The next day, a truck skidded through the village in a driving rain. They had come for me, the white man. Through the thin walls of the mosque, I could hear the marabout speaking the northern tongue, and then the qadi, translating it into another dialect. The men in the truck shouted back. The marabout continued to speak in his slow, measured tone. The men in the truck I could picture in my mind: swathed in robes, with a touch of camouflage here and there; in the back of the pickup, a heavy, mounted gun through the top window.
The men themselves, heavily armed, bearded, brimming with indignation. Below them would be the marabout, in his simple tunic, his bag of herbs and charms, his battered Qu’ran, lecturing, speaking, but always from the distance which his moral authority provided him.
No one would so much as touch a hair on his head. Here was Charles’ Africa: the north, with its native form of Islam; the north, with its idiosyncratic expression of the Prophet’s faith; a force which pulled the social fabric apart with its burning moral burdens and restless political desires, yet also hospitable, the master of the most benevolent religious gesture of peace, the open hand. The marabout, with his simple moral authority alone, and with the fear that his supernatural power engendered, sent the men on their way. His greatness had upended them. His sway was supreme. The next day, I was to see how far it reached.
That morning the marabout entered my room. He handed me a change of clothes: the attire of a trader from the north. He watched me dress. The outfit was simple, but to wind it properly, I needed his aid.
His spindly hands wrapped the garment effortlessly; he never said a word. He wound the end of the cloth over my hand, and tucked it into the spot between my chin and breast bone. Then he looked at me, as if judging the soundness of a horse for a long journey, and without a word grasped me by the wrist.
For the first time in nearly three days I was outside. Puddles of water lay all around me. I could smell the enveloping dampness of this great, mountain forest. But there was no time to linger. A small truck rattled by and stopped. The driver, a tiny brown man in a filthy cap, torn tee shirt, and blue jeans stuck his head through the window.
The marabout spoke to the man, and the man climbed down. I was placed in the closed rear of the truck, among boxes of animal feed. The marabout watched, and I could see his expression relax. I was not a person to him; I was a concept, an ideal to discharge. His duty done, I thought I saw him cry as I pulled away. I wondered if it was from joy. I imagined it was from relief.