Jean Deleage Art Gallery, Los Angeles
The Upright Revolution: A Visual Exhibition
Curated by Jimmy Centenno
Enlightened or Awakening or Rise up 20” x 20”
Acrylic on canvas
Painting by Laura Vazquez Rodriguez
This painting illustrates my interpretation of the short story; Upright Revolution or Why Humans Walk Upright By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It is a story about conflict and the human struggle for power. It is about harmony and chaos, life and death, unity and division. This is the story of man’s endurance, his perseverance and his awakening to his life song, as the story goes, we are one body, “us for us” “unity is our power.” Like the story, my painting is a celebration of man’s life song. Fashioned uniquely but united in purpose we must rise up and stand together to protect and serve one another in love. At the bottom of my painting is a lion, strong and beautiful but untamed and dangerous. It is aggressive and competitive. The lion stares across at humanities brokenness, its parts divided and weak. It is prepared to fight but unable to move. Disconnected and crumbling the body is powerless. Above the mound is a man who rises up clothed with the armor of love, unity and strength. He is blanketed in peace. He moves forward on his journey of reconciliation and hope. With a staff in hand he walks across the ruins. Butterflies rise up symbolizing transformation into love, faithfulness and harmony. Just ahead of him are two hearts united flying freely in the sky. **
All Body Anthem, mixed media by Damola Adepoju 2019
The manner of expression by the writer of “The Upright Revolution” or “Why Humans Walk Upright” attributes human organs and passions to foster unity and equality. This has inspired this mixed media with the use of old newspapers processed into soft tissues to define the form of the stylized figure ( mandate). Layered unto tonal surface subdued hue of black acrylic and connecting lines, having the dramatic animal spectators and the legs and arms in contest. Luminous white hue harmonized the effect of bold and the short texts with application of a touch of gold depicting “All Body Anthem”. **
The Colourful Spectators and Contestants. Acrylic on canvas by Damola Adepoju 2019
A perch at the top gives you below- eye level that captures the sea of heads of the beauty of the colourful spectators that come in peace, with vibrant yellow hue romance with the luxuriant forests rendered in impasto. The juxtaposition of the circle of challenge in the fore ground for the arms and legs to display their possessed skills as they agreed later to Walk Upright. The gloomy earthen browns capture the contest. No venture, no gain, makes animals to stick to their conservative party. This painting is inspired by the short story of The Upright Revolution: or Why Humans Walk Upright. **
Upright Revolution 2019 36×48 by Yolanda Gonzalez
In the contest to control the body between the legs and arms an innocence is lost. The Mayan deity becomes the safekeeper of that innocence to be restored upon the restoration of unity.
Identidad y Reconciliacion- Identity and Reconcilation by Mario Avila
Si Seguimos Flotando Pereceremos-If We Continue to Float We Will Persish 29.5×23.5 by Mario Avila by Mario Avila
Mario Avila’s Letter to Ngugi
Querido hermano Ngugi,
Te saludo fraternalmente, y te envió un pequeño relato de mi trabajo sobre el
mi trabajo de arte sobre este hecho.
Guatemala somos un país de 108 mil kilómetros cuadrados, pero con una riqueza enorme culturalmente hablando. Además, contamos con riquezas naturales como petróleo, níquel, cobalto, plata, cobre y además grandes cantidades de oro. Por lo tanto, las grandes trasnacionales, como las oligarquías del país, masacraron a grandes cantidades de la población Maya y mestizos que se oponían a este despojo de nuestra madre tierra.
Para ser un poco exacto, fueron masacrado las poblaciones de más 640 aldeas y los mejores líderes, mujeres y hombres, y dentro de ellos, pintores, poetas y gente de teatro. Más de medio millón de personas fueron asesinadas entre muertos, detenidos y desaparecidos. Por lo mismo, este trabajo representa el genocidio, y es hasta ahora que estamos tratando de articular ese cuerpo que quedó separado y hoy tratamos de juntarlos con manos, brazos, pies y memoria. Cada una de las piezas tienen relación con ese cuento tan bello y profundo que escribiste.
Y es que así África se parece tanto a nuestra historia.
Exprisionero político, tres hermanos asesinados, un tío y dos de mis hijos secuestrados y torturados.
¡Que tu ponencia en Chile sea de mucho éxito!
Dialogo- Dialogue 11×14 by Mario Avila
Genocidio-Genocide 16×60 by Mario Avila
Mesoamerican Totempole Ceramics, 12” x 12” x 24” by Mario A. Hernández
Mesoamerican Totempole covers the symbols and iconography from some of the most predominant civilizations during Mesoamerican times; the sculpture has a representation of one of the earliest groups during the formative period like the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs cover the Classic and Post Classic periods. Together the composition pays tribute to the many glorious time periods, in form of a tower of power, it shares the evolution and revolution these cultures endured.
Ica Yollotl (from the heart) Acrylic on Vinyl 31” x 81” by Mario A. Hernández
Ica yollotl (from the heart) was created as a reflection based on The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright, By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Every part of the human body has a crucial function that overall allows it to perform and thrive for many years, the flexible capabilities and its elegant crafted figure is a testimony of its incredible potential. Ica Yollotl depicts a freefalling body into the deep blue sea, its irresponsive yet relaxed posture gives you a sense of carelessness. It is a reminder that sometimes you just have to let go and allowing the forces of nature to guide you to your destiny. The heart radiating from the center of the body projects the heartfelt feeling of human kindness and how the heart is also a guide dance to your life path. This composition pays tribute to the human body, from the history of its evolution to its resilience and perseverance. **
“The Fall of Man” 2019
Linoleum cut block print on 100% hand made paper from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Image Size: Approx 5”x8”, Paper Size: Approx 9”x13”
The Fall of Man takes place in the story during the contest when the Legs and Arms are issuing challenges to each other. At that time the Body is in a state of disorientation and it becomes uncoordinated and cannot function like it should. The Arms aren’t as strong to do what the Legs can do and the Legs aren’t as nimble to do what the Arms can do. Although the contest was brief the lesson was timeless. Eventually they realized that the best resolution was to unite. Not one limb was better than the other and each set of limbs was good at what it did to help support the rest of the Body. And through this, the “All Body Anthem” was born and the body learned to work together in order to form the revolution, the Upright Revolution!
○ Green Paper 1/1
○ White Paper 4/4
○ Tan Paper 2/3
○ Grey Paper 2/2
You Are Me
48″ X 24″ Oil + Oil-stick on Canvas
By Ramon Ramirez
The painting You Are Me is directly inspired by the story The Upright Revolution, specifically from the song All Body Anthem which is mentioned at the end of the story. In these times, we need to work together and realize that we are one. As the song goes “Beauty is unity…together we work…for a healthy body.” The painting depicts two sets of palm trees, one set is ‘normal’ and the other is ‘inverted’. The lower set of palm tress represent this world and the upper set represents our ancestors or a cosmic connection. I believe that we need to call upon our ancestors to help give us strength to aid us in navigating the tumultuous waters of today’s political climate. I do not exist alone. “Beauty is unity”. **
Upright Revolution 2019 by Pedro Rios Martinez
The short Story by Ngugi wa Thiong O’s said so much as humans that we are and how we evolved. The fable of the story ‘Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright, introduces us to how important the body parts function as one and the weight it carries in making decisions about social justice for us all today. My interpretation of the story gave me the opportunity to express my style of painting with small brush strokes adding an African influence of color. This has allowed me to transmit a visual journey to bring attention in uniting fragments of ourselves together. **
Beauty is unity by Nolan Fansler
“When the whole body sang “Beauty is unity” I realized that this is exactly what I strive for in my own art. I want every moment and detail to be just as essential as every other part of a painting. Through contrast and harmony most art in general I believe seeks to show the viewer the most essential parts that make a whole, none of which more essential than the other. This breaks down hierarchies or un-limbmanship tendencies encouraging the greater body of society to function with more equality.” **
New Direction by Nolan Fansler
Jimmy Centeno [Curator] holds an A.A. in Liberal Arts from East L.A. Community College, a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Cal State L.A., and is concluding a second Masterâ€™s in Art History. He was raised in South Central Los Angeles and is the son of immigrant parents born In Mexico and El Salvador. He is a welder by trade with 20 years of welding experience. His experience as a welder has brought him close day in and day out to many realities across different communities throughout the city of Los Angeles. He has organized art lectures at the Vincent Price Art Museum. He has also participated in international conferences on philosophy and aesthetics. He is currently working with renowned Mexican philosopher Enrique Dussel on de-colonial thought. As an artist he seeks to express himself by using all form of mediums which includes photography, welding, found objects, and painting. His art attempts to narrow the distance between borders, color/race and class. His goal is to bridge and stitch our differences by reducing the distance between us.
Lang geleden liepen mensen op armen en benen, net als alle andere wezens met vier ledematen. Mensen waren sneller dan de haas, het luipaard en de neushoorn. De benen en armen waren closer met elkaar dan alle andere organen. Hun gewrichten leken op elkaar: schouders en heupen; ellebogen en knieën; enkels en polsen; voeten en handen, elk eindigend in vijf tenen of vingers, met een nagel op elke teen en elke vinger. De handen en de voeten hadden dezelfde indeling: vijf tenen en vijf vingers van de grote teen en duim tot de kleinste teen en pink. In die tijd zat de duim dicht bij de andere vingers, net als de grote teen. De benen en de armen spraken elkaar aan met ‘neef’ en ‘nicht’.
Zij werkten samen om het lichaam te dragen waar het ook maar heen wilde; naar de markt of de winkels, bomen in en uit, bergen op en af – overal waar beweging voor nodig was. Zelfs in het water zorgden zij er samen voor dat het lichaam dreef, zwom of dook. Hun relatie was democratisch en gebaseerd op gelijkwaardigheid. Zij konden ook de producten van andere organen lenen, zoals geluid van de mond, gehoor van het oor, reuk van de neus en zelfs zicht van de ogen.
Door hun ritme en probleemloze samenwerking werden de andere delen groen en geel van jaloezie. Zij stoorden zich eraan dat zij hun speciale gave aan de neven en nichten moesten uitlenen. Door afgunst zagen zij niet meer dat de armen en benen hen overal brachten. Samen smeedden ze een complot tegen deze twee paren.
Tong leende een plan van Brein en ging meteen aan de slag. Hij begon zich luidruchtig af te vragen wat het verschil in kracht was tussen de armen en de benen. Wie zou er sterker zijn? vroeg hij zich af. De neven en nichten, die nooit hadden nagedacht over wat de ander had of kon doen, leenden het geluid van de mond en beweerden dat zij belangrijker voor het lichaam waren dan de ander. Dit veranderde snel in beweringen over wie eleganter was; de armen schepten op over de slanke vingers van hun handen en spraken tegelijkertijd spottend over korte, dikke tenen. De tenen overtroefden dit met spottende uitspraken over dunne, uitgehongerde vingers! Dit ging dagenlang door en soms konden de armen en benen niet meer goed samenwerken. Langzaam maar zeker werd het duidelijk dat het allemaal om macht ging. Ze wendden zich tot de andere organen voor bemiddeling.
Tong stelde een wedstrijd voor. Iedereen vond dit een fantastisch idee. Maar wat voor wedstrijd? Sommigen stelden een worstelwedstrijd voor, arm-en-been-worstelen. Anderen stelden een zwaardgevecht, jongleren, rennen of een spel zoals schaken of dammen voor, maar elk voorstel werd uitgesloten omdat het te moeilijk was om uit te voeren of oneerlijk tegenover de ene of de andere ledemaat. Het was wederom Tong die, na het lenen van het denken van Brein, met een eenvoudige oplossing kwam. Elke groep organen zou om de beurt een uitdaging voorstellen. De armen en de benen waren het hiermee eens.
De wedstrijd werd in een open plek in het bos gehouden, dicht bij een rivier. Alle organen stonden op scherp. Ze waren op hun hoede voor mogelijke gevaren en alles wat het lichaam onverwacht kon overkomen nu zijn organen bezig waren met een interne strijd. De ogen keken onderzoekend rond of ze gevaar zagen, klein of groot, ver weg of dichtbij; de oren luisterden ingespannen om de zachtste geluiden op te kunnen vangen, van welke afstand dan ook; de neus maakte zijn neusgaten goed schoon om de gevaren te kunnen ruiken die de waakzame ogen en de luisterende oren zouden ontgaan; en de tong stond klaar om te schreeuwen en te gillen: ‘Kijk uit!’
Wind verspreidde het nieuws over de wedstrijd naar alle uithoeken van het bos, het water en de lucht. De dieren op vier poten waren er het eerst; veel van de grotere dieren hadden groene takken bij zich om aan te geven dat zij in vrede kwamen. Het was een bonte menigte met Luipaard, Jachtluipaard, Leeuw, Neushoorn, Hyena, Olifant, Giraf, Kameel, Watusirund en Kafferbuffel, Antilope, Gazelle, Haas, Mol en Rat. Waterdieren – Nijlpaard, Vis en Krokodil – lagen met hun bovenlichaam op de oever en hielden het onderlichaam in de rivier. De tweepotigen – Struisvogel, Parelhoen en Pauw – flapperden opgewonden met hun vleugels; vogels tjilpten in de bomen, Krekel zong onophoudelijk. Spin, Worm, Duizendpoot en Miljoenpoot kropen over de grond of in de bomen. Kameleon liep onopgemerkt, voorzichtig, zonder haast, terwijl Hagedis rondrende en nooit lang ergens bleef zitten. Aap, Chimpansee en Gorilla sprongen van tak naar tak. Zelfs de bomen en de struiken zwaaiden heen en weer, bogen en stonden om de beurt stil.
Mond opende de wedstrijd met een lied:
Wij doen dit om geluk te vinden
Wij doen dit om geluk te vinden
Wij doen dit om geluk te vinden
Omdat wij allemaal
Uit dezelfde natuur voortkomen.
Armen en Benen beloofden de uitslag te aanvaarden; zonder driftbuien en zonder te dreigen met boycots, stakingen of stiptheidsacties.
Armen bedachten de eerste uitdaging: ze gooiden een stuk hout op de grond. De benen, rechts, links of samen, moesten het stuk hout oppakken en gooien. De twee benen mochten om hun taak uit te voeren op elk moment met elkaar overleggen en hun tenen in elke willekeurige volgorde inzetten – een voor een of allemaal tegelijk. Ze probeerden het stuk hout om te draaien en te duwen; ze probeerden allerlei combinaties, maar konden het stuk hout niet oppakken. Het beste resultaat werd verkregen toen zij het schopten: toen werd het wel een paar centimeter verplaatst. Vingers keken ernaar. Ze leenden het geluid van de mond en lachten en lachten. Armen, de uitdagende partij, pronkten alsof zij deelnamen aan een schoonheidswedstrijd. Ze lieten trots hun slanke uiterlijk zien en pakten het stuk hout op verschillende manieren op. Ze gooiden het ver het bos in, wat een gezamenlijke zucht van bewondering ontlokte aan de deelnemers en de toeschouwers. Ze toonden ook andere vaardigheden: ze pakten korrels zand uit een schaaltje met rijst, ze deden wat draad door het oog van een naald, ze maakten kleine katrollen om zwaardere stukken hout te verplaatsen, ze maakten speren en gooiden deze best ver – allerlei bewegingen en activiteiten waar de tenen alleen maar van konden dromen. Benen konden alleen zitten en zich vergapen aan de behendigheid en flexibiliteit van hun slanke concurrenten. De armen van de toeschouwers klapten in waardering en solidariteit met de mede-armen; het leek wel of het donderde, en hierdoor raakten de benen overstuur. Maar ze gaven echt niet op; zelfs toen ze een beetje sip zaten te kijken en de grote tenen kleine cirkels in het zand tekenden, zaten ze na te denken over een uitdaging die zij konden winnen.
