MY JOURNEY INTO THE BOTTOMLESS RABBIT-HOLE began when I woke in a mechanical womb filled with red, sticky goo. I know how lucky that must sound, but I hardly feel lucky. Yes, few people can claim to remember their birth; I wish mine worked as a great icebreaker at parties. But I don’t go to parties, so that, like everything in my life, is wasted on me.
In the mechanical womb, I didn’t know where or what I was, but I knew I had to get away immediately. My hands and feet were bound, but I pushed and pulled for what felt like hours. I would’ve drowned if not for the metallic placenta inside my mouth.
Breaking free of the binds was only the beginning, but by then I was too tired to do anything else, let alone fight as the red goo sunk me to the bottom of the womb. As soon as my feet touched the bottom, the top of the pod opened like a sugar bowl. Though tired, I kicked upwards like a swimmer and tried to escape through the opened pod. This was a lot harder than I thought and besides, my dream of escape was immediately shattered when I looked up and saw a black, cockroach-headed machine climb up to look down at me. Its face was ovoid, its eyes red taillights that glowed like peppers. Even now, I shudder whenever I remember the ticking sound of the machine’s teeth and its thorny legs. It pressed some invisible button and round and round the goo spun me to the bottom once again. This time though, all the goo was sucked down through a vent a few inches away from my feet.
The cold air that rushed in hugged me so tightly; I curled near the vent and prayed the vent would take me also. The machine, however, wasn’t done with me yet. I felt small under its glare and wished it would eat me already; get this over with. It did no such thing, a few seconds later, the vent opened and I slid down into a dark tunnel. The placenta made it impossible to scream, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try nonetheless. My struggle to grab onto something, was equally helpless. I closed my eyes and waited for the grinding teeth at the end of this tunnel. The teeth of the mother cockroach-machine. I was instead spat out in a messy splat, like a poorly-flipped omelet landing on the kitchen floor.
I lay on the floor a few seconds before my feet came to life. Around me, a red beacon beamed every three or so seconds. I ignored whatever silent alarm this was.
Shivering, I pulled the placenta out of my mouth. What must’ve been my last meal quickly followed closely behind. It was too dark to see what exactly this meal was, but the idea of sorting through it with my fingers filled me with greater dread. In any case, the air was too thick to breath, I fell to my knees and gasped until my lungs remembered breathing.
When I looked up, I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of glassy wombs like the one I’d awoken from, hanging like cherry tomatoes; all glowing and wet with tears dripping down onto the floor. There was a cruelty to the whole thing which I found exciting. The wombs circled a large, humming mother-hive and were watched-over by hundreds of cockroach-machines.
Still in awe, I didn’t notice two cockroach-machines drop down to stalk me. I ran under the stem of the mother-hive and hid until a man in a white lab-coat pulled me from under the shadows. He carried me across the corridor into an adjoining room. I must’ve weighed very little; he didn’t look the kind capable of carrying anything except his own fragile ego. He was lean, middle-aged and good-looking in a bookwormish way.
He sat me down on a block of white concrete as I fought his embrace. I kicked and clawed, but he didn’t let go until I stopped shaking. He then disappeared into a hidden doorway and returned with a white gown to cover me.
The room was white and spherical like a blank, endless space. The closest thing to windows were tiny wire-meshes placed high above jumping distance. There were countless chrome machines close to where we sat. I couldn’t figure out what these contraptions were so I couldn’t be bothered. In the background, a steady whirring sound chugged along, unconcerned with our tension.
The doctor; Okema Leopold — ‘please call me Leo’ — asked if I remembered anything about my accident?
I couldn’t recall where I’d been before I was here. I said I wanted to go home.
Placing a hand on my shoulders, he asked if I remembered anything about who I was?
I threw my face in my palms.
Your name is Jahzara, he said. You have —
Jah-zsa-rah. . . I tried it on for size but didn’t like the fit.
Leo humoured me and asked what name I liked better.
Despite knowing the name of things; amniotic, spherical, Yggdrasil, the only names I knew were Leo and Jahzara and they were already taken. I couldn’t think of anything else.
Leo went on to ask the same tired questions every doctor asks in this situation; how’s your headache? How do you feel? I bored him with my endless shrugging and silence. I honestly didn’t know what to say. He asked we pick this up another time, but I held onto him and asked he continue.
He apologised and turned towards the chrome machines on the other side of the room. I feared he would leave me alone with the machines standing behind us so I followed after him. I immediately regretted this. I wasn’t ready to see my reflection on the shiny metallic door Leo swung open. I couldn’t believe this was my face. This pale, waxen death mask? This blank, wrinkleless veil? I wasn’t beautiful. I was the other thing. This face didn’t belong to me. Who was this stranger staring back?
I should’ve looked away, but I kept staring. I don’t know why this stranger fascinated me so much. I held on because I needed to feel something other than dread.
