Travel’s true luxury is the name of the destination. On the ferry from Dakar to the Île de Gorée, the cold was sudden and oceanic, but I could at least pretend I knew where I was headed.
My son, Elijah, clambered into my arms against the insistent wind off the North Atlantic. He was eight years old, gangly, all skinny tender bones, and I had dressed him for the heat of the city. My son was cold and I had to be his cloak. We were travelling to the Île de Gorée because foreigners in Senegal must either visit the Île de Gorée or choose not to. The best-preserved eighteenth-century slave station in Africa, the Maison des Esclaves, receives boatsful of tourists all day on the half-hour to consider “the foulest crime in history known in any land or age.” A pilgrimage of some kind, I suppose. Perhaps somebody on board knew for whom or what. I did not.
For his pleasure, Elijah flipped through the field guide Birds of Senegal and The Gambia—page after page of gulls and owls, sparrows and hornbills and finches, nightjars, swifts. For my pleasure, Dakar receded into the ochre halo of the dust from the Sahara, which encroaches into the city a little more each dry season. Over my son’s shoulder, the harbour of Dakar was a glorious mélange, a fetid mix-up. Huge megatankers ploughed their courses alongside hand-painted pirogues. The two ancient stories side by side: the dominion of systems, and men with families trying their luck on the sea. Dakar is like that, hypermodern and primordial at once. There are direct flightsto Shanghai for sale and caged red-cheeked cordon-blues, whose fluttering release is an act of compassion payable in West African francs. Polio-stricken beggars reach from their knees to sell SIM cards to the drivers of Range Rovers. The marabouts offer blessings and curses by iPhone.
Away from the city, I remembered the pass between the mountains above Canmore in Alberta. Pictographs, drawn perhaps a thousand years ago, wait there between two small blue lakes punctuated by trout. The last time I climbed up to see the pictographs, my father was alive and sick, and he told me that after his death he wanted his ashes placed in some decent pottery and carried up into the mountains. His instructions were explicit: I was to walk thirty yards from the path into the unmarked bush and leave him there. After he died, I sat in his room, staring through the trees to the pass, trying to figure out how serious the man was, with not so much a thought as a shiver, an almost carnal sense of the world’s gratuity rifling through me.
A hawker wandering the aisles of the ferry caught my eye. She was tall, fine-boned, and wrapped in an indigo boubou, a distressed queen with a basket of trinkets under her arm, selling bead necklaces and carved fake-ebony figurines of lions and elephants and the western black rhinoceros, which had just gone extinct.
“Il est beau, ton fils,” she said. “Ah merci, madame.” “Comme vous, il est beau.” Her sales pitch worked even though I knew it was a sales pitch. I explained that we had already purchased whatever trinkets we were going to purchase, in Dakar. She wouldn’t take a refusal, and gave precise directions to her stand on the island: I was to follow the other side of the road that rose over the hill, then sunk, curving back. She would not leave until I promised to remember. We had another appointment on the Île de Gorée then, other than the Maison des Esclaves.
“Why did she say I was beautiful?” Elijah asked, looking up from Birds of Senegal and The Gambia.
“Because you are beautiful.”
My son was cold. I had to be his cloak. I kissed his forehead. The mistake I made when my father died was kissing his forehead. The unforgettable cold on my lips. The peculiar case of mine is that my father died twenty days after my daughter, our second child, was born. While my father lay dead, I held my daughter’s squirmy, mewling, newborn flesh. That was our in-between spring, the spring of crossed signals, the arrival with the departure, the agony fitted to the miracle. And we called our daughter Spring for that spring—the Hebrew name, Aviva.
“Why are we going to this place anyway?” Elijah asked, looking up again from a busy page of brilliantine sunbirds. What was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to say we were heading to a stone on the edge of Africa to look at horror? Was I supposed to say that we were going there to remember? To remember what? His double-coloured eyes, hazel inside azure, probed my silence.
“Are there beautiful birds there?” he asked. “There’s history.”
Apparently no retort was necessary to such an idiotic equivalence. He returned to the sensible displays of the field guide, organized and gorgeous. Elijah knows all the species of birds that are going extinct: the Philippine eagle, the Bengal florican, the California condor, the blue-throated macaw, the whooping crane, the kagu.
