Navigation Kopfzeile

Knauss, Sibylle (Sample Translation)

Eden (Eden)

Hoffmann und Campe, February 2009, 384 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-455-40144-8

... They had seen the signs. The smoke. The black clouds with no rain falling from them. The flickering glow over the summit at night. They had heard the grumbling from the mountain. The mountain had been like a cat. A cat which first purrs, then hisses, and then prepares to leap and bites.
They knew now that the mountain was a cat. A huge animal. But they had not recognised the signs.
Suddenly the woman uttered a cry and stopped. She turned round and pointed to where they had come from.
Could it be that the mountain was now spewing water instead of ash?
She ran her hand over her fur and felt that it was wet. It was raining!
Black rain was falling in heavy drops and running in black channels over her grey fur. She wanted to open her mouth, put her head back and drink, but she saw the warning look from the man and understood.
The water is not good, she indicated to the child. Keep going!
And yet she took the coming of the rain as a good sign.
It was the time for the rain to come. So something was the way it always was. The rain still knew when its time had come. It moistened the ground and turned it into a soft sludge which took on her footprints and kept them as it dried, while the three ...
There could have been four of them, not just three, she thought. She bent over the tracks with her knees resting on the hard tuff.
Why should the man not have been carrying a smaller child? In addition to the bigger one that could walk by itself, couldnít there have also been a smaller one that the man was carrying in his arms, as he had both hands free? Was it not probable, in fact, that there was an infant with them? Hadnít Louis also carried the little ones while they were still small, especially when it was dangerous? When they went through snake habitats or swamps. One day, Philip was three or four and was sitting on his shoulders, Louis had stepped on a tree-trunk lying across the path, and the tree-trunk moved; it was a python.
That was the man she remembered: Louis, fifty years old, his youngest son on his shoulders, the snake under his feet moving its powerful body away through the grass after he had leapt off it. Louis, a dominator.
But there was another man, another Louis that she remembered. She would have liked to show him the tracks in the tuff. Do you see this? Do you see what I have found?
And he would say: thatís it. Mary, thatís what we have always been looking for. The family. Three and a half million years old. Look at them. Thatís us walking there.
Do you think they got away? she would ask.
And nobody but him would understand what she meant.
Mary, he would say, look at us. We are here. Of course they got away. These are the tracks of our origin as bipeds! These are the tracks that lead to us!
And his old enthusiasm would flare up and set her ablaze too, just as he had always done.
Here is the window into the past, she thought. Here on the Laetoli Plain.
It was like a short scene from a film, only a minute or two ... But we see enough: the man. The woman. The child. (She refused to think of them as male and female animals with their offspring. They were too much like us, she thought.) We can see the volcano erupting. The ash. The rain. The horse from the past, a hipparion, smaller, much smaller than horses today.
It is like a message from space, she thought, appearing as if by accident on the radar screens of the Earthís inhabitants. A message from a distance of three and a half million years. We exist. We are here. We walk upright like you. We are afraid like you. We are just like you. From us you can learn something that you donít know about yourselves. Your fear, your courage, the courage that suddenly revives sometimes, your trust in each other: this is our fear, our courage ... Why donít you understand this at long last: we are coming towards you ...
Louis would understand it. But Louis was dead.
She was sixty-five. Age had not been kind to her. It had left no hint of the attractive features she had had. Her hair was dull grey, dry and faded, her skin was like leather dried by the African sun. Her nose was big, her lips were narrow, ironic. Her upper lip was curled a little, an expression of disgust that grew stronger with the years.
She had a very brittle character. She was cold to people, she scared them. The first contact with her was always a test of courage, particularly for women. Women were repelled by the things men liked about her: she was witty and wasnít scared of sarcasm. They could still perceive the challenge this presented, though there was no temptation to succumb. In her youth her brittleness had been attractive, an appeal to lady-killers like Louis who promise a kingdom to the woman they desire.
A kingdom was the very least that Mary demanded when she was twenty.
And Louis had one to offer. She noticed it at once when he stepped on to the podium of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. An older woman friend had taken her to the lecture. He talked about the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, where more than twenty years before a German had found stone tools and fragments of a skull which presumably came from the late Pleistocene.
She heard him say: we shall find more there, older things, earlier things. We shall not stop looking till we have found them. Olduvai has the answer to all our questions about our origins, about our past.
She knew at once that these were her questions too, and that he himself would be the answer to them.
