Chapter 14: The First Architects
The First Architects
“Everyone who is interested in termites may have read and probably seen photographs of the enormous termitaries which are found in tropical parts of Africa. In the Lowveld of Zoutpansberg I found some giants, and these were by no means the exception. In some parts of the Limpopo valley, these giant termitaries are a very usual feature of the landscape. An engineer, Norman Hugel, carefully measured and calculated the weight of earth making up one colossus structure, and found that it consisted of 11,750 tons of earth. This termitary belonged to Eutermes. All of the material in the termitary had been piled up grain by grain, for Eutermes never uses mud for building purposes; they use only microscopic grains of sand. Every one is rubbed clean and polished before being coated with sticky cement, then every tiny stone is carefully placed in the right place.”Eugene Marais, The Soul of the White Ant
|Original painting by Shannon Shea for this novel|
After breakfast it had been decided that we were to take a small excursion to inspect and admire the productivity and artistry of the Limpopo Valley region’s termites and their mounds. With our bellies and canteens full we set out on our hike. The Prellers had taken this trek on many occasions, having excavated the mounds helping Marais search for the hidden water source of the termites while Marais hunted down the elusive Queen termite. For that reason, the Prellers decided to stay behind leaving all of the Uitlanders (including myself) in Marais’ capable care. Georgette was well-equipped for the long hike wearing a pair of her brother’s trousers and a contraption of a hat swirled in her new favorite fashion accessory: mosquito net. Maurice agreed to go along on the hike, not because of his interest in termitaries or termites but rather, to keep an eye on Georgette, his unofficial duty that required staying within close range of his sister. And to my dismay, Gurdjieff joined the group just as we set out. I thought for moment that he might stay behind with Prellers and hoped that he would. After our nighttime rendezvous at the campfire, I wanted to avoid him more than ever. Whatever my trepidations were about the actual excursion deeper into the wilderness of the veld, my curiosity of the outcome of our exploration outweighed my hesitation. We had come so far and to not see this through to the end would have defeated the purpose of every leaving Fontainebleau.
Heading the pack was Marais. His stride was such that suggested a confidence and security with the trail for he knew it intimately, which could be noted in the sureness of his step. With him in the lead, we could all feel assured. From the start it had been evident that Marais had been afflicted by the after-effects of the morphine as well as his on-going bouts of malaria for his eyes were sunken in, with darkened rings encircling them. He resembled a rabid raccoon in need of a hit, a little skittish and willing to scavenge the cupboards for whatever he might need. His skin had the sallowness and ashen hue that typically indicated ill health and his body tugged to the side in response to his on-going pain. However, once we set out the trail to reunite Marais with his termitaries, his step quickened, his eyes brightened and his heart seemed to allay as he held his hat over it, I imagined, so he might shield us all from the surge of warmth emanating from it. It was as if he had heard the call of the Queen and unconsciously, he succumbed to it. Magnetized by the signal he was joyous and unable to resist.
|Marais later in life with Edna Cross|
Georgette and I followed as closely as we could to Marais, who, with each step was enlivened by the call of the termitary; a man in his element invigorated by his love of the veld. Georgette, who was always a trooper, had some difficulty keeping up with his pace but she made no complaint and pushed herself forward with zeal. Without the aid of my leash, I was unable to pull her forward or aid her in gaining momentum. Each step that we took brought us closer to Marais yet we still found ourselves lagging behind much like Achilles in his theoretical race with the tortoise as described in Zeno’s paradox. As Aristotle recounted, ‘In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.’ With his secure lead, it was impossible to ever catch up to Marais.
The most useful thing I could do on this hike was to not get underfoot and to lead Georgette on the best path behind Marais; my nimble steps tracing his, staying wary of the insolent roots that had pushed themselves up from the ground, taunting us to stumble and trip. The path was mostly open and well-trod. For that, we were lucky. However, the trail was more a nuisance for the upright with the overgrowths of branches that hung down over the path.
Coming up from behind Georgette and I were Gurdjieff and Maurice. They didn’t walk in an ant-like file like the others but instead they staggered horizontally with each other, one being slightly ahead of the other and then after a short time, the other would take the lead. It was hard to say if they were in a passive race to be ahead or if the preferred position was the tail. Our group perambulated along the trail like a kind of wriggling organism, like a centipede made up of units but connected and moving as one, the head leading and the tail following behind agreeing to the course we were taking and at all times striving to keep up with the head. Had a giraffe extended his long neck to look down over us, he might have fancied us bugs and asserting his notion, might have stretched out his black tongue and licked us away. I would have welcomed that, if only to be lifted from the ground to soar into the air so that I might gain a new perspective.
|Gurdjieff with his students mountain hiking|
Gurdjieff walked with a slight limp favoring his left side due to a near fatal automobile crash he had survived a few years prior. He was keyed into a conversation with Maurice, a conversation that the rest of us were not privy to and strangely enough, for most of the day he had seemed to avoid conversations with Georgette altogether. In fact, since we had arrived at the campsite Gurdjieff and Georgette had spoken very little to each other. In retrospect, I should have noticed how peculiar that was but I had been further distracted by my innate inclination to mark my way along the path. As a dog on safari in the wilds of South Africa inhaling the variety of smells that had been deposited before me, of jackals and hyenas, a kind of boar, something like a wild horse which was most likely a zebra or an elephant, I was obliged to obey my own instincts. For it is necessary for me to mingle my scent with theirs to show that I had come, that I had taken this trek, leaving some remembrance of myself like the ones before me had. Of all of the animals that lived in the region, the one I most wanted to see and of course, get a whiff of, was the giraffe. But here at the confluence of the Magalakwêna and Limpopo Rivers, I wasn’t sure I’d get my wish. For now, it mattered not because my distractions with the surrounding smells and the persistent need to drizzle on plants made me less inclined to notice any of the peculiarities amongst the humans, much less hunt down a giraffe.