Eindelijk mochten de benen en de tenen vertellen welke uitdaging zij bedacht hadden. Die van hen was eenvoudig, zeiden ze. De handen moesten het gewicht van het hele lichaam dragen van de ene kant van de cirkel naar de andere. Wat een domme uitdaging, dachten de verwaande vingers. Het was een prachtig gezicht. Het hele lichaam was ondersteboven. De handen raakten de grond; de ogen waren dicht bij de grond, waardoor hun zicht werd belemmerd; stof kwam in de neus, waardoor die moest niezen; de benen en tenen zweefden in de lucht: nyayo juu, schreeuwden de toeschouwers, en ze zongen plagerig.
Maar hun aandacht was volledig op de handen en armen gericht. Organen die maar een paar minuten eerder een breed palet aan vaardigheden hadden laten zien, konden amper vooruitkomen. Een paar stappen, de handen schreeuwden het uit van de pijn, de armen wankelden, beefden en lieten het lichaam vallen. Ze rustten uit en probeerden het nogmaals. Deze keer probeerden zij de vingers te spreiden om de grond beter vast te houden, maar alleen de duimen konden zich uitrekken. Zij probeerden een radslag te doen, maar die werd afgekeurd omdat die alleen samen met de benen kon worden gedaan. Nu konden de tenen lachen. Zij leenden diepe keelklanken van de mond voor hun lach in tegenstelling tot het piepende geluid dat de vingers hadden gebruikt. Toen ze hoorden hoe smalend de tenen lachten, werden de armen boos en deden ze nog één wanhopige poging om het lichaam te dragen. Maar ze konden geen stap verzetten. Uitgeput gaven de handen en de vingers het op. De benen toonden met plezier hun sportieve bekwaamheid: ze tikten de maat, liepen, renden, sprongen omhoog en ver en lieten het lichaam niet één keer vallen. De voeten van de toeschouwers stampten op de grond om hun goedkeuring en solidariteit te tonen. De armen hieven hun handen op in protest tegen de onsportiviteit van de benen – ze leken wel vergeten te zijn dat zij dit spel zelf waren begonnen.
Maar iedereen, zelfs de toeschouwers, zag dat er iets vreemds was met de handen: de duimen hadden zich uitgestrekt toen de handen het lichaam hadden geprobeerd te dragen en nu waren ze nog steeds gescheiden van de andere vingers. De concurrerende organen gingen net weer lachen toen ze nog iets opmerkten: de afgescheiden duim maakte de handen niet minder efficiënt, integendeel, hun vermogen om te grijpen en te pakken was groter geworden. Wat gebeurde er? Misvorming werd getransformeerd in het vermogen om te vormen!
De organen discussieerden over wie de winnaar was, vijf dagen lang, het aantal vingers en tenen aan elke ledemaat. Maar het lukte hun niet om een duidelijke winnaar aan te wijzen: elk paar ledematen was de beste in wat zij het beste deden; geen van beiden kon zonder de ander. Wat volgde was een filosofische overweging. Wat is het lichaam eigenlijk? vroegen ze zich af, en ze beseften dat ze allemaal samen het lichaam waren; ze maakten deel uit van elkaar. Elk orgaan moest goed functioneren als ze allemaal goed wilden functioneren.
Om een soortgelijke wedstrijd in de toekomst te voorkomen en om te voorkomen dat zij elkaar in de weg zouden zitten, werd er unaniem door alle organen besloten dat zij het lichaam voortaan rechtop zouden laten lopen, met de voeten op de grond en de armen in de lucht. Het lichaam was blij met dit besluit, maar het zou kinderen toestaan om op alle vier de ledematen te lopen zodat zij hun herkomst niet zouden vergeten. Zij verdeelden de taken: de benen zouden het lichaam dragen, maar bij aankomst op de plaats van bestemming zouden de handen alles doen waarbij gereedschap gemaakt of gebruikt moest worden. De benen en de voeten hadden de zware taak van het dragen, en de handen strekten zich uit en gebruikten hun vaardigheden om de omgeving te bewerken en ervoor te zorgen dat voedsel de mond bereikte. Mond, of eigenlijk zijn tanden, zou dan het eten kauwen en het door de keel naar de maag sturen. De maag zou al het goede uit het eten halen en dit in het vatenstelsel gieten, waardoor al het goede eerlijk zou worden verdeeld, tot in de uithoeken van het lichaam. De maag zou daarna alle gebruikte materialen afvoeren naar het afvalsysteem, waarna het lichaam ze in de open velden zou achterlaten of ze zou begraven onder een laag aarde om die te verrijken. Planten zouden groeien en vrucht dragen; handen zouden er wat van plukken en deze in de mond stoppen. Inderdaad, de cirkel van het leven.
Zelfs de spellen en het vermaak werd op deze wijze verdeeld: zingen, lachen en praten werden aan de mond overgelaten, rennen en voetbal voornamelijk aan de benen en honkbal en basketbal werden voor de handen bestemd, behalve het rennen, dat de benen voor hun rekening namen. In de atletiek hadden de benen het grotendeels voor het zeggen. De duidelijke taakverdeling maakte van het menselijk lichaam een geduchte biomachine die met zijn vaardigheden zelfs de grootste dieren te slim af was, zowel kwalitatief als kwantitatief.
Maar de organen beseften dat de permanente afspraken toch tot conflicten konden leiden. Het hoofd helemaal bovenaan kon gaan denken dat het beter was dan de voeten, die de grond raakten, of dat het de baas was en de organen eronder alleen maar zijn dienaren. Zij benadrukten dat wat macht betreft, het hoofd en alles daaronder gelijk waren. Om dit te onderstrepen zorgden de organen ervoor dat alle pijn en blijdschap van elk orgaan door alle andere organen werden gevoeld. Ze zorgden ervoor dat de mond wist dat hij voor het hele lichaam sprak en niet als enige eigenaar wanneer hij ‘míjn dit of dat’ zei.
In ons lichaam
Is er geen dienaar
In ons lichaam
Is er geen dienaar
Wij dienen elkaar
Ons voor ons
Wij dienen elkaar
Ons voor ons
Wij dienen elkaar
De tong is onze stem
Houd mij vast en ik houd jou vast
Wij bouwen een gezond lichaam
Houd mij vast en ik houd jou vast
Wij bouwen een gezond lichaam
Schoonheid is eenheid
Wij werken samen
Voor een gezond lichaam
Wij werken samen
Voor een gezond lichaam
Eenheid is onze kracht
Dit werd het Volkslied van het Hele Lichaam. Het lichaam zingt dit tot de dag van vandaag en dit is het verschil tussen de mensen en de dieren – die de verticale revolutie hebben afgewezen.
Na alles wat ze hadden gezien wilden de viervoetige dieren niets weten van deze revolutie. Het zingen was belachelijk. De mond was om mee te eten, niet om mee te zingen. Ze werden de conservatieve partij van de natuur; ze gingen hun gangetje en veranderden hun gewoonten nooit.
Wanneer mensen leren van het organennetwerk dan komen ze ver; maar als ze het lichaam en het hoofd als vijanden van elkaar zien, de een boven op de ander, dan lijken ze meer op hun dierlijke familieleden, die niets wilden weten van de verticale revolutie.
Uzun zaman önce insan da, diğer bütün dört ayaklı hayvanlar gibi kolları ve bacakları üstünde yürürdü. Tavşandan, parstan veya gergedandan daha hızlı giderdi üstelik. Bacaklar ile kollar da diğer bütün organlardan daha yakındı birbirine. Zaten benzer eklemleri vardı: omuzlar ile kalça kemikleri, dirsekler ile dizler, el ve ayak bilekleri, sonra da eller ve ayaklar, hepsinin bitiminde beşer parmak, her parmağın ucunda birer tırnak. Üstelik eller ile ayaklardaki parmaklar aynı şekilde düzenlenmişti, büyük birer başparmakla başlıyor, küçüle küçüle serçe parmakta son buluyorlardı. Bacaklar ile kollar, birbirlerini birinci dereceden kuzen sayardı.
Bedeni taşıyan onlardı, nereye gitmek isterse oraya götürürlerdi onu, çarşıya pazara, ağaçların tepesine, dağların doruğuna, hareket isteyen her yere. Sudayken de tam bir işbirliği içinde bedenin batmadan durmasını, yüzmesini, hatta dalmasını sağlarlardı. Demokratik ve eşitlikçiydi ilişkileri. Başka organların ürünlerinden de yararlanabiliyorlardı pekâlâ: örneğin ağızdan sesi, kulaktan işitmeyi, burundan kokuyu, hatta gözlerden görme yetisini alırlardı.
Onların tutturduğu bu ortak ritim, tıkır tıkır işleyen bu eşgüdüm, bedenin diğer parçalarını kıskançlıktan çatlatıyordu. Kendi dehalarını durmadan bu kuzenlere ödünç vermekten de hoşlanmıyorlardı doğrusu. Kıskançlık öyle kör etmişti ki gözlerini, hepsini bir yerden bir yere taşıyanın eller ile bacaklar olduğunu unutmuşlardı. Sonunda bu iki çiftin arkasından iş çevirmeye başladılar.
Dil, Beyinden ödünç aldığı bir planı hemen uygulamaya koyuldu. Kollar ile bacakların gücünü yüksek sesle karşılaştırmaya başladı. Hangisi daha güçlüydü acaba, merak ediyordu. Ötekinin neyi var, öteki ne yapabilir diye daha önce hiç aklından bile geçirmemiş olan iki kuzen uzantı, şimdi Ağızdan birer ses ödünç almış, kendisinin beden için diğerinden daha önemli olduğunu anlatıp duruyordu. Çok geçmeden bu, kim daha zarif yarışına dönüştü; kollar, ellerinin ucundaki uzun ince parmaklarla övünüyor, bir yandan da ayakların kısa ve küt parmaklarına tepeden bakıyordu. Ayak parmakları altta kalır mı? Onlar da açlıktan bir deri bir kemik kalmış kuzenlerini alaya almaya başladılar! Bu böyle günlerce devam etti, an geliyor, kuzenler birlikte doğru dürüst iş yapamaz oluyordu. Sonunda iş bir güç savaşına dönüştü ve gidip diğer organlardan hakemlik etmelerini istediler.
Bir yarışma yapılmasını öneren, Dil oldu. Harika bir fikir, diye düşündü hepsi. Ama nasıl? Kimi güreşi önerdi – kol ile bacak güreş tutacaktı. Bazıları kılıç dövüşü yapsınlar dedi, sonra hokkabazlık yarışması, koşu yarışı veya satranç, dama gibi oyunları önerenler oldu, ama hepsi de uzantılardan biri için ya çok zor, ya adaletsiz olacaktı. Yine Dil çıktı ortaya, tabii yine Beyinden ödünç fikirlerle. Her organ sırayla bir sınav önerecekti. Kollar Bacaklar kabul etti.
Yarışma, ormandaki bir açıklıkta, bir ırmağın yakınında yapıldı. Tam organları birbirine düşmüşken bedeni gafil avlayabilecek bir tehlike durumuna karşı bütün organlar maksimum teyakkuz halindeydi. Gözler, ta uzaklardan minicik bir tehlike belirirse diye ucu bucağı fıldır fıldır tarıyordu; Kulaklar, en uzak köşeden duyulabilecek en hafif sese hazırlıklıydı; Burun, dikkat kesilmiş Gözleri de, dikilmiş Kulakları da atlatabilecek bir tehlikenin kokusunu yakalayabilmek için deliklerini temizledi; Dil ise tehlike diye haykırıp bağırmaya hazırdı her an.
Rüzgâr, yarışmanın haberini ormanın dört köşesine, suya ve havaya taşıdı. Dört ayaklı hayvanlar ilk koşup gelenlerdi, birçoğu da barışçı amaçlarla geldiklerini göstermek için yeşil dallar taşıyordu. Pars, Çita, Aslan, Gergedan, Çakal, Fil, Zürafa, Deve, uzun boynuzlu İnek ve kısa boynuzlu Buffalo, Antilop, Ceylan, Tavşan, Köstebek ve Sıçandan oluşan rengârenk bir kalabalık toplanmıştı. Suların ahalisi, Suaygırı, Balık, Timsah, bedenlerinin üst yarısını kıyıya yayıp alt kısmını ırmağın içinde bıraktı. İki bacaklılar, Devekuşu, Beçtavuğu ve Sülün, heyecanla kanat çırpıyordu; kuşlar cıvıldayıp duruyordu ağaçlardan; Cırcır Böceği desen, susmak bilmedi bir türlü. Örümcek, Solucan, Kırkayak, Çıyan, yerde veya ağaçlarda sürünerek geldiler. Bukalemun sinsi sinsi dikkatle atarken adımlarını, Kertenkele oradan oraya koşturuyor, nerede duracağını bilemiyordu. Maymun, Şempanze, Goril, bir daldan diğerine atladılar. Ağaçlar ile çalılar bile usulca bir o yana bir bu yana salındı, selam verdi eğilip, sonra birer birer kıpırtısız kaldılar.
Ağız, bir şarkıyla yarışmayı başlattı: Kendi mutluluğumuz için toplandık, Kendi mutluluğumuz için toplandık, Kendi mutluluğumuz için toplandık, Çünkü biz hepimiz Aynı doğadan çıktık.
Kollar ve Bacaklar, sonucu zarafetle kabullenmeye yemin ettiler; kimse oyunbozanlık etmeyecek, boykottu, grevdi, iş yavaşlatmaydı diye tehditte bulunmayacaktı.