After his lecture he was surrounded, as always, by interested people asking questions. This was the rŰle he liked to act, above all if young women were amongst those asking the questions. Without knowing how, she found herself sitting next to him at a Fellowsí dinner in a hotel in Bedford Square.
Careful, her friend had said. Careful with Louis. He is a dangerous man.
Thatís what they always say when a man is worth falling in love with.
And whatís more, heís married, she said.
Thatís what they always tell you when it is too late.
Even in her early twenties she was not strikingly pretty, but for a few years she was irresistible. Irresistibly lively, irresistibly intelligent. Irresistible to a man like Louis who loved to fill women with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for him, for what he did, for his visions. She allowed him to set her ablaze in an irresistible way. He loved it. As long as he lived he loved igniting the feelings of young women of this type: he always found them and they found him.
Since she had been a little girl who had visited the caves in the Dordogne with her parents, she knew that there was nothing that interested her more than prehistory. She had prehistory in her blood. Her great-great-grandfather on her motherís side had dug for flint stones in Suffolk and had been the first in England to recognise what they were: prehistoric tools ďfrom a world before this world existedĒ as he conjectured.
Come, Louis said, come to me, come to Africa. I will show you things ... Things that you would not dream about ... We shall dig. And find treasures ... Treasures. Come to me. I know where to dig. We shall be rich, you and I. Not rich in money, but rich in fame, in admirers. With me you can conquer the world, if you want.
And that was exactly what she wanted. Then, as she still does today. It just took her longer than Louis. She was more thorough. She had not arrived at her goal yet. And sometimes she had a premonition that one single lifetime would not be enough to get there. In fact she was more ambitious than Louis had ever been.
She was very English. And although she had borne three sons (and a little daughter, who died), at her best moments she looked like a vestal, a little angular, despite her robust build, and she had remained something of a stranger to her own body. A woman without the gift of self-promotion, always a little timid in her public appearances, uncertain in her taste for clothes. A camera-shy woman.
She smoked cigars and in time her fingers looked like the cheroots she liked to smoke. Her hands were rough from working in dust and stone. Delicate hands, if they were holding something that she was looking at. A penetrating gaze. A gaze that always saw more than was before her eyes, very precisely. Without indulgence.
Many people could not stand her. Younger women found her difficult. She accepted nothing at face value, unless it had passed the closest scrutiny. Like her finds. No excitement before there was proof of what she was dealing with.
You, too, must be authenticated and dated more precisely before we know if you are genuine, she seemed to be saying as she looked at people. Finding, evaluating, classifying: this was her profession. Her eyes were scornful. They were the eyes of a woman who has achieved everything, and all of it by her own efforts.
Her life had been a triumph.
Her life was a disappointment.
In the late evenings she drank brandy. She drank till she could no longer distinguish clearly between triumph and disappointment. Till she was no longer interested in what Louis might have said about it. He had hated her drinking.
This find belongs to me, she thought. It is the greatest, and it belongs to me alone. I have pushed the window open. I was the first one to look out. When Paul Abell came and showed me the footprint in the tuff, half a heel, I knew at once that it is something great, something unique. And even before I was clear about what it was not, not a rhinoceros, not a young elephant, not an extinct species of bear, I heard myself shout: this is a hominid!
At some point the earth gives up what it has hidden inside itself. Layers weather, they burst, the stone erodes. Traces of ancient presences appear. But they appear only to those who have sought and waited for them, those who are patient, who sink shafts into the stone, rummage through the rubble, sift through the sand, only those who have a desire to see them. She always has a feeling shortly before finding something. This was the way it had always been. Her heart beats. As if a magnet were attracting her, she knows: there is something in this spot. She knows it one moment before she finds it. And then she sees it. And touches. She must touch. Only when her hand comes into contact with it she knows that she has found something.
And that it belongs to her!
No matter which museums or collections will come to house it Ė Nairobi, London, Washington, Dar-es-salaam Ė it will always belong to me, she thought.
You are a collector, Louis said. An old, shrewd finder of bulbs and berries. Your family will never starve.
And you are a hunter, she retorted.
How true that was. We always looked for our own truth, she thought. He looked for his and I looked for mine. And Ė what did we find? Did we really bring something to light?
We have to dig even deeper. We have to attack the work with more tenacity. Everything we have done till now is only a beginning, she thought, the beginning of a beginning.
The brandy gave her determination. A feeling for the greatness of the work that she devoted herself to totally. It made her strong, not weak. If it unleashed something in her, it was a certain kind of heroism which was her most intimate and best-kept secret: nothing will be able to stop me.
