The Sacrifice (from The Scarecrow)

The Sacrifice

1

He disguised himself in the tattered garments of a shepherd and slipped out the service gate. He gazed at the sky, which was decorated with garlands of stars. His eyes sparkled with a clandestine glitter. He listened carefully but heard only the stillness. He descended from the heights and crossed the Temple Plaza. He turned north and entered the alleys. The walls’ shadows swallowed him for a long distance. Before he emerged from the last alleyway, he remembered the council and pondered how those base specters called prominent citizens had corrupted his actions and transformed his good deed into a bad one. They had not been satisfied with distorting or corrupting it; they had gone even farther, speaking maliciously of him, and had conspired together. They had not merely revealed their hateful faces; their vengeful eyes had stared at him in an ill-omened blink when he had drawn powerful despair from his body the way tweezers draw a thorn from the foot. Then debility had flooded his soul. Could he forgive them this vengeful signal at the only hour when rulers need sympathy that they do not expect from foreigners, because they normally are the ones extending sympathy to foreigners?

He traversed the lanes, which were masked by rows of walls, and took the route leading to the fields. The singing of the grasshoppers grew louder, and the smell of grass and moist earth assaulted his nostrils. This was water’s smell. This was water’s perfume. This was water’s secret–water’s smell that dolts do not detect, not realizing that water moves all the things that scents pervade. Water crosses dead land and imbues dirt with a smell. It descends deep into the earth to reach seeds buried in pits. It revives them and infuses them with its breath to grant them an odor. Eventually it tires of playing underground and decides to leave the earth and return to its homeland through disintegration, rising in vapors and passing through the air to leave a scent in the void. Water! It has no odor but lavishly grants odors. It has no color but profusely grants colors. It has no taste but generously provides all tastes. Is this not sufficient proof that this entity belongs to the Spirit World?

He crossed the brook. The mysterious liquid gleamed in the irrigation ditches by the light of the stars. The smell of grass, mud, and fig trees grew more intense. He removed his sandals and placed them under his arm. He lowered his right foot into the water and sank his left foot into the brook’s slime. He waded in the mud for a stretch and then retraced his steps. The song of the grasshoppers rose like melancholy hymns. He slowly removed his baggy pants and pulled off his tunic as well. He loosened his head wrap and began to rid himself of his veil. He bundled his clothes together and threw them far away. He knelt on the earth and plunged into the mire. The noble liquid flooded over him, teased his limbs, tickled his armpits, and fondled his entire body. Then he sighed ecstatically and sniffed the humid air that water perfumed with its unknown scent.

He began the process of rehydration as water flowed through his body and he flowed through the mire’s body. He did not sink into the mud; instead the mud sank into him. The pores of his body opened to allow mud to enter, and mud’s pores opened to allow him to penetrate them with all his suppleness, virility, and fluidity. Then he succumbed and disappeared in order to struggle with a thirst that consuming water does not quench. It is a thirst that can be tamed only when a thirsty person renounces his pride and becomes part of the water, of the mud, of the amalgam of water and dirt, of earth and sky, of the desert and the Spirit World. He wallowed. He crawled right, turned north, and moaned ecstatically. Then he relaxed every muscle of his body and lay down.

In the earth’s thickets the hymn of the grasshoppers resounded. In the sky’s expanses gales grumbled.

He crawled toward the veil.

He reached the leather statue that was planted near the north brook. He crawled up this specter’s frame and glided into its coarse fabric the way a snake glides into its pit. He entered the veil to replace the veil. He fled from the scarecrow to take refuge in the scarecrow. He fled from the real scarecrow to shelter in the leather scarecrow erected in the fields. He liberated himself from a scarecrow that inhabited him–a scarecrow hostile to him, to settle as a guest in the belly of another scarecrow.

He freed himself the way a snake does when it sloughs off its skin. He did not merely liberate himself; he was reborn in a new body.

From this body enveloped in gloom, a mysterious hiss rattled.

2

The chief vassal said, “The hungry are grumbling, Master.”

They were strolling in the courtyard of the glorious fortress. The sun was kneeling in the West, and the eastern wall was bathed by twilight’s rays. The vanquished forces of the mirage, however, resisted desperately before they shot off into seclusion, leaving behind long trails, and then climbed the neighboring walls.

The leader clasped his hands behind his back and then asked, “Can a governor govern a public catastrophe? What strategy can a commander adopt against a problem that he had no role in creating?”

