Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Across the valley mists rise like dragons and become the nothing of sky. For five days, in all directions, it has rained up and down the slopes. The cold presses against the window and I move towards the deep heat of the bone. The burden always moves the spirit into the hidden and least remembered. In these days of winter my dreams are filled with shafts of thin white light. It is more a gleaming than a light; the translucence that comes from the ancient swords. Even and steady it is the ambience of many beings, both of the past and the future: the assassins and lovers of my world. But they are the background and this enveloping pewter light, singular only in its attending presence, is the central force.
But my purpose is not to go on about my dreams, nor to unravel the mysteries of this opaque spirit that is at once so thin and at the same time the mother of so many of my wanderings. I wish only to remember a memory that is evoked through this light. A light specific to a particular season, to a certain time of day, as a mood that touches the cells. At this point I do not understand the connection. I only know that I am brought to recall a series of incidents that have stayed with me and in some strange way live in the texture of this gleaming that comes to me during these winter days.
It was this time of year, with the acacias in full bloom, almost ten years ago to the day that I heard about the death of the Horseman of Marrakech. It was Mrabet, who roasted garbanzos in the souks of North Africa, that called out to me from the walls of the old city of Jerusalem and recounted the events surrounding the death of the Horseman. Mrabet was infamous only to few, but for me he was a strange guide to the bizarreness of the old cities, and in this instance, a noble translator to the Horseman’s strange life and death. But before I go into this I should first relate to you my encounters with the Horseman of Marrakech.
The bus ride from Fez was pleasant enough, even though this segment of the journey had originated in Algeria and the ride over the Rif Mountains in the north had left me wanting for a place to settle. The cells were desiring warm and dry. The northern cities and the coast were wet with junkies and an unusual rain. Marrakech, the red pearl of the south, called.
With no traveling companion I was relieved of the bus near the Djmfna, the large square in the center of the fabled city. I was not idling nor was my attention at any one task. It was a simple pleasure to see the date palms against the blue sky and taste the warmth of the southern sun through my woolen sweater. Dressed as one who has been on the road for some time I was of no unusual interest to the beggars or urchins and could therefore enjoy my own anonymity. I was alone among many. To think of it that way then would have been too painful. Instead I measured my time graciously and allowed the place to become my friend. I found a sunny corner to squat in and waited for the day to unfold.
The streets were filled with the business of the day. People and animals moving in brightly colored waves, drums from the Djmfna insistent in the background, the sweet and rancid of Africa punctuating the air. I had been sitting for some time and was preparing to move when I noticed a figure who had, in fact, been moving in a consistent pattern about thirty paces in front of me since I had arrived. I had only vaguely noticed him when I first sat down, and now, by some odd chance, he began to hold my attention. It wasn’t even him, the figure that attracted me as much as his gait. The elegance of his stride that stood out among the colorful mosaic that shifted before me in the afternoon light. His was a powerful stride, long and menacing, full of purpose and assurance. He stood over six and a half feet tall and took full advantage of his size. Tall and straight, he moved with dignity, arms swinging freely, his motion circulating respect in the air. He moved as if many eyes moved with him, in a way that each stride achieved a certain status for his entire being. Though he moved briskly he was not hurrying. With the rising and falling of each step he re-negotiated his breeding, never allowing the off balance and again on balance rhythm of walking to interrupt his sense of singular uprightness. Among the clinging and needy he was a presence of respect.
Yet his clothes didn’t fit him. Pants too short, shirt too tight, a short billed cap perched on top of his close cropped hair, the whole costume soiled and worn close with age. Dignity wrapped in the wrong sized hand-me-downs. But again, not out of harmony with itself. I noticed only because I had to.
My attention was held. The focus stimulated the edges into smooth circles. It was a nothing to make into a something. “An amusement,” I thought.
Shadows were moving up my legs. I moved to a new spot that held the full embrace of sun that I had come to play in. Time passed and I was still interested. From my new position I saw that he walked with purpose as if to make an appointment, but seemingly he had none at all. His intention was with himself, something he carried with him as he moved effortlessly along his regular path. He would stride for about 70 paces, turn and retrace his steps. No one seemed to notice him and quite amazingly there were no collisions or even jostlings on his course. He was filled with a great sense of mission and direction, but none of that was visible, other than the respect of his designated path.
Then as my attention began to drift to the other dramas that spilled off the square into my present range the lean, irregular man suddenly stiffened his back, leaned slightly backwards (which immediately made him appear a half a foot taller), kicked his knees up, and momentarily, for perhaps a half a dozen strides, broke into some kind of jog or trot. So spontaneous and real it was that I immediately renewed my commitment. After resuming his basic stride, he once again broke into his little flourish; his quickened movement displaying a tremendous reserve of power. He would then stop, arch his neck to look around, stamp his bare feet softly in place, and take off into his invigorated, but brief sprint.
