Grateful audience, what story shall I sing?
We griots talk true. This is not merely a story; this is truth.
Do not quarrel over where to sit. This old man does not care if a woman finds her place on the men’s side or a man on the women’s side, for, it is so, I shall transport you all from this room, back to a time before cement floors.
Do you know what this is? A child’s toy, we tell these invaders. The ones who call themselves artists, historians, journalists, anthropologists, scholars, students, professors, occultists, spiritual seekers, vagabonds. The ones who arrive in the bus asking, “How much?” The ones who, when they wave enough money, we inform, “This is no child’s toy but a great work of art!” The ones who know more about us than we know ourselves. But we know something about them. We know their true name, and it is “tourists.”
We know this statue, hewed from the branch of a baobab. We know it for what it is: a vessel for the nyama of the vegeu. You may say it resembles the statues we carve now, those that will stand but never serve. And so we have learned to carve not merely for the nyama but for our survival. Or rather I should say, both are ways of surviving. Or do we lose something when we carve for their coins? Do we lose ourselves?
We need only look to this statue to remember. This one dictated its purpose to a masterful carver. It spoke to him, and he received. He saw within the wood the shape he would free. And once the nyama entered, how could it be sold? It can only be stolen, as many were. We must be thankful it is still with us. To remind us. Look closer, and you will see that beneath this crust of millet and blood, oil and seed, the forms of those who might have been forgotten exist as they once were carved. By whose hands? We do not know.
But we can see the shape of man and woman, equal in height, balanced in form. Thin but well-nourished. See this hump? Surely the quiver upon his back. The sign of a provider. And above her buttocks? Twins! The most sacred of beings. So alike, they are joined.
Who are they, this couple? Not the strange beings of certain stories but our flesh and blood ancestors who lived and died as each of us must. What do they have to say to us now? What can they tell us that we do not already know? We know their story well, though we often seem to forget.
Have we forgotten? We never forget; their story sleeps within us, as it does inside this vessel. It is the story of each of us. The changes we witness now are not the same as those experienced then, yet something is familiar. Do you see? Look closer. Look, and they shall take us back to their time, a time which is no different from our own.
I shall now become silent and allow them to speak, in their way. Listen, and you shall hear truth.
IN A BEGINNING…
Who takes the lead, unafraid of eyes!
—Yagul, Dogon chant
The breast is second only to god.
Take nothing for granted. This is not the law of the people but the law of life. Take nothing—not one object, one thought, one dream—for granted. Not the copper sun that rises each day, despite prayers for rain. Not the ochre-rocked terrain that toughens the soles. Not even this escarpment, far enough from the river that prayers for water are as common as the calls to prayer heard from the opposite bank, though the cliff shelters equally from invaders and sun alike. In this life take nothing for granted, for the people have not always lived beside the cliff; others lived here before, and where are they now? Vanished. Only their vessels and spirits remain; we still find the former in the caves, the latter in the night.
Some say the hogon communicates with them. Perhaps he does so now inside this single-chambered shrine that stands upon the cliff-base scree. Millet and blood still seem to trickle as if from unsealed wounds, painting white rivulets down the shrine’s face from the spaces between nine ostrich eggs, each resting like a world inside a nest, each perched atop its roofline mound, while the sacrificial flow below waits dormant, as sun-baked as the dust-hued mud that formed this shrine of contours that conjures the curves of bodies and bones.
From the doorway emerges the hogon—oldest man in the village, closest to the spirits. To the secrets. He squints his eyes, glances downhill. Sees the pair standing like twins.
The pair shuffle shy feet, angle eager bodies, tense, uncertain as children at the first awareness of the judgment of older eyes. Never have they stood so close. Never have they felt such distance.
She offers him a wooden bowl. Its contents: clear water scintillating as it ripples from the center to the brim, sparkling as if shards of midday sun float upon its swaying surface. He raises the bowl to his lips, drinks, eyes refusing to stray from hers.
