Read The Cleft Online

Authors: Doris Lessing

The Cleft

DORIS LESSING

The Cleft

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

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

Man does, woman is.

ROBERT GRAVES

Merchant

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

The Master of the Caravan

Open the gate, O watchman of the night.

The Watchman

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

The Merchants
(
WITH A SHOUT
)

We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

(The caravan passes through the gate)

The Watchman
(
CONSOLING THE WOMEN
)

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

A Woman

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

Voices of the Caravan
(
IN THE DISTANCE, SINGING
)

We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

JAMES ELROY FLECKER

THE CLEFT

I saw this today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I know, you keep saying, but what you don't understand is that what I say now can't be true because I am telling you how I see it all now, but it was all different then. Even words I use are new, I don't know where they came from, sometimes it seems that most of the words in our mouths are this new talk. I say I, and again I, I do this and I think that, but
then
we wouldn't say I, it was we. We thought we.

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

When was then? I don't know.
Then
was a very long time ago, that's all I know.

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

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

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

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

No, I cannot say how it started. That isn't in our story.

The Old Shes must have known something.

We never called them that before the Monsters began being born. Why should we? We only had Shes, didn't we, only Clefts, and as for
old
, we didn't think like that. People were born, they lived for a time, unless they drowned swimming or had an accident or were chosen to be thrown into The Cleft. When they died they were put out on the Killing Rock.

No, I don't know how many of us there were
then
. Whenever then was. There are these caves, as many as I have fingers and toes, and they are big and they go back a long way into the cliffs. Each cave has the same kind of people in it, a family, the Cleft Watchers,
the Fish Catchers, the Net Makers, the Fish Skin Curers, the Seaweed Collectors. And that is what we were called. My name was Cleft Watcher. No, why did it matter if several people had the same name? You can always tell by looking at someone, can't you?

My name Maire is one of the new words.

We didn't think like that, no, we didn't, that every person had to have a name separate from all the others. Sometimes I think we lived in a kind of dream, a sleep, everything slow and easy and nothing ever happening but the moon being bright and big, and the red flowers washing down The Cleft.

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

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

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