Men are in the village. Tall men, healthy, but not like the last men who planted wooden stakes or tied orange ribbons to bushes in the nearby fields – not white men. Their skin was like ours a bit, their rubber suits pipe lightning down their arms and legs and their chests shine brighter than moons. They are here to see Hatim.
“There.” Nairobi points to the hut that shakes in the barely there breeze, that sheds sticks and coarse grass from its roof. “This is where he is.” Nairobi, as ever, willing to sate the curiosity of outsiders, guides them down the narrow pathway connecting our houses. The men stomp past those of us aroused from slumber, past sick men lying without mercy on the dusty earth floor, past women who have huddled several small children as close to their breasts as they can, scolding any who dare to venture into the path to touch the glowing garments of these men.
Nairobi stops ten feet from the door of the small hut where Hatim is sleeping; even he, the crier, pauses. The men look back at him for a second, then at each other, until the one in front nods, signaling all three to continue moving.
We saw their vessel erupt out of the sky, just appear in the stillness of the night. Nasir and I, we sat by the river and listened to wild cats hissing and jostling on the other side, to things swimming underneath the water and imagined a strange world calling to us. We imagined that the world under the river’s surface was vast and filled with creeping and crawling things, with scaly demons whose bites were worse than a piranha’s, that they were spawn from the souls of the dead bodies we sometimes saw float down from the some nearby city. Until the ship announced itself with a roar, we had not thought of anything more terrifying, more loud. It fell into the atmosphere and hovered over the ground. The air got thick and felt wet. My skin felt like it was being stung by mosquitos and ticks as the machine hummed and whirred. We ran back as fast as we could, yelled at the elders, and when they would not believe us, we hit under our mats and clutched sticks and waited.
They flash lights into the hut, checking machines and pushing buttons on their arms. When the third one pulls out his gun, a collective moan rips through the village. These men who look like us, they have come to murder us all! The elders tell of such things, when evil men come and burn down homes and kill all of the men, leaving the survivors to long walks through the jungle for a hundred days, some dying along the way.
The man with the gun lifts a finger to his lips as the other two went in. Was this happening? And why our village? We were of no consequence to the rebels, my father had told, because we had nothing they wanted, no resources we could be forced to mine or leave our land for. I believed him, until strange men started showing up and so many of us started disappearing.
The men rush from the hut, barking. One of them is carrying Hatim, who is limp and barely dressed and foaming at the mouth. Their boots move so quickly that dust billows into clouds. I cannot make out what they are saying, but they are frantic. Their voices are mechanical and wiry and muffled by the strange devices emanating out of their ears, eyes, mouths. They run until they are far off into the distant fields, by the river, until we can no longer follow the trace of the glow of their suits, until all the light that’s left is from the stars in the sky.
We strain to see where they have disappeared over the horizon. Nothing. Then, a bright white explosion peels outward from the direction of the river, accompanied by a thundering that knocks the weaker of us to the ground, including the hut that housed Hatim until he was taken by the strange men. The gravity around us increases and presses into us as something shoots out over our heads. The ship! When it passes seconds later, we find pieces of the hut’s thatched roof scattered for yards. Hatim had grown sicker and sicker and spent his days in that hut; some of us envied him that he did not have to tend to the goats or hunt wild boar or carry crumbling clay pots of dirty water in the radiant sun. Only Djinji, the man who can make sweet liquids from plants that can pass through a body and kick out that body’s demons, was allowed to enter.
“I am sorry,” he told Hatim’s mother after a month of trying to care for him. “There’s nothing I can do. The ancestors are all that’s with him now.” Hatim’s mother sank to her knees, cradled her son in her arms, sobbing violently. As Nasir and his brother tore her away, she had run off into the forest never to be seen again. I am remembering this when Nasir puts his hand on my shoulder. I am reminded that I am in the village, that tomorrow I will take the goats far up north to pasture and that I will carry my longest stick in case a tiger shows himself, starved and bold and insistent on a feast.