She drank like a man.
We have to go back still further, she thought.
In the beginning
was the
It is early morning. She is sitting on the veranda of the little hotel in Moshi. There is a smell of coffee. In Moshi everything smells of coffee. Moshi is a coffee town, a collecting point, one vast coffee plantation. She, however, drinks tea.
It has rained overnight. It is the 18th of April. The rainy season in East Africa. The air is clear and fresh now. This is green Africa, where her plane from Rhodesia landed the evening before. From June till October it will be the dusty, brown Africa, till in November it will rain a little again. The land is glistening. It is steaming and breathing. The settlers believe at no time more than this that this is their land.
The smell of the coffee bushes will always remind her Ė of what? Happiness. And yet it has not even begun yet.
Will it ever begin? Is this not the end? Uncertain.
She is indeed at the end of a long journey. She has reached her destination. And at the beginning of a much longer journey whose destination she does not know.
The hotel is run by Germans. She doesnít have much money. The towels are grey, the breakfast cloth is stained, the paint is peeling from the white cane chairs. The hotel ownerís wife looks at the young Englishwoman with suspicion. She doesnít manage to find out what she is after.
How many nights?
One night.
And then?
The young woman doesnít now either.
(Upheaval. The new. Life. Being overwhelmed.)
Where has she come from?
From England.
How long has she been travelling?
Since January.
And all alone? Africa is dangerous.
Her mother is with her.
Your Mama? And where is she? Will she be arriving here?
No, she left. On the ship from Cape Town back to England.
But Ė
Someone is meeting me, she says bravely.
Oh Ė
She can feel disapproval growing and benevolence diminishing.
Go to Lloydís Bank, her mother had said. There is some money deposited there for your trip home. You can always withdraw it. If there are any problems, send me a cable. Remember: you have a ticket to London, donít forget that.
She would never forget it. From time to time she would think: I could go to Lloydís. Many years later it still sometimes flashed through her mind: you have a ticket to London. As if, alongside every actual life, there were unlived parallel lives that you could simply switch to. A life in London as an art teacher or in Oxford as a lecturer in archaeology or as a sheep breeder in the Scottish highlands.
On this morning in Moshi everything is possible. She senses this the whole time. This is the moment shortly before her future begins. She has an appointment here. And she has come. It is a long-standing appointment. It was made six months ago.
Meet me in Tanganyika, Louis said.
That was in London in October, shortly before he had started out on his fourth expedition to Kenya with a few scientist colleagues.
In April I will have time. Then I will show you Africa. The real, wild Africa where I was born.
A married man. A man in his early thirties, father of two small children. Maryís mother was so relieved when he disappeared from England. She arranged thťs dansants and parties to put her daughter in the company of young men she considered suitable. She bought her new clothes, suggested she go out more often.
Youíre getting quite pale with all this studying.
Her only daughter. Her mother was anxious not to miss one opportunity to meet suitors.
The subject she was studying at London University and the practical digs in Devon seemed to have the main purpose of providing her with topics of conversation and raising her level in society to a point that neither her beauty nor her fortune could take her. She was doing well, but she felt that something must happen.
And then Louis had come. He was a brilliant speaker and had a talent for winning people over to his subject and to himself. When his lecture ended, she felt giddy with a sense of like-mindedness, and she still felt this way at the dinner the Institute was giving for him and she was sitting beside him Ė someone had thoughtfully seen to it that the guest of honour had a young girl and not one of the elderly wives of the directors next to him Ė and he spoke exclusively to her, the glow of absolute approval in her eyes which tells a man that he has already won and needs only a little time till she has understood it too.
Oh, she was quick to understand. If there was anything that marked her out, it was her ability to understand quickly. And although she was young at a time when young women pretended to know nothing of their feelings, she knew right from the first evening that she was hopelessly in love and had no thoughts of hiding it. She could be touched. This surprised him. He was used to women who at least believed at the beginning that they had to pretend. She was free. He was pleased she was free. Not just unfettered, but really free. Free to love him. And thatís what she did, without hesitation. She was in charge of herself. This was bold. She was the first girl to be free enough to love him unconditionally, without reservations, without regard to the conventions about feelings, without any calculation. That set him alight. When he realised that she was a virgin, he took on the discipline of restraint, for the simple reason that he was in love. And so it had to be her that seduced him. It happened late one evening in his room at St. Johnís College in Cambridge where he was a research fellow. It was a kind of competition, as sometimes occurs between lovers. They outbid each other in crazy extravagance. He shouted that he would get a divorce and wanted to marry her. Then for a long time they both remained silent. There was nothing that could have done beyond that, except departing this life together immediately. But they didnít feel the urge even slightly.