The week before, we had travelled by pirogue to the Île aux Serpents, on the other side of Dakar. Here was an adventure to swell the hungry corners of his boy’s heart—the boat’s anxious turnings under the deft work of men, sea salt flecked in the hair, dark cliffs rife with herons and tropicbirds peering down from their snug crevices. The sailors had left us to wander the brush while they dove for lunch. We feasted on barnacles and sea snails and orange clams baked over driftwood fires: softness nestled in shell coaxed onto fervid smoke.
The Île aux Serpents had been empty. Tourists have no reason to go, and the locals avoid it. The Dakarois believe that Leuk Daour, the protector of Dakar’s fishermen, a vengeful spirit, lives there. Mysterious lights lead boats astray when they approach too near or too often. A year earlier, park rangers had attempted to build a hut there and found their work destroyed, three times, just as they neared completion. One brave soul planned to build a restaurant on the outcropping with the best view of the city. He was murdered in an apparently unrelated incident.
Elijah’s most intense delight on the Île aux Serpents had been the shipwreck. We walked around a curve of rock on the island’s far side, and there it was, foundered on the rocks and left to crumble against the thumping roll of Atlantean exposure. A Spanish tuna trawler, victim of Leuk Daour. The authorities had just left it, half there and half not.
Children delight in grand disasters. The stories they keep closest to their hearts mock earthquakes and plagues and other catastrophes with their melodies. Children dress as killers and beg for candy. Children know they are monsters. They know that to be a person is to smell of death. Elijah had wanted his picture taken from every angle of the wreckage.
The Île de Gorée rose into view—an outcropping of rocks among the other smaller rock outcroppings, a final fortress of human habitation posed on the near-infinity of the Atlantic beyond. A few in the ferry crowd began pointing, and the flurries of gulls thickened into a minor squall. Elijah kept his head in his book.
A low-roofed village clung to the rock, not quite daring to join the hill that rose in half defiance against the forces of the ocean. The ferry slowed and curved toward the point of debarkation. The docks were low and narrow and crude—portals for cargo that could be walked into the ships’ holds.
“Here we are,” I told Elijah, who straightened himself out in my arms. Had I been holding him or had he been holding me?
“Dad, can I tell you something?” “Tell me anything.” “I don’t want to be here. I don’t understand why we’re here in the first place. Can we please leave?” The next ferry wouldn’t leave for an hour, but at least the island was warmer than the boat. Its half-hill shrouded us from the sea. Elijah no longer needed me for a cloak as we strolled onto the beach where men tried to sell us postcards to remember the foulest crime in history known in any land or age. The boy held my hand. The inner warmth of child flesh.
“Dad, do you know where we’re going?” I did not know where we were going.
“Dad, what are we here for?” I did not know what we were there for.
The little village on the Île de Gorée was all very lovely nonetheless. Its compact eighteenth-century houses, snug and ochre, lay like handmade violins, side by side, along the cobblestones. Families sat on stoops, unfolding stands of trinkets and paintings and batik shirts—the gifts once handed down in families as spirit-gifts of marabouts now belong to the hustlers.
And the Maison des Esclaves, two blocks in, was just another of the houses in which people live, in which people have lived.
“Dad, do we have to go in?”
“We’re here, son. I mean, we’re already here.” “I just don’t see how it will be fun.” The door to the house of slaves was just another door. And, just past the man inside who took the tickets, The Door of No Return: an almost tangible rectangle of morning light looking out over the Atlantic, where public dignitaries—the Pope, Obama—pose gazing out at the sea. A door of death, and of the boundless hunger for transformation beyond death. The Maison des Esclaves contained its own vision of history: men and women walking out of gorgeously appointed torture chambers, through a portal of light, into the open. Humanity conjured, out of great anguish, to be wasted.
There were no other children visiting the Maison des Esclaves. Nobody else had been foolish enough to bring a kid. Nobody had been foolish enough to bring a person who might innocently ask for an explanation. Before The Door of No Return, clammy chambers with rough walls each bore the name of their cargo—hommes, femmes, enfants. They were very human rooms. They smelled like death.
Elijah, despite himself, was fascinated. “Do you think the children could talk to their mothers?” he asked.
“I think they probably could. They were close enough.”
“But they couldn’t hug each other, right?” “I don’t think so.” “How close to the wall were they chained?” Children do not ask about underlying economic motivations and the forces of history. They want the details. And the Maison des Esclaves was all details. Up voluptuous staircases to well-appointed rooms that wouldn’t be out of place in a typical merchant’s house in any well-maintained European town, the curves of the eighteenth century were supremely elegant. The ceiling of the dungeon was the floor of the salon.
