Saad bursts into the bedroom, where David is resting after lunch, and declares:
“They’re coming! Quick, Monsieur David, let’s go see them!”
The whole town seems to race toward Ambado. A cloud of dust rises into view in the distant haze between Tadjoura and the palm grove. David and Saad, on their mules, are the first to reach them. Hemmed in by around twenty armed horsemen, they’ve been marching like this for months. A thousand people of all ages, from the very oldest men and women to the youngest children, stretch before them in single file. Each gives them a look as they go past, and some shout farangi at David, who answers their cry with a somewhat strained smile. In truth he’s sorry he came to see this dreadful procession, evocative of something from mankind’s most distant past. Only the dust, which he feels in his nose and mouth, getting under his collar into his shirt, could perhaps distract from the intimidating strangeness of this spectacular display, unquestionably more barbaric than a public execution. The number of people certainly staggers the imagination, so too do the beat of their steps and, sometimes, a solemn, rhythmic song that comes drifting over the procession. Then, as little by little they make their way past him, their feet pounding the earth, always turning their heads the same way to look at him, David becomes entranced by this endless stream, this mechanical flow of multiplied bodies. This river of misery lulls his senses. He sees nothing more than the ripple of heads bobbing up and down in the dust. When the last slaves have passed, followed by the last horseman, when the wave of brown that subdued his eyes is over, he’s dazzled, as though just awakened by the glare of the disheveled sand on which the crushed earth of the road, crystalline in the sun, has come once again to rest.
And when he sets off back toward Tadjoura, they are already far ahead, including Saad, who hasn’t waited for him. Saad, who didn’t say a word as he watched this parade of his brothers by blood and by circumstance, driven like cattle to the markets of Arabia. Before he was born, he traveled the same road , following the same exhausted rhythm of steps. He stays silent until evening, and gloomy. After he leaves, David sits down on the veranda with Morelli. Tadjoura, under a waxing crescent moon, echoes with strange, metallic sounds, which are answered very weakly by moans and often screams. They are chaining up the slaves.
The next day, in the palm grove by the entrance to the village, David and Saad can see all one thousand chained at the ankles in groups of three or four. Abu Beker rents the chains, sells food, and collects a fee for use of the land and drinking the water. Thus they wait for the dhows to arrive, to take them to Mocha or to Hodeida. But before that, shaded by palm trees and stomachs full, they’ll regain the strength they’ve lost on the march, strength that will be sold for profit once they reach their destination. This fettered, wretched collection of people—still stricken by fatigue but above all by fear, since for natives of the high Shewa plateau the coastline means the end of the earth and the unknown sea is an omen of death—seems to be a wound, an ulcer contaminating Tadjoura with its ugliness and its stench. Even the children are only shadows of human beings, terrifying ghosts with large, empty eyes. David places his hand on Saad’s shoulder—he wants to feel the child’s living skin under his hand, for the captives’ skin seems leprous, coated in a mixture of sweat and grime—and then the two of them walk along the road away from the beach.
They stop again on their way back, for David has noticed Rimbaud among the men of the village who have come to see the spectacle. Yet it’s the hottest time of the day, when the shade of the palm trees is at its smallest. The Afars come here to take their rest and chew khat. David wants to ask Rimbaud how long the slaves will stay in Tadjoura.
“About ten days. The dhows won’t be late. Just think, each one holds fifty men and transports them for four thalers a head, two hundred thalers a trip. The trader himself makes an average profit of thirty thalers a slave, making thirty thousand thalers total, it’s just fantastic!”
When it’s time to go, Saad takes David’s hand and shows him a girl crying just nearby. She must be seven or eight years old and she’s chained to two sleeping men. Tears run down her cheeks, drip from her chin onto the torn fabric of her skirt. She uses her hand to wipe away the snot that’s run down onto her lips. When she spots them looking at her, she starts crying even harder. David pulls Saad back, he can’t stay, this enormous blemish on the sand makes him nauseous.
Rimbaud, who has followed them, informs David that Delafosse has been bedridden since yesterday, his right arm is paralyzed, he’s no longer able to perform his duties. His last official act was to authorize the slaves’ passage. Now a corporal is governing Tadjoura. Rimbaud isn’t complaining: Delafosse kept a close eye on the arms trade and his illness makes Rimbaud’s job easier. Meanwhile the corporal barely knows how to read. And when Delafosse’s replacement arrives—which will take a month at least—Rimbaud will already be on the way to Ankober.
