Translated by Michelle Bailat-Jones
When they arrived there were five of them, feet in black boots, heads under safari helmets, handkerchiefs always at hand. They were a party of traders accompanied by a photographer; the oldest of them carried walking sticks and one of them wore thin, round spectacles. They all had the stiff bodies of white men.
A small boy led them to the village, hopping on his calloused feet. In the middle of the square, where everyone gathers around the Ceiba tree, they were given mats and low stools to serve them millet beer in little gourds. Then they had to stand to greet the chief. The travelers, heads held high, shook hands with the elders who kept their eyes lowered out of respect.
The entire village gathered around the party; unsmiling, they watched the men. Small children carried by older children, the men separate from the bare-breasted, taut-bellied women, the elders seated across from the visitors, having quietly folded their lean bodies and tucked their legs beneath them. Some of them were smoking an earthen pipe.
The photographer was the youngest of the visitors and he doffed his hat to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief now soiled and gray. The sun revealed a crown of light-colored hair and as he was seated on a mat, a little girl touched his head to feel the strangely smooth strands against the palm of her hand. When she began to laugh, hiding her mouth with her hand, the white man flinched and reddened in surprise, in disgust, at the thought of her black fingers against his skin. Other children gathered close around him, pressing against one another. Just then the musicians arrived. They positioned themselves at the edge of the circle created by the villagers and the first player, who was bare-chested, pushed two big drums in front of him and began to beat them with sticks. Another player, seated near the elders, held an upturned gourd between his legs.
From out of nowhere, a group of little girls entered the circle, one after the other, and began to dance. Their steps kicked up a reddish dust. Their tilted heads gracefully marked each drumbeat. A boy threw water to quiet the dust, splashing the photographer a little who was staring fixedly at the rolling wave of bare chests, a wave like an electrical charge shot up from the earth and stolen by the stamping feet.
Next came a group of older girls who took up the circle and the steps, moving faster now. Finally, the young women arrived, beating a new rhythm with their hands and singing. The voices rang out from their open faces, their noses, their mouths, their eyes. They were wearing long skirts and some of the girls had braided their hair tightly against their rounded skulls. Most of the villagers were standing and followed the dance with a gentle sway. It smelled like overripe fruits and sweat: the villagers’ sweat was acrid and concentrated with dust, the white men’s acidic and sharp, exuding from flesh trapped beneath cloth.
The young women danced for a long while, until just before the sun disappeared, leaving the deep blackness of the bush, a blackness which called forth winged insects and provoked the panic of absolute darkness in the bellies of the travelers.
All throughout that first night, the young women continued to dance behind the photographer’s burning eyelids. One of the girls especially, the one he had smiled at.
Where did it come from – this frenzy of the dance? This unrestrained animal-like movement which was combined with a form of modesty he had never witnessed before?
As she moved, her almond-shaped eyes had seemed blind to everything around her while her twig-like hands darted forward and then returned calmly back to her hips. He watched the small of her back, he watched the matte skin of her shoulders grow damp, her pointed breasts and her immensely long neck tilted forward. The sharp curve of her heels, her nearly imperceptible calf, her knee turned white with dust.
In the morning this same girl brought him water and a white-colored vegetable paste which burned the inside of his mouth.
The sun had already completed half of its arc when the photographer got out of bed. He had come to take photographs and so he set up his equipment in front of the Ceiba tree, chasing away the children. They were all around him, pulling on his damp shirt, putting their hands on his camera, fingering his leather cases. But the young man didn’t lose heart. He settled three of the smallest children against the roots of the tree and then he got the others to understand they had to squeeze in to fit the camera’s field. With sweat dripping off his nose, he managed to take his first photos.
After a moment, the men gathered to watch him. The largest of them placed himself in front of the camera, legs spread, chest puffed. His naked body was carved with powerful muscles. And because the white man couldn’t help wanting to capture the man’s beauty, he took a full-body shot, then, without moving his head so the man would stay still, he shifted to take a portrait: two of his face, two of his profile. Because he’d been warned that only the photos which could be used for measurements were worth anything. Of course this is why they had paid for his trip. He’d been told that it was necessary to be able to make out the shape of the skull. He’d been given a color palette, with a whole series of browns, reds and whites, to fill out with respect to the photo of each specimen.
He saw the women walking with gourds on their heads at the other end of the square. They carried within themselves that same mysterious ripple and roll from the dance that he would have liked to capture on film. But this movement won’t allow itself to be tamed with a flash of light. With many gestures and much smiling he managed to get one of the women to approach although she kept her head down. She put her plate on the ground and let herself be photographed with her eyes staring off into the distance. Then the young girl from the night before came over, bare-chested, a cloth wrapped around her lower back. On her own, she placed herself in front of the lens and when he snapped the picture, she smiled.