As we passed a farmland aligning the trail, Marais stopped to point it out, adding a bit of foreboding information, which I was learning was characteristic of him,
“Here you can see the Kopbeenpan Farm, which translated means Marsh of the Skulls?” And playfully he added, “Does that not conjure some macabre images in your imaginations?” Marais aped an expression worthy of Edgar Allen Poe entertaining the neighborhood children.
“Quite interesting, too, because your name, Marais, is the French word for marsh.” added Georgette.
“I have a fascination for skulls as you may have noticed at the Preller rondavel in Pelindaba. I have a few of my own. For a time I took an interest in Phrenology, which I’m sure you know is the study of skulls. I was particularly interested the work of Dr. Franz Galls and his assertion that the brain is made up of 27 individual organs and those separate parts are what determines personality and defines who we are. Much of my interest stemmed from what I had learned from the Mesmerists in regards to the combination of mesmerism with phrenology. Under a trance the patient is more apt to accept the manipulation of the skull and allow for the readjustment of their personal qualities, if need be.”
“Pardon me, but hasn’t Phrenology been discredited as a pseudo-science?” asked Georgette.
From behind, a voice bellowed. It was Gurdjieff. “Yes, debunked because it threatened the superiority of the ruling class. If the workers and the soldiers were cranially adjusted to remove their low self-esteem, how fearsome it would be! They would be less inclined to follow orders. They can’t have that, can they?”
“I am not certain I would submit my skull to an examination. There are some things a woman prefers to keep mysterious.” Georgette imitated Mae West badly. Her French accent destroyed her performance.
Another voice piped up from behind. This time it was Maurice, “Sister, your heart is already on your sleeve and whatever mystery you think you may have possessed went out with the Symbolists. Phrenology might only serve to expose the skullduggery in your nature.”
“No offense to the lady but I quite like how you did that, Monsieur LeBlanc,” said Marais. Maurice stopped, turned to Marais, bowed and tipped his hat to him, acknowledging his good humor and added, “The actual Science of Phrenology may have been spoilt by those looking to find deeper meaning where it didn’t belong instead of simply collecting data and conducting experiments in a detached manner. My interest in Phrenology was for my self-study as well as a means of providing care to my patients. The locals here have distrust in the methods of modern medicine and they require some showmanship in order to gain their trust. I find that psychologically… these methods offer better results.”
“I didn’t realize you were a physician.” said Georgette.
“One has to do many things if one is to survive.”
There was a cryptic tone in his voice that interrupted the fluidity of our walking organism. For a moment I felt as if we were being lured, going deeper into the wilderness, farther down a trail in search of the termitary, deeper into the mystery that was Marais. Suddenly, and without knowing how it happened, I felt relief that Gurdjieff was walking behind me, shadowing us, seemingly immersed in a conversation with Maurice but still alert to what was ahead with an ear to the ground and his capable nose in the air.
Sometimes our toughest teachers are the ones that we remember and revere the most. They are the ones that push us, prod us and even bully us into learning. If the student’s will is strong these teachers must have the fortitude and the courage to rile us into learning, dragging us kicking and screaming to a realization we were unable or unwilling to see. Had Gurdjieff been teaching me all along without my knowing? Was that why I disliked him so? Had he push me into the zones of discomfort just so I could experience the harsh angle of the light, so stark and true and ugly? And then, once I had adjusted to that, it was if he had changed the angle again, showing me yet another aspect I had been unwilling to see.
Perhaps I gave him too much credit. Since I am unable to speak, how possible was it to disclose anything of myself to Gurdjieff? What did he learn from my appearance, my breed and pedigree, the Phrenology of my skull, my bat-like ears that pick up the radar around me, my wiry unkempt fur and my whimpers or my barks or even through the dissection of my excrement? What clues of my origins could I have disclosed unknowingly that might lead him to taking me on, concerning himself with my progress? I was never disciple material, even after being so attached to Georgette at the Prieuré. I was privy to all of his talks and internally I refuted his teachings out of my own spite for him, out of the desire to see him wrong. Why was I suddenly looking to Gurdjieff who at this strange moment seemed to have caught up to me, although he had been continually lagging behind the group and pulling Maurice, my comfort, further away. The farther he lagged behind the more I wished he would catch up. I hated myself for feeling that way about one I detested so. All of this was very disconcerting to me as Marais trudged on ahead and I felt somewhat dislodged and pulled apart by the two men and all the while Georgette remained perfectly clueless of my crisis.
“You can probably hear the Magalakwêna River in the distance beyond the brush as our path has converged and we now are parallel to the river. It is called Magalakwêna by the Bantu people because they see it as a fierce crocodile, its nature is biting, choppy and unreasonable,” explained Marais.
“I’ve worked with a few tenors that match that description,” laughed Georgette. “But to me Magalakwêna sounds like a song to me, like a poem asking to be written.”
“Mark Twain recognized the poetry in a river. Each one has its own story. The tributary that flows into the Magalakwêna was named the Nyl named by my overly-enthusiastic Vortrekker ancestors, who believed they had found the Nile River. Their stubborn nature never allowed them to change the name once they were told it was not so. Instead they settled here and called the town Nylstrom, perhaps believing if they were fervent enough, it would be true. You are lucky to see the river on this trip. The five year rain cycle keeps the river living in extremes. During the dry cycle the riverbed is near dry. But somehow the termites of the region still manage to survive here in the worst droughts.”
Marais stopped in his tracks and lifted a licked finger to the air, pretending to test the wind and then, he pointed to the left past an overgrown bush. He grabbed a large stick pushing aside the brush and opened a passageway for Georgette, myself, Gurdjieff and Maurice to pass through.
For a moment it seemed as if my dream had come true as I beheld a group of three orange creatures whose heads floated alongside the tops of the trees. I needed to sit down with my rump planted on the solid ground so that I might raise my head to the glorious height that they extended. Dizzied by the sight and the excitement of the towering creatures, my acute hearing picked up a scurry of clicking and tapping sounds coming from the creatures. I envisioned before me a family of giraffes tapping the keys of a typewriter, deep within the bushveld, perfecting the stories and the folklore of the Magalakwêna River, writing of the charging hippos that trampled Marais to death from my nightmares, annotating the history of the land, assimilating the landscape with their ossicone horns and shading the starkness of the light with their long lashed eyes, while they trimmed the surrounding the tress, munching on leaves only they could reach.
