The faces of the children captured his gaze before his eyes could wander over what he insisted was not bronze but pure gold. The faces were finely wrought with all the realistic details of the human form, down to the very lines around the joints of the jaw and the eye sockets, the fine veins that run close to the skin as death from starvation approaches, the vanishing hairline and eyebrow, all depicted with infinitesimal detail and infinite precision. The only unrealistic aspect of these perfectly cast heads was their size. They were fully twice that expected in proportion to their bodies. With these heads, the ideal conformity to reality abruptly ended below their pain-wracked faces. The very form of the metallic bodies was the material expression of an exquisite struggle on the verge of being forever relinquished. The bloated pot-bellies of kwashiorkor, like those of fish left in the sun to rot, branched into withered arms like drought-blasted trees sending forth gnarled boughs and brooding branches. Their root-like arms reached upward toward the golden bowl, as if to suck life from what it might have once contained. They reached upward to some invisible benefactor, as if in a prayer for sustenance to some god that could not possibly answer with manna before the tiny shapes must collapse in the fatigue of self-consumption.
Gravity itself was inverted by the artistry as the twin figures seemed to be hanging from the bowl, suspended by its magnetic power. The support that those twigs of fingers gave the chalice was so transformed by the children’s yearning that the bowl appeared to be lifted by the dim light, as if any further imagined detachment from the suffering below would send it slowly aloft, totally beyond human reach.
The bowl itself fully embodied the twofold vision hinted at in the distorted human sculptures. Their reflections continually recaptured Wilson’s attention as he scanned its gleaming surface. The bowl brought the fantastical and the realistic into fuller contrast through its concave and convex surfaces, both infused with terror-heightened imagination. So thin was the separating wall, that to imagine the manufacture of one surface implied the obliteration of the other. The outer surface of the bowl depicted a rhythmic procession of the cycles of creation and destruction, in a realistic style not as fine as that of the portraiture, but still of exceptional quality. A snake, open mouthed, pursued a lizard, the lizard a frog, the frog a beetle, in an endless race of organic vigor around the bowl. The repeated figures spiraled toward the infinitesimal, each figure smaller than the last until the circle of predation was no longer visible to the naked eye at the base of the bowl.
At the upper extreme of the bowl, a single row of scarabs was inlaid along the brim, each roughly hewn from separate sapphires of uniform size. They were neither hunter nor prey, sitting vertically with heads touching the bowl’s outer edge, their eyes not discernible, their coffin-like wings locked in an unbroken line. Like the dark vault of cruel skies in rainless years, a crystalline midnight of sublime impenetrability sealed the desperate movement below from the harmonious, indifferent heavens above—a blank, stone-clad heaven, uncontemplated even by the phalanx of blind, unthinking sentinels who stood guard along the wall-walk of the golden citadel.
Beneath the scarabs, the inner bowl was wrought with geometrical icons of the scurrying creatures directly on the opposing outer surface of the thin gold wall. Looking into the depths of the bowl, Wilson saw flowing lines between the topmost spirals of figures which became interwoven in the beholder’s eye into arabesque designs. It was like the calligraphy of a language that, now lost, had been both richly pictographic, yet fully abstract. In their abstract beauty, they struck Wilson as something like the flourishes of scripture inscribed around the domes of the great mosques in Constantinople. Yet the piece was clearly created in an era long before the firm hand of Islam had begun its perilous reach across the desert into the surrounding lush forests of the Slave Coast.
The spiral of figures toward the infinitesimal around the bowl’s outer surface was achieved inside as well. But somehow variations in light striking the internal surface produced no regions of brightness or shadow and created no reflections, only a uniform iridescence. When focused on the bottom of the bowl’s inner surface, the eye eventually yielded to another illusion. It seemed that Wilson looked on the skin of a living creature in slow respiratory motion, or perhaps like the life of a miniature sea—a thing moving without essential change. If it were an ocean, then at its very depth were seated two stones, emeralds, oval in shape and brightly translucent, reflecting the light in two parallel beams up the bowl’s interior, giving the impression of an inner power released by the lamp light. Wilson described this as the conscious aspect of the whole. It drew the entire piece into a coherent, self-contained, and inscrutable existence, as if some god had shown both of his faces to humanity: one on the concave, one on the convex surface of the bowl. Both were oblivious to the sacrificial figures that held the bowl aloft, both essentially inhuman.
The effect was vertiginous and yet concentrating, as if Wilson was already in mid fall from some great height and his vision was fixed on the golden floor that would shatter his bones. For the first time, Wilson saw a reflection in the bowl, a face, but not his own. It was the Osu peering over his shoulder into the bowl as he held the lamp. Pulling himself from the brutal beauty of the sculpture, Wilson demanded to know who had created it and where the Osu had obtained it. The black man laughed, and then said several times in his thick Pidgin “Sah, you been de know who make’am an whare I doe bring’am.”