That second night, the white men gathered together to eat and discuss. But the young photographer was unable to eat anything, despite his hunger and the weakness in his limbs. A powerful nausea was making his head hurt and he went out to walk a little in the village before the daylight vanished. He came across the young girl behind a hut; she was finishing her evening meal. She was holding that same white vegetable paste in the palm of her hand and the skin of her face was dry and dusty except for a shiny ring around her mouth. He knew she didn’t speak his language and so the photographer told her that he found her beautiful and desirable. He shivered in the pitch dark night, feeling an insect crawling up his leg beneath his pants, but he didn’t want to get up, not now that she was there, so close beside him that all he could make out were the whites of her eyes. In turn she spoke to him, seized his hand and got up, pulling him behind her. He wanted to grab her by the shoulders but she raced off. And the night gave shelter to her black body.
When dusk fell in the evenings, before going to his mat, the young man had gotten in the habit of lighting a candle he kept hidden in his luggage and taking out his pastels. In his notebook, he had noted the approximate age of the villagers he’d photographed, and completed a sketch from memory of each of them, shaded according to the tones he’d been given. He had been told to follow a code: the blackest of them were to be indicated with a very dark brown and there was a scale to be used for measuring sizes, the dimension of each head, the shape of their hands. Machine-like, he filled in his paperwork and then tried to order them by date. He often lied down against the ground because the freshness of the earth was like a balm. While he worked he remembered the plaster molds of African faces which had fascinated him in the anthropology office before he left. Their coarse features, the oversized mouths, the flattened noses, seemingly squashed against a face with protruding jowls. How had his eyes completely missed the harmonies that now astonished him, what had he actually seen? He remembered feeling proud of the civilization he came from, where reason had conquered obscure superstition, where science and progress marched along beside philosophy and the arts.
And now an entire world had thrown itself against him, overwhelming with light and odors. The sky here, was it really the same sky that hung over his continent? Almost white, kissing the ground, overpowering the earth with its endless brilliance. Nothing had prepared him for this omnipresent sun, for its dictatorial nature. Nothing had prepared him for the balance of these bodies, for this new order. He felt as naked as man at the dawn of time…and especially ill, he felt himself growing more and more ill.
For nearly a week, he didn’t leave his hut. A white doctor came from a neighboring city and the worry could be read across his face. The photographer was forced to eat and to drink a cold broth which tasted terrible. No food was able to get past his parched lips. In his dreams, the young girl came and slept beside him but he was never able to move himself beside her because he kept searching for a sheet, a pillow, something to put his head upon. And the dream would end in a burst of laughter, the girl’s laughter as she mocked him. He had to drop his head down against the earth. Or was that really what happened? Didn’t she come each morning with water and sweet mango cut in half, each half turned inside out with small cuts made in the flesh? Hadn’t she smiled yesterday when she saw the pastels forgotten next to his mat? Hadn’t she wiped his sweaty brow? He didn’t know anymore, his fever gave him not a single moment of respite. Perhaps the young woman had stretched herself out beside him, perhaps she’d even kissed him. Or maybe she only felt sorry for him.
The last day. The traders took up their white cloth helmets again and the children came in a line to touch their hands. They had to leave the photographer in the village because he was too weak.
“Don’t worry, old boy. We’ll be back in a few weeks to get you. The doctor’s staying with you.”
The young man was no longer worried, his head was only concerned now with the pain in his body and he’d noticed he no longer understood much of what the white men said. The day after they left, he got up for the last time to make his way to the latrines. His half-closed eyes were able to catch sight of the young girl, still watching out for him. Hidden in the square, she watched him but did not move. She heard the sound of his intestines emptying out all that remained of the life in him. She heard his last words, something which must have sounded like, “Liquid, I’ve gone all liquid.”
Fourteen days later, the villagers heard from the white men that the photographer’s name was Augustin. They had buried the body some time before. The traders took his equipment but they didn’t see the pastels. It is said the young girl kept them, but perhaps the chief took them. It is said that the pastels stayed for many years in the village, that some travelers even saw them and then one day they were lost. In any case, over time, the dust rubbed away the colors, erased the lines.
Translated from the French. Originally published in Coaltar, March 2010.
Note: When I first read this story, I was immediately struck by the confidence of the narrative perspective, its ability to hover above the small African village where the story takes place, and then to zoom in carefully, delicately even, on several characters. I was also very impressed with the narrator’s compassionate approach to the photographer’s conflicted thoughts as he realizes he sees the villagers as people, something he was clearly not expecting. More than any of this, however, what prompted me to contact Céline Cerny to see if she might be interested in having her piece translated for this project was the subtle rhythm which rolls through her writing. Sentences and paragraphs carry within themselves a certain beat. I knew this would make it a somewhat tricky text to translate, but that same thought also convinced me it was necessary to try.