Architect Marcus Graham embarks on journey in this thriller The Fisherman’s Ring as his past comes to haunt his future. Against a background of deception, danger and intrigue he sees how good and evil change places in a world where life itself is predestined.
It was the week that the travelling theatre artists came to town. When the sun drove its fierce heat into the dry dusty ground of that flat barren land, the theatre artists came to Kidal, that lonely desolate town deep in the heart of the northern Sahel. It was the one special week in June when life was lifted to joy by artful expression and the riotous colour of the travelling theatre. The sublime performances of mime and of comedy and music that united and excited them all and the dancing that raged in the street that went on into the early hours of sunrise under the acacia trees hung with candle lights, streamers and coloured sweets.
For Bintou Diabarte this had always been the highlight of her year. The travellers’ theatre came from the south west of the country. They were the people she grew up with as a child. Her people, the dark skinned Bambara people who seemed always happy and laughing. People who did not stand in the sun pounding millet nor clean their master’s soiled clothes at the river bank. These were her people from whom she had been taken, to be stripped of freedom and gladness and condemned to her life of servitude among the blue people of the desert. The nomadic Tuareg tribesmen with whom she had lived in slavery since childhood.
For many years she had dreamt of joining the theatre people on their return south. To be free among her people away from the drudgery of her servitude. Now, she had resolved that this was the week that she would escape her captivity.
Her enslavement had started as a child when she was taken by a grim young northern Tuareg who had claimed her through some kind of feudal fidelity as his property due to her grandmother’s death in his family’s service. In a country where poverty runs deep in many differing guises, de facto slavery is commonplace as such obscure customs can provide a convenient means of support for the destitute. The indifference of the state provides acquiescence to such perverse rights and Bintou Diabarte was, at just seven years of age an innocent and defenceless victim.
She had been raised serving a master not much older than herself, living with his family a nomadic life around the arid Sahel of eastern Mali and Niger. First there were the domestic chores of the household, washing and cleaning and then with the cooking and even the receiving of guests when they returned from the Mosque towards midday. The preparation of flat bread, yoghurt and coffee to sustain the men over which they would converse without acknowledgement or communication with the plain young black girl who served them.
In fact the blossom of her beauty must have opened late in her, for it was not until just after her 17th birthday that it had inspired in her master something more than the cold indifference that had hitherto been the limit of his interest in her.
She had noticed the low studied gaze of his lust as she bent down to feed the goats. Her long dress drawn tight into the curves of her body as she stretched to cast the animals their feed. The eyes that followed her lifting her dress above her knees at the water’s edge on wash day. She had wretched at the soiled undergarments and wondered whether the ejaculation had occurred as he looked her up and down. And when she had showered in the low light of evening she had sensed his distant presence and hard stare at her ebony body glistening under the thin drizzle of water that was all she had to cleanse it.
The rape came soon after that, and it was as no surprise or shock to her. Just the inevitable result of his growing attention. What had shocked her was the sudden appearance of his father, the Amghar, who had astutely read the signs that the time was right for him too to enjoy the young body that had come of age. He had exhausted his limbs in a frenzied fit of lust early one morning just after she woke, rolling from her body, limp and gasping for air, grappling for his clothes and gathering himself hurriedly to go to prayers.
These episodes had lasted for just a few months until it was clear that she was to bear a child. The uncertainty of parentage did not trouble her as she was unable to relate to either man. She preferred in her quiet moments to reflect on the possibility of Immaculate Conception as to contemplate the usurpation of her body was more than penance for her. It was better to believe that she had given it freely, although she knew that in reality her body had not even been hers to give. From this invasion of her young body was to be extracted the one treasure in her life. Nyeleni would be her only child. The damage of disease to her after that birth that had guaranteed her a barren future but that was of no concern nor consequence to her as she had Nyeleni, the child that was to be her life.
Nyeleni spoke no words to any human being other than her mother. She was the silent child to whom day and night appeared the same as she had the curious ability to see in the dark. This unusual feline facility was established to be due to her right eye which was coloured completely blue and radiated a reflection of green light in the dark. For Nyeleni the dark held no fear and she would often rise after nightfall and wander the black silent spaces surrounding the compound stroking the animals and feeding them small treats by way of affection.
