“If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein
. . . .
Or should I say, Good morning.
. . . .
Of course it could be whatever we want it to be. I want —
. . . .
Decree. Good morning, good evening, good night.
. . . .
Under the circumstances you could lose sight —
. . . .
— of such distinctions. Or forget them. Time of day, night time,
time itself —
. . . .
— slips through your grasp when you’re. . . .
. . . .
Preoccupied. Aren’t you?
. . . .
I rib you but I can smell it. In my case, I have been, so much to do.
Think about. You think about it, how common it is to say that, so
busy. So easy to lose sight —
. . . .
Of the mountain for a single peak, too. I, never. Too many do,
though. You —
. . . .
Want to speak. Your crying request. Here I am. There are some things you never forget, no matter how hard you try. They root, linger, you’d once have said. You can’t forget them, I’d say.
. . . .
You take time out of the equation, you can’t take time out, forget.
. . . .
So much does get lost in the transmission. But I came. On precious time.
. . . .
I still am a man of few words. I had to learn how to use them from you. Once upon a time they could hardly understand me. You could. You, wielder of words. Language welder. Were.
. . . .
There. That should be better. Now’s the time to speak. Precious time. Yours.
Mmm. I doubt you’d believe it, but I hurried over. Even now, despite everything, still. You know I’ve always had an affinity for non-punctuality, all that messing with time, untimeliness as you used to describe it. Some things can’t be rushed, and yet others can’t be postponed. How do you un-time? Slip through its grasp? I learned from you.
Mmm. . . .
I learned that it’s best to keep time itself out of sync. Take its beat, remake it in your own. Be untimely. The drumbeat always sends a letter to the future. Say you happened to be the only one to arrive early for a meeting . . . and a bomb goes off. Wouldn’t it have been better to be late then?
Mmm. . . .
Or the chartered plane that you were to fly to that restive region went down mysteriously into the river, but if you arrived well in advance and boarded an earlier flight, you cheated fate, or the person attempting to shape it. All those other unfortunate people, though.
Mmm. . . .
The hands of fate, I suppose, or fate’s handler. Hangman. Honcho. You know who I mean. All those car crashes, overdoses, bodies found at the bottoms of drained swimming pools, riverbeds, earthen dams, sudden bathroom electrocutions, sharp, heavy projectiles flying through windows while people were eating their morning meals, the staged robberies where the robber always manages to accurately hit the bull’s eye of the heart, kidnappings without ransom notes, bones shattered into a thousand pieces so that they’ll never heal again, disappearances, heads left in mailboxes, hands and ears and tongues stapled to doors before dawn, such a remarkable arsenal this particular fate possessed, wouldn’t you admit? What I learned from you: how to glide out of fate’s schedule. Un-time oneself.
Mmm. Though before we ever had need to speak of such things I can recall us sitting facing each other, just like now, what was it, twenty-five years ago? Just like this, our noses not touching but close enough that we filled each others’ lungs. Do you recall that?
Mmmo. . . .
Sitting like this? Nostrils to nostrils, oily sweat and blood masking our faces in the sheer black silk of that night, we each could smell the other’s throat exhaling the hours, the years, of endurance, our elation and fear, all flavored with tobacco and the cheapest palm wine, with every breath. The smell of death so near too, nearer than the tips of our noses, our lips brushing against each other, our chests and knees fusing as one, and the smell of life as well, potentiality, the horizon that we would seize.
Mmmo. . . .
Just like this, in darkness surrounding us like an empty arena, so dark that even after our eyes had adjusted and we could feel our pulses passing between us we still had to rely on our other senses to confirm we were still sitting there. The only sounds the intermittent gunfire, later the mines going off, the rockets, the ground a rattle beneath our soles, the dirt and grass and plastic we could not wash off our tongues. There you go.
Much better. . . .
We even kept the radio off because we knew exactly what he would be saying: I appeal to you, vanguard of our nation’s liberation, I appeal to you at this grave hour.
Grave hour, dire.
We could recite it by heart, with the flourishes and the drumbeats, the two of us, the emphases and the pauses, I because I had heard it so many times from his mouth and initially I believed it, as I did you, you because you had written it, such a way with words, like the griots, the oracles, you and I just like this, the night so enveloping we had only our senses to ensure we were still sitting there.
Sitting there, and here.
The monsters no longer have to send their mirage planes, vampire jets, canberra bombers and helicopters, purchased from their American and European master devils themselves, to rain down bombs upon us, to stamp out our freedom like a boot heel on a new and fragile bloom. They no longer have to ravenously slaughter our little children, the seeds of our future, in their schoolhouses or their mothers’ wombs. They no longer have to destroy our factories, our banks and bourse, our villages and metropolises, all these the foundations of our freedom, they no longer have to salt our farms, uproot our trees, reduce our harrows and planters, our tractors and transport vehicles, to dust. They no longer have to poison our water engines and wells, these savage beasts who slaveringly covet the earth of our ancestors, these fossils who call us the missing link. They no longer have to take these steps, these demoniacal settler-colonialists, these aliens in our midst, with their cluster bombs and nuclear bombs, their handouts and NGOs and spies posing as missionaries bringing us the anti-salvation of their diabolical savior, their radioactive ideologies of capitalism and liberalism and individualism transmitted over TV sets and in records and books, through fashion and fads that wither our own indigenous culture and traditions like drought, in their pernicious pop culture which like a cancer devours the flesh and souls of our youth. No longer, my countrywomen and men, no longer, no longer. No.
