Doris Lessing.

The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog






The Story of
General Dann and Maras Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog
Doris Lessing


Table of Contents

Cover Page

Title Page

The Story of General Dann and Maras Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog

By the same author

Read On

The Grass is Singing

The Golden Notebook

The Good Terrorist

Love, Again

The Fifth Child

Copyright

About the Publisher

The Story of General Dann and Maras Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog

A slight move to one side or the other a mere hands breadth and Dann must fall.

He lay stretched, like a diver, and his fingers curled over an extremity of crumbling black rock, the tip of a shelf whose underside had been blasted away by wind and water, and which from a distance looked like a dark finger pointing at the cataract pouring over an edge of black rocks to become, at once, mists and spray that whirled and shifted, hypnotising him with movement: a cliff of thundering white. He was deaf with the noise, and fancied he heard voices calling to him from the thunder, though he knew they were the cries of seabirds. Lengths of white falling water filled all that side of his vision, and then if he shifted his gaze to look ahead, lifting his head from his arm, far away across the gulf he was poised above, those low clouds were snow and ice. White, white on white, and he was breathing a fresh sea air that cleared his lungs of the dull damp smell of the Centre. It was only when he left the Centre and its marshy edges he realised how he hated the smell of the place, and the look of the marshy land, all greys and drab greens and the flat gleam of water. He came here as much for the fresh lively smell as for the swirling movement that filled him with energy. White, and black, and above him the blue of a cold sky. But if he shifted to the very tip of the spit of rock, letting his arms dangle on either side of it, and looked down, far below there was the glint and glide of water, made blue by the sky.

This tip of rock could crumble and fall and he with it: the thought exhilarated him.

That water pouring over the rocks, he knew it; he had been swimming in the sea only a day ago.

Salt and cold and strong it was, and the sea far below there was salty and cold but not so strong because of the water that was gushing everywhere from the snow and ice that began where the fall of sea water ended. The water down there was sea water diluted. Yet he saw the seabirds come from the waves to the rocky barrier and let themselves float down to the other sea, the low sea down there, so it was sea enough for them. And how did fish get down from the dangerous salty ocean to that other low sea? he had wondered, thinking that surely fish brought by the waves to the edge of the ocean and the rocks, and dashed over to fall in the white cascades, could not survive such a long gasping whirling descent. But whether they did or not, there was another way fish arrived in the lower sea. The falling masses of water span off foam, masses of it, in clumps many times the size of Dann. And in those clumps travelled fish.

Now the booming of the water was augmented by a loud crashing: he knew what that was. A boulder was being dislodged from the rocky crest and was bounding down, invisible to him behind the white mists, bouncing off hidden projections, and would land out of sight down there, in the water of this end of the Middle Sea. He knew that this chasm, this cleft, so enormous he could easily think it endless, had been a sea. He had known it on the old maps and globes in Chelops. At the Farm he had even tried to copy what was in his mind, on a globe that had drawn on it the Middle Sea, with below, Ifrik, and above it the ice masses of Yerrup, white all the way up to an edge of blue. He had stretched white leather from a goat over a frame of twigs. It was rough, but on it he and Mara had recreated that old Mahondi globe. Ahead, where he stared, more imagined than seen, because he knew it was there, were the regions of the Ice. And it was melting. It was melting into the ocean, and falling down the sides of the Middle Sea to where the sea was, at its bottom. All along a cliffy edge too vast for him to take in, ice water was pouring down into the sea there. So how long would it take to fill? He knew that once it had been full, and the surface of Middle Sea was not far below where he was now. Dann tried to imagine this great hole full of water, a sea almost at the level of the Western Sea tried, but it was no good. So insistent and present was what he saw the steep dark sides of the chasm going down to the present Middle Sea, streaked with grass and vegetation.

For weeks he had come to lie here, drawn by the fascination of the place, watching the thundering fall of water, listening, letting his lungs fill with clean salty air. He had looked around and across and down, and wondered about the lower sea. But now he didnt wonder, he knew: he had been down there himself.

