Note: This is an excerpt of Awumey’s novel Les Pieds sales, to be published in English by Anansi Press (you can order a copy of the French version here and go to Anansi’s website here). This translation may differ from the final version. Dirty Feet is a working title. To see our Q&A with the translator in this issue of carte blanche, please go here.
Askia would recount how, in her final delirium, his mother had kept on about the letters that Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed, his father, was supposed to have sent from Paris. And some photos. Which he had never seen. But then one day he went off on the same route as the absent one. He did not leave to find the missing father. He could live with gaps in his genealogy. He left because of a strange thing his mother had said: “For a long time we were on the road, my son. And wherever we went, people called us Dirty Feet. If you go away, you will understand. Why they called us Dirty Feet.”
Paris. He was standing in front of 102 rue Auguste-Conte that afternoon because three days earlier, in his taxi, a client had intimated that she had photographed Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed. Scrutinizing his face in the rear-view mirror, she had said, “You remind me of someone. A man with a turban who posed for me a few years ago.” This was not the first time a passenger had used the remind-me-of-someone line on him, just to make conversation. Often enough, the exchange of words would turn into a physical exchange, as an antidote to boredom, that emptiness deep in the skin and the dark night. But the girl that evening had mentioned the turban, a detail echoing the distant words of Kadia Saran, Askia’s mother. Yes, it was the same refrain: “You look like him Askia,” she had said. “Exactly like him. If you wore a turban, it would be as if he’d come back. Almost as if. Because he won’t come back.” He was an adolescent at the time. More than thirty years had passed and Askia had gone away, but not to confirm his resemblance with the absent father. Still, he did want to see the photos, and the girl answered that he could, though not right away. She had to go to the provinces for one or two weeks to work on a project.
Askia’s travels had begun owing to another of Kadia Saran’s mysterious pronouncements: “Our family is under a curse is to depart again and again, to tramp over thousands of roads until we are exhausted or dead. Look at yourself, my son, always wandering through the night in your taxi.” It was hard to understand his mother and her words. All Askia knew was that his line of work obliged him to rove the streets and highways. Yet in his flight across the pavements of the north, he wanted to verify whether his machinery, programmed to roam, could stop.
A dog and its mistress passed in front of him on the sidewalk. He recalled that as a child, spending his days at the garbage dump of the Trois-Collines, in the squalid tropical suburb where he had landed with his mother, he would mingle with dogs that he did not like. Especially one belonging to old Lem and whose name was Pontos.
102 rue Auguste-Comte. A newly refurbished four-storey building. Askia rang the doorbell. To the left of the door, a ground-floor window opened. He imagined it must be the apartment of the concierge, someone—and old lady or gentleman—banished to the desert island of this apartment, the old woman stationed there to challenge visitors with a thousand questions and drive away troublemakers. But it was not an old woman who greeted him. A fifty year-old man thrust his head out.
“I have an appointment with mademoiselle Olia,” Askia said.
“The full name, please?”
“A given name—doesn’t tell me very much.”
“She has brown hair.”
“That doesn’t tell me much either. Which floor does she live on? You have an appointment? I wasn’t told anything. Sorry, I can’t help you.”
And the man closed the porthole. Askia lingered on the sidewalk. He was not very angry. He simply thought this photographer, the client who had promised to show him portraits of his father, had had some fun at his expense. He headed toward the railings of the Jardin du Luxembourg, directly across the street. The railings were hung with an exhibition. Pictures suspended in the sky of another world—still shots from a film: Himalaya. L’enfance d’un chef. Images from a far-off world, hung on the park fence. Large boards displaying people walking in various seasons. Like him. The wind hammered at his neck. He raised his coat collar and strolled several times around the fence and the pictures. The crowd began to thin out, the night submerged the landscapes on display. The night overtook him. He decided to go home.
She came up behind him, surprising him in his dialogue with the faces on the boards. He followed her back across the street. She keyed in the code at the entrance. They took the stairway opposite the door. The brass of the handrails and the velvet of a red carpet glimmered in the faint light of the hallway. They climbed the stairs, she in front and he at her heels. She stopped when they reached the last floor and slipped the key into the lock of the double door. He went in behind her. The place was small, attractive, new. The front door opened immediately onto a room that served as both living room and kitchenette. Facing the door was a sofa draped with an ash-coloured sheet. Behind the sofa were four shelves in the same white as the walls. He scanned their contents: books, bibelots, an earthenware ashtray and bowl, a tiny square box made of wood.
Inserted among the books was a very broad bird feather that stirred on the slightest breath of air. The books lined the back of the shelves while the bibelots were placed in front. Affixed to the wall around the bookshelves were some photos. There was a noticeable relationship among the faces on the wall. He had once perused a tome on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, so he had no trouble identifying the four portraits arranged in a row at the top of the wall over the shelves: W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen. To the right of the bookshelves, hanging one above the other, he recognized Claude Mac Kay, Sterling Brown, James Baldwin. He was unable to put a name to the fourth face. The girl became aware of his interest.
“I enjoy portraits of Black people,” she said. “They have a way of capturing and holding the light.”