“I can’t wait to get out of this inferno,” Rimbaud says. “Did you know Abyssinia’s climate is similar to Switzerland’s? They have grass, rivers, marvelous valleys . . . Why don’t you come with me? It’ll get your mind off the desert a little . . .”
“No, I paint here,” he answers, “I don’t know why, the light, the people, Tadjoura makes me want to paint and I don’t think I’ve ever painted so well, with so much joy . . .”
“Painting . . . Of course, you’re a painter. I’ve known a few of those, and their studios that reeked of death. You’re not like them—first of all, you paint differently. How long have we been painting like that in France, with the bursts of colors and the blurred lines?”
He tries to express what he has in mind with little flicks of his hand.
“Ten years maybe, I don’t really know.”
David doesn’t have the slightest desire to talk painting, so he’s glad Rimbaud keeps silent until they go their separate ways.
Climbing the hill up to his house, it seems to him something has changed in Tadjoura. But he finds it impossible to say what. Some weight is pulling the village to the ground, seems to drag it into the sand. And something indescribable has changed in the air he’s breathing, nothing obvious at all, but something he doesn’t know how to express. Yet Saad, walking in front of him, is a happy counterweight to the numbness of this place, as are the waves on the shore. Saad and the sea live still and will live a long time yet.
Their lesson ends before evening. Saad starts working the punkah for David, who reads a little. The child seems lost in thought, or rather, seems concerned. David, bored by his book, gazes at him.
“What are you thinking of?”
Saad looks up.
“About the little girl crying a while ago. Why was she crying?”
“She has a thousand reasons to cry,” answers David, “what’s happening to her is sad, she’s unhappy.”
And Saad doesn’t respond. That evening, he doesn’t leave. Morelli, as usual, comes back empty-handed. His treasure-hunting schedule has another two weeks to go.
David wonders if the child has decided to make the earth sad.
Indeed, Saad is learning sadness anew. David realizes it the next day when he starts painting him, this time standing and almost in profile. And, as before, sadness dwells in Saad’s eyes before it shapes his mouth. When Saad is gloomy his eyes contain the endlessness of the sea, his mouth bears a mark of melancholy. David makes the most of it, for Saad’s expression seems to match the new, more listless atmosphere in Tadjoura. David’s colors try to capture this with less brightness and more density, using long, nearly straight brushstrokes and sometimes, by running a white trickle among the grooves the brushes leave in the paint—which is drying quickly in the sun—to keep it from hardening. The attempt requires time, not allowing his hand to seize the brushes and draw them quickly across the canvass. He must hold back his natural energy, the picture’s sad harmony even demanding that he work extremely slowly. He becomes convinced this task is beyond him.
On the way back Saad leaves the path to go see the slaves, and David returns home without him. This time the slope of the hill wears him out a little, most likely as a result of not sleeping much the night before. He lay awake a long time thinking of the slave girl, of Saad slipping away in the evening and during the day as well, of time also slipping away and the approaching, though distant, end of his journey and his peace.
When Saad comes back, David asks him if the little girl was crying again.
“No, she was eating. But, you know, I think she recognized me. She watched me and I sat down next to her. And she talked to me, she told me something, but I don’t know what. I told her I’d come back to see her and maybe she understood because she smiled. Do you think she understood?”
“That could be because she wants you to come back.”
“But one day she’ll leave and I won’t be able to see her anymore.”
Saad is moved, and tears moisten his eyes a little. He’s sitting in the large armchair, which he’s never done in front of David, and there, he seems to be gathering people for protection between its enormous arms. What can David say without making the child cry? So there’s a long silence and their two bodies remain perfectly still. As David hopes, it is Saad who releases them:
“Can’t you buy her?” he asks, his voice very quiet as though he already feared the answer.
David doesn’t need long to think about it: buying the little girl would mean considerably shortening his stay, whose duration is only limited by money. But he is surprised by the child’s question and touched by his concern. So before answering him, he goes up to the window, places his hands on the wide ledge and watches the sea. Two dhows side by side, with one white sail and one blue sail, are heading for Tadjoura.