I miss his wiry fingers on my cold flesh. I miss calling out to him from the bathroom with soap in my eyes. I miss sitting on the couch reading bad romance novels while he made appliances dance to his will, the kitchen echoing a determined clang and rattle, wondrous alien scents whisking out to greet my nose. I miss even the tiny ridges of his forehead that canyoned up every time he got nervous or angry.
And he was often angry. Or bruised, broken up in some way. He’d be on the fire escape landing, tapping on my window with bloody knuckles, gasping.
“What the fuck, Hatim?” I’d scream. He’d put a long finger to his lips and motion to open up the window. I’d let him in, and, in a quiet rasp again: “What the fuck, Hatim?”
A ubiquitous “they” were always after him. Goons in glowing red costumes or thugs carrying scepters crafted from bones of rare sea life and imbued with black magic, anti-spies in grey suits with machine gun boots, or weaponized wood nymphs with telekinetic mollusks for their brains. I never saw any of them, only heard glimpses of stories, only saw strange lacerations and wounds cut into his body in ways I didn’t know the human body could be cut. I only saw the artifacts and memorabilia, usually some small exploding thing I’d have to pry out of his elbow with a hot pair of scissors. “No! No we can’t go to the hospital. They will find me there.”
My apartment is cold, too small, and poorly ventilated, but sometimes, even on the most wintry nights, I keep the window open in my room and just pile on the blankets my aunts have given me over the past few Christmases and huddle in front of an old space heater. I leave the window open so that the dust from the heater can circulate and rise out, and also I leave it open for him. Tonight, I hope he returns.
The cold gets unbearable, so I go into the living room and watch Jay Leno squeak out tired anecdotes at some beauty obsessed starlet and try, to no avail, to stay awake. I think that through the haze of a dream, I can see his length emerging in front of me. He is all arms and legs, springy and powerful. “Kevin.” His voice is reverberating in heavenly tones and it sounds like bells falling on concrete. “Kevin.” I’m dreaming that I can hear him, that he’s surrounded by low floating clouds and cosmic rainbows, until I feel something hot grip my arm. With a start, I’m up. He is standing before me.
“Kevin, I have come to you.”
“My arm.” His grip is inescapable, the more I try to pry myself away, the more taut his grasp becomes. “It’s fucking burning, Hatim.”
“I am sorry.” Slowly, he lets me go. Hatim looks at his hands wide-eyed, turning them over in shock. There’s a strange glow to them, a crisp orange light that I’ve never seen before. I feel guilty for having cursed and reach out to stretch and wrest myself out of sleep.
“That‘s new,” I say, pointing to his pulsing hands.
“I should not have come!” he exclaims, backing away. When he starts toward the window, I‘m suddenly panicked. I may lose him again to coyness. I reach out for him; his skin is taut, woodlike. I notice finally that he’s not wearing a shirt, just the leather pants he begged me to buy for him at that goth store in Fishtown – no shoes, nothing. His hair is spikey, and his eyes flash in a swirling aura-like array of color. I’m afraid, but I’m tethered to him, lost in his mystery.
“I should not have come. I am sorry.”