I felt dispossessed. It was around this time I remembered how to scream. I don’t even know what I screamed, but it must’ve been loud enough to force the chrome machines to come online. Next thing I knew. two pairs of hands gripped my shoulder and held me still. These hands belonged to machines which looked at least eight feet tall. Their eyes were blank, the ghost of a smile lingering across their faces. They were naked, but in that light, their skin resembled the inside of a spoon. I would’ve dropped my gown and stared at myself, but the machines dragged me away from the room. I struggled like I was drowning, but they wouldn’t let me go.
They dragged me across a glassy maze. Rows of identical, numbered rooms shouldered the narrow space. The humanoids stopped at the furthest end and threw me into a small padded room. They strapped me to the bed.
In that empty hell, a pressurised silence bore down on me, I couldn’t do anything except scream. Leo drugged me and left me blankly staring at the ceiling, screaming within; my mouth gone useless from the paralytic.
Things seemed further away. To pass the time, I named the things in the room. The fluorescent bulb, the chrome-legged bed, the air-filtration hub. The colour of the walls wasn’t cotton white, but alabaster.
Knowing the names of things didn’t tell me anything about myself, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. I needed to distract myself from feeling like I’d woken after years of dreaming.
When I woke again, I was still strapped to the chrome bed. My mouth felt heavy like I’d spent the night chewing on my tongue. My head felt bloated, hormonal. My body an aching husk of needs.
Leo was there every time I woke. I welcomed him by screaming.
It took me a long time to surrender to my new reality. Reality: noun — a hell of one’s own making.
After about a week of staying strapped down in that empty hell, Leo moved our sessions to his office. It was a homey, honey-coloured tomb. A large portrait of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man hang behind his desk. On his desk sat a still pendulum, and framed photographs of his dead wife, Mary.
I remember smiling at the photographs and saying it was cool having a wife named Mary. Like Leo and Mary in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I said.
Leo corrected that it was Marion, not Mary, who was Leopold’s wife.
He said he liked how I was making associations.
Is it all coming back, your memory? He asked.
I said it wasn’t. I didn’t know how I knew these things.
Leo said that was alright. He explained how there are two types of memory; implicit and explicit. Implicit memory is muscle memory. Like brushing your teeth, combing your hair, putting the toilet seat down. With implicit memory you don’t remember these things, you just do them. This, Leo said, was the most important helper, a sort of silent Angel Gabriel.
Explicit memory is what you remember outside of yourself. The Vitruvian Man, Ulysses: things you recognise and pool into general categories.
He added that the more I practised explicit memory, the bigger the web I’d weave. For example, this Vitruvian Man could lead to my school years. To learning all about that and other things.
Leo was confident if I followed the breadcrumbs into the rabbit-hole, I’d remember what the weather was on the night I learnt about Da Vinci. Even what I wore.
Memory is about linkages, he said. It links who you’re with what you’ve been.
That’s what we needed to fix; the telenovela of me, basically.
He encouraged me to define the words that tasted alien. Maybe in defining I could trigger a memory of how that word came to me.
Never mind triggers, I’d rather remember where I was born than what a Vitruvian Man was. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life as an encyclopedia.
I was convinced ‘they’ — Leo and his buddies, had transplanted in me memories that were never mine. I couldn’t imagine it; me, the Vitruvian Man, Ulysses. It didn’t sound anything like me at all. But then again, what did I know.
Leo shook his head, and assured me that mind-uploads were highly speculative, especially with Revivers. He assured there was a logical explanation for all these things I knew. He assumed I had a curious head and studied variedly.
He told me when my accident happened, the cryo-centres in Kampala were still battling the Civic Centre for Revival-licenses. My father, being the man he was, cut the red tape and got the permits needed to move forward with my revival. It was 2045, twenty years later and maybe two million contracts completed, and here I was. The first and last Reviver.
Leo lamented how I could’ve turned out better if I’d died even ten years later than I did.
The joke is on him though. I wouldn’t have turned out better, just different.
Still, Leo assured, how even now, they hadn’t learnt all there was to learn about memory especially. About taste too, as I’d later learn.
He described how when I first came in, the theory was alright, but the practice was wanting. For my mess up, he blamed the geniuses at St. Claire’s. They autopsied me and used glycerol, apparently that’s — whatever! He went on about Eric Drexler and about Engines of Creation. How, by using Drexler’s theories of nanotechnology, they endeavoured to repair the brain damage through molecular nanotechnology. How no other cryo-lab would’ve touched me after the mess at St. Claire’s. Not Phoenix Labs, not AlphaCorp. They had reservations about something called autolysis. They could in theory reverse my death, but not my information-theoretic death. As it so happens, my father wanted Leo to promise ‘full’ revival: body, mind and soul. This was impossible because of St. Claire’s incompetence. Much less so that my brain had suffered something called ischemic injury. There was little cerebral activity, my encephalo-something had flat-lined. I was brain-dead before they even began my revival.
I asked Leo if I even had a soul, seeing as my revival didn’t involve my brain?
My thinking was consciousness housed the soul. And consciousness resides in the brain, right?
Well, apparently not.
Leo explained that long-term memory, personality and identity are stored in durable cell structures and patterns within the brain that don’t require continuous brain activity to survive. He added that they’d restored these encoded memories into ‘functional expression.’