It was illusion worthy of a Gurdjieff reprimand. It was my own flight of fancy, wishful thinking, a pleasant euphoria perhaps aided by the breeze from the intoxicating Khat tree nearby; that I’d travel to South Africa just to satisfy my longing to see a giraffe and before me, was not one but a family of three. Yet, when my eyes corrected my hallucination, I realized that what I was seeing was a cathedral-like edifice with three spires about 40 feet high that had been constructed by Marais’ termites. One could understand why I might mistake it for giraffe with a long sloping neck, orange and brown rising up into the sky. The mound seemed to breathe; the internal sauna metropolis with a cemented pebble shell that had been regurgitated from the mandibles of the workers. A flurry of energy pulsated the radius in the area of the clearing.
As we stepped into the force field of the termitary the pads of my paws vibrated in anticipation; from what I had no idea. Perhaps the trauma of the trip had finally caught up to me and I was experiencing a kind of shock due to the bombardment of new sensations: new Earth under my feet, unusual smells along with my overriding obsession with leaving my own trail of scent in my wake. I had a deep need to know that my steps could be retraced, not necessarily to find my way back to the campsite but more because I wanted to be remembered for having taken this journey and walked along this path and that I had reached the destination of the termitary. It didn’t matter to me what might happen now that I was here. It was more important that I had been here and some liquid evidence would be left behind.
Even with the many equally imposing trees surrounding the edifice, I had the urge to urinate on the termitary. It was surprising to find there was anything left in me and with all of the choice trees in the clearing, I still most wanted to wiz on the termitary. The inclination was so strong that I had little to no control over what happened next. The more I tried to resist the more my body told me not to and eventually the urge became so bad that some urine escaped me and dripped down my leg. I probably need to explain the shame and the distress that this sort of failure can cause a dog. There is a code among male dogs that is to be upheld and what just happened is something that is just not allowed, except amongst the old and infirmed. So horrified was I by my lapse that I felt the need to absolve myself of my shame as soon as possible without anyone being the wiser.
As the others gathered around the termitary, awe stuck by its presence and magnitude they encircled it as if they might perform a pagan May Pole Dance or God forbid, one of Gurdjieff’s sacred dances. With that distraction, I took the opportunity to sit, raise a leg and lick myself clean, thereby erasing the evidence of my shame. I thought that I had waited to the proper time when such a thing might not attract any attention but alas, I was wrong.
“Chippy, really! Must you do that now? That is so repulsive!” chided Georgette.
“Leave the mongrel be! There is none among us that does not wish to have such a talent.” said Gurdjieff.
“Speak for yourself. That is one talent I’ll leave to all of you,” chided Georgette.
Marais might have been a bit put off by the baseness of the conversation but said nothing and but he did not dispute Gurdjieff’s statement; nor did Maurice for that matter. And as for Georgette, of all of the things I had witnessed between Georgette and her various partners in this life and the last, positioned in ways that one might only expect of a yogi proficient in the ways of the Kama Sutra, a text that she, in fact, had possession of in English translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton, who had appropriately died at the age of 69. The exchanges of fluids and odors were nothing but an aural escape for me, not only smelling the participants and who they were, where they had been and who had they been with. It was unreasonable that Georgette of all people would reprimand me for what I did only to myself.
While this might be unsavory to Georgette, whose mouth had found its way to orifices of all varieties; this was an experience I was having by myself whereby I reutilized the remnants of the flavors of the pannekoecker and treacle, the gnu meat mingled with the hormonal influx that tasted of apprehension and fear and as I licked I understood it better. And afterwards the essence passed through my tongue again in an effort to recoup all that I had been unable to process the first time around. But Georgette had no understanding of this, living as a human that judged tastes and smells as things that are good or bad, not realizing the knowledge that can be gained in the taste of the sweat of man’s foot or the history that lingered in the air, awaiting my whiff of acknowledgment. But perhaps Georgette said this not for my benefit but for Marais, whose attention she was continually trying to capture. But Gurdjieff was ever ready to change the subject.
“This place. Is mystical like Stonehenge. There is big dervish of energy. Much to absorb. I stay and sleep beneath the termitary tonight.”
“With much regret, Monsieur Gurdjieff, if we don’t return, it would cause the Prellers concern. They’re likely to send out a rescue party,” said Marais, whose reply seemed a bit too ready.
“Yes, let’s not cause the Prellers any more distress. We’ve already been enough of a burden to them,” said Maurice.
“I’m not prepared to sleep upon the ground, Gurdjieff. That’s more intentional suffering than I am ready to do tonight. Besides, we have no provisions,” said Georgette.
“That is fine. I stay. I will find my own way back with Chippy. Eh, mongrel, you stay with me. He is all that I need and I will find all that I require. You forget that I spent many years in pilgrimage all over the world. I have all.”
I’m not sure how it happened but somehow I got myself volunteered to stay with Gurdjieff. I foolishly hoped that Georgette would have the strength to defy her Master if only out of loyalty to me. Since we had arrived, Gurdjieff was doing everything in his power to get me to sleep with him. Why was it so important that I lay with him?
“Monsieur Gurdjieff, I can’t in good conscience leave you alone out here with the termites. While they present no danger to you, as they are strictly vegetarians, I cannot speak for the rest of the creatures that may find you to be a good morsel to feast upon. It is an unpredictable place and knowing it as I do, I would not feel comfortable leaving you to fend for yourself,” said Marais.
“But mongrel stay here. What better companion could I have to sleep next to the descendants of cock roaches, who branched off so many years ago to evolve into the architects of such magnificence? I not sleep. I stay awake, suspended by the pulse, absorbing the vibrations of the termitary. The mongrel will stay and he benefit this with me.”
