Antoine Bargel

Son of Strange

His only garment was a simple cloth that he had spun himself and wore wrapped around his waist. He ate little and prayed much, privately and publicly, each according to the demands that the turmoils of our young nation imposed on his desire for retreat. Similarly, he traveled from state to state at the behest of various groups affiliated with the movement that he had established as the driving force of independence from our colonial oppressor and now, of a novel form of government by the people. That he did not accept any official role in the latter only underscores the range and depth of his influence, founded upon a symbolic and religious incarnation beyond the reach of the most skilled politician.

His wife of 65 years (they had been married early) remained in the town of their birth and he journeyed in the company of two young women, one of which was my mother. They were remote cousins of his, simple, illiterate creatures who took care of his modest material needs, arranged the rooms where he slept and what little nutriment he required, and appeared only as silent, doting figures offering their shoulders for a rest to the gaunt arms of the exalted man. Their names were unknown to the public and their presence unmentioned, although they are visible, in whole or in part, on almost every newspaper photograph of that time and many an international newsreel.

Yet to them, of a class accustomed to attending unquestioningly richer and more educated masters, this employment was, in relation to their peers, a source of vast and wildly envious consideration, as it is true or deemed such by those in subsidiary positions that the higher the object of one’s charge, the greater honor there is in service. What’s more, I believe they loved him, as he was a warm and gentle person, moderate in words and actions, of even temper and pleasant demeanor; surely, my mother never spoke of him without a tender mist filling her gaze, expressing an attachment that was none the lesser for belonging firmly to the past.

She would tell of seemingly mundane moments which in the company of the great man had acquired for her the solemn intensity of historical events, to be always remembered on a different plane, remote from ordinary life. After a long walk on the dusty, garbage-strewn streets of our motherland, she would wash his feet with cold water and a bar of soap, meticulously rubbing each patch of skin and sliding her fingers between his toes, which made him wiggle them and laugh. After morning prayers, he would often sing to himself, not the expected religious hymns, but secular love songs from old movies, the popular hits of his youth, in a frail yet agile baritone. To my mother, these daily affairs became, especially once she’d returned to our village and its ordinary, pedestrian lifestyle, the stuff of legend, to be narrated, in hushed and devout tones, only to a privileged few who visited us for this purpose, and observed around the matter all the attentions of a ritual. This was, all in all, what her existence meant, her participation in the quotidian of this most illustrious man; and nothing more could it ever mean.

Therefore, it was only after I pressed her for what was truly many years that she relented and confided in me what much aroused my curiosity. Yes, she admitted, at night, after they had all retired to the same private room, there was often a shuffling of sheets, and one or the other of the young ladies-in-waiting would receive on her cot the sinewy visit of a panting and voracious male. Without ever uttering a word, nor needing to, he would engage in acts of wild sensuality that belied his age, including some that my mother hadn’t known to exist, she said blushing and skipping over details. He was vigorous but considerate, always making sure that the object of his affection enjoyed their interaction as well, leaving her fulfilled and exhausted, transported quite beyond herself. On nights when it was the other woman’s turn, the moment was almost more exciting: hearing and imagining what happened in the dark, suddenly feeling quite cold and untouched, while pulsing in unison with something both unspoken and unseen. And beforehand, when measured steps approached across the room yet one—for he alternated irregularly—didn’t know who was to be chosen, there was such intense hoping as ever a promised princess could have conceived, awaiting in fairy-tale virginity the return of her liege.

Never had she discussed the event with her consort, nor with anyone. Never had it troubled her, as I pointedly inquired, that this was a man publicly and widely defined by vows of austerity—although chastity itself had not been mentioned, probably considered implicit by the common standards of holiness—who thereby indulged secretly and, in fact, extramaritally, in pleasures of the flesh with not one but two women many years his juniors and living under his tutelage. As far as she was concerned, there had been no need for explanation or judgment.

It was left for me to ponder, what this all meant, and although it doesn’t matter as he was killed long ago, shot in the street by an extremist of a different hue, still I wonder who my father really was and how to call this of which I was born.