No longer, those monsters.
No longer because they labor from the inside out now, through these Quislings in our midst, these walking tumors, these inhuman viruses, these beasts more depraved than any creature the gods ever bequeathed to us, these idolators among us who pray to the whiteman as their only deity and have pledged their being to sacrifice the black race to appease their abominable god, these psychopaths who have become impervious to reason and immune to the history and ethics and morality of our ancestors, the people, you, our people, more duplicitous and degenerate than the most unspeakable and unimaginable monsters ever placed or dreamt of on this earth, these traitors, these bootlickers, these parasites with their black skin and white hearts, cold empty hearts, lacking souls, these thieves who have conspired with the capitalist thieves in Washington and London, in Berlin and Zurich, in Toronto and Tel Aviv, to empty our pockets, strip our resources, rape our rich soil into a desert and turn our deserts into their tarmacs and derricks, this filth, this rot, this shit festering in our midst, circulating among us, like the air we breathe and the water we drink.
This filth, this rot, this shit, in our water and air.
But, my countrywomen and men, my fellow patriots, my fellow liberators, my fellow warriors, my sisters and brothers, my people, we have identified them and we must stamp them out. We will stamp them out, my people. We will cut them from the body politic, we will hack them out, we will dispatch the remains of their pestilence, ground to ashes and the memory of blood, and remit them and the foul scent that lingers after to those capitals that seek to destroy us, to Washington and London, to Berlin and Zurich, to Toronto and Tel Aviv and Johannesburg and Brussels and the Hague, and I shall be your tribune in returning us to the glories of our people, our past, our first days of freedom, of liberation and independence, but we must join together, hand in hand, arm in arm, armed in mind and body, we must, to wipe this pestilence out.
Hand in hand, arm in arm, this pestilence.
Victory is certain, once we extinguish this plague. Together. We. Will. Wipe. This. Pestilence. Out.
Out, in one draft. My ears had filled with versions of that speech since I was an infant.
Our leader did not believe a single word of it. I did, the rest of the country did, even the Quislings themselves knew what it meant. You did too, but in a different way. It was you speaking, as if with a microphone to your soul. The leader was ventriloquizing you, because you had placed not just him in your crosshairs, but everyone else. Including me.
Not everyone else, and at that moment. . . .
At that moment — me. Brother Quisling. What perfume, my stomach wrenches at the thought, though I would be lying if I said I did not smell it then and suppressed it.
I heard it and like a stylus to wax, a nib to paper, a needle to a groove. . .
Sound. Your sense was sound, always sound, the most infinitesimal crackle or rustle, and you’d cock your head just so, as if the sound were right beside you, or behind you, or in front of you, just that quick, like a gazelle or a dik-dik, like you had invisible antennae instead of ears, a sonar, so exactingly tuned. The sound of words, of worlds. You could hear my mind’s pulse back then, the beat of my dreams.
Yes, the pulse of everything, and beyond. Months.
Mine, now you can’t have forgotten mine.
I can’t have forgotten.
You have, gods help you.
Mine was smell. Immaturity and ripeness, scents of all kinds, fragrances, stenches, nature’s olfactory artistry and legerdemain, anything created by the hand or mind of a chemist, anything that could be marked by scent, even emotions, usually emotions, I mined them, except when the mephitic truth was right under my nose. Fear sends out a terrible perfume. The worst.
Yes, every scent, through glass or concrete. Months.
Because of all the engines, the gunfire, all those explosions, not to mention the music and noise in my childhood compound, I’ll probably have to wear a hearing aid too when the time comes, glasses instead of these contact lenses for my eyes, and. . . . But I can still sniff a rose out of an open gravesite, or a shallow grave in an overgrown garden. A rose in a cemetery, a grave in a garden, there’s a bit of poetry for you.
Blooms in graveyards in bloom, quite lyrical. Months.
I have no gift for poetry, like you, never did, but I sponsor a contest for our youngsters, ten categories, including rap and traditional epic. Some even recite that famous speech, or the revised variation I approved. They’re very good. It’s even televised and broadcast via satellite all over the continent, though the part about the Quislings I had to alter. Not so poetic that cut.
Our youth, Quislings. Months.
In our youth we were something, facing each like this in that ditch in the midnight clearing, your ears pricked and that invisible antenna, maybe it was other senses too, not just hearing but vibrations you picked up from the air and ground, and me, my nose like an elephant’s or bloodhound’s back then, us two boys from opposite ends of the country, you from the city and I from the bush, sitting and waiting, biding and plotting.
Months? Sitting and waiting? Planning, yes. Before that night — was it months?
