In all Bamal there were but a few who knew that Joseph Gidukyu had survived the coup. Of these, only two knew that he lived in San Désirée proper.
It had at first been widely supposed that the Emperor Mome had taken his physician with him when fleeing the coup. But Buique, no doubt goaded on by his own pet Doctor, swiftly saw fit to announce over Bamal Free Radio that the famous pioneer of olfactuality, osteognosis, and other scientific avenues previously unperturbed had been captured while hiding shamefully in the wine-cellar of his extravagant estate. Joseph, huddled in a basket belonging to a loyalist friend of his cousin Miguel, had not been in the least surprised by the news; he had been rather more dismayed to hear the manner in which he was characterized by the spokesman for the new regimes.
“Rest easy, citizens of Free Bamal, the foulest poison has been sucked from your wounds and shall soon be spit into the purifying flames of annihilation. This charlatan called Gidukyu, who enslaved you with lethal perfumes, now begs for mercy in a cold jail cell that is warmer and cleaner than he deserves. His eyes roll, he quakes in terror, for he knows that the people will not rest until the stench of his blood is drowned in the dust. Justice will be done in democracy’s name, on earth as it is in heaven, Amen!”
The Gidukyu imposter, whoever he was, had been executed at noon in the Pavilion du Monde, and Joseph had witnessed the spectacle while wrapped in the rags of an old woman. It was the largest gathering that had met in the square, not excepting the mandatory assemblies that had been drawn to Mome’s eight-hour addresses. He believed people must have poured into San Désirée from all over the country to watch the bloodletting, though there was little enough to see. Clerks hanging from office buildings dropped a confetti of paper and rinds on the people below; scuffles broke out between Nmimi and Fombeh, Fombeh and Kaak, while the Ife stood around hardly realizing yet that their position was unwontedly secure, that their stock had gone up, as it were. Standing in the midst of the commotion, up on a platform with ten soldiers and the President himself, was a thin black man with a leather sack over his head. Joseph did not know him; he looked too old to be a good imposter. He sucked at a fruit core he had rescued from the gutter and waited for the hubbub to die down. When this did not happen, he tried to work himself closer to the stage, and in the attempt nearly missed his own murder. It happened in less than an instant. President Buique stepped up to the prisoner, leaned his head close as though whispering confidences, and then put his gun to the leather sack and fired. Joseph stared at the ruin of red skull and dripping brains as the dead man fell. It was an awkward moment. They did not even look like his brains.
These thoughts were in his mind as he bicycled up the ramp onto the treacherous Presidential (once Imperial) Freeway, the cries of “Thief!” finally lost in traffic behind him. The way was made dangerous by the ragged and corroding hulks of cars that filled all eight lanes and both shoulders of the avenue. Commuters were still waking; those in cars with working batteries leaned on their horns, but there were few of these. Others buttoned their stained shirts, belted their trousers with neckties, and took up empty lunchboxes before starting the trek downtown. Dust and the glass of broken windshields littered the fuming asphalt; he prayed that the bicycle’s tires were tough, that its chain would not snarl, and that he would not be recognized. Unlikely. Few had seen him in the old days, outside of blurry photographs in the Imperial (now Presidential) Gazette.
Fragmentary scenes appeared beyond the window frames of Volkswagens and Datsuns as he cycled past: a bloat-faced woman holding her child to urinate through the wind-wing, a couple copulating stiffly in a back seat, an eczematous mongrel searching the eternal traffic jam with both paws on the steering wheel. Disgust overcame him; disgust not with these people, but with Mome who had deserted them at the first stirring of crisis. All Joseph’s preparations could not save the government when its leader was a coward.
“Mome,” he said, and hawked the word into the dust.
