Doris Lessing.

The Cleft


The Cleft



Title Page In a recent scientific article I saw this today This account, by this Maire You may be thinking that And now this chronicler And now, dear Roman reader Now, reading the words Some events this summer This is to the point Well, eagles still hold Once again I have to intervene What did it mean And now I really cannot stop myself Also By Doris Lessing Copyright About the Publisher

In a recent scientific article it was remarked that the basic and primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later, as a kind of cosmic afterthought. I cannot believe that this was a trouble-free advent. The idea was grist to an already active mill, for I had been wondering if men were not a younger type, a junior variation. They lack the solidity of women, who seem to have been endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world. I think most people would agree with this, even if a definition would be hard to come by. Men in comparison are unstable, and erratic. Is Nature trying something out?

Brooding about this whole question sparked off speculation and then that spinning of the imagination that can lead to the birth of stories. Here is one of the tales about what might have happened when Clefts first gave birth to a baby boy.

Man does, woman is.



We travel not for trafficking alone: By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned: For lust of knowing what should not be known We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

The Master of the Caravan

Open the gate, O watchman of the night.

The Watchman

Ho, travellers I open. For what land Leave you the dim-moon city of delight?

The Merchants (WITH A SHOUT)

We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

(The caravan passes through the gate)


What would you, ladies? It was ever thus. Men are unwise and curiously planned.

A Woman

They have their dreams, and do not think of us.

Voices of the Caravan (IN THE DISTANCE, SINGING)

We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.



I saw this today.

When the carts come in from the estate farm as the summer ends, bringing the wine, the olives, the fruits, there is a festive air in the house, and I share in it.

I watch from my windows like the house slaves, for the arrival of the oxen as they turn from the road, listen for the creak of the cart. Today the oxen were wild-eyed and anxious, because of the noisy overfull road to the west. Their whiteness was reddened, just like the slave Marcuss tunic, and his hair was full of dust. The watching girls ran out to the cart, not only because of all the delicious produce they would now put away into the storerooms, but because of Marcus, who had in the last year become a handsome youth. His throat was too full of dust to let him return their greetings, and he ran to the pump, snatched up the pitcher there, drank and drank poured water over his head, which emerged from this libation a mass of black curls and dropped the pitcher, through haste, on the tile surround, where it shattered. At this, Lolla, whose mother my father had bought during a trip to Sicily, an excitable explosive girl, rushed at Marcus screaming reproaches and accusations. He shouted back, defending himself. The other servants were already lifting down the jars of wine and oil, and the grape harvest, black and gold, and it was a busy, loud scene. The oxen began lowing and now, and with an ostentatiously impatient air, Lolla took up a second pitcher, dipped it in the water and ran with it to the oxen, where she filled their troughs, which were nearly empty. It was Marcuss responsibility to make sure the oxen got their water as soon as they arrived. They lowered their great heads and drank, while Lolla again turned on Marcus, scolding and apparently angry. Marcus was the son of a house slave in the estate house and these two had known each other all their lives. Sometimes he had worked here in our town house, sometimes she had gone for the summer to the estate. Lolla was known for her quick temper, and if Marcus had not been hot and dusty after the long slow journey he would probably have laughed at her, teased her out of her fit of impatience. But these two were no longer children: it was enough only to see them together to know her crossness, his sullenness, were not the result only of a very hot afternoon.

He went to the oxen, avoiding their great tossing horns, and began soothing them. He freed them from their traces, and led them to the shade of the big fig tree, where he slipped the traces over a branch. For some reason Marcuss tenderness with the oxen annoyed Lolla even more. She stood, watching, while the other girls were carrying past her the produce from the cart, and her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes reproached and accused the boy. He took no notice of her. He walked past her as if she were not there, to the veranda, where he pulled out another tunic from his bundle and, stripping off the dusty tunic, he again sluiced himself with water, and without drying himself the heat would do that in a moment he slipped on the fresh one.