Anxiety settled into Abanaban’s eyes. His trembling hand reached out to adjust his veil around his cheeks. Straightening a veil is always a subterfuge to conceal nervousness or mask emotion. After a long silence he ventured, “I don’t feel able to offer any advice today. But, Master, I do wish to rescue anything I can. This is what induces me to bare my heart to my master and to discuss the customary law that obliges a ruler to feed his subjects.”

“I know. I know that the Law holds a ruler responsible for the welfare of his subjects. I know secondly that we can’t buy their obedience with anything but food. I know, finally, that the sovereign loses his title to sovereignty if he fails to provide these two things: security and bread!”

Caught off guard, he paused and stared at a corner of the wall. He continued with a different refrain: “But don’t forget that this is the Law of Peace–not the Law of War. Wartime dictates a different Law. Otherwise war wouldn’t be called war, and nations wouldn’t tremble in fright at the mere mention of the word.”

“I haven’t cast doubt on my master’s wisdom nor have I questioned his knowledge of the Law of commanders. I simply wanted to draw my master’s attention to the danger of civil unrest, because spies have reported that the stink of rebellion is in the air!”

“Everyone knows that prosperity in the oasis depends on the visits of merchant caravans. Everyone knows as well that the war has frightened away the caravans, which have changed their routes, depriving us of both their goods and our taxes on these goods. So where can I obtain food for the hungry?”

Twilight’s rays, which had been bathing the eastern ramparts, subsided, and the mirage’s tongues, which had been climbing those walls, scattered. The chief vassal said in a disturbing voice, “The day before yesterday they harvested the last edible palm core from the top of the last surviving palm tree in the fields!”

“The last palm?”

“And yesterday a patrol found a pile of human bones buried in a pit near the eastern wall.”

“What are you trying to say?”

Abanaban was silent for a time. When he replied, his voice sounded even stranger. “I’m trying to say that a man who preys on his brother’s flesh is not to be trusted.”

The leader appeared deflated but did not turn toward his companion. Instead he continued to stare at a patch of dirt veiled by the evening’s shadows. As if finding himself among people for the first time, he observed, “I wouldn’t have thought man would ever be able to do that.”

“Hunger, Master, ravishes the mind, and once the mind is lost, so is the man.”

“In the desert, people bury themselves in their tents during famines and don’t emerge till they’re dead.”

“The desert has different laws.”

“In the desert they combat hunger by hunting wild animals. Then if a man is lucky and returns with game, he sends half to the leader and divides the rest with his entire hamlet!”

“Different laws apply in the desert, Master.

“In the oasis they grumble and challenge authority, wanting to grab bread from the leader’s hand.”

“This is the law of the oasis, Master.”

“If they were a group that acknowledges a good deed, that would be easy–or have you forgotten how the nobles rejected me the day the council met?”

“No good deed goes unpunished, Master–that’s human nature.”

“From day one, I helped the downtrodden among them. I removed the tax burden from the shoulders of poor people, craftsmen, and farmers. I allowed their merchants to trade with gold. So life was revived, our standard of living was good, and everyone was happy.”

“Denial of a favor is a human characteristic, Master.”

“During a calamity, all I see in their eyes is a thirst for vengeance. What right have I to pardon these wretches’ mistreatment of me and give them bread, thus diminishing my own nourishment?”

“They claim our master foresaw this crisis, purchased all the wheat in the markets of the oasis, and then buried it secretly underground, the way sorcerers do.”

“I will give them all my stockpiles of wheat the moment you promise that this gift will buy their fealty to me for a single day.”

“I won’t ever do that, Master, because I know that man will never pardon a good deed.”

“Never pardon a good deed?”

“That’s right, Master. Man can forgive a bad deed but never a good one!”

He paused and turned his whole body to face his companion. Gazing into his master’s eyes with astonishment, the chief vassal saw he was trembling.

He stammered, “What a harsh prophecy!” His eyes glinted with a haughty flash, and he added with profound submission, “A harsh prophecy is the noblest kind.”

3

This prophecy tipped the balance, and inspired him to journey to the veil.

This prophecy completed the inspiration that had caused him to despair during the first days of the disaster.

This prophecy finished structuring the indistinct whisper, adding form and substance to it.

Now he could continue with his project.

Now he could shed his doubts and approach the Spirit World by executing his plan.