During those weeks somebody watching the young man, who was more of a youth, slight, light and from a distance easily mistaken for a bird, must have wondered at his carelessness in that dangerous place. Gusts and swirls of wind came with the mists, and the spray and clumps of foam, but he did not attempt caution he might sit up, or even dangle his legs over the edge, and stretch out his arms. Was he welcoming the blast that could take him over? And then that was what happened: he was lifted and flung down, landing on a long slippery slope of rock and sliding down it to stop in a grassy cleft. Below him was another descent of wet rock, and again the wind flung him down. These rocks were like glass, and were the work of water: the rub of water over stretches of time he could not begin to imagine had made them. He had slid, his boniness and the thin skin over his bones protected by his thick garments. As he slid, or even rolled, he looked for evidences of a path or at least a way of easier descent, and believed he was catching glimpses of some kind of a path. He knew he had been told that people did make this long dangerous descent, because of the good-tasting fish in the clean lower sea. As he clung to a bush, a sizeable clump of foam came to rest beside him, caught on the bush. Inside it he saw little fish wriggling. If they didnt reach water they wouldnt be wriggling for long. Dann stuck his arm right into the foam so that it clung to him, and he went on sliding and falling, down, down, aided by the slippery rocks, and then he was there, by the surface of the lower sea, which like its progenitor, the Western Sea or part progenitor, the water from the icy cliffs supplied part was lively, with little waves, but not like the great rollers of the Western Sea.

He flung the mass of foam off him and it lay rocking on the water and he saw little coloured fish swim off into the waves. From down here, the great fall of white water away up on his left hand was half the sky. He found an amenable rock, and crouched there, peering down into the sea, this Middle Sea, which had once filled all this vast space he knew he was seeing only a tiny portion of its western end and so he was crouching here on what had been once near the bottom. And would be again. When? So much water pouring in, salt water and fresh ice, and yet behind him the cliffy sides stretched up and up.

Dann took off his clothes and slid into the water, ready to fish, but with nothing but his ten fingers. There were a lot of fish of all sizes. He swam among them and they crowded around, jostling and nudging, not afraid at all. He embraced a big scarlet fish, stuck his fingers into its gills and wrestled it up and out of the water on to a flat rock where it panted its way to death. He had his knife in his belt. He cut the fish into strips and stuck them on a bush to be cured by the sun. He had nothing like a bag or a satchel with him, and it was a big fish. He stayed for some time, until the sun had gone down behind the great cliff of falling water, and he was in danger of having to climb up that dangerous rocky edge in the dark. He made his way up in the cracks between the rocks. It took a long time and it was dark when he reached the top. He made his way to the Centre, and to his room, avoiding the old woman and the servitors, accepting the heavy damp of the air into his lungs with difficulty.

And next day early he went down the side of the Middle Sea, but this time with a sack to put the strips of fish in. But the fish had gone. Someone, something, had taken it. Alert, looking around, trying to be small and invisible, Dann squatted behind a rock and waited. He could see nothing, nobody. He decided not to swim and try for another fish in case this invisible thief should stop him getting out. The sun was straight above him, and it was hot. He did try a quick dip close to the shore and from the water he saw on a bush strands of coarse white hair. The hair was high on the bush. A largish animal, then. He climbed back up the sides of the chasm to his spit of rock and thought how different it was, believing yourself alone, and then knowing you are not, perhaps being observed.

When he had arrived at the Centre from the Farm it seemed to him now a pretty long time ago, at least half a suns cycle he had found that the man, who called himself Prince Felix, was dead and the old woman, Felissa, mad enough to believe that he had returned as a conqueror with the intention of setting her on a throne. She had an old piece of metal, a shield, from who knew how long ago, with a picture on it of a woman on a high chair, while people knelt around her. Dann wanted to find out from her what the metal was, what time it had come from, from which room in the museums she had taken it, but she only wailed and complained that he was of the royal blood and must assume his rightful place at her side. He had left her to it.