Lolla seemed calmer. She stood with her hand on the veranda wall, and now she was penitent, or ready to be. Again he took no notice of her, but stood at the end of the veranda, staring at the oxen, his charges. She said, Marcus in her normal voice, and he shrugged, repudiating her. By now the last of the jars and the fruit had gone inside. The two were alone on the veranda. Marcus, said Lolla again, and this time coaxingly. He turned his head to look at her, and I would not have liked to earn that look. Contemptuous, angry and very far from the complaisance she was hoping for. He went to the gate to shut it, and turned from it, and from her. The slaves quarters were at the end of the garden. He took up his bundle and began walking fast, to where he would lodge that night. Marcus, she pleaded. She seemed ready to cry. He was about to go into the mens quarters and she ran across and reached him as he disappeared into the door.

I did not need to watch any longer. I knew she would find an excuse to hang about the courtyard perhaps petting and patting the oxen, giving them figs, or pretend the well needed attention. She would be waiting for him. I knew that he would want to go off into the streets with the other boys, for an evenings fun he was not often here in this house in Rome itself. But I knew too that these two would spend tonight together, no matter what he would have preferred.

This little scene seems to me to sum up a truth in the relations between men and women.

Often seeing something as revealing, when observing the life of the house, I was impelled to go into the room where it was kept, the great pack of material which I was supposed to be working on. I had had it now for years. Others before me had said they would try to make something of it.

What was it? A mass of material accumulated over ages, originating as oral history, some of it the same but written down later, all purporting to deal with the earliest record of us, the peoples of our earth.

It was a cumbersome, unwieldy mass and more than one hopeful historian had been defeated by it, and not only because of its difficulty, but because of its nature. Anyone working on it must know that if it ever reached a stage of completion where it could have a name, and be known as a product of scholarship, it would be attacked, challenged, and perhaps be described as spurious.

I am not a person who enjoys the quarrels of scholars. What kind of a man I am is not really of importance in this debate there has already been disputation about allowing this tale to exist away from the dusty shelves it has always been kept on. The Cleft I did not choose this title had at various times been regarded as so inflammatory it had been put with other Strictly Secret documents.

As I have said, the history I am relating is based on ancient documents, which are based on even earlier oral records. Some of the reported events are abrasive and may upset certain people. I tried out selected bits of the chronicle on my sister Marcella and she was shocked. She would not believe that decent females would be unkind to dear little baby boys. My sister is ever ready to ascribe to herself the more delicate of female attributes a not uncommon trait, I think. But as I remind her, anyone who has watched her screaming her head off as the blood flows in the arena is not likely easily to be persuaded of female fastidiousness. People wishing to avoid offence to their sensibilities may start the story on p.29.

The following is not the earliest bit of history we have, but it is informative and so I am putting it first.

Yes, I know, you keep saying, but what you dont understand is that what I say now cant be true because I am telling you how I see it all now, but it was all different then. Even words I use are new, I dont know where they came from, sometimes it seems that most of the words in our mouths are this new talk. I say I, and again I, I do this and I think that, but then we wouldnt say I, it was we. We thought we.

I say think but did we think? Perhaps a new kind of thinking began like everything else when the Monsters started being born. I am sorry, you keep saying the truth, you want the truth, and that is how we saw you, all of you, at first. Monsters. The deformed ones, the freaks, the cripples.

When was then? I dont know. Then was a very long time ago, thats all I know.

The caves are old. You have seen them. They are old caves. They are high in the rocks, well above any waves, even big ones, even the biggest. In stormy seas you can stand on the cliffs and look down and think that water is everything, is everywhere, but then the storm stops and the sea sinks back into its place. We are not afraid of the sea. We are sea people. The sea made us. Our caves are warm, with sandy floors, and dry, and the fires outside each cave burn sea-brush and dry seaweed and wood from the cliffs, and these fires have never gone out, not since we first had them. There was a time we didnt have fire. That is in our records. Our story is known. It is told to chosen youngsters and they have to remember it and tell it when they are old to new youngsters. They have to be sure they remember every word, as it was told to them.

What I am saying now is not part of this kind of recording. When the story is told to the young ones they have a name, they are called the Memories it is told first among ourselves, and one will say, No, it was not like that, or another, Yes, it was like that, and by the time everyone is agreed we can be sure there is nothing in the story that is untrue.

