An Elegy for Easterly

Stories

Petina Gappah

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Chapter One

At the sound of the last post

The bugle call shatters the stillness of the shrine. Its familiar but haunting melancholy cannot fail to move. Even the president seems misty-eyed behind his glasses. Close to him in the widow's place of honor, I am aware of his every movement. I watch him without moving my eyes. Perhaps it is not mist in his eyes but the film of my own sudden tears. The badges sprinkled on his sash of office shimmer and recede against the green of the material.

He brings his hands together in a clasp that puts the sinews of both hands into relief. It makes him, for a fleeting moment, the very old man that he is. Unexpected pity wells up inside me. Half-remembered lines of poetry come unbidden to my mind: he grows old, he grows old; he shall wear the bottoms of his trousers rolled. There is a parting in his hair, where the white roots at his scalp show in the places that the dye has not reached. Does he count the years and maybe just months and days that remain until he, too, is sounded away by that bugle to lie beneath the blackness of polished marble in the empty space next to the grave of his first wife?

The faces of the pallbearers are half hidden by their olive berets. The sun glints on the metal insignias on their epaulettes. Their sabers are reflected on the polished surface of their shoes. They lift the coffin and hoist it upon their shoulders. The flag that covers the coffin slides on the smoothness to reveal the casket of white and gold. The soldiers in the front move their hands simultaneously to keep the flag from slipping away.

They march in a one-step pause two-step pause progression until they reach the grave that is lined in green felt. The white man from the funeral home is stiff in his top hat and tails. Where do they find them, these white men with their pinched faces above their funereal clothing?

There are almost no whites in the country now.

Everything is black and green and brown and white. Black is the marble of the polished gravestones and the mourning clothes. Green is the presidential sash and the olive colors of the berets on the heads of the soldiers and the artificial shining verdancy of the grave. Black is the dark of the gathered masses who listen to the youth choir dressed for battle in bottlegreen fatigues, voices hoarse in the August heat, singing songs from a war that they are not allowed to forget. Black and brown are the surrounding Warren Hills, the hills denuded, with stumps remaining where the trees were, the green trees now the brown wood that replaces the electricity that is not to be found in the homes.

The bugle is still as the coffin is lowered. The sudden silence unsettles me out of my thoughts of presidential mortality. I get ready to move forward to walk down to the grave. The president moves also, and I watch him, an old man still, but one who is Commander of the Armed Forces, Defier of Imperialism, and, as he was just moments ago, Orator at the Funerals of Dead Heroes.

Just under an hour ago, after the opening prayers and before the final salute, he gave his funeral oration.

"He was a fine man, a gallant soldier in the fight for our liberation, a loving husband and father. We condole with his family and his widow, Esther, and urge her to be brave at this time of inconsolable loss."

The cameras of the national broadcaster found my face. I was beamed into televisions in homes across the country, brave in my inconsolable loss. The cameras moved back to the president as he said, "I say to you today that, much like the gallant hero we bury here today, you too must guard against complacency. You must follow the example of our fallen comrade who lies here. We must move forward today and strive ahead in togetherness, in harmony, in unity, and in solidarity to consolidate the gains of our liberation struggle."

I could see around me eyes glazing over at this seventh oration at the seventh hero's funeral in four months. They are being culled, all of them, age and AIDS will do its work even among the most gallant of heroes; the vice president with the hooded eyes looks like he may be next to go. It must be easy pickings to be the president's speechwriter; all he seems to do to write a new speech is strike out the name of the previously fallen comrade and replace it with that of the newly dead.

The president spoke on. The chief justice nodded off. The police commissioner jerked to wakefulness as applause broke out. Only the governor of the Central Bank seemed to listen, face strained with avid attention. At the funeral of the third dead comrade of the year, just a week after the cabinet had finally agreed on the most patriotic figure at which the national currency should be exchanged against the pound and the euro and the dollar and the rand, the president had announced a different, even more patriotic figure.

I listened to the rhythm of his speech. Having addressed theme number one, the liberation struggle, it was time for the second theme. By the time I counted down from ten, he would have begun to attack the opposition.

As I reached six, his voice echoed out over the hills.

"Beware the puppets in the so-called opposition that are controlled from Downing Street. They seek only to mislead with their talk of democracy."

