He was the sage of the neighborhood, a white-haired octogenarian reputed to be a raconteur of talent. He’d served as a foreign correspondent at A-list publications and later held an academic post at our university. He was in a rocking chair. We were sitting in his office that afternoon because our daughter was a Peace Corps volunteer at a village in Mali and we had decided to go see her. He was the only person we knew who could give us tips about going to West Africa.
“You’ll want to check out Timbuktu,” he said, “if only to say you’ve been there.”
“You’ve been there, of course,” my wife said.
The sage took a swallow of iced tea from the tall, condensation-fogged glass on the table beside him. He rubbed his right forearm and glanced at it tenderly. He rocked back and forth in the chair, producing squeaks. “Only once,” he said. “That would have been– Let’s see.” He lifted his eyes to the ceiling as if his vital statistics were posted there. “Must have been around 1970. Definitely a one-stop destination in those days.”
He chuckled and leaned forward. “I can tell you one of the more unexpected happenings of the twenty-first century is the renaissance of Timbuktu. When I saw the town, it was a scattering of mud and limestone huts with one remarkable feature: the Sankoré Mosque. That was built of mud with timbers sticking out−−it looked like a terrified cat. Every year or so men climbed onto the timbers to freshen the walls, slap new mud on them.
“Who knew back then that all over the town−−in fact, throughout that whole section of the Sahel−−wealthy families had priceless Arabic manuscripts from Timbuktu’s heyday as one of the great seats of sixteenth century learning? The army of the Sultan of Morocco had invaded the place−−a dispute, I believe, over control of a desert salt-mining town−−and laid waste to it. That caused the families to hide or bury their manuscripts. They’ve come to light only in the last few years due to threats by jihadis. Nowadays every two-bit foundation with pretensions of intellectual heft has sent money to build libraries in the Sahara. You really must go.”
“What took you there?” I asked. That set him off as I hoped it would. No point in visiting a raconteur if he doesn’t relate a tale.
“Roving correspondent,” he said. “I was hanging around the desert, contemplating Timbuktu. Strange thing. You think you’re the only scribbler in two thousand square miles and suddenly you bump into colleagues. In Bamako I stumbled onto– What was her name? Hmm. Maybe Heather Something. Heather was a travel writer, producing a piece or two a week for a series that headlined her wearing a pith helmet. Like Henry Morton Stanley. That pith helmet cracked me up.
“Together we stumbled onto– What the hell was his byline?” He looked again at the ceiling as if checking every byline he’d encountered in all his years in the game. “Brubb. No. Bruce. Bruce Whatsis, a buccaneer-scribbler, a wild man. Some of the best correspondents are like that: crazy.
“We were drinking together in some dive. Then suddenly we’d decided to attack Timbuktu together. Heather needed to say she’d been there, wanted a photo of herself leaning against the Sankoré with that helmet on her head. I had in mind a story of the three Europeans who had entered the fabled city: the poor Gordon Laing, a Brit who got there first, discovered it was not the city of gold it was reputed to be and was killed by his guide a night or two after he left; Rene Caillié who walked in from the west, purporting to be born a Muslim but raised in France; and Heinrich Barth, the great German explorer who discovered the Tarikh al-Sudan while he was there. Bruce came along because of Heather. He was more interested in getting her than getting the story. She made it difficult for him by claiming to be a lesbian, but not in a way that made you believe her.
“We rented a Land Rover. Bruce drove across the Sahel, straight down the middle of the highway like a guided missile. When we passed women carrying loads on their heads and babies on their backs, they were just a blur. Ditto guys in carts drawn by donkeys. I kept my eyes closed half the time. Heather’s fingernails bit into my forearm as she hung on. A guy like Bruce scares you to death, but somehow he gets you there.
“We stopped the first night at a hotel in Mopti, a mud-colored town. Bruce and I spent what was left of the afternoon in the pool. Heather read on a tanning rack. At dinner she regaled us with what she’d learned. Seems a Volkswagen bug had been found partially buried in the desert. The travelers who owned it apparently got lost. In some parts of the Sahara you can veer a couple of miles off the track and find yourself hopelessly lost.
“It turned out they were Germans: a woman and two men, all in their mid-twenties. Their jerry cans of water and gasoline were empty. They’d died terrible deaths from starvation and thirst. Police discovered that there had been four travelers. A second woman had somehow disappeared.