She inhales, her breast pressing tight to her indigo dress. Water spills from his lips. Translucent drops roll down his chest, wind a path to the white cloth of his pants. The sweat and earth of his body discovers her, caresses her tongue in red-orange, cracks like the nut of the doum palm. His arm slides across his lips, masking a smile. She exhales, remembering her breath.
Heat rises in waves. The horizon shimmers.
“The men gossip like women.” she says. “They say you do not behave like a man. This is not a matter for us to decide. The elders you shall one day sing truth of discuss your fate in the toguna. A silent griot is as useful as a barren woman. Do not punish the village. Destiny decided we should not be born into the same caste. If you cannot respect my husband, at least respect the village.”
He responds: “Why should I care if that man claims you or not? If you are anyone’s property, you belong to the gods. If I should play the thief, I play my role at their command. I am willing to accept their punishment. Life is a spiral. Tradition exists to remind us. To guide us. But so does change. When tradition cannot change, it denies the ways of the gods. Destiny does not fate us to castes; a rigid tradition decides this. But whoever upholds such tradition can only do so by waging battle with the gods.
“Beautiful, you are still childless. You may spend the night with your husband, but you return home to your father each morning. How can I speak the praises of our ancestors, who followed their destinies, when the village refuses to listen to our own? My silence speaks, because, like the heaviest millet, it does not bend to rustle in the wind. One must listen closely to hear what I say. And the closer one listens, the more one hears. Until this wind blows past, I shall speak to none but you.”
“It would be disrespectful of me to return here,” she answers, and at once the man and woman turn their eyes to the hogon on the hillside. Her voice drops with her eyes; sound and sight slip down her body. “But for your sake…I will.”
White-robed and spectral within the eye of a thermal, the hogon nods, the round of his blood red hat angling toward the pair like a half-swallowed sun on the horizon. The dust swirls around him. The hogon tilts his head to the sky—as if searching for stars invisible in daylight—and steps forward, a single step, into the shade of the shrine.
Like the woman, the man bows his head, and the pair stare into the earth.
“I will see you
again,” he whispers.
“I will see you,” she whispers.
And she turns from him without another glance as she walks back to the village.
Humans are like seeds, seeds like the universe. The shape of the village: a human lying on its back, gazing up into dimensions beyond. The shape of the residence: the shape of the village. Woman below, man atop. Earth and sky. And beyond.
In the beginning is Amma, whose first creation fails. Only the elements are saved. Amma attempts again and creates the egg. The egg arrives from a star, and, like a twin to the star, becomes what it is. Inside the egg, two placentas form: one encloses a pair of male twins, the other a pair of female twins. The eight are Nommo, who, when born, will mate with each other to create the emanations of Amma.
But as with humans, so with gods. Like a rebellious youth, Yorugu forces open his egg, desperate to reproduce. The universe tilts, wobbles in its spiral. Finding no mate, Yorugu creates earth from the pieces of his placenta and copulates with his creation. For this, Amma transforms Yorugu into a speechless pale fox, though, in this form, Yorugu is still capable of divinination. Once again, the universe is balanced.
Nommo descends to earth. Creates the cycles. Day to night. Life to death. Like Yorugu, pieces of Nommo scatter like seeds in the whirling of wind, planting the Binu shrines below the escarpment where…
Cross-legged in the moment, the hogon meditates upon the pair, who, like twins sharing a common destiny, spiral about each other as certain stars, shifting each other’s orbit while the universe strives to uphold order—to keep the stars in place.
What is right for a woman? For a man? Is the way of the heart the way of the community? The men crouch in the toguna, propose such questions, respond with words that mask true feelings, that oppose the unspoken. If any recall the passion of a manhood first freed from its youthful, androgynous form, none expose it. Meanwhile, the women
gossip as if they, too, never felt a pang for another, other than the one who chose them—or was chosen for them.
