by Veronique Tadjo
The dead were paying regular visits to the living and when they were with them, they would asked why they had been killed.
The town streets were filled with spirits moving around, whirling in the stifling air. They jostled the living, clambered on their backs, walked alongside them, danced around them, followed them through the crowded alleyways.
The dead would have liked to speak but no one could hear them. They would have liked to say all that they had not had time to say, all the words whose utterance they had been denied, cut from their tongues, torn from their mouths.
They were in every neighbourhood. You could feel them as they scurried past people.
The spirits were hurrying home to visit everyone they had known, in the places that they had loved and which were still their own.
And even if nothing remained but houses in ruins, they needed only a stone to rediscover the days gone by.
They floated among the living who went on leading their daily lives, and whose memory was starting to fade. Wounds remained embedded in their flesh, but those wounds were slowly closing over their nightmares.
The wrath of the dead faced with oblivion, with broken promises, was only to be expected. For life was already pulling at the living from all sides and they no longer knew where to turn. Already they were being sucked in by the demands of daily life and its endless routine details were threatening their revolt. They were losing the desire to rebel and to reject any resemblance to an accursed past. They were astonished to rediscover the pleasure of going about their daily lives.
And when they were angry, the dead gathered on empty loss among the debris, in places which had drunk of their blood and suffering and, once again, they would release the last mortal cries of their fleshy envelope. The wind carried away their rage and pierced the eardrums of the survivors. Consciences were darkened by anguish, making the days and nights unbearable.
Some of the dead were so enraged that they refused to go when the time came to quit the earth. There was one in particular whose head had been cut off and who was angry with everyone. His ally was a torrential downpour.
The rain fell furiously. An angry rain shrieking its refusal to open the gates to the other world. And it hammered the earth with great strokes in order to say: ‘No!’ To say that this dead man did not want to leave, that he had far too many things still to do, that he had loved life too much to leave it so.
And the rain hammered on, stormed, rebelled, demanded that the spirit should remain where it was.
The dead man groaned: ‘Why so soon? Why like this?
‘What will become of my voice, my eyes?
‘Who will continue what I have begun?’
He was scattering himself to the four winds. He moved from house to house, yard to yard, as the rain continued to fall ever harder and people stayed shut up in their homes. Everything had come to a halt.
The dead man argued, discussed, negotiated to be allowed to remain on earth. But no one would reply to him because they were walled up inside their own pain, deafened by their own tears, and their regrets.
The dead man knocked on doors and windows, but they did not open. He cried: ‘Why are you abandoning me? Now I am a corpse and you no longer recognise me. Can you not feel my presence among you?’
A soothsayer was brought from his dwelling far off in the hills. When he arrived, the venerable man, a great initiate into the secrets of time, greeted the rain, turned to the wind and began to listen to the angered spirit. He heard the story of his murder, the humiliations and torture which he had undergone before he was beheaded.
When the spirit fell silent, the diviner offered many words of appeasement. Then he added: ‘Even as I weep, I know that my pain can never reach even the outer limit of your suffering, you who have been mowed down by cruelty. I come to humbly ask you and all the dead to receive me into the house of silence and mourning, in this dark night where memories open up like wounds. I stand before you all, dead in your thousands, so you may turn your burning gaze on my great nakedness. I am vulnerable before you, a wretch of humanity.
Who am I to dare to cross the threshold of your pain? Who am I to disturb the course of your anger?
‘I am the beggar in search of the truth. I am the man lost in the abyss of our violence. I am he who asks you t o agree to give the living another chance.’
At this moment, the soothsayer stopped.
He was brought a chicken with very white feathers, whose belly he slit open with a swift sure stroke. He pulled out the entrails and sat on the ground to study them and decipher the hidden signs. He looked at then for a long time with great concentration. When he thought he had found what he was looking for, he made some ritual offerings and spat into the wind words that no one could catch.
Suddenly, the rain began to calm so that only the regular murmur of its lamentation could be heard, the refrain of its despair.
And soon, the first noises of daily life could be heard: bursts of talking, shouts, objects being moved, engines thrumming, machinery working somewhere at the end of the street, music coming from a radio. The inhabitants came out of their shelters and hesitantly set out on the muddy roads. The rolling of thunder came now only from a distance. Nature seemed to be peaceful again at last.
Then the dead man knew that his rebellion must come to an end. He prepared himself for the journey which was to take him to the other side of existence. When not a single drop more rain fell from the sky, he had gone.