Suddenly the earth begins to suffer. An illness, unknown to the villagers, attacks it, relentlessly overpowering its vitality. It’s visible first in the palm trees, which little by little marble with ochre, then between these veins brown marks appear like freckles on an old man’s hands. The leaves dry out immediately, fall onto the dirt: it’s autumn in Tadjoura, though the town lies on the equator and has never before known seasons. There is no more shade in the desert. The bare palm trees fall silent. The Afars claim that the trees in the palm grove where the slaves are resting were the first affected. Now the slaves spend their days in the sun and hide under the sand or clothing they’ve removed. The burning heat on their bodies intensifies the stench of grime and excrement hovering over the village. Seeing that concentration of half-buried bodies, feeling the vast, rotting stench seeping in, it could be mistaken for an unbearable mass grave being excavated from the earth.
Then David gets some water from the well. He feels a mild sugary taste in his mouth, slightly sweet, which he can’t stand for long. After the first signs the water is making people sick, the corporal takes action. And by the time when the water, first vanishing, suddenly dries completely up in the sun, a daily dhow from Obock is already resupplying Tadjoura with distant, pure water. In the morning, the whole village is arranged in five lines at the harbor, waiting for water. Then the soldiers give out the day’s ration. The thousand slaves must settle for what is left at noon, when the villagers have dispersed. Lying down all day, idle and motionless, they deserve less to drink. But some of them, the weakest ones, can’t withstand the thirst and the drying out of their flesh: soon it’s no longer possible to tell the dead from those buried alive.
For David the earth’s illness has another consequence. Since Saad goes to fetch the water ration in the morning, David can’t paint him anymore. For a while he tries to devote a little of Saad’s afternoon lesson time to painting, but David very quickly discovers that if he stays in the sun, his share of fresh water isn’t enough to quench his thirst until evening. He has to abandon the portrait of Saad and put away his paints and brushes in the large chest of African redwood. For the first time since arriving in Tadjoura, he has stopped painting. He doesn’t count the few days spent in the desert hunting for treasure: a different joy filled him then.
But Morelli can keep up his exploring. He leaves in the morning carrying two flasks of water and rations himself all day long, because even the desert wells, as far as he can go, are tainted and then dry.
On the third day without water, the first slaves die, two old men and one very young child. From then on, Saad shares his daily ration of water with the little girl he has adopted. But already it seems she can’t withstand the sun. After returning from one of his visits, Saad told David how, after taking her by the arms to lift her up and make her drink, his hands wrinkled her dry skin, leaving deep grooves behind. And Saad thinks she won’t last, in the sun and without water, until the ships depart. She will die, they will throw her into the sea.
One by one the dhows arrive in Tadjoura. Soon around fifteen are anchored about a dozen feet from shore, that is as many as the slaves can expect. The day before they depart, David decides to go to the palm grove with Saad.
For more than a week he’s refused to go. Now the grove makes for a hellish sight, giving off a violent stench of rotting flesh. David can barely stand to look at it, to smell it. A swarm of crazed flies lends a barbaric melody to the whole spectacle. How many of the inert bodies, whose forms can barely be made out under the sand, are dead? But the little slave girl is still alive. She’s taken off her ragged garment and draped it over herself, covering her completely. She lies naked underneath it on the sand, amid her own feces, curled up, sheltering from the sun and the flies as much as her chains allow. Saad gets her to drink. Seeing her so weak, barely conscious, not managing to swallow more than a single mouthful of water because her body has forgotten how, David is sure she will, in fact, die. But before that, how can she walk as far as the harbor? No one will want to carry her. Saad lays her back on the sand and covers her again with her clothing. He remains kneeling a long time before her, without speaking, trembling as though afraid. Because it’s the last time Saad is able to see her, when David leaves he doesn’t want to take him by the hand and lead the boy away with him. But he can’t stay any longer. On the road back he only sees some Arabs in the shade of a wall arguing with the gathered nakhuda ship captains. Will they agree to transport the dead too, as Abu Beker orders? There are no Afars from Tadjoura in the village streets or the harbor that afternoon: they’re all at the mosque, praying until evening for the earth to heal. But David wonders what god could cast such a spell over the country and what error he is punishing. And what god is stopping him from painting. A god who perhaps would inhabit the body of invulnerable, mournful Saad.
The child is overcome with trembling, his legs can barely carry him, he is thirsty. Only his desire for shade gives him the strength to climb the hill. This time, for a moment, he is afraid of dying.