Then, from the Farm had come after him a youth who had turned up there, looking for work. His name was Griot and Dann remembered those greenish eyes always following him, from as far back as Agre. He had been a soldier, under Dann, who had been General Dann of Agre. The fact was, he had followed Dann from Agre to the Farm, and from there to the Centre. Griot had said to Dann, When you didnt come back to the Farm, I thought you might have something for me here. Here meaning the Centre, but his use of the word suggested larger purposes. The two young men had stood together, observing each other, one with need, and Dann wanting to get away. Not that he disliked Griot: he had never much noticed him. A thickset young man, with a strong face, and greenish eyes that had to be noticed because eyes that colour were not often seen. Dann told him the Centre had plenty of space in it. Already all kinds of people sheltered there. It was much bigger than he and Mara had believed when they were here. That it was very large had to be obvious from a glance, but it was only when you knew it that the extent and the intricacy of the place became evident. Rooms led from rooms, rooms above rooms were reached by tiny wriggling stairs, half-ruinous areas that had been abandoned but now had inhabitants who did not want to be noticed, who kept out of sight. Beyond the encircling great stone wall on the side of the Middle Sea were buildings, made long after the main Centre was established, but they were sinking into the marshes. That was why it was easy to see the Centre as smaller than it was. It had been built on the highest place for a long way around, but as the tundra melted, the marshes encroached and the waters crept up. In some places the edges of the Centre were half under water. How long had they been like this? What use asking, when the locals might say of a city whose roofs you could see shining as the boats passed over it, My grandfather said that his grandfather remembered this city when the roofs were above water.

Only such a short time ago he and Mara had been here together, and he could swear that he remembered dry where now there was wet. Perhaps things were speeding up? Once it had taken generations for a city to sink down into the mud, but now, much less?

He had said to Griot that he, Dann, was not looking for company. It was hard to say this into that face full of expectation. Griot had said that he knew a lot of crafts, had many skills; Dann would not find him a liability. Dann asked Griot where he had learned so much, and heard a history not unlike his own: Griot had spent his life on the run, from wars and invasions, as much as from the drought. Dann said there was something valuable Griot could do. Every day more refugees came to the Centre from the wars that were going on in the east, in countries Dann had scarcely heard of. He had had to acknowledge that there was more to the world than Ifrik. On the goatskin where he had sketched his map of the world was Ifrik, in the centre place, and above it the Middle Sea and above that Yerrup, with its ice masses. And, to the west, the Western Sea. That was about it. In his mind now were shadowy eastward extensions of this central Ifrik, filled with images of war. Griot could teach these people his skills, keep them out of mischief and stop them pilfering from the museums. Griot was pleased. He smiled: Dann had not seen this serious youth smile.

Then he watched Griot on a level, comparatively dry area with about a hundred people, not all youths, or men, for there were women among the refugees. He was teaching them to drill, march, run. They were using weapons. From the museums?

Dann said to Griot, People trained to be soldiers will want to fight, have you thought of that?

And there on that stubborn face was an acknowledgement that Dann had said more than he thought he had. Griot nodded, and stared straight into Danns eyes. What a look that was, asking for so much.

You were a general in Agre, said Griot softly.

Yes, I was, and I remember you, but I am not looking for more fighting.

And now Dann found himself being examined, most thoroughly, by those unsettling eyes. Griot did not have to say I dont believe you.

Its true, Griot.

It certainly was odd, the way people again and again expected him to step into some space in their imaginations, fit into their dreams.

He said, Griot, when Mara and I came here we found two lunatic old people who wanted us to start a new dynasty of Mahondis. They called us prince and princess. They saw us as a breeding pair. They saw me as someone who would create an army.

Griots eyes did not leave Danns face: he was searching for what Dann was not saying.

I mean it, said Dann. Yes, I was a general, and yes, I was, I believe, good at it. But Ive seen too much of killing and people being made captives.

Why did the old people want you to have an army? What for?

Oh, they were batty. To conquer everything. To subdue all of Tundra I dont know.

Griot said, There is always killing, and people running from wars. And new wars.

Dann said nothing and Griot asked and clearly this was the moment of definition for him, And so what do you want to do sir?

I dont know, said Dann. No, I really dont.

Griot said nothing. He had taken in all that Dann had said, but his conclusions were not what Dann would have approved of.

At last Griot said, Very well. Ill do what I can with the refugees. Some of them are not bad. They can teach me a thing or two sometimes. And Im arranging the food supplies. There is plenty of good fish down in the Bottom Sea not the muddy marsh rubbish around here. And I shall get some seed grain that I saw growing in water. And theres a marsh pig we can breed.

Dann saw that Griot was taking on the tasks that he had expected Dann to do.

Thank you, Griot, he then said.

Griot saluted, and left.

That salute Dann certainly did not like it. It was establishing some kind of contract between them that Griot needed.