In the beginning are two children. One is a girl; the other a boy. Each is born to a pair of parents. Each plays at life, imitating sounds, movements. When they begin to understand the rules of sound and movement, they play at imitating more complex tasks. From a single word, sprouts a phrase; from a single step, a harvest or a hunt. At play on the scree, they learn to control their imaginations. The girl draws from what she hears and witnesses of the women, the boy from what he hears and witnesses of the men. They disdain each other—this girl, this boy—for they have yet to hear of the actions of men and women when no one is watching. Then the day arrives when each becomes what each will: the girl, a woman; the boy, a man.
A hand holds in her screams. Her male part: cut from her body. The sweet rice the women offer does not alleviate her bitterness when she learns from an aunt of the man she must marry. The pain between her legs numbs.
The man, too, is betrothed: to a girl who dismisses the ways of the village as ignorant, superstitious. Eventually, she leaves to marry an important so-and-so in Djenné who prostrates himself several times daily, like a woman before her husband. Though the man travels to Djenné to bring the girl back, he finds this man to have powers he never knew men to carry. But it is not the man who drives him away from the city and his search but the confusion of the city itself. People do not live together in such places; those obedient to the law crave to cut off the hand of the thief who steals to feed his family, while the obedient prove their adherence to the law by starving their families.
But starvation wears other masks. Both woman and man develop a hunger different from the one that agonizes an empty belly. Their senses transition beyond what they hear and see of the other. A new sense arises, one which dwells deeper inside, its source mysterious, although they begin to understand how it must manifest. It rules over their other senses, altering them, as if this feeling were a great leader and all other feelings its subjects. The world becomes the other and the other alone.
For the man this other is the woman, whom he passes one afternoon as she crushes millet, lifting and slamming the \ stone pestle into the mortar. He knows her as everyone knows everyone in the village, but not in the way one is familiar with family or a childhood friend. Nor is it the scandalous conclusions one creates of one’s neighbors, based on bits of information collected. Rather, this knowing is one that seems to stretch back before his birth. He’s known her all his life; of this he is certain. But he’s known her before this life and the life before that, as he will know her after this life and beyond. Yet it does not occur to him they once played together as children; if it had, he would have been surprised to realize the slender girl had grown into the curved body of the woman who lifted and pressed her form into his mind long after he’d walked past her that afternoon. It is as if instead of crushing millet she crushed herself into his thoughts, scattering seeds of herself in every corner so that no matter what he now thinks, the thought becomes that image: her, crushing millet.
Likewise, she saw him walking past her, his eyes widening, his lips curling up and parting, the sun angling towards him, casting his shadow over the earth, over the mortar. She crushes his head with the pestle, and, once he passes, she sets the pestle down, runs her fingers through the millet, sifting for shards of his shadow. In the days that follow, she watches him walk by, again and again, not realizing what she longs for is him to actually walk by again, not realizing that what she sees, she sees only in her mind. Not once does the thought of her future husband intrude. When it finally does, she cries. She doesn’t know why.
Some say life is sacrifice. One is told to surrender this or that, and he obeys; she does as she’s told. But who has stopped to ask why?
The man, she learns, is a griot—a man of another caste. She must forget him.
The woman, he learns, is betrothed. He tries to forget her.
And so the woman marries.
Easier to follow the plan of the village than the call of destiny. To diverge, even at destiny’s calling, is to expose the plan’s great fault—that it is a sacrifice to no one for nothing.
And so the man leaves. Waits.
Something has changed. Something has shifted. The single, wispy cloud dissipating overhead? The furrow of her brow? The angle of the sun? The slouch of his shoulders? Or perhaps nothing. Perhaps it is only that something unnoticed before is now seen. Now felt.
If time has passed, if tomorrow has arrived, who can truly say? We trust the sun to set each night, to rise at morning, carry in the new day. But if the gods were to decide the moon should rise and set twice before a tomorrow, would we be aware? Would they inform us or amuse themselves, allowing us to interpret time as we always have. Take nothing for granted.