Is there anything more portentous than a promise of marriage?
Oh, there was for her. An invitation to Africa. I shall show you the real, the wild Africa where I was born. Digs. Stone tools. Fossils of the ancestors of mankind.
Meet me in Tanganyika instead of Letís meet at the Wilkinsonsí for bridge.
She had no choice. She was twenty-one. She was on the way to becoming an archaeologist. She was in love with the man who was ahead of her on this track and was giving her the means to follow him. There had never been better reasons for a journey to Africa.
Now she is here.
She had taken a detour. Via South Africa to the foot of Kilimanjaro. It had been her motherís last attempt to put her thoughts on another course. A voyage to the Cape. They had set out on a Union Castle liner from Tilbury in January. Closer to Africa with every nautical mile.
Oh the ineffable logic of maternal intervention. Secretly Mrs Nicol was in league with the love that she thought it her duty to combat. Indignation and passionate involvement all at once.
I have done everything to preserve her from this.
She had done everything to prepare the way for her daughter.
I couldnít have stopped it anyway.
No, but did she have to make it so easy for her?
A trip to Africa to keep her from the man who was waiting for her in Africa.
Of course. It is a huge continent. But for a girl in love, Casablanca is but one stop before Lake Victoria where her beloved is digging for fossils. In any case it is in the right direction. With every nautical mile she breathes sweeter air. And first Cape Town. And from there to Rhodesia. With a steamer along the Zambezi up into wild Africa. The first hippopotamuses. The first crocodiles. Each beast was a message of love.
And Mama in tears on the platform in Livingstone, where she gets on the train to Cape Town to catch the boat back to England.
Come back to London with me. You will never be happy with this man.
Then I shall just be unhappy with him.
The ancient litany between mothers and daughters.
Oh, you donít know what youíre talking about! cried Cecilia Nicol, turned away and got into the compartment.
An astonishing woman. The widow of a mediocre painter whose estate consisted of a number of pictures that were hard to sell, and a daughter who was also difficult to find a taker for. She had just unburdened herself of this load by leaving her on a platform in Livingston in deepest Africa. The proceeds from the sale of landscape pastels with motifs from Northern Italy and Southern France were meagre. They were just enough for her own needs. She had three sisters who had remained unmarried. Then an artist had come along. She didnít ask a lot of questions and accepted him. A man had now come along who wanted her daughter. Who was she to ask a lot of questions?
She wept as far as Salisbury, all the same. She thought about the loneliness of her flat in the Fulham Road, then told herself that what she had done was irresponsible yet right. You could be unhappy in Africa just as easily as in England, she said to herself. In the worst case he would desert her. Then she can still come tack to me. But the further south she went, the heavier her heart became. She could clearly see this image before her eyes. Mary waiting in vain, her girl, abandoned, alone, in the middle of Africa.
She is sitting there. And at that moment a miracle occurs before her eyes. The veil of cloud hiding the summit of Kilimanjaro grows thinner and dissolves. The mountain appears. It appears as on the first day. It is as if a god were commanding it to be, there it is, the highest mountain in Africa, its snow-covered summit in celestial heights. THE mountain. The divine idea of a mountain.
A few kilometres away an old Chevrolet is approaching. The road from Ausha has become slushy after the rain that has fallen in the last few nights. The car fights its way through mud and puddles. He drives very carefully because he knows nobody will help him if he gets stuck. Bogged cars simply stay where they are till the weather changes. He manages only two or three miles an hour, sometimes even less.
He drove through the night. He is impatient to get to his destination. He is beside himself with anticipation, concentration and a kind of tiredness that has turned into lucid wakefulness. He has lived for six months without women. He has imposed this penance on himself because he has left his family in England; his youngest child was born only a few months before. He is the son of a missionary. He knows what sin is. You never forget. He has sinned with various women. Now he wants this woman. She is young. He is in love with her. He is determined to get a divorce and marry her. He is ready for her. That whole night as he struggled with the muddy tracks in pouring rain he loved as never before.
Itís only when you are alone, he thinks, that you experience the delirium of love. The presence of the beloved always distracts you a bit.
The fatigue has made him clairvoyant. He is in a state when you canít distinguish between extreme clarity and madness. Mud holes in front of him. The slippery path that he negotiates with the precision of a dancer. And the mountain.