The child enjoyed a quiet existence without education spending much of her time with the donkeys in the yard with which she enjoyed an affectionate and close relationship and which she would frequently rename in order to give the impression that her friendship group had been extended. She had favoured names that were French much to her mother’s approval as it seemed to show her regard for the French lessons that she gave to her daughter. For Bintou Diabarte had resolved to speak always in French when she could be understood as that she perceived, was to be the key to her freedom and she ensured that she did so with whomever she could find when the family were in Kidal.
She collected whatever French journals she could and it was one of these that had inspired her resolve to be free. It was an article about a group named Maliberation in Bamako. A group who sought the freedom of all slaves in Mali. It was something that she had only yearned for before, not really believing it was possible and not really knowing what freedom meant. She had from that moment resolved to make her way to Bamako and contact Maliberation to declare herself free. This week she was sure to be the week that she would have the opportunity to escape this life for freedom.
It was late morning when the open flat backed truck of the theatre artists pulled away noisily from the by red earth wall by the mosque and along the dusty dirt road heading south for Bamako passing the occasional merchant with a donkey loaded with wares and the camel caravans that drifted along in slow silent steps in the fierce sun.
Bintou Diabarte held her child in a joyful embrace. She could not believe her good fortune. She had dared to escape but feared the retribution that would inevitably follow if she should be caught. If she were to be found out she would be taken back to the house and beaten for desertion. She would surely suffer her severance from Nyeleni and banished from seeing her again. That thought had been enough to dissuade her against this mission in previous years. Only now had she dared to risk life for liberty.
Now here she sat with Nyeleni among the friendly faces of the Bamana people who passed around cooled fruit to quench the thirst. Now she felt not just the warmth of camaraderie but the strength of her faith. There would surely be those here who would not allow her to be taken back. Surely God had decreed that this was her hour of freedom.
It was towards afternoon that the truck came to a halt by the shelter of a group of acacia trees. It was an opportunity to disembark. To stretch legs and to look out at the vast silent Sahel stretching far into the distance, empty save the few patches of acacia trees and grass that punctuated the red ground. Bintou Diabarte looked at her child and felt the strange feeling of solitude. For the first time in her adult life she was free to run. She could spend her time at her own pace and as she pleased. It was an overwhelming feeling that she swiftly resolved not to spend with profligacy.
As the rising heat played with the still air distorting the shapes of things in the distance she looked out at the road they had come down and she felt the pain in the pit of her stomach as she saw something she recognised traveling fast towards them. It was the battered pickup truck of her master’s father, the Amghar. He was coming to reclaim them.
Her heart turned heavy at the thought. She had dreamt that she had got away and now he was almost upon them. Absurdly she thought of how they might drive past unaware that she could be part of this party but soon she knew the danger as the truck swung into the side of the road and she could make out the figures of three Tuareg men.
Led by the Amghar the three Tuaregs strode purposely towards the party dressed in their tagelmusts, the blue turbans and loose veils that kept out the desert sand. They stood in a line in front of the artists and the Amgar addressed them in French.
‘The woman with the child. You have her with you. She is our property. It is the law we will take her with us.’ He said sternly.
The men they addressed seemed unconcerned sitting without recognition or concern. At first she thought they may not care perhaps waving a hand in her direction and saying. ‘Go on take her’ but then she heard one of them say:
‘She is with us we are taking her to Bamako. She stays with us.’
It was a bold response.
The Tuaregs moved uneasily as if to anticipate a confrontation. She saw them look at each other uncertainly as if unsure how to respond. She knew that they were not young men, the Amghar was in his early fifties while his companions were not much less. Surely they would not start a fight, they were outnumbered by younger men. Bintou Diabarte‘s heart pounded as she watched the slow dialog that would decide her fate.
Then the deciding card was drawn. From under his blue robe the Amghar drew a gun.
‘We will take the child now. She is my daughter.’ he said.