Four. Waiting, requesting.
We weren’t — you mean yourself, here. I admit to not having kept count. It could have been a month, or four, or four years. Not that I let problems fester that long. But as I said, I have been very busy.
I kept count. Four months since the last time.
So I wasn’t so busy that a year passed. But I wasn’t here the last time.
No. But I still kept count.
Still kept count, kept still, counting. How did you do that? A mental map? No access to a calendar, your schedule is staggered, and your placement in this room is regulated in an untimely fashion. No light or darkness, nothing to create a clock. I have gone to inestimable lengths to keep you out of time . . . and on this earth.
Ah. Because I had to address of the problem of . . . toes or fingers.
You had to, no counting.
And sight, that light and dark. But I wanted you to talk to me, talk now, so I didn’t order . . . everything.
To be able to talk, say everything, and nothing.
You see, you used to say I was inattentive, too lost in my own time. But I followed you like a scent every day for all those years, until you scrubbed me clean of you. I loved to hear you talk, do you remember? We would sit for hours, you talking, me all ears. I am a man of few words. You could spin vast webs of them, of numbers. Stories, plans, plots, systems. Nets, traps: I had to work my way out of all of them.
Nests of words and figures, which snared me.
First feet so that they will never run away. Then hands, so not even the simplest tools. Then eyes, so no recall of a single place you stash them. But keep the tongue and vocal cords until the end because they may have something else to surprise you with.
My later approach, almost to the letter. How I will surprise you.
Tell you something.
The baobab tree lives forever and offers shade, but not cassava fruit. Today smells like that evening in the clearing, you know.
I can’t smell it.
It does. The stink of oblivion. Its anticipation. The smell that lies outside the smell. Fumes beyond and beneath it. Something worse, don’t you agree, lurking there? You still have your nose.
Yes, no, nothing like that evening. I can’t.
You can probably hear it in your voice, and mine. In the silence before I entered.
No, fumes, no sounds.
You probably cannot just hear it but taste it. That’s how the oracle described it, no? A feeling so strong the ear tastes its contours? All that poetry like a radar. We survived but not the victims of that ambush. An open field, though, for you.
Yes, but no, it was an ordeal after that.
Every such situation presented itself as an ordeal, but you saw the window before you. You leapt right through. I followed you.
Windows, yes. Now, no.
It wasn’t supposed to stay open for me. Yet every time when you tried with me you failed. After the first time, the failed assassination at the market, I realized I had to place my steps inside and then ahead of yours. Enter your frequency. The truth that I was next, your truth. That’s how I knew. The acid in the tap. The radioactive isotopes those painters painted all throughout the house. Survival is a great motivator. Somehow you missed that.
You did and didn’t. You were watching but you couldn’t see past your ken. The untimely horizon. I won’t even use the metaphor of chess, which you banned, remember? Recall how you always beat me back then? Then you contrived to let me win, until I got the gist. You hated that you could imagine what the person next door or across the street was thinking but you couldn’t figure out a winning strategy against your former protegé on that board. How many did you tear up or burn? It fascinated me that the king was so powerless, waiting to be taken. He should have been able to control his fate and the throne.
Powerless, and taken.
Terrified of knights — and pawns. A bishop, how ridiculous. The queen is the one who never gave a damn. I was the queen, then. But yoté, choko, checkers, backgammon, cribbage, senterej, go, poker, 21, roulette, I laugh at all those metaphors today because they point to chance and I don’t take any.
No chance, no time.
Out of time. Except now.
No, I can’t believe it.
That your clock is running out? That you will surprise me? Before it’s too late. There was that class we took together while in exile, the philosophy of military strategy, or political philosophy, or philosophy of politics itself, something enthrallingly useless.
Yes. Plato, Machiavelli, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Schmitt —
All those damned Europeans, all that claptrap.
Emperor Frederick the Great, Teddy Roosevelt, Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, then a week for Mao, Trujillo, Amin, Pinochet, Bokassa . . . I imagined they’ve added Saddam, Cheney, Ghaddafi, the rest.
To what end? Our ancestors had more wisdom in their little toes.
My avatars, my favorite monsters.
At first I thought that was when you began formulating your schemes. But no, it was earlier. Before the philosophers, always political. You always had such ambition, foresight. Even in childhood, I envision, since I didn’t know you then. Those stories about your youth, on the other side of the country, how you organized the local children, drawing maps in the sand, compelling them to strangle animals, memorize secret words. It took me a while to catch on, and up.
Then you were behind me.
Fully. Behind, until I passed you. Surpassed you.
I want to say that I remember the exact moment but that would be too cinematic, too perfect. Like a still from a movie, or a literary scene. Is there a computer code for that? A simulation I can view on the nearest screen. I don’t recall it. No need now to say I did. I was carrying out all of your plans, to the letter. Rewriting maps, strangling opponents, devising secret languages.
All my plans, opponents, letters.
I would say to myself, he foresees everything, moves men around like figurines. Without ever consulting the spirits, the oracle, those magical books from the Middle East and East and elsewhere. He has the insight of a seer and the might of a deity. That’s why I called you, we all called you The Prophet.
