Hawks soar in the sky like flocks of flying moustaches. The sky, so distant: distant and blue, with a radiant, burning heart... and me, choking on words that won’t come, full of a terror that hovers in the void. My heart’s not beating! Am I dead? Or am I just playing dead?
I am lying – or rather, my corpse is – in a pile of other bodies. Other bodies, I say, as if I don’t know who they are. Of course I know them, all of them: they are my siblings, my family. This one’s my sister, a little baby boy in her arms, and here’s my blind and irritating father... That’s my pious neighbour, slumped in a pose of eternal prayer, the blood-spattered Gospels in his hand, and over there is my friend, who I argued with yesterday over a glass of booze gone off.
There is the Ethiopian merchant, the man who ran the jerry-built bar at the end of the street, from whom we bought cheap liquor (Tusker, Nile Special and Seven Nights) and made merry. Look at him now, carelessly flung aside, terror etched on features that have begun to swell and bloat. Seems he would have been handsomer if he had filled out a bit... We’ve all been lying here for days now, weeks, in absurd postures that pay no respect to death’s awful majesty.
Just pause for a moment: I’m not sad! I really must be dead. After all, my heart’s not beating and it doesn’t feel sad! I think I should take this more seriously, maybe: I really am dead.
All I remember is seeing them advancing, swarms and swarms of them, armed with all manner of rifles and machine guns and grenades and car-mounted rocket launchers. They looked a lot like us: in fact, I remember thinking that I saw myself, with this same eye that’s even now being chewed out by worms. I saw myself, leading an army: we were an army, and victims, at one and the same time.
It’s just the booze playing tricks, I told myself, sweeping me off to some parallel dimension... but let me finish: I saw us advancing, some of us dressed in combat fatigues and toting guns of various sizes and types, automatics that harvested souls as long as they still had bullets to spare, which they spat out with terrifying, rapid sounds.
I saw this army appear on the horizon between the towering green trees, and it seemed that they – that we – must have started a fire in the next village over. Smoke was rising higher and higher, swirling lazily, a vast snake darkening the universe, while the trees were shrinking, withdrawing into the earth as tortoises retract into their shells, and we... we were announcing our arrival by pouring fire directly into the houses, by spreading death.
Every time we loosed off a burst we’d thrill and swell in size until we arrived and were attacking ourselves, each one of us killing himself without mercy.
I saw myself killing myself, without mercy. I was gazing on the other me, standing in line in his brutal uniform, bristling with weapons, an ammo belt slung across his chest. I stared deep into his eyes – maybe he’d recognise me – and I begged him not to kill me. I was afraid and my smile was thin and wan. Don’t you know me? I asked him. I... I... I’m you! But before I could go further he unleashed a flurry of bullets cold-bloodedly into me and... and he rejoiced. That’s right: I saw myself kill myself and rejoice.
Now I’m riddled, my body bleeding like sieve, and I feel the warm blood roaring out of me, flooding me, drowning me in a sticky red lake. But guess what? I feel no pain. Maybe I really am dead.
Either that or this is a seriously advanced stage of intoxication: a pact between death and drunkenness that has hurled me down into the deepest of comas.
Is this death? A deathless consciousness coupled with the lack of all feeling? An enforced absence and a defiant presence of corpses scarred by bullets, charred by shells, and slaughtered like sheep?
I saw everything. I saw my killer and the killer of my siblings and my infant brother, of my blind father and our neighbour and the Ethiopian merchant. I saw our towns turned to ashes and mounds of rotting corpses worried at by dogs and crows. A village becoming an open grave; terror-stricken multitudes fleeing blindly. All as I lie here, my burning consciousness fully aware and my dead body unable to run: I see them with the eye that’s canted skywards – the other eye is submerged in the pool of sticky red blood. All of us here have bodies riddled with holes: we leak.
I saw them kill us and rob us and celebrate within view of our bodies.
I’m furious now! Can the dead get angry? I am angry therefore I live! But I lie here peacefully... It just seems that I’ve lost my way in the dark passageways of unconsciousness, that I will come to, to find my soul suspended above my body: and like a hook sunk in the throat of some unlucky fish I’ll cling on, just as I clung to my paper kite when I was a mischievous child. Of course, the kite wasn’t really made of paper: it was used bags that we fixed on rods and tied to a block of wood with thread we filched from our mothers, then let it loose, bit by bit, to flutter up into the distant sky. Now I’m the block of wood and my soul is fluttering above me, up in the distant sky, keeping company with the hawks that circle like flocks of flying moustaches.
I hear intense gunfire now and the lens of my eye records flames of many colours and sizes, the colours of inferno, and terrifying noises like thunder reach even these dead ears. The rumble of tanks shakes me; the heavens rain fire. A fireworks display where every rocket is in deadly earnest.
I see us attacking ferociously and I see us, or our doubles, falling in heaps and mounds. One man is hit with a shell that could wipe out a whole squadron and he becomes nothing but shattered fragments, or at best a half- or headless corpse. And now they’re fleeing or lying in those postures that show no respect for death’s awful majesty... like the corpses of my father, my siblings, my neighbour, and more, all killed without mercy, and then they celebrated in sight of the corpses. Our corpses. Theirs.
I hear the thrum of gigantic rotors, setting down beside us like birds of prey, the raging dust cloud they create sweeping the hawks and dogs and flies off us. People get out – important looking people, preceded by a host of guards who train their guns on us, down alleys and at treetops. They wear short-sleeves and gaze at us solemnly: we who were people full of life and joy and are now putrid corpses, rotting and still.
They fetch large sacks and one by one start bundling us up: us and the soldiers; me and my brother who killed me; me and the other me who killed me without mercy and rejoiced. Us: the killers and the victims.
When they stoop over me and move me, my soul, snagged in my body’s gullet is set loose and soars away. As they begin to wrap me up in one of those sacks my eye slips out of its socket and rolls over the dusty floor, and a hawk swoops down and snatches it up into the heights. From up the sky I see us lined up and wrapped in sacks, being counted: one, two, ten, one hundred, five hundred, a thousand, two thousand...
They dig a grave to which we are all driven: me, my father, my brother, my sister, the baby in her arms, the friend I argued with yesterday over the booze gone bad (how I wish we hadn’t!), the frightened Ethiopian merchant who ran the cheap bar, our neighbours, the soldiers who killed themselves and us and rejoiced in plain view of our corpses that were theirs.
The hawk soars holding my one eye that has seen everything. Staring down from the heights I’m stricken with grief:The hawk circles in the sky. The flames burn everything. The earth swallows the trees like tortoises pulling in their necks. And I see me. With the eye that the hawk devours. I murder my siblings without mercy. I rob my father without fear. I exterminate my tribe without a tremor. I rape my sister with glee. I kill myself and I rejoice.