There’s no lesson that afternoon. Saad doesn’t want to work, and David doesn’t insist. He’s taking a longer siesta, though not sleeping, because the endless sound of the still-living sea reassures him a little. And because the mosquitoes have died since the drought started, he can rest without a mosquito net, lose himself more completely in the blue of the sky, the grain of the whitewashed walls, the beam ceiling. But sometimes the putrid stench reaches into the room. So he turns over and buries his face in the pillow until he can no longer breathe.
Saad doesn’t want to come to the beach with him either. David thought a swim would refresh him until evening and hold off his thirst. He swims so hard that the opposite is the case. The beach, with no shade from the palm trees and overrun with flies, offers no pleasure. He returns quickly, collapses into the large armchair, and asks Saad to get some air flowing with the punkah. David thinks there is no beauty, nothing to desire, no pleasure left in Tadjoura, and this emptiness expresses itself in the creaks coming from the pulleys, which he counts, their sound more regular than the ticking of a clock. Meanwhile he watches Saad, whom he cannot paint, the child’s arm and shoulder moving mechanically, gracelessly.
“If she leaves she’ll die, and the Arabs will throw her into the sea,” Saad says after a while.
He’s said this slowly, precisely matching the rhythm of the to-ing and fro-ing of the punkah, not looking up.
“I know,” says David, “many will die on the dhows.”
“Then she won’t leave, I’ll rescue her tonight.”
In saying this, very calmly as though in no doubt of achieving his aim, Saad has stopped working the punkah. His sudden stillness and the silence that follows it imbues him with a new and vigorous energy. David feels immediately caught up in it. He stands up suddenly, almost laughing as he answers:
“Yes Saad, that’s a good idea, I’ll go with you!”
There’s no discussion of the risks of this undertaking nor—if they succeed—of what will come after the escape. They only decide on the time and how they will break the chains without waking the guards: three hours before dawn, the hour when sleep is at its deepest; an iron bar, which locks David’s largest chest.
When Morelli returns he is brought up to speed. He’s sorry to be too worn out from his day spent searching in vain. In the desert he saw a dead camel rotting in the sun, abandoned by nomads who were now most likely sheltering in Tadjoura.
The waning quarter-moon gives a faint pallor to the windless night. The gathered slaves form an enormous blotch of darkness on the sand. They have to uncover a few before they find the little girl, who hasn’t moved a limb since Saad laid her there. The guards, out of sight, must be sleeping. Saad breaks the chain without making a sound, without even disturbing the sleep of the other slave to whom she is fettered. The child herself is aware of nothing, she lets out a barely audible wheeze when David lifts her up. He’s surprised how light she is. Once in David’s arms she abandons her whole body, all her muscles, and her head falls backward. He carries her all the way to the house, wondering if she will die in his arms, her stillness already seeming so like death. Even her breathing, which his hands can barely detect, passes unnoticed amid the sound of their steps.
They lay her down on David’s bed, make her drink a few mouthfuls of water. Just then she opens her eyes, looks at them without speaking and perhaps without seeing them. Then, once she’s laid on the bed, she lets her large, open eyes gaze at the ceiling, which is patterned with shadows cast by the lamp.
When her eyes stop blinking, early in the morning after Morelli has left, David knows she has died. Saad is asleep. David closes her eyes at the very moment the sun emerges from the water. Soon after, he sees the slaves being led to the harbor, still in chains, the living carrying the dead or dragging them on the sand when they no longer have the strength. When Saad awakens, two hours later, all the dhows have gone out to sea. Sunlight pours into the room and illuminates all the objects, as well as the naked little slave girl on the bed whom, without knowing why, David didn’t want to cover up. Yet her body is awful to look at, it is weak and dried-out like a mummy, except for her face, which looks a little like Mariam’s. Saad understands right away she is dead. He goes up to her, then covers her body up to the waist with the bedsheet.
“We have to bury her,” he says quietly, without taking his eyes off her, calm.
Then, after a long moment of silence, still leaning over her, he adds:
“One day I will be rich and I will buy all the slaves who come to Tadjoura. Then I will set them free and send them home.”