Years later, Wilson was to gather legends in the surrounding countryside that explained that the work had been commissioned by an early Oba of Benin. It was meant to honor his chi, or personal guardian spirit—his second, spiritual head. The metal had been cast with the help of the city’s founding gods. At the final tempering of the metal, and the last ritual purification, the bowl overflowed with the blood of two twins, wrenched from their heart-broken parents. The Oba alone drank of the stinging cup. This act was symbolic of his ferocity and dominion over the precursors to chaos inherent in human weakness. It was his pity at seeing the twin’s mother in irreconcilable grief that led to the emeralds being inlaid in the chalice, taken from the ground as they fell, crystallized, from her cheek.
Although the mother’s grief moved the Oba, it resulted in her own execution, and the banishment of her husband who was now held responsible for two abominations: the siring of twins and his wife’s protest against the order of heaven. To understand that damning the mother to grief by the construction of the ritual chalice could be seen as an act of great mercy, one is reminded that four hundred souls were sacrificed on the day of the British defeat of Benin. Those sacrifices were made in the hope of returning spiritual and political balance to a world gone mad. Neither the Benin royal court nor the British memorialized these dead. The Englishmen who died in the battle while fighting in the name of Victoria won a few lines from Kipling. The Africans who found both their kingdoms and all images of reality permanently shattered were mentioned in published accounts only to provide their opponents an honorable death in an honorable Christian war against dishonorable, but war-worthy, savages.
Wilson’s mind was far from historical or legendary digression that night. He knew he must have the sculpture. No thought of its price entered his mind. It was as if the whole external world had dropped into an abyss. The Osu was the only obstacle to his taking hold of what now remained of that world. Only the twins, the tears, and the dark golden bowl of night remained. The Osu smiled broadly at the sculpture’s possession of the white man. The taut smile bespoke no thought of money. Wilson realized what he had already bargained for, without words or written contracts. His final judgment, like everything else in this land, would not wait until some otherworldly design completed itself in time. The price was collected in the moment, silently in a squalid mammy wagon. In one penetrating gaze they closed the deal.
Wilson removed his shirt and single, totally exposing his pink skin already perforated with mosquito bites. He tore the burlap from one of the chests, and lovingly draped the sculpture first in the soft cloth of the singlet then in the heavy cloth of his outer shirt. Without further conversation, the Osu drove him to the nearest large village tossing Wilson about in the rear of the wagon as he cradled the crushing metallic weight of the sculpture, just as the legendary mother had hoped to cradle her murdered children.
The streets were pitch black at the hour they arrived in the village, but they began to fill with the voices of children and old women marveling at the strangers at a distance. It was not long before some preteens stopped sweeping the road with their flashlights in search of wandering snakes and ringed the lights around the mammy wagon. They treated the Osu and Wilson as they would have treated some local version of Bigfoot or some other furtive and potentially dangerous creature if it had found its way into the village: not knowing if louder talk might frighten it away before its reality could be confirmed, or provoke an attack. Wilson had the passing thought that all of the hushed commotion on the edge of fear and wonder was about the strangeness and size of the Osu. But the gasps of recognition and high pitched ejaculations that sounded like warnings were more likely a response to Wilson’s red face and disheveled appearance and the monomaniacal gestures that accompanied barked demands. He threw out threats and expansive promises of cash toward the influential big men who came forward to deal with him. The incident was certainly beyond the scope of the middle-aged men who were assigned to deal with normal policing of disturbances by palm wine drinkers and stray cattle. The big men ignored the Osu, whose size didn’t compensate for his being a slave to a shrine who could not be a member of any of the extended clans in the region. He had no source of social status, and his obvious poverty shrank their estimate of him to something like that of a taxi driver hoping to pick up a fare at this godforsaken hour. One of the big men insisted that Wilson stay with him, since only he had all of the conveniences an Oibo big man would be used to including air-conditioning, a cooler filled with beer, and a shower. But Wilson demanded that a private accommodation be found for him, even if it were only a windowless shack. It was exactly what he ended up with. One of the big men woke up a shopkeeper who held the key to a shanty building that was kept available for a circulating physician who held a monthly clinic in the village. The shanty stored supplies, drugs, a cot and towels for when the doctor needed to examinations that couldn’t be performed in the tent near the market where privacy and hygiene were always compromised. The patients taken there were usually rural people with no village connections that could gain them entry to a home where the examination for a communicable disease or treating of a wound or growth they considered shameful with could be performed. It was the best place to examine lepers after the clinic for the villagers had closed for the day. The place was impeccably clean, and set up with a battery and generator for lighting. Though the doctor would never have considered staying overnight in the tiny room, not just because the place was tiny, but because he didn’t want to insult the town’s men of influence, who would sometimes got into serious wrangles over which one of them would have the honor being his host. Wilson was an old African hand, and knew how these things worked, but that night he hadn’t given a second thought to snubbing the local dignitaries.