İlk sınav Kollardan geldi: Yere bir parça odun attılar. Bacaklar, ister sağ, ister sol, isterse ikisi birden olsun, bu odun parçasını yerden alıp fırlatacaktı. İki bacak, yarışmanın her aşamasında birbirine danışabilir, parmaklarını da ister tek tek, ister topluca işe dahil edebilirdi. Başladılar odunu dürtüklemeye; öbür tarafına döndürmek için uğraşmaya; her türlü bileşimi denedilerse de doğru dürüst tutup kaldıramadılar bile. Yerinden kımıldatmaya gelince, yapabildiklerinin en fazlası bir tekmeyle üç beş metre öteye savurmak olmuştu. Bunu gören El Parmakları, Ağızdan ödünç aldıkları sesle kahkaha üstüne kahkaha atıyordu. Sınavı ortaya atan Kollar, bir güzellik yarışmasında podyuma çıkar gibi kasıla kasıla dolaşmaya, ince narin görüntüleriyle hava atmaya koyuldu ve tabii muhtelif bileşimlerle eğilip eğilip yerinden alıverdiler odunu. Kaldırıp ta ormanın içlerine kadar fırlattıklarında ise yarışmacılarla izleyiciler, hayranlıkla aynı anda topluca bırakıverdi soluğunu. Başka becerilerini de sergiledi Kollar: Bir kâse pirincin içinden mini mini taşları ayıkladılar; iğnelere iplik geçirdiler; daha büyük odunları taşımak için ufak tekerlekler yaptılar; sonra da mızraklar yapıp uzaklara fırlattılar, ki bunların hepsi de Ayak Parmaklarının ancak hayalini kurabileceği işler ve hareketlerdi. Öylece yerlerinde dikilip narin yapılı kuzenlerinin sergilediği mahareti, kıvraklığı hayran hayran izlemekten başka bir şey yapamadı Bacaklar. İzleyicilerin Kolları ise Kol kardeşlerine duydukları hayranlığı ve dayanışmayı ifade için alkış tufanına tuttu onları, Bacakların iyice morali bozuldu. Yine de pes edecek değillerdi hemen: Bir karış suratla otururken bile ayak başparmaklarıyla kuma minik daireler çizerek, kendilerini zafere götürecek bir sınav düşünüyorlardı.
Sonunda bir sınav bulma sırası Bacaklara ve Ayak Parmaklarına geldi. Kolay, dediler. Eller, bütün bedeni dairenin bir tarafından öbürüne kadar taşıyacak. Ne aptalca bir sınav, diye düşündü haddini bilmez El Parmakları. Görmeye değerdi doğrusu. Bedendeki her şey baş aşağı dönmüştü. Eller toprakta; Gözler toprağa yakın olunca görüş açıları ciddi biçimde kısıtlanmıştı; Burna toz dolmuş, arka arkaya hapşırıyordu; Bacaklarla Ayak Parmakları ise havada salınıp durmaktaydı şimdi: Nyayo juu, diye bağırdı izleyiciler ve neşeyle bir şarkı tutturdular:
Ama herkesin gözü Eller ile Kollardaydı. Daha birkaç dakika önce inanılmaz hünerler sergileyen bu organlar, şimdi iki metre yolu gidemez olmuştu. Birkaç adım atmışlardı ki acıyla haykırmaya başladı Eller. Kollar sendeledi, titreye titreye durdu ve sonunda bütün bedeni koyverdiler. Biraz dinlenip yeniden denediler. Bu kez yeri daha iyi tutmak için parmakları daha çok açmaya çalıştılarsa da bir tek başparmak yeterince açılıyordu. Çember hareketiyle perende atarak ilerlemeyi denediler ama, bu hareket diskalifiye oldu, çünkü ancak Bacakların yardımıyla yapılabiliyordu. Gülme sırası Ayak Parmaklarındaydı şimdi. Kahkahaları, El Parmaklarının kullandığı cırıl cırıl tonlara kontrast olsun diye Ağızdan kalın, genizsi tonlar ödünç aldılar. Nasıl hor görüldüklerini işitince Kollar küplere bindi ve bedeni taşımak için son bir çabaya giriştiler, çaresizce. Ancak bir adım gidebildiler gerçi. Bitap düşen Eller ve Parmakları pes etmişti. Bacaklar, atletik ustalıklarını göstermekten memnundu: Durup yerlerinde saydılar, hızlı adımlarla yürüdüler, koştular, birkaç yüksek atlama, birkaç uzun atlama hareketi yaptılar ve bir kere bile yere düşürmediler bedeni. Bütün izleyici ayakları onaylama ve dayanışma duygusuyla yere vuruyordu. Kollar, sportmenliğe sığmayan bu davranışı protesto etmek için ellerini kaldırdı, her şeyi başlatanın kendileri olduğunu nasıl da unutmuşlardı!
Gerçi izleyiciler de dahil olmak üzere oradaki herkes, şimdi Kollarda bir tuhaflığın farkına varıyordu: Eller bedeni taşımaya uğraşırken yana doğru uzanan başparmaklar, diğer parmaklardan ayrı, öylece kalmıştı. Rakip organlar tam kahkahayı koyuverecekti ki başka bir şey daha fark ettiler: Ayrık duran başparmak, eli daha zor kullanılır kılmak şöyle dursun, kavrama ve tutma yeteneğini artırmıştı. Nedir bu? Deformasyondan doğan yeni bir formasyonun gücü!
Organlar arasında kimin kazandığına karar vermek için yapılan tartışmalar beş gün sürdü, El ve Ayakların her birindeki parmakların sayısı kadar. Ama ne kadar uğraşsalar da, açık ara kazananı ilan etmeleri mümkün olmuyordu; her organ yapabileceğinin en iyisini koymuştu ortaya; hiçbiri diğeri olmadan yapamıyordu işte. Böylece felsefi fikir yürütmeler başladı: Beden nedir ki zaten, diye soruyorlardı hep bir ağızdan, sonra farkına varıyorlardı ki hepsi birden bedendi; hepsi birbirine bağlıydı. Tek tek her organ düzgün çalışırsa hepsi birden düzgün çalışabiliyordu.
İleride bir daha böyle yarışmalar olmaması için ve bir daha birbirleriyle karşı karşıya gelmemek için bütün organlar bir karara vardı: Bundan böyle beden dimdik yürüyecekti, ayaklarını sımsıkı yere basarak ve kollarını havaya kaldırarak. Beden memnundu bu karardan, yine de çocukların dört ayak üstünde yürümesine izin vermeyi istiyordu ki, ki nereden geldiklerini unutmasınlar. Aralarında görev bölümü yaptılar: Bacaklar bedeni taşıyacaktı, ama beden gideceği yere vardıktan sonra ne yapılacaksa eller yapacak, aletleri onlar tutacaktı. Bacaklarla ayaklar ağır taşımacılık işi yaparken, eller uzanıp çevreyi şekillendirme işini üstlenecek ve yiyeceğin ağza kadar götürülmesinden sorumlu olacaktı. Ağız, daha doğrusu içindeki dişler bu yiyecekleri çiğneyecek ve boğazdan aşağı, mideye yollayacaktı. Yiyeceklerin içinde işe yarar ne varsa sıkıp alacaktı mide, kalanını kanallar ağına gönderecek, işe yarar her şey bu ağ sayesinde bedenin en ücra köşesine, en derindeki kuytusuna kadar ulaşacaktı. Sonra mide, kullanılan malzemeyi atık sistemine iletecekti, oradan beden bu malzemeyi açık alanlara bırakacak veya toprağın derinlerine gömecekti ki bereketlensin toprak. Bitkiler büyüsün, meyve versin; sonra eller toplasın o meyveleri ve yine ağza götürsün. Evet ya, işte yaşam çevrimi!
Oyun eğlence bile buna göre pay edilmişti: Şarkı söyleme, kahkahalar atma ve konuşma ağzın işiydi; koşmak ve futbol oynamak büyük ölçüde bacaklara kaldı; ama beysbol ve basketbolu eller oynayacaktı, gerçi koşan yine bacaklar olacaktı tabii. Atletizmde bacaklar bütün alanları almıştı, daha doğrusu çoğunu. Bu net işbölümü insan bedenini ürkütücü bir biyomakine haline getirdi, öyle ki hem nicelik hem nitelik olarak başarabildikleriyle beden, en büyük hayvanları bile geride bırakır oldu.
Ne var ki organlar, vardıkları bu kalıcı çözümün yine de çatışmalara yol açabileceğini gördüler. Baş ta tepelerdeydi ve yere basan ayaklardan daha iyi olduğu sanısına kapılabilirdi pekâlâ, hatta aşağıdaki organların efendisi olduğunu, hepsinin kendine hizmet edeceğini düşünebilirdi. Güç kudret söz konusu oldu mu, başın da kendi altındaki bütün organlarla eşit olduğunu vurguladılar. Bunu kesinleştirmek için de bir organın duyduğu hazzı ve acıyı hepsinin birden duymasını sağladılar. Ağza da sıkı sıkı tembih ettiler: Şundan bundan ‘benim’ diye bahsederken kendi adına değil, bütün beden adına konuştuğunu bilecekti.
Hep birlikte bir şarkı tutturdu organlar:
Bizim bedenimizde Kölelik yoktur Bizim bedenimizde Hizmetkâr yoktur
Birbirimize hizmet ederiz
Bizden alır Bize veririz
Birbirimize hizmet ederiz
Bizden alır Bize veririz
Birbirimize hizmet ederiz
Taşı beni taşıyayım seni Böyle kurarız sağlıklı bedeni
Tut beni tutayım seni
Böyle kurarız sağlıklı bedeni
Birlikten gelir güzelliğimiz
Kurarız sağlıklı bedeni Birlikte çalışırız
Kurarız sağlıklı bedeni
Birlikten doğar kuvvetimiz
Bütün Bedenin Marşı oldu bu. Hâlâ da söyler beden bu marşı, zaten insanları hayvanlardan, yani dik durma devrimini reddedenlerden ayıran budur.
Dört ayaklı hayvanlar, bütün bunları gördükleri halde böyle bir devrim yapmamıştır. Şarkı söylemek saçmalıktır. Yemek için yapılmıştır ağız, şarkı söylemek için değil ki. İşte bunlar doğanın muhafazakâr partisini oluşturmuş, kendi bildiklerinden vazgeçmemiş, alışkanlıklarını asla değiştirmemiştir.
İnsanlar, organların oluşturduğu bu ağdan bir şey öğrendikleri ölçüde iyi yaşar; ne zaman ki beden ile başı birbiriyle savaşan iki ayrı taraf olarak görür, birini öbüründen yukarıda tutarlarsa, dik durma devrimini reddeden hayvan kuzenlerine yaklaşırlar.
*** Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, halen ABD’nin Irvine şehrindeki California Üniversitesi’nde İngilizce ve Karşılaştırmalı Edebiyat dersleri vermektedir. 1938’de Kenya’da, kalabalık bir köy ailesinin çocuğu olarak dünyaya geldi. Hepsi Kenya’da bulunan Kamandura, Manguu ve Kinyogori ilkokullarında okudu ve Alliance High School adlı liseyi bitirdi; sonra Uganda, Kampala’da bulunan Makerere University College (o dönemde Londra Üniversitesi’ne bağlıydı) ve Britanya’da Leeds Üniversitesi’nde öğrenim gördü. Danimarka, Almanya, Britanya, Yeni Zelanda, Amerika ve Afrika’da çeşitli üniversitelerden on Onursal Doktora unvanı vardır. Ayrıca Amerikan Sanat ve Edebiyat Akademisi’nin Onursal Üyesi ve Amerikan Sanat ve Bilim Akademisi üyesidir. Çok yönlü bir entelektüel, bir romancı, deneme yazarı, oyun yazarı, gazeteci, editör, akademisyen ve sosyal aktivisttir. Kitapları: Devil on the Cross; Matigari; Wizard of the Crow (orijinal dili olan Gikuyu’dan İngilizceye çevrilmiştir)
This is an excerpt from the author’s new novel, “An Unwritten Life”
this year, I’ll wear purple on christmas maybe add a little blue here & there a splash of red near my sleeves ah, yes, that’ll do well
by mk, 2015
I Pretoria – Kroonstad
The car moved south across the country, like a teardrop down a cheek. Only the driver was awake, hunched over the wheel, hands grasped tightly at ten-to-two. Her eyes flicked constantly between the mirrors and the headlights of oncoming traffic, the strain of her divided attention taking its toll. She thought she was focused, but it was only when she took the exit to the filling station that she realized she had actually been falling asleep at the wheel. Joining the shortest queue at the pumps, she became aware of her toddler’s nursery rhymes, still playing on the loop as they had been ever since they left Mamelodi: When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall, down will come baby, cradle and all …
She asked the petrol attendant to check the oil, water and tire pressure, things she’d skipped in her rush to get out of Gauteng. But Cape Town was still a long way off, and she didn’t want to run the added risk of car trouble on the way. It felt good to be out of the car, but the nagging feeling that he might be following them surfaced again, so she got back into the car, locked the doors, and kept her eyes on the mirrors.
The commotion woke Jackson. Where are we? He asked, looking around with sleep-soaked eyes.
Kroonstad, Sara said.
Want anything from the shop?
Coffee, please. Black, no sugar.
What about him? Jackson checked, tilting his head at the child sleeping in the back seat.
He’s sorted. But get some more Jelly Babies. He loves those, she said, counting out enough notes to pay the attendant before handing him the rest of the wad she’d withdrawn from an ATM in Pretoria.
All this, he said.
It’s safer with you, she replied.
Leaving the shop, Jackson wondered around the parking lot, looking for the car. It was the start of the holiday season, and the filling station was full of travellers from the northern provinces destined for summer vacations by the sea. In the end, he sent her a message: Can’t find the car. Where are you?
The tone filled Sara with dread. Reluctant, she reached for her phone, but sighed with relief when she saw the message. Behind the Pickfords truck, she responded, flashing the hazard lights.
He found her in the passenger seat, scribbling down numbers. How are you feeling now? He asked.
You’ll have to take over from here, she said, dismantling her phone.
But I don’t have a license.
He shrugged his shoulders. Prison and what, what, remember. Me, I’m still catching up with life.
Well, it’s either a fine with you at the wheel or an accident with me.
She reached for her coffee with one hand and gave him the key with the other. Let’s go.
IIKroonstad – Kimberley
She woke to the sound of Zakariya singing in the back seat. The nursery rhymes were back on.
Salaam alaikum, baby boy, she smiled, reaching around her seat to squeeze the toddler’s cheeks.
By now the sun had risen, so she pulled down her sunglasses from the top of her head, realizing then that they’d been there all night. Then she looked around in panic.
This isn’t the N1, she said. Where are we?
Outside Kimberley, he answered, decisively.
You need to rest, and Zak needs to get out of the car. Cape Town’s still far.
He won’t look for you there.
It was late in the afternoon when she woke. Far from rested, her nap left her feeling listless and lethargic. Her neck was sweaty, her collar soaking wet. In the distance, she could hear Jackson and Zakariya playing in the pool. She wanted to join them, but fatigue nailed her to the bed, which sucked her down like quicksand. Too tired to resist, she submitted to the exhaustion and stared up at the ceiling, while the sequence of events that had led her to this sweltering city, this bog of a bed, flooded her head once more.
She returned to her office from the last meeting of the year, a spring in her step at the prospect of shutting down her computer for the summer. But her mood changed when she saw the envelope waiting on her desk, instantly recognizing Adam’s handwriting in the shape of her name. Too afraid to open the envelope, she gave it to her assistant. The colour drained from his face when he read the letter. Go back into your office, he said. And close the blinds. I’ll call security.
When the security guard arrived, he confirmed that Sara’s husband had delivered the letter himself. Once the guard had read the letter, he advised Sara to go straight to the police. I need to get my son from nursery first, she said, haphazardly throwing things into her bag, unable to distinguish between what was needed and what was not.
Seeing her frenzy, the guard took her keys and drove her himself, through a city she had lived in all her adult life, but that now seemed terrifyingly unfamiliar, it’s sedate tree-lined avenues transformed into Hansel and Gretel’s ominous woods, howling trees clutching at the car with gnarled and twisted fingers.