This all seemed like a big lie to me. As a dog, I can smell lies about a mile away. They hang in the air like an unresolved chord, with tensions that vibrate on the upper part of my palate which excites a tingling in my nose causing me to shake my head or rub my nose with my paws until the sensation subsists. Gurdjieff was only saying this to appeal to Georgette’s mystical leanings and by the looks of her agape mouth and her trance-like knowing nod; she was falling for it. So appealing was his statement that I half expected Georgette to change her mind and stay with Gurdjieff, the termites and I. But from somewhere within in the reptile segment of her Phrenological skull, she was more swayed by her impulse to return with Marais and exploring those developments or if all else failed, try her luck with Carl. At the very least, she would sleep on a comfortable cot within the safety of her mosquito netting. As hard as she tried to be more, Georgette could not deny her own nature.
So, no, I was to be left with Gurdjieff and I would have to endure whatever it was that he had planned for me. We still had the remainder of the day before us and I admit, I could already tell that it would be the sort of day where anything was likely to happen. My hopes for escape were not completely dashed, however. It wasn’t but a few moments ago that I had looked to Gurdjieff for assistance but once I faced the possibility of being left alone with this unpredictable man, I was not confident that I was prepared for whatever he had devised. It is well known that Gurdjieff was a mover of mountains and was capable of bringing people precisely to the precipice of exactly where they did not want to be. And through no will of my own I sensed I had arrived at that place. Georgette, however, had no inkling of my trepidation.
“Chippy, darling, you are going to have a pajama party with Gurdjieff tonight. Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”
Lucky. Now there’s a relative term. From what I could tell, Gurdjieff had not packed his chess board and that was a relief. I’ve met dogs that had been given the name ‘Lucky’ and from what I have observed, the name didn’t offer them any added protection but instead seemed to reflect the owner’s own self-absorption, stating how lucky the dog was to be taken in by them and that luck tended to be a sliding scale. Those same dogs had to live according to the fates like the rest of us. Resisting a fate might also be the means to bad luck but seeing that I had little choice in the matter, it was probably best to accept the fate I was given.
Marais had been keeping himself out the discussion about sleeping arrangements, knowing that his fate would have to bring him back to the campsite, where his own private rations awaited him. There was no discussion that would change the fact that he would require a dose of his remedy. Marais remained standing on the outskirts of the clearing, leaving the decisions to the others, offering no opinions but simply observing the Uitlanders with a scientific passivity.
“Monsieur Marais, might you give us all a tour of the structure? While I can admire it for its beauty, I have no clue as to what I am seeing. I have familiarized myself with your fascinating work through the plagiarized filtrated version by Maeterlinck but I would prefer to hear your ideas straight from the horse’s mouth” said Georgette.
Marais flinched a bit at Georgette’s words but recovered quickly having become somewhat accustomed to her candor.
“It takes a while to gain my bearings with each termitary just as it might with each person I meet. First I’d like to regard a moment before I jump to any conclusions. Within each termitary there’s likely to be a surprise. With that being said, there are aspects of their natures consistent from mound to mound that I find fascinating and I cannot help but draw parallels and comparisons to humans. Termites reside within the shell of their own construction so that they might live in absolute darkness. Although blind, they are repelled by light, seeking the safety of the dark moist caverns within, only coming out briefly after they sprout their wings in search of their mate. So massive is the structure in relation to their size, if I were to use a termite to human ratio, humans would have to erect a building as high as the Matterhorn, practically 15,000 feet in the air if it is to equal the size of this 40 foot mound. And that size does not even include the depth beneath the ground. For often, the termites must dig a hundred foot long boreholes to reach a source of water. In times of drought, as you can imagine, it can be quite labor intensive.”
Marais had abandoned his post outside of the clearing as he spoke, inching his way closer to the termitary, walking softly, treading lightly as if he were walking over a grave or upon hallowed land, knowing that beneath his feet contained the activity of the termites; the workers, the soldiers and the white and plump Queen, who pumped out thousands of eggs a day to keep her world alive, with her King by her side in their royal chamber. Marais continued.
“The truth is that they never seem to stop. I have observed them at all hours after marking their bodies with colored dots and I can attest that their activity is continuous. For them to stop would be as if we stopped breathing or if our heart would stop pumping or if the blood protested running in our veins. They are compelled to work, to continue; for if they stopped they would die and this shell, which is their very skin of their own making, would be of no use.”
Marais passed his hand over the mound, red from the South African mineral rich clay and red from the blood of their toil. He touched it with such a reverence that it was as if he had performed a transfusion of his own blood into the mound, that it’s skin was his skin and the deep caverns bored within the mound were made deeper as if he had injected the mound with his life’s blood, making it come to life much in the same way the morphine he injected into his veins had resuscitated him. For once the needle was inserted into him the serum chewed and ate away bits of his soul as it coursed through his veins, plunging his psyche deeper into the dark cavern of his own construction.
“Termites don’t question and that is both their blessing and their curse. They instinctively know their own fate and they know nothing of doubt, which is why perhaps I admire them so. In return of that ease of mind, they have no free will and they often die in defense of the place that they’ve been given. They are born into this caste system and there is no escape from that. But it does make me wonder if it is better to know your own place, to follow your course on a path free of resistance, accepting fates or does the happiness that we find nest in our efforts in defying that assignment, in discovering the walls around us that are in need of a fuse to insert into a bomb, so that a big bang might occur?”
Marais shook his head in self-reproach once he had caught himself exploring the depths of the termitary that he had not intended to plunge, momentarily getting so lost in his own thoughts that he realized he had exposed himself to the light and regretted it instantly and retreated back into the shade of the mound.
“But why do I go on in this manner? This has so little to do with the extensive research I have conducted.”
“It is difficult for the poet to separate himself from all that he does. I have read many of your poems and there is no denying that you possess the soul of a poet. There is no escape from that. That is one wall to keep intact, Monsieur. However, within this group you are correct to draw conclusions as such. For it is the nourishment that we live on and impossible for us not to wax poetic,” said Maurice.