The microphone hissed slightly at puppets, making it sound like puppies. Downing Street was his cue to move to the next theme, the small matter of the country's sovereignty: "I say to Blair and to Bush that this country will never, a trillion trillion times never, be a colony again."

The microphone gave a piercing protest at the trillion trillion, making the phrase jump out louder than the other words. There was a nugget of newness in the use of trillion and not million as a measure of the impossibility of recolonization. It is three months since inflation reached 3,000,325 percent per annum, making billionaires of everyone, even maids and gardeners.

The coffin has been lowered.

Rwauya, the eldest son of my husband, guides me down to cast gravel into the grave. He has abandoned his usual dress of trousers of an indeterminate color and shirts which usually manage to exhibit both the lurid colors of the national flag and the president's face. Still, the raw smell of unwashed Rwauya seeps through his crumpled suit. I try not to flinch as he takes my elbow and we follow the president past the graves of the men and two women who are buried here. My handful of dirt makes a splattered brown on the white surface of the coffin.

The family follows behind us. My husband's sister Edna breaks into loud keening. "Brother," she wails as she kneels beside the grave. "Come back, my brother. Come back. You have not completed your tasks, brother. See how the nation longs for your return."

She makes as though to jump into the grave, and is stopped by her daughters. She stumbles into the president's wife, the second first lady, who soothes her with a perfumed hand to the shoulder. As Edna heaves dry sobs against the black silk of the second first lady's suit, my eyes travel down to Edna's shoes. She really should start investing more money in her shoes; her unshaped peasant's feet require something stronger than cheap zhing-zhong plastic leather shoes to contain them.

That Edna makes a spectacle of herself is not surprising. She is given to bursts of emotion calibrated for public consumption. She is always ready to be offended on behalf of others. When I told their family twenty-one years ago that I was leaving her brother, she spoke to her sister in a whisper of theatrical resonance, the better to reach my ears.

"Ngazviende," she said, "and good riddance. Real women were divorced to make place for a mhanje such as this one."

Thus my introduction to the word mhanje: their word for the lowest form of womanhood, womanhood without womanliness, mhanje being a barren woman, a woman without issue, unproductive, a fruitless husk. There was no question that it could be her brother who was infertile. He had proved his virility in the three children that he had with a woman he had been married to even as he was marrying me in London in a council office with no central heating before an official with mucus drip-dripping into his handkerchief.

I thought I loved him; but that was in another country.

I exulted to hear him say, "I want a wife who shares in my dreams; an equal, not a subordinate." I helped him to write furious letters of righteous indignation condemning the white-settler regime and the situation in his country. I forgot about the fight against apartheid in my own country as his battle seemed more urgent. We wrote letters and hosted exiles and through long nights we argued about Fanon and Biko and Marx and Engels. That was before we arrived in the country after independence. Before I found out that my husband already had a wife with three children, whose names were not gentle on the tongue.

Edna's grave-diving attempts are the only hitch in the choreographed order of the funeral procession. After the immediate family, the important personages scatter earth over the coffin, the members of the politburo file past, then the heads of the army and the air force, then the police commissioner and the director of prisons, then the parliamentarians and the judges according to seniority.

In the end, my words to Edna and my husband's family were no more than empty threats. I was persuaded to stay, although I can no longer remember what empty promises I believed. I came to know the subtlety of the intonations of their language, that chimbuzi with the voice lowering over the middle and last syllable was a toilet, while chimbudzi with the extra d and the voice rising on the middle and the last syllable was a young goat. I learned to pronounce his children's names, and in the end, did not need him, as he had done at first, to explain words to me.

"I named the first child Rwauya, meaning 'death has come,' and the second Muchagura to mean 'you shall repent,' and the last Muchakundwa, 'you shall be defeated.' They are messages for the white oppressors, warning signs to the white man."

Thus had he stamped his patriotism on his children before leaving them with names that could mean nothing to the intended recipient of the messages, to the white man who chose to live in ignorance of native tongues. The white man has been conquered now, twice over, first in the matter of government and now in the matter of the land that has been repossessed, but the children remain with their ominous names. I got to know them well because I replaced their mother after their father divorced her.

"There is no need for anything official," my husband said. "We are married under customary law, with no official papers. I will give her gupuro and she can take that to her family." He picked out a pot with a red-and-yellow flower on it and gave it to her as a sign that he had divorced her. She died three years after that, but still, with her flowered pot and her early death, she got the better end of the bargain.