He must not take his eyes off the road in front of him. But he knows that the veil is just thinning and the mountain is appearing. He can see it with his inner eye. He has often experienced it before. There is nothing more beautiful.
He now drives up the entrance to the little hotel. It goes uphill a little, between gardenias and wild banana bushes.
She sees the car drawing up.
Never again will she be so intensely alive.
She sees him getting out. She wants to go to meet him but stays leaning on a veranda post while he comes up to her. He too is strangely hesitant, although the choreography of love dictates that they should run towards each other with outstretched arms.
A little disappointment is mingled with her excitement. There is no reason for this. Except perhaps that he is a little smaller than she remembers him. What does it mean that she thought he was bigger than he really is? She cannot be wasting her thoughts on this now. And as they embrace she has the feeling that everything is beginning all over again. In her dreams she had got a lot further with him. Now she feels how much they have become strangers to each other. She has travelled across continents to meet him again. She has imagined this meeting a thousand times. She always thought that it would be an instant melting into each other. Now instead she realises how different he is from in her imagination. More vehement. Mary. Mary. She does not understand that he, too, feels this alienation. That the embarrassment of seeing each other again has taken hold on him too. He is much too confused himself to notice her confusion.
She does not know yet that it will always be like this when she sees him after a long separation. Again and again she will feel the distance. Again and again it will be like after a long journey through continents she does not know. Again and again she will be full of excitement when she sees him coming. Again and again annoyance will be mingled with it. More and more often in later times she will receive him rudely and ill-humouredly, although she has been longing for him. Again and again she will not go towards him. This little part of the way from him to her he can go himself!!!
He thinks that she is disappointed by him because he was not at the airport the evening before. He explains the state of the roads in the rainy season. If you care to call these muddy tracks roads at all. This is a wild country. This is a land that does what it wants with its human inhabitants. It proves to them how dependent they are on what they call nature. This is not England.
I have been travelling in this land for ten weeks she says, a little too distantly.
She already felt like an Africa expert. Now she realises once more that she is a beginner. He was born in Kenya. Kabete, the mission station near Nairobi, which his father Harry Leakey set up, is in the middle of the area occupied by the Kikuyu tribe and Louis grew up with the Kikuyu boys as if her were one of them. He speaks their language as naturally as he speaks English. He had not known for a long time in what way he was different from the Kikuyu children. It was not a question of skin colour. He learnt how to go hunting. First they caught little rock-badgers; killed birds with stones and slings. Later they build traps for warthogs which they pierced with their wooden spears, divided up and roasted over the fire. He had ďbrothersĒ for life, who were Kikuyus united with him by rituals that he never spoke about. He knew how to catch PFF otters with his hands and milk the venom from them. He liked the Kikuyu dish of chopped chicken gizzards in sour milk. He was a Kikuyu for life. She was a travelling Englishwoman who had lost her way on the black continent.
The fact that he was an African made her furious and at the same time fascinated beyond all bounds. In England she had experienced him as an Englishman. His colonial air, the charm of a man who came from the wilderness and brought something of this to the tea-parties at Cambridge, an insouciance about convention, which did not always win him approval, and a boyish excitability with barely disguised arrogance for everything he thought petty or over-cautious Ė all this had won her over to him, though it was not so unusual in the colonial motherland of Britain. Only now she understood how different he was from all the men she had known, and for the first time feared that he might be disappointed by her. Who was she, Mary Douglas Nicol, to want to satisfy a man like this? She suddenly felt as if she were about to sit a difficult examination, an extremely demanding test of suitability. She was gripped by a feverish desire to pass.
There are women who are made phlegmatic by love, passive and dreamy. Quite at ease in their bodies, they do nothing but let their attractiveness exert itself, as if they were totally in thrall of the nature of their ova which are required to do nothing but be there and wait for a sperm to come along. And there are women whom love robs of all their self-sufficiency and drives them to extremes of activity. Test me, put me to the test, see what I am capable of: this is their message to the man. Mary belonged to this second kind. Women like this while they are young prefer to choose an older man. The young men their mothers have in mind for them offered too little challenge. She was desperate to be able to prove herself. Instinctively she knew that his wife Frida was of the other kind. Two years older than he, Frida had expected that he would move towards her, be correct, reliable, domestic and conventional. She conceived two children by him and then she never saw him again.
