Essays

Natural History

Patrick Lane

for Gwendolyn MacEwen"With the sorrow of living so great, the sorrow of punishment had to be pitiless." —T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chapter One: Strangeness and Pain

It started with a note I found tucked into an anthology of poems edited by Selden Rodman, a book I opened rarely, though there was a time when I was young I had read it so closely and so many times I had most of the poems memorized. The note lay in the spine of the book against a poem of Arthur Rimbaud’s titled, I think, “The Twelve-Year-Old Poet.” On it are four names printed out in my sure and youthful twenty-one-year-old hand: Baghdad, Koweit, Sakakah, Jaffa.

And then my remembering Gwendolyn MacEwen one night in Toronto in 198 and her telling me I should write this story down and so I finally have. It was told to me a long time ago and I have forgotten pieces of it and because I have forgotten, those pieces are lost.

The man who gave me the four Arab names was Gerhard Wolfe.

Gerhard Wolfe earned his doctoral degree from a university in Berlin in 197. His oral examination took three days, during which he sat in a chair in the centre of a big empty room and various professors from his own and other disciplines would walk in at any time from morning to evening and ask him questions on any subject they wished him to address. The oral examination was called the Certamen Vigorosum and it was rigorous, a trial of strength and knowledge and therefore of the spirit, but Gerhard survived and was granted his doctorate in natural history. He was twenty-two years old.

The year he graduated, a rich man—a Jew, as Gerhard described him—left his fortune to the university on the condition that it be used to finance an expedition to the Arabian Peninsula to study the Semitic peoples. The professor chosen to lead the expedition, who was quite old and infirm, asked Gerhard to accompany him as his assistant. The journey was to take three years. As it happened, it took much longer. They travelled by ship and by train, on foot and on horseback, but mostly they travelled on camels as they crossed and recrossed the vast desert expanse of Arabia, that area of land bounded by the Persian Gulf in the east, the Indian Ocean in the south, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in the west, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the north. Near the end of the fifth year the professor died of a stroke in Baghdad, and Gerhard, relieved of his duty to the old man, desired nothing more than to go home with his books, notes and specimens. It was August of 1913.

He could have waited for a month and taken a ship to Aden and from there through the Red Sea and back to Germany, but he was impatient to get home. He decided to leave the expedition at Koweit on the Persian Gulf, cross over the sand belt and then the immense gravel and lava plain north of the oases to Jaffa. It was a long and difficult journey but Gerhard had travelled it before. He bought three camels, loaded them with his worldly goods and set out after negotiating with the local riverine Arabs for a guide to take him through their territory. Four days later he was passed on to the next clan of desert wanderers, and then he was passed along again. He became the guest of each clan of Bedouins and remained under their protection while in their territory, for it was a matter of honour among them that no harm would come to a man, enemy or friend, who was their guest.

Somewhere near Sakakah in central Arabia, Gerhard and his guide and their camels were set upon by strange Bedouins not of the clan who had guaranteed his safety, and he was left for dead in the desert. He remembers the fighting and being struck by a bullet from what seemed an antique rifle, and then nothing more until he woke in a tent occupied by women in chadors, some of whom were tending to his dressings. They gave him food and drink and cared for him until he was well enough to sit up and begin to feed himself. While he was being looked after by the women, a man he did not know sat on a small red carpet in the corner of the tent. The man on the carpet said nothing to him and Gerhard, who was very ill and was used to having a translator, knew only the rudiments of the Arab tongue, and so did not try to engage him in talk. In any case, the man’s countenance did not invite conversation. Each time Gerhard woke, the man was there, night and day, sitting on the small carpet and staring straight ahead. He was aware of Gerhard’s presence, but he made no sign to him. Gerhard referred to this man throughout his story only as the man who sat with him. There was no other description. What he wore, whether he was tall or short, young or old, was never mentioned. He was simply the man who sat with Gerhard.

Gerhard’s five years of travel in Arabia had taught him about the Semitic peoples and he found both the man’s presence and his demeanour, while unsettling, not unusual. On the twelfth day two men came into the tent, helped him to rise and then, with great care, dressed him in clean clothes. When he was fully attired, the man who had sat with him stood up, bowed and motioned for Gerhard to follow him. Gerhard was light-headed and unsteady on his feet, and the two men helped support him as he walked out into the afternoon. The desert sun was high and bright and Gerhard, accustomed to the shadows of the tent, was blinded for a moment. He remembered being helped onto a low stool on a carpet, under a deep indigo canopy of what he later thought was silk or very fine cotton.