The Prophet, men like figurines.
Because you knew how everything would unfold, how you would unfold it. No instructions needed. The Prophet foresaw the complex mathematics of circumstance and how his actions would affect them.
Prediction, or statistics, or complex systems analysis.
I never studied any of that in school. Perhaps military colleges should teach it.
Poetry, history, psychology, ban all of it.
You banned most of it. I thought you had a hologram of the world, of everyone else’s head, in yours, a cybernetic game turning it every which way, the dates, the days, the figures, the complicated transactional interplay of everything materializing in its array, with the will to realize it. Even if that’s not what it was like the metaphor works. You with your all your thinkers and dreamers, those bards, black, brown, yellow, white, whatever the color, that cannot save a single soul, including you.
Yes, my avatars, my monsters, I can hear their words right now.
You even wrote your thesis on Amilcar Cabral, another poet, one of ours.
No, Frantz Fanon. On the justification and cleansing power of violence, in the service of revolution.
Blood for the stanzas, odes to gore. That brain, so sharp, cutting even now like a well-honed trap, correcting me. I did say I want to be surprised, though the squeak, as you liked to say, cries out to be silenced.
Yes, that insistent noise. It became habit, the algorithms of reason, action, circumstance. I could place myself in the minds of others, their bodies, and view the world through their eyes, step where they stepped before they knew they would. What they would do I could always counter it. Equations for such things, code, scripts, texts, written or sung a thousand years ago, last decade, but something finer, more subtle too, that could not be written down, though I did.
Lyric poems, oral stories, short stories. You banned them all. I initially followed your lead, all of it except the most inane trash, though some of that can provoke enough sympathy to start people thinking. I realized that I would just have to tinker a bit.
That’s dangerous too, I learned soon enough.
If you don’t tinker, and control it. Yourself. I give them a steady diet of garbage, music videos from Rio, US reality shows, K-Pop, Mexican telenovelas, Bollywood gangster tales, Nollywood films about witches, fads, diet shows, hair shows, dubbed and scrubbed. Patriotic dramas, documentaries on the colonial wars. You can never go wrong denouncing the British and French. Louis XIV, King Leopold. Dead kings. You. Even a trickle of attenuated religion now and then, nothing to give them any hope or ideas. Thin as wartime broth.
One minute everyone is equal and the next minute they see that they’re not, or they’re appealing for help to a higher power. A god takes the shape of a man.
Mysticism, ritual, pageantry, emptied of content, Prophet. Rules to follow, without being told. The American evangelicals even endow some of it with a veneer of legitimacy.
Soon they start to see themselves as one in the same, all believing in that same figurehead.
None except that nation, and you know who that is now. We’ve always had more than enough minor engines of resentment among the ones who might do some damage, so I remove them, finding multiple other ways of pacifying the rest. Then it’s South vs. North, East vs. West, this tribal yawping vs. that tribal yawping, the lighter ones vs. the blacker ones, but with something to placate them all at the end. Nothing like a forgiving mirror.
A nation of narcissists, knowing nothing. You still have to be vigilant. I wasn’t.
Is this what you screamed your lungs out for? Was that your story about reality? What do you hear right now?
With those ears? I should not have to waste a breath asking anything twice. What do you hear?
I hear your body ever so slightly shift in your chair, your thick buttocks cushioned by a very soft pillow, softer than a calf ’s sack. Though you love handmade suits from Italy and the UK in private, and your Nehru collars, African printed cloth and kufis in public, you have on a uniform, a plain one of ours of which you have many, a castle’s worth, I can hear the faintest rustle of the duck, it’s immaculately starched and pressed and hasn’t lost its crispness because of this heat. You have on a black beret, fabricated and blocked in the Basque region of Spain, not the Chinese kind, though you have been to Shanghai alone several times within the last six months. That hat sits easily on your shaved head, smooth as an egg, though sometimes when you touch it the rougher, gray hairs that you didn’t completely remove softly scratch against its inner lining. Instead of your usual patent leather driving loafers, you are wearing black steel-toe boots, thick soled, polished by peasants’ tongues as I used to say, so shiny you could scorch the sun with them. You don’t have on any medals, any jewelry, any makeup, any cologne, except a very mild deodorant manufactured in Cape Town whose combined fragrances my ears, let alone my nose, cannot make out.
I knew you had it in you.
Can you hear how aroused your skill has made me?
Can you hear that?
Yes, I can hear your . . . pressing against the fabric of your. . . . Please don’t.
You know. Please. I don’t. . . .
Have these months not taught you anything? Have you completely lost the ability to see into the future? Put yourself inside my head like you used to. Your little hologram or code or poem or statistical algorithm or whatever it was.