One day he brought Mary to her, to ďThe CloseĒ near Cambridge. He wanted Frida to understand. To see at long last who he really was. A man from Africa. A man with his soul on another continent. A black white man. A white black man who doesnít know what he is. A man who has eaten snake meat. A man sho sleeps in trees and with other women. A man who has a mistress. A man whose mistress follows him wherever he leads her, even to the house of his wife. Yet Frida still understood nothing. She did not understand that he was not worried what the fellows and dignitaries in Cambridge thought of him. (He knew that they secretly admired him. He knew that women had dreamed about being seduced by him.) When Frida finally understood, she threw him out and shouted she never wanted to see him again. And even less did she want to see the hussy he had brought into her house.
All right, letís go, he said to Mary.
And so they went. Things were developing quite as she expected.
All right, letís go.
Kilimanjaro was once again shrouded in clouds, harbingers of the next downpour.
Where to?
She had never thought beyond this moment. From now on he was the one who knew where they were going. But she was ready. Test me.
To the Olduvai Gorge, he said
How far is that?
About ninety miles.
Will be manage that today?
He laughed.
Oh, how she liked it when he laughed. She became quite serious, the way he liked her.
It is not even certain we can get there in two days, he said. Not in the rainy season.
They needed five days for the trip.
This was their honeymoon:
On the first day they picked up a geologist in Arusha who came with them.
Or perhaps she thought she would be alone with him?
That was her first test. She just scraped through. She didnít make a face, said nothing about it, just got a little quieter and looked out of the car window into the endless Masai savannah which glided past them while Louis told her about what he had planned.
Up on the Ngorongoro the rest of the team was waiting for them: a surveyor and two archaeologists, pre-historians, all Englishmen, while a few African helpers had been sent ahead into the gorge.
On the way to the craterís edge a shock-absorber failed so that they were catapulted to the roof of the car at every pothole, and finally the three of them spent the night in a damp, dirty hut which had been erected as a shelter for road workers. This was their first night together in Africa. Next day they managed a good three miles before the clutch gave out, as did their supplies, which is why they spent the second night not only drenched and freezing but hungry, too. The following days they almost carried the car, they pushed and shoved it through the mud till the walked the last bit to the craterís edge with their load on their head.
Oh, there were enough tests. And this was just the beginning. God knows these were only the easier exercises. The harder ones came much later and were of a different nature.
And there were the very great moments, again and again.
Next morning the sun rose, radiant. The sky was clear. In the bottom of the crater Africaís constantly repeated first day was beginning: herds of zebras, gnus, antelopes and gazelles grazed on the plain far below them. The salt lake in the west was a silver haze, imaginable on its banks colonies of flamingos, hippopotamuses defining its surface like islands but visible from the craterís edge only with binoculars, and completely invisible from up there, though omnipresent, were the lions, leopards and hyenas following the herds, calmly spying on their prey, having single out long ago the old and sick animals who would be the next to be taken; they were satiated for today by the prey they had taken just before sunrise, a number of them dozing lazily next to half a giraffe, nestling against the mauled but still warm carcase. A community which knew only one law: devouring and being devoured.
(pages 4-20)
They were camped near the mouth of the river. The riverbed was broad and the water was shallow. Now, at the end of the dry season, it formed individual channels that flowed separately to the lake. It stretched back to the mountains which disappeared in the distant haze, and was sometimes impossible to distinguish from the gathering mountains of clouds. They heralded the beginning of the rainy season.
But the rain held back. The wind came from the side that the sun went towards. It came in warm gusts. But it brought no rain.
Sometimes there was a pale vapour in the sky that shrouded the sun, but the heat didnít diminish. It stood big and white above them and parched the land. The leaves hung dusty and grey on the trees, the fruits fell and crumbled in the dried grass. Empty nuts. Blackened berries that would have fed nothing but the worm inside.
There was lightning. They stood on the sand banks in the river mouth and looked towards the mountains beyond the lake. They saw the bright light flaring up and dying down silently.
We want to go where the rain is, they said. It will wash us.
Two children had died. The women had no more milk.
The rain will come, he said. Itís always come.
He pointed to the riverbed, where there were only a few puddles.
Till it flows again, he said. Thatís how much rain will come.
The women looked up to the sky. There was a milky sun. Its blaze seemed to consume not only the water, but the air you need to breathe.
They were afraid.
They were afraid because they did not know what was happening in the far distance. The point where land meets the sky. Something was catching fire and going out. They didnít know whether it was good or bad for them. They rubbed their eyes. There was too much dust in the air. Their eyes itched. And their noses too. The lightning was a long way off.