The shadows were long and there was a haze in the air. My focus had been replaced with confusion. Everyone seemed to be congregating in the Djmfna. The avenues and small alleyways were filled with people and animals moving on their way to someplace. It was the unrehearsed celebration for the end of a day. Everyone splashing noisily in the last rays of sun. My legs ached from sitting. I must have been watching the movements of this tall wiry man for hours. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision. I looked closely once again to make sure. I could barely see the tall shape prancing in and out of the traffic. I squinted through the haze and then knew I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. “Yes,” I said to myself, “he thinks he’s a horse.” As the square bubbled in commerce in the last light of the day I swam in my own astonishment about the paradox of elegance and madness that moved before me.
That evening the street vendors provided me with dinner: Berber bread with the small stones in it, hard-boiled eggs, soup from the soup-lady. I had taken a one dirham room near the bus terminal in the old section. Without my baggage I was free to move about the city.
The sky was clear and the smell from the cooking fires seemed to brighten the evening in a nostalgic sort of way. Coals from the kif smoker’s pipes glowed from the shadows. No one seemed to notice yet another figure wandering through dark streets. It was a pleasant enough evening but my thoughts were elsewhere. I had had a full day and it was still alive within me. In my travels I had been shown both the beauty and grotesque irony of this part of the world. I was no stranger to the bizarre and unlikely, yet the day’s events had moved me in a disturbing sort of way. It was not so much what I saw that intrigued me, but my own wonder and attraction to it. It was in this way that I moved through the souks to my room.
From the open doorway in the wall where the garbanzo fryers worked the voice came:
Without the whine of the beggar or the urgency of the trafficker I trusted the call and moved towards the figures inside the jagged opening. We went through the familiarities: Praising Allah, the relatives, incantations for health, blessings five generations back, cursing the neighborhood thieves of this esteemed Arabian city in which we now shared residence. They were three, all black, probably from the interior I thought. One stirred the giant pan of garbanzos, one fed the fire from the great stack of wood, the other Mrabet, the same, who oversaw the operation and who spoke so eloquently to me.
After the formalities he came directly to the point, “Monsieur Blanc, you recognized the Horseman today, no?”
One of his eyes looked at the sky while the other roved the ground at his feet. Momentarily bewildered by his directness I skirted the issue, though I must admit I was relieved with the memory of the day’s experience. I knew exactly who he was talking about. Before I could speak he continued.
“I saw that you spent the entire afternoon with the Horseman. That with all the intrigues this city has to offer Monsieur Blanc chose only to witness the way of this one.”
Yes it was true I told him. The light of the fire danced off his black swollen body and his eyes constantly explored the opposite ends of the street at the same time.
“And you witnessed me,” I managed to come up with.
They all laughed uproariously, the garbanzos spilling over into the fire. It was a scene from a Bosch nightmare I tell you.
“Monsieur Blanc, isn’t it the way it always is? One watching another, watching another, always a watcher, indefinitely down a long hall of mirrors? Even now, Monsieur Blanc, yes even at this very moment are there not eyes watching us as we watch each other.”
Again they laughed. A hideous enjoyment rocking their tiny slot in the wall. I felt uneasy but not trapped. My curiosity hooked on the day’s events and what Mrabet knew. If nothing else I was relieved to know that what I saw that afternoon had actually happened.
“What is it that you know?” I inquired.
“There is much said about the Horseman and I have heard most of it. But more than that I have been witness to it and from that have had my own participation and discovery. But you are not here to hear about me or the rivers I’ve followed.”
The other blacks dug into the soiled burlap bags for more garbanzos and threw huge chunks of wood into the fire. Mrabet leaned forward, eyes wild, gnarled hands wringing the air and in this way began: “His father was an oud player from the Nubia who fled to the Ivory Coast when the great dam flooded the valley. From there he reached many of the great ports playing his instrument wherever he could. He sang with jugglers and poets and for a while traveled on the fenland between Khorasan and Damascus playing for the Mandean dancers. His love for Allah was second only to his passion for women and he was not above using his talent with the oud to find his way into locked gardens. It was in this way that he met the fair one. She was from the north and I mean the very north, even past the last reach of the Moors. Her eyes were the color of the blue ice on the top ridges of the Atlas and she was at least a head taller than he. For a while they lived together among the Berbers. This is when he came and they called him Soren Dhu’l Nun, two names from two lands. They finally settled in Essaquira. There he was raised, having many brothers and sisters, as his father took other wives. He went to Rabat for his education and there they called him the ‘Long One’ because, as you have seen, of his excessive height. He married, returned to Essaquira and began a modest life as a schoolteacher.”