If I wanted I would have done that straightaway. If I wanted your wife, your mother, your father, your children, your grandchildren, the grandchild living in the penthouse condo in Abu Dhabi and the one working for the Royal Bank of Sweden in Stockholm and the ones cavorting like princes in their chateaus in Atlanta and Los Angeles, if I wanted your entire native ancestral village to lie prone before me as I entered them one by one, if I wanted to raze the entire village and rape all the crushed and dismembered and burnt bodies, if I wanted to destroy every vestige of every single soul that spoke the same language as you and rape their ghosts, rape your ancestors who were my ancestors, if I want to rape the vestigial mother and fathers of us all, if I wanted to rape the last embers of your existence and memory and then what wasn’t even left after that, I would have done so. I can write the story of reality however I see fit. At any time.
And if I instead wanted it to be as it was when we sat facing each other in the darkness in that clearing, when binding ourselves to each other not just to overthrow our supposed liberator, the tribune of the people, our leader with his bloodshot eyes and blood-drenched hands and blood-drained soul, if I wanted it as it was when we devoured each other that night, like lions, though we were both still cubs, when I shared everything of myself with you and you with me, or at least I thought you did, though you were even holding something back then. Admit a sick man into your home, but not your bed.
No. I was looking ahead. Yes.
You were looking ahead to the bead on my throat.
No, I was . . . looking back —
And as you entered me you were thinking instead of my bond, this will be a dagger, or a bayonet, or a Kaleshnikov butt. . . . You were thinking of terrors that would send the most extreme dystopian writers into paroxysms, that would make our ancestral spirits and the griots who have shared with us their stories shudder with envy and horror, and you would start as soon as you could.
No, not that night. I waited, until the time was right.
In time, then. With that burst of fear you feasted on your second chance. Try harder. I do want you to surprise me. How can you do that? If you don’t do that . . . what else?
Do I hear?
Yes. I hear your dyed black mustache curling upwards at the corners of your full lips as they bow into a grin, I hear those lips brushing against your teeth whiter than Kibo snow, I hear your pleasure at how this is going, how things have unfolded over these last few years. I also hear the sweat trickling down into the open placket of your uniform shirt because even though they have turned up the air and opened the vents this cell is still a dutch oven, I hear your flaring nostrils, flecked with the residue of an early morning snort of cocaine as you were listening to your favorite rap artist whom you flew in to perform at your daughter’s 13th birthday party and who also put on a private show for you, your nose which is now smeared with some sort of paste made of Noxzema and miracle fruit, nevertheless periodically wrinkling at the stench, though they cleaned me up, several times this morning, they scrubbed me and this room up and down, every corner as well as the ceiling, before you would set foot in here.
The time had come.
I hear that you want to tell me what you are going to do to me but you want to draw it out on the one hand, but you are also ready to get back to all the things you had planned for today, beyond this. I hear that you are going to kill me, and take great pleasure in it.
I would never take pleasure in such things, certainly not with you, you know better than that, but you need to listen more closely. The man who listens to the wind hears nothing of life. Prophet, have you not been listening to me? To my words. To all these years? Or only to your own internal, empty silence?
Yes, this terrible silence.
Have you really forgotten me so fully? Purged the text of your memory? Prophet of Society you would recall that I took and still take little pleasure in the sorts of things you did, not in building airports or hospitals or reducing them to rubble. Not in appointing generals to march my armies or ministers to oversee the economy or human welfare or the mint. Not in bludgeoning them with my own fists when I have tired of the extent of their looting, even though I ordered it. Not in flushing towers of bureaucrats or rats, of democratic activists or patriotic neo-fascists. Not in standing beside yet another pale monarch or prime minister or even our browner ones, their many thousand-dollar suits or dresses or traditional garb smelling of the enslaved child workers and women who assembled them. Not lying with my wives in any of our hundred beds knowing that not even they would dare think of slitting my throat for fear of what would happen to them if such a thought entered their heads, nor with any of the whores in the most sumptuous hotels in foreign capitals, nor any of the others here or anywhere else in any of the countless beds I requisition for a night or a week or a month, depending upon my moods and whims, the circumstances. Not in giving speeches or proclamations or orders, not issuing decrees, ultimatums or threats. Neither in condemnation nor clemency. Not in rites or ceremonies, not before our gods or God, not before Christ or Allah or any other, not in our languages or in Arabic or English or Chinese or any other tongues. Not in the countryside or the savannahs, nor atop our highest peaks nor in the sea’s mouth, not in the cities the colonizers left nor the ones you built nor the ones I willed into being. Not in pets or children or noise or silence. Not in telling the truth or in lying, both among your many arts, though I sometimes must. Not in a single one of these actions, or most others, including not taking pleasur in a single thing at all.
No. You used to enjoy our time together.
Yes, but those days are irretrievable, as you should have heard grasped by this point by my words, my tone, my weariness. It’s an audience, really, not a conversation. You’re not listening. I do take pleasure, however, in one thing.