Less than an hour after their arrival Wilson and the Osu lugged a heavy package into the shanty. Once inside, Wilson locked the door and drew back the canvas and burlap covers to expose the sculpture. He had barely registered the Osu’s departure, and hadn’t noticed that no additional demand for money had been made by him. It would have been only natural to demand a substantial amount of cash and to wait there until Wilson had gotten each of the big men in the village to contribute to the pot by simply asking them. Having a white man as a debtor, or being his benefactor, would boost their status, and might lead to some kind of business opportunity or government perk. All of them had stacks of naira stashed where they could get their hands on with little notice. Wilson said it was as if the Osu had physically shrank and shed his otherworldly presence. I have seen these people before. They seem to lurch along in life with one foot sunk deep into the eroding rut of the pre-contact vestigial ways and the other foot sliding around, barely catching purchase, in modern Nigeria. For whatever reason, the Osu had no power over Wilson. He barely thought of the man who had brought him the objects his eyes now feasted on in the almost airless shack, and the almost unbroken darkness he had imposed on himself by refusing to let the townsmen close enough to work on the generator. He had only a single candle to rely on as he gazed at the golden bowl and its human likenesses insatiably throughout the night. In his marveling, his eyes grew as centered and active as twin moths that might orbit in ever-tightening double spirals around the flame as it licked the air in the struggle to sustain itself.
At sunbreak, Wilson ran off the young women who came bringing tea, bread, and fresh fruit. Without leaving the shanty, he issued the commands that would have his jeep repaired. This had to be done through a series of middle men, since everyone involved had to be brought to the shanty door, interviewed, and sworn to secrecy (if accepted). After the white man’s departure, there was to be no mention that he had ever been there. By noon, bands of small naked children were singing a newly composed song about Wilson, a stranger the color of a peeled orange who had spit on the chief’s hospitality and was hiding from the sun in the lepers’ medicine cabinet. The song was scandalous to the elders and women, but its comedy and the cuteness of the dancers made the song irrepressible. Wilson waited until dark to bring in the man he had recruited to assist him in loading the draped box into his newly repaired jeep. The man was the village drunk, who passed himself off as a night watchman, and who was also patiently daft.
When he arrived at his bungalow, he supervised his steward and cook in loading a heavy locked chest into his bedroom. As the servants stirred to prepare meals, fresh clothing, and bath needs for the master of the house, he rushed from the bedroom, frantically yelling at the top of his lungs. He was asking for thieves, the Osu, some visitor from a northern village with a mammy wagon that could have carried a large object. Unimaginably, the priceless antiquity that had arrived with Wilson, had been replaced with an artless monstrosity in brass and patched with clay. There was not a touch of gold. The thing barely had the same proportions, and none of the master craftsmanship of the original. Wilson had examined his chest to verify with his own eyes once again that his flesh carried the signs of the sacrifice he had made. A few of the many black and blue disks seemed to cover new voids where the corners and points of the sculpture had been catapulted against him by van running throttle run over potholes, jumping in and out of muddy ruts, and being launched in midair by tree roots as thick around as a mature python.
His chief porter soon called for the doctor, who had enough difficulty managing Wilson that he had called a colleague to assist him in wresting the man down and injecting a tranquilizer. The staff and his neighbors were told that he had been diagnosed with a resurgence of malaria exacerbated by fatigue and poor nutrition. In response, one of the lady housekeepers had commented “De no teach lie in college eh, no lie em in doctor’s school?” Fortunately, this comment was never reported to Wilson, and she earned an additional two months’ salary when Wilson, after it was over dismissed all of them after it was over, wanting to bury the memories.
As a medical facility, the Braithwaite Rest Home was something short of a hospital. But it was prepared to serve as a discrete means of providing respite to the many colonial workers who suffered minor nervous breakdowns or exhaustions during the time they fulfilled their duties in such a foreign environment. Wilson had suddenly found himself sitting in the Rest Home on the edge of a bed with a clear mind and enough energy to search for his street clothes. A nurse found him dressing, but he ignored her insistence that he wait for doctor’s rounds to be properly discharged. When he arrived at his bungalow he found nothing in his bedroom. There was no sign of the chest or its contents—not even the ugly thing that had been foisted on him by some demonic trickster. His jeep had been swept clean and the exterior washed, and the fool from a squatters cabin down the road who had done it obviously wanted a tip. Wilson grabbed the man by his wrists and shanked him until the man’s legs began to give way. As the man tried to regain his balance, it took all of Wilson’s will power to keep from knocking the old toothless geezer to his knees. Wilson’s questions to the few staff who dared to come out of the woodwork were met by solicitous grins that indicated they knew where he’d spent the last few weeks. After he issued personal threats of retaliation for their role in the theft, Wilson fired the household staff, and then fired them again a week later after they had failed to stop coming to his property.