Once they were inside the police station, the nightmare abated, but when the police directed them to the family court, providing an armed escort there, the ordeal resumed, escalating before her like a magnifying series of Matryoshka dolls all in the guise of Chucky. When the paperwork was finally complete, two officers accompanied her to Waterkloof to deliver the interim protection order to Adam in person. Flanked by an officer on either side, she was gripped by terror when one of them rang the doorbell. Please, let’s make this quick, she said to the policeman.
When Adam opened the door, one of the officers asked him to confirm his name before handing him the order. Adam flipped through the document casually, as though he were merely browsing through the pages of one of his motoring magazines. Once he’d signed the document as the policeman had instructed, Adam looked up at Sara, his contemptuous stare causing her hands to tremble.
She clenched them into fists to steady herself, knowing in her gut that the document would not restrain him, but that it had in fact inflamed him even further. The police escorted her to back to her car. Do you have safe place to say, one of them asked. Realising then that home was no longer home; a feeling of utter destitution convulsed her. For a while, she just stood there staring blankly at the officer until eventually one name emerged from the haze ⎯ Jackson ⎯ filling her with hope as a galleon on the horizon does a castaway.
She found him waiting for them outside his shack. When she crossed his humble threshold and collapsed onto his rickety bed, she became certain of two things: that her life as she had known it was over, and that the Mamelodi shack she was in was safer than her Waterkloof mansion would ever be. But when she woke the following day, Jackson sat her down, arms stretched out on the table in front of him, his fingers interlaced as people do when they have something serious to say.
Me, I’ve thought about this very carefully, he started. Even with you locked up inside here, your car has already drawn too much attention. People are talking.
What are you saying, Jackson? Do you want me to leave?
He shook his head. I’m saying that you’re not safe here.
So what should I do?
We need to leave.
That he’d used ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ brought some comfort. And where should we go?
Your husband, he’s a powerful man.
Jackson, she said impatiently. That’s not an answer. Where should we go?
Jackson opened his eyes wide, causing his brow to furrow. As far as possible, he said.
Mamma, Zak called out when she joined them in the pool, the water cool and invigorating against her skin. Under, Mamma, under, he shouted, so they both breathed in as she had been training him to do, and ducked under the water. Zak laughed in delight when they surfaced with a Boo! Gain, Mamma, gain, the toddler called out.
He’s adorable, isn’t he? It was the lady from the guesthouse, smiling beside the pool. How old is he, two? She guessed.
He’s three, Sara said, curtly.
And half, Mamma, Zak added. Dak tlee and half.
Sensing Sara’s awkwardness, the woman dropped the subject and came straight to the point. I thought I’d remind you that we have water cuts from six to six, in case you want to have showers, or a bath for the little one, if you prefer. Just make sure to keep it shallow, won’t you?
Tired from the journey and his swim, Zak was asleep as soon as his mother had bathed and fed him. She and Jackson were sitting at a quiet table by the pool, her food untouched on her plate.
Jackson tapped his finger on the lip of her plate three times. Eat, he said. You need to keep strong.
In the distance there was a dull flash of lighting and a muffled rumble of thunder. A sudden gust of hot wind caused the candle on their table to flicker, and left Sara feeling flustered and confined.
Fuck it’s hot, she said, holding up her hair to expose the back of her neck. She pushed back her chair, but once she had risen from her seat, she didn’t know why she was standing, or where she should go, so she proceeded to walk in circles around the pool until the tune of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush surfaced in her head. Eventually she sat down at the edge of the pool, kicking her feet in the water. When Jackson finished eating, he sent her plate to her room and walked over to the pool.
You can’t bath, but you can swim, he said, sitting down next to her.
Maybe they pay a levy, she speculated. Or get a business exemption, a tourism waver, or something like that.
Or maybe they’re just rich, he said.
They sat quietly by the pool for a while, moving their feet gently around the water.
You should get some sleep, Jackson said, looking at his watch. We have a thousand kilometres to cover tomorrow.
I should, Sara agreed, but just continued to stare trance-like at the ripples on the surface of the pool. There was a TV playing somewhere in the background. Some of the other guests were laughing at Trevor Noah’s story about a vampire called Vernacular who was chasing a woman through a township.
“I’m gonna bite you,” Vernacular threatened.
“Please don’t bite me,” the woman pleaded.
Sara imagined Adam pursuing her with his gun. “I’m going to kill you,” she heard him shout, while she ran away pleading, “Please don’t kill me.”
III Kimberley – Three Sisters
By the time the white line of dawn appeared on the horizon, they were approaching the Orange River. Sara opened her eyes and leaned over to check the speedometer.
I don’t drive as fast as you, Jackson said. He slowed down as they crossed the bridge into Hopetown. Let’s stop there for some coffee, he suggested, pointing at a little filling station on the south bank the river.
When Sara returned from the shop, she found Jackson squatting in front of the car. Elbows resting on knees, he was looking out over the river, smoking a joint. Hey, she whispered with urgency. There’s a police van right over there.
I know, Jackson said.
First she looked at him in disbelief; then she sat down beside him and lit a cigarette. I had no idea where I was when the alarm clock went off this morning, she said after a while. I looked around my room for clues, but nothing made any sense, not the lamp by the bed, or curtains on the window, or the carpet on the floor. Even the cot at the foot of the bed; I didn’t know why it was there. It was only when I saw the picture of the Big Hole on the wall that things came back to me.
The sun was rising, illuminating the fog on the surface of the river and the trees growing along the banks. I wished he’d drive his car right into that fucking hole, she said. They say it’s so deep the water down there is like acid. I imagined him and his car just melting away, the biggest asshole in the world melting away at the bottom of the biggest hole in the world. The two of them looked at each other and laughed.
Jackson started collecting pebbles from the ground between his feet. You know, in this place, farm boys once played marbles with diamonds, he said, and placed three perfectly smooth pebbles in her palm. Never lose hope, he said. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Me, I’ll make sure of it.
Say Insha’Allah, Sara said.
Otherwise it’s bad luck.
Eish, I thought you don’t believe in all that stuff.
Well, my feelings come and go, she said, and under the circumstances, I’d rather not tempt fate.
Okay, Jackson said. Insha’Allah.
Nutly lime, Mamma, nutly lime, Zak called out, clapping his hands in the back seat. Sara pressed play, and the nursery rhymes resumed: Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run …
How do you know what he’s saying? Jackson puzzled. Me, I sometimes have no idea.
Mothers just do, Sara said. Mothers just do.
By now they were deep into the Great Karoo. With two provinces and half the country behind them, Sara was starting to feel a little more at ease, although she still leaned forward in the passenger seat to check the wing mirror from time to time. The road was quiet, and Jackson had set the cruise control at 130 while he sat cross-legged behind the wheel in a lotus-like position, letting the high-tech features of the luxury vehicle do the work. She marveled at him.
How do you remain so calm? She asked, with a mixture of irritation and awe.
Jackson looked around. All this space, he said. Then he leaned over the steering wheel and looked up. All that sky. Uit die blou van onse hemel.
I’ve never heard you speak Afrikaans before, Sara smiled. But this is Jackson, she thought, never starting to answer at the point you’d expect, but somewhere far away and tangential. So she just stared at the road ahead while he told his story.
There were times on death row when I felt so sad, not for killing those men ⎯ they did not deserve to live ⎯ but for all the places I would never see after they hanged me, like the sea, like here, he gestured.
She’d barely noticed the landscape Jackson was pointing out at. To her it was a desolate wilderness, a tedious backdrop to the terrifying scenarios circling the ominous merry-go-round in her head. She just wanted to get to Cape Town. But Jackson, never having left Gauteng, was fully present; overwhelmed by the unending vastness of a country he was seeing for the first time. Our sky, he thought, it’s not just a sky; it’s like a universe. Our land, it isn’t just land; it’s like a continent.
You know, babies are born alcoholics here, Sara said.
But Jackson, overcome by an uncanny sense of déjà vu in a place he’d never been before, wasn’t listening. Perhaps he’d been here in one of his walking dreams, he thought. He shrugged. You never know how life will turn out, he said. Me, I should have been dead in my grave for twenty-seven years by now, but here I am, driving you to Cape Town.
She’d registered Jackson’s words, but her own were echoing more loudly in her ears. She cringed at their superior tone. Now, fully aware for the first time of her own son’s ordeal whilst still in the womb, she felt embarrassed. How was she any different from these abused hinterland women she felt herself so superior to? She was a rich city girl, she thought, but that was all. She pulled down the sun visor to look at herself in the mirror. Her wealth made her all the more culpable. She had the means to leave after the first punch, but chose to return instead, and every in utero blow Zak endured subsequently, she now thought, was one she had exposed him to.
IV Three Sisters – Laingsburg
At Three Sisters, they debated about whether to stop or continue on to Beaufort West. Her anxiety resurfaced; they were back on the N1, the road Adam would be on if he was pursuing them.
How far is Beaufort West? Jackson asked.
I’m not sure, about 100 km, she said, glancing at the fuel gauge. There’s enough petrol, and Zak’s fast asleep, so let’s carry on.
The road was much busier now, a more visible police presence hovering on the side of the road. Jackson resumed manual control of the car, making sure to stick to the speed limit. I think you should drive from Beaufort West, he said.
The heat slapped them with a scorching palm when they stepped out of the air-conditioned vehicle at Beaufort West.
Puppy, Mamma, puppy, Zak called out.
Still dazed by the heat, what Jackson heard was Pappa, Mamma, Pappa, so he fell to his knees to reach for the gun strapped to his ankle.
Sara’s eyes went wide open. You have a gun, too?
But seeing Zak point at a little boy with his puppy, Jackson left the gun in its holster and scooped the child up in his arms as he rose back to his feet.
Why don’t you go to the bathroom, he told Sara, while we go see the puppy, he smiled at Zak.
Sara’s mind jarred before her predicament came crashing in like a tidal wave. She was about to leave her son in a parking lot with a man who had a gun. She looked at her son, then at the boy with the puppy, then at Jackson’s ankle. She didn’t want to be here, weighing her deadly options. She wanted to be back home in Waterkloof, surrounded by beautiful things, cared for by doting servants. When her eyes met Jackson’s, she could tell that he had read her mind.
If that’s okay with you, he checked.
And just like that, he’d defused the situation. She sighed out loud, her shoulders dropping from where they had been hunched around her neck. She didn’t attempt to camouflage her altered posture; she was now too tired to pretend. Whatever, she said, waving her hand dismissively. For solace and concealment, she pulled a thin scarf loosely over her hair, and walked to the bathroom.
The queue at the ladies’ was long, and Sara wondered why the woman ahead of her seemed familiar. At the washstand, she recognized her as the woman from the parking lot, the mother, she now concluded, of the boy with the puppy. The taps were set to slow release, and the woman was hunched over the basin, her palms cupped under the slow trickle till she had collected enough water to splash on her face. When she rose to look into the mirror, Sara noticed the bruises on her face. The woman made to lower her sunglasses, but stopped herself. She dropped her arms by her side and just stood there, looking back at Sara, revealing herself fully to her in the mirror. Drying her hands on her T-shirt, Sara turned to face the woman. She took the letter from her back pocket, and handed it to her.
The woman’s face fell. Is dit hy? She asked. Ontvoer hy jou? Ek het sy geweer gesien.
Sara shook her head. It’s from my husband, she said. We’re on the run.
And then it hit her. She’d become a woman she never thought she’d be, a woman on the run, from a man with a gun. A woman on the run, with a man who had a gun. Sensing Sara’s fear, the woman put her arms around her.
You’re very brave, she said. I’ll never forget you.
Ek sal jou ook onthou, Sara said.
Those are our boys playing out there, the woman continued. I’m staying for the sake of mine, maar jy vlieg met joune. Ek sou dit nooit moontlik gedink het nie. But now I see it can be done.
I’ve wasted a lot of time by staying, Sara said. I thought things would get better, but they just got worse. I should have left him long ago. Just leave him, she encouraged the woman.
And go where? Maybe one day I’ll find a way, like you. She returned the letter, pulled her sunglasses down, and left the bathroom.
Insha’Allah, Sara whispered.
The road to Laingsburg seemed endless, and Zak would not stop crying. From the passenger seat, Jackson had held out toys, offered Jelly Babies, sung nursery rhymes, and pulled all the funny faces he could muster, but the child was inconsolable. I give up, he said to Sara. He wants you.
When she’d found a safe place to pull over, Sara switched on the hazard lights and attended to Zak while Jackson paced around the car.
What’s this? He asked, pointing at the Arabic calligraphy that ran along the bottom of the rear window.
Sara looked up. My father put it there when he gave me the car.
But what is it?
It’s the shahada.
The Islamic creed.
Jackson nodded. And why is it here?
I told you, she said impatiently while trying to comfort Zak. My father stuck it there.
I don’t know, Jackson. Muslims have it everywhere. It’s even on the flag of Saudi Arabia.
Can you read it? He asked, his fingers tracing the intricate weave of white loops and strokes standing out in striking contrast to the black tinted window.
What does it say?
Really, Jackson? Now?
Jackson tapped his finger on the glass three times.
Okay, okay. It says: La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah.
And what does it mean?
Sara rolled her eyes and sighed. It means: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Good, Jackson said. Pray. You need to keep strong.
In the distance, he saw a small white house. He wondered what it must be like to live there, so far away from everywhere and everybody. He liked the hustle and bustle of the township, and knew he couldn’t do it; too much space can be as restricting as too little, he thought. He knew he’d feel very confined, very closed in, as though he were back in prison.
Look, Jackson said.
What? Sara asked, looking around anxiously.
That man over there, he said, pointing at a lone figure walking in the distance.
Oh, Sara said. What about him?
He’s walking. Where is he going? Jackson muttered to himself. When will he get there? He turned to look at Sara. Do you know what my friends call me?
Seated in the back seat, Sara shook her head, her attention more focused on Zak.
When I was in prison, there were nights when I couldn’t breathe, and I’d break out in sweat, even in winter. Nights in prison are long, and you find yourself getting lost in your mind, like in those rooms with magic mirrors you get at fun fairs, except you’re stuck and you can never find your way out. So you just go round and round while your mind turns and twists your thoughts into scary shapes. So me, I would close my eyes and imagine I was walking. Just walking, walking, walking. Many times I couldn’t picture where I was walking, so I’d just imagine looking down at my walking feet, one foot going in front of the other, step by step. You know what I did on the day they released me?
Sara shook her head again.
Me, I walked. I walked right out of Pretoria, wanting to get as far away as I could, until I eventually ended up in Polokwane.
Rocking Zak in her lap, she turned to look up at Jackson. Really?
I’m telling you. I just walked. It was almost dark when I got to Ga-Rankuwa. I had no money, no phone, nowhere to sleep. So I just turned around and walked all the way back to Pretoria. Now I walk everyday. Most days, I walk home from work.
You what? From ⎯. She cut herself short, incredulous at the prospect. You walk from Waterkloof to Mamelodi?
How long does it take you?
From your place to mine, four, sometimes five hours. Three and a half hours when I walk fast.
She stopped rocking the child for a moment, and looked at Jackson with a renewed sense of awe.
