Among his nightmares was a bulldozer driven by the so-called Doctor Dodo. Its growling worried his sleep; he muttered that it should go away, leave him to rot in peace in the Fombeh settlement, but his griping made no difference. He could hear it all the way from the paved edge of San Désirée, tearing up the ragged gardens, crushing cardboard roofs and walls to pulp, pushing the screams of the destitute ahead of it like so many cattle. There were not enough cattle left in all of Bamal, however, to make such a din. It almost woke him.
Joseph Gidukyu railed in his sleep, grinding the golden teeth that were all he had left of his success. The American cash was in Dodo’s lab-frock pocket now; President Buique purred under his fellow tribesman’s jaundiced thumb, submitted gladly to having his pulse and blood pressure taken, his hemorrhoids probed, his armpits scraped with tongue depressors by the new head of the Institute. Where Dodo ambled, roses bloomed, depraved crowds followed with noses lifted, sniffing out their allegiance through streets that stank like exhumed communal graves. But it had not always been this way, Gidukyu reminded the sardonic chorus that laughed from the edges of his dreams? It was once my clinic, my regime, and Emperor Mome was mine. Where are you now, Emperor? Flown off in your jet of silver-plated plastic, surrounded by your soldiers and syphilitic wives, leaving me here with your rusting limousines? Leaving me here to do single combat against Dodo and his maniacal tractors?
The dream altered, thinned slightly, like mist from dry ice caught in the blades a fan. He found that he was speaking aloud, though he could no longer hear himself over the roar of the earth-movers. Give me a fulcrum and I’ll move the earth. “Give me a crowbar!” He leapt up screaming, the imaginary weapon clenched in an empty hand, blinded by the splayed glare of headlights breaking through the paper walls of his hovel. In the last moment before the dream collapsed, he thought the engines growled his name: Gidukyu, we have come for you.
“Go back to hell!” he cried. “I want to sleep!”
In those shifting beams he watched the writing on the walls of his shanty leap from obscurity, a jumble of brand names and shipping labels, “This Side Up” arrows aimed at the African dust that carpeted the enclosure. The ground shook like a fevered beast. How close was the monster? He had slept too deeply, been far too chummy with his nightmares, and the shouts of his neighbors, awake and fled minutes ago, had hardly scratched his slumber. They must have thought he was out stealing a midnight repast; more likely they had not thought of him at all. Fombeh or not, tribal honor and blood-trust meant little out here in the suburbs. And now there was no time to fold up his home and tuck it under his arm; if he intended to live another day, he must run and run well. Run, he thought, staring into the dazzle of headlights, looking for something in the crazy shadows which he must not leave behind. Something (sleep befuddled him), but what?
“Notebooks,” said his own voice, though he hardly recognized its desperation; starvation had sharpened it, although not without imbuing a certain commanding quality to the harsh syllables. He obeyed himself, knelt as though praying to the juggernaut for a moment’s respite, and reached through the rags of his bedding until he touched the small stack of books—buckram, plastic, a cold metal spiral. As his fingers closed on paper, the flimsy walls split open and a tide of dirt buried his hand. The tractor was upon him.
Joseph wrenched his forearm free and rose to confront the wall of earth and trapped cardboard that writhed, silhouetted, in the glaring lights. He shaded his eyes with the single sheet of filthy paper he had rescued from the heap, blocking out the lamps, and caught sight of the bulldozer’s driver beyond a frail shield of spattered glass. In the other hand, a miracle, he held the pistol that these days never left his side. He could live without money, without his precious attars and pheromone distillations, but without a gun he never would have survived.
He knew he had the man’s attention when the engine whined. This brave driver was an Ife, one of Buique’s and Dodo’s tribe. Joseph leveled his weapon on the torn cardboard’s edge and picked out one of the Ife’s yellowed eyes. The tractor’s engine died. Only a moment too late to kill it, he fired. A spiderweb appeared on the glass and the driver hit the broken ground with a thud, already running.