There was a cold authority in his voice. It was a confidence that had the strength that emanated from truth and there was the gun he held in his hand to support that truth. There would be no denying his right to take his own daughter. The artists stood to one side and beckoned to the shaded spot where Nyeleni was sleeping. The Amghar stooped uneasily to pick up the child and held her to his chest as he would a possession, devoid of affection. Bintou Diabarte froze in terror as she watched on. They were taking her child in the knowledge that she would not wish to be parted from her. That she would return to them like a scalded dog eager to please her master. She would be made to pay for her desertion and there would never again be the opportunity to flee.
She trembled as she watched Nyeleni taken away. There was a desperation she had never felt before. Was freedom worthwhile she asked herself. Momentarily she reached for the comfort of certainty, the security of servitude, the knowledge that while she was of value she was safe. She saw the truck drive away, her hand to her mouth biting at her fingers in cold distress. Then she let out a wail of pain and anger. They had taken her away. They had taken her Nyeleni.
‘We could do nothing’ explained the short dark man with wide eyes who now stood at her side.
‘She was his daughter. He is allowed to take her. But he won’t harm her will he’ He added attempting to comfort her and reassure himself.
When the heat passed and theatre people moved on Bintou Diabarte was not among them. Uncertain what to do she remained there by the roadside her grief countering her resolve. Should she go back and confront the Tuaregs and to take her daughter? Perhaps she should travel to Bamako to see the people at Maliberation first and enlist their help. She felt the torment of indecision.
Dark came upon the Sahel like a silent shroud and the cold under the empty sky was sudden. She tried to sleep but her troubled mind distracted it. Then as light began to break in the early hours of morning she found herself waking from a slumber under an acacia tree still unsure what route she was to take.
Sometimes, as if by some deep mystery a tough decision is set aside as if it has been decided for one by some divine intervention. It was almost before she could compose her thoughts to decide her next move that she found it decided for her. For there, riding towards her down the road alone on a small donkey was her child Nyeleni. Bintou Diabarte could not contain her joy she ran forward to embrace her child but found herself instead on her knees thanking God for the child’s return.
The child had escaped from the camp at night leaving her bedclothes in a manner that suggested that she was still among them. She had recruited the assistance of one of her donkeys to ride south in the pitch dark to meet her mother. Her absence would by now be discovered and it was essential that they could hide themselves away somewhere perhaps until nightfall and travel on in darkness. She looked nervously along the road but could see no movement. She was sure however that they would come and that day she Nyeleni and the donkey walked south to freedom.
A day had passed when Bintou Diabarte looked to the horizon as the sun set in the western sky. At first she thought that the cloud of dust was part of that sunset but then she could see the movement of shadows within it moving rapidly toward her. Her fear grew as she began to count them and stopped when she got to five. Horsemen riding fast towards her. She knew that they would certainly be bandits and although she had nothing for them to take from her she understood that in the Sahel the value of her and her child was quickly earned from their sale as slaves to one of the nomadic tribes who passed these barren lands. It would be a race between their inevitable encounter and the arrival of darkness.
Bintou Diabarte did her best to conceal the three fugitives within a small thorn bush and prayed that the riders pass. The wait seemed eternal until she could not prevent herself looking out again toward the western horizon. It was then she saw it. The dust she had thought to be thrown up by the riders was now wide across the sky and was rolling towards her a dense cloud of sand, grey against an evening sky that hung above it lit by the last rays of the sun. She watched the shadows of the riders circling in disarray, caught by the sand storm. They had been saved by God’s own hand and as darkness fell their escape was made.
It was the following day when she saw again the same dirty white truck turning up the dust along the road around midday. The truck she knew to be that of the Amgar who she knew to be searching for her and their child. There was something less threatening about the truck today. It was travelling more slowly as if wounded by the rough track. It was almost as if its occupants had given up their search believing her to have escaped and at last she saw the vehicle turn and head back north.
They moved by night and hid by day snatching their broken sleep in what shade they could find by the roadside. The week of travel south to Bamako was hard, it was the road to freedom and for Bintou Diabarte the road to freedom was the hardest road to travel.