Me, Jackson continued, I’m catching up with the steps. I can’t get back those years, but I can walk, try to walk all those steps I imagined when I was locked up. It calms my mind, makes me feel alive and free. By now the lone figure was reduced to a distant spot. Jackson pointed at the horizon. You see that man disappearing over there, he doesn’t have much, but I’m telling you, him, he has a very calm mind. Me, I’m very sure of that.
There was a lull in the traffic and Jackson noticed that the road was empty. He walked into the middle of the road, balancing on the white line, arms outstretched, as if on a tightrope that spanned the country all the way to the old gallows in Pretoria. He takes regular walks to visit them. He used to clean them before and after an execution. He’d stand on the trapdoor, under one of the seven nooses, looking around at the last place he’d ever see. He knew that it was only a matter of time before someone else would be sweeping those steps for him, cleaning up his mess after the life had been wrung from his body.
He’d rehearse the moment of his death, again and again, so that when the time came, he’d be resolute, knowing exactly what to do. He’d eat and drink only a little before the day, just enough for the guards not notice his abstinence. He did not want to shit himself or piss his pants as he had seen other inmates do. He’d use the hunger and the thirst to focus his mind. He would not sing as some men did, or cry, but would climb those fifty-two steps courageously and to the sound of his own final footsteps resounding through the room. He would not look at the black telephone for last-minute stays of execution. Why should it ring for him? He’d take his final two steps onto the foot soles painted on the trapdoor. He’d try hard to keep his feet from twitching when the trapdoor swung open. He would imagine them moving back and forth, back and forth, as though he were walking, walking on air.
When you’ve stared at Death as hard as Jackson, you begin to recognize Him in the crowd. He observes people, their comings and goings, like the woman at number 68. He’d noticed her leave one morning, immaculately dressed as always. When she returned a few hours later, he knew that Death had called her number. She invited him over, as she did from time to time. They had tea and cake in the garden, while she told him what the doctor had said.
After that, he spent a lot of time patrolling outside her house, not guarding her against mortal men, for whom he no longer had any fear, but standing firm in the face of Death, letting the woman know that she was not alone, letting Death know that they were ready. He remembered the student at number 89, who came home early one day. Sensing that something was terribly wrong, Jackson locked the security booth and cycled after him. He planned to ring the bell and make something up. Get him to open the gate and just start talking about something; it didn’t matter what. But he was too late. He got to the gate just in time to hear the shot go off. Jackson looked over to where Sara was still trying to pacify Zak by the side of the road. Yes, we’re the same, he thought to himself once more, the suicidal, the terminally ill and the condemned; we know things other people don’t.
He’s not settling, Sara called out.
Jackson saw her fear, but it was still the lesser fear of a mortal man, he noted, not yet the greater fear of Death Himself.
I think we should make a move, she shouted. We’re very exposed here.
She did not yet have the resigned look of the condemned, the look he’d glimpsed every time he caught his reflection on death row. She still had hope. This is good, he thought. He was doing his job, keeping Death at bay. He pledged to keep it that way. He looked up into the heavens and stretched his arms up to the sky. Then he stepped off the white line and walked over to the car.
You’ll have to drive again, Sara said.
He had not been driving long when he noticed a traffic cop a little way ahead, signaling them to pull over.
Fuck, Sara said in the back seat, but Jackson remained calm.
When the traffic cop tapped on the window, Jackson lowered it.
You were speeding, the cop said.
No, I wasn’t, Jackson replied.
122, the cop said, showing him the reading. He peered through the window at the mother and child in the back seat, and then looked at Jackson. License, he said.
Before Jackson could answer, Sara was out of the car, with Zakariya balanced on her hip. Let me explain, she said to the cop, stepping inside the yellow line behind the car. Jackson watched them from the rear-view mirror. He saw her point to him in the driver’s seat, all the while rocking the child on her hip, but the cop seemed determined. Sara returned to the car to get her handbag from the back seat. She retrieved the protection order from her bag, Adam’s letter from her pocket, and showed them to the cop.
What’s happening? Jackson asked when Sara opened the driver’s door.
Move over, she said. He’s escorting us to Laingsburg.
Jackson watched Sara keep up the with cop car ahead. When the speedometer hit 120, the traffic cop turned on his blue lights and siren, while the reading on the speedometer increased rapidly: 125, 130, 135, 140 …
Pee, paw, Mamma, pee paw, Zakariya clapped excitedly in the back seat, imitating the sound of the siren.
When the speedometer settled at 160, Sara activated the cruise control.
That’s more like it, she said.
V Cape Town
It was late afternoon when they cleared the Huguenot Tunnel, a palpable sense of relief rising in the car. They were on their final approach down the N1 into Cape Town, the southern sky still arching overhead like a universe, the Cape Peninsula spread out before them, just like the jewel Jackson had always imagined it to be. Sara had the sun visor down against the setting sun. Still peering routinely into the rear view mirror, she noticed the large car that was following very close behind.
She pulled down her sunglasses. It was the woman from the bathroom. Her husband was asleep in the passenger seat next to her. Sara slowed down. She lowered her window and waved at the woman through her wing mirror. The woman waved back. Then she raised her forefinger and spun it around in small circles. She pointed at her sleeping husband, and then pulled her finger across her throat. Sara interpreted the gesture to mean, “One day I’m going to kill him.” She stepped on the brake, but only had enough time to make a mental note of the number plate before the woman slipped away at her exit and disappeared over a bridge.
Everything okay? Jackson asked.
Sara closed her window and stepped on the accelerator. The engine roared and the Mercedes surged forward, the force pinning them back into their seats. Please send Tina another message, she said. Tell her we’ll be there in half an hour. She turned on the navigation system, and followed the directions to her best friend’s house.
Oh, my, god, Tina said as soon as Jackson went to bed. Your man’s gorgeous. Is he the one you’re supposed to be fucking?
Sara shook her head.
Because he’s worth it. I’d do him, even if it meant the kiss of death.
The two women laughed till tears streamed down their faces, and Sara realized that she hadn’t laughed like that in months, maybe even years.
Listen, she said to Tina once their laughter had subsided. There’s something Jackson wants you to know.
Tina gave her a puzzled look.
He wanted me to tell you on the phone before we arrived, but mine is off and he didn’t have much airtime, so I thought I’d wait till I could tell you face-to-face.
What is it? Tina asked.
As we’re staying in your house, he thought you should know ⎯
Oh for heaven’s sake. Just say it.
He’s a murderer.
Tina leaned forward. What?
Sara nodded. He killed two white men during the old days, and seriously injured a third. He didn’t want you to find out somehow and think he was keeping secrets.
He just wanted to be upfront with you, I guess.
I mean, why did he kill those men?
They gang-raped his neighbour.
Tina’s jaw dropped.
Tina’s jaw dropped even further.
And then they tried to kill her. That’s when Jackson intervened.
Tina, are you okay? Sara asked. I’m sorry to shock you, but it was right to tell you.
I’m glad you did, Tina said.
Do you want us to leave?
Are you crazy? No, I’m glad you told me, because now you’ve really turned me on to him. I mean, is anything more seductive than a bad boy who’s a good man?
The women laughed again.
It’s so good to see you, Sara said, reaching across the table to hold her friend’s hand. Thank you for putting us up at such short notice.
Hey, how long have we known each other? You’d do the same for me. We’re like family, and family don’t say thank you. You’re safe now.
Safer, Sara emphasized. And it’s only for tonight. We’ll find a guesthouse tomorrow.
A guesthouse? Are you serious? It’s the week before Christmas. Cape Town’s fully booked. What’s still available will be very expensive.
I know, but I’ve been thinking about it. Adam might guess I’d come here, and I can’t take that risk. I can’t put you in harms way, too. No, he can’t find us here, she said emphatically.
Whatever, Tina responded. But I’m coming with you.
In which case, Sara said, can we take your car?
The following day, they checked into The Cottage, nestled on an oak-lined avenue in one of the city’s most exclusive southern suburbs on the slopes of Table Mountain.
It’s all pretty self-explanatory, the manager explained, but proceeded to give them a detailed tour of the luxury property anyway. Water from the bathrooms and kitchen feeds the garden, he explained, but do please keep your usage to the municipal limit of 86 litres per person per day. Gauteng is still getting a lot of rain, but down here Day Zero’s fast approaching.
Jackson looked blankly at this man who seemed as though he’d never gone a day without in his life. In the township, he thought, it’s been Day Zero all our lives. He stepped away from the group and started tapping on his phone.
In the magnificent garden, the manager pointed at the dense growth of trees that ran along the far side of the garden. The manor house is on the other side, but it’s quite a way off. It’s accessed by a separate driveway, so you’ll have all the privacy you need down here. They won’t disturb you. Then he pointed at the sparkling infinity pool. But the water no longer flowed over the edges of the pool, revealing the weir and catch basin at the pool’s most dramatic infinite edge with its breathtaking views of the mountain. With the structural mechanics of the pool now in view, the visual effect was diminished, like a magic trick loses its charm once its method is revealed.
The level’s four tiles down now, the manager said, pointing around the edge of the pool. Last week it was three, so it’s dropped a level in a week, he added for emphasis. It’s a nightmare keeping it clean without the overflow, so absolutely no diving, please. We’d prefer to keep the water inside the pool.
Feeling patronised, Sara turned to Zak. It’s much smaller than our pool in Waterkloof, isn’t it? But, turning to look back at the manager, it will have to do, she said.
Oh, my, god, Tina exclaimed when the manager left. And they call this The Cottage!
I’ve found it, Jackson said, handing his phone to Sara.
She clicked on the map for directions. It’s fifteen minutes away, she said.
What is? Tina asked.
The nearest pawnshop, Sara said.
Tina gave her a questioning look.
We’re running short of cash, Sara explained, and I can’t use my bankcards. Adam will know where I am. So I’m going to sell this, she said, taking off her diamond wedding ring.
How much did you get, Jackson asked when Sara returned to the car.
She showed him the wad of notes.
Is that all?
I know. And I even salaamed so nicely, she said, removing her scarf.
Jackson took the money and got out of the car.
Where are you going? Sara called out, but he had already closed the door and disappeared around the corner.
What the fuck, Tina exclaimed when Jackson returned to the car. I’ve never seen so much cash in my life. You guys are really getting trippy.
What did you do? Sara asked, starring down at the large amount of cash Jackson had placed in her lap.
I just got you a fair price for your ring, he said. Now let’s go. I have somewhere I have to be.
Sara was still reeling. But ⎯
Tina interrupted her by starting the car and revving the engine. The man has somewhere to be, she said, and drove off.
Tina had lived all in life in Cape Town, but had no idea where they were when Jackson told her to stop the car.
Where the hell are we? She asked?
It was dark. There were hardly any streetlights, and groups of thugs hovered in the shadows.
Will the car be safe here? She asked.
Jackson drew an insignia of some kind in the fine layer of dust that covered the bonnet. Yes, he said. Follow me.
Inside the lights were dim and the mood relaxed. People were sitting at tables and lounging around in sofas. There was a small dance area, but it wasn’t full. Against the far wall, a projector cast Shekhinah, singing in a red VW Beetle: “Suited for each other, don’t try to move me from my lover.” People looked up at the newcomers. Tina felt a little self-conscious, but followed Jackson in his confident stride to the bar. They sat down in bar stools shaped like bums.
I’m here to see Nomsa, he said to the woman behind the bar. We’ll have two beers while we’re waiting, he added.
The woman didn’t look up. There’s no Nomsa here, she said, and continued shining glasses.
I won’t repeat myself, Jackson said.
Ignoring him, the woman turned to her assistant behind the bar instead. Did you get that, she said to her. He walks into my shebeen out of nowhere, with this little miss thing, ordering me around, like some big dick. She sucked her teeth.
It’s not your shebeen, Jackson said flatly. We’ll have those beers now.
There was a sudden hush. Looking over Jackson’s shoulder, Tina saw a majestic woman crossing the room; a magnificent doek wound high on her head. She was walking directly towards them. People put down their glasses, others dropped their cigarettes, and those on the dance floor cleared the way for the woman they’d all heard about, but who most had never seen.
The woman stopped a few paces away from Jackson. A beer for my friend, she said to the bartender. And one for my friend’s friend, she added, sizing up Tina.
Molo, Nomsa, Jackson said.
Nomsa’s dead, the woman replied. I have no mercy left. You can call me Big Babe now. Come, she said, nodding to the back.
When Tina rose to follow them, Big Babe turned around. Give us a moment, she said. I last saw this man in another country. De Klerk was still in Tuynhuys, and I’m guessing you were still at school. I’ll send for you when we’re done.
Tina sat back down, smiling awkwardly at the bartender. She went for her cell phone, but remembered that she’d left it with Sara. Swiveling around in her bum-shaped seat, she took another look around the room, noticing then that there were hardly any men present. Then it struck her that the thugs outside seemed to be women, too.
Unjani. How’s Cape Town treating you? Jackson asked Big Babe once they were seated in her den.
Well, as you can see, she said, gesturing at the room, then at herself, seated in an elaborate armchair under a portrait of Felicia Snoop Pearson.
What can I do for you? She asked, sparing him from having to.
My friend’s in trouble, he said. I need some help protecting her while we’re here.
The skinny one out there? Big Babe asked, raising a finger in the direction of the door.
Not her, he said. Someone else.
No. She’s kind of an employer.
Big Babe raised an eyebrow. Your employer needs my help?
Not that kind of employer. I’m a security guard in her neighbourhood.
Big Babe sat quietly while Jackson spoke, a steely expression covering her face as his story unfolded.
And where is she now, this employer?
At the guesthouse. In Bishopscourt.
A rich bitch, Big Babe said.
You could say that, Jackson nodded.
You fucking her, this rich bitch? I need to know the dynamics.
No, Jackson said.
What about the skinny one? She has the hots for you. I can tell.
Jackson laughed dismissively, shaking his head.
Good, Big Babe nodded. Keep it that way. We don’t want soft hearts and wet pussies getting in the way.
So you’ll help us? Jackson asked.
Big Babe leaned forward and rested her hand on his knee. Mamela, she said. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t remember what you did for me.
Jackson looked down. It was nothing, he said.
Ha, Big Babe scoffed. You may call death row nothing, big balls, but I don’t. So this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to send me some pictures of the igwala husband, and that fancy idilesi in Bishopscourt. And this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to send some of my toughest bitches to watch over you. Then she pulled out two drawers concealed in the coffee table in front of her, and sat back in her armchair. Now let’s have a party, she said, pointing at the contents of the drawer. Go get your skinny bitch from the bar, while I fetch mine from the bedroom.
When Sara had put Zak to bed, she called the Helpline.
Promise me you’ll call them, Tina said before they left. You need to build evidence for your case. Here, I’ll leave you my phone.
Such a serious death threat, it doesn’t come from now where, the voice at the other end of the line said. It usually follows other forms of abuse. Has that been your experience?
Sitting out in the garden, the dark mass of the mountain bearing down on her, Sara flinched at the memory of the first blow Adam ever delivered. She was three months pregnant, and flew home to her parents in Durban the following day.
Marriage is hard work, her father said. You’ve got to make things right with him, he urged. Our families have been doing business for generations.