Like the worthless dogs that are his countrymen, my husband believed that his penis was wasted if he was faithful to just one woman. He plunged himself into every bitch in heat, even that slut of a newsreader, the ruling party's first whore, who lends the services of her vacuous beauty to their nightly distortions. She has been bounced from man to man, first as the mistress of a businessman who died with the red lips that spoke of his illness and then as the mistress of the governor of the Central Bank, and after that, as the mistress of a minister without portfolio. Just like my husband, to salivate over other men's leavings.

Muchakundwa and Muchagura are solemn in their dark suits. They live in California now, where they study on government scholarships. They have chosen to seek their fortunes far from this sovereign land that will never, a trillion trillion times never, be a colony again.

They left and Rwauya remained.

He would have been considered a failure, Rwauya, with his two O levels, but he is just the sort of person who thrives in this new dispensation, where to keep ahead is to go to every rally and chant every slogan. Even with all the patronage that is meant to oil his path to success, he has run down two butcheries and a bottle store, and, of six passenger buses, only one remains. He is full of schemes and ideas that never come to anything.

"Ndafunga magonyeti," he said to his father and me, from which we understood that he was thinking of investing in haulage trucks. "If I buy just two magonyeti, I will be okay."

When the magonyeti scheme went down the primrose path along which went all others, he went from importing fuel and sugar to flying to Congo DRC and looting that country of cultural artifacts. And when Congo had been emptied of masks with cutout eyes and old wooden bowls and long-phallused fertility figures, he turned his thoughts to local stone sculpture.

"Ndafunga zvematombo," he said, and began to export substandard chiseled bits of soapstone that were called Eagle or Spirit or Medium or Emptiness. "If I make just two shipments, I will be okay."

Now he wants his hands on the farm that my husband left. He arrived at the house four nights ago, looking like the death of his name, his eyes red from crapulence, with the mangy dreadlocks that are now a declaration of African authenticity if you believe that the authentic Africa is a place without combs or water to wash the hair. He gave me an embrace that lasted a fraction longer than it should have, his hand brushing my bottom far from the shoulder where it should have been.

"You are looking very good, Mainini."

I have learned to dispense with the niceties of social discourse with Rwauya and go straight to the heart of the matter. To my "What is it you want?" he launched into a half-coherent account involving one of the six ministers without portfolio, the minister's three nephews, one of whom was married to the daughter of the chief of police in Mazowe District who was in turn married to a niece of the lands minister.

"They have hired thugs to camp on the farm. Imagine, just two years after Father took it over from that Kennington," he said. "You have to do something to protect the farm. This is an invasion. They have no right to take it. My father died for this country. That farm is my birthright."

"What is it that I can do?"

"Izvi zvotoda president. Ask to see the president. Mainini, you have access, just ask to see the president."

I could have talked to the president once, when he was still called the prime minister, before the Presidential Powers Amendment Act, before he ditched the Marxist austerity of his safari suits for pinstripes and gold cuff links, before he married his second wife, Her Amazing Gracefulness, Our First Lady of the Hats. I was close to the inner circle then, close to his first wife, and we talked about women and education into the night.

"You are a coward," she said to him. "Isn't he a coward? I keep saying he should ban this demeaning polygamy." His eyes laughed behind their glasses and he asked us how he could do this when the peasants were wedded to these arcane notions of life. The minister of justice talked about the difficulty of applying Marxist-Leninist principles in the context of African culture. "The changes wrought by the Age of Majority Act show that, in the short term, law can be an instrument of social change, but ultimately it is not the consciousness of man that determines his material being but his material being that determines his consciousness. Law is a superstructure which must also wither when the state withers away."

And we drank some more wine and argued about what would remain when the state withered away.

His wife gathered us to her in a small band of foreign women that their men had married in their exiles, some from as far away as Jamaica, England, Sweden, some from Ghana, Swaziland, South Africa. We spoke English without feeling the need to apologize and drank wine and watched films at State House. We were well educated, all of us: bachelors of arts and masters of education, with three or four doctors of medicine. Yet we seemed to accept that the world of salaried work was closed to us as we raised children and hosted parties at which the talk was dialectical materialism and nation building. When the World Bank's focus moved to empowering civil society, the donor money poured in and we undertook projects, children's foundations, disability programs, women's empowerment, adult literacy campaigns.