“You’d have thought that woman was Heather’s sister. She couldn’t stop wondering about her. Had she gone to find the piste, gotten separated from the others, and what? Died? Had winds blown sand over her body? Or had she been captured by Tuaregs, nursed back to health, and – what? Heather shuddered as she told us. ‘That poor woman,’ she kept saying.
“At breakfast it turned out she had dreamed about the woman. ‘I like to think she’s alive,” Heather informed us. Bruce looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“We arrived in Timbuktu, less disappointed with it than Major Laing, but nonetheless let down. It was a dusty, yellow-baked town on the edge of the desert, a small place of broad vistas and narrow alleyways, a town used to hiding its secrets. The end of the world, but also the center of one. It was about two in the afternoon. We found a small hotel off the main square.
“Our first order of business: ice cold beer on the hotel’s back terrace, sitting under a sagging stretch of canvas . The terrace overlooked a green oasis on the left, a water hole on the right. Heather went to nap. We agreed to meet at 5:00 for dinner.
“’You think I should try to score with the chick?’ Bruce asked.
“’I’d let her catch some winks,’ I said.
“A Tuareg led his camels to the water hole, a long blue scarf wrapped about his neck. Once the camels were drinking, the guy shed his outer robes and still partly clothed stepped into the water to bathe. Suddenly Bruce vaulted off the terrace, danced up to the Tuareg and started interviewing him in bad French. What the hell was this? A man at the waterhole interview?”
The sage laughed heartily at that. We joined him. He took another swallow of iced tea and leaned forward, his hand outstretched to us.
“I mean some guys actually do that kind of stuff. They’ll file, ‘When I was speaking to a Tuareg informant this afternoon…” He laughed again and shook his head.
“We rendezvoused with Heather about 4:30/5:00. She reported that her room was rustic, dark, the walls of a rough-finished mud-cement. The bed was hard; the pillows smelled of spices that swirled through her dreams.
“’Dreams already’ Bruce asked.
“’Of the German girl,’ Heather said.
“We walked into the town, strolled through the market where vendors, all women, checked us out, sitting with their goods spread out before them on cloths. These days those women would all be using cell phones,” the sage said. “How’s that for change?”
The sage took another swallow of iced tea and emptied his glass. His wife came forward with a pitcher and replenished his drink. She offered refills for us, but we didn’t need them yet. Relubricated, the sage continued,
“Among the market stalls boys played soccer with oranges. Some boys were light-skinned and well-dressed; others were black and all but naked.
“We walked through the square, had tea at a teashop, and chatted. We watched locals cross the open space, some of them strolling, others, heavy-set, dark skinned men, carrying animal skins of water. Droplets dripped from the skins. ‘Slaves,’ I said to Bruce.
“I suggested, ‘You should interview them.’
“’Good idea,’ he said.
“Drinking tea, we gazed at the buildings across the square. Bruce had begun telling us an involved story about some exploit. As my attention wandered, I noticed standing in the doorway of one of the buildings was a woman in a hijab whose skin seemed as white as Heather’s. I also noticed that Heather had seen her. Then the woman went back inside the house.
“Heather kept staring across the square with only one thought in her mind: The German girl, the German girl, the woman she’d dreamed of. The young woman she had seen: was that the German girl? I knew she was concocting scenarios. Had the girl been found wandering among sand dunes? Or had she been forcibly taken from her companions in the Volkswagen, nursed back to health, and then somehow brought−−or sold−−to this place? Was she a slave or someone’s second or third wife?
“Bruce droned on and on. Heather did not mention what she had seen. She knew Bruce and I would laugh at her. Neither would I reveal that I had seen the woman. That would only make Heather think we should do something. She would dine off this story back in the States. She wanted it to be fascinating.
“We walked back to the hotel for a dinner of couscous on the hotel terrace. While we ate, Heather hardly spoke. ‘Timbuktu cat got your tongue?’ Bruce asked her. ‘You a happy camper?’
“’The bread tastes of sand,’ she said.
“’So does the couscous,” said Bruce. ‘So will the pudding and the tea when they come.’
“Heather smiled, shrugged. All she could think of was the woman she had seen, the German girl. She asked, ‘Do either of you speak German?’
“’Nein,’ said Bruce for both of us. Then he asked, ‘If the German girl wanders again through your dreams, you want us to speak to her in her native tongue?’
“’I want to find out what happened to her.”