“My father has no connection with the celebrities on your wall. Could you show me the pictures you took of him? Wasn’t that the reason you asked me to drop by?”
In front of the sofa, to the left of the door, the TV and CD player sat on a sort of chiffonier, only larger. On the wall over the TV was another photograph, which he found quite beautiful. It was the interior of a nightclub: a bar, high stools, two women and a man, all holding cigarettes between their fingers, their heads wreathed in smoke. The little group was standing around some musicians. He recognized the elegantly dressed man at the piano as Duke Ellington, and leaning on the piano, cradling his trumpet, was Louis Armstrong. Askia had a mental image of his hostess attending the nightly concert given by Louis and the Duke. At the exact moment when the concert began, she would no doubt sit down on the sofa facing the picture to take in and savour the sounds emanating from the glossy paper on the wall. But his father, Sidi Ben Sylla, would not have moved in such circles. His music, Askia’s mother would have said, was not jazz, but exile.
Olia must have read his thoughts:
“You know,” she said, “I sit down in front of that picture and conjure up the concert, the notes. I imagine them soft and translucent and as slow as the water in a stream, at times lapping against the bank when the high notes soar into the air… Can we be less formal and call each other by our first names?”
“Musical notes—they can be sad too, miss. Now, about those pictures? Could you please show them to me?”
More photos lined the white walls, including the space in the far corner next to the TV, where some stairs led to a mezzanine and what Askia guessed was the bedroom. These other pictures showed Jesse Owens and the king Carl Lewis racing at full tilt, propelled by the gods of Olympus, and a very emotional Ella Fitzgerald at the microphone, with the beams of fame on her forehead. This girl Olia was peculiar. She evidently lived in a strange world comprised of images and legendary figures. Askia thought she must be fond of legendary faces. She liked Owen and King Lewis, and Ella. Sidi, the ghost he pursued through the dark Paris nights, was not a legend.
He plumped down on the sofa. She bustled about in the kitchenette, to the left of the bookshelves beyond the sofa. She made some tea, set the cups, sugar, and teapot on the low table in front of her guest, and sat down in the lotus position. After the pictures of the Himalayas, here was the second image of the East that he’d been allowed to contemplate in the space of an evening. Olia sitting cross-legged as if she intended to meditate, as if he were an altar or the statue of a saint or an icon meant for prayers.
“You really do look like the turbaned man I photographed a few years ago,” she said, laughing with her eyes and dimpling the corners of her mouth in a way that accentuated her charm. Then she admitted that, after their encounter in his taxi, she had searched through her photo albums for the man with the turban. Sidi’s portraits must have gotten misplaced in one of her many boxes. It would just take a little time, but she would find them.
Askia had the impression that among all those images, the only thing in the room that was real was the shape of Olia’s face, with her hair tied in a bun on the nape of her neck. She was neither too short nor too tall. But thin. Her face had the originality of a painting. Her body was ordinary. He thought she should always wear black. Black—the depths of night and mystery where her face had been designed. He discerned two small pears under her sweater. Mother nature could have been more generous, he said to himself. But he felt that what was most striking about this person was not her appearance so much as her personality. The tea did him good. The tea and the warmth of this little home. And yet he was afraid. Afraid the horrific hand bristling with razor-sharp hairs that lurked in his worst nightmares might punch a gaping hole in the ceiling of the apartment and seize him and cast him out into the cold. It was a dread that went back to his childhood.
Olia stood up, offering her guest a view of her outfit, black from head to toe. She crouched in front of the small fireplace built into the wall to the right of the door. She lifted the logs out from the ash, rearranged them and lit the fire. The flames enveloped the logs, the soot-coated hearth began to glow, the flames rose higher.
The flames and the question in the girl’s eyes—“Who are you? Who are you?”— awoke a scattering of reluctant images in the haze of Askia’s memories. The outlines of a village, a red dirt road travelled by herdsmen, back there near Nioro du Sahel. The ground, heated by the rays of a relentless sun, rising toward the thick clouds in a fine dust that stuck to the skin. Nioro, the point of departure, as far back as his memory could take him. He must have been five or six years old. Nioro or a dry patch of land somewhere in the vicinity. The long red road and a bridled donkey led by his father Sidi, who had sat his only son, Askia, on the animal’s back. Behind the donkey, the father and son, walked the mother, Kadia Saran, carrying on her head a basket of provisions, a bundle, a pouch containing phials filled with potions, amulets, and root sticks, a noria of remedies against all the ills of time, to which were privy only these herders of the great winds. And all of them in tow of the faltering donkey that could trot no faster than their flight over the sloping trails.
Of this he was sure: It was there they had set off one opaque night steeped in a complicit silence. And when he hunted through his memory for the reason why they had departed, what emerged was the certainty that it could not have been for the grazing. Because there had been no cattle left for already a long while. Only the donkey had remained, sole survivor of the epidemic that had mowed down their herd. This fact came back to him, and he saw their journey in a different light. A sombre light: the lack of rain in the Sahel, the burnt millet fields, the land covered with lizards through which the despair crept in, the empty granaries, the stomachs hollowed out by hunger, and the gazes and prayers fixed on the horizon where the rain would come from.