When his eyes adjusted he saw six men kneeling in front of him on the sand. Their arms were bound behind them and they were naked from the waist up. The skin of their chests and bellies and arms was pale, and their faces, which been darkened by the sun, seemed to be of another colour. One of them Gerhard recognized as the man who had shot him with the antique gun. The man who had sat with Gerhard bowed to him again, turned and made a slight motion with his hand, and one of the men standing by the prisoners stepped forward and handed him a sword. The man who had sat with Gerhard took the sword, turned the blade once in the sun as if to test its brightness, and, bowing slightly again, stepped to the first of the kneeling men, the one who had shot Gerhard, and spoke in the language Gerhard understood only a little. It was a question for Gerhard. Gerhard remained silent, and the man who had sat with him lifted the sword and cut off the head of the kneeling man with one sweeping stroke. The man’s head fell onto the sand and blood spurted in two streams from the stump of the neck; the headless body slumped forward as if in prayer.

The remaining captives did not move and did not speak, but only stared at Gerhard. The man who had sat with him bowed to him again and moved on to the next man, and the next, bowing slightly to Gerhard each time. Each time he asked the same question and each time Gerhard said nothing. One by one the man who had sat with him cut off the heads of the prisoners. When he was done, he picked up each head in turn and held it face out to Gerhard for a moment before dropping it back on the sand. When that was done, Gerhard was led back into the tent and there followed what Gerhard said was the required three days of feasting. When it was over and he was rested, Gerhard indicated that he was well enough to travel on to Jaffa. His camels were returned to him along with the camels of the bandits and all their goods and he was escorted out into the desert by the man who had sat with him.

The two men travelled together but did not speak until they were met at a low cairn of stones by someone from the next tribe to whom Gerhard was being handed over for safekeeping. The last thing the man who had sat with him did was to give him in a leather scabbard the sword he had used to decapitate the Bedouin prisoners. Gerhard accepted the gift and then, still mounted on his camel, rode out into the desert. He looked back only once, as he was passing over a high crest of sharp chert and cinder-stone. The man who had sat with him was still there by the cairn on his camel. Gerhard did not wave or make any gesture other than to look back, and then his camel moved into a defile of broken lava to the west and he was alone except for the silent Bedouin now guiding him. Six weeks later he entered the narrow streets of Jaffa.

When I knew Gerhard he was a security guard at Craigmont Mines in Merritt, B.C. His job was to check the pockets and lunch boxes of the men as they left the mine to make sure they weren’t smuggling anything out—bits of machinery, fragments of pipe or wire, or anything else they could sell for scrap in town. He seemed an old man to me then, though he was still very strong. The story I have told you is as close to Gerhard’s as I can remember. I had the names Baghdad, Koweit, Sakakah, Jaffa, on the note I found in Rodman’s book. I remember asking Gerhard how to spell them. I printed them out; I didn’t write them. It was as if I had wanted to be sure I had them right.

I tried to write the story he told me, but I was not successful. I kept inventing details, decorating it and making it romantic, and so it was not as it should have been. I left the story behind until 198, when I told it to Gwendolyn MacEwen. We were in the hospitality suite at the Authors Festival in Toronto, drinking vodka on a couch in the smoking room with our backs to the lake. I remember we had been talking of T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which had been an important book to me when I was young. I think now that I was showing off a little, having had a brush, however distant, with the desert and its peoples. Gwendolyn did not tell me she was even then writing a series of poems based on Lawrence’s book. I remember her saying that there were many stories she had heard when she lived in the Near East. She told me I should write mine down, for now that Gerhard was dead, the story belonged to me. It was a gift, she said, and gifts are burdens that are better set down. That was twenty-three years ago.