Maurice had done his best to soothe him, but Marais’ agitated state was akin to the result of someone cutting open a termitary, the soldiers on high alert rushing about with their syringe scepters to defend the Queen and her eggs as workers commenced the arduous process of repairing the wound. Marais’ subconscious tics, scratching his forearm for no reason and the shuffling of his feet, kicking up the dirt indicated there had been a breach in his system, which he was internally struggled to correct. Without the aid of the syringe bearing termite to protect him from possible adversaries, he patched his exposure. It took longer on his own but he bided his time. He would soon be in need of a dosage.
“Now that you’ve seen the termitary, perhaps it would be best to return to the campsite. As long and as far as we have hiked to get here, we have to walk back. There are a few other termitaries nearby that we can arc past on our way back. However, this ancient monument is by far the most impressive, which is why I brought you here first.”
Georgette circled around the mound, aping a face that she thought might depict inquisitiveness as she formulated a question, its basis not necessarily deriving from curiosity as much as the pleasure of hearing herself ask.
“And about how many termites live inside?” Georgette asked.
“It is near impossible to say without destroying the termitary. You can be certain that the numbers are in the millions. The Queen commits herself to laying over 30,000 eggs in a day. Over her lifespan that adds up very quickly as you might imagine.”
“All of those eggs! So many children! She’s like the old woman that lived in shoe! And so, am I to surmise that the King and the Queen are the only ones who enjoy a healthy sex life? The rest just piddle about doing her bidding?”
“Oh, please, Georgette. You cannot begin to imagine yourself in the role of the Queen Termite. Ascribing human qualities and our experiences to that of the termite is ludicrous,” said Maurice.
“If you want to look at that way Madame LeBlanc, there is also the opposite side of the coin with which to consider; the Queen is ever the slave, responsible for everyone. That is another thing to keep in mind if you are to take on that role.”
Marais smiled, seeming to enjoy the idea of Georgette cast as the Queen Termite. There was no denying that it was her signal that had been transmitted and that had somehow brought together Marais, Maurice, Gurdjieff and myself to this grand mound. It was her will. I liked the idea of Georgette as a Queen Termite, thick with eggs that she would lay out into the world to do what they had been born to do. She had been forever finding situations for her circle of friends and artists since the early salon days in Paris. She could only live as the Queen might, enjoying her reign for a time and once her reign was over, she would slip away, and her signal would evaporate from the consciousness in an instant.
“Being here with you all, surrounding the mound, discussing blind termites and their plight reminds
of something. Please forgive this indulgence…but I have to say
that this situation reminds me of Maeterlinck’s play, The Blind. If you don’t know it, it’s a fabulous one act play that
was way ahead of its time that was intended to be performed by marionettes.
Twelve blind people are on an excursion led by a priest who has left them to
find food and water. They are all waiting for The Priest to return. The
characters have no names, but they are referred to by the conditions that they
live. But, of course, in typical Maeterlinckian fashion, the priest never
arrives. They waited for nothing. The priest had died and was only a few feet
away from the group the entire time. They were only able to discover him
because of the barking of a dog. It is a statement on waiting and hope,”
|Nicholas Roerich illustration of The Blind|
“Exactly how are we like the characters in the play?’ scoffed Maurice?
“Not us, dear Maurice. Are you not listening to me? The termites! They are waiting for the signal from the Queen. The brain! Don’t you get it?”
Gurdjieff spoke up suddenly, clasping his head as if he had a strange connection to the ether and was receiving a transmission. “I foresee Georgette starting a new kind of flea circus with termites. She’ll train them with magnets, placing a drop of quicksilver on their backs.”
His deep, authoritative voice made it seem to be true and his mystical nature brought a kind of believability to the notion momentarily but after a quiet pause the group laughed at its ridiculousness. Marais seemed amused by Georgette’s comparison, however nonsensical as the parallels she attempted to draw. It was if her whimsy had patched the gaping hole in his structure temporarily. He calmed down, appeared more settled and thankfully, seemed less inclined to rush off and leave me alone with Gurdjieff.
“Since the name of Maeterlinck has first crossed your lips and not mine, Madame LeBlanc, I feel a kind of door has been opened since up to now we have been avoiding the proverbial elephant in the room. I was beginning to think he was the priest that would not arrive. I do hope he doesn’t decide to join us on this excursion! Still, in a way you are right. This scenario is much like The Blind, as we all gathered here, not really knowing why we are here or where we might go and all the while who or what have we been waiting for? We wait for the person that is not here; Maeterlinck. His name is his condition and I feel pretty certain that he will not arrive. He will not offer any explanation, either.”
“See there, Maurice? It is just like The Blind.” Georgette thumped Maurice on his shoulder with her fist.“Yes, Georgette. I stand corrected.” Maurice rubbed his shoulder, pretending he had been injured.
“It is painful to learn that your work has been taken by another and that as honored as some say I should be to have my work annotated by a man of such distinction, I cannot find my way to feel that honor myself. He may have worked in the dark, like a termite, building his mound of words and ideas but it was built upon unstable ground. Like the termite, he can build and build but the structure will continue to topple over again and again. Termites never learn. They repeat the same thing over and again, refusing to retrace their steps. The light of day is their enemy and for Maeterlinck, the truth is that light. I am rusty with words for I do not often have the occasion to express such things. But I feel certain you understand my meaning.”
“That is a fascinating comparison, Monsieur Marais. How I do enjoy the image of Maeterlinck within his mound as a termite, typing his tomes as an architect of appropriation. From what I gleaned of his version, he was most obsessed by the termites’ use of their own feces. That. I understand, was a reflection about his own fears of communism. However, I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about the implications of that. I, of course, have my own interpretations but I am probably the least objective about Maeterlinck,” said Georgette.
