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  • Blood Guitar
  • Richard Douglass-Chin (bio)

Liberia, Grain Coast

He is carving the mask for a man named Pablo but he does not understand this yet, even though he is an initiate of the highest order of the clan. He is a god-maker. He is studying at the masters’ school for apprentices, and he is not yet ready for the rites, but the nature of his dream has caused his teacher, after much deliberation, to waive all proscriptions restricting the age of a boy to sixteen rainy seasons before he can undergo the initiation. The boy must go into the forest. He must make the mask and relay the dream.

There will be a man named Pablo, who is now also only a boy, and who lives in Málaga, a port town across the Great Desert to the far north, across the sea, on another continent. Every morning the boy named Pablo looks south over the Mediterranean toward the Moroccan coast. The year is 1891. South of Morocco, as the bird flies, the boy Pablo imagines the Sahara, and then the jungle of the interior of the great, brooding continent. Across the Sahara, a day or two inland from the roiling coast where Africa meets the Atlantic, there is a boy in Liberia who is dreaming of him. The Liberian boy does not know that he is Liberian. He lives in the forest, and carves his mask, and thinks that he is a Grebo boy. He does not know that a government has been formed in a new coastal town just southwest of his village and that the town has been named Monrovia, after an American president. He does not know where America is. The government at Monrovia does not know of the boy either, since in the taking of its census, it has not entered the forest to record the names of the bush people. Wood and cowrie shells, pigment, animal hairs, horns, and textiles compose the mask. The tubular eyes frighten. The mask is not complete in itself, but must be mounted and animated inside by a human, the maskmaker. The boy. It is dangerous for another man’s face to come into contact with the inside of the mask, for then that man is transformed into the entity that the mask represents. The mask is a mediator between the worlds of the living and the dead. The mask is the conduit of the dream. The mask is a devil. That is what the people of the coastal town say.

Paris 1906

“In exchange for a couple of drinks that bastard Maurice carried off two Dahomey sculptures and an Ivorian mask,” Pablo laughs. “He sold the mask to André. It was in André’s studio that I saw it.”

Gertrude is sitting sprawl-legged on the settee opposite him, and smoking. “Henri bought one in Emile Heyman’s shop. You know, in the Rue Morgue. He showed it to Guillaume and me just the other day. Disturbing. Impressive.” She exhales.

Maurice had been sipping white wine and seltzer in a bistro in Argenteuil. He had just finished painting the Seine in the blazing sun, had packed up his sweating paints and brushes and canvas and come with his satchel into the cavern of the bistro. He nursed his wine as he sat at the counter amid the raucous laughter of sailors and coal stevedores. There was a shelf behind the bar, and a mirror behind the shelf. [End Page 189] Upon the shelf, among the bottles of Pernod, anisette, and curaçao, stood three sculptures: two Dahomey statuettes, daubed in ochres of red, yellow, and white. The third was a completely black mask, probably Ivorian. Maurice and André had visited the Palais du Trocadéro on a number of occasions. There they had examined the fetishes with intense interest. Which was why Maurice, sitting among the sailors and stevedores in this bistro on the Seine, was able in a moment to identify the statuettes on the shelf, between the Pernod bottles, with the mirror behind them, the statuettes and his own face appraising him. The blistering heat in which he had painted all morning, combined with...


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