Like any man would, Leo went on and on, never pausing to ask if I got him clearly. It would’ve been a waste to ask me anyway. I understood less and less the more he explained. So much for him saying I had a curious head. It was curious indeed, perhaps he meant vestigial: noun – something resembling gills to a modern-day human.
Leo said he knew how I felt. He added that it would take time to get back my personality, but even that wasn’t a guarantee. He was more interested in me keeping what I remembered and building on that.
Over the next few weeks, we went through every perceivable method of memory-recovery, from Reichian therapy, to Freudian subconscious theory. Image streaming, to even Jungian classifications and archetypal manipulation. These were obviously made up words. Leo knew very little about helping me, but he was willing. I loved that. We even explored data-mining and ill-fated attempts at mind-transfer with my father — who as it turns out volunteered himself three years into my revival.
Despite his failure, Leo showed me there was another way to live not haunted by the past. He showed me kindness, patience and never any frustration at my hopelessness.
It’s funny thinking about it now, but him and I becoming involved was the last cliché I wanted to indulge.
Don’t judge me, you don’t understand, I was thirty-whatever going on seventeen: parent-less, past-less and more alone than anyone should ever be. Also, don’t over-think Leo, he isn’t the romantic lead of my story. Nostalgia is my romantic lead, and no man can ever hold a candle to nostalgia. No man.
Anyway, my recovery stopped being about trying to remember my past. It took on a more Zen-holistic way of just remembering how to be. Of allowing myself to heal. It would take a lot of time and something else this place, and Leo himself could no longer give, but he’d been right, I couldn’t leave yet. I wasn’t ready.
I spent a few months at the Lazarus Centre before Leo thought me ready to leave and do some exploring on my own. I wasn’t ready, but I didn’t believe there was anywhere I’d go where the ghost of my past wouldn’t haunt me.
My mind was a spool of cassette tape, my body felt like a foreign country I didn’t want to tour anymore, what did I believe I’d achieve on my own?
Our relationship, though still fizzy, was stagnant. We weren’t unhappy, but we weren’t anything else either. Besides, I’d made him end my father’s revival. Neither of us could stand the guilt hanging over our heads.
Leo thanked me for giving him a reason to finally retire. Since the Civic Centre’s ban on revivals, the Lazarus Centre had gone into receivership. Their patents for cybernetic prosthetics and silicone penile-extensions were worthless. Lazarus maintained the whole centre just him and his humanoid helpers. It wasn’t just tiring work, he looked like someone who’d swallowed poison, but not enough to put him out of his misery.
A part of me wished him a thousand more miseries. No one had the right to play God like that.
On my last night, Leo accompanied me to the large airlock exit. We said our goodbyes but he lingered. He stayed to watch me get into the shuttle. His eyes twitched as though he was going to cry.
We both knew it was the last time we’d see each other.
My longing for the past wasn’t like the Greek definition of nostalgia, as in, the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning for return, but more like the German word Sehnsucht, the desire for an unknown or absent thing. I was a tragic hero: Odysseus. I can’t think of any heroines who match my longing.
Like Odysseus, I felt I was the greatest adventurer of my time, and also its greatest nostalgic. And just like Calypso’s embrace fooled Odysseus, Leo’s passions fooled me. My life was delightful in his care, but I needed to return to my Ithaca, even though I was sure my Ithaca was no more. I still went on this great adventure. I left the Lazarus Revival Centre.
Leo organised a shuttle to take me to the Revivals Shelter behind Nkurumah Road. In the shuttle, I found this bald, quiet man waiting in the back. He was fortyish, a little jaundiced, and wore a rastafari scarf over his green hospital gown. He struck me as a man of eager but clumsy charm.
A Reviver also, he introduced himself as Obita Canaan.
There was something oddly familiar about him, but I disregarded this thought. Canaan couldn’t have been more familiar than my own name seemed to me.
We didn’t speak for most of the drive. I kept my gaze outside the window, looking at the shadows. I didn’t remember any of the streets or buildings.
I eventually asked him if much had changed?
He gave me a side-wise glance, and said he had this rusty aftertaste in his mouth. Like how when you were young and some kid always spit in their soda so they wouldn’t share. He said the air tasted like someone had spit on Kampala just to spite him.
I remember sticking out my tongue to taste this spite, but couldn’t taste anything. I didn’t know: taste was just another longing.
Anyway, I found Canaan’s high opinion of himself refreshing. After a few hours of bad traffic and good conversation, we arrived at the Reviver Shelter. The driver, a tallish, bearded man, closed the van, said we should ask for Azaan, the caretaker.
Tell him Leo sent you, the driver added. He abandoned us at the bus stop opposite the Shelter.
A buttery glow cradled the narrow street. It lent warmth to the shadows silhouetted against the faraway lights. Lines of revivers snaked around the corners. Each hugging themselves, waiting to enter the Shelter. They looked haggard and dim. Ghostly.
I hugged my cardigan tighter, I felt self-conscious. How ironic, I came here on my way to haunt my past, and found the present even more haunting.
The Shelter was a large structure, the walls a pale beige and flaky from drying paint. Broken tiles tripped whoever walked without looking down. I’d later learn this is the default Reviver walking way.