The lofty discussion of ideas and the theft of the ideas, words, concepts and such were beyond my own perception as a dog. The way I see it, I watch humans speak, often saying the same things time and time again to me, the faces changing but the words are repeated as sit, play dead, roll over, heel, commands that I am to accept and respond to unless I am feeling feisty and rebellious or if I just simply prefer to be obstinate and decide to give the human a hard time out of sheer pleasure. In this life, and in the last with Maurice Maeterlinck and Georgette, I observed my humans talking, making music, writing, performing and as much importance as they seem to put into these actions, these obsessions they had over ownership seemed petty at times. To copy a string of words, a series of notes or to share a similar thought is not such a crime when compared to that of killing a person, stealing their food or their wife or even humiliating a person publicly. That we had all traveled and gathered at the very source of the problem, here with the termites, and that we now had a moment to converse with them and see just how it is they wished to be depicted, it all began to feel a little silly to me. Why would it matter to me whether Maeterlinck had cribbed the ideas of Marais? I was having difficulty even remembering what had moved me to stop haunting Maeterlinck and start on this trek and then I remembered Winifred de Kok, the translator of Marais’ book and the letter asserting that Marais, in fact, would not be committing suicide within the next eight years as it had been so widely reported. Dr. de Kok purported that he would instead leave his life in South Africa and flee to South America to start a new life with his new identity. Did all of that seem plausible to me? Was I only here to discover the fate of Marais? Or was there something more?
There were definite signs that Marais was a likely candidate for suicide with his on-going pain due to malaria, his inability to kick his addictions and that all of his scientific research tended to lean toward the metaphysical nature of himself, one could see how such a person would want to silence his pain and the voices that tormented his soul. To delve into the termitary was a means for him to delve into himself, to better understand the nature of mankind and more specifically, himself. That another man would steal his work, the labor of his experiments, his thoughts about the meaning of his findings was more than just the theft of his work but it is plausible that it could be seen as the theft of his identity. But is that what truly happened?
As I stood at the base of termitary, my eyes glazed over and superimposed over the structure of the mound was a vison of Marais, tall and crooked with pain. I saw Marais as the termitary and the termitary as him. The termites that resided inside of him were rushing about doing the work they had been instructed to do, chewing and mulching the Earth from an undetectable source, leaving no visible craters as evidence, passing the Queen from chamber to chamber with no evident signs of movement, except as Marais might: as an act of magic or a sleight of hand. The many parts of Marais made up the termitary, every idea, every skill, interest or talent that comprised him seemed to be hidden within the termitary, dank and dark, full of mystery with unknown caverns, a construction that took years to erect and the process of excavating it, of peeling back the skin would only lead to its demise. And still, I couldn’t decide why I cared about the plagiarism or even about Marais and the mystery that inhabited beneath his layers of skin, beyond his organs and muscles and ligaments. I was still here, along with Georgette, Maurice and Gurdjieff waiting to discover not only the mystery of Marais but also, we awaited “the priest” or Maeterlinck and sought to solve the mystery of why we cared.
The angle of the sun shifted and the shadows on the ground became longer. The looming termitary
cast a darkness over the area of the clearing where we all
stood and for a moment it was as if all of the birds, the cicadas, the small
creatures of the area witnessed it as I did and then, a quiet hush overtook us.
All I could hear was the rushing of Magalakwêna River in the distance and
continually tapping of the residents of the termitary and without knowing why I
leaned against the mound, pressing my ear to its side as if I were listening
for a heartbeat.
|Photo from The Soul of the White Ant by Marais|
“Chippy is all tuckered out. Perhaps it is best us all to get back to the campsite before it gets too dark. Gurdjieff, are you sure you want to stay here with Chippy? We have made no plans whether we will stay here longer or whether we’ll just go back to France. Regardless, none of that will hinder things for tonight,” said Georgette.
“Nothing has changed. I will remain here with the mongrel. Our work is here tonight.”
“By work, you mean some kind of Fourth Way work? Sounds ominous, but I will entrust you with Chippy. Please look after him. He is not as rugged as he appears.”
“I understand his nature better than mongrel. We stay with termites, the creatures that understand toil of work. We exorcise his demons!”
As Gurdjieff said the word, demons, Marais walked away from the clearing and when he stopped he suddenly looked quite sad (and even envious) that anyone’s demons were being exorcised but his. Instead he would go back to campsite and back to the Prellers where his own demons would remain intact and continue their slow, painful destruction of his psyche. I would have gladly offered him my place as I am sure that whatever demons resided inside of me were content staying as they were and I wished they would be left alone. I had no desire to disrupt or remove them. The idea that they might be rattled stoked my intense hatred of Gurdjieff. Perhaps the feeling from the anodyne demons within me feeling threatened for they would have no place to go if they were to leave me. Where might they go? Inside the mound?
“There are native rituals for removing demons by witch doctors but it has been my experience that my own demons do not share the same provisos for exorcism. If they are to be dispelled, I suppose a method more conducive to my own eths would have to be applied. What that be, I have no idea.” said Marais.
Hearing such intelligent adults speaking about the removal of demons in such a casual manner, like the way one might be discussing taking out the trash, confounded me. That they all seemed to be united by the concept that we all have demons living within us and that a magical incantation enhanced by a wave of magic smoke might remove this obstruction and free us to live happier, more fulfilled lives seemed naïve and far removed from the world of science and rationality I expected from this group.
The other thing they all forgot was that I am a dog. A dog does not share the same experience as a human. Far be from me to degrade my own species… but to suggest that I carry within me a demon that is to be removed from my being does not seem the sort of thing that should be said by what seems like sensible, adult humans living in a modern industrialized times. Perhaps it is due to their detachment from the machines themselves, here in this wilderness that have allowed their primal selves to speak. And now that they’ve found themselves here in a clearing, far away from the machines, the automobiles, the radio and the factories, they yearn from that which is the mystery within. It is much like the feeling I get when I encounter wild canines. Something stirs in me and it is as if I have forgotten something but have no idea what. As hard as I try, I cannot grasp the forgotten thing. My thoughts then become increasingly incoherent and eventually, all I can do is stop trying to remember that wild thing inside of me and return to my domestic canine life.
Maurice handed a brown paper bag full of treats to Gurdjieff.
“Try not to freak him out, please. He hasn’t agreed to any of this, Gurdjieff. Keep that in mind. Whatever you may think you know,” and this Maurice said to me directly, “he’s a good boy at his core.”