“We said goodnight and agreed to meet for breakfast. Bruce and I shared a room. The heat was even thicker than outside. When Bruce turned on the air-conditioner, it sputtered, coughed water, and quit on us. He got a fan at the reception, the only one available. It had no plug. He cut the insulation from the copper wires and stuck the wires into the plug. I expected the wall to explode. But voila, circulating hot air.
At breakfast I laid out my plan for the day: visit the town’s three mosques, especially the Sankoré which dated from the 1320s and had also been a university, then check out the house where Gordon Laing stayed. If they wanted to come with me, I’d be glad to have company. We agreed to hang together.
“As he buttered a roll, Bruce remarked, ‘You guys notice the white girl on the square yesterday while we were having tea?’
“So he had done more than talk about himself. ‘What white girl?’ I asked.
“’On the square. She was watching us from a doorway in that two-story house.’
“’Must be a Berber,” I said. ‘Some Berbers are very light-skinned.’
“’Berber, my ass,’ exclaimed Bruce. ‘This girl was white enough to be your sister.’
“’I didn’t see her,’ I said. I didn’t want my day hijacked by this.
“’Heather saw her.’ Bruce said. ‘Didn’t you?” He gazed at her. ‘You were eyeballing her practically the whole time we were there.’
“Heather acknowledged seeing the woman. But more importantly, she claimed, the woman had seen us. ‘If you knew I saw her,’ she challenged Bruce, ‘why didn’t you say something?”
“’I wanted to see what you’d do.’
“’I felt strongly that she wanted to connect with us.’
“’I’m not playing this hand,’ I said. This would disrupt the trip.
“Bruce ignored me and looked intently at Heather. He started to lay a foundation for acting. ‘America’s the indispensable country,’ he said quietly. Heather nodded. ‘You’re interested in human rights. Correct?’ She nodded again. ‘Then in this deal we’re the indispensable people. We’ve got to help her.’
“’No, we don’t!’ I was surprised to hear myself almost shouting. My paper was not going to have to bail me out of some altercation in Timbuktu. I could get transferred back to the home office for that.
“’Of course, we do,’ said Bruce. ‘She’s one of us. The German girl. She doesn’t belong here.’
“’We mind our own fucking business!’ I said, my voice almost a growl, very low, very controlled and very determined. More calmly I added, ’We know nothing about her. Except she’s not German. Not who she is. Not why she’s here. Not who she’s under the protection of.’”
“’The protector may be a slaver,’ said Heather. ‘Women have inalienable—‘
“Can that,’ I ordered. “Every woman in this society is under the protection of some man. And we’re not going to interfere with that.’
“’I say we walk through the square,” Bruce suggested. “If we see her, we’ll play it by ear.”
“No! The whole thing could blow up in our faces.’
“’Calm down, man,’ Bruce said. ‘I thought a guy working for your paper would have balls.’
“’I have ‘em. And I want to keep ‘em.’
“’Let’s relax,’ said Heather. ‘We’re just gonna walk through the square.’
“’I’m taking the Rover,’ I said, ‘and driving to Sankoré. I’ll hope to see you there.” I started away from the table, then turned back, my index finger pointed at Bruce. ‘You report the story, buddy-boy. You are not the story.’ I turned to Heather. ‘If your German girl disappeared off some sand dune, don’t think you couldn’t disappear off the streets of this place and get sold to a brothel in a country you never heard of.’”
The sage came out of his story and turned to us. “You must think I got pretty excited there.”
We nodded. What else could we think?
“Well,” he said, “I was the pro. I wasn’t gonna let a couple of crazies, a wild man journalist and this aspirant Martha Gellhorn in a pith helmet entangle me in some kind of nitwit scheme. They understood nothing about the society. Whatever they were contemplating would lead at least to some kerfuffle, maybe to danger.” He shook his head. “We’re the indispensable people. My god!”
He continued to shake his head and went back to rocking.
“On my way to the Rover I stopped by the hotel manager’s office. The manager looked up from his desk with a smile. “Oui, Monsieur?” he said.
“I made a little conversation to establish a modicum of trust. Then I very quietly remarked that my friends thought they had seen a white woman, a European, in one of the houses on the square. Was that possible? Could she be an anthropologist? Was she living there? The manager frowned. ‘Pardon, Monsieur? Je m’excuse.’ So I repeated the question. An anthropologist perhaps? A journalist? The manager assured me that there was no such woman in Timbuktu. He would know. Hoteliers kept abreast of such news, he said.
“We met up at the Sankoré Mosque and walked together to see the house where Laing lived. Bruce and Heather had walked through the square, but nothing was said about Heather’s German girl so I assumed they had not seen her.