It had been months since he last came into the city, and now he remembered why. The memories were clustered here like flies on a corpse. He had once healed this fragile land, filled its streets with sweet incense, united the four tribes under one man. How unworthy that man had proved. If Joseph had only known how sensitive the Emperor was to the slightest whiff of evil rumor, he would have synthesized its essence long before and used it to keep Mome on the throne. He should have known, that was what troubled him; he should have known. To Mome, popular opinion meant that he must be popular, and all the tools of propaganda had gone to assure that, in his own eyes at least, he was. He had wrapped himself in the purple prose of the Gazette, as though in insulation; but all the time Joseph had thought him basking sleepily in the praise of editorials, he must have kept one eye ajar and one ear constantly cocked for the sound of gunfire in the streets.
And had Joseph suspected? He should have, yes, but those days had become increasingly dreamlike to him; and what were suspicions in a dream? Easily quelled, until they grew beyond all expectation, became monstrous, and one found oneself wide awake, battling nightmares like that bulldozer. That had been no way to live, sleep-walking. Not when the waking was so rude, so dangerous.
He would never repeat those mistakes. If he somehow managed to escape Bamal and make his way to hospitable climes, he would not allow himself to lapse into idylls of safety, security, trust. In this world there were no such things, not for such as he. He had proved that, hadn’t he? Faith was a cellular process. The human organism longed, at its most basic levels, to lay down the tooth and claw of survival, to grow soft and fat and hairless, to transcend all imperatives, whether of nutrition or defense. Surrender to peace, to entropy. Simply to exist was enough for most people. And because of these deep-rooted tendencies, they were at core quite weak and willing to suspend disbelief. How vulnerable. All anyone needed to succumb to these urges was the merest hint that to do so would bring down fulfillment, that the struggle was over and they could relax, putting trust in one sweet-smelling Emperor.
For Joseph had bottled the essence of trust, among many others. That had been his triumph, and it had earned him a place at the Emperor’s side even as it earned the Emperor his throne. His attars of loyalty, love, and personal charm had sprayed out from the lecterns where Mome stood and spewed his philosophy of world domination, and with every breath the populace fell more in love with him. Imperial soldiers came to homes at night, knocked politely, and asked for the lives of those accused of resistance or traitorous attitudes; and because they wore Joseph Gidukyu’s deodorants, which absolved them of complicity and banished the odor of fear, mothers opened the doors and set them upon their children; women still gleaming with the sweat of love brought them in by the hand and showed them where their husbands slept; young men guided them to grandfathers; cousin betrayed cousin; brother and sister confessed unlikely conspiracy; and the smell of roses was all about them, cloaking every death in an aura of fantastic beauty, fatal as innocence.
An old man opened a door in Joseph’s path, blinding him with the glare of a side-view mirror, almost ending his swift plunge toward the center of the city. He averted disaster by swerving perilously close to a guardrail tangled with barbed wire, and sped on. If only it had been so easy to save his aromatic reign from like catastrophe. He would still be a court physician now, the dream of safety uninterrupted. But who knew? There might have been another Buique, another soldier of Saharan wars whose nasal passages had been fused in chemical infernos, another man immune to the pheromone-distillations who would have stumbled onto Mome’s secret and begun to train an army of men to fight in gas masks, breathing filtered air.
One never knew.
His route took him on an increasingly steep descent into the shadows of the business district, where the only business at this hour was one of grievance. By the thousands, the folk of San Désirée languished in the streets, coughing up blood, gambling with bits of broken glass; a girl scarcely in her teens pushed away a dog that fought her infant twins for suck at her teats, until the young man beside her rose and clobbered the dog with a pipe, calling for a knife that they could drink its blood.
Joseph marveled. These were the Ife, the privileged few. It was worse in the barrens outside the city, where the other tribes dwelt in constant small-scale civil war. The inner city had its share of Fombeh, Kaak, and Nmimi, but they were not much in evidence. Many, after Buique’s so-called election, had fled to their homelands, such as they were. Unlike the reign under Mome, there had been no attempt to unite the tribes. Joseph was sure this neglect, a regression into the chaos of the African past, would be Buique’s undoing. The four must merge; influenced by Gidukyu essences they had begun to merge. In any case, he did not intend to witness the country’s collapse.