The graffiti on the walls showed ancient Civic Centre murals: portraits of blue-collared men toiling away at conveyor belts; well organised general assemblies. And lastly, the Black Fist — the symbol of the Civic Centre. I remember not moving, the spirit of the Black Fist seemed to have punched me in the shin.
I asked Canaan what this place was.
Oh, only the cult of reminiscence, he said.
That should’ve told me everything, but stupid me I asked him what he meant?
He said that everyone here’ was a Reviver. That they walked that way; head hung low, eyes averted because it was second nature. That they were returning from their nightly rounds of haunting the places they were no longer welcome.
He added that Revivers seldom enjoy happily-ever-afters no matter how much their families wish it.
They’re so many of them, I said.
They should be more, but thank the culling miracle of suicide, Canaan said. Adding otherwise we wouldn’t have any beds to sleep on tonight.
He nudged his chin towards the door and ordered I come along.
We joined the nearest line. None of the Revivers beside us made eye contact, not even the guy admitting us into the shelter.
I still couldn’t believe there was this much longing in the dusty old Kampala. It sounds tragic but I was ‘awake’ here. My next steps wouldn’t stunt me.
Once settled inside the Shelter. it didn’t take long for Canaan to get into an argument with some kid almost two times his height. I hesitated to help. I guessed being close to Canaan made me a target for other Reviver’s stiff-lipped sneers. Canaan was the only person I knew here; it’s not like I could make new friends. The other Revivers looked like a new friend was a fibroid they didn’t need.
I stood behind Canaan, waiting for him to ease up on the boy but he wouldn’t stop. At least not until Azaan, a quiet, lanky man with an easy shuffle, came over and separated the two.
Azaan later led Canaan and I through the maze of double-decker bunkers and lodged us in a dark, dingy cubicle. The bedding was poor, a thin foam, starchy sheets and a bread-shaped brick for a pillow, but we didn’t mind.
A little after lights out, a sharp sobbing noise pierced through the silence of the night. I woke and saw Canaan curled in a foetal position, sobbing in the lower bed opposite mine.
I can’t tell you how much of a bad omen a crying Canaan was.
I knew shock was the only reason a place like this existed, and just because I was holding on well didn’t mean I didn’t have the potential to become undone. It was only a matter of time. Canaan’s crying confirmed this.
I asked what was wrong?
I think I’ve swallowed a cockroach.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
Everyone in the surrounding cubicles laughed even harder when Canaan yelled for everyone to stop laughing.
When the laughter died down, Canaan confessed to fearing cockroaches. He said the bastards could survive a nuclear attack.
I asked why he’d swallowed it?
I haven’t tasted anything since my first revival, Canaan said. I wanted to see if in my final revival they’d managed to restore my taste buds. This is my fourth revival; I should know better.
He rose from his bed and mounted the disposal can. He asked if anybody had tasted anything — anything! — since their revival?
I twirled my tongue but tasted nothing.
He asked how was this living if you couldn’t taste your own mouth?
The girl in the bunker opposite mine called Canaan a hypocrite. She said the legends about Canaan, the most revived man, were ridiculous and selfish.
You’re wasting lives many people would appreciate, she said.
Canaan stepped off the can, called the girl naive, said he wasn’t a hypocrite, but an irrational optimist!
One life isn’t enough, he said. Adding they’d do the same if condemned to live the lives he’d lived.
No one said anything after that.
Sleep didn’t come for a while, but when it did, it came strong.
I was the last to wake during the next timecycle. Azaan, in fact, is the one who woke me. Several of his volunteers stood behind him. They all looked at me like I didn’t belong. Azaan sent them away and sat in the bunker opposite mine, he asked how my night had gone?
I said it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but I needed to move on now.
I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Azaan said. Don’t let Canaan’s cynicism dishearten you.
Canaan is harmless, I said. It’s everyone else who unnerved me.
Azaan didn’t fight me. He knew better. He said whatever I was running from I’d still find it wherever I went.
That was the point, wasn’t it?
Azaan shrugged. He insisted I take a guide.
Guess who he chose?
Canaan was the only one crazy enough to volunteer for something like this. I accepted. When you’re drowning and the only thing you have to cling onto is another drowning person, throw yourself at them.
Canaan and I spent at least an hour on the roadside calling driverless speshos, but none stopped. An old Corolla eventually stopped. We immediately regretted as the qat-chewing tabliq driver pulled up in front of us. One look at us and he spat. He called us bisirani.
We were desperate enough to take the insult. Even to agree to pay upfront. The tabliq insisted that once we got to our destination we’d either top up or he’d refund the balance. This was insurance against us running out of the spesho like Revivers often did.
It took us three hours to get to Eighth Street, and climb up to the decommissioned quarry at Muyenga.
Canaan asked if I was ready for my ‘great return’? I said this wasn’t the sort of adventure anyone ever gets ready for.
You’re in good company, Canaan assured me.
He explained how all Revivers share the same dream, this dream of a ‘great return.’ That’s why the suicide rates were so high. The dream of great return is so grand and fulfilling, most Revivers search their whole second lives and never lick that ice-cream.