“And a family lived here?” Elijah asked.
“They ate dinner every night with a view of the sea.”
“With all the slaves downstairs?” “With all the slaves downstairs.” People can leap out of their time only in the way a fish leaps out of the water, holding itself open for a wave, before tumbling back in. Should I explain? How should I explain?
Soon Elijah tugged on my sleeve to go. There wasn’t much more to see in the Maison des Esclaves anyway. None of the usual scaffolding of museums helpfully guiding viewers to expected epiphanies. No wall texts offering panelled explanations. It was just another haunted house.
On the street outside, Elijah began weeping angrily—the animal urge unsuppressed.
“Why did we have to see that?” “It’s life,” I said. “No, it’s not. It isn’t.” “It’s important to look at the past,” I said. The slap of the flat of the platitude, as a poet once said, heavy on my tongue.
“That’s not life. Why are we wasting life?” “This is reality,” I said stupidly. “I hate reality,” he replied. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, and my impotence in the face of real questions made him angrier. My son and I wandered up the slope. He was cold again. I had to be his cloak, but he no longer wanted my arms for cover. I hoped for a natural curiosity for distraction. Maybe a bird we had never seen before, a lingering jewel from disintegrating nature. But in the harbour, the great ships rolled on, the pirogues ploughed by. That was all. Why were we wasting life?
When my father was diagnosed with lymphoma, he decided to undertake the annual pilgrimage around the Shikoku prefectures in Japan—walking eighty-eight temples in eighty-eight days. At each station of the journey, the priests stamp the temple’s name into a book the pilgrims carry with them, a passport between nothing and nothing. Diagnosed with ephemerality, my father’s first thought was to travel, to give himself the names of destinations. He filled a passport to oblivion. The passport sits beside his ashes now, in my mother’s bedroom.
The bell rang out. It would have to do for an epiphany. The next ferry was already arriving at the dock. Right where she said she would be was the woman in the indigo boubou hustling her basket of trinkets. The world may well be ending, but today’s commerce must go on.
“Ton fils, ça va?” “Ça va, madame.” “Il est beau, ton fils.” “Oui, il est beau.”
I could not stop even to refuse to buy.
After we settled back on the ferry, I calmed the boy with a book of word puzzles. I wished I had a book of word puzzles for myself. I wished I had something to write. In writing we hide from the fact that the life of the mind is the life of the flesh delayed for a bit. Here is the insight of our time: human beings are not supposed to amount to much. All those monuments you built do not matter. The eternities were all imaginary. The big piles of stones are all gauche. And if we live as if life were disposable, that is because life is disposable. The only answer to death that anybody has discovered is a little more life. The only answer to Dad lying there like a stone was newborn Aviva to be picked up. The only answer.
The ferry set off. Elijah and I had nothing more to say. And I remembered, again, climbing from Canmore to see the pictographs in the pass. I remembered that ashes from forest fires in the Okanagan had drifted down, and the sun was a cool orange disc in the middle of the grey sky. I remembered I was carrying nothing but a couple of lines from Li Po:
We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.
Emerald tarns nestled beneath fossilized Devonian coral reefs. On all sides untouched pines were flickering with boreal chickadees—a cougar with two cubs had stalked the town recently. The pictographs were waiting between two trouted lakes the colour of bluebirds, beside the sloughed skin of coal shale by the abandoned mineshafts, under a crop of white rock. Drawn perhaps a thousand years ago, a figure, red lines, a man holding up a circle. A message with a lost meaning from a tribe that no longer possessed even the luxury of a name. The shock of the human mark like a greeting.
On the ferry back to Dakar, a television with grainy reception was showing the local wrestling, la lutte. Huge men, in ecstasies of pre-match magic, strung with leather-banded talismans around their thighs and forearms, danced through the drenches of pink and blue protective liquids their marabouts had coated them with. As the ferry pulled back to the city, they grappled in the sand, their hands on the other’s loincloths, their heads on each other’s shoulders, their arms entangled in obscure blocks and forces. Locked in each other, they waited for the right movement at the right moment. I envied them. They knew what they wrestled.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a columnist with Esquire. His latest book is The Hunger of the Wolf.