"To help the nation-building process," we said, but, in reality, to keep ourselves busy and to close the chasm of boredom that threatened to engulf us in its emptiness.

Then the first lady died but before that there was the Willowgate car scandal. TOP MINISTERS INVOLVED IN ILLEGAL SALES OF GOVERNMENT CARS, the newspaper headlines screamed, STATE HOUSE IMPLICATED IN WILLOWGATE.

In the inner circle, we held our breaths and thought heads would roll and the peasants and workers would revolt, and demand an accounting. The only thing that happened was the death of a minister in a supremely self-indulgent act of suicide. His grave lies over there behind the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In our band of foreign wives, we were shocked as our friend and patron the first lady was sucked to the center of the scandal. We became less shocked as she remained standing. The donor money poured in still, and we learned the benefits of creative accounting. We assured ourselves that the creative accounting did not matter because the peasants and the workers still got the benefit of the money.

She died, the first lady, but even as his wife lay dying, the president kept an unofficial wife in a small house and our husbands also set up small houses and scattered their seed in every province. My husband and I were sent to a banana republic as the country's representatives while the nation forgot about his third scandal concerning government tenders.

We returned to an amnesiac nation, but our visits to State House were not as frequent. The unofficial wife in the small house had become the second first lady at State House. She wore hats of flying-saucer dimensions while cows sacrificed their lives so that she could wear pair upon pair of Ferragamo shoes.

"If only I could," she said to the nation's orphans, "I would really, really adopt you all."

A soldier steps out of the row of pallbearers with the flag folded in a neat triangular parcel. He salutes me before handing it to me. I let it sit in my lap with the stripes showing. I see the yellow and the green and the red and a bit of the black. The president looks into the distance.

"How can one man rule forever?" was the question that obsessed my husband before he died. "Twentyeight years, and still he wants to hang on?"

He joined in a plot to ensure that the next president would be from his province. There were secret meetings. They had come to the farm, the heavyweights as the press calls them, referring to their assumed political influence, but the phrase could as well refer to their stomachs that require heavy lifting for all the copulation they seem to do with contestants and winners of beauty pageants. They plotted and schemed and the president got to know of their plots and schemes as he gets to know of everything. But the president was merciful; my husband's groveling must have been so irritating that the only way to put an end to it would have been to extend the magnanimous hand of presidential pardon. He did not enjoy that forgiveness long because then he succumbed to a long illness, to use one of many presidential terms for death from AIDS. He died, leaving me relieved that it had been years since I was a wife to him in any but the social sense.

"Forward, march." The words are a strangled cry that seems to come from deep within the intestines of a soldier whose face is contorted from the effort of shouting them. This is followed by the rattle of a drum. The voice comes again and six soldiers march in formation and stand over the open grave.

There is a drumroll.

"Company, fire."

The soldiers shoot into the air.

"Company, fire."

More gunshots.

"Company, fire."

And so on until twenty-one rounds have been shot into the air and the coffin has been sent off in the pomp and pageantry of a full military funeral. Tomorrow the official newspaper will be full of a four-page photograph spread. They will say that my husband lay in state at Stoddard Hall before his coffin was loaded onto a gun carriage and traveled in a fifty-car cortege to the national shrine at Warren Hills, where a service from the official state priest was followed by an oration from the president, which was followed by a twentyone-gun salute. There will be a full text of the president's speech. And for at least a week, the funeral will make up the entirety of the nightly news.

These are the ceremonies that give life to the ruling party's dream of perpetual rule, the pompous nothingness of the president's birthday celebrations, the statesanctioned beauty pageants from which they choose new mistresses, the football matches with predetermined outcomes. The unity galas and musical "bashes," the days of national prayer, and, above all these, the state funerals.

I wonder what the masses would say if they were to be told that they have gathered here to bury a bit of wood covering a sack filled with earth while the man we mourn lies in an unmarked grave.

The newsreader who was my husband's mistress announced that my husband was to be made a national hero. The politburo had declared him a hero to be buried at the national shrine. They did not tell me, his widow, of this decision, and I had to hear it from his whore on the evening news. "The shrine is where they lay the gallant sons who fought in the liberation struggle," she added, helpfully.