Only now did he know for certain that people who consider a good deed an unforgivable offense deserve no mercy. While he had hesitated for a long time to conduct the monumental sacrifice the Spirit World had imposed on him as a condition for saving him from every mighty trap, noble conduct had not raised him to the ranks of the virtuous. Instead, he had dropped to the level of fools.

Now, after achieving this certainty, he could discard his scruples and avenge himself on a community that had repaid his ancient benefaction with nothing but a ruse. He would take revenge, because he himself–like any human being–had never been anything more than the sacrificial victim of an act of vengeance. Yes, man from the very beginning has always been a miserable sacrificial victim offered in compensation for some previous vengeful act; he was therefore forced to seek revenge as well. He was to take his revenge quickly if he wished to avoid becoming the victim of another vengeful deed and being forced again from the lair by its occupant’s stings.

4

“Anyone who offers me his allegiance, come hell or high water, receives my guarantee that he will not feel hunger again or suffer from fear.”

The herald set off early in the morning with this announcement, and people flocked into the streets. Residents raced through the alleys–men and women, graybeards and youngsters–to climb the hill. Then they besieged the glorious fortress in just the same way that foreign tribes were laying siege to the walls of the oasis.

The soldiers forced them to halt and form queues in the audience chamber. The master made an appearance and repeated his talisman: “Anyone who offers me his allegiance, come hell or high water, receives my guarantee that he will not feel hunger again or suffer from fear.”

They roared their approval and wept with delight. Then they advanced in their queues toward the soldiers to accept their ration of wheat from the soldiers’ hands.

In that crowd, from somewhere in the rear, a stern voice rang out, sounding as if the speaker had never known the taste of hunger and had never been importuned by his children’s complaints at home. “The food’s poisoned! Watch out!”

No one paid any attention to his warning. People kept moving forward in their queues, dragging their feet like captives who had crossed the desert on foot. They bowed to the soldiers and then received their portion of a gift that would save them from hunger and safeguard them from fear.

The soldiers, for their part, did not heed the warning either; perhaps they did not care.

The voice cried out again: “This is a banquet, and a banquet is always a trap. So beware!”

The cry was lost in the din once more. Then the creature hidden in the crowd screamed out a new prophecy: “Once he captured your nobles with a banquet, and now he captures you with a banquet as well.”

No one heeded his cry. No one paid any attention to his existence, because hunger’s reign has always superseded that of prophecy.

5

The soldiers finished transporting the dead palm trunks from the fields and then laid giant piles of logs and planks in the Temple Plaza to create a bonfire bigger than any ever seen in the desert before.

The leader ordered the citizens to assemble inside the ring of firewood and then positioned himself on the hill at the gate of the glorious fortress. He waited until everyone was silent and then spoke with a harsh terseness learned from the language of prophecies. “When I promised that if you pledged allegiance to me, come what may, I would spare you hunger and fear, I took a solemn oath. Then I fed you and fulfilled half my oath. Now the time has come for me to pay the second half.”

He gestured to the chief vassal, and Abanaban raised his hand as a signal to the soldiers, who immediately rushed to set fire to the wood.

Screams resounded, and voices cried for help.

People shoved each other aside, trying to escape from the circle of fire, desperate to save themselves, but the soldiers stabbed them with swords and spears. Many fell to the ground, bleeding profusely, and then were trampled underfoot by the mob. Others retreated only to be choked by waves of smoke before perishing like the rest in the tongues of flame.

Despite the ferocity with which the soldiers guarded the ring around the fearsome hearth, the will to survive and the will to live proved stronger than all the ploys of these clever strategists, and fugitives escaped from here and there. Then they raced across the naked earth on their way to the Western Hammada Gate, but there specters rushed at them and felled them with arrows and lances.

This holocaust lasted a long time.

The soldiers polished off the civilians, and that night the leader hosted a banquet for his armed forces to repay them for the expert execution of their duties. They were not, however, destined to enjoy another sunrise, because the poison that their master had mixed into the food proved fast-acting, and they perished in no time at all.

6

The next morning the leader climbed to the roof terraces of the glorious fortress accompanied by the chief vassal. He contemplated the soldiers’ corpses, which were strewn around the hill, and gazed at the fearsome hearth–cluttered with ashes, charred wood, and pieces of bone–from which plumes of smoke rose. He looked up at the clear sky, and tears filled his eyes as he said, “This is the sacrifice!”

The chief vassal staggered to his side and wailed in a voice that was not his own: “How harsh is a lord’s vengeance! How harsh is the vengeance of lords!”