Gurdjieff accepted the bags of treats which smelled like of a kind of cured meat that I generally enjoy chewing. Bones and marrow are my other favorites because besides the wonderful flavor and I find them quite challenging. The experience of my teeth against bone, gnawing obsessively until it is dissolved is time consuming but satisfying once it is complete. Afterward I am generally exhausted to the point of having to sleep a deep, dream-filled sleep. But as much as I enjoy this kind of treat, for some reason I had no taste for whatever was in that bag and I didn’t trust what it contained.
Maurice, Georgette and Marais walked out of the clearing, past the bush that had been pushed aside and back on the path that would take them back to the campsite, the Prellers and everything that seemed safe and secure, leaving me with Gurdjieff who was none of those things. I felt like one of those dogs with an incurable disease, like the time when I lived as Golaud and Maeterlinck invited me for a walk with his shot gun in hand to put me ‘out my misery.’ Or at least, that was how it had been put. It was a feeling very familiar in that regard and that recognition set me to spontaneous panting and the nervous drool dripped from the hairs of my beard. What did Gurdjieff have in mind and why did all of my instincts tell me that it would have been better to leave with Georgette and the others. Were we indeed awaiting the priest?
“Okay mongrel. Now just you and me. I bet you wonder why I kept you here to myself. I bet you wonder how much I know and what I plan to do. It Okay. You can’t answer me now but I can see fear in your eyes. Relax.”
For some reason, I felt guilty but I didn’t know why, like I had done something horrible and had forgotten it and now Gurdjieff was going to remind me and then, there would be no going back. I would just have to know my own horror and I would either have to live with it or I could mercifully die along with that horror. Might that be possible?
Gurdjieff opened the bag of treats, peering inside and cheerfully said,
“These look almost good enough to eat myself.” He mimicked eating the treats the way a parent might try and entice a toddler to eat his stewed carrots, knowing that they might not enjoy them as much as let’s say, apple sauce, but it was to the child’s benefit to include carrots in his diet, regardless. I smelled what he offered to me and turned my nose, rejecting the treat out of principle. There had been times I had been offered medicine and it had been masked by something delicious like gravy or butter to make it seem like something I might enjoy. But I always knew better.
“Much better if you just take it, mongrel. I can force it down your throat if you wish but I’d rather not do it out of my deep respect for you. Know this: there is nothing in this treat that will hurt you. Trust me.”
Finally when I realized I had no recourse I acquiesced to Gurdjieff, eating the meat masked drug or poison, my curiosity now having overcome my fear. I knew there was nothing else for me to do. As I chewed Gurdjieff petted my head, whispering soothing words in my ear and I was surprised that I began to feel better for it.
“There, there, Chippy. It good. Just trust me…little longer,” he said and somehow I believed him.
I swallowed the treat and waited to see what would happen. At first I felt nothing, like the whole thing had been an elaborate joke of Gurdjieff’s and I had been a fool to have given it any concern and then I heard a voice say,
“Well that has absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.”
The voice was my own. Somehow I was able to speak. As many times as I wished I had been able to speak for myself, now that it was possible, suddenly I had no wish to do so. Suddenly I was like an introvert in the limelight, unable to know what to do or say. I was caught completely off guard. Of the things I might expect from the treats, speech was certainly not one of them. The inner voice of my mind, having been so well-developed no longer knew how to express itself once it could be amplified for Gurdjieff and all of the termites to hear. I felt incredible exposed and a part of me wished that I could have taken the cake offered to Alice, which had allowed her to get small and slip through a keyhole.
Gurdjieff laughed aloud, seating cross-legged on the ground grabbing his girth as it shook, his husky, smoke enhanced phlegmy laughter overtook him.
“I didn’t believe Marais but evidently, it does work. How nice to be able to speak to you, Chippy, you mongrel, You’ve been given the power of speech and now all you do is sit with tongue hanging out.”
I slipped my tongue back into my mouth, cleared my throat and tried to think of what I might like to say. Something iconic, something memorable.
“I really detest you, Gurdjieff. Why must I spend the night along with you of all people?”
It’s an odd sensation feeling the word coming out of my mouth. I sensed that my enunciation was not perfect due to the structure of my muzzle but I rather liked the sound of my own voice, as do many humans as I’ve come to discover.
“Wonderful! You honest mongrel. Is better. Much easier for to remember who you are. That is my business, after all, business of self-remembering.” He pointed his fat finger in my face, “And don’t think you can fool me. I watch you long time. I know very well who you are.”
The matter of my identity, then, was to be left in the chubby hands of Gurdjieff, who was as authentic and loathsome as a person I could imagine. What I knew of myself was simply that I was Chippy, a pure bred Berger Picard, without any papers to prove it. I came via some unknown means. I had once been Golaud, a magnificent mongrel bull dog.
“You can speak but you still talk in head between yourself and your imaginary former self, stuck between lives. Still not know who you are. The wheels turn in brain. All they do is go in circles, round and round, never reaching a satisfactory destination, getting nowhere. It’s monstrous, is it not?”
I regarded the direct, dull gaze of Gurdjieff whose eyes were as black as death. If a person resided behind those eyes, I could not see him. He was there to lure with me with his carrot of information, dangling it before my nose as he sat within his carriage with a whip in his hand. If the carrot didn’t interest me, then perhaps he would revert to the whip. It was now in my best interest to speak.
“Fine. I will bite. What is it you think that you know about me, Gurdjieff?”
“You not dog. You may look like a dog but even your smell suggests something else. I notice this at Prieuré in Fontainebleau. I say to myself, Gurdjieff, who is this dog who is not like a dog and why is he here?”
“That’s what you said aloud to yourself?”
“Yes. I often speak aloud to myself. Then there is no question about what I am saying and less of chance that I will doubt myself later. When important, speak aloud.” Gurdjieff amplified his booming voice, hurting my ears.
“Then I ask of you out loud, if I am not a dog, then what am I?”
