Chapter One; Earth Jolts
The earth jolted, violently – all of a sudden – while most inhabitants still slept. In a matter of seconds, the world turned upside down. The ground split open, trees fell, walls shifted and collapsed, stones rolled around, torrents of dust darkened the new morning.
The ground trembled, furiously. The earth revolted. Everything appeared to sink into an immense abyss. Sleepers awakened into the middle of a nightmare. Roofs crumbled down on their shoulders; wailing destroyed their throats; panic seized their entire being… Then the world’s belly burst open. An atrocious heat bore down. Death knocked and the sky remained merciless.
From everywhere, those who survived got out from the ruins screaming out of fright and running in every direction. Mothers fled with their newborn babies; old people staggered; children crawled around; men shouted out commands.
Dogs barked incessantly. Livestock escaped from their pens. Horses went crazy. No one knew where to go. Fear, and it was a disfiguring fear, sculpted faces.
In a lightning flash, the empire had collapsed. They found themselves hurled into the same fear, the same fate.
Moaning stabbed the atmosphere. People died by the thousands, crushed under ruins, lost in crevices, drowned in the river’s muddy waters that flowed, flooded and swept across the land with thunderous sounds. Beings and things floundered in the water, fell and disappeared beneath the surge.
Within seconds, glory was destroyed; the past disembowelled; riches annihilated.
But what followed was worse. When the earth stopped jolting, finally, and the inhabitants were left facing each other, fear became unbearable. The terror of destruction took hold and paralyzed them, totally.
Horror asphyxiated them. Awareness of the end of the world froze their consciousness. They ranted and raved. They muttered unintelligible words.
And then – all of a sudden – the slaves began the work of digging out. They were the only ones who still had strength to react. With their bare hands, they dug through the debris and handed over the bodies: entombed children; vanished mothers; injured fathers. They called out the names. They waited. They dug. Like prehistoric people, they were at nature’s mercy.
Gradually, the others awakened from their heavy inertia. The memory of what had once made up their lives, pushed them to move. They gazed at each other, went down on all fours, and dug. When they were able to get someone out, they felt like they had conquered death.
Clouds of loneliness and despair colored the days – the tears – the distress. How many more days? Time stood still. They looked only to survive – to eat and sleep – tightly holding on to each other, hoping that the new day would come for them, once again.
No longer were there any chiefs, no aristocracy either. No longer were there slaves. People had lost their vanity, their hierarchies, their injustice.
Death had taught them a lesson in humility. Death had shown them her unrivalled might by swallowing whomever she wanted.
No more stratification. No more empire. Simply men and women such as they were at the beginning of time.
This is when, coming from the other side of the mountains, the BlindPeople arrived.
The survivors saw them approaching in a solid mass. Their army was sparkling. Dazzling rays of light streamed from their missiles and firearms. Their power was unmatched; their superiority invincible.
Within a short while, they invaded the empire and installed their kingdom.
Chapter Two; The King’s Palace
Built on a gigantic hill, the palace spreads its wings over the city like a monstrous bat.
The huge room with a hundred mirrors where the king held court formed the body of the beast and its wings were the raised ballrooms where banquets and meetings were held; the king’s chambers and those of his daughter were located in the head of the creature. They jutted out and were decorated with fine fabrics and gold encrusted ceilings. At the top of this structure, surveillance radars scanned the kingdom and picked up every sound-wave that moved across the realm.
A bat was carved on the throne and the royal scepter because the bat inhabits the night and masters the sky despite blind eyes. Because the bat with its mysterious cries is the possessor of infinite powers. Because darkness is the bat’s force.
Bats lived freely in the gardens of the palace. City-dwellers heard them from afar especially at the king’s consecrated feeding time. He stood up straight among them and followed the rustling of their beating wings. He knew, exactly, the special way they sounded if they liked the mixture of ripe fruit, fresh vegetables and insects he threw to them.
These creatures multiplied at an uncontrollable rate. In this way, they colonized all the trees in the city and drove away the sparrows which fled, gradually, towards the North. They attacked the children, getting entangled in their hair. They scratched and emitted piercing cries like needles on eardrums.
Every morning servants washed down the palace’s steps and facade. They had to rub, scrape and scrub to get rid of the excrement that these flying mammals left everywhere.
The atmosphere was invaded by a stifling stench and the gardens resembled garbage dumps. Green and blue flies buzzed up around the ears of His Majesty Ato IV.
While feeding his bats one particular day the king was pensive. In the evening he was to host a huge marriage banquet with the entire court in attendance. Normally, this should have put him in a good mood yet he was very unhappy because he would have preferred to spend all this money in honor of his own daughter. His only child. But she categorically refused to get married so instead he had to celebrate the wedding festivities of a young cousin. He was thinking:
“Ahh, how I would have loved to marry off Akissi!” Ato IV was thinking as he returned to his chambers. I would have had made for her a silk dress pearled with the world’s largest diamonds and I would have placed on her head a crown of rubies and emeralds.
I do not understand my child, my own daughter. She hides her lovers. I should have been able to persuade her to accept a man of my choosing, but to what good? This would have been pain wasted. If she is the king’s daughter, it is by way of her seething blood. If I impose someone on her, she will cloister herself inside her chambers never to leave again.”
Ato IV mounted the central staircase, slowly, reproaching himself for not having brought up his daughter as it should have been done. The governesses had not known how to be firm. Not one of them had managed to take charge of her.
“She is just like her mother – (Pssth, he sucked his teeth) this woman from the Great North, this woman with unparalleled intelligence. She had to go. Never ever would I share power! It is passed along bloodlines, and Akissi is my only heir. Flesh of my flesh. Blood of my blood.”
The king sighed, trying to calm himself:
“In any case, this is of no importance, or rather: I should have had a son as tradition demands. With a son, I would have conquered the entire world! But why did life decide otherwise? The women who stretched out in my bed – all of them – had wombs as empty as a gourd with holes! Dry, ungrateful wombs, carriers of still-born babies. The people had started to gossip.”
Entering his chambers, he exclaimed:
“The slum-dwellers must be kept in awe by the splendor and luxuriousness of the festivities. The cortege will move across the city with all the fanfare. Gold and silver will dazzle their eyes. I want people to be talking still, in one hundred years, about this wedding party! And what’s more, in the most remote regions. One must proclaim to the world and to the slum-dwellers that the kingdom has never before been this prosperous! I am going to show them, I, Ato IV, what power is! And one day, it will be my daughter’s turn. Then, I will make the entire world tremble with envy! The ceremony feast will be so grandiose that the power of my name will surpass the borders of the Universe! And everyone will know that my reign is limitless and that my throne is cast in solid gold !
Because I am the one who created this country. I, who built it with my own hands, shaped it according to my own will. I am the one who made from its mire and chaos this grandiose site! I am the one who gave it prosperity, strength and eternal life.
Without me, there would be nothing here.
Without me, everyone would have starved.
I am the rock on which the kingdom is built.
I am the king of steel whose power generates the future.
I am the one whose voice makes the mountains tremble.
The one who stops time.
The one who governs.
By day as well as by
Véronique Tadjo is a poet, author, illustrator and painter from the Cote d’Ivoire and heads French Studies in the School of Literature and Language Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her novel Reine Pokou (Queen Pokou) won the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire in 2005. The Blind Kingdom is a political allegory that resonates with the conditions in contemporary Cote d’Ivoire. It comprises a series of short stories and poetic texts, a story of an African society on the brink of collapse. Translation from French: Jan Mayes.