What does it mean? They asked.
They asked the man who had been on the other side of the river.
It means, he said, that there is a thunderstorm over there. Thatís what it means.
Take us to the place where it is raining, they said.
He shook his head.
No, he said. We are staying here. As long as the herds come here to drink we shall stay.
It was good to be here where the water was, while drought was all around. The herds thronged around the channels where less and less water flowed.
The hunters took their prey. They dipped their hands into the animals that had just died, scooped out their blood and drank it.
Blood is a special kind of liquid. It does not quench a burning thirst. Nor does it satisfy hunger. Blood quenches something else, something that is neither hunger nor thirst.
Blood stains the teeth as you drink it. It stains the teeth of those laughing who have quenched their thirst with blood and are showing their satisfaction. It makes their teeth look diseased and worn down, like old peopleís teeth before the hyenas get them. Blood, drunk in excessive quantities, makes you vomit.
They vomited.
The flies came in swarms and settled on the vomit.
There was not enough water left to wash yourself.
We have had enough blood, the people said.
They wanted to move to the lake. But the water in the lake was tainted and brackish because the river brought no fresh water.
He looked over to the other bank. The other bank was steep and thickly overgrown. Only now and then a group of little warthogs, or a rhinoceros looking for water, broke out of the bushes.
What are you looking for over there? they asked. Why are you peering over there all the time?
All there is over there is the beyond. The river is the boundary. You canít cross it.
Where are the birds flying to, he said, when they fly over the river?
And where are the herds moving to, the ones we see on the other bank?
And where does the moon come from when it rises over the tops of the trees on the other bank?
He spoke with fine expansive gestures.
I have been there, he said.
They looked at him in bewilderment.
Did they not see what he saw?
Anyone could have crossed the river without getting his feet wet, if he wanted to.
He was afraid. And yet he had no expectations, either.
When the rain comes, he thought, everything will be different.
One night before the rain came there was a storm. They came down from the trees and crouched around the trunks. They waited. Everyone waited. Even the cats and the hyenas. Nobody went out for prey that night.
With the storm came the fires.
The fire came from the sky. It moved in blinding flashes across the lake. The lake foamed. Black waves towered and crashed on to the land. They sat a little upstream and blocked their ears. This was the night when the sky rammed the earth and set it on fire. Dry trees went up in flames and burned brightly. The storm drove the flames forward. It came from the lake and forced them into the river mouth. Hot tongues licked up the water that was left. They all crowded into the middle of the riverbed with the animals, away from the trees. They crouched low in the sand. They thought: the rain. If only the rain would come!
Form the sky comes the fire.
From the sky comes the storm that kindles the fire.
From the sky comes the water that puts out the fire.
There is nothing at all you can do.
Fire is an occurrence which is unimaginably horrible. Fire is transformation. Fire is extinction. Nothing can match the might of fire. Fire devours. Fire devours everything. Fire races. Fire consumes everyone fleeing from it. Fire unites all enemies; it is the enemy of everyone and hunts them down. Anything that can run flees from the fire. Lions flee alongside gazelles. Snakes squirm from the embers, smoke, creep a short distance and then remain as bizarre shapes, blackened by burning, while the flames pass over them. Birds fall from the sky dragging a tail of sparks behind them. Desperate earth-dwellers dig themselves in deeper and suffocate. Fire spares nobody. Except those that are faster.
They closed their eyes. But the lightning passed trough their eyelids.
They knew what happens when it strikes. They knew what happens to flesh when it burns.
It is terrible if it happens to you.
It is exquisite if you eat it.
Exquisite and terrible: burnt flesh that you can sometimes find after a storm. They kneel down. They warn each other. They sniff at it. It smells of burnt hair and horn. It smells revolting. But there is another smell ... They reach for a leg. They pull it out of the embers. It slips out of the joint. Stringy, juicy, tender meat is hanging off it. It almost peels itself out of its covering of skin and fur.
They could not resist ...
The man kept his eyes open. He saw that the fire was on the other bank. Like apes with smouldering tails the flames leaped from tree to tree. And so the roaring wall spread upstream. It grew with the speed of a fleeing flock that scattered screeching from the burning trees.
Suddenly the man saw a figure coming from the other bank and running into the dry riverbed. In the middle it stopped as if it didnít know which way to turn. Then it came closer. As a lightning flash lit it up, the man realised it was a woman from the other side. All at once she seemed to notice those crouching. For one moment it seemed as if she saw him and returned his glance. She took a few paces backwards, saw that her own bank was in flames and ran on towards the other bank.