They’ve revived me four times now, Canaan said. I hope that every time I come back the dream will be gone, but it’s stronger. . . It’s the ominous Eurydice following each Reviver from the purgatory of the Cryogenic Hades. Just like Orpheus, we can’t help but glance backwards and condemn ourselves.
I asked if they programmed this into our revival? This dream of great return, the leaning towards Greek mythology?
Canaan scoffed, said it was human nature. It’s a by-product of our failed swab at transcendence. He said I should read Milan Kundera. Revival is like the dreams Slavic emigres have when they leave their countries. They all dream the same dreams because their souls hunger for rootedness in their native soils.
Taking my hand, he placed it on his heart, asked if I could feel anything?
There was no heartbeat.
My soul isn’t rooted to this time, he said.
He took my hand and cupped it over my breast, asked if I felt anything now?
I felt a faint heartbeat, but I nodded and told him there was a heartbeat. I ignored mentioning the adjective.
He scoffed again, said that was only the panic. It passes.
Confused, I reached over and touched his chest again. The driver barked at us to stop our “funny business.” He eyed us from the rearview mirror.
We sat quiet and apart like scalded troublemakers.
As soon as we arrived at the house in Upper Muyenga, I almost turned back. Canaan held my hand but urged me on.
The house was large, almost as large as the Revival’s shelter. It had a flat-topped roof, large windows, pruned hedges with a walkway paved with square-cut blocks.
I double-checked the address. I didn’t believe this could be my house. But it was.
Shame overwhelmed me. Here I was, having lived the last six months as an ant, only to find out my family seemed to have more money than God. I didn’t expect to come to a shifty bungalow with peeling paint, this on the other hand made me feel all the more superficial.
Canaan consoled me, saying we’d come this far, the least we could do was knock on the door. He held out his hand for the keys. I handed them over, but while he tried the keys, the door sprung open and a head peeped through the narrow space.
Oh, excuse us, Canaan said. Could this be the Reverend’s residence?
A middle-aged woman, slender, with an apron on her waist and hair in a neat scarf, swung the door wider. She was neat and well-maintained.
She asked who we were.
Canaan nudged me forward. I couldn’t recall the lady’s face, but I went ahead and said I used to live here.
She squinted, shook her head and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. She stared at me a long time, her eyes widening. She said she couldn’t believe this, and clutched her chest in disbelief.
I took a step back.
Neither of us approached the other.
A girl of maybe about sixteen came and interrupted us. She was lady’s daughter maybe. A tall and haughty little thing. She stared Canaan and I up and down, and asked who we were. Why you bothering my mum?
Jem, go back inside, the lady said.
Jem never moved. Her eyes scoured me up and down, and I felt like an ant all over again.
The as-yet-to-be-identified lady turned and pushed the girl into the door.
Your okra’s burning by the way, Jem said over her shoulder.
The lady closed the door and came closer. She said they had told her I was dead. She always believed I had run away from home and had never forgiven me. She tried to hold me, but withdrew her hand.
She asked how I was even alive. Where had I been?
Though she was wary, her expression seemed to soften.
Canaan spoke for me: She can’t remember anything; her mind is a complete fog.
She gave Canaan the once over and turned to me asking who ‘this man’ was.
Canaan introduced himself.
Canaan, what’s your role here, she sneered.
I’m her spiritual adviser, Canaan joked, but this only hardened the lady’s expression.
I said I couldn’t remember anything beyond eight months ago.
Holding my arm, she asked what had happened to me?
Lady, we’re Revivers, Canaan said.
She gave him a sharp squint. She said her name was Nena and she’d appreciate it if Canaan didn’t make himself heard again.
Canaan smiled and said we’d come for answers and weren’t leaving without our fill.
You’ll get more than answers if you don’t leave right away, Nena said.
Turning to me she said she was happy to see me, but I’d wasted the trip, there was nothing for me here.
She has nowhere else to go, Canaan said.
Nena asked if he was familiar with the Resurrection Crusaders?
Canaan nodded solemnly.
The Crusaders as I’d later learn were a group of spiritual extremists who went around snatching Revivers, taking them to secret ritual grounds to try and exorcise their souls back into their revived bodies.
Canaan said reverse-exorcisms were like conversion therapy but hurt worse. By the time they were through with you, you’d wish they had killed you instead.
Please take her away from here, Nena begged. She asked I allow her break the news to Isaiah, who it turns out was my brother. She’d get in touch when it was safe to return.
Canaan took my hand, said we better leave.
I shook my head.
Jahzara dear, now isn’t the time to be brave, he said.
Jahzara? Nena frowned at my name. She didn’t ask or try to address me by my old name.
She hugged me and begged I listen to my friend. She added that Isaiah was now leader of the Crusaders and brother or not he’d see me hurt.
I placed my hands on Nena’s arms, said I couldn’t leave.
I was afraid, but I believed anything would be better than returning to the shelter. At least here, cruel brother or not, I could start building my memory, even if it was only a palace of pain.