Yes, something. Though wealth isn’t it —
Once I thought, following your lead, O Prophet of Wealth, that I would take the greatest pleasure in riches. Vaults of treasure, buried deep in blast-proof bunkers, a mile into the ocean floor, vaults behind virtual walls of zeros and ones only the most brilliant of the geniuses I hired could penetrate. I thought I would feel pleasure bathing in money, sleeping in money, clothing myself in money, eating vomiting crapping fucking money. I followed your lead and had jewelry fashioned out of rhodium for every appendage, the entire interior of a tower in silver, a new arena for my birthday and it and everyone in it painted in gold leaf. Anyone there quickly grasped the appeal of the golden calf. To warn off anyone else it’s now an abyss.
Yes. I once erected a massive obelisk wrought of platinum studded with red diamonds, jadeite, garnets, red beryl emeralds, black opals, all of them. It became a shrine.
Don’t you think your dildo paid off our foreign debt? I give money away, some of it, why do you think the people love me so much? 100% of the vote, every election. It mints itself faster than we can spend it, look at how the vultures from every continent are circling our ports, such are the bounties the earth saw fit to bequeath us.
No. And it isn’t power —
Power, that aphrodisiac as someone once said, I don’t take pleasure in it either. Prophet of Power, that you were. Such a point of idiocy and a truism that money equals power, or some such thing, money buys power, power buys money, always the two shall meet and screw and someone ends up as the surplus in the equation. I can crap on the floor and order someone to lick it up. I can have an entire block of apartments leveled and raised anew in the span of a few days. I can throw every book in every library into a furnace and order that new ones be written to fill the shelves. I respect power, especially the power that hides in things, that resides in things over which we have no control, the power that surges up out of the pages of one of those books you torched, the ones some intrepid fool rescued, the power in one of those mountains looming over us that decides it is going to batter everything around it with its sublime volcanic breath. The power in atoms whirling about towards a bang that brought the earth into being and that will clear us all from this human plane. Would that a man should become a god, or what’s literature, or politics, or physics, or the military for? Yes, but I don’t take any great pleasure in it at all.
No. Though you wield it better than a prince. Or a king. Or queen, of the chessboard or the savannah. Better than I did. The king of the savannahs, the greatest lion of this nation that ever lived.
Yes that’s how they refer to me. The Lion devoured the Prophet, though they’re still hunting for you in Switzerland and Tehran.
Yes, voracious, eaten whole.
What gives me pleasure is . . . can you guess it?
No . . . I don’t . . . I can’t say. Not money, not power, not sex, not religion, not, not death. I . . . can’t.
What do you hear?
I hear you leaning back, your face calming as you peer in my direction, your back arching as it settles into position, you briefly touching a crucifix, though you are not a Christian and haven’t been one in a long while, that talisman that nevertheless rests uneasily in the valley of your chest as a kind of reassurance that you have stumped me and this is going to end horribly.
You’ve almost gone deaf, then. Listen.
No . . . please. Not laughter or weeping, not seeing me laugh or weep. Not even knowing that you have stumped me completely and there is nothing I can do. Not even screaming. No. I can’t hear the answer. Please don’t. I can’t.
You can’t? I don’t want that smell to reach my nostrils. Try harder. Open one of those books in your head; turn on one of those screens. Listen, Prophet.
Yes. No. I can’t. Not the fact that you even if I outwitted you now, as well as every single degenerate member of your cabinet, your military, your family, I would not leave here. I . . . can’t. Don’t, have mercy.
That smell is reaching my nose. Crossing the space between us. Listen, Prophet, listen. The roaring, isn’t it fearsome? Pure poetry and science, beyond symbols or words.
No. You know how this will turn out, and are trying to will me to save myself, because you know I won’t. I can’t. Don’t, though I give up.
I can smell the abyss your ears have become, your existence. Some prophet. That was your third chance, your time is up. Fearlessness. I take pleasure in that, tremendous pleasure. Unimaginable pleasure. Do you hear me growing hard at the very mention of the word? Do you hear my salivary glands filling, the sweat rushing into my pits, the adrenalin quickening my heartbeat? Fearlessness. Do you hear the dopamine surging through my brain as I think the word? A volcano surging through me. A terrible, sublime roar. I don’t even have to say it, from it an entire world flows. That is what I thought we both had back then, chest to chest in that clearing. I remember how in our school that professor of ours called an extreme version of this mindset the greatest danger known to humankind, and I immediately looked at you, though at your core you were all fear. Fear, fear, fear. You were never fearless, though you had me fooled. The coups, the progressive changes, the preemptive attacks, the coronation, the wars. All fear’s handiwork.
The reason I wanted to speak with you was just this. I am no longer afraid.
It was always fear. I can smell you trembling into the void. It’s nauseating. What did you think was the true source of anyone’s sovereignty? Did you take nothing from all the people you plastered on every wall? Yaa Asantewa and Anacaona, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines, the Bolshevik and the Long Marcher and the rest of them, Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, the sage who defied Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara and Nelson Mandela? Those eyes staring back at you? Did you really not listen to the stories you told everyone else, Prophet, the stories they told you in response? Did you not take anything from our ancestors who survived the depredations of the gods, and later the encroachers from every corner of the continent? Of course they were frightened but were fearless nevertheless. Some more than others, all more than you.
No. Listen to me. I am no longer afraid.