This was the moment the rain came. It fell so suddenly and so thickly that almost at once the smoke from the wet fires blotted everything out. The woman disappeared in it and he could not see where she had got to.
At first light, which appeared with the dowsing of the fires, the people got up. They spread out their arms. They turned their faces to the sky with their mouths open. They drank. They sighed, happy to have been spared. Their fur curled, dripping and gleaming on their chests and shoulders. They had survived. They would forget. They forgot quickly.
Every time life presents itself anew, it offers reliability and permanence. They welcomed it as something that they had earned during the night.
The same applied to the animals. Lions withdrew to the places where they slept during the day. Hoofed animals moved away from the spots where they had huddled closely together and had waited motionless. Birds began to sing. Here and there you could hear the first monkeys fighting in the treetops. Above all this was the hissing of the rain falling constantly and causing the water in the riverbed to rise rapidly. Yes, it seemed as if the river was rising out of the ground it had soaked into. At first puddles formed. Everywhere there was gurgling and chortling. After a short time the flow started, and soon a broad river was running between the banks again.
Nobody could get across any more.
(pages 128-130)
There were rainy seasons without rain. There were storms driving the sand before them. There were bellowing herds. Bellowing with thirst and torment. There were stillborn calves, and cons licking the moisture from the skin of their stillborn young. There were birds who left the eggs in their nests because they were driven by their need of water. There were toads who died on the way to their spawning-grounds, while the spawn turned to dust in dried-out puddles. There was the treacherous satisfaction of cats who did not have to hunt for their prey. They gorged themselves on it, while the herds they normally hunted went down before their eyes; even the predators lost their appetite as the stench of rotting flesh assailed them. A perfect time for insects who used the carcases as breading-grounds. And then this passed, too. Famished lions prowled around and could not understand what was destroying them.
All this happened over a long period of time. It happened to the descendants of descendants who were overjoyed again and again by a luxuriant rainy season. Look, the sky was pouring out the rains they had been expecting. Riverbeds filled with rushing water. The lake burst its old banks. Grass sprouted green. The trees were covered in new green leaves. Fruit ripened. Hardship was forgotten. All life consists of forgetting hardship. Life has no memory.
Only the inanimate world preserves the traces of the past. Only what was deader than dead endures. No transformation, no decay can alter it. It is only the memory of the stones that does not die.
The dead woman in the riverbed is washed a short distance to the point where the river joins the lake. On the way she is thoroughly gnawed by fish and amphibians who leave none of her flesh. Her fragile skeleton is caught between the stones that are piled up on either side of the river mouth. It is broken into many pieces, and parts of it are ground down so fine that they become part of the sand that has been washed up around the river mouth. For a time the skull is firmly wedged between two rocks sticking up out of the water, witnesses to an ancient time when the river was still a wild rushing torrent that wore down the mountains from which it came. An earth tremor frees it. The current takes it along a short distance where it sinks into the river flats. Mud covers it up. A deposit of clay and sand forms. Gases leak from the ground. Minerals from the water settle in the fine pores of the bone. Anaerobic processes bring about fossilization. More layers accumulate. Volcanic ash falls and is baked into tuff. The lake has been dry for a long time. Tectonic plates shift. Stresses build up in the rock. Cracks appear. The stone erodes.
The woman stops her car.
In the back she is carrying a bucket with paint that she needs for the new Olduvai Gorge museum. The bucket slides back and forth. She has to fasten it. She gets out and looks for a stone to wedge under the wheels because she doesnít trust the bakes on the track that descends steeply into the gorge. She bends down. Her eyes light on an object lying by the wayside. She recognises a lower jaw with three teeth. The rock, the matrix it is embedded in, later proves to be from a very old layer called Olduvai Bed II. It is between twenty and thirty-five metres thick and consists of clay and sandstone from the area around the lake that was here long ago.
She picks up the lump of stone. She perceives that it is the lower part of a skull. Her hand trembles as she holds it. Her heart races as it always does when she encounters a find.
She has often passed this spot. It does not bear thinking about that it could have got under the wheels. It does not bear thinking about that she might have run over the other parts of the skull. The thought horrifies her like a fatal traffic accident that she nearly caused.
Homo erectus, Mary Leakey conjectures.
Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13, 12
(pages 164-165)

Translation by Tomas Drevikovsky