It had already begun. To his left, the Russian Embassy rolled past, gutted by arsonists, barricades lying in the streets, beggars sifting ashes in the doorways. The site of an unfinished bank, doomed to be “Under Construction” until every piece of it had been hauled away for scrap and fuel, had once been the location of the San Désirée Medical College and Hospital, where he had studied under his Franco-Portuguese mentor, Dr. Rene Lopez.
A disgrace, what this city had become. The vast Green Cross supermarket, the International Mall, the Bibliotheque Désirée were all empty, miles of shelves converted to luxury highways for rats, thoroughfares for termites and paper-engorged silverfish. These insects were the only citizens of Bamal that could be called sleek and healthy.
The parking lot of the immense and ruinous Dik-Dik Plaza appeared between the towering San Désirée Utility Building and Mome’s half-erected Needle, a chrome-plated phallus that eventually would have had at its tip a revolving restaurant that overlooked all of Bamal. Now Bamal was to be overlooked by its President, who had discontinued such public works. Buique’s fervent broadcasts upholding human rights in Africa were aimed at the ears of potential investors, while to the cries of his own folk he was deaf or uninterested. But had Mome been any better? A sticky issue. Joseph concentrated on finding a shortcut through the parking lot, which was crowded with citizens asleep in the lanes, their heads gently cradled on the concrete curb-pieces. These unlikely pillows were much in demand. Men with long knives moved between sleepers, demanding payment for use of the lot at steep hourly rates. He wondered how anyone could pay, or if the whole thing were a farce concocted to alleviate the boredom of slow extinction; but no sooner had he crossed into the thick of the sleepers—steering carefully lest he nip an outflung hand beneath the bicycle’s tires—than one of the toll-takers, spotting him, gave out a cry and began to give chase with his knife out. He would slash the tires to strings and then start on Joseph. “Private property!” the man was screaming. A mongrel yelped, its tail crushed by a tire, but Joseph only pedaled faster till he reached the far sidewalk and found himself at his destination.
Here the street was almost empty, sidewalks swept, potholes filled. Freshly minted street signs proclaimed the avenue to be “Dodo Boulevard.” Bitterly he stamped on the brake and cursed the name of his replacement. Dodo was a common enough name, for an Ife. How easy to hate four letters, given a reason. Mome had never named a street for him.
Dodo Boulevard was perfectly straight, and the date palms down its center gathered dust in the shadows of the office buildings. It led, as he well knew, directly from the estates on the north edge of San Désirée to the cubical building near where Joseph stood clenching the handlebars in disappointment. The Boulevard bypassed the hardened arteries of freeway traffic so that each day a one-man parade might pass undisturbed to and from the heart of the city. At every corner a soldier sat astride a grunting Harley-Davidson, watching the street for activity. If a bird chanced to land on the pavement it was shooed away or run over, depending on the bird; some were too groggy with parasites to avoid the rubber treads. There was constant traffic along the sidewalk, a continual crowd hugging the buildings in single file; all the people pursuing their countless unnecessary errands eyed the bright black asphalt greedily, seeing in it a comfortable bed, a homestead large enough for untold villages. Those who finally abandoned San Désirée and returned to their tribal homes would undoubtedly tell stories of that road that went unused by any but a long black limousine.
That limousine was now parked in the turnaround that faced the marbled grey cube at the end of Dodo Boulevard. A margin of impossibly green grass (impossible because plastic) fringed this ponderous structure; a desert gull pecked in vain at the vinyl turf. The front doors were elegant, carved of black oak, polished and gleaming in the shade of a garish red awning. Above the entrance was a dingy marquee that completed the impression that this was an expensive but disreputable theater.
The L’Institute Dodo
The first line of letters had been painted out years ago, each character individually traced with black pigment, which served to make the words stand out quite clearly. The second line of letters was more recent, and typical of Bamal’s grammar: French, Portuguese, and English colonies had left it a hash at independence. The final line of print was composed entirely of cinema-marquee letters, all in different faces, the E’s enormous. It was an atrocious display, and one he had always intended to clean up when he had been director. Dodo had done no more than substitute his name for Gidukyu, as though he approved of the sloppy titles. At least Joseph had known how bad it looked.