This isn’t only about you, her mother interrupted. Your sister’s married to his brother. Have you forgotten that?
Hello, Ma’am. Are you still there? The voice asked.
I’ll have to call you back, Sara said. She hung up the phone and sobbed.
There was nowhere to park in Camps Bay, so Tina drove them further south along the Atlantic coast to Llandudno Beach. They hired a beach umbrella, setting it up in a quiet spot amongst the large granite boulders at the southern end of the beach.
So this is what the beach feels like, Jackson said, marveling at the feeling of the silky sand between his toes. When he and Zak went down to play in the shallows on the shore, Sara turned to Tina. What am I going to do now? She asked. I can’t stay here forever. She looked around at the other people on the beach. Is this a non-smoking beach?
Tina rummaged around in her bag.
But I’m so fucking exhausted by it all, Sara continued. I feel as though my head is going to explode if I have to make one more decision.
Menthol or plain? Tina asked mischievously, holding out two packets of cigarettes. She winked at Sara, and the two women laughed.
Can I say something? Tina asked through huge plumes of smoke.
Sara nodded, taking a hit.
I think you were right to get away. You’ve been to the police, you have a protection order, and you’ve driven yourself to safety. You’ve got enough of money for now, and a safe place to stay. Most of all, Zak is happy and content. And look at Jackson. The two of them are having a ball down there. So here’s what I think. It’s the holiday season. Just use the next few days to do that.
Do what? Sara asked.
Have a fucking holiday! Tina exclaimed. I mean, look at you. You need to relax, girlfriend. Take some time to calm down and enjoy yourself, so that when the time comes for next steps, you can decide what to do with a clear and fresh mind. But you don’t have to make those decisions today, or tomorrow, or even the day after. You’ve bought yourself time, and Jackson’s friends are just over there keeping an eye on you, she said, gesturing at the Babes in the middle distance. Now just sit back and relax. Can you try to do that? Tina looked at her intently.
Sara nodded, but was not convinced. She lowered her sunglasses and lay down on her beach towel, where, despite her best efforts, she just continued to fret.
When Jackson and Zak returned from the shore, Sara had fallen asleep and Tina was busy on her phone. How was it? She asked.
Eish, the water’s freezing, Jackson said. And very salty. Me, I never imagined it would be that salty.
And you little man? Did you have fun? Tina asked, wrapping a towel around Zak. The toddler muttered excitedly, pointing around and up and down, but Tina couldn’t understand a word he was saying, so she just smiled broadly and said, Is that so?
How’s she been, Jackson mouthed to Tina?
Stressed out, Tina whispered, but she’s fast asleep now.
Good, Jackson said, picking up his phone, while Tina and Zak started building castles in the sand.
Tina, Jackson said with earnest, holding out his phone. You posted pictures of us on the beach.
Yes, Tina smiled. Aren’t they lovely? And then her expression changed.
Come on, Jackson said, jumping to his feet. We’ve got to go. He woke Sara, and let out a wolf whistle to alert the Babes.
Jackson, out of habit, was counting the steps leading from the beach up to the parking lot. He had not yet reached fifty-two when Zak shouted out, excited, Pappa, Mamma, Pappa, pointing at his father who was holding out a gun. Lama laikum, Pappa, the toddler said.
Sara and Tina froze. The Babes pulled out their weapons, but Jackson stepped forward, arms out stretched. Everybody just stay calm, he said. Then he turned to face Adam. Please lower your weapon, Sir. Nobody needs to get hurt here today.
But Adam just looked back at him, wild-eyed. You’ve got that wrong, he said. And then he pulled the trigger, the sound travelling through the air like a series of violently crashing waves.
There was mayhem. The people closest to the shot fell down. Those further away darted around, ducking and screaming. Sara threw herself on top of Zak. Only Jackson and the Babes remained standing. Several seconds passed before Jackson fell, first onto his knees before finally collapsing to the ground. Then a second shot rang out, striking Adam in the shoulder. Sara rushed over to Jackson. Tina took hold of Zak. The Babes overpowered Adam.
Sara cradled Jackson’s head in her lap, a stream of blood already flowing down the stairs, seeping into the white sea sand.
I never told you what my friends call me, Jackson said, looking up at her.
Sshh, Jackson, Sara pleaded, desperately pressing down on his wound. Somebody call an ambulance, she cried out.
My friends, they call me Walker, he said.
Sara smiled through the flood of tears streaming down her face.
You can call me Walker, now.
Okay, Walker, she sobbed.
Glimpsing the mountain through the canopy of trees that overhung the stairs, Jackson moved his lips again. Don’t worry, he gasped. Everything will be fine.
Me, I’m going to climb that mountain now. And then his eyes closed, and his body went limp in her lap.
At Cape Town airport, Sara and Big Babe stood side by side by the window, looking out over the runway. In the background, Tina kept Zak occupied with the toy she’d bought him. Starring ahead through their reflections in the window, Big Babe broke the silence. So here we are, the poor still taking the fall for the rich.
But Sara, her loosely draped black scarf lending her an air of regality, just starred blankly out at the runway where their luggage was being loaded onto the plane.
So now you just gonna stand there, cold as ice, Big Babe said. Let me tell you something. That man, he was on death row, but I was the one who died. Thirteen years. It was hard on him, but let me tell you, it killed me. Every fucking day, knowing you’re out there, free, living your life, while another man is going to swing for you … And then, by some fucking miracle, just a few days before he’s due to hang, De Klerk suspends all executions. Can you imagine that? There’s no words to describe the relief you feel when shit like that happens. And so he survived, until you rocked up. You, Waterkloof, Wabenzi, Bishopscourt, ma sha’allah, throwing it around, managing to do what a whole fucking regime couldn’t, getting him killed … So now I bet you’re thinking Big Babe’s a mean and heartless bitch, but I’m telling you like it is. Because I know the guilt.
He survived death row, but me, I still, still I lie awake at night because of the anguish and the years behind bars I cost him. Let me tell you, that guilt’s gonna haunt you till the day you die. So you better be starting to fall down on your knees woman, knocking that pampered head of yours on the ground, asking Allah for some deep ⎯. Big Babe stopped herself, breathing deeply before she continued. Accept this: all you got is Allah, that child, and Big Babe now. I’ll say it to your face: I don’t like you. But that doesn’t mean I won’t watch out for you. He called you his friend. That means something to me … And you, you’re the one, while me, I’m the almost-one, the woman he almost died for.
That makes me so angry, I could slit your rich ass open right here. So you better make it count. You hear what I’m saying? You’re the one, so you better make it count. No more daddy’s girl shit, because you know what, if he had protected you the way he should have, we wouldn’t be standing here right now … So here’s what’s gonna happen. You’ll be met at O.R. Thambo. My people will take care of you from there. Anything you need, you just say. Your car’s already on its way.
Sara nodded, jaw clenched tightly, standing firm. But when a goods vehicle appeared on the runway, pulling a long white crate towards their plane, she buckled and fell down.
Big Babe pulled her back onto her feet. Stand up, she said, this is no longer only about you. Stand up, like he stood up for you. Make it count. Make it count right now.
Sara turned to Big Babe, a look of desperation on her face. What if he gets out? Why didn’t your people just kill him?
Big Babe did not look at her, but stared at Jackson’s coffin as it rose into the aircraft. You want to know why my bitch didn’t aim to kill? So that he’d go to prison. Do you know what we do to men like him in prison? That’s where we’ll get him, don’t you worry about that.
When the crate had disappeared from view, Big Babe turned to leave. She did not acknowledge Tina, but ran her fingers through Zak’s curls as she passed by.
Wait, Sara called out to Big Babe, then caught up with her. There’s something else I want you to do. She handed Big Babe a slip of paper. The woman who drives this car needs help, Sara said. I saw her a few days ago, taking the off-ramp to Paarl.
Big Babe looked at the note. Your husband, she said, he’s on me, but this job is going to cost you. Do you understand? She looked at Sara, waiting for a response.
When Sara nodded, Big Babe put the note in her pocket and walked away.
Go efafane, Mamma, go efafane, Zak called out.
Yes, baby boy, she said. We’re going to the aeroplane.
How do you understand what his saying? Tina asked.
Mothers just do, Sara said. Mothers just do.
“Marriage for love is the beautifulest external symbol of the union of souls, marriage without it is the uncleanliest traffic that defiles the world.” Olive Schreiner, Story of an African Farm, 1883
Trevor Noah, The story of Vernacular
Shekhinah, “Suited,” Rose Gold, Columbia Records, Sony Music Entertainment, 2017
Ishtiyaq Shukri is the author of The Silent Minaret and I See You.
Ezekiel turned on the ancient tap in the middle of the forest and the tap coughed once, twice, before spurting out water the colour of rust. He waited for the water to run clear, then he placed an enamel pail under the flow. It amazed him every time that the tap still ran years after the cashew plantation stopped functioning.
People at the State Water Board had probably forgotten to disconnect the water. As the pail filled up, he debated if bathing was worth the physical torment he expected. He scratched his chest and the grime and crud on his skin collected under his wild fingernails. He took his nails close to his nose to sniff himself and recoiled like he’d been punched. Death, he thought, I smell like death.
He turned off the tap just before the water overflowed, and scanned the forest for the best place to wash, away from the heat of the sun. He chose a cashew tree that didn’t have too many rotting fruits under it and walked towards it carrying his pail of water in one hand and a plastic bag containing his skincare products in the other.
He placed the pail under the tree and thought about the wisdom in bathing after all these years. But, he would clean himself because he was expecting a woman, the most beautiful human he’d ever seen. She had promised to return, so Ezekiel would go through the torture of self-care even if it killed him.
The sun was out and eager and it was still only morning. The sky was a merry silver-blue. The yellow-billed kites swooped down and fed on the overripe cashew apples still hanging on the trees. All around him, rows of diseased cashew trees stretched into the distance and down to the ravine below.
He could hear the wash-wash sound of the river sweeping over rocks way down in the ravine, the festive zzzz of the bees traveling from tree to tree, the faint whoosh-whoosh of the trees swaying in the wind, the srak-srak of small animals foraging for their keep. He stood in the middle of it all, arms outstretched, naked, and imagined himself the conductor of this astonishing orchestra. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with clean air that smelled like rain and the sweetness of decaying cashew apples.
He stood in the middle of it all, arms outstretched, naked, and imagined himself the conductor of this astonishing orchestra. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with clean air that smelled like rain and the sweetness of decaying cashew apples.
Ezekiel poured laundry detergent into the water and stirred until the pail foamed over. He dipped the sponge into the foam and scrubbed his skin and rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed until the pail emptied, then he returned his skincare products to the plastic bag and in the order of purchase: sponge, detergent, salt, dry gin, scissors, razor. The shop attendant had turned her nose away when Ezekiel handed her the money, and Ezekiel had fought the impulse to crack her small head against the counter and spill her brain. He hadn’t walked that far into town to be so insulted.
As expected, his decision to wash came with consequences. He angered the lice living in his matted hair and pubic region, and the parasites began a mutiny that had Ezekiel scratching under his balls until strips of skin broke off and left long, bloody gashes.
He could only bear this torture because of her.
Now that his pail was empty, a thought sparked in Ezekiel’s mind and caught fire. He needed more than a mere wash, he needed a baptism that would make him born again. So, he headed down the ravine to the river, zigzagging his way through fist-sized mounds of cashew apples festering in the hot sun, holding on to shrubbery so he wouldn’t slide uncontrollably down the side.
When Ezekiel got to his destination, he sat on the bank and scooped white sand from the riverbed and scrubbed until his pores breathed free. He took out the razor and sheared his hair, displacing the lice from their long-time home. He shaved the area around his loins until he could once again see his penis from base to tip, then he rubbed the dry gin on these body parts that had once housed hair, killing whatever lice remained. Ezekiel exhaled and stretched out on the rocks, his eyes closed, the sun warming his freshly-laundered skin.
And then he thought of her.
Red dress clinging to her like a possessive lover. Thick box braids cascading down to her slim waist. Eyes twinkling like fireflies.
She’d promised to return today, and for the first time in years, Ezekiel had looked forward to a new day.
Three days before she first appeared, Ezekiel had woken up to see a man pacing the edge of the ravine, muttering to himself, sweating so hard his red shirt was now soaked maroon in places. Ezekiel stood at the door of his shack and stared, mesmerized by the sight of the man who was seconds away from diving off the edge. Jealousy had bloomed in Ezekiel’s heart. Here was a suicidal fool who was brave enough to do something about not wanting to live anymore.
How many times had he, Ezekiel, walked to the edge, prepared to jump, only to walk back because he didn’t remember why he wanted to die in the first place. And then rage sprouted and replaced the jealousy. If the brave fool jumped his body would desecrate the ravine below, Ezekiel thought. There were many places to die in the world and the idiot’s decomposing corpse would not be allowed in the place where Ezekiel’s mother had taken her final breath.
Ezekiel approached the man on the edge and thought of planting a foot square on his back and sending him on his topsy-turvy way, but he managed to string together a few words of affirmative nonsense that had the man backing away from certain death. The man took the tale back to town and reporters swarmed the forest in search of Ezekiel and a frontpage story.
Strangers shoved microphones under Ezekiel’s nose and shot questions at him.
What is your name?
How many suicides have you prevented here?
Is it true that you are not mentally stable?
This story is all over Facebook, do you care to comment?
Ezekiel’s temper combusted. He rushed into his shack and brought out a machete, and the reporters scrambled to safety – a stampede of humans and their cameras and microphones.
He nursed the thought of decapitating a reporter and displaying their bloody head on the rusty signpost that welcomed visitors to the State Cashew Plantation. But he doubted whether that was enough deterrence for people so annoyingly persistent.
It was then she came.
Ezekiel had felt her before seeing her. It was in the way the air stilled and everything went silent. Her skin was black velvet, her lips a fiery pepper-red.
“Can I return tomorrow to interview you?” she’d said.
Ezekiel’s voice left him.
“Tomorrow evening, then,” she continued.
When she turned around and left, Ezekiel stood there motionless, machete still suspended in the air, watching as the wind played with her dress as she walked away.
As promised, she returned. He just blinked and she was there. He saw her standing on the edge of the ravine, staring down at the chasm below. He closed his eyes and took three deep breaths but she was still there when he opened them again. He thought of running from her and not looking back till he got to the end of the world but his rogue, bare feet led him to her.
“How far is the drop?” She asked without turning to look at him.
“Far enough that falling would crack your skull open like a coconut.”
He regretted it immediately. It wasn’t the kind of stuff one said to a woman, but he had been isolated for so long that he forgot propriety was a human thing.
“Wow,” she replied and turned around to face him. “Thanks for letting me interview you.”
Interview? She didn’t carry a recorder or a notebook, and when Ezekiel’s eyes traveled lower, he saw that her feet were bare against the loam soil.
“Not a bad place to live,” she said as she closed her eyes and spread out her arms and gorged on the clean, fresh air.
Ezekiel wanted to reach out and stroke her braids, run his fingers down her face, press his nose against her neck and fill his lungs with her. The last time he’d touched a woman he was sure she hadn’t even been born.
But he cleared his throat and said, “It’s a place to live, good or bad.”
