Sunday, February 29, 2004

How to Kill a Dead Man

The most difficult part of a murder must be getting rid of the body. After all, a dead body does not dissipate into gas, a vaporous cloud of soul that floats cleanly up to heaven. Corpses are solidly, almost embarrassingly, present. They lie where you leave them, eyes rolling back like greying marbles in dusty sockets, mouth open in a heavy-lipped smile, arms and legs flopping limply into pretzel shapes. Even if you manage to hide the body somehow, its smell (sweet, hot, green as humidity) will give it away, and there it will be, smirking at you.

I have never managed to get rid of mine successfully.

I call him the White Man. Uninventive, possibly, but what else can you call a figure so white that he is a hole rubbed in the world, showing the blank page underneath? He may have begun as an imaginary friend. I am not sure. Over time his skin has become paler and paler; sometimes it is scaly and leprous, others it is smooth and unhealthily shining, like a maggot's. His eyes are round and surprised, his teeth set forever in a smile. I see him lurching around corners ahead of me, making rude signs behind my back and vanishing when I turn around; but for the most part he sits uncomfortably on my shoulder, like a marionette without any strings. He is Pinocchio without Jiminy Cricket, a puppet without a conscience, and I saw him first at night.

Zimbabwean nights are black and furry, like sleeping in the innards of a panther. The only way to actually get any sleep is to burrow a hole in this thick night and curl up into a ball. One problem; Zimbabwe hates you. Oh it may put up with you in the daytime, let you scurry around on its hot surface like an ant spotlighted by a magnifying glass of bright sun, tolerate your language and your pointed nose and your washed-out eyes and skin, but at night it’s out to get you. You are whiter at night, and stand out more. The darkness prowls your head with dreams and sets the neighbourhood dogs barking at nothing.
In our house, a house filled with the ghosts of my father’s family, night time was the most wakeful part of the day. While the sun shone, we were sluggish and muzzy, drunk on heat. We would wander around the house in underwear and a T-shirt, flooding ourselves with iced water and struggling for breath, while our black gardener sang in a high-pitched cricket’s voice in the back garden. At night, the real fun started.

First, the alarm had to be set. Its pattern of beeps sounded comfortingly loud and staccato in the darkness, and I fell asleep knowing that it watched over us, the benign god of the bedroom wall. Once or twice a night, usually, it sounded a heart-stopping siren, and Dad would leap from the bed with a swearword and a baseball bat. I lay in bed, superstitiously keeping my eyes closed. Boards creaked. A dog barked. A sound like a footstep crunched the gravel outside my window. The cat came in, a moving patch of darkness, twining like an ink ribbon around the burglar bars and writing poems in the air. In the kitchen, our dog hurled himself against the door, yapping. The cat was unimpressed.
‘Hey there, Mister Cat,’ I whispered, and picked him up. Sometimes he had a gift, a bloodied shrew or a bat, an offering for the night. He knew how to appease the gods here, far better than we did. He knew the necessity of giving blood as a sacrifice.
‘What is it?’ I yelled when the cat had settled on my stomach, shivering away some of the fear with its purr.
‘Nothing,’ Dad would yell back. ‘Margie, tell the alarm company it’s nothing.’
The phone would sound. Mum would answer, and soothe the alarm company as if they were the ones under threat of invasion. Not us.

One night, it was us. Someone broke in, leaving a square on the desk where the laptop had sat, the rich, hot-meal smell of body odour and a footprint like Man Friday's beneath the window. This lingered for days, a damned spot that couldn’t be outed by any amount of scrubbing with powerful detergent. That night I saw the White Man, as I listened to the crunch of police footsteps on the gravel and the steady stream of Shona that could have been comments about the break-in or the planning of another one, I could not tell. I turned my head on the pillow and saw him next to me in the bed, floating just a little higher and smiling into my eyes very coldly. He was quite dead, but white as pastry and sugar (neither of which we could get then, even on the black market.) I may have seen him before, but it was then that I knew I carried him always.