They relied on the generosity of strangers for scraps of food always aware of the chance of an informant as there were many who would seize the opportunity of returning her to her northern masters for a suitable recompense. Then, as they neared the green undulating land around Bamako their spirits lifted. Now she was sure that she had had her last sight of the Amghar and that her life of servitude was over.
Bintou Diabarte had kept the page of the article about Maliberation although she knew the address off by heart. It would not be long now until they were in safety among the anti-slavery people who would give them food shelter and perhaps a little money to make their start in a new life.
Bamako is a city of two million people straddling each side of the river Niger. It is a city growing through the prosperity brought by trade and manufacture and the influx of Mali’s rural population to the cotton industry. It is an ancient settlement of Islamic scholarship and learning and of trade and it has about it an energy from which Bintou Diabarte smelt the sweet scent of freedom.
It had been a long journey from Kidal to Bamako. The Mali-beration address was close to the city centre by the artisanal zone and Bintou Diabarte and Nyeleni would find their way there through bustling streets such as she had never seen before. Stalls with women selling tomatoes and fruit. Craft works with large earthenware pots surrounding their doors and metal workers weaving coils of steel wire into shapes she could not determine.
She walked along by the roadway avoiding the seething mass of sotrama, taxis that moved skilfully among the pedestrians carrying their prosperous passengers between business engagements that she would never understand.
The address took her to a heavy wooden door via a stone archway that led into a small yard where leather was being fashioned into goods that she assumed to be shoes. Above a heavy wooden door she read the single word painted on a faded sign, Maliberation. Bintou Diabarte looked at the door in disconsolation. The building was clearly deserted.
‘They gone some six months ago’ she heard from behind her. It was the neighbour.
‘They was the French women, Maliberation. Went back home. Family business, new grandchild I think it were.’
Bintou Diabarte stood in silence and looked at her child. She had been hoping for some guidance, some assistance perhaps. The abolition of slavery was clearly not important enough for these foreign women. They had their homes to go to. Their own families. Their own problems. Now Bintou Diabarte would have to find her own freedom.
They spent some five days in Bamako and they turned out to be five days of energetic preparation. The chance sale of that donkey had blessed them with a small amount of money, and Bintou Diabarte had heard of a way that she could escape the retribution of her northern masters and find safety in a foreign land.
It was the third day she spent in Bamako that she met the fortune teller by the vegetable market.
‘My child, there is your future in this picture book and I have seen it’ she had shouted out to her as she had passed. Bintou Diabarte had reached for her money as she had seen how it was a necessary part of every transaction.
‘There is no price to pay to me’ the old lady confirmed as she spread the tarot cards upon the fruit box before her that served her as a small table.
‘For these cards implore you to listen to the words they whisper.’
‘You will find happiness in Europe for your child. There is nothing here for her but misery and servitude. The world waits for your child in Europe. She will achieve greatness there.’ The old woman looked at her kindly.
‘It is the will of God’ she added as if to dispel any doubt.
‘You must travel north now to the sea. It will be hard but you must go to what your child has been born for.’ She smiled courteously in a way that conveyed wisdom rather than friendship. Her wrinkled black face torn to contortion by her years under the fierce sun.
Bintou Diabarte had led a life without kindness and counsel. It was for that reason that such advice bore for her significance beyond what it may have done for others. It was for her as if a direction had indeed been given from God.
That night as she slept beneath the stars of Amancar, the constellation they call the warrior of the desert, holding Nyeleni close to her breast, she felt a strength, a comfort that was new to her. For innocence is prey to the reckless certainty of promise. It was the strength and comfort of optimism, the feeling that freedom would release her from her bondage and the expectation of opportunities for Nyeleni that drove her now.
She smiled as she heard the busy bustle around her that would continue into the night. Sounds of energy and optimism way beyond the sounds of the caravanserai that break the bleak silence of the western desert. Of animals coughing in the cold of morning, of travellers voices heard through the stillness that grips the hollow air of evening. Here was the hubbub of the city. The sound of freedom. This she imagined would be something like Europe. A word that held a hope for her that now became a dream and tomorrow she would begin her journey north to the sea that would take her there.