“It is good to see you,” he says, though the image of her form has not faded from his mind from the moment she left until this, the moment of her return, if it is indeed a return.
“It is good to see you,” she replies. “Have you come to your senses?”
“Come to them? How can I come to them when they refuse to let me leave? I am like a woman who has just given birth; is it not so that a mother returns to the womb as soon as her child is born?”
“Now you have truly taken leave of your senses.”
“But a woman must shut herself inside once her child is born. Each is reborn when they emerge into the light.
“You speak as freely about women as if you were one.”
“But I was. And you were a man.”
“One moment your words are like muddy water, the next like clear drops of rain. Say what you mean.”
“Were we not both male and female? From the moment of birth until initiation we were—and we were neither. We may be called man or woman now, but has our other half truly been severed? A complete man is half woman; a complete woman, half man. No being is whole without embodying both, no matter what has been cut from us, no matter whether our body bears the bar or the latch. But we forgot. We die and are reborn on how many occasions in a single life? And with each birth we lose more of what we were as we grow into what we must become. For better or worse.”
“So, your form reminds me of what I feel was lost. Seeing you, I remember who I am. Without you, I forget, though I search myself for some trace. And if you are half of me, I am half of you. Without each other, how can we be whole?”
“What you say is not new. You merely repeat what the wisest of our village have stated so often before.”
“I do not claim to be wise nor to know anything that hasn’t already been passed on to us. All I can say is what I feel. And no one knows this, not even you. No one knows the intensity of this feeling inside me. Even the gods can only guess.”
“And what feeling is this?”
He stands in silence, eyes moist, lips curled down, his breathing heaving like a man who knows he must finally confront a passion that has, for so long, stagnated inside him.
Realizing the role the gods have forced her to accept, she knows what she must say.
“I am married,” she declares. Then, offering him the bowl of water, “But it is true—I have no child.”
His hands brush against hers as he accepts, her fingers encircling the space the bowl once held.
Eyes over the brim, his gaze meets hers.
His eyes penetrate.
Her eyes hold.
And her eyes roll back as she drops to the earth.
The bowl drops and shatters upon the rock-strewn soil, splashing water upon their feet, as if this is how they will drink: like earth-gouging roots. He kneels at her side, hands shaking, easing between the earth and her body, feeling the weight of her form, while from the rocks the hogon watches.
Do not believe your eyes. They do not see all; much remains unrevealed. The gods see beyond the horizon. Beyond the stars. This is how they know our destinies.
The hogon does not choose his position; it is chosen for him. One day, the hogon—before he became the hogon—went to the river and fell in. Like most, the hogon could not swim, and his body drowned. But at that moment—what fortune!—a water snake glided across the water, slipped beneath the hogon, and held the body afloat, while the hogon’s double rose into the sky. The double looked down upon the inanimate body, the snake undulating beneath it, a raft to rescue it from drowning. At this moment the hogon’s double returned to his body, and he awoke. But the snake had vanished; the bank of the river sloped against his spine as an old man—the hogon’s predecessor—swayed above him. So it was the old man died not soon after this event, and the one chosen by the water snake became the hogon.
Outside and above—it is in this way the woman’s double sees her body now, floating belly up. The snake parts the waters, slithers beneath her, pulls her to the shoreline where the water laps the earth. Where the earth enters the water.
Where is this water? There is no river near the cliffside yet she sees it all the same. A mirage? Or has she entered another realm?
She hears the echo of a muffled voice—someone calling from a cave. A thump like a heartbeat. With a gasp, she rises!
The water evaporates. The snake slithers away in silence. The earth holds her. Then he.
In the shade of the doum, they embrace.
Skin sticks to skin. Sweat drips into single drops. Chest, breast press together, pull way. Skin pulls taught, reluctant to part. It snaps.
