A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.33Alan Sillitoe
Daylight was hot, darkness was hot. He could move, read, think. When the girl came in, he asked for water: ‘Fish ’andukum môya?’
‘Aho el-môya’ – giving him a cupsized earthbowl of warm liquid. He spread it over his face. Using the lid of a small tin for a mirror he pulled his razor painfully up and down the long bristles. She watched from the doorway, arms folded at waist level. The face in the tin was distant and indistinct, as if behind a waterfall, but the image gave him the assurance to shave by touch and not butcher himself. The more he scraped the more polished seemed the tin. With the bristles off, matted over the surface of the water like iron filings, his face was smaller but not so bony as he’d thought it would be. He expected her to smile but she didn’t, so his ego was satisfied by not being pandered to. Her feet made no noise, and only her clothes moved when she took up the water and went. Love came with two faces, usually that of the great destroyer, rage and maggot-fire hiding behind the smile of the all-embracing womb of sweetness that tried to get you. Love destroyed your will, the soft evil old-fashioned swooning love that one had read and been told about, that froze the bowels and cooked the heart, the two-way facing foxy tearabout let loose in you by some far back ancestral parcel of yourself trying to do you in at the crucial moment or turning-point of your life. It was a sort of love you had to say goodbye to, drop dead to, get off my back love to, without losing your decency and self-respect, and your responsibility to others. Sweat poured out of you like thought; thought was salt and sweat in contradistinction to snot and shit. Blood wasn’t thought, but disaster, and he’d seen enough spilled and splashed, grey and yellow flesh flashing maggoty under the sun and inking the rocks, death-pits and treegallows, scorched teeth and blancoed bone to last forever. The love all knew about was zither strings on which your enemies played, the love of evil that they got you to stave off by the way you spent your money, the whole sticktwisted righthanded idealism of love me and nothing more, love your father, mother, sweetheart, wife, children, country, king and soil, the sky turned blind when it laughed behind your back, a black patch over the H-bomb mushroom exploding while you groped in the dark and called it love, romantic semantic schizoid psychic platonic tectonic bucolic rancid fervid fetid bubonic love, the love that locks you deep in the dungeon of your putrescent silted soul. Swim up like a fish to the red-hot sands of the desert, and set off through your own death towards life. It’s a gamble in which no one wins but which those who take may win through, though at the moment he didn’t see how he’d ever get beyond this cellar under the sky.
If he asked himself what was to be done, the only answer that came without thought and therefore truly was to stand up, to walk, to leave the tunnel of malaise and fight to the pinhead spotlight of sickness, resume his trek over rubble and sand and get to the mountains and maybe catch another glimpse of the sea before he croaked. If the dead love, the rotten love, the western love pulled out of you there was nothing left, except to lie for weeks in a hole in the ground hugging the bit of life still somehow tucked under your skin. What you had left, at this low pitch, was the will to get on your legs and move your arms to fight or build, walk, march, kill if anybody tried to stop you doing these things. When the foul and useless love you had been conditioned to accept by a finished and rotten society dead in its tracks had died, and you knew that to love only one person out of all others in the world, and be yourself loved by someone else out of all the others in the world was wrong in every sense, then you began to experience a new warmth of life, a responsible manifold feeling towards all others and not just one. The love of one was the love of death and of the devil. The love of all was a respect for creation. You could not love only one person in the desert, because if you did you and everyone would perish. There was a love in which the phallus dominated all else, the boss and operating member tyrannising over everything you did or wanted to do. The other love was controlled by the hands that helped, taught, built and if necessary fought. The phallus could not be ignored, but neither could it be allowed to dominate, for such a dominion was destruction leading you to the sinkpots and gutters of the earth, dropping you and everyone through to the cloacae of oblivion. You came a long way to find simple truths, too far on foot over the earth, too far into the labyrinthine depths of your own flesh and blood, and yet never far enough, never to the extreme limits that the spirit can endure. No one else can live for you, neither the servants nor the telly nor books, nor any yarnspinner back and blighted from the fantastic pot-zones of heaven and earth. You had to go yourself, right in, right down, through the eye of a needle and into many mansions, queer street and rotton row, shit creek and blind alley. No one could go for you or do for you. The light burned in your forehead and shone right in front, and if the earth and coal fell it fell on you, with no one to blame but yourself and nothing to lose but yourself. Only your own skull was crushed, your own light stamped out, and since you didn’t know anything about it nothing would hereafter matter.