Although he was soon able to return to his corporate duties, his reputation with the firm had been damaged by the incident. His new manager for the Jos resort had quit without notice a few weeks after arriving on the job. Another senior man had been sent in from a less critical operation in the East. But instead of filling the empty post, the senior man took Wilson’s job, while Wilson was transferred to fill the opening he had caused by his breakdown. Wilson took the demotion, because it had allowed him to continue his investigations. He began to pay young men in the major Southern cities to listen to the gossip among thieves in the market, or to ask big men in the cities about a remarkable pre-fourteenth century “bronze” that might have appeared on the black market. For several years he paid dearly for legends, lies, and old wives’ tales, and endured insulting hoaxes from charlatans who were ready to take advantage of his obsession.
Wilson admitted to me that he travelled to Benin once again only three months before my strange night encounter with the Osu. He had again been disappointed by bronzes that were promised to be of exceptional quality. In reality, they were only miserable mediocrities that had been urinated on and buried to create a sickening antique green color in the metal that often fooled naive collectors hunting for unregistered pieces created before the arrival of Europeans.
The conversation gave me the unique opportunity to observe the night side of the colonial subconscious in one of its more peculiar forms. But after a week, Wilson, now my educator, nay guide, broke off all further relations with me. He refused to answer telephone calls to his rooms, he did not respond to hand delivered messages, and he ignored my personal entreaties outside his suite door. These nighttime entreaties were at times too insistent. More than once, Immanuel had appeared at my side with the look of an Eastern Orthodox saint on his face to repeat the same refrain, “Please, Master. Master, Please,” as though he could surely wring some drop of mercy from my wilted turnip of a heart of compassion, at least enough compassion and commonsense for me to leave the Englishman alone.
As days passed, an increased yellow pallor had descended on Wilson, and he gradually sank from the high elation and anguish with which he had initially responded to my incident. He fell gradually into a melancholy stupor. Even in his despondency, he managed to avoid me in the dining room, pub, and other public arenas of the small hotel. Questions that I directed to the hotel staff were met with polite evasion. Even the less conventional members of the little hotel community, who so often proved useful, were of no help to me.
Returning from Enugu, a month later, and using Tony Ake’s name to insure safe, inexpensive passage at night, I learned from my now obsequiously deferential driver that Wilson was no longer domiciled at the Erijoy Hotel. He had again spent several days in “recuperation,” this time at the Brownwell Rest Home near the harbor area. The grapevine said that he’d suffered an acute gastric tract infection and a resurgence of malarial symptoms. He had learned to cover these periodic lapses well enough and would probably not be damaged professionally or socially again. The staff at the hotel was in on it too and used the malaria story to cover for just about any peculiarity of the Englishman. After all, malaria was not an Englishman’s disease. Who knows what affect the hot blood of malaria might have on the naturally cold English blood? The lady who let it be known that she had accompanied Mr. Wilson to his island retreat, now let it be known that their relations were in a state of suspension at best. But she nonetheless asked me to contribute to the purchase of a tin of his favorite imported biscuits, a special blend of tea to which he was partial, and a fresh bouquet of roses from the North, all to be sent over to the Rest Home. I quickly declined to have my name added to the list of his well-wishers, since I was sure it would do nothing but remind him of the shattered aspect of himself that he had almost unwillingly revealed to me. For this abstinence there resulted a subtle aversion toward me among the guests and staff of the hotel. Still I felt morally bound not to explain my apparent lapse in sensitivity and social graces, because to explain it meant to expose the man who was my confidant, of sorts, to further ridicule.
I have since occasionally encountered the man in my goings and comings in the city where he had taken up residence. He was staying in the Hotel Presidential, and had apparently abandoned forever our little suburban hamlet hotel. On each occasion of our encountering each other, he has not only avoided brief conversation, but has even refused to acknowledge my existence. It is sad to think that the shame which the memory of his deluded confessions must cause him can be measured by his inability to tolerate the slightest eye contact with me, the one person who may fully know what personal price he has paid for the neocolonialist order that he so much admires.
If any moral can be gained from his history (if you will forgive a lapse to my professional bias as a historian), it is the old lesson that we often most resemble the enemy we have spent our lives opposing. After a career devoted to the material improvement of a colony, and amassing a considerable fortune, Wilson fell victim to the dreaded occultism that he believed to be the source of the continent’s poverty; all the while blind to his role in creating more underdevelopment, and blind-to–the profound division within himself, which mirrored the class and race divisions which were the source of his own prosperity.