We got along harmoniously during the day, having a bit of lunch at a stall. So late in the afternoon I allowed myself to be maneuvered back to the teashop on the square. We ordered tea and I excused myself to go find a loo.
As I returned to join the others, I caught sight of Heather striding quickly across the square. This cannot be good, I thought. I stopped to watch her. She marched to the house where she had seen the woman, went to the door, and rapped on it. No answer. She waited and knocked again. Finally an older woman opened it. Heather spoke to her, holding her hands over her lower abdomen, bending slightly, and pushed her way inside.
When I rejoined Bruce, I thought maybe it was best not to let on what I had seen. ‘She gone to the ladies?’ I asked.
“’I guess,’ said Bruce. ‘I looked away for a minute and she was gone. Just disappeared. Like that German girl.’
“’Some day someone will find that woman’s body,’ I said. I had heard the story in Bamako. ‘Germans are reasonably sure she went for help−−a desperate measure−−got lost in the desert and was too weak to survive.’
“’Can’t imagine trying to cross the Sahara in a VW bug.’ said Bruce. ‘Like they were two couples out for a drive in the Vienna woods.’.
“’People are crazy.’
We got more hot water for our tea and watched the life of the square. Again well dressed, light-skinned kids were kicking oranges around with nearly naked guys with deeply black skins. I wondered at what age that stopped.
Suddenly across the square Heather emerged from the house, almost stumbling. She started off, limping slightly, moving toward the east end of the square. Bruce and I stared at her.
“’I guess she didn’t go to the ladies,’ said Bruce.
“I asked, ‘Should we go after her? She’s limping.’
“’She’s acting.’
“’Acting?’ I challenged. ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’
“’Maybe she’ll explain at dinner.’
“As soon as we sat down for dinner, I asked, ‘So what happened there?’
“Heather said, ‘I knocked on the door as a damsel in distress.’ Bruce laughed. I shook my head. ’I feigned menstrual cramps,’ Heather explained. ‘I held my lower stomach and wore a pained expression. “Je cherche un médecin feminin,” I said. “J’ai besoin d’un médecin feminin.” The woman who answered the door was baffled. She went to fetch someone.’ Heather grinned. “Guess who appeared.”
“I ventured, ‘Not a feminine doctor.’
“’The lady herself,’ guessed Bruce.
“’No hijab,’ said Heather. ‘Blonde hair.’
Bruce laughed. ‘And you shit.’
“’I hurried to her and said, “You speak English? Parlez-vous français?’“ She shook her head.
“’Did she understand you?’ I asked.
“’She said something that must have been German.”
“’C’mon,’ I said.. ‘You’ve heard enough German to know how it sounds.’
“’I was just a little scared,’ Heather insisted. ‘I heard people coming. So I said, “Tomorrow morning! Demain matin!” Then the woman who answered the door came in with a man. He glared at me, took the German woman by the arm and pushed her out of the room, shouting at her.’
“I asked, ‘What he said: did that sound like the language she used with you?’
“’Maybe. I don’t know. I was wondering what would happen when he came back.’
“When he did come back, Heather explained, she feigned menstrual cramps even more exaggeratedly. He was a Tuareg and he seemed to know she was feigning. Heather repeated her queries for ‘un médecin pour une femme.’ The man said, ‘Demandez au bureau de tourisme’ and pushed her toward the door. Heather fell. On the floor she looked around and saw the German girl watching her from a doorway. They made eye-contact. The Tuareg woman saw that contact and hurried to block the doorway. The man grabbed Heather by the arm, raised her to her feet, and pushed her out the door.
“’Did he hurt you?’ I asked. ‘You came out of there limping.’
“‘I had to look like I needed a doctor.’
“‘Where were you headed?’
“‘Toward the tourism office.’
“The waiter appeared with our entrées.
“’You think it’ll be sand for dinner again?’ wondered Bruce.
“I asked, ’And what was “tomorrow morning” supposed to mean?’
“Heather shrugged. ‘The words just popped out.’
“’In two languages!’ I said.
“’It’s the German girl!’ Heather said.
“’You don’t know who she is,’ I replied, trying to speak calmly. ‘I made some inquiries from people who should know. It’s not a German woman. Or Dutch. Or Scandinavian. Or Belgian.’
“’I saw her,’ insisted my infernal friend. ‘She had blonde hair.’