Canaan apologised. He said he wouldn’t let some leader of the Resurrection Crusaders get him this late in the game.
He placed a hand on my shoulders, said my quote-unquote “life” needn’t end by the Crusader’s hands.
I told Canaan my quote-unquote “life” ended a long time ago.
He bowed, disappeared.
Nena and I stood staring at each other, not sure what to say.
Are you going to invite me in? I asked.
I followed Nena into the minimalist foyer and Japanese-style narrow corridor. Inside the living room a large holoscreen projected some too-bright, too-loud Civic Centre address. The sofas were the colour of brown dog fur and made the living room look overrun by street dogs.
While Nena and Jem fussed with the okra stew in the kitchen, I sat quiet, pretending not to hear them whisper about me.
After a while Nena brought a jug of juice and sat in the sofa opposite me. She asked if juice was alright? She didn’t know what Revivers liked.
I told her anything would be OK, even the okra.
Though still stiff, she seemed to relax a little. Her voice dropped to its lower registers and her hands now punctuated the air as she spoke.
She asked I tell her what happened.
I was hoping you could tell me, I said.
She swore she didn’t know I was alive.
I looked up at the portrait of the only face I recognised, my father’s, the one I’d had Leo end. I told her based on current trends, maybe she didn’t know father too, had been in revival.
She became inflamed and said father wasn’t dead. Godforbid he dies; revival is the last thing he’d ever do.
I didn’t push her. I understood that revival totally rubbished the Christian promise of an afterlife, that it had put our family out of business, but father did this to me. And they stood aside and let it happen. I didn’t want to guilt Nena of all people, but she didn’t have the moral high-ground to defend father’s hypocrisy. I should have challenged her harder than I did, but I needed to make her my ally. I didn’t know enough about father to make a case for his revival. Who knows, Leo might’ve lied to me. Or someone was lying to Nena, telling her father was alive. I needed to find out more.
I asked to see father and she told me to wait for Isaiah, my brother. The leader of the Crusaders.
Father hasn’t changed from the man you remember, he doesn’t tell me anything, she added.
Whose revival had I terminated, I asked myself. I didn’t believe father had a double, but then again, what did I know. Even before my revival, the current religious climate was already too tense. It was possible for reverends to have body-doubles. After all, they had more power than presidents. More enemies also.
I didn’t believe I’d terminated my father’s double. I believed my father’s double had fooled all of us. I kept quiet about this though. I’d confront him when I knew enough.
Nena changed the subject and we drank our orange juice in silence, each of us hiding behind our glasses. A short while later, we heard the sound of a car engine rumble and die. Nena became so tensed she placed her glass on the wrong side of the wooden coaster and spilt the juice. She panicked to clean the mess and went on wiping long after there was anything left to clean. She was instantly transformed into this fretful little woman I wasn’t proud to call my sister.
The front door opened and heavy, even-paced stomping came through the hallway. Isaiah was a large man with a steady, compulsive gait. It wasn’t walking what he did; it was more like shifting his weight around like a mammoth.
Looking only at Nena, he asked what this was.
Nena didn’t speak.
Jem, who’d been eyeing us from the kitchen came and stood next to her mum.
Nena, without looking at Jem, ordered her to go to her room.
Jem, defiant as ever, took a step away from Nena: a gesture which I read as taking neutral ground.
Nena? Isaiah asked again.
Nena raised her arms and asked Isaiah not to get upset. She’s a Reviver, Nena said.
Isaiah shook his head and said I couldn’t be: not with everything our father taught us to fear and respect.
It’s father who had me revived, I said.
Isaiah pointed a finger, said, don’t dare blaspheme our father.
It was father who signed me in for revival, I stood my ground.
Everyone remained quiet. Isaiah reached for his mobile. He threatened to call the Crusaders.
I think you’re an impostor wearing my sister’s skin, he said. Who sent you? AlphaCorp? The Revival League?
I didn’t flinch as he started to dial.
I said all I wanted was to know who I was. That isn’t asking too much, is it?
Nena swifter than you could imagine rushed and slapped Isaiah’s mobile away.
She asked Isaiah to listen to me first.
Isaiah, knowing Nena was right, did nothing more than seethe. He asked if I knew what he represented?
I nodded. I wasn’t afraid of the Crusaders.
He said in light of that didn’t I see how cruel this was?
I took my time looking everyone in the eye, even Jem. I said I knew what coming here meant, yet still I risked it.
Isaiah said I couldn’t stay.
I didn’t plan to, I replied.
Nena’s plaintive voice asked Isaiah to consider what a blessing my return meant.
Bah! Isaiah barked, asked Nena not to be sentimental.
Nena, bristling beneath her calm facade, said this was my home too.
Isaiah asked if she was taking my side over him? To which Nena said there were no sides.
I couldn’t have loved her more for that.
She said she was going to make a bed for me. She called Jem to help.
I sat down, but Isaiah wouldn’t mirror my gesture. I guess he felt he needed to impose his physical presence on me. Scare me more than was necessary. If I didn’t look stupid standing up again, I would’ve stood up to him. I was tired of playing.