Did you not learn anything from the brazen creatures who seized our mothers and fathers, who bought and sold them here and across the sea, who fought them here and over there and did not back down? The ones to whom you signed over so much of our matrimony and patrimony? Their puny bodies that melt in the sun, all their sicknesses of the flesh and mind and soul, yet they keep arriving. Their words, their ideas, their abstractions, the ones you love so much, gave them an armor of fearlessness. I, however, scare them out of their sleep, not infrequently. They never know what time it is with me. Did you not take anything from every single soul that dared to challenge you at penalty of things worse than mere death? What do you think allowed any of them, me, to survive you?
I screamed my throat onto the cement floor to tell you this, I’m not afraid.
The prison of hope, you used to say, which was easy for one who controlled the future. Did you not hear the clue? I gave you several. You with your statistics and plots, you who could place yourself inside the heads of others like the Trojans, or a medium. A walking antenna. You touched one of the keys aloud but could not open the door. Why else would I have worn that cross around my neck, invoke Christ of all people? What use is a prophet without his powers? Should I have roped it around your neck? Stuffed it your mouth? Rammed it in your. . . .
Listen to me, I know what’s coming. I accept it, I am not afraid.
You requested me for this? My time, for this? All that hollering for an entire season, for this? I must admit, you still have the power to make me even more cynical. The Prophet of Cynicism has created
Why not parade me before my people, Deliverer, send me back to them, and let me die in shame at their feet? I won’t fear them.
What people? You have no people anymore. Can’t you smell it?
Bury me in the desert, Deliverer, cast me into the ocean near my home, you can broadcast it on your station, on the Internet. I won’t fear it.
You have no home. No home, no state, no brothers, no sisters, no people, no lineage, not a thing. Truthfully, I could smell it all the way on the other side of the world, years ago.
Listen, you could force my allies out there to reveal themselves and to eat my beating heart, mount me on a steeple, but do it in the middle of the capital’s main square. I fear nothing now.
Absurdities, who ever heard of such things? You have no allies, I was your last one. You are nothing and you have nothing. You are not even the ghost of a recollection any more. In the air, diving in the sea’s depths, I could smell it, and can smell it now, it’s almost unbearable.
Rendition me, send me to one of their special ops sites, let them lock me up in Guantánamo. Nail me in a coffin and mail it to the Hague. Have them fly in the drones. Wash your hands of me and cast me into theirs. I have nothing to fear.
I must be going. I’m a man of few words but I have a speech to give. I’m nauseated by the stench, and have been for too long.
Ransom me, you could buy whole blocks in Paris, London, Miami with my head. I’m not afraid. I —
A speech on a theme you spoke on many times. Everybody is a monster, but only the monsters know it. Cautionary tales for cautionary times. Absolutely nothing like it, this odor, not even death. It’s enough by itself to kill.
I appeal to you, vanguard of our nation’s resistance, I appeal to you at this grave hour. The monsters no longer have to send their superjet fighters, stealth bombers, hypersonic technology vehicles, and flocks of drones to rein down bombs upon us, to stamp out our freedom like a boot heel on a single bloom. . . .
. . . .
I hear you rising from your seat. Standing. Shaking your head as if under water, as if this alone could reset the clock. No longer smiling, your face muscles wiring into a grimace, your brow slashed with a frown. You are choking back the retch. Your eyes are boring in my direction, at what’s left of me, propped up here.
. . . .
Your eyes fixed on this still breathing lump in the darkness, I hear you pushing the chair back with your calves, you want space, I hear you pushing the chair back even further and you turn and move it to my left so that it is out of the way. I hear you unbuttoning your shirt with your intact hand, which you have learned to use as if it were the dominant one, the other, a prosthesis, dangles at your side, above the prosthetic foot, proving I should have cut off both sides when I could. I hear your shirttails falling over your belt, your pants.
. . . .
I hear your removing the cross from your chest, so built up, sliding it up across the smooth skin with your long, thick fingers, your platinum pinky ring and your gold and ruby signet ring, your manicured nails, you are pulling it up out of the cleft of your chest, you have always been powerfully built, no less so today than when we were just boys, I always envied that of you, that body and the force that you carried in it, that force of feeling that was fearlessness, that was always the only ethics you clung to, fearless to do the worst things and the best, to commit unspeakable crimes and then not contemplate another horrific thing on this earth, I feared that in you, I knew, too late, that it would be my end.
. . . .
I hear you lifting the tool from around your neck, you holding it in your left hand while with your prosthetic hand you are extracting a glove, two, latex, you hate it and are allergic to it but there’s no other material that will ensure you keep me off your skin, my flesh and memory off you, you have doctors on call to give you a shot before you face the crowd once you leave here, you cradle the weapon as you wrestle the glove onto your right hand, your prosthetic hand which you use as if it had left the womb with you, your left one almost too large for the glove, the same hands that generations ago would have wielded spears, or clubs, or an axe or machete, the same hands generations ago that would have slapped a cow’s or horse’s flanks to move them into a pen, the same hands that would have wielded the spade to furrow the earth or hoisted the walls atop which the roof might sit, the same hands that would never have been found in a schoolhouse, or a college classroom, or a luxury hotel, or a castle in the middle of here or anywhere else, except cleaning such rooms, scrubbing them from corner to corner, scrubbing the pits the powerful crapped in, your hands, the one I did not cut off and the one I did, that could have torn off my own hands, my arms, my feet, my legs, my nose, my tongue, my ears, but didn’t, that wasn’t fear or cowardice but distress at having to dismember what you had come to completely, utterly love.
