a prince who grew up in the serenity of all things. He was my mother’s ancestor. Of all the people in the village he was the only one who loved playing in the forest. He was handsome and bright. The elders suspected that he was a child of heaven, one of those children not destined to live long.
The prince was never so happy as when he played alone in the forest or by the river. He was a favorite of the mermaids and the forest nymphs. He took them flowers and gifts he’d made himself, and he played music for them. Because he was a child of heaven he could do what he wanted, so long as he did not express a wish to die.
The soothsayers at his birth predicted an unusual life. He would be a king and a slave. He would be sold like a goat, would fight in a war, would suffer like a great sinner, and live like a god. He would be the freest of men. The most baffling prediction of all was that he would die young in his old age or die old in his youth.
The elders expected him to be sickly, but he wasn’t. He showed no interest in kingship. Politics bored him. He preferred working with the farm laborers, harvesting corn, splitting firewood, teasing maidens, building huts for frail old women of the village, piping music around the edges of the kingdom, haunted by the beauty that fringed the world.
It touched their hearts to see his fragile body bent to the difficult tasks he set himself, or to watch his presence dissipate in the music he teased out in the myth-infested forest that was his second home.
What were they going to do with this royal vagabond, this noble tramp, who swayed the hearts of women, and moved the soul of the kingdom?
No one offered him their daughters, for fear he would desert them early for the land of death. Yet all the maidens loved him mutely, dreamily, from a distance. When he spoke to them with his soft voice, they became petrified. When he touched them, on the shoulder or arm, they said it was like being beautifully scalded. Many of them suffered love-fevers.
One girl he played with in the river fell ill, and died unexpectedly, in a kind of happiness.
With malice, some people hinted that a curse hovered over the young man, and that one day…
He grew up in harmony and, following the traditions of the royal family, was initiated into the mysteries of the tribe. He went through seven initiation ceremonies. Their purpose was to show him his place in the firmament. They would reveal to him the grave responsibilities of kingship and the greatness of heart he must cultivate for such a strong destiny. The most impressive initiations took place in the forest. He witnessed the raising of the ancestral spirits in their fearful splendor. He spent seven nights in the company of the dead, so that the thoughts and deeds of human beings would never bewilder him.
After the initiations he became silent, yet more open. His utterances, though clear, became opaque. His voice changed, becoming both deep and gentle. Sometimes he seemed remote, but more often was full of the spirit of wonder. He became an enigma to everyone. He was an enigma to himself. He didn’t know who he was anymore.
He spent more time in the forest, along the river, listening to the birds, searching for answers to the questions that the initiations had awoken in him like thunder.
The elders began to fear that instead of making him a greater man, the initiations had made the prince more vulnerable. They feared he was going mad. They feared he might attempt a return to the ancestors.
They decided that what he needed was a wife.
He didn’t need a wife. He needed time.
No one thought to leave him alone, so that he could find his own way. They fretted over him with their fears and projections. They made him the concern of the whole kingdom. He had no space to grow into his own man. They interfered with every aspect of his life, spying on him everywhere he went. They suspected his quietness, misunderstood his gestures and saw sinister aspects in his innocence.
The prince began to roam the forest to escape their prying eyes. If they had not worried over him so much, what happened would never have happened, and mysteriously the world would have been the poorer.
Destiny conceals strange illuminations in the suffering that life visits on us. The tale of fate is entangled with mystery. Dare one say such and such shouldn’t have happened? History is replete with things that shouldn’t have happened. But they did happen, and we are what we are because of them.
History has not yet yielded all of its harvest. Who knows what events will mean when time has done its ambiguous work? The prince ran from one prison into something worse. Who is to say why? In the presence of things glimpsed in the book of life one can only be humble. The ultimate purpose of history is beyond the mortal mind. All one can say is that such and such a thing happened. Make of it what you will. The prince went searching for meaning in the hills, and one day came upon a maiden by the river, with a bucket of water on her head.
He took her for a sign.
She was not beautiful then. At that time she was quite plain. Her face was odd, verging on ugly, like an evolving work of art. But there was something about her that was rare and that was waiting. It was something fine, like a cloudy uncertain dawn, with hints of an especially brilliant day.
The prince did not fall in love with her immediately. She was clumsy and out of color. Often beauty seems awkward in its early stages. Often excellence is unpromising in its youth. Who can guess that a butterfly will emerge from the mess of matter that is a caterpillar?
That’s how she was then, at odds with the unique spirit growing in her. The young all have clear eyes, but hers had a touch of paradise. But he didn’t notice any of that.
He saw her as a sign.