Here Mrabet leaned back and resettled himself on the stack of wood. Irony spread across his face like a broken fence, his grin broke the fence into a hundred pieces. In the custom of the storytellers of these parts he was measuring time against his audience. Outside I could see Orion had passed over the minarets of the Koutaoubia. There was a slight bite in the air and I was glad for the fire. I moved closer. Mrabet had my appetite and I was his. I knew the meal had just begun. The blacks shifted. I wondered if they knew of the Horseman or if they too were at the table.
“When he first began displaying his strange habits,” Mrabet went on, “there were many who said that his wife had put a spell on him. That because he had inherited his taste for women from his father she became very jealous and turned him into” he paused, “as you have seen . . . a horse. Others say that the blood given to him by his mother and father is too wide and that it did not mix properly and he merely went crazy. Others conjure that his wife was barren and that set him off. There were as many opinions of course as there were mouths stupid enough to voice them.”
His roving eyes flitted across me and then ricochetted into the shadows of the room, out into the street, back to me, then again into the night.
“But it is what I know that you have come to hear,” he suddenly shouted. Bits of garbanzo bean and saliva flew towards me like tracers lighting his words. It was as if his story always began anew, like perennials taking forever to break ground. The blacks were into their smoke and a thick blue cloud settled around our heads.
“What I know is that he chose to be a horse,” he said evenly. “The change chose him, but he chose to be a horse. I swear to you by the black stone of Abraham, Monsieur Blanc, that when he made the decision to become a horse he totally and absolutely was horse from that day on.”
“You mean he really thinks he’s a horse?” I asked.
“No Monsieur Blanc he does not think he is a horse, he IS a horse.” With this he flew into a fit of laughter, almost rolling off the mound of wood. His fellows joined in, slapping each other, their sounds echoing down the dark empty street.
“Only Allah knows why a horse,” he shook his head in amazement. “To think of it . . . a horse . . . but when the change was right that’s what he chose. Now everything he does is that of a fine Arabic stallion. He is no longer a man, Monsieur Blanc, but a horse. A stallion of the finest breeding and most challenging spirit. He is the Horseman of Marrakech.”
Mrabet’s choice words had not only failed to answer the mystery but had actually deepened it. Perhaps you have already figured out what had seemed so veiled to me. I can only admit that I marvelled at the spectacle that I was now seeing and what had gone down earlier in the day. His walk, his bearing, the total embracing of the subtlety of the movement. Yes, I thought, he did act like a horse. But that was only close for what was true was that he was not just a horse, but a stallion.
I had seen many thwarted passions in my travels. I was not unfamiliar with the misfirings of the human mind and its ability to suddenly, or slowly, for that matter, to take on the cloak of some animal or imaginary being. The phenomena though strange was not new to my eyes; and yet, this one seemed different. What was different? Perhaps my own curiosity, I had to confess.
“Mrabet,” I asked, “he does not seem like the other crazies. There are many who act like him but what is it that sets him apart?”
“Two things and I’ve told you one: he chose. It was not from fear, nor was he running away. In some mysterious way his life offered the opportunity for incalculable change and he said yes. He had two options — yes or no and he said yes.”
The words hissed from his mouth and blended into the roaring of the fire. The blacks had fallen asleep. Covered with burlap bags they dreamed hash dreams on the dirt floor.
“The second thing,” he continued, “is that he met death and allowed death to swallow him whole. The other crazies jump away from themselves, he jumped into himself. His choice to make a total change had to include dying. Dying to the ‘Long One’ who taught the Koran to the children of Islam and everything that that meant. To be the great Arabic stallion that he is it was not possible to carry the weight of an ordinary schoolteacher. Of course he suffered as death swallowed him but that made him straight and true. Only because of that can he totally be what he is now.”
“There are many things that led up to his saying yes and then dying to the ‘Long One.’ The way those things lined up may never be known; he himself may not have known and may never understand the order of events. How could they be important now? He is what he is and there are no traces of the past. But there are witnesses, heh, Monsieur Blanc? Even now who is it that presides over our conversations in the dark? To witness or know of the witness gives us the hint of possibilities. It begins to form the chance to say yes when our change comes. But you can be sure that such a death will never be easy. Whether it comes over an entire lifetime or happens in a moment it will be costly. To say ‘yes’ he had to pay the tax. What it takes for a man to be so willing only he knows, or else, no one knows.”
I will tell you it was a strange scene. Mrabet, the black magician, babbling to no one in particular; specks of foam gathered in the corners of his mouth, an animated Tarot card in the shadowy night of North Africa. I had been in Marrakech less than a day and my life seemed completely intermingled with madmen and poets. It was the chemistry of fear and devotion that kept me a raptured audience. I couldn’t tell if everything that had happened since that afternoon was totally ridiculous or totally sublime. The dawn was opening and the cold pale half-light of winter filled the room as a presence. How would I know that this light would haunt me — even to this day? That it would move me to tell this story?