He thought the departure was because of the rain and the earth dying under their feet. He recalled those days spent crossing other arid lands, ravaged plains where a few souls hung on, resigned or reckless, full of hope or outright scorn. Scorn because the father, the mother, the son, and the donkey passing by their huts had a strange smell. The smell of many unwashed days. The mocking voices on the roadside:
“It’s true we don’t have any water left, but is that any reason to smell so bad?”
“Can it be that the wind’s tongue may not have washed away their filth?”
“It’s true that they are not to blame.”
“They have no water.”
“Still, is anyone entitled to stink like pariahs, like miscreants, like undesirables?”
“Can it be that the sand may have refused to lather away their dirt?”
“Try to understand. The sand is hot. It’s impossible to cleanse your body with…”
“Can it be…”
“Live on the long road…”
“Because the long road is all they have?”
“Who are you?” Askia read in her eyes and the camera lens. This is how those few scattered episodes, the starting point of the roads he had forever taken, came back to him.
Paris. A raw month of February running its monotonous course. His first meeting with the girl. He had forgotten to lock the doors of his taxi. She said, “You must have been sent by an angel— taxis are so rare at this time of night, especially on such a small street.” And, without waiting for his response, she settled in and asked him to take her to rue Auguste-Comte by the Jardin du Luxembourg. Engrossed in the pictures she was deleting from her camera, she hardly looked at him. Their eyes met in the rear-view mirror, and he heard her explain, as if answering a question of his, that she used digital for minor projects. She stared at him for a split second and returned to her business. She talked while selecting and deleting pictures. He followed her with his eyes, furtively spying on his customer as she purged her camera of portraits that did not please her. A bitter smile appeared on his face. Because it occurred to him in very precise terms that, four years earlier, before he had fled, he too had been wiping out faces with the click of a button.
He had taken boulevard Saint-Michel. There was nothing very complicated about this run. All he had to do was let his customer off farther up, near the Luxembourg gates. By the fountain bearing the same name as the boulevard: silhouettes gliding past, coats buttoned up against the dying winter, noises, moods, skins, a man standing alone with his back to a corner of the fountain, tending a grill and the chestnuts he sold to those scurrying over the cobblestones of Lutèce. The night had spilled its ink across the page of the day, the street had retrieved a light different from that of the old sun: signs glittering on the façades of the cafés, waffle shops and newsstands. And another light streamed from the nimble fingers of a juggler, an artist throwing flaming torches, catching them and launching them back into orbit again. It was a beautiful performance but he was afraid the juggler would get burned. His customer was still bent low over her camera. He wanted to hear her voice again, perhaps for her to assail him with the music of her speech: “Isn’t it a lovely night? Do you like chestnuts?” He wanted her to tell him something, a word, a thought: “You know, this technology makes things so easy. You can get rid of all the faces, I mean all the portraits, that aren’t to your liking!” She raised her head, stared at him a second time in the rear-view mirror and finally said, “You look like someone. But without the turban.”
He shivered. What she saw in the mirror was not him. Someone else behind him, beyond his face. She lifted her head and introduced herself, “I’m Olia,” and instantly went back to deleting pictures, the ones she found unsatisfactory, frenetically hitting the keys of her camera. They were caught in traffic near the Gibert Joseph bookstore. The passers-by were rifling through the books laid out on tables on the sidewalk, searching for buried treasure, their attention focussed on the volumes that they leafed through before dropping them back on the piles.
Askia was still stuck in the long line of cars with his passenger. She took the opportunity to lower the window on her side and, leaning out her thin body, to photograph the readers in profile.
For a long time he had sought to cleanse his mind of the memory of his father, that ghost, that stubborn shadow filling the film screen of his childhood, the screen-like wall at the foot of the bed where he slept in his mother’s hut. It was 1973 and already three years since the family had been reduced to the son and the mother huddled in their tropical shanty. The images that rained down on the windshield of Askia’s taxi—that was the father, this film that started up at the end of a run, when he found himself alone in the car. There it was, in the film—the father’s faithful shadow looming up at night in the hut, on the wall in front of him. It would play with a clown who sported a broad pair of wings on his back. The father and the clown were part of his world. Sidi, the father, who must have become associated with the clown at a travelling circus, wore a large white turban and inhabited the world of the dreamy child that Askia had been. Time had passed since their flight from the Sahel. The father and clown did their routine:
“Where are you going, big turban?”
“I don’t know. I’m going.”
“I don’t know. As far as I can go.”
“You’re going as far as you can go…”
“And how far can you go?”
“If I knew, I would tell you.”
“You don’t know where you’re going. But you’re going.”
“But I’m going.”
“And how long have you been going?”
“I don’t remember.”
“If you knew, would you stop because you’d say to yourself: I’ve been going for a long time and I don’t know where, and I see this makes no sense?”
“Probably. Because it makes no sense.”
“But maybe you can try right now to stay where you are.”
“Where I am…”