One day, spattered with foam, he had left town on an wild stallion. That was a long time ago, before he became famous. Now, he rode a dull and slow animal. It pushed its mighty chest forward into the darkening night like the prow of a ship, white, with a yellow silk harness, anxiously aiming its ears forward to a dangerless void. Dangerless? Does anyone know when disaster will strike? At times, its flank shivering above shifting stones, the horse’s stride became more careful, its heavy hooves probing for safe ground.
He had left on his own, having sent his men and the wagon train on ahead. Worn-out and weakened by illness and wounds, dressed in a fur-lined yellow cloak to soothe the pains in his shoulder and arm, he rode without stirrups, as usual. Looking back, now and then, at what he had left behind. Towers and walls, arising from a rock, almost black against a darkening sky, now far away, an unreal scene: his native town. He searched his mind for what might have driven him to make this last visit. His mother was dead and all he had found in the narrow smelly alleys were an impoverished, tired people (the strong had left long ago, like he) and a handful of pushy relatives. Blunt people, proud of their kinship, deferential. He had found nothing except what remained of his ancestral home, run-down and in decay, abandoned a long time ago. Again and again, he turned around to look at the pitiful towers and walls, ever more immersed in a growing night. And he asked himself again what could have moved him to leave, almost a generation ago.
The reason could have been poverty, the bareness of the soil, the lacklustre life at home, ever so slow, with no prospect of change. He doubted however that poverty would have annoyed him at the time. No one on the rock knew any better. Or had it been boredom? The endless boredom at home, which spread like a thick, all penetrating smog? The wretched flies below the heavy beams which continued to pester when you were asleep and the irritating noise of the cricket in its cage? But, what about those invigorating days of wonderful fights and moments that the alleys and town squares had known burning passions, and seen knives and blackened eyes? Then, suddenly, he remembered the pale-grey wall opposite his father’s home as it became bathed, at sunset, in a wine-red glow which turned the alley and the sky above it into a translucent yonder exceeding the farthest horizon seen from the watchtower. He wondered if it could have been that wine-red light which had made him leave.
What an absurd idea, he thought. But the spectre kept coming back with an astonishing persistence. It became clearer and more defined and soon he even thought that he might have caught a glimpse of it as he pushed aside an annoying, curious crowd, his pride hurt for neglecting what reminded him of his parents and his youth. The vision expanded and saturated the fields ahead of him. Among an endless procession of battles, journeys, sieges, pillages and women who had occupied his life, he sought something strong enough to replace the persistent delusion. But nothing instead turned into reality. All he saw was a danse macabre – shreds of images, shapeless and lifeless – against the backdrop of the pale-grey wall in the wine-red evening light, a sad and desperate emptiness.
Between his memories of shooting, danger and drunkenness, he could only recall this wall. Could it be that memory is the core of our true being and that it had been activated in his brain for the first time? He became confused by so much deep thinking and pushed it aside. The night became cold, he pulled his cloak tight; his shoulder and arm hurt more and more. He should now be close to the spot he had indicated to his comrades. There in the tents, in their rugged company, the illusion would soon disappear.
The going became more difficult and the path disappeared into a ravine. Then suddenly, the horse reared due to whatever alarm, an arrow whizzed through the air and hit him in the neck, just above the collarbone of his sick shoulder. A stabbing pain overwhelmed him. He could not manage the animal any longer and he fell on the sharp rocks, losing conscience.
His foot soldiers spotted the pale silhouette of the horse on the plain and went to catch it. They followed its tracks to where their master had fallen. He was found by torch light and was carried to the tents at the crack of dawn. The arrow tip could not be pulled from his neck, every touch caused an excruciating pain. Old wounds re-opened and infection and fever increased. He ordered them to lay him down at the entrance of his tent, with a good view of the town on the rock, his back supported by pillows. There he died, as the wine-red light of the evening sky travelled across the landscape and the eastern sky.
F. C. Terborgh 1940, Peking, published by Les Pères Lazaristes.
Translation : J. Doets