You want to know about me? Very well, then. My name is Maire. There is always someone called Maire. I was born into the family of Cleft Watchers, like my mother and like her mother these words are new. If everyone gives birth, as soon as they are old enough, everyone is a mother, and you dont have to say Mother. The Cleft Watchers are the most important family. We have to watch The Cleft. When the moon is at its biggest and brightest we climb up to above The Cleft where the red flowers grow, and we cut them, so there is a lot of red, and we let the water flow from the spring up there, and the water flushes the flowers down through The Cleft, from top to bottom, and we all have our blood flow. That is, all who are not going to give birth. Very well, have it your way, the moons rays make the blood flow, not the red running down through The Cleft. But we know that if we dont cut the red flowers they are small and soft like the blisters on seaweed, and they bleed red if you crush them if we dont do that, we will not have our flow.

The Cleft is that rock there, which isnt the entrance to a cave, it is blind, and it is the most important thing in our lives. It has always been so. We are The Cleft, The Cleft is us, and we have always made sure it is kept free of saplings that might grow into trees, free of bushes. It is a clean cut down through the rock and under it is a deep hole. Every year, when the sun touches the top of that mountain there, it is always the cold time, and we have killed one of us, and thrown the body down from the top of The Cleft into the hole. You say you have counted the bones, but I dont see how you can have, when some of the bones are dust by now. You say if a body and its bones has been thrown down every year, it is not so difficult to work out how long it has been going on. Well, if that is what you think is important

No, I cannot say how it started. That isnt in our story.

The Old Shes must have known something.

We never called them that before the Monsters began being born. Why should we? We only had Shes, didnt we, only Clefts, and as for old, we didnt think like that. People were born, they lived for a time, unless they drowned swimming or had an accident or were chosen to be thrown into The Cleft. When they died they were put out on the Killing Rock.

No, I dont know how many of us there were then. Whenever then was. There are these caves, as many as I have fingers and toes, and they are big and they go back a long way into the cliffs. Each cave has the same kind of people in it, a family, the Cleft Watchers, the Fish Catchers, the Net Makers, the Fish Skin Curers, the Seaweed Collectors. And that is what we were called. My name was Cleft Watcher. No, why did it matter if several people had the same name? You can always tell by looking at someone, cant you?

My name Maire is one of the new words.

We didnt think like that, no, we didnt, that every person had to have a name separate from all the others. Sometimes I think we lived in a kind of dream, a sleep, everything slow and easy and nothing ever happening but the moon being bright and big, and the red flowers washing down The Cleft.

And, of course, the babies being born. They were just born, thats all, no one did anything to make them. I think we thought the moon made them, or a big fish, but it is hard to remember what we thought, it was such a dream. How we thought has never been part of our story, only what happened.

You get angry when I say Monsters, but just look at yourself. Look at yourself and look at me. Go on, look. I am not wearing the red flower belt so you can see how I am. Now look at The Cleft, we are the same, The Cleft and the Clefts. No wonder you cover yourselves there, but we dont have to. We are nice to look at, like one of those shells we can pick off a rock after a storm. Beautiful you taught us that word and I like to use it. I am beautiful, just like The Cleft with its pretty red flowers. But you are all bumps and lumps and the thing like a pipe which is sometimes like a sea squirt. Can you wonder that when the first babes like you were born we put them out for the eagles?

We always used to throw deformed babies there, on that rock, the sloping rock just past The Cleft itself. One side of The Cleft rises out of the Killing Rock, yes, thats what we call it. We didnt keep damaged babies, and we didnt keep twins. We were careful to limit our numbers because it was better that way. Why was it? Because thats how it has always been, and we never thought to change things. We did not have a lot of births, perhaps two or three to a cave in a long time, and sometimes a cave had no babies at all in it. Of course we are pleased when a baby is born, but if we kept all the babes born there would be no room for us all. Yes, I know you say we should find a bit of shore where there is more room, but we have always been here, and how could we move from The Cleft? This is our place, it has always been ours.

When we put out deformed babies the eagles came for them. We did not kill the babes, the eagles did it. An eagle keeps watch on that peak over there can you see it? That little speck there, it is a great big eagle, the size of a person. We put out all the newborn Monsters and watched as the eagles carried them off to their nests. That time went on, we believe, and it went on, because the Old Shes (your name for them) were worried because there were so many fewer in the caves, so many Monsters had been born, more than babes like us, the females.