The diviner spoke to the living as follows:
‘What we must do now is bury the dead according to our rites, bury their desiccated bodies, their bones growing old in the open air, so that we keep of them nothing but their memory, heightened by respect. Memory is like a sword dipped in steel, like rain in the heart of drought. A tiara placed on the head of tearful princess, finery over the shoulder of a mother bruised by sorrow, a garment of light to drape over a man broken by the immensity of absence and make him beautiful.
‘We must bury the dead so that they may return to visit us in peace, and hide their decay and their blinding nakedness, so that they do not place a curse on us. We must give back to the images of life the right to assert themselves, so that these bones covered in dust and violence will not bear the burden of the hatred which buried them.
‘We must ask them to yield up to us the secrets of life, which becomes triumphant once more, since only the living can bring the dead back to life. Without us, they no longer exist. Without them, we fall into emptiness.’
The diviner stopped for a moment to make sure that everyone had understood his words and also to gather his strength.
He went on:
‘It is the dead themselves who are asking us to go on living, to resume our activities, to speak again those words they can no longer say themselves.
‘How could they come back if we bar their way with our despair and our tears?
‘We must open the door to them, let them settle in, show them how we are living, remembering them through love, friendship and duty.
‘How strange is their eternal universe! Souls, burdened by all their wounds and mutilations, are judged and received at the divine tribunal. What rites can cleanse these abandoned corpses, devoured by dogs and crows? Take their saddened souls by the hand and lead them to the road to freedom, through the dazzling light, up the fiery staircase, in the bright dawn of all creation, the dawn of the morning sun and the dew lying on its grassy bed.
‘For time does not grow old. Three hundred and sixty-six days or the lightning passage of a second are all the same. The past and the future are the same distance, always bringing us back to the already completed moment.’
The diviner suddenly changed his tone and began to speak with a kind of serenity which quickly spread:
‘The dead will be reborn in every fragment of life, however small, in every word, every action, however simple it may be.
They will be reborn in the dust, in the dancing water, in the children who laugh and play as they clap their hands, in every seed hidden beneath the black earth.
‘And the spirits will depart to wherever they desire, no longer as spirits in torment but as flashes of lightning.
‘We must cast down all the evil which has been done so that the dead can sleep in peace and so that life may be relieved of the burden of our guilt.
‘We shall quieten the sound of our voices which are too loud to listen to the murmurs from under the earth.
‘They will tell us how to purify our passions, clean away the dust, throw away the stones that burden our lives.
‘We beg the dead not to increase the misery in which the country is wallowing, not to come and torment the living, even though they may not deserve their forgiveness.
‘We ask them to recognise our humanity, even though we are weak and cruel.
‘We have sullied the earth, plundered the sun. We have trampled on hope.
‘Nevertheless, we ask the dead not to seek revenge. Not to ill-treat us by sending a swirling horde of demons on to our heads. Not to send upon us a terrible drought which will lay waste our fields. Not to eat our entrails, not to tear out our eyes, not to engulf our future. We ask them not to let our hearts burn in the fire of our existence.
‘We shall search for phrases to appease them, prayers to soften their hearts, words we need so that they do not abandon us in the middle of what we are doing, so that our lives do not become endlessly tormented.
‘May their spirits rise to heaven so that they may find the kingdom that is theirs and to which we can have no access. May they remain the stars of our firmament, those we see in the dark night and which will still be shining for generations to come. May they populate our dreams with their cold splendour.
‘None among us has ever returned from that kingdom of theirs to tell us how they are, whether they have at last found peace or if they seeking shelter. No one has told us whether they are still carrying within them the memory of the wounds and mutilations of our fratricidal hatreds. No one can tell us how they will greet us when the time comes for us to go and join them. Our fear is infinite, for we fear to be banished for eternity, to be exiled in torment by their tribunal.’
Then the voice of the diviner became hard and sharp:
‘Men and women, guard against a desire for vengeance and the perpetual cycle of violence and reprisals. The dead are not at peace because your hearts are still shot through with hatred. The ashes of war are still smouldering.
‘The signs augur ill. We must deceive ourselves, the present is not what it should be. Too many injustices remain rooted in the heart of our country. The young are paying for the mistakes of their elders. Hordes of adolescents, the memory white-hot, are roaming the country. Hope is rare. Very few believe in the birth of a new future.
‘Will reconciliation be achieved in one day?
‘You will live together, but look in opposite directions. You co-habit to survive, but no one is willing to take the first step. ‘The signs are telling us: the nation is in mourning. Pain comes in waves. But when those waves threaten to engulf you, remember that you are the masters of your emotions.’
So saying, the diviner turned on his heel and disappeared into the hills, the thousand hills of this country.