What she does not say is that my husband is fortunate to have been awarded the status at all. Only those who had not disagreed with the president at the time of their deaths become heroes. A committee weighs the gallantry. It is sometimes necessary to upgrade those that were not gallant enough but sang well enough and danced high enough in the praise of the president to earn them a place there. My husband had been measured and the scales declared him worthy. He had never held a gun in his life. He knew nothing of the forests of Mozambique where the guerrillas trained. His main contribution to nation building was to unite the nation in gossip over his five scandals. The scandals and his recent disloyalty have been discarded and all that matters is that he consolidated the gains of the liberation struggle by devotedly introducing the president by his full totem name.

In the end, they came to pay their respects and to talk about the funeral.

"His body will lie in state at Stoddard Hall," the presidential spokesman said. "He will proceed to Warren Hills for a full military burial."

"Those were not his wishes," I said. "He wishes to be buried in his village."

There was silence.

"His bones would not rest easy, he said, if he did not lie in the land in which he was born, where his ancestors are buried, and where he wants the bones of his children, and his children's children, and their children in turn to lie with his when their time comes.

"It was his obsession in the end," I continued. "He believed that only if he lay in his home village would he find peace."

I was sure that the reference to a potentially restless spirit would appeal to the atavistic instincts of the cabinet members. They believe in the supernatural, after all, haunting traditional healers for success-guaranteeing potions and agitating for a law to punish witchcraft.

"We have no option but to go ahead with the funeral," the spokesman insisted. "The announcement has been made by the president himself; to go back would . . ." His voice trailed off but he did not need to finish the sentence. The president is not a man who loses face.

In the end, it was perhaps not so much the fear of my husband's ngozi spirit that made them treat me with respect as it was the necessity of avoiding the embarrassment that would result if I carried out my threat to go to the private press. They sent one emissary after another to talk to me, until they sent three heavyweights from the politburo. After allusions to the family honor and talk of a personal triumph for my husband, came this plea: "Think of how good it will be for his region."

My husband was from the restive tribe in the south that sleeps and feeds and knows not the president. They carry a chip on their shoulder the size of their province. They do not have enough power, enough heroes at the national shrine. My husband's hero status would, they believed, quell the restive tribe and still the fires that burned in the party over who will succeed the president. And in that realization, I saw my future. I have no home in my own country to go to; everything that I have invested is here. I could choose to be an official widow to be trotted out at every commemoration of the heroes.

Or I could choose my own path.

"I want my husband's farm back," I said, "and I want it registered in title deeds in my name. I also want an uncontested seat in the new senate."

So the bargain was sealed: for a seat in the new senate and a farm in my own name, I would close my mouth and let them bury wood and earth in his name. They jumped at this; how could they not, when my husband had died in early August, which meant that they could have a real funeral on the very day in the middle of August that they commemorate men of the ruling party who have died still in agreement with the president. And so the spokesperson arranged everything, the coffin, the service, the switch after the lying in state at Stoddard Hall. He measured out exactly the precise kilograms of earth to represent my husband's dead weight. "It must feel like the soldiers are carrying a real body," he said.

They have sounded the Last Post and fired the twentyone-gun salute. I count slab upon slab of polished marble covering the desiccated bones of the dead heroes. One of them will soon cover the earth that is standing in for the flesh and bones of my husband.

There are many such secrets here, what the French call les secrets de Polichinelle, secrets that everyone may know but which may not be spoken. It is known that one of the heroes we buried recently was not the fine upstanding family man of the presidential speech but a concupiscent septuagenarian who died from a Viagrainduced heart attack while inside an underage girl. And it is known that the governor of the Central Bank who has vowed to end illegal sales of fuel is himself involved in sales of fuel on the black market. And that the president . . . well, that which is not spoken or written down is not real.

Only the official truth matters, only that truth will be handed down through the history books for the children to learn. This they will learn: my husband is a national hero who lies at the Warren Hills. Warren Hills is the national shrine in a land presided over by the wisest of rulers. The land is one of plenty with happy citizens. The injustices of the past have been redressed to consolidate the gains of the liberation struggle. And in that happy land, I will be a new farmer and senator.

Excerpted from AN ELEGY FOR EASTERLY by PETINA GAPPAH
Copyright © 2009 by Petina Gappah
Published in 2009 by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.