It was during those days that Shetima’s good fortune began to take on the fuzziness of legend. Shetima, the slave boy turned prince. Months after he married the Emir’s daughter, the slaves he left behind in the field lapped up the wake of hope that trailed his triumph and returned to the wretchedness of their lives, nearly conquered by despair. To every age is allotted one fairytale and Shetimah had used theirs up. So it was that the brilliance of his good fortune mocked any timid pretence they might have had to the dream of ever being free.
The disease of despair–the one infection that killed slaves more than the driver’s scourge– was spreading fast in the holds and out in the millet fields. It began with the darkening of the fluids in the body and, in its advanced stage, gave bones and organs the heaviness of lead. The final stage of this feared infection was a rabid madness that drove the victim into a violent suicide or an irrational act that invariably resulted in his being killed.
When the spread of despair became an epidemic and threatened to wipe out the whole encampment, Ali staged his escape, knowing full well that it will not succeed. Rotting in prison seemed much better than dying of despair.
As he lay in his cell, located in the prison tower, he thought to himself how peaceful life had become. Covered in scabies and burdened with entrails whose decay he smelled in his foul breath, he waited gratefully for his death. Sometimes, he would try to capture the present of his life in its fleeting and unlivable flicker, but he would often instead encounter his painful past. At other times, what confronted him in his fruitless search for the present was a future that was tranquil because it was empty. For the most part, time passed as it always did, on its own, leaving him to await his end, ensconced in the gooey coolness of all his bodily secretions and excretion.
A measureless sliver of time passed in this manner but finally brought to his cell an Arab who had a Spanish name that none could ever remember. He was a sac of mange and blood when he arrived, tossed on the part of the floor where Ali’s head reposed. The newcomer’s eyes were roving and distant in way that told Ali that he had seen a little too much of the world. The man told many tales, some of which Ali decided were both tall and fabulous and others far too esoteric to worth a second’s thought.
But as the new prisoner moved closer to his death, his delirium eased and on a night of particular lucidity, he fixed his eyes on the sky, visible from the window of their towered cell. “The stars,” he told Ali in the raspy gravity of secrecy, “has many secrets the greatest of which is the master map of the world.” From that night, he lectured Ali on the mysteries of geometry passed on to him from his ancestors. He lectured with a strange sense of urgency that prepared Ali for what was to come. He would often say, “Within the great circles that bind a host of moving moons and planets are stars crossing and crisscrossing and leaving paths that seek out the roads and byways that connect world and people in a perfect web.”
His last words are unforgettable because deep within their overly ambitious aspiration to poetry lay the setting free of Ali’s destiny. “Each star is the elixir of the wandering traveler.” “Drink it,” he ordered, “and this chain of slavery will become a princely ring.” “The north star is a friend of your heart. Follow it, and you will always find your way home wherever that may become.” Handing Ali a pair of stargazer’s eyes, a telescope, a compass, a quadrant, and a measuring chain, he told him of a King in the West, who rules over a kingdom called Benin. His people call him Oba Esigie. Unlike the kings before him, he opens his doors to strangers out of kindness but also out of a desire to find the road that leads to the end of the world. The reward for the man who fulfils for the king this dream is a place of prominence in his council. The Masonic mysteries of the King’s people has revealed to him that the knowledge he seeks will come from a stranger. So he has learned all the languages of Europe and the desert lands, waiting daily for the coming of the man who would show him the paths to the ends of the earth and back.
“It has taken me ages to come this far, but as you can see, I have been elected for another destiny. But youth has given you the chance to become what I shall, in a moment, not even be able to dream of.” With these words, he passed.
It took Ali the better part of his youth to venture to the limits of this land where art, commerce, and the sciences flourish in the hands of a king who has grown old in flesh but whose heart seems eternally to be rejuvenated by a solitary but everlasting dream. A friend and comforter of weathered travelers, it was not difficult to gain his audience. Ali told him of the great wisdom of the Arab prisoner who had a Spanish name. The king wanted to know every little bit of detail regarding his journey from the cities of the northern Banza Bastards, down the great Niger, and through the mysteries of the rain forests. Only then did he sit back and listen to Ali’s offer to map the heavens and earth. That is how Ali emerged from the depths of slavery, born anew in his old age as the Chief Servant of the Iwoki Guild: Oba Esigie’s legendary gang of stargazers.