I turned to Mrabet. I had a question not knowing it would be the last until we met again. “Why did he keep following the same path over and over this afternoon on the Djmfna?”
Eyes skittering, hands slowly kneading the air, his jaws opened in amazement. “Why Monsieur Blanc,” he paused, “he was eyeing the mares hitched to the carriages just as a stallion would!” His raucous laughter drowned out my thoughts and I slowly joined the morning light as it filled the streets.
During the next three months, throughout an unusually extended winter, I continued my inquiry into the phenomena of the Horseman of Marrakech. At first I stayed away from both Mrabet and anyplace I thought the Horseman might be. My avoidance was needed for my own sense of credibility. After some days however, it was clear that I had a natural magnetism to the situation; so following my inclinations I soon ran into the Horseman at the Menara Gardens. There I found confirmation about his integrity to the unusual stance he had taken in life. At once so removed and at the same time so fully involved in that which he was. There is no true way that the word can convey the description of his innocence and commitment. He was like a child that day, obviously not playing to any audience, leaping easily over the puddles, the picture of play and spontaneity, all in the form of a horse. There is no use going into further detail as it would only be redundant to what I have already revealed. I will say, however, that it was weariness of the dampness and cold and not my lack of interest in the Horseman that caused me to move to Agadir in hopes of quickening the arrival of spring. Nothing was lost in the move (or gained for that matter since the entire coast around Agadir was continually swept by South Atlantic storms) and yet it would be the last time I would see the Horseman and have the opportunity to observe his practices. Though he and I never had any truly direct encounters we had formed a rather respectful relationship. He had, of course, begun to notice my presence and there were ways, how should I say, non-human or non-verbal ways in which we began to communicate and easily share the same immediate space. So in my departure there was a lingering nostalgia accompanied by this ancient gleaming light that I will once again impress on you is how this story began. Which of course is not the story at all and I am reminded that it is the death of the Horseman which I have originally intended to relate. It is in this way that I see that things are not always as they appear and that the story may not only be in the telling of it but also in seeing its wholeness. Nevertheless, with this background information to fertilize the field, as it were, I will proceed and perhaps my story may begin.
Unaccountably Mrabet and I met under King David’s gate outside the old city of Jerusalem some years after our initial meeting. Our excitement in seeing each other did not have the element of surprise since we had both matured in the right directions and mutually grown into the wisdom of timing. Perennial as the National Library age had seemed to affect him only with a few extra layers of dirt and an Egyptian soldier’s cap found as he passed through the Sinai. This time I came as easily to the point as he. The Horseman of Marrakech was dead, but it was the circumstances of his death that was now his necessity to pass on. Mrabet was a keen observer, but not an original one, and in this way he went on to tell that:
“It was the last week of Ramadan that the Horseman fell ill to some strange malady. Many said he had been poisoned since, acting only as a horse would and having either sunk below or transcended the tradition of Islam (however your morals dictate), he did not follow the dietary regulations of Ramadan and was poisoned by a zealot. Of course when there is a mystery and we cannot know it we tend to create our own evidence. Anyway he at first became violently ill and then drifted in and out of a fevered sleep. Lying under one of the Ghondia trees outside of town he moved towards his passage into the other world just as you would imagine a horse would. It was also at this time that we saw that certain secret societies had also been watching him. They would come at dusk, in the light you prefer Monsieur Blanc,” Mrabet smiled his domino smile, “and sit nearby. We knew then that they had been in contact with him, in their own way, for some time. The Horseman remained in his fitful condition until Ramadan was over. On the morning after the last day of Ramadan the Horseman gathered himself together, stood in his full height and walked into town. But what was amazing was that he walked like a man . . . and not a horse. Yes Monsieur Blanc, listen to what I tell you: he walked into town as a man would. He took a room at a pensione, asked the woman to call a doctor, waited for the doctor to arrive and examine him, and then died a few hours later. Like a man. After all those years he passed on in the way of a human, requesting all the rights of a proper citizen of Islam. To show us once again there is so little to rely on.”
Here I remember the strange hooting laugh of Mrabet’s. The pleasure he received from his own spirit and the play of irony. He laughed and swore it was true. The Horseman of Marrakech died like a man. That at the very end he chose, right or wrong, to exit in the way of a Moroccan. Mrabet of course was amazed not that it was specifically a human way, because it could have been a bird or a madman or even as a Jew. But that he was moved in such a way that he once again chose his own death and a new life on the eve of his physical departure.
My subsequent conversation with Mrabet is of little account. In ending his tale however he reminded me that to us the Horseman was myth of some sort, something other than us, apart from our daily routines as a legend might be. But to himself he was not a myth, but one who had to live with himself just like all of us and that is what he had to make peace with. In this way he set out to discover his relationship with the unknown.