He is outlined by a slow, growing light hovering just beyond the invisible barrier of the window. His eyes slowly dim; now he is more normal than I have ever seen him, standing there, looking at his hands, whispering to himself, “I should not have come.” As the light increases, a large ship appears in the alleyway, just hovering there at my apartment window. There’s a deep hum that I can feel in my stomach that seems to roil through the building’s walls. It’s barely audible, I simply feel it. Then, nothing. Hatim puts a flared fingertip to his lips that, in the darkness of my apartment, looks like a pixie flitting in space. My ears pop, as glass shatters, raining down into the room. Shards fall onto our bodies, tearing through our flesh, mostly just bouncing off of his. I fall to my knees in agony. Dark clad mercenaries on wires rip through every window, smash down my apartment door, kick over my furniture, all while screaming in eerie robotic timbre. Without warning, I’m wrapped in one of my aunts’ blankets and pushed to the floor. Through a sliver, I can see boots stomp by or bodies fall to the floor; I can hear things breaking and blowing up, all in a cacophony like a rave in a casino beset with fireworks. There’s a two second silence, and suddenly the ground beneath me disappears. I can’t see anything, as the blanket has grown tighter around my body. Is someone carrying me? Hatim? I try to call out to him, but I grow faint. There’s nothing there, just the vastness of the current around me that increases exponentially as I drop. It feels like I’ve been drugged. I shut my eyes and Hatim’s blurry visage ricochets in my head again, until it all dissolves into blackness.
When I awake, it’s broad daylight and I’m on a beach. A seagull has been poking at my dried-out lips. It stands before me with a piece of my skin in its mouth. I am barely able to move, so I let him have his lunch in peace in the high, beaming warmth of the sun. The beach stretches far, but not wide. A steep craggy hill is only a few yards behind me. I crawl towards it and sit against the rocks, waiting for the relentless sun to smash into the abyss of the sea.
I am Hatim Muzambo. I am the pilot of this ship. I am the ever light being of Earth, I am the Star Sparkle of the universe, the lamp of God, traversing the ghost-strewn path of the cosmos. I am the lightning avatar, the creeping hot death of heat, the burning bright light of the cold of Pluto surrounded in the gate Nebula. I came to you as Horus. I came to you as Ahkenaton. I came to you as Vishnu. I came to you in parabolic visions and far-flung tales of the mystics. I came to you with my arms open and eyes blind, with my heart rendered into fragments as big and wide as the heavens itself. I gave you the sweet nectar of the rain, the cooling breeze, the Amazon. I, Hatim Muzambo, whose great grey ship sits aloft clouds, hovers amongst the innermost regions of your dreamscape, baring down on nightmares and shifting those dark, ominous clouds into the gutters of all reality, whose legions are armed and amassing, poised and sharp-willed and righteous and baring the artillery of love, whose love is laser and light, I! With a horde, a fleet of gods whose vessels’ afterburners dot the sky, whose souls streak auras and whose eyes, alit and flashing, race across galaxy after galaxy, whose very light is simply a star. I am the pilot of this ship, the master of this, the sword and the pen; I am why men fight wars, why love tears apart kings, and why princes die valiantly or vainly in wanton massacre. I am why there are dug-out pits filled with dead bodies after the revolution. I am why there are landfills and choking pelicans stricken with mutating disease or choking on their own bile or strangled by plastic six- pack lids. I am why there are roses growing on West Philadelphia sidewalks, why these roses’ thorns push through dried cement and still flower, are trampled on and fed exhaust and hate; yet, I am why this, the rose, still rises and flowers. I am the ghostking, I am the nebula, I am the abandoned parking lot littered with mattresses and glass and caskets. I am that great, seeking, raging, god king, berdache. When they came for you in black masks, with their batons held high, when they knocked on your door at midnight and called out for your sons, for your daughters, for your souls, I and I alone, I, whose lonesome army descended upon them and did so smite them, who blew up buildings for you. Who poisoned their water, who sent locusts, who burned the bush. I, who built the mountains, who found your lover cold and naked and who fed and clothed them, who sent the butterflies. I, who would paint Rothko’s on the side of a train, when you are sleeping, I am the pilot of this great ship. I am rising, I am a star. Buddha, Texaco, America, cosmic, nova, nuclear, unicorn, Microsoft, pixel, gravity, I am rising, I am a star.
If you ever see Alex Smith’s name on a flier, do yourself a favor and go listen to him read. It was Eighteen’s great pleasure to hear him read this piece at the first Laser Life, and it is a further pleasure to see its recent printing in Apiary Magazine‘s fifth installment, which can be found for free around the city here.