. . . .
I hear you shifting the weapon to your false hand in preparation, now your real one, working by intuition, that was one of your gifts, unerring always, living by feeling, your feelings as light as wind and taut as a mainspring, all my planning and booklearning couldn’t match it, and you so beautiful back then, so fearless, the greatest lion of our youth, always more so than I, you didn’t know it because we didn’t have a language for it, we had it but you didn’t know it, we knew it but you couldn’t speak it, that time would come, the leader feared that in you as much as your courage, or rather fearlessness, they are different, I was courageous but not fearless, I was daring, brave, impulsive, reckless, I put the bullet through his temple and so many others, I was not a prophet or saint but I was your apostle, apostle of what everyone loved and feared in you, most of all me, that beauty and the fearlesness.
. . . .
I hear you leaning forward, your eyes having never left this lump of me, what’s left of me, so beautiful, it was almost painful to look at you after my eyes adjusted to the blackness that night, you were too much to bear, it wasn’t just the beauty or the fearlessness but that I knew it would come to this, I would have to get rid of you, I would have to destroy you, eliminate you, do what our leader couldn’t do, one of us would remain in the end and it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t do it, I hear that, I hear you reaching forward . . . seizing hold of my chin with that prosthetic hand, the grip tight, firm as a vise, so tight I can barely speak, I hear you thinking that having to do this distresses you more than anything else, disgusts and dismays you, I hear you thinking this distress won’t even kindle into rage, you will transform it somehow into indifference, I hear you thinking I could simply leave him here as he is to rot, no one would ever find him, you could pour in molten metal or concrete, just as I did to your parents, your siblings, your ancestral village and neighboring ones, unleash a torrent in minutes because no one would ever find me, none will, I hear you thinking that would be too easy, I hear you thinking I failed you completely when I had the opportunities to rid the world of you, I hear you thinking I did not do so out of pity or love but sheer ineptitude and greed and fear, not even the most stupid creature on earth would have let things come to this, I hear you thinking I slaughtered countless people but I could not manage to liquidate this earth of you, stamp out you, filthy degenerate lion Quisling, I was too afraid of doing so, not with my own might or that of my allies overseas, I hear you thinking you are going to flush this earth of me, but slowly, as you have been, reducing me to the nothing I’ve become, and that not even this will atone for all I’ve done, all the lies and betrayals, all the vast continent of discontent and destruction I wrought, and but you are wrong, I have now surprised you, I am hardly displeased with myself for having let it come to this, I am pleased beyond measure at everything I ever did and would do it again, and you hear now how I do not fear what’s about to happen, how I am no longer begging but welcoming it, no more pleas, no more imprecations, I know what’s due, how I would send my partisans into flight rather than rescue me, burn the gods, not a single one of them can save me and I would reject them if they tried, I hear you raising the bandanna gag from around my neck with that hideous freakish American hand, the sound of it makes me want to explode with laughter, your hideous freakish American foot, prosthetic, cyborgian, not human, I did that and not even all the money and the power in the world can make you whole again, your inhuman fingers on that same bandanna you pulled down earlier so that we could speak, as I requested for four straight months this time, every waking second of every day, screaming through that fabric so loud they could not not hear me, the same one I used to wear all those years ago, the one knotted around my neck that night and many days and nights thereafter, tonight, or today, I hear how in a few seconds you will stuff the ends of it into my toothless mouth, I should have pulled out all of yours, and your tongue, and your throat, I should have cut it out when I had the opportunity, I laugh fearlessly at my folly now, why should anyone fear a lion with only two paws instead of four, a lion unsure if it’s a male or a female, a lion so unafraid of anything it is incapable of understanding the sheer terror of life and death, a lion who will itself be devoured by another waiting nearby, the lion’s roar is anything but music, just animalistic howling, I hear how, in a few seconds or many, only you know the time, you will cock your arm back like a spring with the makeshift cross like a knife pointed out and swing it forward hard into my right ear over and over, and how you’ll find my left until I am no longer crying out through this muzzle and you won’t even have to let them know you’re done, you’ll scurry away knowing the same will eventually happen to you, one you’ve bred just like me who will come hunting, the bead’s on your throat, I can hear that language clear as a bell, a whistle, can you hear it, you cannot, in fact, she’s doing so right now, he’s gliding right through to get you, in no time, the man who listens only to death hears nothing of life, your time will be up, out of time, and I’ll lie here until —
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From Counternarratives by John Keene. Copyright (c) 2015 by John Keene. Reprinted with permission of New Directions.