It’s at that moment, suddenly, that it occurs to David he must free Saad. Why wasn’t the simplicity of this decision obvious before? It would be the greatest proof of love, so easy. Yet he knows that, even free, the child will not leave him. Where would he go? Who could teach him to read and write? He chooses to wait to tell him until time has eased his suffering a little. Right now, happiness would seem sacrilegious, disrespectful with the little slave girl still lying on the bed. What’s more, Saad has begun to cry. David can’t see his face but rather his shoulders, which his small, barely audible sobs cause to jerk from time to time as though from an electrical charge. The thought of the happiness he will soon bring Saad, but also of his tears, moves David so much that his own eyes begin to moisten. He goes up to the window. But the bright sunlight draws out a few tears. The dhows have disappeared. At the harbor, the villagers who have come for water are lining up. A new light, or perhaps just a forgotten one, weds Tadjoura and the sea. The sun plays with the water and the sky, enlivens the cloth and the stones, showers its rays over the metal. It seems to permeate the sand as well, and the sand accepts it. David is sure the earth is regaining its breath.
“You need to go wait for water, the whole village is already there,” he says to Saad, whom he no longer hears crying, to break the silence.
He turns around and is surprised to see Saad right there close to him. He hadn’t felt the child standing at his side, also watching the morning in Tadjoura.
Past the fort, in the shelter of a small limestone wall, lies the Christian cemetery. There, Abyssinians traveling through or settled on the coast are laid to rest. Some graves sport crosses, which have often fallen over onto the sand. That’s where the little slave girl is buried, according to Saad’s wishes. They carried her through the village on a stretcher the very afternoon she died. Some villagers followed along behind. Now it doesn’t matter much if Tadjoura knows where this dead child has come from.
They follow the sea on their way back, along the shore scattered with scorched palm trees. While on a normal afternoon it is full of men gathered to chew khat, it’s now deserted since the palm trees, and their shade, have died. The two of them sit for a while facing the sea, not speaking for a long time. Saad writes on the sand, erases the words David cannot read with a simple sweep of his hand, writes again. Then, without asking David to come with him, he goes for a swim. He swims so fast, his limbs know so well how to take to the water, use it to his advantage, that no one could keep up with him. For as long as he can, David follows him with his eyes. But it seems he wants never to stop, never to return. Yet he knows that so far from the shore a current could carry him away. He also knows there’s a risk of sharks, because he’s heard horrible stories about them. But soon David sees nothing but the sea. He has rarely felt so powerless and hopeless all at once. He paces on the sand, sometimes spying a bright spot on a distant wave, a bit of foam quickly devoured, a seagull taking flight. He shouts Saad’s name, and Saad doesn’t come back. He ends up falling to his knees on the sand, head spinning with so much worry, a paralyzing terror weighing on his shoulders. But he doesn’t take his eyes off the horizon, which moves, unsettled by the rolling waves.
At the moment he sees Saad coming back, recognizing him by the rhythmic strokes of his arms, the panic that seized him vanishes like a bubble bursting. He thinks his body is turning to liquid, melting as his agitation subsides, because all his limbs are slackening at once.
Nothing on Saad’s face says he wanted to die. He lies down on the sand:
“I swam far, I’m tired,” he says simply.
First David is tempted to rebuke him, just for the sake of it, for swimming so foolishly far. But now that his worry is gone, he wants to thank him for coming back. Saad, his arms crossed, his chin tucked forward slightly, has closed his eyes.
“Out on the open sea,” he says to David, who is sitting beside him, “I lay floating on the water to rest before coming back. You know, the sea can hold you up just as well as the land.”
“Weren’t you afraid of the sharks or the current?”
“I didn’t think about it, I felt good . . . There was no noise, the waves were rocking me gently, I could have fallen asleep.”
They stay on the shore until evening. Coming back through the village, they learn there is once again water in the wells.
Then, because life is returning to Tadjoura and the villagers are celebrating, David decides to tell Saad that evening that from now on he is free. Morelli isn’t home yet. Saad is out back preparing dinner. Beyond the hills, the daylight still lingers, spreading around all the blues and mauves released from the sun. David goes up to the child.
“Saad,” he says softly, “from now on you aren’t my slave anymore, you no longer belong to me.”
He adds, trembling a little because the child isn’t answering:
“But I would be happy if you wanted to stay with me.”
And what if Saad decided to leave? He could find work on a dhow, or for the sultan. David is afraid, for a moment. But Saad seems even more worried:
“Will you give me food to eat? And keep teaching me?”
“Yes, nothing will change. But if you want to leave one day, you may. Now you’re free.”
Saad doesn’t ask for an explanation.
From Saad. © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1980. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2016 by Sean Gasper Bye. All rights reserved.