The master repeated in a voice that also was not his normal one, “This is the sacrifice!”

Stillness descended on the oasis, a stillness that seemed appropriate for an oasis where only the dead remained. The stillness lasted for some time.

Then the master wondered aloud, “Should we lament the destruction of a creature who pardons a bad deed but never forgives a good one?”

The chief vassal lamented, “Man doesn’t forgive a good deed, Master, because he is a man; man doesn’t forgive a good deed, because he rejects shackles and doesn’t want to be encumbered by obligations to others.”

“Even though such madness doesn’t give this creature any right to expect mercy, I fulfilled my promise–as you have seen. I saved them from fear after I fed them to spare them hunger. No enemy will ever harm them, and no evil will ever befall them.”

“Even if a creature fears pain, he would rather slither across the ground with no limbs, provided he remains alive, than swallow a panacea that spares him pain’s evil but costs him his life.”

“This is another argument that confirms that this haughty creature does not rise much above the level of an insect.”

“All the same, the desert loses its splendor and becomes a desolate wasteland once man leaves its realm. Look at the oasis, Master. Don’t you see that this is no longer an oasis? Don’t you see that what yesterday was an oasis has become an empty space we could call anything except an oasis?”

The leader did not reply, and a stillness befitting a place populated only by the dead settled over them.

This stillness did not last long.

A blade emerged from a sleeve as the light of the morning sun washed over it and descended like lightning to pierce a chest. The chief vassal staggered and stumbled back. He emitted a quiet groan before mastering himself and taking a few steps forward till he was beside his master, who whispered sadly, “Forgive me. A man who chooses to flee from his enemies must avoid leaving any witnesses behind.”

The wounded man grasped the dagger’s handle and with the forbearance of the ancients, replied, “I knew my master was destined to do this one day.”

“I was destined to join the ranks of the caravan you said could pardon a bad deed but not a good one. You’ve done me many favors, and now you’re receiving your due reward!”

“My master can rest assured that I shan’t bear a grudge against him, because what he has done proves that my master belongs to the human race.”

His pains silenced him, but he struggled stubbornly to withstand the blow and tried to pull the dagger from his chest. He staggered a step forward and then two steps back. He moaned grievously before falling to his knees and then collapsing on the roof’s membrane.

Rays of morning light illuminated his eyes, in which the master saw all the profundity, peacefulness, and symbolism of a smile.

7

He vanished into the chambers of the fortress and disguised himself there in a shepherd’s tattered garments. He descended the northeast side of the hill and cast a searching look at the heavens. The luminous disc was settled at the heart of the sky, and all beings swam in the mirage’s tongues. He listened carefully and heard the stillness. He detected that murky clamor that desert dwellers have learned to discern in the majestic stillness–this clamor that is always the secret message of stillness, a din diviners call the gibberish of eternity.

He listened carefully for a long time and was about to continue on his way when a whisper-like misgiving stopped him. He paused to listen carefully again. He began to spy on this stillness once more. He tried to discern the whisper in the sound of the stillness, the symbol in the voice of the silence, the worldly disturbance in the gibberish of eternity. He froze and held his breath. He focused his entire body on listening and transformed his limbs into ears. So he heard; he heard another convulsion in the clamor of the ages. He detected a distant, disturbing, monotonous pulse like the song of grains of sand complaining in sandy deserts to the gloomy expanses of night about the days’ raging heat. Had the quake’s hour arrived? Didn’t scholars say a similar sound precedes an earthquake?

He gazed up again at the horizons, which were partially obscured by the circular wall of the oasis. Then he spotted dust rising in all directions. A bloody circle of red dust particles from the Hammada was swirling into the empty air like a whirlwind. Had the attack begun? Had the whirlwind’s hour arrived?

He knelt on the dirt and rested his ear on the ground. Then he heard the convulsion even more clearly. Countless nations were advancing. Countless feet were marching his way. The Day of Reckoning had arrived. The armies would storm the walls before evening fell.

He decided he had to act quickly.