Males, females. New words, new people.

And it went on, instead of waiting for a birth with pleasure, we were afraid, and when one of us saw that the babe was a Monster, she was ashamed and the others hated her. Not for ever, of course, but it was a terrible thing, the moment when a Monster appeared at the moment of giving birth. There were fewer of us catching fish and gathering seafood. The Old Shes were complaining they were not getting enough to eat. Yes, we always fed them and gave them the nicest bits to eat. I dont know why, we just did. Suddenly there were only half the number in the Fish Catchers cave, and some of the others who were not Fish Catchers had to become Catchers.

I agree, it was strange we never thought to wonder what was happening on the other side of the Eagles Hills. You always talk as if we are stupid, but if we are so stupid how is it we have lived for so long, safely and well, so much longer than you, the Monsters, have. Our story goes back and back, you tell us so, but your story is much shorter. But why should we have moved about and looked for new things, or wondered about the eagles? What for? We have everything we want on this part of the island your word for it, you tell us it is a large island. Well, good for you, but what difference does that make to us? We live in the part of the island where we watch the sun drop into the sea every night, and watch the moon grow pale as day comes.

A long time after the first Monster was born, we saw down on that part of the seashore nearest to the Eagles Hills one of the Monsters, one of you. It had tied around its waist one of the fish-skin cloths we wear at the time of the red flower. We could see that under the skin was the lumpy swelling thing we thought was so ugly. This was a Monster we had given birth to, grown up. How had that happened? The Old Shes said we should lie in wait and kill that Monster next time it appeared on the shore. Then there was disagreement among the Old Shes, and some said we should climb up to the hills where the eagles lived next time we put out a Monster to die, and watch where the eagles took it. And some of us did that. They were very afraid, that is in the story we make the youngsters learn. We were not in the habit of roaming about and certainly never as far as the Eagles Hills. No one had gone so far before. Yes, I know it is not more than a comfortable walk.

They saw the eagle carry the Monster in its claws up to the hills where the nests are but instead of dropping the baby in a nest the eagle went on and carried the baby down into a valley where there are huts. We had never seen a hut or any shelter because we had always had our caves. The huts seemed like some kind of strange animal, and very nearly frightened us into running back home. The eagle took the baby down, and then some Monsters took it and gave the bird a big lump of food. We know now it was a fish. The babe was taken into a hut. Everything they saw frightened the Watchers, and they did run home and told the Old Shes what they had seen. It was a terrible, frightening story they told. Over the Eagles Hills were living Monsters, grown people, not Clefts like us. They were able to live though they were so deformed and ugly. That is how we thought then. Everyone was afraid, and shocked, and didnt know what to think or what to do.

Then another Monster was born and the Old Shes told us to throw it over that cliff there into the sea. A group of us took the babe to the clifftop. They did not want to kill it, because they knew now it could grow up and live and if they threw it into the waves that would kill it. All of us swim and float and are happy in the sea, but our babes have to be taught. They were crying and wailing and the babe was yelling, because they were out of earshot of the Old Shes there and they were so divided about what they were doing. They hated the Monsters, and now they were afraid, too, since they knew about the Monsters living over the hills look, you asked me to tell you what happened, so why get angry when I do? How do you know, if some of us Clefts had been born into your community, you might have thought we were Monsters because we are different. Yes, I know you cant give birth, only we Clefts can give birth, and you despise us, yes, you do, but without us there would be no Monsters, there would be no one at all. Have you ever thought of that? We Clefts make all the people, Clefts and Monsters. If there were no Clefts, what would happen have you really thought about that?

They were standing on the cliff with the yelling baby Monster when one of the big eagles appeared floating just above them, and it screamed and screamed at them, and now they were really afraid. The eagles are so big they can carry a grown person not very far, but it could have lifted one of those of us on the cliff, perhaps the one holding the babe, up and over and into the sea. Or those great wings could knock them one by one into the waves that were crashing and jumping in the sharp rocks. But what happened was not that. The eagle let itself down from the sky and took the baby in its claws and went off with it back in the direction of the Eagles Hills.

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