By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

5. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 136-165

Henderson the Rain King12
Henderson gives up on the dead body problem and spends the rest of the night outside."I was aware of a great peculiarity either in myself or in the day, or in both. I must have been getting the fever from which I was to suffer for a while. It was accompanied by a scratchy sensation in my bosom, a little like eagerness or longing."

The village begins to come to life for what seems to be a day of festival. Finally a group of "women of unusual stature, the female soldiers or amazons of the king," approaches, beating drums and accompanying a "heavily built man" underneath a large umbrella. There is another umbrella that turns out to be for Henderson. The man is Horko, the uncle of the king, and he speaks English. Henderson joins the entourage, which heads toward the palace. Romilayu, staggering under the weight of their gear, follows.

As they approach the palace, Henderson sees bodies hanging upside down from a scaffold. "It was no wonder they hadn't made any inquiry about their corpse. What was one corpse to them? They appeared to deal in them wholesale." But when Henderson mentions them to Horko, he gets no response. They arrive at the palace, which "was three stories high with open staircases and galleries, quadrangular and barnlike. At ground level the rooms were doorless, like narrow stalls, open and bare. Here there could be no mistake about it -- I heard the roar of a wild beast underneath. No creature but a lion could possibly make such a noise."

Before meeting the king, Horko has a bridge table brought out and serves food to Henderson. "I ate some sweet potatoes and drank the pombo, a powerful beverage which immediately acted on my legs and knees.... Half hopefully I thought I was going to be sick. I cannot endure such excitement as I then felt." Finally they climb the stairs and reach the other side of the building were some men were hoisting large stones into the branches of a tree. Horko explains that "these stones were connected with clouds for the rain they expected to make in the ceremony soon to come." Henderson notes that the sky is clear. "There were only, so far, these round boulders in the branches, apparently intended to represent rain clouds."

When they reach the king's quarters, Horko leaves and one of the amazons conducts Henderson into the room. "Before I saw Dahfu himself, I was aware of numbers of women -- twenty or thirty, was my first estimate -- and the density of naked women, their volupté (only a French word would do the job here), pressed upon me from all sides. The heat was great and the predominant odor was feminine. The only thing I could compare it to in temperature and closeness was a hatchery."

Dahfu is stretched out on a long sofa on the other side of the room. He has a "well-developed athletic body" and is "six feet or better by my estimate, and sumptuously at rest. Women attended to his every need." Henderson is seated on a stool about five feet away from the king, and between them is a bowl containing two human skulls. Dahfu says, "Do not feel alarm. These are for employment in the ceremony of this afternoon."

Henderson extends greetings from Itelo, and when Dahfu asks if they wrestled and who won, replies, "We came out about even." Dahfu says, "I could not throw him, which gave him very high pleasure." Again feigning modesty, Henderson says, "I'm beginning to feel my age," which Dahfu says is "nonsense. I think you are like a monument. Believe me, I have never seen a person of your particular endowment." He reassures Henderson that they won't have to wrestle.

"You are my first civilized visitor," he tells Henderson, indicating that they prefer to remain secluded. Henderson thinks "there was something about this man that gave me the conviction that we could approach ultimates together." Then Dahfu asks for "a candid answer to the question I am about to put.... Do you envy me?" Henderson stumbles for an answer, then observes that Dahfu's people seem to value him highly and tend to his every need.

Dahfu then reveals that when he begins to show signs of weakness, the women who attend on him will report it to the Bunam, the chief priest, and that the priests will take him out to the bush and strangle him. The priest will then wait until a maggot appears on the king's body, wrap it in silk and show it to the people as the king's soul. And after while, the priest will go back into the bush and return with a lion cub, telling the people that the king's soul has entered into a lion. And finally, a successor will be named and the story will be told that the lion has become the new king.

Henderson brings up the matter of the corpse in his hut, and Dahfu seems to be indignant about it. He assures Henderson that as far as he knows, there's no significance in it, and apologizes for it, but asks no further questions about who the dead man might have been. Henderson notes, "I was so glad to escape the anxiety of the thing that at the time I didn't note this peculiar lack of interest." He accepts Dahfu's invitation to stay in the palace, but when he says, "I keep hearing a lion," Dahfu changes the subject with the old bothersome question: "What brings you here to us, Mr Henderson?" And when Henderson replies, "I am just a traveler," Dahfu follows up with "What kind of traveler are you?"
"Oh ... that depends. I don't know yet. It remains to be seen. You know," I said, "you have to be very rich to take a trip like this." I might have added, as it entered my mind to do, that some found satisfaction in being.... Being. Others were taken up with becoming. Being people have all the breaks. Becoming people are very unlucky, always in a tizzy.... Now Willatale, the queen of the Arnewi, and principal woman of Bittahness, was a Be-er if there ever was one. And at present King Dahfu. And if I had really been capable of the alert conscousness which it required I would have confessed that Becoming was beginning to come out of my ears. Enough! Enough!  Time to have Become. Time to Be! Burst the spirit's sleep. Wake up, America! Stump the experts. Instead I told this savage king, "I seem to be a kind of tourist."

