Sunday, February 8, 2009
Chapter Fourteen - The Leatherman's Journal, May 11, 1872
At the age of fourteen my mother, my brother and I moved from Persia and back to France when my father bought the leathergoods company in Lyon which employed him for fifteen years.
In the years when I lived in that exotic city, I learned much from the man in the garden. I learned to speak the language of the country in which I lived, something which no one else in my family, no one else in the European community seemed to have accomplished. Some of the businessmen had a passing familiarity with Farsi, but few of them could sustain a conversation.
I learned about the religions of the east. I learned about muslims and hindus, Buddhists and Jews. I learned that there were gods other than those of the Christian deity. I learned about men, the priests of these religions, who left home and family. Left all worldly possessions to make themselves more likely to reach their idea of heaven. They were not like the priests I knew.. Not like the priest in our own compound. These priests had no sense of superiority. No power over others. No declaration that they, by their words or actions, were in a position to judge those around them. They were humble men, who garnered respect for this humility. They begged for their food. They didn't preach. They simply existed in the best and quietest way they could. And they were loved and cared for by all.
I also learned how the people lived and worked. Learned that their religion was woven like a thread into their everyday lives. That worship was with them in every task. They worked where they could, and ate what they could raise themselves, or could barter, and few had even two coins to jangle together.
I learned all this, and I never learned my teacher's name. I called him Hamid, because I needed to call him something. But he would not tell me what he was properly called.
"Why do you need to have a name for me?" he asked whenever I asked him.
I explained that practicality and civility had something to do with it.
"Practicality, my son, means that you want something to be easier than it should be. Anything that does not take effort has little value."
On another occasion I expressed the need to know his name as a sign of affection.
"Show your love in how you act, not in how you call me. Live a good life and I will know that you love me."
On still another occasion I told him that I would need to know his name in case I could not find him and I needed to ask someone where he was.
"If I am not here, you will not need me. If I am here, you will not need to call me."
Finally I explained that I wanted to teach others what I had been taught. I wanted to be able to say that this great teacher showed me a glorious path through life.
"If you find those," he said, "Who want to follow you in the “glorious path through life,” as you call it, then they need not know my name, for they will see me in you."
"Then why must I have a name?" I asked.
"You have a name, because someone has given you one. When you have found yourself. When you know for sure what you are, and what you must do, then you will no longer need this name and you may shed it like a snake sheds its skin."
Today as I walked along the path, a young boy called to me.
"Old man leather. Hallo"
I am given yet another name, but it's not a name I must accept. At any rate, it's more a description than a name, but as such, it's more a name than the one my mother gave me.
My memories of her are cloudy. She died when I was fourteen, the year we returned to France from Persia. I remember our ship voyage home. She was sick the entire way. But then again so were many other passengers. My father called it wave sickness. He harrumphed it off as he did everything that he understand or feel himself.. He harrumphed all the way across the Mediterranean. It was typhoid.
Mother was no better on our coach trip from the south to our home in Lyon. And my father stopped harrumphing and knit his brow in the most frightening way. He spoke little, nothing to me, only to my mother, and then in whispers, as if any noise would give her pain.
In her bed in our new home (father explained again and again that it was our family home, our ancestral home, and as such was our old home, but I persisted in calling it our new home, for to my memory it was not a home I was familiar with) she was pale, and slept much.
Father had his new business to tend to, and so I stayed with the nurse and fed my mother the little that she would eat at breakfast, and for her afternoon meal. When my father arrived home late from the leatherworks, smelling as he always did, like a new saddle after a day's ride, he would sit beside her, into the evening, until she found peace in darkness and sleep. He never slept in that bed with her, but sat in an upholstered chair pulled close by.
I don't believe in that first month home that I ever saw him sleep in, or rise from a real bed.
My mother lingered like this for weeks. Some days she would seem to gain some energy. I remember for three days straight she lost the low fever that plagued her, and even rose, and moved about the house commenting on what needed to be done. For indeed, many of our belongings were still packed in crates. Then the fever returned, and she was bedridden again. After that, I don't remember seeing her stand again.
I was at school when she died. They didn't call for me, but when school was dismissed for the day I found a great grey carriage waiting to take me home. My uncle was inside, and I knew before he could tell me what had happened. I didn't cry immediately. I didn't start to cry until they told me I would not be able to see ma mere right away. That I would have to wait until she was prepared.
I howled until my father consented to take me into the room for what would be my last look at my mother. She remained in that room for the days that followed, for the calling of relatives and neighbors, but I never once went into the room again.
Lying on her bed, silent beneath the sheets she appeared more restful than she was since we arrived back in France. But soon I was to realize that the peacefulness was unnatural without the rise and fall of her chest. Without the flutter of eyelid, or a sleep-skittered finger. She was not sleeping. She was dead.