Joseph clambered over the mound, grabbed hold of the bulldozer’ snout, and surveyed the night whence it had come. Far out at the edge of the new-laid waste were the lights of San Désirée, the scabrous city where his dreams had been pulled from his head like still-healthy teeth, too soon and with much pain. No fires burned— even ass dung was precious—but an electric miasma hung above the streets of the foreign estates, and in the ill-named business district the walls of skyscrapers were scarred by lit windows, like a pox of fluorescence. It was not business going on at this hour: those offices were rented out to pimps and ambassadors. The few secretaries who trudged to work in the baking dawn found their desks stained with charas, spilled wine and semen, and quite often blood. Murders were not conducted only in public squares.
There were other lights, but not in the city. These came jostling towards him across the hastily-scraped plain that at nightfall had been a sister city to San Désirée, her inescapable shadow. Bulldozers, headlamps new and gleaming, jounced all over the treasures that the squatters had not had time or hands to grab before they fled. Shadows of tardy suburbanites flitted among the beams, struggling to pull down their houses before the tractors reached them. In the morning this barren land would be cluttered again, the paper houses reconstructed, the same Fombeh and Nmimi and Kaak fortune-seekers once more lazing in their shacks, only slightly ruffled by the wreckers. But among the same old cabins would be something new: half a dozen, maybe a score of bright yellow tractors, abandoned by their drivers when they ran out of gas or cracked a cylinder or burned out a bulb, never to be touched again except by the fortunate few who tied their canopies to the gear-shift levers and took up residence beside the mighty, failed treads. Even now he could see their lights dimming, though many pressed on, too many for him to face with a pistol and a mere pocketful of bullets. At least, he sighed, his resistance had not been a total failure.
Sitting down beside a headlight, perched on the sharp edge of the dozer’s shovel, he unfolded the grimy sheet of paper that now represented the whole of his library. He had thought it a sheet from his notebooks, but it was unlined paper of high quality. His spirits sagged when he realized that this lone survivor was no more than a page from one of his medical journals, the subscription to which had long since lapsed. He started to crumple it, to toss it away, but a look at the immense burial mound that now, coupled with the weight of the bulldozer, cut him off forever from his cherished papers, convinced him that he had better preserve it. The library had once been a great part of his identity. It had covered wall upon wall in his manor. All the nights he had spent poring over the French, German, and English journals were the part of his past he remembered with a fondness that had nothing to do with the luxuries of those days—the Emperor’s gifts, the brimming bank account, the expensive scientific equipment and more expensive women.
Smoothing the paper against his ragged thigh, he read the title with regret that he had saved no more than a portion of the title page and the abstract. “Autotomomania in Olfactory Esthesioneuroepithelioma Patients,” it was called. He read as much as he could of those unfortunate and deluded patients who wished to operate upon their own paranasal sinus tumors rather than permit surgeons to put qualified fingers up their nostrils. It was a syndrome with which he had some experience. The fragments of terminology made him heartsick for his own laboratory, and he was granted a sudden, unwelcome vision of Dodo himself puttering about, breaking glassware, playing with centrifuges as though they were tops, spilling vials of his most prized essences, redesigning the clockwork Coulter discrete analyzer to sew sheer lace lab-frocks for his Ife concubines.
It was no good having these visions when there was nothing he could do about them. Everything opposed him. President Buique, the laughing doctor, the League of Nations. If only there were some way to escape these scenes of disillusion, where every fall of light reminded him of his own plunge into shadow. San Désirée, all of Bamal, mocked him.
“Old Mome,” he muttered. “Where did you go? Did America take you in? Would they have me? I wouldn’t want to go where you have gone. Anywhere else, anywhere, would be fine. I want to get away!”
He looked up. Once more he had let a bulldozer come too close. Narrowing his eyes against the lights, he saw two men aboard it; one must have been the unseated driver of the vehicle he now occupied. He heard a shout from that direction, and several angry words in the Ife dialect.
No time now, they were rushing him away again. But by the first light he would lay his plans for escape. It occurred to him that he had friends beyond Bamal, that there were those who would understand him perfectly: the scientific community was a global fellowship, was it not? On the slip of paper in his hand were the names of other scientists and the addresses of the institutes that supported them. They would take him in, surely.
Satisfied that at last he had a new purpose for his life, an organizing principle, he got himself out of the bulldozer’s way and hurried to be with the other refugees, now squawking like birds in the east while they waited for the tractors to depart and for the sun to rise.