“’So…’ I said, ‘peroxide has come to Timbuktu. That’s the rational explanation. She’s a rebellious teen who’s dyed her hair and would do anything to escape this nothing place before she’s married off as some sheik’s fourth wife.’
“’Balls,’ said Bruce.
“’You don’t think there are teenage girls in this nothing place who want to be American rock stars?’
“’Undoubtedly,’ agreed Bruce. ‘There must be creatures on the moon who want to be American rock stars.’
“’If you get her, you won’t know what to do with her,’ I argued. Bruce and Heather glanced at one another. ‘You can’t take her to the American embassy and stuff her in a closet.’ Bruce smiled at that. ‘Just please understand that,’ I said, ‘in case you are thinking of rescuing her.’
“’How would we do that?’ Bruce asked. ‘Are you crazy?’
“’We’re not kidnapping anyone.’ Heather reassured me. Then she added, ‘You guys ready for a walk?’
“We were. I led the way being damn sure we stayed away from the square.”
The sage rocked in his chair. It went squeak-squeak-squeak as it advanced slowly across the floor. By now he was totally into his tale, hardly looking at us.
“That night,” he went on, “Bruce came out of the bathroom from brushing his teeth. He’d slicked back his hair. I was already in bed. “I think I may pay a little visit down yonder,’ he said. ‘My masculine identity demands I try.’
“I had to laugh. Lovemaking in this heat put masculine identity to a real test. So did trying it with a self-described lesbian. ‘Good luck,’ I said. ‘I’ll want a full report.’ Bruce grabbed a bottle of whiskey he carried in his duffel, flicked off the light, and slipped out of the room.
“As dawn was breaking, i woke and glanced over at the room’s other bed. Hadn’t been slept in. I smiled to myself. Some Casanova. I lay back to get more sleep. Suddenly sat up. I thought: No! I’d wakened in the night to use the loo. Going there, I saw Bruce in his bed, heard him lightly snoring.
“I put my feet on the floor and stared at the bed. It had been slept in, but Bruce had pulled the covers up to the pillow. I glanced at the table between the beds. The keys to the Rover were gone. Suddenly I understood: Bruce had not gone down the hall to make a conquest. He had gone to plan an operation with Heather. Together they would decide how to undertake “tomorrow morning, demain matin.” I realized that “tomorrow morning” was going on right now.
“I threw on a pair of chinos and sandals and started from the hotel. I ran through narrow streets still shadowy with darkness. When I reached the square, I was breathing hard. I stopped to catch my breath, to get my bearings. I saw the Rover parked before the house that Heather had entered the previous afternoon. The motor was running. I hurried toward it.
“Nearing it, I heard a scream. I began to run. I saw a woman, dressed in robes, trying to scramble into the Rover. A Tuareg woman was tugging at her robes. Heather and Bruce were trying to pull that woman off. Two Tuareg men rushed from the house. One grabbed the fleeing woman. He pulled off her hijab, and there was her blonde hair. The other guy grabbed Heather to pull her into the house. Bruce released the woman. He spun at the man pulling Heather.
“I flung myself onto this man. Together Bruce and I freed Heather. I pushed her into the Rover. Bruce turned toward the Tuaregs. One of them pulled out a dagger. Its blade flashed in the sun. I jammed the flat of my palm into Bruce’s face. I pushed him toward the open door of the Rover. One Tuareg pulled the blonde woman into the house. The other slashed at us with his dagger. I ran to the driver’s side, jumped into the Rover. I began to pull away. Bruce raced beside the vehicle. He jumped in. I spun a U-turn in the middle of the square and sped away.
“While driving, I saw blood on my chinos. I realized the dagger had slashed my arm. I pulled off my tee shirt and wrapped it about the wound.
“At the hotel we threw bills enough to cover the lodging at the night clerk just going off duty. We got our belongings. We shoved them into the vehicle and scrambled in. I held the tee shirt to my arm and Bruce raced us out of town, driving again like a guided missile.”
The sage set down his glass of iced tea, now empty. He stopped rocking. He began to roll up the sleeve of his right arm and pushed it up to his bicep. He held the arm out to us. A scar ran across his forearm for two inches below the elbow. “My souvenir of Timbuktu,” he said.
“Was it the German girl?” my wife asked.
“Could be,” said the sage. “I have no idea. Think of her every time this damn thing pains me.” He shrugged. “Talk about the mysteries of Timbuktu! Even now that tech modernity has hit it. Whoever she was, she was one of those mysteries.”