“That curious thing. You act like a dog but you not think like dog. You concern yourself with things that dogs have no business. It’s funny. You bury dog deep for yourself and you worry with useless scraps of bones.” Gurdjieff laughed in spite of himself.
“So we are back to where we started?”
“It is a frustrating business, I admit. I like to spill beans for you but that is shock too big. I start with thing, what you know.”
‘That seems easy enough.”
“At beginning of musical scale we say ‘Do,’ you are Chippy, mongrel without papers but born of a
breed. ‘Re,’ you come here on mission with Georgette. ‘Mi,’ and here it get interesting,
propel us forward, you think you were dog of Georgette and her former husband,
if you would like to call him that, Maurice Maeterlinck many years ago.”
“Yes, I know all of this. In my previous life, I was a bull dog named Golaud.”
“Maeterlinck would give you a name like that. The more I hear about that bastard the less I want to know. Everything his fault. You know, right?”
“It was he that bought me for two louis, knowing instantly that he had paid too much. And when I could no longer see nor hear nor smell, it was his kindly bullet that put an end to the business and then, I was buried under a mimosa tree.”
“But it not put end to it, at all, just like that mess in Pelindaba, the name means the end of the business. You know this well. The end… a beginning, no? Another start. And we go to ‘FA.’ It brought you here, as you are.”
“Since you know all of this, why must we rehash it? I am here for my own business.”
“You travel to Pelindaba. Here at the banks of the Magalakwena to end to suffering. It start so long ago. You traverse space, time, to find truth of Marais, yes? But you never think of truth of who… you… are. Who cares if Marais finds nice bullet or two to put end to his business? And why you blame yourself for that?”
“There had been some questions about the truth of that. Winifred de Kok seemed to think otherwise.”
“Winifred de Kok? She silly female that fall for Marais’ spell. Just excuses for loveless marriage to that Poe knockoff, A.E. Coppard. She not accept suicide. Suicide make end of fantasy. Maybe happen, maybe no. Something much darker will happen in Pelindaba, however. Since we are speaking of things in our present future, but what I see, Marais is too much of a survivor, having sat out most of the Boer War in London, of all places, and then he become pinup boy for all things Afrikaans. He love self too much for suicide. Maybe accident, maybe murder, hard to say.”
“Are you suggesting that Winifred de Kok made up the story of his leaving South Africa, fleeing everything for a new start away from her?”
“Winifred de Kok’s pride like to think that he left the book and her and her sense of self-importance. She alone would have the last word in the translation. It soothes her mind to not take responsibility and tell truth. But… let us leave mystery of Marais alone. It is you, Chippy. That is important. Pelindaba, time will show, will always resonate with that notion of the end of business. It destiny of Pelindaba; always end of road. Later, at place of Preller Farm they build facility with horrific atom bomb, made from richness of uranium found within the Earth’s crust, where now is it is pushed to-and-fro by mindless termites, building mounds. These termitaries, these mounds are tools to find uranium. This seed…of all brutality here… start at the base of that Karreboom tree where they find Marais’ body. He will die. There is no question of that. And so now, you, Chippy, face end of business.”
“Are you saying that I am dying?”
“Dying? What is that? You in fine health, a bit nervous, like rabbit, in need of liver cleansing. That is the abuse you have do to Chippy, the most reliable and accommodating animal who has allowed you to inhabit him. Now time to go.”
The fog of dusk was beginning to lift but I wasn’t ready to let go of my illusions quite yet I had come so far and to leave without a conclusion or answers to my questions would mean that everything I had gone through had been for naught. I wanted to cling to this moment. I wanted to stay as blind as the termites and remain motivated by a signal whose source I did not know. I wanted to bask in the fragrance of my fantasy for just a while longer. I lied down, covering my head with my paws, closing my eyes, half believing if I wished hard enough I would find myself back on the farm, mocking Gurdjieff’s lectures, chasing wild hares and sleeping in the lavender fields but the booming voice of Gurdjieff that resounded in the breeze and shook the trees would not allow it.
“Tell me now, Chippy. Who are you? Speak, Chippy, speak!”
Then my voice escaped from me, against my own will.
“I am Maeterlinck.”
“Well then, fine. Then open your eyes and take a look around.”
I sat up, looking up from the dirt that I had pressed myself into and across from me sat Gurdjieff, smiling finding that I didn’t hate him as much as I once did. He pointed his fat forefinger at the termitary, extending his arm as high as it could go, pointing to the very top of the termitary.
“Keep looking up, mongrel.”
I turned my gaze from the white clad form of Gurdjieff, stretching my head up to the peak of the termitary and as my eyes strained to focus through the haze of dusk it seemed as if the termitary had parted and had begun to sway. But it wasn’t just the termitary this time; that static breathing structure that pulsated from the steps of its inhabitants. From behind the mound, a lone giraffe peered at me,
munching on a leaf he had luckily plucked from a nearby
Acacia Tree, having approached the tree from upwind thereby avoiding the
bitterness the tree emits when it knows it is about to be eaten. It hadn’t
smelled us, either. For without the wind, as every dog knows, there is no news.
Discovering me, he seemed bewildered by my presence. He was as curious about me
as I was of him.
The giraffe’s head descended downward like a graceful mechanized crane toward me so that I might observe his long lashes and so it might also behold me. Within a moment, he heard the rustling of the trees as the wind shifted. Alerted, he hinged up, lifting his head back into the heights of the trees. And then he sauntered away.
“Do not worry. Another lost soul. Like you, he look for answers,” said Gurdjieff.
Then the darkness of the night absorbed us and I fell asleep next to Gurdjieff beneath the towering mound. I had grown so weary of my questions that I fell into a deep, deep slumber that was padded by dreams that I wouldn’t recall. For the first time since I could remember, I didn’t think of Marais. I thought only of Maeterlinck and finding my way back to him. I would now return to my former self without the mask of illusion of Chippy or of Golaud and go back to Maeterlinck. Only then would I know the truth about Marais.
Coming Soon! The final Chapter of Excavating the Termitary!
Chapter 15: The Queen in her Cell
A big Thank You to all of my readers!