Why didn’t you look for me? I asked.
Isaiah looked away, but didn’t answer.
I appreciated this. It showed there was a soul behind Isaiah’s hard stare, I could eat away at his stony indifference and get what I wanted. I needed to ask the right questions; but I wasn’t prepared.
Jem and Nena returned and tried to serve supper. The okra, though, had burned. Not that I could’ve known the difference between burnt or well-cooked. We ordered a pizza instead and sat at the table where no one spoke after Isaiah said Grace. Jem and Nena sat in front of the holoscreen and watched some telenovela that came after the Civic Centre address. Isaiah retreated to his room and I to mine.
When I woke the next day, I asked Nena to show me where all my stuff was.
Nena led me to the garage. None of my things had been thrown away.
Mum became obsessed with hoarding stuff, especially after your accident, Nena said.
I asked her where mum was.
Ask Isaiah, she said.
She excused herself and left me in the garage alone with among dusty crates and broken picture frames.
The few photos of myself I found were more distressing than the ones Leo showed me. There was something in every photo which made it hard for me to remember myself. I should’ve walked away, but I felt life wouldn’t really start for me unless I unlocked this part.
In the many nights that followed, I tried to piece together my memory like a raffia mat. I spun and wove all these fragments of my past, but it came to nothing. The pattern didn’t hold. I couldn’t tell if I was creating a natural progression of emotions, or merely shading-over everything I thought I remembered? I continued to read wildly and in a very disorderly manner. I read everything I could get my hands on. Some of them were familiar, but I couldn’t remember anything from my first readings many years ago. My mind seemed to remember them though. I couldn’t read everything word for word. Some of them I skimmed through and others word for word. Whatever I recognised confused me more. The recognition flared in my mind, but quickly snuffed-out from burning too bright. They gave me too much false hope.
When the books got tedious, I switched to my dog-eared issues of Vogue and Drum. I also uncovered a few old diaries. I didn’t pay any attention to these. I only concentrated on the pages with underlined entries, and annotations on the margins. The handwriting seemed to gradually change as I turned the pages. The pressure against the page got denser and angrier. But why?
Reading in such a disordered manner was a recipe for failure. You cannot reconstruct memory this way. Memory needs to be strung and wove in an A to Z narrative. What I was doing was sculpting memory, revising, reshaping it. I was totally neglecting that memory cannot be gulped down like some jama swiping altar wine.
I needed to order the books by date and settled to reread everything in this new manner. And though I didn’t feel any better, at least I was going somewhere. I needed to accept that memory, as much as it was going down into a rabbit hole, was more about rebuilding from the ground up, like an iceberg. It’s about creating new patterns.
Thing is, I was about as useful at scaffolding as I could’ve been at crocheting.
I didn’t feel any sadness. I felt relieved and couldn’t say why. Fate seemed to give me chances to remember who I was (who I am is something I can figure out on my own) and I failed to make something of it. Yes, there were close moments. Quiet, sudden flashes of some mysterious event, but the relief I got from those moments dissolved too quickly to feel anything close to memory.
Nena, bless her soul, would check on me every two or so hours. She did this just to impose on me that she was thinking about me. That I needn’t feel so alone. She’d bring my meals, and even on occasion, some bottled wine. I’d never been fond of wine, but I found something therapeutic about reading while drunk.
I was locked in that room many nights, but I recovered little. The room had been well-preserved; it smelled exactly how twenty years of neglect smells. They say nothing triggers memory like smell and flame. But short of setting everything on fire, I could do nothing with smell.
One thing was certain, this was my life now. I didn’t exactly pity myself for not remembering anything. Who was I? Who am I? Those were questions that needed answering. Sadly, I didn’t have the tools to dig deeper into the rabbit hole.
I learnt nothing useful in those notebooks. I guess if I had half a decent imagination I could’ve imagined my memory. The past is, after all, an imagination, not solid like furniture.
After weeks of this, I left the garage more distraught than I could’ve ever imagined. It was going to take the rest of my life to remember one year of my life.
I abandoned the ‘dumpster-diving’ and spent more time with Nena and Jem, and Isaiah whenever he could be bothered to make an effort.’ The fog didn’t clear but I wasn’t really looking for it to. The fog was safe to hide behind. My faith in the unattainable, couldn’t sustain me anymore, but what was I going to do? Give up; never close the loop on my own past?
I’d expected memory to be like meeting people you know in a dream. (Have you noticed how in a dream you don’t have to see a person’s face to know you know who they are?) I expected to come in and know everyone without seeing their faces. The dream of ‘great return’, like everything leading up to this, was illogical.
The more time I spent with Nena and Jem the more depressed I got. They seemed to be intact while I spiraled like loose thread. I made them uneasy. Only Isaiah could help me, but he was disdainful. He left home early and returned past curfew. I could’ve tried harder to corner him but the reward wouldn’t justify the effort.
I left home, without a note or goodbye, and returned to the shelter.
Unlike Odysseus, my Ithaca wasn’t within grasp. I had to find a new Ithaca.