She was gone, and the realization made me stop crying for just a moment to calculate my loss. Then I began to cry again, and as may father told me later, I cried for three days.
The funeral is a blur. A black blur, and I believe I am better for it, but there was an emptiness in this grand house that was not yet home to me. I longed for our cramped quarters in Persia, and for those days when ma mere was still with me.
I held onto my sorrow for months, like it was something precious, something emblematic that demonstrated my eternal love for my mother. I carried it like a new born pup. I felt it expanded my heart, made it swell. It certainly made it ache. At first my mother was the focus of my sorrow, then the sorrow became a focus in itself.
I was kept from school for three weeks, and at the end of that time, my father thought it best for me to be out of the house and back at school. I was not happy to return. I did not like the school, and I had no friends. These boys were raised in a different culture than I.
I knew none of their games. They knew none of mine. And while their games together were a fascinating mystery whose rules and secrets I wished to learn, mine were of no concern to them except to be the object of their great joy in tormenting me.
On my reluctant return to school, my eyes were red-rimmed from weeping in the carriage. And if my face looked anything like I felt it did, then it was molded in a grimace of horror and sorrow.
The headmaster met me at the door, and uncharacteristically placed an arm on my shoulder and led me to my first class.
In class I remained somber, but stoic until our professor of classics read us the greek story of Antigone, I cannot remember which now, about a mother who finds her dead son on a battlefield and goes mad because he cannot receive a sacred burial.
I burst into tears.
Immediately the rest of the boys exploded into laughter. They were sternly silenced by the instructor. It made me cry even more.
As we lined up hours later for our noontime meal of soup, bread and cheese, I found myself surrounded by boys whispering, "Femme d'Afirique, - woman of Africa."
I ignored the taunts, and continued in line. I took the food doled out for me knowing I'd never be able to make myself eat it.
As I turned to search for a table I bumped directly into Pierre Martinette. He looked at me unmoved as the day’s soup dripped down the front of his waistcoat and shirt.
For the first time in weeks I found something to smile about. Here was Peter Martinette looking all grim and threatening with green pea soup begriming his school uniform.
"Now look what you've done, oaf." he said to me, finally realizing that he was dripping stewed legumes.
""You stood in my way, Pierre," I said rather meekly.
"Look what you've done oaf. Wipe it up."
"I won't," I said, now defiantly. And the surprised look on his face made me laugh. And my own laughing sent titters through several of the other boys in the dining hall.
"I'll make you lick it off," he said lunging toward me.
"I prefer more salt and pepper," I said, ducking his grasp, and laughing harder.
Now I ran among the tables and the boys began to laugh and cheer, and the teachers and the headmaster began to scurry among the tables to apprehend Pierre, or me, whomever they could lay their hands on first.
I was too quick for them. But poor Pierre was cuffed on the shoulder by Monsieur Arsenault, the professor of geometry. He was short and white haired, and didn’t do much harm to Pierre, and yet Pierre turned and caught Arsenualt with the his elbow, sending him sailing onto a table of soup and cheese.
Horrified by his own actions Pierre stopped for a moment to consider his next move.
He backed me into a corner and began to pound me with his fists. At the same time, I found out later, small fights began to break out throughout the dining hall. The fights broke off into two camps, those who supported me, and those who supported Pierre.
And so, I took the pummeling for a few moments, thinking that I would be rescued at any time by an instructor, or the cook, or maybe even a gendarme. But my arms and hands, which were taking most of the punishment, were getting sore, and lowering them once I felt a surprisingly powerful blow to my eye. Pierre was obviously not tiring, and the blow angered and surprised me.
It moved me to strike back. Which surprised Pierre even more. My first blow was weak and uncertain and it glanced off of him, but not without harm. He took advantage of the opening and hit me in the eye again.
I was blinded, not by the blow, but by the fury I felt as a result of the blow. I began to windmill my arms, keeping my head low to prevent further blows to the eyes, and I began to feel some of my punches landing.
Quite unexpectedly, I found myself on top of Pierre, sitting astride him, his face to the floor, arms covering his head, and me beating a tattoo on his shoulders and head.
I didn't stop until I felt myself being dragged off by someone larger than myself. It was Monsieur Arsenault who held me, as Pierre was told to stand up. He glanced nervously over his shoulder to be sure I was far enough away from him. And this made me laugh again.
Suddenly I was laughing with abandon, and laughing with me were Monsieur Arsenault, and most of the boys who were not by now crying. This fevered battle ripped the mantle of sorrow which I had been wearing, and at once, this battle made me a part of a community that shunned me before.
I never needed to fight again that way, until I was a man.