I knew Gerhard for a little more than a year before he died in the dilapidated hospital we had there in Merritt at the turn of the fifties. He was seventy-five. I remember thinking he was old. When I was young I spent a lot of time with older men. I had a need of fathers then. He knew a great deal more than I about the flora and fauna in the valley where we lived. I remember being ashamed to know so little about the country I had been born and grown up in. He hunted on Sundays with a falcon he had trapped in the dry hills southeast of the Nicola River. He took me with him several times. I remember trying to carry the bird on my wrist and though I was young and strong I could only hold my arm up for ten minutes or so before my muscles tired. The falcon could feel my trembling and she became restless whenever Gerhard let me carry her. He had named her Atwi. He hunted partridge and grouse with her and told me he had learned the art of falconry from the Bedouins.

What I remember most is not the story of the exp edition and the journey, the beheading of the bandits, or the man who sat with him, though he remains mysterious and beautiful to me, and it is not the question that was asked of him there under the canopy when the six men knelt on the sand looking at him, or whether or not he understood it, and if he did, why he did not answer, for he had told me he had lived among the Bedouins for five years and surely understood a little of their language, the question I am sure being very simple. It was not that. It was Gerhard sitting on the wooden chair in the empty room at the university in Berlin when he was twenty-two years old, and the words Certamen Vigorosum that he used to describe his trial.

When Gerhard spoke of the examination, he became very intense. To him, those three days were the most important days of his life. Even now I can close my eyes and hear him speak of the smell of the oil they used to polish the arms of the chair. He said that he would rub the wooden arms with his fingers and then hold them up to his nose so he could smell the faint odour of beeswax and oil mixed with the oak smell and the fats that had leached from the hands of all those who had sat there before him. That and the glow of the three wall sconces, the way their light pooled high on the dark wooden walls early in the evening.

His journeys in Arabia before the Great War, the bandits and their shooting of him, the man who sat with him and who beheaded the six kneeling men, were made more real to me because of the details Gerhard told me of the examination room and the chair. He gave me this story in 196 , fifty-three years after it happened, and I am telling it forty-three years after that. His trial was a hundred years ago, but I can feel the coldness of that shadowed room in Berlin and see Gerhard sitting on his chair in the centre of an expanse of grey slate, the high windows shrouded in heavy purple curtains that flared very slightly whenever anyone walked close to them, the dust devils in the corner near the doors, the shifting swirls of yellow light on the walls, and him lifting his fingers surreptitiously to his nose and smelling them as he waited for whoever was going to come to question him.

As I imagine young Gerhard in that room, it is the end of the third day and a man approaches wearing a black gown. I think of him as a visiting professor from Vienna, though why Vienna I do not know. Perhaps Gerhard mentioned such a man. He has just one question to ask and then Gerhard’s force of energy and soul, which is one of the meanings of Certamen Vigorosum, his trial of strength will be over. Everything that will guide his life through the next fifty years of the twentieth century with its many troubles and griefs, to that isolated mountain valley in southern British Columbia where I met him, with its copper mine, its sawmills and bars, the desperate poverty of the Indians, the labourers, millworkers and their wretched wives and children, depends on that moment. The answer he gives will lead him inexorably to the Nicola Valley on the high plateau and the cemetery on the desert hillside above Merritt, where the only people attending his burial will be me, a drunken Anglican priest whom I had to bribe with five dollars I could not afford so that he would speak a few holy words, slurred and slightly incoherent as I remember, and a patient Native man who stood quietly to the side of the grave with his shovel, saying nothing while he waited for us to be done.

There was the falcon, of course, but the story of Atwi who waited for me in her cage under the dusty Ponderosa pine behind the shack down by the Nicola River is not Gerhard’s story, it is mine and I am not yet ready to set Atwi’s burden down. It is enough, I think, to have told Gerhard’s story as clearly as I can. I could have told it earlier and might have remembered more, but I didn’t, and those years are gone in clouds and rain. What matters is what I know now. I have the places right, at least: Baghdad, Koweit, Sakakah, Jaffa, and I have the straight-backed oak chair he sat in with the oiled arms, and the empty room at the nameless university in Berlin.

And the smell, that too is as he told me.

The story given here is to remember Gwendolyn MacEwen. She was the one who said I should write it down. She was the one who said it was a gift and therefore a burden, and I know much of burdens. Stories are the pieces of ourselves we make a life from, and if they are not told then our lives are lost. Gwen knew that in her small, troubled bones. She knew lost stories; some, I know, she carried to her grave. Both she and I spent many years on solitary chairs in rooms as we waited for someone to come and ask the question that would change our lives.

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