She holds her body upright. His hands encircle her wrists, hold her down, fearful she may float away. But he releases, and she leans back against the palm trunk rising from a single base. The trunk splits into four, rises, splits again.
Neither notices the hogon has vanished. Neither looks at the other. What is it they see in the distance?
“I have to go,” she mutters.
“I cannot let you go. You were possessed.”
“They say the same of you. I have to go.”
“You must rest.”
“I have to go.”
She braces against the tree and rises. The world wobbles. She steps to one side, steps to the other, stumbles forward. He grabs her, holds her tight, presses her against him.
Heat, water, breath, earth. Skin, body, spirit, desire. Hips gripped by hands, he pulls her to him. His eyes pierce hers; her eyes grasp his, draw him in. Hands find heartbeats. Lips unite, hips dance, breath harmonizes.
The egg hears their cry.
And soon it shall split. Split.
Ah! But there is danger in the hunt; fate is never so simple a path to follow. Head to the ground, those mud-pressed tracks are all one sees; one forgets what creeps behind, what lurks above, stalking the hunter. Tonight, two men approach each other, two men who have never known each other so well that they could jest about the faults of the other—and certainly not his mother. One is a husband, the other a stubborn man.
As women often do, the woman finds herself between these men, eyes cast down to earth. The moon shines in half crescent, casts its pale glow like a spirit’s shadow upon her face, as if at any moment the night might strike at this remaining light, swallow her in darkness.
He emerges from the dim, continues greeting her approaching husband. He asks this man the final questions, knowing already the response. Whether it is true or not, all is well. All is always well.
“How are your animals?” he asks.
“They are well. And yours?” asks the husband.
“They are well. How is your house?”
“It is well. And yours?”
“It is well. How is your work?”
“It is well. How is—“
From a nearby granary, an unseen donkey brays.
The greeting remains unfinished.
Night stirs: an insect disquiet.
The man cannot bring his eyes to meet those of the husband, though he feels the unflinching burn of the other’s stare. Nor can he find the track of the woman’s gaze. Watching between them, beyond them, into the distance, a distance that glows with darkness and only darkness, he descries a light. It spirals overhead, flutters away into a black darker than skin. What is this creature in flight? Bat? Bird? An ancestor in the night? A spirit? A piece of himself, perhaps. Perhaps himself.
“Thank you,” he says, pretending as though neither he nor the husband notice the incompletion of the greeting.
“Thank you as well,” says the husband. “An exchange of words sounds better to the ear than silence. Like the rustle of light grain bending in the wind.”
The husband raises a hand to the woman’s face, and she turns away. He laughs.
“This one,” says the husband, “this one you have to keep your eyes on.”
His palm encircles her head, pushes it down. He walks past her, walks past the man. The husband’s face: fixed as a mask turning back to spy the figures behind him. The woman hesitates no longer, follows his form into the night. A single star shines bright above her, its spiraling twin invisible to the griot’s sorrow-singing eyes.
Women, the diviner insists, take no part in an evening’s divining ceremony. She must leave. Her unprecedented act is unwelcome. The men will not stand for it. But the woman waits, stomach now bulging like the distended belly of a snake that has swallowed an ostrich’s egg. The men quarrel, knowing their complaints cannot become the actions they propose, the woman being in the shape she is. They storm off to find her husband.
Gnarled branch of the baobab in his left hand, the diviner traces six joined squares in the sand. Inside each square he scrawls symbols, each representing a potentiality. Family, village, region, beyond. Life, peace, death. God’s patience, god’s desire. The diviner places sticks—god and family—in each of the squares, raising peaks of sand like miniature termite mounds, dotting them with craters.
As the diviner draws these designs, he invokes a chant to the sacred fox, seeking the path of prophecy:
“Fox, tell me please
is there something?
Will there be shame next year?
Fox, speak clearly.
Let the people coming to the field
stand eye to eye.
Throw your traces.
Give me your nails to mark the sand.
Be clear. Whatever you see, tell me.
