When I was a child no one envied me. I was born the son of a mannish woman and a womanish man. Who in Africa would envy me such a fate?
My mother, I was told, was so beautiful that men traveled far distances for a glimpse of her face. I do not know if this is true, but I have heard that when she obeyed the wishes of her father and consented to marry the man who would become my father, her suitors began a fast that lasted days. And there was one, who, unable to conceive of life without her, put a razor to his throat.
My mother never loved my father. But love was not a prerequisite for marriage in my mother’s time. That she may have been in love with the man who killed himself because he could not bear to live one more day with the knowledge that she shared another man’s bed was of no consequence to her family, and, thus, it was required to be of no consequence to her. I was just five years old when she left my father for good. No one said she left him because she did not love him, but the women whispered among themselves that my mother wept in secret uncontrollably on the days when it was her turn to sleep in my father’s hut.
My mother had left my father once before. It was on the eve of her wedding. Her brothers found her, hours later, a mile away from the village where the man, ten years her senior, whom it was rumored she knew (and that word was used maliciously in its biblical sense), was discovered that morning sprawled across the floor of his hut, his clothes stinking of stale palm wine, the cut on his throat so fine, so miniscule, that one would have missed it entirely if not for the stream of blood that had since thickened near his neck and formed a dark red pool, almost black, around his head like a halo.
He was a surgeon, perhaps not called so by doctors in the West, for he was not trained in the ways of Western medicine, but a scientist nonetheless. A specialist in the art of slicing and stitching: repairing the human body. There was no doubt that he knew when he put his razor to the vein in his neck carrying his lifeblood freshly pumped from his heart that one movement of his hand, expertly applied, would stop the breath in his body.
It was a deliberate act, a suicide. The wonder of it was its cause: that love could have such power, that it could lead a man to his finality!
To the villagers’ way of thinking, any man, supposing he was not sick or lame or disinterested in women, could easily replace one woman with another. A surgeon of the reputation of the dead man would simply have had to make his desires known and he could have had any woman of his choice, perhaps not one more beautiful than my mother, but certainly one with a dowry far richer than any her parents could have afforded.
In the first five years of my life I heard this story a hundred times, so it seemed to my budding imagination, which, when it blossomed later, would be the cause of much of my anguish. The women would tell each other the story about this man and my mother as if the mere retelling could shed light on a mystery that baffled them, the most puzzling part of which was that my mother, who was to be married the next day, would jeopardize her future and that of her family for a dead man. For my father was a wealthy and powerful man, far wealthier and more powerful than the surgeon who lived in one of the six villages that had been won in wars by my father’s ancestors, fierce warriors known for their brutality, and, paradoxically, their compassion. When they conquered a village, they took for themselves everything of worth: the beautiful women whether married or not, wood carvings that pleased them and the artists as well, whom they would commission to sculpt likenesses of themselves.
I remember seeing these carvings when I was a child. My mother took me one day to a discarded hut at the back of my father’s compound. Before we entered it, she made me take off my shoes and bow my head, and she put her fingers to her lips, signaling me to be silent. I knew immediately that we were in a sacred place. Rows upon rows of wood carvings entwined with cobwebs lay one on top the other, dead men, though strangely animated, their faces expressing every emotion I had already witnessed in my young life: joy, sadness, anger, disappointment, fear, hope, pain. My mother told me afterwards they were copies of my father’s people. Holy objects.
My father had not put them there. His father had, for he had no appreciation for art and had long ago released the artists in bondage to his family. My father saw no reason to reverse his decision, and by the time I was old enough and knowledgeable enough to convince my father of the value of the treasures he possessed, he had already sold them to some French traders for twenty grotesquely ornate brass pots that within weeks lost the shiny golden luster that had attracted him.
But, of course, what my warrior ancestors principally took from their enemies was land, and it was in the seizure of this most valuable of assets to the people of my country that they showed their compassion. So long as the villagers gave them a percentage of their crops, they were free to return to their former way of life. Yet there was no uncertainty about the penalty to be exacted for a single infraction, one iota less of the amount of dates, sorghum, or millet than had been agreed upon, whether the cause was due to laziness on the part of the villager or to the unpredictability of nature, drought, or incessant rains. The punishment was swift and irreversible: immediate exile and the appropriation of that person’s land, which would then be given to whomever my ancestors favored.
My father was not at all like his warrior ancestors, neither in brutality nor in compassion. He was a mild man who conducted his life by the code of live and let live. If the villagers did not trouble him, he did not trouble them. If they gave him enough so he could continue to live in the biggest house, have the largest retinue of servants, all the food and comforts he needed, he did not keep account of who owed him what or who should be punished for what.
He had acquired the lands he owned without struggle and so had not had inbred in him what he believed to be a false notion: that there is virtue in work, value inherent in the act itself. To him work was a means to an end, not an end itself. He saw no purpose in labor unless it was necessary, and when it became necessary for him, as it did after long stretches of droughts devastated his land for miles around and he was forced to join the farmers to make the soil yield the crops he depended upon for the maintenance of his lifestyle, he married again, taking three more wives whose extended families could relieve him of his labor.
It was not a difficult achievement. My father was still a valuable prize for the most desirable of women. Fathers brought their daughters to him; he did not go seeking wives. They knew he could provide for their daughters and employ their families on his farm. And the women were not burdened with my mother’s tragic sensibilities. They did not need the pretext of love to consent to his offer of marriage. They were practical, cognizant of their dependence on him, and so were grateful. When my mother left my father for the second and last time, they, like the women in our village, pondered no more on the reason for her flight that first time, on the night before her marriage: Someone had put a curse on her years ago and it had not worn off.
