Issue 57, Spring 1974
(Brain Stem: in evolutionary terms, an old and primitive part.)
His name is Tan Salaam, self-bestowed since he was dis- missed from the Tanzanian civil service for illegally dealing in four elephant tusks. What his former name was I neither know nor care, I am too taken by his gleaming ebony face, the aloof equanimity in his eyes, the hair circlet around his shaven head. He looks not so much African as Oriental, not so much disgraced as called to a higher service. A candy-striped sheet wound round his trunk serves him as skirt, and an ordinary drip-dry shirt, several sizes too large, covers his upper body. Round his neck there is what once might have been a scarlet cummerbund, now faded into a bleached-looking pink, and his wrists are thin enough to fit into aluminum bracelets sliced from (I think) a Coca-Cola can, one on each. Off him comes an aroma I am not familiar with, a sweet stench that is pine and baby’s diaper mixed. His nails are long enough to scoop out the contents of an egg and he has two mouse , a convention one along his upper lip and a surprising one beneath his lower lip a mouth rimmed with fur.
—The matter of the tusks, I say.
—Greed, he answers, which I have now put behind me, but with gratitude, for the tusks led me to my life’s work. An augury, I think you would call it. You cannot learn anything without first submitting to disgrace, not that I had any such thing in mind when I began dealing in ivory. Far from it, but the privilege crept up on me. I was even unwilling. Nonetheless, I was called without asking for anything remotely similar, and now I am transformed. I am earlier, so to speak, than all priests, having no necessary doctrine; I am quite empirical, in that I rely upon experience only, and such experience as quite overwhelms; and I am, let’s face it, wholly outrageous in that I excite just as much hate as admiration. According to my log, well over four thousand pilgrims have come to visit me, some of them even driving up in their Land rovers while on safari. To them I am a curiosity, but one that lingers in their minds; to others, adepts who might also have been to Tibet or Benares, I am an inspiration. For some time, after my downfall-which I now have come to regard as an essential step in my initiation- 1 wandered about the park lands, cursing their Director, a one-time big-game hunter turned conservationist, and resolving to have my revenge. I would, I told myself, turn ivory trader in a big way. Months I spent in such futile bickering with myself, almost like Job, and then, one day of unusual heat even for these treeless grasslands, I happened upon-no, that isn’t the way to ex- press it-I saw from a distance something that looked like a tall building, say the Post Office tower in London, or the United Nations Building in New York City, an eminence in a land where eminences are few and far between. So, naturally, I stopped, attributing the whole thing to a mirage, something brought on by a near-starvation diet and the fatigue of walking day after day. But the image didn’t vanish; from about one hundred yards, if you allow for the shimmer of the heat on the land, it looked grey, shall I say granitic.
—Like a pay, I learnedly interject, or a menhir. A dolmen has two or more upright columns.
—As you prefer, he says smoothly. -So I approached, half-expecting the thing to disappear. But it didn’t, and then I heard the buzz-buzz which you yourself hear at this very moment, and I apologize for that. Thousands of flies, like pursuit planes circling one of your skyscrapers. And a stench like the amalgamated sewers of all the cities in West Africa. To the touch it wasn’t hard at all, nor yet soft, but buoyant like densely packed straw. What I had been drawn towards was a thirty-foot pile of elephant dung, assembled there for no reason I could even faintly imagine.