She opened her eyes and gazed out across the ravine to the other side, an impenetrable forest.
“How did you come to live here?” her voice was like a soothing breeze. “It’s so peaceful.”
He thought about his situation, whether it should be called living. It wasn’t living when he slept in a shack in the middle of an abandoned, haunted plantation and saw his dead mother hiding behind every tree.
“You know this forest kills things, right?”
“How? Everyone is talking about how you saved that guy, so this place can’t possibly kill everything.”
“It’s deserted. No one wants the plantation anymore,” he said instead.
“I know about the former owners,” she said. “One of them is currently in the race for governor.”
“Nigerian politics is definitely more profitable than being a farmer.”
The silence stretched and snapped between them as though her presence had paused life in the forest. He listened hard but he didn’t hear the bees, the birds, or the rabbits. Wondering if he’d imagined her into existence, he stole a glance and caught her staring at him, a curious smile stretching out her red lips.
He was known to attack people who strayed into the forest uninvited, except for the schoolboys who paid him to gain access to the cashew nuts, which they roasted and sold in traffic out there in town, but this was someone he hoped would never leave. He needed her here because she reminded him of someone, someone who skirted the edges of his memory. Maybe she could help him remember.
“I’m more interested in you. I’d like to know your name, your life before this plantation, your education. Yes, I have noticed that you speak perfect English,” she said.
Her compliment snatched him away to another place and time, a lifetime ago. Another girl sitting at his feet had smiled up at him, had commented on his English.
“How am I sure that all these big, big words you like using are real English words, enh, Zik?”
And his mind swallowed the memory with a speed that left him stunned. He reemerged beside a beautiful girl standing at the edge of a ravine, looking across a gaping hole in the middle of the world.
Now that she had mentioned his perfect English, Ezekiel wondered about his own education. He wasn’t sure why he sometimes remembered The University of Oxford, the name and not the school. He didn’t know if he’d ever gone there, doubted that he had ever enrolled, but it came to him in those times his fractured, chaotic mind cooperated with him.
“I had a life before now,” Ezekiel said, forcing out the words stuck on the roof of his mouth.
Another memory clawed its way out of the muddle of his mind, its fingers bloody and splayed from the effort. Yes, he once had a wife. And a child, too.
Wife: a young girl hemorrhaging in a corner of a dark room.
Child: the blood flowing from a source between the young girl’s thighs, coursing through the room like a poisonous river, soaking Ezekiel’s books across the room, drowning all his dreams.
He was gasping when he returned to the present; excavated memories required too much oxygen.
“I was married,” Ezekiel said simply.
She was quiet but Ezekiel felt that even when he wasn’t saying much, her eyes dove into his soul and saw the words whirring unsaid inside him.
Her toes poked the edge and sent loose earth careening off into the ravine. One wrong move and she’d go tumbling down the side and all the way to the bottom and branches and rocks would reach out and scratch and grind her bones to powder, and she’d land at the bottom like a ragdoll.
“I assume you’ve been down there,” she said. “If I lived here, I know I’d be curious enough to want to go see how it is below.”
“Yes, I have been down there. I was only a boy the first time I went.”
And then another buried memory flickered to life in front of Ezekiel. A scene from his childhood emerged. A pregnant woman crouching on her belly turned to a young boy crouching behind her and held her finger to her lips to show him he had to be quiet. The little boy stopped whimpering. The bushes weren’t thick enough to conceal them from the horror they were trying to escape.
The little boy turned onto his back and looked up at the sky, but all he saw were bombers filling up the afternoon sky like pregnant clouds. And then it began to rain bombs. The woman grabbed the boy and covered his bony body with hers, but he still saw the world go to hell from under his mother. The ravine was filled with loud explosives and shrill screams and flying severed limbs. A man on fire stumbled and fell a few paces away from the boy and his mother. The boy’s eyes locked with the dead man’s feral ones, and in them, the boy saw their world burn.
“We hid down there during the civil war,” Ezekiel said.
The reporter was young and probably hadn’t been born during those years of darkness. Ezekiel didn’t tell her that he’d crawled out of the valley one dark night, dragging his mother’s dead body up with him. A few days after he scratched out a shallow grave and buried his mother with her pregnant belly and bloody toes sticking out of the ground and pointing at the sky, the war ended and the government said there was no victor and no vanquished. The young boy stumbled back to town to live in the ghost of the war, taken in by neighbors until he was old enough to live alone.
But that was decades ago.
Now he saw his mother every day. Sometimes she followed him around the forest and spoke to him in a language he couldn’t understand. He often walked through her as she darted in an out of his path. He spoke back to her when he felt his voice rusting inside his belly, when he was sure he would explode from being silent for so long. One day he had tried to escape from her by leaving the forest, but she had managed to follow him all the way to town. He had turned around and told her off, attracting stares from people around. Everyone had stared at Ezekiel with questions in their eyes, and through his mother, like she was made of air.hey had hurried away from Ezekiel like he had something contagious.
Ezekiel took two steps backward from the edge, putting some distance between himself and the chasm.
“Do you want to see the rest of the forest?” he asked, but not because he was interested in giving her a tour. He wanted to keep moving, to leave those memories in a burning heap. They walked side by side and Ezekiel was relieved that he had bothered with a bath. He cast a sideward glance at her and knew somehow that his stench wouldn’t have bothered her. She reminded him of someone – not his mother, who had been a tiny bullet of a woman. It was another woman who lived in the periphery of his shredded mind. This woman, she’d come to him, always at high noon when the sun’s backlighting would distort the exposure of her image, rendering her fuzzy and out of focus – a dark silhouette with glowing edges.
Up above Ezekiel and the reporter, the sky – moody and grey, began to grumble under its breath. Lightning forked the earth in the distance. Their bare feet mashed rotting cashew apples as they walked. He looked at the trees in various stages of decay and imagined how pretty they would have been when people had cared about them.
“Leave anything on its own long enough and watch it go mad,” she said, making Ezekiel wonder if she was reading his mind about the current state of the plantation or if she was referring to something else. Or someone.
“I guess,” he mumbled, suddenly self-conscious.
She stopped and turned to face him.
“You said you were once married? I really want to know about your wife. How did you meet? Where is she now?”
He was forced to stop because she had stopped. He didn’t want to talk about his wife because his memory of her was as foggy as a cold harmattan morning.
“Aren’t you afraid to be alone in a forest with a man like me?” He said, hoping to deflect her question.
“A man like you? Do you hurt women?”
Did he hurt women?
Her playful questions slammed into another door and forced open a locked memory.
Ezekiel’s wedding night snapped into life, and his new bride, crouched in a corner, wept into her blouse. Ezekiel was in the frame and he was livid. It was in the fifth hour of his wife’s weeping that he got up from his mattress, went to her in the corner and served her a flurry of sharp slaps. She leaped to her feet and went for his throat.
“Kill me, Zik,” his bride said, flinging off her wrapper to fight him naked. “My world has already ended, Zik, what difference will my death make?”
“You should be afraid,” Ezekiel said now as the memory evaporated into the afternoon. “You should be afraid to be alone with me.”
“How did you meet your wife?” She was insistent, but Ezekiel would rather dodge her questions.
“I thought you wanted to ask about the suicidal fool I supposedly saved?”
“I want to know Zik the man before Ezekiel the savior.”
Ezekiel raised his eyes to her face, shocked. She had called him by his names and he didn’t remember volunteering that information. Now he wanted her gone. Whoever she was. He started to send her away, but she twirled around and the wind picked up the skirt of her red dress and it ballooned out – a crimson parachute. She was no longer smiling.
“Am I bothering you, Zik? Should I leave?”
Her presence had jiggled too many door handles and a headache was already brewing from peeking into memories Ezekiel wasn’t even sure were real. But what would the forest be without her presence? Who else in the world would care enough about him to ask him about his life, even though he barely remembered anything?
She began to flicker in front of Ezekiel like a torchlight running out of battery juice. He closed his eyes and inhaled, craving her presence yet hoping she’d be gone when he opened his eyes again.
“Our meeting was nothing special. One day she walked into my room and we made love.”
Ezekiel feared she’d fade into nothing if he told her to leave. And he’d be alone. Suddenly he wanted to sink into the earth and become a part of the mulch, or part of anything at all. Loneliness pressed down on his shoulder and hammered him into the ground.
“That’s odd. You mean a girl just walked into your room and you took her to your bed?”
“To be honest, it wasn’t much of a bed. That bug-infested mess was as thin as a sheet of paper. He brushed his feet against the rough earth to remove the pulp of the cashew apples they’d walked on, “And, she wasn’t a stranger. She was my landlord’s daughter.”
Ezekiel looked up at the sky and saw that darkness had fallen like someone threw a blanket over the sun, and loud thunder protested this affront. The reporter didn’t seem to notice that the kind of rain that was about to fall would go on for days. Ezekiel knew she needed to leave before the rain came, and even if he didn’t really want to see her gone, it was still her choice to make. But he saw in her pleading eyes that she wanted him to continue the story, that hearing it mattered to her more than oxygen.
The memory she required of him had a huge metal door, the kind of door needed to lock in important things. Or keep them out. Ezekiel turned the knob but the door wouldn’t budge. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes and a scene formed behind his eyelids. The scene was dog-eared and curled around the edges, but not from frequent use – it was an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism of abandoned, unconfronted history.
The steel door blocking Ezekiel’s memory opened and he crashed into a windowless room. On the wall, there was a poster of Fela in his signature tighty-whities, next to a faded poster of Fidel Castro. A student union almanac hanging on a nail announced the year 1981. The most impressive thing in the room was the stack of books that rose from the naked cement floor to the popcorn-stained ceiling. Onyeka Onwenu’s voice blared from a turntable and drowned the laughter of the room’s two occupants.
Ezekiel saw a young man sitting on a paper-thin mattress on the floor. The young man had a thick Afro and fat sideburns that anchored his hair to his chin. The young man molded a fat ball of eba and dipped it in a plate of steaming afang soup, then he swallowed the morsel, his face as rapturous as one who was about to break into a bout of singing and dancing. A young girl sat at his feet and stared up at him. Her skin was black velvet, her lips a fiery pepper-red.
“Your mother’s contraband soup that you sneak to me every day should be made the eighth wonder of the world!” the young man said.
“I wonder how you will survive London, you that loves Nigerian food more than you love women,” the girl said.
“But the London stint is a rather brief one, my dear girl. I will get my Masters from Oxford and return before you can say Jack Robinson.” He called her my dear girl even though he was not much older than her, Ezekiel observed. Ezekiel guessed there were at most two years between them, but he sensed that the balance of power tilted in the young man’s favor because he loved her less than she loved him. The young girl stood from her perch on the floor and went to look at the Fidel Castro poster.
“It’s a good thing you are leaving on your own. My father swears that he’ll chase you away after your rent expires. He says he can no longer stand the number of women you parade in and out of your room.”
“Everyone knows your father doesn’t like me much. Your mother, on the other hand, is a woman after my heart.”
“Do you know that my mother once caught me sneaking soup to you? She snatched the plate from my hand and went to the pot to fill the plate with more pieces of meat.”
“She’s a class act, your mother. I suspect she knows about and endorses our dalliance.”
“Which one is dalayance again, Zik?”
“Dalliance means your mother’s food in my mouth and your ripe breasts in my hands afterward.”
“Hian! Mbok, please, is it that simple thing that you had to say in big, big grammar like that? Sometimes I wonder whether you just make your own words as you go.”
“I speak big grammar to impress you, you know. I am of the belief that you are more attracted to my mammoth vocabulary than you are to my person, my dear girl. You wouldn’t be here right now if I spoke Ibibio to you like everyone else.” A mischievous smile lit the young man’s face.
The girl turned around and leaned on the wall, facing the young man.
“I have this feeling that you will finish your school in London and return to Nigeria and become a big man. I see you becoming president.”
“I don’t much have any sights set on politics, my dear girl.”
“But intelligent people like you always enter politics. You will marry a beautiful wife, someone like that your yellow girl that speaks English through her nose like white people. That is the kind of woman you need when you become a big man. She will speak her grammar and wear fine, fine clothes when you people appear on the television. When you vex her, she will throw your big words back at you.”
“My dear girl, you may not be as educated as most of these my, er, friends, but who says you are any less than they are?”
“Zik, why haven’t you asked me what I’ll do after you leave? Do you care?”
Ezekiel saw that the young girl’s eyes glistened with tears.
The young man pushed the empty plates aside and stood to his feet.
“You become despondent, my dear girl, whenever I broach the subject of my imminent departure. I know you’ll do well without me because you’re a smart girl.”
“I know when you leave you’ll never come back, not to me at least.” The young girl sniffed back tears. “So, I’m leaving also. I’ll go to my aunt in Lagos and apprentice at a beauty salon. I will come back here and build a big salon and all the big women will be my customers. My life will never be as great as yours, Zik, but it will be something.”
She wiped her tears with the back of her hand and stooped to gather the empty plates.
“Where are you going to, my dear girl?”
“You are done with the food, aren’t you?”
The young man reached out and took the plates from her and set them down on the floor, then he reached for a corner of her wrapper and pulled it from her body, unwrapping her like a delicious treat.
“Don’t you know, my dear girl,” he said, drawing her to himself, “that a man has many appetites?”
Ezekiel was gasping and on his knees when the memory left. He held the ground for support, and on all fours, it looked like he was worshipping the young reporter in front of him. Except she was no reporter.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He cried out in an endless loop, like a skipping turntable record.
She loomed over him, her red dress flowing furiously behind her, the sky angry and black above her head. And the world was black and grey and red. She was here to force him to remember.
The missing pieces snapped into place, and, finally, all his fragmented memories made sense. The night he got married he had been sitting shirtless in his room. It was dark outside, so he lit a lantern and placed it in a corner. He opened the door to let in some air but that meant he had to beat off the mosquitoes that came to feast on his skin. Looking up, he saw his landlord and his family crowding his doorway. Their faces were stormy. The visitors parted to reveal the young girl weeping behind them.
The landlord’s sons, all four of them, marched into Ezekiel’s room. Ezekiel felt like a caged animal. There were furious fists everywhere: on Ezekiel’s face, his ribs, his stomach. Blood pumped from his nostrils and ears.
“You! Utebe mfem – smelly cockroach!” It was the landlord’s booming voice. “Congratulations, Zik! You have impregnated my only daughter. I have brought her to you for free. She’s your wife now.”
“I’m sorry,” Ezekiel said now, wondering if sorry was enough apology to a woman he had killed. The rain washed over him and he felt reborn. He took her hand when she offered it to him. He let her pull him to his feet. Now her small face was familiar. Her beauty had enticed him. Her beauty had doomed them both.
“I have been waiting for you, Zik,” she said. “Sometimes you come close to me but when I open my arms to receive you, you always drift away.”
“Was it you in front of the sun? Did you always come at noon?”
She smiled her response.
His hand was still in hers, so when she started to walk away, he followed her. He noticed that even when the rain fell so hard her red dress wasn’t soaked, that it fluttered and flapped. It was the same dress she had worn the night she died.
“We both know that I don’t love you,” he’d said to her back then. “And, you know you only have one option.”