The silent cinnamon glow of this tall young woman walking in and out day after day put her softly withdrawing life into him, a spirit and blood transfusion taking place with neither of them knowing it until it was too late. Towards the end, after Mokhtar had spoken about arrangements to get him to the base zones of the Kabylie Mountains, and when he was walking round the room ten and fifty times a day to build the fibres back into his legs, he sensed the decline of her strength, though she did not walk more slowly or breathe heavily and with pain. She lived on by gentleness and will, but her eyes grew lighter, burned intensely when they were turned away from his, and when he looked at them before she realised he had seen her. They were grey-green, small and almost closed, as if to see better in the dim light and save what life remained in them.
He stamped on his love for her. He held her hand a moment on the night he went away. Her fingers were thin and cold, and she muttered something in Arabic in reply to his few words of French. He felt that neither had understood the other’s speech, and did not need to.
Sand blew against the back of his head, hot grains stinging through his hair. Hat in hand, he walked along, for the moment unarmed, feet scuffling away the last two hundred miles to mountains and sea. Thin, grit-choked alfalfa grass stretched all around and up to the heights which now had trees on them. He was glad that the hot wind was coming from behind. Walking into it, the black mood would have sent him mad. They had been three days on the march, a guide in front and a Moudjahid soldier behind so that he began to feel like a prisoner. ‘You are going away,’ Mokhtar said. ‘Snow for the winter, perhaps a sea-cruise to Egypt. Everything is arranged along the route. No more fighting.’
‘Let the desert bloom,’ he said, pissing on the sand, ‘and lizards drown in it.’ The heat of life was diminishing as they sat down to eat, three points of a well-spaced triangle, mobile rag-bundles resting before dusk and a few more miles into darkness. The triangle was deformed by surrounding huge rocks, and when the thin plane whistle was heard they hugged the ground and spread grey cloaks over themselves to become part of the outcrop and invisible. His moving shadow marked out the land, patterning much of it, robbing the sun as he walked of direct touches of the earth. He took his shadow with him, he in a straight line as it slowly shifted round all points of the compass. At night as he lay it was held down firmly so that it wouldn’t walk away unawares and leave him naked and incomplete. He was no longer on the run, out to escape from others and himself. Yet he felt particularly insignificant under the great sky.
Another ten days and, if he didn’t perish from bullets or napalm, he would be in the mountains. He was feeling his way towards some new phase at last, but could not fix clearly in his mind what it was because he felt no guarantee of getting there. He went on without hope, but with strength and intent matching together. Thought played no great part in his plan. The only way he could prove to himself that he was alive was to become dead. They moved, met nomads at dawn, ate beans and mutton, chickpeas and
They hid among the rocks while a man on a donkey went by wearing a ragged striped shirt and baggy pantaloons. No one was trusted, not even friends. When face and limbs were pressed on to the earth, he felt more responsibility to the ideas he was trekking and fighting for. Pepperdust, crushed insects, salt stone and grass-juice were eating his own spit and sweat. The soldier passed him a half-smoked cigarette, and after a few draws he slid it back. A large white bird with black wingtips and yellow beak flew low, perched on a rock for a closer look, then lifted vertically as if yanked on an invisible wire. He did not like such birds, buzzards who were slaves to rotting flesh, chained to the dying, and the wounded who staggered along. They were part of the earth yet not of it, preying on it and waiting to taste flesh spiced by the spirit that had seasoned it. They reminded him of people who fed gluttonously off the meat and salt of the earth, who breathed in death as their spiritual seasoning and indulged in glamourised flights to heaven that made them feel superior and safe, and were set apart from struggle and a real knowledge of machinery and bread. From above they saw a pall of smoke drifting beautifully, but from below a tree was on fire with tortured trunk and writhing leaves, cellophane flames spreading and bursting towards cooler air. On the ground you walk away to get out of range, not fly towards it for a better view. Smoke blinds, but flame burns off a layer of your flesh, frightens you into awe when its blackened ruin smoulders and the mooncircle of ash is all that’s left. Buzzards fly towards free meat and dreams, romance unstriven for and found in far off paradisal places – not crawled towards with sweat and effort, bloody feet, scabs, burning eyes, black nostrils.