Canaan, whom I hoped to comfort with the story of my failed dream of great return, was no longer at the shelter. None of the remaining Revivers would tell me why. It was obvious. Only one thing happens to Revivers when they disappear. They kill themselves.
I didn’t believe this for Canaan. He’d seen four revivals; he couldn’t let all that go to waste.
I guessed my visit guilted him into seeking his family. And nothing good ever comes of that as I now knew.
Azaan was his usual aloof self.
Listening to the Revivers telling their stories made me feel like a fraud. I had a loving family I didn’t want; these Revivers would kill for my discontent.
Without Canaan, I was lonelier than ever.
I was never good at making friends so I spent most of my time roaming dusty Kampala streets, looking dazed and lost like a proper Reviver ought to. This was my new life.
Three weeks of roaming aimlessly and I unfortunately landed into a Crusader ambush one night. I was having an ice-lolly at the fountain on the KPC roundabout when the ambush happened. I didn’t even know what was happening until I felt a black sack over my head and my feet light and lifted in the air. They bundled me into the back of a van and left me to remove the bag at my own will.
The light was dim but enough to make out faces. Faces like in dreams. I didn’t need to see them to know who they were. Some familiar faces, some strangers, but most strange of them all was Canaan.
He looked disheveled, and thin as a prayer.
Despite the chains on my feet I tried to leap at him. Anyway, I crashed on the middle of the floor and none of the others bothered to give a hand. Not even Canaan. He couldn’t remember who I was, despite my nudging. I wanted to hug him, but I had overestimated how much of my neediness he could bear. I’d wrongly feared contact, now my loneliness undermined my own strength of character.
I must have looked different, like someone had attached a tube to my brain and sucked out all the soup.
When the van stopped, the Crusaders, all dressed in black capes, bundled us out one by one. I stepped out and asked what and where this place was. It was an open dark field with nothing in sight but a church made of tarp, grim and hazy like a ghost abbey.
One of the Revivers murmured, Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
The others nodded solemnly.
The Crusaders herded us across to the church.
Despite the grimness and uncertainty, I felt, for the first time, the impression of being in a place I could be at ease. Like I didn’t have to fight so hard anymore.
From where I stood, the forms in the distance swayed and looked sexless and unearthly. Their faces were featureless patches of light. The shadowy trees seemed planted like props on a stage. Everything seemed impermanent and by extension, us. We could easily disappear like mist and no one would ever know. We were nothing; I embraced it.
Despite my ignorant eagerness, I was last in line. This gave me the chance to squint and study the hooded Crusader welcoming Revivers into his makeshift church. He shook every Reviver’s hand and patted them on the shoulder like a father who didn’t know how to comfort a crying child. His grace made me think maybe this wasn’t as bad as it looked. He was stooped but commanding, as in, however much he could comfort, he could do the opposite just as easily. I didn’t quail at this. What more harm could a Crusader do to me that my father hadn’t done twenty years ago. As far as I was concerned revival was far worse than its reversal. Reversal was just another false hope.
I stood up straight, I wouldn’t give him the joy of seeing me cowed. I should’ve known better. As I came nearer, my resolve shattered and my knees failed me. I stumbled and the Crusader held me. I couldn’t believe it. He resembled the thing I terminated in the Lazarus Centre, my father. His was the first face I remembered, not from the time at the Lazarus Centre, but from twenty years ago and it daunted me. Had Leo duped me? Did he think killing my father was in some way therapeutic? Only men find therapy in killing their fathers, not — Was Leo in on this? What was this anyway? My head spun.
The ghost of my father held me as though we were Neapolitan and he wanted to kiss me on the cheeks.
Maximillian? I remembered my father’s name
I’ve been expecting you, dear, he whispered. I would have come to the Lazarus Centre and the Shelter but you needed to make this journey on your own. Twenty years is a long time to wait on a daughter. But what is twenty years in the life of a righteous man.
He regarded me with intense affection.
I fear my staring betrayed more dread than I wished I knew —
Come, embrace me, my love, he said. Now we can be as one once more.
He took my hand and led me into the church.
He was a ghost I couldn’t dress well enough to make the nightmare more bearable. Nor could I strip him well enough to stop the haunting. The only ghost I could dress was myself, but with my past, which was scant, and thus inadequate, I felt naked.
I held onto his arm and prayed he’d be more forthcoming than the months I’d spent writhing like a stapled centipede.
The large tarp billowed shut with a loud rustling sound and so closed the Great Return of my past.
Derek Lubangakene lives in Kampala, Uganda, where he fundraises for a wildlife conservation nonprofit by day, and writes by night. He’s a voracious reader, occasional sketch-artist and a cack-handed origami enthusiast who loves all things Murakami, Beckett and Ayi Kwei Armah. His fiction has appeared in Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Omenana, Enkare Review, Prairie Schooner, River River Lit. Journal, the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology, and the Brittle Paper AfricanFuturism anthology among others. In 2016 he received the Short Story Day Africa / All About Writing Development Prize. He was also shortlisted for the 2019 Nommo Short Story Award, and longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Award and the 2013 Golden Baobab Early Chapter Books Award. Find him online at www.dereklubangakene.com
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