The Man With No Name sat, seemingly at ease although inside he was anxious. He was nervous in ways he had not been in years, but he hoped that his face did not betray it. He kept the smile playing on his face and his voice even. His father had taught him why sheep did not run from foxes at first sight; foxes never snarled like wolves. They smiled, their small teeth hidden, but needle sharp. The sheep would approach and smile with the fox until the fox’s smile reached all way around their necks. Only then would the sheep panic, by then it was too late.
The Man kept his lips curled. The most dangerous thing in the world, he reminded himself, is a smile.
Every so often, he would take a sip of water from the glass in front of him. He liked the taste of the cool water. It steadied him. He always made sure that he had enough water at every meeting. Water kept his wits clear and his tongue free of truths that did not serve his cause. He also refrained from eating too much from the platters in front of him. He had nibbles here and there of the delicacies that were on offer, but he denied himself the immediate pleasure of indulging in the here and now – he would do that later after all of the dotted lines had the right signatures.
He took another sip of water and looked at The Five in front of him.
The President, with his greying hair struck an impressive figure. He had a wise and kind look about him, the kind that little children loved hearing old tales from. He had small wrinkles around his eyes, crinkling whenever he smiled. His voice was soft but when he spoke it was arresting. To the untrained ear, his voice was hypnotic. He had seen The President in action; when he spoke violent mobs put down their arms and went home to their wives and children, the sun came out and the stock exchange went up two points. The President looked at him with a friendly face, open and happy. He sipped his water and smiled back.
The President had relaxed and enjoyed more and more of the food on offer as the meeting had gone on. Who could blame him? The Struggle had denied him few enough pleasures. He sipped cordially at the wine and ate heartily when the food was served.
On the President’s right sat The Soldier, a tall man, bald of head and broad of shoulder. He rarely smiled and only spoke when a question was put to him. His moustache was trimmed to savage accuracy, not a hair was out of place. His eyes had a determined look to them, intelligent and cunning. When The Man made eye contact with The Soldier, it was hard to picture a man and not a wolf, cold and calculating. The Man met his gaze, wolf and fox measuring each other up. The Man decided to break the gaze, submitting to the more intense gaze of the wolf. Submission was not always taught to people. It was a cowardly thing some said. Calculated, voluntary and self-serving submission was an asset, the Man reminded himself.
By the end of the meeting, the wolf would yield to the fox.
The Soldier had eaten little and drank less. The Man was not afraid of him though, wolves hunted in packs. This one was separated from his at the moment. The Man sipped his water again and looked at The Woman to The President’s left.
She was small, her hair falling all the way down to her neck in long thin braids. She had wooden earrings she had told him were made by some grandmother of hers from up North but he had forgotten from where exactly. She was beautiful. That was the only word that came into his head whenever he thought of her. From the “b” to the last letter of the word, she was utterly beautiful. In a different time and a different place, he would have made advances on her. For now though, he looked at The Woman and gave her his most ingratiating smile. She blushed.
The Woman was one amongst four men; she had fought tooth and nail to be included amongst The Five. She was a fast thinker and she had a creative intelligence behind her beautiful eyes. But The Man had seen how her mind had slowly been dulled by being amongst The Five. She was too new to power, the air at the top too rich and intoxicating. Once sharp and determined, she had grown lax and the fervour of her cause had waned.
All she had left was her looks. The Man preferred it that way. Sheep he could master. Lionesses were another matter.
His eyes moved on to the man next to her, The Judge. Older than The President, his hair was a grey tangle of wisdom and experience. His voice was hoarse but forceful and every word he spoke was justice – when he was awake to give it. In his younger days he could scorch the Earth with his judgments, so full of learned authority. As he grew older, his power had waned, his rules becoming out-dated as time took its toll. Still, The People had a near devout belief in him so it was necessary to include him amongst The Five.
The last man, next to the Soldier, was well and thoroughly drunk. The Artist had been drinking too much of the wine and his speech had gradually slurred to the point of incoherence. He laughed at things that were not amusing and spoke to people no one at the table could see. Yet, when he was sober, he sang, wrote and painted with a captivating power that was unmatched. The Artist put colour, texture, words and sound to dreams people only imagined. The Man looked at him and smiled, the Artist did not know how important he would be in the near future.
The Man sipped his water and cast his eye to the single page in front of him.
The page was the reason for this meeting. It was the last in a long line of pages of The Agreement that would end The Struggle, the costly war that The Five had been fighting for centuries. The Struggle had been costing both sides dearly, and it was important that it end. The Struggle, as The Man and his like had realised long ago, was not profitable. His side did not stand to gain from it in the long run so those like him had grouped together and looked for a solution to the problem. It was important that the solution be aesthetically acceptable – no one ever questioned the quality of canvas as long as the oil painting was captivating.
The Agreement was just that. It marked the end of The Struggle. That is why he was here. He had to make sure that The Struggle and all of the ideas that it spread were brought under control before it became something more tangible. It was important to stop The Struggle before it became The Change.