After that I noticed him more often, the White Man. He sat on my shoulder, a sick parrot nodding his head as I walked, visible to everyone. He sat with me to watch the evening news, his smile growing bigger with every new account of death and poverty until I felt like a cartoon character; the White Man acting as avenging angel on one shoulder, President Mugabe shaking his fist on the other, and me in the middle trying to listen to both. He came with me to school, casting his reflected shine onto my uniform, my books and my well-scrubbed face. He came with me to town, following me through the streets and dogging my steps like a mugger. Sometimes he proved useful, like the time I waited in line for six hours to apply for a driving licence. The White Man got me shunted to the front of the queue, while a snake of blank black faces stared at me with dead eyes, hating me silently. Even the black cat stared reproachfully at me sometimes.
‘What are you looking at?’ I would demand, and get a stare back from ancient eyes, golden as old coins. He was contemptuous of us, I knew, for our clumsiness and ineptitude, our bumbling attempts to live in this unfriendly place. He knew how to slip sideways through the night, a shady door-to-door salesman prowling the neighbourhood. He looked smug, and smelled of night all day. I picked him up and sniffed him; mud, wood-smoke. He had been hunting in the old woodpile again, a dank and dusty place filled with the distant shrieks of shrews. ‘Had fun?’
He yawned. When I stroked him for any length of time, a flicker of blue fled over his back and tasted of tin. I did not understand his black, furry mind, and he liked it that way.
‘Fine, keep it to yourself.’
He shrugged. The White Man laughed silently, his mouth hanging slack. Between the cat and the White Man, I found it very hard to keep any vestige of self-respect at all.

A murder anchors you to the place where you committed the crime. A convicted serial killer was once asked why he didn’t leave the country to flee the police, and he replied that he felt uncomfortable going too far away; he could feel the dead hands pulling him back. I understand exactly what he meant.

Our house in Zimbabwe was built on old blood. When it rained, red would ooze from between the floorboards and stain them wickedly with a sick, sticky brown. My parents told me it was the red clay-soil turned to mud, but I knew better.

One rainy season saw worse floods than any other. The entire garden swam in rusty puddles; a dead bird poisoned the well; the branch holding my old tyre swing rotted and collapsed, leaving a rubbery corpse sprawled in the garden and deflating slowly, its rubber sides going in and out softly, like lungs. The cat took fright at nothing, skittering across the lawn with a mad, bottle-brush tail and scooting up trees. The dog took ill. We not only had to contend with the rain, but with the insects the rain brought - flying ants, little buzzing acid drops that came in their millions. You couldn’t help breathing them in; for days I fancied I could hear my chest rattle with the dying frenzies of skeletal ants. The cat did a macabre death-dance around the lawn, the balletic grace of his movements contrasting strangely with the comical figure he made when he caught an ant, its body halfway out of his mouth, its wings giving him a pompous little moustache.

The flying ants died eventually, dropping their wings and crawling round and round in pointless circles for hours. The cat lost interest then, but the picture they made fascinated me; millions of tiny black bodies covering the garden, squirming and heaving, until the lawn looked like muscles moving under black skin. The chongololos, or millipedes (their English name) followed them. I prefer the word chongololo. There really isn’t any better one to describe long, fat, black creatures with thousands of orange legs. We children loved them. If you touched one, it would either roll up into a tight, tiger-striped ball, or explode into mad, electrocuted convulsions; when you crushed them they squelched bright yellow fluid and made a satisfying crunch. They were funny, fat and odd-looking and funny ... but this season there were so many that they became terrifying. I could not put a foot down without crushing one. Their faceless faces glared blindly as they marched towards the house on thousands of little feet that rippled and swayed to carry them along.

We took refuge inside; me, my parents, the cat, the White Man (who rudely read the paper over my father’s shoulder, his pale, dead eyes moving from side to side across the columns.) The television scrambled, then went black. The power cut out. My father swore. My mother phoned the electricity company…she phoned so often now that they remembered her name. She could hear their voices, muffled as they covered the phone. ‘It’s the mad white woman again.’

Old gods leered at me from corners while I lit the candles, and the shadows linked arms and splayed across the walls. Electricity was white and civilised, but the darkness had killed it. The cat followed me around, twining himself round my ankles, while the White Man stayed where he was, giving off a sickly, sulphurous glow. At least he was good for something. And at least we had the radio.

My father tuned it to BBC world service, and instantly plummy, cultured voices dispelled the primeval panic. The familiar sound of Big Ben chiming the hour drowned out the whispers from behind the walls. The cat batted at the aerial with one paw, his whiskers forward and quivering, visibly listening. We looked like an old Gothic painting (Ghouls Feasting?) as we huddled round-shouldered in the dark. Listening to the news.