He traversed the empty alleys at a brisk pace almost like a canter. He lurched forward till he had left all the buildings behind. Before reaching the fields, he remembered the treasures. He recalled his plan for dealing with the treasures and smiled maliciously. He smirked in self-congratulation for the strategy he had devised to conceal the treasures. He smiled because he was sure the invaders would not discover even one of the gold or silver coins. He smiled because he was certain that he had ruined the chances for plunder of armies that had not embarked on this raid and endured the campaign’s terrors for any reason except their lust for booty. Yesterday he had spoiled their opportunity to seize the women. Today he had deprived them of the opportunity to lay hold of the treasures. So just when they thought themselves the victors, they would taste defeat, because a warrior who returns from a campaign without any booty or spoils is a defeated soldier, even if he won the battle. This was his present for the leader of the foreigners. This was his gift to the idol. This was his revenge that he had prepared for the scarecrow, the ghoul, the dragon. The thought made him giggle.

He reached the well and waded into the brook barefoot. He crushed carpets of grass underfoot, and the world’s ills slipped from his body. His foot plunged into the muck of the field, and the antidote for the all the world’s ills flowed through his physique. The humid breeze that carried the scent of mud, grasses, and a fig tree passed over him, and the poisons of confusion were drawn from his soul. He shed his tattered clothes one at a time. He pulled off his pants and tunic. He removed even his veil and stretched out in the mire. He sank into the muck until he disappeared. Then he poked his nostrils above the surface to take a breath and released a deep moan like the gasp of longing that springs from the chests of ecstatic mystics. He wallowed. He rolled about in the mud to rinse away the pains of angst. He wallowed in the field’s muck to cleanse himself of the world’s muck. He rolled about in the belly of the earth to free himself from the grasp of deceit. He continued a journey he had begun the day he embraced the beautiful widow and entered the fields with her. He had entered the fields with her because he was certain that once man enters the fields, he should never leave them. He had suspected that once man enters cultivated fields he must become part of the fields: the shadow of a tree, the trunk of a palm, or a plant growing by a brook. He had thought that fields are man’s homeland. He had suspected that orchards are man’s destiny and his paradise on the day he returns to these orchards. But the beautiful woman had belied his preconceptions and destroyed his certainty. So he had lost his wager, because he had not understood that anyone who wagers with a beautiful woman is destined to lose. He had returned from his orchards that day with an unpleasant sense of failure. He had borne in his hands the shackle he had mined from the comfort of despair, childhood, and forgetfulness. He had waded in the mires of deceit for a long time, and now his circuit was finally leading him to the shores of stillness. Here he was cheek by jowl with the orchard. His body was the mud, his blood the brook’s water, and his hair the grass of the field. His breath was a breeze freshened by the fragrance of flowers, grass, and damp earth.

He did not know how long this encounter lasted, but when he crept away and entered the nearby skin-clad frame to borrow the scarecrow’s body, the fields had donned evening’s sash.

Bios

Ibrahim al-Koni

Ibrahim al-Koni, who was born in 1948, is an international author with many authentic, salient identities. He is an award-winning Arabic-language novelist who has already published more than seventy volumes, a Moscow-educated visionary who sees an inevitable interface between myth and contemporary life, an environmentalist, a writer who depicts desert life with great accuracy and emotional depth while adding layers of mythical and literary references the way a painter might apply luminous washes to a canvas, a Tuareg whose mother tongue is Tamasheq, and a resident of Switzerland since 1993. Ibrahim al-Koni, winner of the 2005 Mohamed Zafzaf Award for the Arabic Novel and the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature, has also received a Libyan state prize for literature and art, prizes in Switzerland, including the literary prize of the Canton of Bern, and a prize from the Franco-Arab Friendship Committee in 2002 for L’Oasis cache. On December 16, 2010, he was awarded the Egyptian State Prize for the Arabic Novel at the closing ceremony of the biennial conference on Creativity in the Arab Novel in Cairo.

Al-Koni spent his childhood in the Sahara desert. Then, after working for the Libyan newspapers Fazzan and al-Thawra, he studied comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, where he also worked as a journalist. He later lived in Warsaw for nine years and edited the Polish-language periodical as-Sadaqa, which published translations of short stories from Arabic, including some of his own. His novels The Bleeding of the Stone, Gold Dust, Anubis, The Seven Veils of Seth, and The Puppet have been published in English translation. At least seven of his titles have appeared in French, and at least ten exist in German translation. Representative works by al-Koni are available in approximately thirty-five languages, including Japanese.

William Hutchins

William Hutchins, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He twice has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, first in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing), and again in 2011-2012 for al-Koni's novel New Waw. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders and Banipal Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. His translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni.

Al-Fazza‘a. Copyright (c) al-Mu'assasa al-‘Arabiya lil-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr (Beirut), 1998. English translation copyright (c) William Hutchins, 2011.