But there was not time enough in the day for dwelling on Dodo’s poor taste. Now reassured that his disgrace was complete, it was time to put his plans into effect.
“Out of the street, old man!” barked a traffic cop, revving his motorcycle’s engine. Joseph dragged the cycle sideways onto the path an instant before the Ife could run him over. He did his best to feign infirmity, but it was all he could do to cough wretchedly and hobble like an old man. He looked the part; starvation had added years to his visage even as the inches slid from his waist. But today, for good reason, he did not feel old. New desires had tapped old reserves, plumbed the genetic energies stored in his cells, pressed each withering microsome once more into service. He felt as though, given a mission, his metabolism had suddenly shifted into more efficient gear.
It was his great delight to see the motorcycle stall, spouting thick black exhaust, not half a block away. By the time he cycled slowly past, the driver had abandoned it in the street and was drawing his pistol in anger, as though to put it out of its misery. Joseph was careful not to smirk as he passed, for he knew that would have made him an irresistible moving target.
The human traffic thickened as he went on, until at last he was forced to dismount and walk the bicycle along the roadside. The congestion was temporary, however, for as he approached the estates the rabble thinned; few had reason to go there, where handouts were discouraged with generous helpings of bullets. He pondered his own wisdom in attempting to enter his old neighborhood at such a time. No one would expect to see him there, save perhaps for Angelica, but if he were to be recognized anywhere in San Désirée it would be there. How did he suppose to pass unnoticed on those beautiful avenues, where the lawns were sprinkled continuously with the contents of several dwindling Bamalan lakes while thirst wracked the populace? In this garb, and mounted as he was, there was little chance of penetrating the estates, let alone of walking up to Angelica’s door and asking if she might be in. He could hardly count the times that his own servants had beaten interloping solicitors and beggars with their own tracts and prayer bowls; now he was eating from such a bowl. Somewhere, some god was dishing out this portion with a chuckle.
But there were two people who knew of his continued existence in San Désirée, and Angelica was only one of them. The other, Miguel, was even nearer, and he would have no trouble entering his cousin’s place of employment. There were any number of ways to get into San Désirée’s jail.
The police station, he soon discovered, had abandoned its old offices to take up residence in the luxury hotel across the street. No one questioned him as he parked the bicycle at the base of a wide stairway stained with blood and urine, leaning it against a tall cement urn full of litter. As he picked his way between the mendicants asprawl on the steps, he turned down offers of narcotics and prostitutes. He glanced back once to see a boy wheeling away on the bike that had already been stolen once that day—or perhaps more than once, who knew?
At the threshold, where no doorman stood to open the shattered glass door, he felt in his robes for the reassurance of his gun, but his hand came away empty. The sensation provoked a mood of dread—not, he hoped, a premonition. He was not expecting trouble, but he knew how aggressive misfortune could be. There was nothing for it. He could not retrace his path looking for the lost weapon. Its absence made his throwing of himself on Miguel’s mercy less of a symbolic gesture; it smacked of foolhardiness. Could he count on his cousin, or anyone?
Inside it was dark and sweltering; air conditioners pumped heat into the grim lobby. The walls were papered with posters of President Buique, his mutilated face presiding over this hall of justice; the smoke of cigarettes and confiscated opiates rose everywhere like incense offered to placate the villain. Officers slumbered like children on eviscerated couches. He regarded one sleeper tenderly for a moment, a bony man with a broken yet determined jaw; in his dreams he must be leading armies to glory, such was the beatific expression on his face. Joseph leaned over and nudged him in the ribs, no harder than was necessary to rouse him.
“I wish to report a stolen bicycle,” he said.
The man waved vaguely, as if shooing a fly. “You’ll have to wait.”
“I shall not wait. I want this thief caught and executed.” And in an undertone, “It is I, Miguel. Don’t keep me standing here.”