The encounter between the two young men had been some weeks ago.

Dann tried not to run into Griot or even to notice much what he was doing.

On this day after he had noticed the hair of the animal stuck on the bush, he was lying stretched on his rocky spit, and thinking of the Farm and of Kira, who was pregnant with his child. It would be born soon. And Maras child too. Interesting that Griot had not expected him to return to the Farm, yet Griot had stayed there long enough to learn what was going on, and who belonged to whom. That was a joke; Mara belonged to Shabis. And so Dann wouldnt go back. He thought of Kira and it was painful. How he did love her and how he did hate her. Love? Well, he loved Mara, so he should not use that same word for Kira. He was fascinated by Kira. Her voice, her way of moving, that slow, lazy, seductive walk but to be with her was to be humiliated. He thought of how, on the night before he left, she had stretched out her naked foot and she was as good as naked and said in that sweet singing voice of hers, Come here, Dann. They had been quarrelling. They always quarrelled. He had stood there, a few paces away, and looked at her, and wanted to do what she wanted, which was to get on his hands and knees and crawl to her. She half lay, holding out her naked foot. She was pregnant, but it was too early to show. She needed him to lick her foot. And he desired to, he craved to, he longed to give himself up to her and stop fighting. But he could not do it. She smiled at him, her malicious smile that always made him feel she had cut him with a whip, she had wiggled her toes, and said, Come, Dann and he had turned and run out. He picked up some clothes, some essentials and left the Farm. He did not say goodbye to Mara because he could not bear to.

Dann lay on his shelf of unsafe rock and knew it was time he left. He was so restless. Well, hadnt he spent nearly all his life on his feet, walking, walking, one foot after another? He had to be in motion again. But to leave here, leave the Centre, meant going even further away from Mara. She was a few days from here, on the shores of the Western Sea which he was observing for hours of every day from this perch of his, seeing it crash over the rocks down in sheets of foam to the Bottom Sea. The waves he saw break into spray were the same as licked the coast below the Farm. But he had to leave. He told himself it was because of Griot, always spying on him, and now there was this new animal down there, watching him too. He stretched and craned over the edge of his rock finger to see if somewhere was an animal, perhaps expecting more fish from him. For a few minutes he fancied he saw something big and white, but it was too far away. If it was watching Dann, it would be hiding itself. The thought made him feel prickly and caged. No, he must leave, he must go, he would leave Mara.

Oh, Mara, he whispered, and then shouted her name into the noisy water. It seemed to him her face was in the patterns the water made. A rainbow spanned the Rocky Gates and little rainbows were spinning off and away with the clumps of foam. The air seemed full of light, and noisy movements and Mara.

He was heavy with sorrow, felt he could easily roll off that rocky protuberance and let himself fall.

He was leaving Kira too wasnt he? But he scarcely ever thought of her and the child she was having. His. She had not even bothered to tell him she was pregnant. I dont think Id get much of a look in with that child, even if I were a good father, hanging about, waiting for the birth which must be soon. So he excused himself. And besides, I know Mara will see that my child will be looked after, and there is Shabis, and Leta and Donna and probably other people by now. It made him uncomfortable, saying my child, though it was. The thought of Kira was like a barrier between him and this soon to be born infant.

He stood up at the very end of the rocky finger and dared the wind to swirl him off. His tunic filled with air, his trousers slapped against his legs: his clothes were willing him to fall, to fly, and he felt the tug and lift of the wind over his whole body. He stood there, upright, not falling, so he left the rock and went to the Centre. There he visited the old woman who screeched at him, and so did the servant: two demented old women, in a bad-smelling room, berating him.

He chose a few things, put them in his old sack, found Griot and told him he would be away for a while.

How those sharp green eyes did peer into his face his thoughts.

And how much he, Dann, was relying on Griot, and that made him feel even more caged and confined.

Would you ever return to the Farm, Griot?

No.

Dann waited.

Its Kira. She wanted me to be her servant.

Yes, said Dann.

Ive had enough of that.

Yes, said Dann, who had been a slave and worse.

She is a cruel woman, said Griot, lowering his voice, as if she might overhear.

Yes, said Dann.

So, youll be off, then?

Dann had gone a few paces when he felt the need to turn, and he did, and saw Griots betrayed face. But had he made Griot any promises? He had not.





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