"Or a wanderer," he said. "I already am fond of a diffident way which I see you to exhibit."
Henderson is stymied, and for a moment tries to summon up a sense of superiority: "I was among savages." But it is the king who observes, "I will not conceal you are a specimen of development I cannot claim ever to have seen."  And Henderson begins to "sweat anew with anxiety." He tells Dahfu that he thinks he is running a fever, but Dahfu observes that he is sweating. He also confides about the broken bridge, that he has "a pretty bad case of hemorrhoids" and is "subject to fainting fits." But it isn't epilepsy, he says, when the king asks if it's "petit mal or grand mal." To himself he reflects that his fainting seems to be "perversity of character ... my heart so often repeated I want, that I felt entitled to a little reprieve, and I found it very restful to pass out once in a while."

The king's scrutiny has made him so nervous that he tries to escape: "I know you are planning to make rain today and probably I will only be in the way. So thanks for the hospitality of the palace, and I wish you all kinds of luck with the ceremony, but I think after lunch my man and I had better blow." The king is having none of it and insists that he stay for the ceremonies, which are about to begin. And so he is forced to accompany the entourage as the king is carried in a hammock to the event.

Along the way, the king mentions that the Arnewi "have a difficulty of water," and Henderson has a panicky moment when he thinks word has reached the king of his disaster with the cistern, but he says only that they seem to have been unlucky in that matter. Dahfu observes, "A legend exists that we were once the same and one, a single tribe, but separated over the luck question. The word for them in our language is nibai. This may be translated 'unlucky.'" The Wariri "'have luck,' he said. 'Incontrovertibly, it is a fact about the luck. You wouldn't dream how consistent it is.'"

As for the Arnewi, "They have made the impression on you which so commonly they make.... Generous. Meek. Good.... Good impresses you, eh, Mr Henderson?" Henderson assents, and, speaking "with a weird softness or longing," Dahfu goes on:
"They say ... that bad can easily be spectacular, has dash or bravado and impresses the mind quicker than good. Oh, that is a mistake in my opinion. Perhaps of common good it is true. Many, many nice people. Oh yes. Their will tells them to perform good, and they do. How ordinary! Mere arithmetic.... M whole view of life is opposite or contrary, that good cannot be labour or conflict.... A dull will produces a very dull good, of no interest. Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead, a testimonial of the great strength of effort, and only effort."
Enthralled by Dahfu's talk, Henderson starts to question him about Willatale, but is interrupted by the noise of the crowd as they pass through and enter "a stadium -- I stretch the term -- a big enclosure fenced with wood." They take their seats under a canopy with other members of Dahfu's family, as Henderson surmises from their similarity in appearance, and Horko, Dahfu's uncle, approaches them. Then four amazons enter with the bridge table on which are the two skulls, threaded through the eye sockets with long dark blue ribbons.

With Horko and the Bunam, Henderson recognizes the man who had given them directions the day before, who is a "senior priest. Diviner of a sort." The women soldiers begin to fire off guns, and Dahfu tells Henderson they're firing a salute for him and urges him to stand. Henderson thinks, "The word has got around how I dealt with that corpse. They know I'm no Milktoast but a person of strength and courage. Plenty of moxie." So he "uttered a roar like the great Assyrian bull.... I no longer wondered that this Dahfu had come back from civilization to be king of his tribe. Hell, who wouldn't be king, even a small king? It was not a privilege to be missed."

But then a priest is brought forth and ritually slashed with cuts across the chest, which Dahfu reassures Henderson is a "semi-usual" part of the ceremony. The blood "is supposed to induce the heavens also to flow, or prime the pumps of the firmament," a phrase that delights Henderson. The king then gets up and takes his place in the arena, facing a tall woman whose "face was covered with a beautiful design of scars that looked like Braille." And they begin to whirl the skulls around by the ribbons, throwing them in the air and catching them as they come down. "Soon I understood that this wan't only a game, but a contest, and naturally I rooted for the king. I didn't know but what the penalty for dropping one of those skulls might have been death."

Neither of them drops a skull, however, and the king returns. Henderson is exhilarated by the contest and full of praise for the king, but unable to express it until he finally says, "King, I had a feeling that if either of you missed, the consequences would not be pretty." But the king assures him, "'the factor of missing is negligible.... Some day the ribbon will be tied through here.'  With two fingers he pointed to his eyes. 'My own skull will get the air.' He made a gesture of soaring, and said, 'Flying.'" A cow is then sacrificed. "She fell to the ground and died. Nobody took much notice."

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