Give me your footprints.”
He places an offering for the fox, informs the woman to meet him at morning.
Dawn: how it resembles dusk. If the sun stood still on the horizon, if the moon hovered ghostly, neither filling nor fading, one would not know the difference. But the sun rises from its submersion, rippling its doum nut colors as the diviner interprets the oracle’s prophecy for the woman. Usually he deciphers in solitude, but as he’s already made one
exception for the woman—and knowing her situation in the way only the aware can—he understands the importance of her inclusion in the ritual and allows her to listen. But what the diviner reads from the pressed-sand tracks neither concerns nor reassures him; life will continue in the way it does: out of balance, balanced.
Both the hogon and the diviner agree: the moment approaches when all shall collapse. Balance shall restore itself; this is certain. But in what way? In what form? These are no questions of good or evil, right or wrong. What shall occur is destined. And destiny is not the plan of humans but of gods.
Upon the altar of the hogon’s offering, the millet beer awaits, murky as the clouded sky outside. Unusual, this weather on the first day of the Lébé festival. During this drought one can only pray the clouds carry a cleansing rain. An appropriate addition to the celebration in honor of the first mortal human, transformed into snake. Tonight, the snake shall visit the hogon, shall cleanse him as it must each night. But in this moment he watches the men circle the altar inside this structure, like snakes coiling, tighter, tighter. It is not until the third and final cycle that the man notices the hogon watching him. But how does he know? The hogon’s eyes are sealed. It is the hogon’s mind which envisions what the eyes cannot.
The hogon offers the man the millet beer; in its warmth the man tastes a convergence of elements: earth, water. Fire upon the earth, air bearing water. And blood, blood of a woman.
A series of kicks, a pummeling from within. As if she were the egg, ostrich chicks cracking the shell of her belly. Seeking the next realm of experience. A dying into life. Into a dim light.
Imbalance cries out for birth.
From the damp womb of clouded night, she emerges, belly ripe, skin radiating a luminescent blue reflected from the moonglow diffused through the grey obscure. The griot waits on these outskirts where he once stood in silence, recalling the smooth texture of her thighs, cool like the flat mud roof of a home on a warm and rainless night, a night unlike tonight, though he cannot be sure now whether it is the first drop of a fruitful rain that slides down his face or the trickle of sweat—like that moisture between her legs: water from a well. He yearns to drink from it once more.
The rain falls. The world tilts.
She carries the weight of an unknown word within her, the word that shall manifest all. All is abstraction now, all beyond definition. Like a snake that sheds its skin, she is no longer what she was. Like a river that parts the earth…
Falling from her center, breaking upon the earth, the water ripples in waves beneath her body. Vibrations ring her ears. She stumbles, begins to fall. His hand grips hers, holds her up with a pull equal to the strength of her own, hanging, tugging downward. They step in slow circle, rising, falling, swaying, orbiting until they meet halfway between standing and lying, kneeling like a hogon in meditation, collapsed in embrace, her indigo loosened, twisted to one side, dangling from the shoulder, baring her breasts, nipples erect like twin stars burning blue, penetrating the spirited night. He places a hand to her distended belly, round and taught as the snake’s who has swallowed the universe.
This is how the twins and the twins, the twins and the twins, announce their arrival into this dimension. With a splash, a rippling, a wave of water—a flood from thedepths of her body.
A snake twines its coiling body over the damp earth; it’s tongue licks the air, tastes the puddle.
A fox paw marks the earth. In this moment, a future.
A donkey’s bray splits the night.
How clear, how iridescent, this center. This center from which all is born.
What’s that? The bus has arrived? Dear audience, thank you for your attention. Now gather up your vessels, the ones that hold nothing—neither vegeu nor stories. Solid wood for the white folks. Art for their elders, toys for their young. Give special attention to those who speak these sacred words: “artifact,” “museum.” Act as if you’ve never seen a camera before—as if you fear it may steal your soul.