That was the first night they shot a farmer, the very first one they killed. Like a first kiss that stays separate and perfect even when hundreds of others follow it, this first killing stands spotlighted, forever on its own. He was an old man. I could hear the footsteps in the dark, hear the gunshot and the shouts, that was the frightening thing; it could so easily have been us, one night. In a way, it was. I felt like I had died along with him; we all did. He was shot in the head. Everyone I met for days complained of the most god-awful headaches, and laughed.

I looked over at the White Man. He bled, silently and slowly, like the yellow ooze of a crunched chongololo, but still grinned, his head slumped to one side. The cat cleaned himself furiously, as if he was trying to lick off his blackness.

Things went mad after that. The riots started. I was glad; it meant no school. People ran, thick as flying ants, waving makeshift weapons and shouting nothing I could understand. Everyone’s eyes had died, now, like the White Man’s, even the rioters. They didn’t even look angry, which somehow made it worse. BBC World and CNN reported the news in cultured voices, with a dramatic soundtrack in the background, like an action movie. They showed a group of war veterans taking over another farm, belonging to another old man (but these days it was hard to tell who was really old.) The chief war veteran pounded the palm of his hand with his fist and yelled. A fleck of spit flew from his mouth and hit the camera. I could see a black tooth at the back of his mouth. The old man didn’t say anything. He was a typical Zimbabwean farmer; long socks, tiny shorts, open-necked shirt, cowhide boots and a floppy hat. I found him funny even then. He was dead a few days later; I was not surprised. We were all dead, really, just waiting for the blood offering to be spilled before we could leave, to appease the gods. In a way it would be a relief. My own body felt so full of blood. It was only a matter of time before someone emptied it.

My parents planned to leave, they kept saying so.
‘When we leave,’ my father said, ‘I’m going to soak this house in paraffin and burn it to the ground. They’re not going to touch it with their filthy hands. I just hope some of them burn to death while they’re looting it.’

My mother and I spent a day on the farm where she worked as a bookkeeper (the White Man wandered around the room reading paperwork and playing with the stapler). About midday, when the sun was invisible - a whiter shade of pale in a white-hot sky - the radio crackled and bleeped.
‘War veterans marching down the farm road,’ a voice said. We had to leave. We packed the car and drove away, back to town. Halfway down the dirt track leading to the farm gates, I suddenly could not breathe. The White Man sat on my chest, holding my throat between his flaccid hands and squeezing. His open mouth flapped in my face and his dead eyes goggled expressionlessly into my own. I fumbled for the car door.
‘I have to get out, you have to stop ...’
‘Don’t be stupid, we won’t pass them.’
‘If you don’t stop the car I’m going to jump out.’ I was crying now, to my own disgust. The cat, effortlessly cool and always in control of the situation, would be horrified.
My mother stopped the car. The White Man flopped off me and lay bonelessly on the floor, grinning upwards. The wound in his head leaked a little more fluid.
‘All right,’ I said after a few minutes.
‘All right? We can go?’
Later I found out that if we had been a few minutes earlier leaving the farm, we would have driven straight into the crowd of war veterans. That was the day they beat a friend of ours, and raped his wife in front of the children. Obviously God has a sense of humour.

That night I tried to kill the White Man. I should have known it was impossible - how do you kill a dead man? - but I tried anyway. I beat him with everything I could find. I cut him with the bread knife. I hit him with my fists. I bit, scratched, yelled and kicked. With every blow the pores of his skin stretched wider, leaking his strange sickly blood, and his grin grew wider. His skin looked waxy and stretched over the ugly, jutting bones, while his hands and arms flapped around me as cold and slippery as fish. In the end, I started crying, too tired to do anything else. The cat came and sat on my lap, purring loudly to drown me out and nudging me with his black, furry head. I sat there for a long time, until I felt a light touch. The White Man embraced me, his disgusting head with that foul wound lolling on my shoulder.

We left the next day, and left the cat behind. I watched him from the back window of the car, a small black Buddha whose very whiskers radiated wisdom. We could not take him with. I hope he understood.

The White Man came with me, a poor exchange for warm black fur and a purr that shivered away fear. I cannot leave him behind though, any more than I can leave myself behind. He is a part of me; not so much a friend or relative as an old wound, the stump of a missing finger, a scar or a birthmark. We all carry him.
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