In the wilderness you threw stones at such birds – and never hit them. Eyes looked, and their beaks cremated you. When you died they devoured your dead meat, divided it among a tribe, flew off with you in their several bellies towards the sun. It seemed like a bad wish fulfilled, going away from the earth. Maybe the bird would fall dead over the sea and your flesh sink back to the fishes. Perhaps a soldier shot them through the belly and so you were killed twice in the same way – the worms getting you in the end. Your flesh was at many mercies, but perhaps it was immortal after it was dead.
A village was clear of the French, and they entered in the afternoon. Small brown donkeys stood in the shadows of crumbling houses. He walked slowly. A middle-aged man in flowing white, with a thin face and sardonic mouth led them through a flock of long-haired black and white goats. Sheep and mules were mixing freely by a well. They could not stay. A French column was coming from the east, and woman and children were walking mutely to the hills they had just left. After eating, Frank strolled among the houses. He was offered tea, which he accepted. A twelve-year-old girl with no hands waved her stumps and asked for money. He laid a coin on the red withered skin of her wrist. She smiled from a long, rather fleshy face that seemed to have no settled features, as if she had just come out of a bitter snowstorm and was still cold from it.
They hadn’t slept for two days, treading over miles of ground where the land was comparatively quiet. A Peugeot station-wagon took them a pre-arranged fifty kilometres along a straight narrow road. The land was dead flat, scrub, stones, half sand and barren. They ran quickly when the Peugeot stopped, hid in a water-course while a convoy went by. The Frenchman who had driven the car and whose white face had not spoken one word talked to military police. Frank watched through binoculars, saw him resume his journey in safety.
The mountains were close, foothills of thirst and sun lifting to a purple Crestline of five thousand feet. The girl’s face haunted him. Her stumps fitted into the sockets of his eyes and blocked out the stars. His face streamed salt as he crouched low in the blinding heat. He craved the mountains. Food and comfort had no meaning, but he wanted to climb vast slopes and crawl through woods, get nearer to the cooling sky. The last scorching will of the desert was on him, a final flash so intense it made him wonder how he could ever have walked into it. But he considered that a man has to go into a place where the sun burns and wind chastens, where no other lives can feed off your own and where you reach the desert of your soul, of yourself, where the wind and sand can smother the immediate emotions and unsolvable chaos living with you and that you live with, and where the wind can reveal areas of yourself that had laid dormant. To survive it means that you want to live, which hadn’t been so certain before. Solitude sings to you, real truths, real lies, and real songs of which there are few because they are real and not false. Having the largeness of spirit to try and change the pattern of your suffering you grow in the desert, for when suffering increases you understand the causes better. The immense space against which you pit yourself intimidates you yet increases vision. By showing such great areas of land and spirit you see that this vast emptiness will soon be filled with more than the turmoiled minor emptinesses of before. The stumps of the girl’s arms tormented him, the flesh still hot and burning under his eyes. He hoped she had been born that way, so that he could blame nature and not man, and laugh at his misspent tears. If God existed, you could curse until your lungs burst, but you couldn’t weep at what He did.
The last of the desert was burning under his feet. They weaved among upcrops of grey rock, stepped between fields of flint-teeth that looked as if they had been dropped by great metallic dragons that had turned vegetarian at the sight of green and distant mountains. A range of glistening salt-hills intervened, silver humps and hollows baking in their own utter barrenness. The pack burned scabs into his sweating spine where flesh had healed to tenderness during the long sickness and rest. Pain could be cut off, ignored by all senses, subdued and separated by the incessant walk that numbed everything but his private theatre of recollection, giving continual performance against colourful and fabulous backdrops of imperishable outdated scenery that he couldn’t help noticing because it changed so slowly. The saline undulations they walked over for days would have been insupportable if the high ranges of the Tell Atlas had not pushed their shadows closer every time he woke up.
Pine-cones cracked in unendurable heat. They went for miles on knees and belly. He wanted to think of Myra, but could not keep her image in focus. It was almost as if he never expected to see her again. She and the child lived in a far-off other world, and at the moment he could make no bridges to connect the two. They had taken ten days to get over the first range of mountains – up six thousand feet, and twenty miles on. They joined a column which travelled by day and night, or tried to. This was a base area, a safe zone, but there were more bo
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