It was why he had invited The Five to the Losers’ Feast to celebrate the end of The Struggle. The page before him would confirm defeat. He eyed them, took a sip of his water and smiled.
He had always known The Struggle would overtake them at some point. The most he could hope for was to keep it at bay temporarily, but he had always known that it would eventually bury him if he did not take measures. He had known that sooner or later he would have to yield to The Struggle. It was not a force that he could fight with gunpowder alone. He only had to look at The Soldier and realise that.
No, The Struggle was not to be fought, it had to be negotiated with, it had to be rubbed in all the right places to soothe it, to push it in the direction that he wanted it to go. It had been necessary to sacrifice and lose some things to The Struggle otherwise The Five would not have bought into The Agreement. The Man had been careful not to lose anything he did not need or anything he could not get back. He sipped his water and looked at the page. Soon, The Five would sign.
“The names of the streets must change, along with the towns and the cities. I must make a speech to let the people know that The Struggle was over and tell them why they must follow me.” The President had demanded that and The Man had written it down. The names of the streets would change. The buildings would be renamed and the old statues would be pulled down. The Man had only been too eager to yield.
“Your armies must disband. I will tell you when.” The Soldier had spat that out with such severity the air around his lips had seemed to crackle. The Man had only obliged and written the demand down. Not all wars are fought with guns, he had thought to himself when he had penned The Agreement.
“I demand that the women receive equal treatment. That is what I want.” the Woman had stated. When she had said it, some of her old bite had returned to her, but it was a shadow of its former self. The Man willingly wrote it down. Equality was a short and easy word.
“The new laws must of course be written down. They must be in a place where everyone can see them.” The Judge had said this, nodding his head in his ancient wisdom. What was written down was the law, and The Man put pen to paper without so much as a look back.
“We shall need a new national anthem, and we need to sing a few songs to sing of the sweet sorrow of The Struggle. We must make a new identity for ourselves. We shall be who we say we are.” The Artist had said earlier before he had started inhaling wine glass after wine glass. The Man had sipped his water and recorded his wishes diligently.
The Five had made other demands and wishes, The Man had acquiesced to all of them. He had argued against a few of them with anger and venom, but in the end, he had folded to all of them. He knew the kinds of things that they would ask for so he had no problem in giving them up. He let The Five have the what, the who, the why and the when, even the where.
Now it was his turn to make a demand.
The man sipped at his water. He picked up the paper and passed it to The Judge. He looked at The Agreement with practiced eyes, looking to see if there were any snares in the wording and the phrasing. He did not see any traps that his old legal mind could come up with so he signed and passed it to The Woman.
She looked at it, and failing to see how her interests were impaired, signed The Agreement and handed it to The President. He looked at the paper, frowning at the triviality of the demand. He smiled at The Man who smiled back. He signed and slid the page to the Soldier.
The Soldier barked out a laugh when he read it and put pen to paper quickly. He looked at the Man and laughed again. The wolf looked at the fox and laughed at the foolishness. The Soldier passed the paper to The Artist, who signed without looking at them, his eye on his wine glass. If the other four had signed, surely there was no reason to distrust their judgment. He shuffled the paper and passed it back to The Man.
The Man took the paper and looked at it to verify that everyone had signed it. Satisfied that all was in order he smiled a big smile – a foxy smile. Once the signatures had been collected, there was no going back on The Agreement. From this moment on, each and every provision would be enforced honestly by each of the parties to it, for it was their own interests that they were protecting – there would be no breaking of The Agreement.
The Five across him smiled at him, happy that The Struggle was over. They had been praying for this day for years and now it had finally come. They hugged each other and shook hands. They all emphatically shook hands with The Man and congratulated him on bringing into effect a mutually beneficial agreement.
He smiled at all of them and offered words of praise to each of them. He reached for his glass and proposed a toast.
“Here’s to the new Africa” he said. They all drank deeply.
And that is how the fox got the sheep to build their own prison. For on that day, The Five signed an agreement that they did not pen themselves and failed to look past the full stops of their own demands. Right down at the bottom, written in fine print was a one sentence demand, simple in its construction but complex in its implications:
“The who, the what, the why, the when and the where are all yours. Let me show you the how.”
The names of the streets changed but the sheep did not know how to build their own. The speeches were made but the sheep did not know how to spread the word. The armies were scattered at the allotted date at time, but the Soldier did not know how to assemble his own. He did not know how to arm them either.
The woman was given her equality; The Man had written it on a piece of paper and gave it to her. She did not know how to make it come to life. The Judge got his laws, but did not know how to make them work. The artist got his songs and his paints, but when he ran out of them, he did not know how to make more.
Years later, The Man sat back and smiled, richer and fatter than he had ever been. “They always see the façade but never ask how it got there.”
For what The Man had done was ingenious. He had removed the essential ingredient of The Change: how to bring it about.
Author’s note: If you managed to pick out all of the sly inferences in this, then you should award yourself with a cold beer, or by buying a car. Whatever. Reward yourself. I merely ask that you question how that beer was made, how the car came to be there. I find that it is the how that really teaches you about the world. As my father always tells me, “Knowledge is the most democratic power.”