“You can go to London and I’ll wait here for you.” Her swollen eyes begged.
“This is for your own good. You’re not exactly the kind of girl I’ll end up marrying, even you know this.”
“Save yourself now that it’s not too late.”
He threw some money at her and stormed out of the room only to return that night and step in a warm and sticky puddle. He lit a lantern and saw her, no, them. The young girl sat in a corner with her back to the wall and her blood flowed in thin tributaries towards his books. In the moments before his mind cracked, he saw his mother’s broken body.
It wasn’t his young lover anymore but his mother now, pregnant and bleeding at the bottom of a ravine. Dead babies stretched out their tiny arms to him wherever he turned, blood pumping from their eyes like tears, crying to be picked up and held. He ran and ran and ran. The only thing that made sense to him was the fact that his legs had brought him to where his mother had died during the war.
“Follow me,” she said, jarring Ezekiel back to the present.
He walked with her, step by step. She stopped to give him a smile when they reached the edge of the ravine.
“Come,” she said, smiling through her tears.
Ezekiel turned around and looked at the plantation. He could stay and be all alone. He turned around and followed her over the edge, satisfied he had someone now.
It is about time you woke up. You’ve been sleeping in the grave for months. Have you not had enough? Oh, sorry, I should have started with, “you are welcome.” But still, I have been sitting here for thirty minutes listening to you snore. Well, we don’t have much time today. So, I will try to show you everything as fast as I can and introduce you to a few people and then we will continue tomorrow. Okay?
There’s a party tonight, that’s the reason for the rush, and I need to prepare. We all do. We hardly ever have festivities above anymore, so when one presents itself, we make it our aim to be there very early and have as much fun as possible before we either get thrown out or morning comes. Anyway, up on your feet. Let me take you round your new neighborhood.
What? Come on, let’s go. There is no rest here. Oh no, I can’t believe this. Okay, I will only explain to you because you look terribly confused. You are dead. You died six months ago. Remember how you came down with a lung infection right after your campus trip to Mount Kenya? You were later admitted to the hospital, but were too far gone. You died and we have been waiting for your earthly flesh to rot before we could welcome you to the afterlife– and here you are.
Okay? There’s a party tonight, that’s the reason for the rush, and I need to prepare. We all do. We hardly ever have festivities above anymore, so when one presents itself, we make it our aim to be there very early and have as much fun as possible before we either get thrown out or morning comes. Anyway, up on your feet. Let me take you round your new neighborhood.
What? Come on, let’s go. There is no rest here. Oh no, I can’t believe this. Okay, I will only explain to you because you look terribly confused. You are dead. You died six months ago. Remember how you came down with a lung infection right after your campus trip to Mount Kenya? You were later admitted to the hospital, but were too far gone. You died and we have been waiting for your earthly flesh to rot before we could welcome you to the afterlife– and here you are.
Yes, I know it’s a lot to take in. Normally I don’t mind sitting with the newly dead and explaining to them step-by-step until they understand and accept, but as I mentioned, there’s a party tonight, and I don’t have the luxury of time. So, if you could kindly follow me for your tour, that would be great or if you want, you could just sit out here and hang out with the hyenas when night comes and then I’ll come find your bones in the morning.
Great choice you have made. Sometimes I think it’s even more dangerous here in the afterlife than in the world above. Have I introduced myself? No? How wicked of me. My name is Adala. I died four years ago, shot dead by robbers during an invasion of my home. They killed my Mother too, you will meet her later, I guess. What else? I died when I was twenty, so I’ll always be twenty. You are twenty-four, yes? Of course, I know your age, I know everything about you. Everyone knows. Your name is Kwame, a university student. You are a single man though you have a son by a girl called Wakini whom you impregnated in high school. Hahaha. Sorry! Didn’t mean to scare you, let me stop there.
How do I know? From the eulogy readings and the gossip at your funeral; of course, I was there, we all were. It’s our sacred duty to attend every funeral of our kinsmen. Yes, we are related. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know. What I know is, everyone who arrives here has the same blood flowing in their veins as the rest. We are practically family.
So, as you can see, we are in a village. It’s where our great-grandfathers lived. They pretty much run it since they built it. See that big red ochre hut on top of the hill? That’s where Babana and Mamana live. They are the overseers and currently the oldest in the community. The white huts besides theirs belong to their immediate families, Babana’s sons, and their sons.
We all live with the same families we lived with above to avoid confusion. So, after this induction, your immediate families who have died will come take you to go live with them. I know your Aunt Sophie who died last year will be very happy to see you. Yes, I know her, I told you, we are all related here, and we know everything about each other. Oh, that’s Nyajeri coming, whatever you do, don’t look at her face. Look anywhere but her face.
“Good day Nyajeri.
Oh yes, this is he, the new arrival. You think he’s handsome? Well something must be wrong with my eyes then. Does my mother know I’m here with him? Yes, she’s actually with us and has just stepped into the bush to urinate. Will we see you at the party? You are not aware there’s a party? Okay, goodbye.”
Curiosity killed man, but since you have asked and we are already dead anyway, let me tell you why we can never look her in the face. She has the ugliest burn marks and scars on her face. How do I know? Of course, I steal glances at her when she can’t see me. But don’t let her catch you. She was a professional boxer above and was having an affair with her coach, who was a married man. It was his wife that threw hot water on her face then stabbed her to death. If you want to experience her rage, look at her face, then she will flex those boxing hands of hers on you and shatter your nose. What, oh that? I don’t know why she thinks my mother must know where I am. They say her head is not right though, so we have to be kind to her.
Sorry, what did you say? You are itching? Don’t worry it will pass. Your bones are getting used to the new skin on you. Of course, your old skin did rot in the grave. What we now have is this flimsy layer to console us. But it’s better than walking around with bones, isn’t it? See that big yellow hut on the left? It belongs to Rodale Monona, yes that famous singer. We just call him Uncle Rod. He does sing when we have ceremonies here. You will meet him at the party. Oh, that’s the River Karee. Yes, it flows here too. What a silly question, what did you think we were living on? Of course, there’s food here and farms where we plant them. I thought I told you we are living in the times of our great grandfathers Their way of life is our way of life now.
Oh, this is Lowe coming. We arrived here at the same time. Actually, he got here a day after me.
“Hi Lowe. How are you?” Come on Kwame, shake his hand. “Goodbye Lowe, see you at the party.”
He never answers. In fact, for as long we have been here, I have never heard him speak. It’s because of the witches. Yes, witches. Didn’t you see how tired he looked? He’s always tired. The witches above use him to run errands. I know you noticed the needle sticking out of his forehead. That’s what they use to control him. You think I’m lying? Why would I lie about something like that? It is because he refused to embrace death. When it was his time, he resisted.
He still wanted to live above and, well, the witches can always tell those whose souls yearn for the above. As soon as he was buried, they beat up his grave and his corpse came up, they then pierced it with the needle and voila. As soon as darkness falls, they call him up to dig their farms, do their house chores, send him to beat up their enemies and all manner of tasks. There is no rest for him. No, the needle cannot be removed.
This is the path that leads to the shrine. Be careful that you don’t step on the grass. Babana and Mamana insist that we go there every other sunset to give thanks to our forefathers. What we do? Just sing and mumble and I don’t know what else, I always zone out. Sometimes we offer sacrifices. Of course, we have animals. All animals or pets that we owned in life follow us here when they die. Yes, when your dog Oyo dies, it will come here to you. Why we offer sacrifices you ask? To give thanks for life and at times also to request for death. It’s terrible, I know, but you see when someone dies and joins us here, the air becomes purified. It gives the trees a new lease of life.
Breathe in deeply. Can you smell the pine trees? Can you smell the fragrance of the earth combined with the fallen leaves? When people stop dying above, this place reeks of wasting flesh. So, we are all very happy that you came, at least we have a few more months of fresh air.
Oh, before I forget, at the gathering tonight, people will want their greetings so ensure you have them beforehand. What do you mean you don’t understand? Let’s walk to that brown field ahead as I explain to you.
“Hello not-so-beautiful girls and handsome boy. Yes, Felix it’s good to see you too. Yes, I’m showing Kwame around. Kwame, this is Judina, Felix and Naira. Say hello to them. Yes, I’ll show him where your hut is Naira. He can speak for himself. Kwame do you want to go to her hut later tonight? Ouch, how does rejection feel Naira? Who are you calling crazy, Judina? At least I’m not crazy with envy like you. Whatever, bye”
Those girls are bad news or maybe good news, depending on whom you ask. Why they have thorns on their feet you ask? I was about to get to that. You see in their life above, they died as virgins. Hard to believe I know. Don’t worry, they are certainly making up for lost time. Why else do you think Naira is inviting you to her hut? Yes, we are all related, but people still sleep around. After all, we can’t have children here or even get STDs and die. How much deader do we need to be?
Hahaha, you don’t think I should make jokes about death? Oh yes, as I was saying, they have thorns on their feet to prevent them from going back above to haunt virgin girls. Believe me it’s very possible, other girls without thorns have been known to do that. Once they realize what they missed with hot, young, blood-pumping men, they appear in the dreams of living virgins and threaten them with death. It’s envy, they want the girls to die without tasting the joy of men like they did.
They don’t like me very much those two girls. It’s because, one – I didn’t die a virgin, and two – I slept with Felix a few months ago even though he was going out with Judina. That puny pimpled Felix, why would I like him? I only slept with him to spite those girls.
So, this is the field we hold our parties and ceremonies. We also gather here every time there is a full moon. Say what? Yes, I was to explain to you about the greetings that will be expected from you at the party tonight. Okay, remember the mourners at your funeral? Yes, I’m aware you were dead at that time, wise man, but your spirit was alive. And if you think about it keenly, you will recall how when they were crying, they mentioned other people who had died before you. Something like ‘oh Kwame you have left us so soon, you have gone to be with Aunt Sophie and grandmother Leocaldia, sob sob’ those are the greetings.
If anyone’s name was mentioned, you have to tell it to them. It’s very important. It adds a shine to our skins and gives one a few more years in the underworld. What happens if no one remembers you anymore? Simple, your skin sheds off. You remain with bones and disintegrate. That’s why Mamana and Babana are living up there; they have been dead for so long no one from above remembers them anymore. They are just walking bones now, waiting for the final death.
Back to this field; all major events involving the community are held here. Weddings, burials, interventions, meetings, you name them. So, every time you hear there’s a gathering, this is where you come. No, tonight’s party is being held in the above world. We occasionally get to visit there if the ceremony is being thrown on behalf of any of us.
My grandfather is the one throwing the party. Of course, he’s still living, why would we go above if he was dead and living here? It’s an appeasement ceremony. Yes, appeasement. My mother possessed him because he didn’t carry out the wishes which she had instructed him before she died. He’s agreed to do them now, that’s why he is having the ceremony to appease my mother’s anger. I’ll tell you more about it later, let’s go; we don’t have much time left.
What? You can see someone laying at the edge of the field? Oh, that’s just Mukonyai. He comes here first thing in the morning and leaves only when the sun sets. Why? Because he has nothing to do, that’s why. In the life above he was a medicine man but when people embraced hospitals he became jobless, depressed and later died. When he came here, his spirit turned evil and he would go and cause double births to expectant women above. It was the only thing that gave him pleasure. But even that became pointless, because people no longer see twins as a taboo or bad luck, they now accept it. So Mukonyai became useless and since he refused to help in communal duties, he just sleeps here.
Come, I’ll show you one final place before I hand you over to your Aunt Sophie for today. I really need to go prepare for the party. I need to bathe, pick something to wear and do up my face. You have no idea how long those three things can take. You have an idea? Well, good for you. Hurry up then. See those huts beyond the thicket? They belong to the people who have been dead for more than thirty years. They like to keep to themselves most times. They say the recent dead confuse them with their ways and talks. They are the real meaning of conservative.
That’s the children’s nursery. You can’t see it? The big white hut with pink animal drawings on it.es, that one. It is where the orphaned infant dead are taken care of by the community. Most of them have parents still living above, so they just remain babies until the day they will be forgotten and die or until their parents die and come pick them from the nursery. The women and older girls take turns working in there five at a time. Which reminds me, I’m on duty from next week. See that homestead that has been fenced with eucalyptus? It’s the mad people’s house. All those people who died when their heads were not right live there. Let’s walk faster. Why am I whispering? Because I don’t like to pass by this place, it scares me. I don’t even like to see it. Faster, walk faster, no, let’s run.
We are finally here. This is the tunnel of acceptance. You have to go through it. I will meet you on the other side. Go on now. You want to know what’s inside first? I can’t tell you that, as it is different for every person. Some go in and leave just as they came. Some go in and leave with bruises and marks; the forefathers punish them for the bad things they did above. Some go in and never come back and yet if someone goes after them, they don’t find their bodies. How was it for me? I came out just fine. You see, my mind was empty so the forefathers had nothing on me. You don’t want to go in? Well, you must or else you will disintegrate at midnight. Yes, your body will turn to dust and blow away. If midnight strikes before the forefathers acknowledge your presence and cleanse you, you will cease to exist. It’s for your own good I tell you.
Can you hear those voices approaching us? Quick, we must hide. Go inside the tunnel, and I will be waiting on the other side. No? What if it’s those crazy people from the madhouse that have come to kidnap us? Hide me, here they are. Oh, it’s just my mother and your Aunt Sophie and Nyajeri. The two men with them are from the community. I guess we need not worry.
Yes mama, I’ve been showing Kwame around. No, he didn’t come earlier than expected. He arrived rather late if you ask me. I had been waiting for him for thirty minutes before he woke up. See Kwame, I told you your Aunt Sophie would be happy to see you? See? She’s crying with joy, go on, hug her back. What did you say mother? Why I ran away from the house this morning? I did not. I went to wait for Kwame. Well I have shown him enough for today. Let’s go and prepare for the party, it’s almost time. What do you mean there’s no party? Grandfather is holding a ceremony above to appease you tonight, have you forgotten? Don’t mind my mother Kwame, I think she’s slowly losing her mind.
Why are these men holding me? Tell them to let go of me, Mother. Get your dirty hands off me you ugly men. Stop apologizing to Kwame. Mother stop it. Why are you telling him to forget everything I told him? No Kwame don’t listen to her. I’m not crazy. I repeat, I am not crazy. I did not escape from the home of the mad people this morning. I don’t live there. Don’t listen to my mother Kwame. She’s lying. What do you mean you did not know that he had already arrived? Okay, I get it now. It’s this insane woman Nyajeri that told on me. You deserve a slap on that burnt face of yours. If these men were not holding me; I would give you the beating of your life. No, no mother, I don’t want to go back to that place, it’s full of crazy people. I’m not mad Kwame, tell them Kwame. Tell them how I showed you everything.
Stop telling him to forget everything I said. Promise me Kwame, promise me you will not forget. What do you mean Felix will induct him afresh? Felix is a crazy fool who knows nothing. Oh no, don’t make me go back there mother. I hate that loony house. Please I want to be with Kwame. Stop dragging me you big headed men. Well, goodbye Kwame, I will see you at the party tonight. I have to go and prepare now. Yes, there is a party, I must prepare for the party. Bye Kwame, I will see you soon. I promise.