My father did not seem to care when my mother left, so I was told. He shrugged his shoulders, opened up the palms of his hands and, with an insouciance bred from a laziness that comes from having little to desire, he said, “Let her go. She’ll return.”
I knew, although I was a boy, that it would not have mattered to him, either, had she taken me with her, and for years I carried a deep resentment toward my mother for abandoning me. This anger I harbored released such poison in me that I refused to allow myself to feel any tenderness toward her even on those nights when the natural desire of a child for its mother brought me dangerously close to tears.
Sometimes, though, when missing my mother caused me such pain, I could not sleep for days on end, I allowed myself to find relief in the fantasy that my mother’s decision to leave without me was not hers to make. I thought then, on those dark nights, that it was her brothers who had forced her to come to this conclusion, convincing her that they would have been left to the mercy of a man whose forefathers had been known for their brutality. My father, they would have told her, would not have rested until he found me.
But in the light of day I faced the truth. I knew my mother’s family laughed at my father behind his back. I knew they called him the worst of names: a womanish man, a man who had lost the will to fight.
Yes, he would have let my mother go. He would not have hunted her down, even if she had taken his son with her, his eldest of three male children, a direct descendant from a long line of warriors. But it was also true that my mother’s family would have been relieved that she had left me behind. Even though he was a womanish man, my father still owned the land they lived on, and I, given the natural course of inheritance, would one day own it all.
I did not see my mother again when she left my father’s compound that fateful evening. She was dead within weeks, and it would take me years after that, when I was a man, already with a wife and children, to understand why the decision she made to leave my father was no decision at all, no deliberate act dictated by the brain. I would come to know she had no choice. I would discover how the loss of one’s love could defeat the will to live, how it could eradicate all joy, all purpose to existence, how life could become unbearable if one could no longer touch the skin of the person you loved, hear her voice, kiss her lips; if one no longer had the happiness that came from those inexpressible moments, those intimacies of sharing one’s soul with one’s beloved, knowing one was understood, believed.
My mother, I am convinced, died when her lover died. She lived a living death with my father until she could live no more. I believe that when she left, she left to die. She left without clothes or money or food or water. She woke up one morning, handed me to my father without a word, turned her back on him, and walked steadily out of his compound, not once hesitating, not once looking back, though I was told I screamed and begged her not to leave me.
Those who saw her said she had put a spell on them so that they would not be able to stop her. But I believe they did not want to, or they were afraid to. They said she looked like a woman who had already become a spirit. She was walking to that other world where the man she loved was waiting for her.
Years later I would know well what they meant. For I, too, one day would walk that road, my spirit parched for a woman who was not my wife, for Marguerite, my passion burning my heart to ashes. I, too, would become a ghost though I wore the trappings of a man: skin covering bones, flesh containing blood.
My mother was a skeleton when they found her, her flesh glued to her bones from starvation, her eyes bulging from their sockets. People came from far and wide to watch her die.
Naturally, I was not embraced by my relatives in my father’s compound. My mother had dishonored her people. She was a mannish woman, a woman who took it upon herself to follow her mind. (No one stopped to consider it was her heart, not her mind, that she had followed.) Most of all I was not embraced because it was believed that my mother had been cursed and that that curse could be passed on to anyone who sympathized with her. When the Canadian missionaries offered to take me to their boarding school in the part of our country the French had colonized, my mother’s people advised my father to let me go. Once again my father shrugged his shoulders, opened the palms of his hands, and said: “Take him. He’ll return.”
When I was twelve and had been with them for five years, the missionaries decided I was bright enough to go to high school, and so they sent me to their main school in the English colony. My father did not protest. My mother’s family did not protest. They believed that if I spent more years in a city, I would turn my back on the hardships of farming on an unyielding land. They had already ingratiated themselves with the mother of my father’s second son, who was next in the line of inheritance, and had made themselves indispensable on my father’s farm.
I, too, did not protest. I did not want to return to my father’s farm. My mother’s suicide and her abandonment of me still lay heavy on my heart, and because I had now learned from the missionaries that taking one’s life is an abomination to God, I was also filled with shame for my mother and for myself. I thought myself the most unfortunate child in the world. Not only did I not have a mother, but the mother I once had had sinned against God and was condemned to burn for eternity in the fires of Hell. And why? Because of love. It was for me, then, when I was young, when life had not yet schooled me, had not yet humbled me, the most shameful, the most dishonorable, the most incomprehensible reason for taking one’s life.
And yet I was not the most unfortunate child. Even friends who know my story, my beginnings as the son of a mannish woman and womanish man, say the silver spoon was still firmly planted in my mouth. “That Oufoula Sindede,” they say, “nobody can take his silver spoon out.”
Perhaps that is true, for the missionaries arranged for me to go to the University of London, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature. When I graduated, I was not only fluent in my native tongue but also in two of the most important languages of European diplomacy. I spoke, read, and wrote French and English. I knew the writings of the most important men and women of letters from England and France. This knowledge of their literature and their language would serve me well, for I was destined for a career in the diplomatic service. Though no one envied me when I was a child, I would be envied then by men older than me, wiser, and, perhaps, more worthy of the prestigious positions I would hold in my lifetime.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Discretion by Elizabeth Nunez. Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Nunez. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.