The officer’s eyes snapped open. He jumped up quickly and grabbed Joseph by the arm, then they were walking down a wide corridor so full of metal desks and office furniture that it was impossible to pass two abreast. Upon the larger of these desks, policemen lay curled and dreaming. Joseph noted the abundance of typewriters in the corridor; he might need one soon to write a formal address to the scientific saviors of the free world. Miguel drew him into an office, pitch-black once he closed the door; a light came on and the room was revealed to be a large utility closet.
“Why have you come back? You should never—”
“I know it would mean your death if we were caught plotting, Miguel, but I do not think that likely.” He realized that his cousin was furious, and he was anxious to cool him down. “Soon enough, if all goes well, I will have removed myself from your care entirely. I intend to leave Bamal.”
“Good! You should have left months ago. I thought you had.”
“Gone where? And how? I’ve spent the last six months learning how the people live, trying not to slip beneath the dust and die with the rest of them, distinguishing myself in this regard. It has taken me time to reacquaint myself with some of the world’s harsher aspects; as you might imagine, I had forgotten what it could be like to live—”
“Like the rest of us?” Miguel shook his head, holding the door of the closet shut, his hand white-knuckled on the knob. “It was plain to see how much you forgot when the Emperor put you at the foot of his throne.”
“You’re glad to see him gone, I take it.”
“Glad?” Miguel’s laughter was dry and unappealing, not meant to be shared. “If you were not Fombeh, if there were no blood-trust between us, I would have shot you myself. It was foolish to risk my life hiding you, making the arrangements I did.”
Miguel took a breath and Joseph said, “So you think you live the common life now, do you? Do you think that out on the plain, the people sleep on soft couches and wait for the cool of night so they can retire with whores in your empty cells?”
Miguel’s jaw creaked as it moved from side to side.
“Buique has done nothing for these people,” he went on. “They flocked to San Désirée to find their fortune by casting a vote, but what have they found? A wealth of fleas, twisted guts, the blood-rot that has begun to eat up the tribes from within. They have come here to die, that is all. And I am different. Why should you oppose me when I say that at last I have decided to live—to more than live?”
“I know how you live.”
“Of course you do, Miguel.” He touched the rags that clothed him. “Forgive me for lording it over you here in my moment of luxury. I was always kind to you when I had power and position.”
“And I returned the favor. I saved your life, which was worth—”
“Exactly nothing as I live it now. I will not ask any great favors; I do not wish to be in your debt. All I require is a change of clothes, access to your typewriter, perhaps a desk to sleep upon tonight.”
“Fresh clothes? And where would I find those?”
Joseph spoke cautiously, foreseeing Miguel’s reaction: “A uniform. Common enough. Like the one you wear.”
Miguel was on the edge of exploding; he would be pushed no further. “A uniform!”
“For the moment I must be able to pass freely in places where these garments would only have me arrested. Get me a uniform and I promise you’ll see no more of me. Even if I sleep in the station I’ll do so in secret.”
“Ridiculous. You, passing as an officer?”
“And Buique passing as President, yes, it is ridiculous the way things turn around, is it not? Yesterday I stood at the top, holding the Emperor on my shoulders. Look at me now, Miguel; oh, not with such a sour face. I reflect sadly on the pride of our tribe but, alas, embody the state of the world.”
“You’re mad if you think—”
“Thinking is not what maddens me. It is only when the thoughts stop in the face of circumstance, and I hear the cries of the people out there in the desert, their voices building in a single cry, an insane wind; it is only then that the madness truly leaks in.”
Miguel shook his head, put a finger over Joseph’s heart. “I should have shot you myself.”
“Please, cousin, no regrets. Grant my final request and you may consider all obligations, even those of blood, forever cancelled. When I put on this uniform, I shall put off the Fombeh tatters.”
“Good. You are not of my tribe.”
The door slammed behind Miguel and Joseph heard his footsteps dying in the hall. He stared up at the bare light bulb until it seared his eyes. He had expected a strained reception from his cousin, but nothing so bleak as this; the world had truly turned in the last six months—from one season to its opposite.