Listen to this story
Narrated by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Mbesi’s eyes are glazed-yellow cloudy, leaking at the corners. He has reached the sinking stage, he and the floor, both made of shit, merging. His first time meeting jenkem. Mine was the same.
I step out of my body, crouch beside him on the mold-rotted floor. To touch him, to shake him awake from stupor, I must reach through flesh that turns or seems to turn to rot and touch him, Mbesi, his soul-sentience, and I must squeeze until he feels a pain that transcends body, nerves and brain.
His eyes unglaze and flood with terror as the semblance of drowning becomes indistinct from the reality. Mbesi is drowning, just as we all are drowning, just as I am squatting here beside him, beyond my rotten body, gripping his soul like a vise. Mbesi’s spirit-soul chokes on the fume that fills him and flails for a shore that does not exist. Though I’m his sister — and the only one who can — I do not help him. There was no one to help me.
The jenkem pot billows and coughs. The cops prowl the alley, battering vagrants who are less lucky than we only because they have not lost the pride that keeps them from seeing their decay. And I wait for Mbesi to complete his seeming death. Yellow tears stream from his eyes; bile bubbles on his lips. Across the room, my body lies unmoving, wrinkled and scarred beyond age, though I am only nineteen. Mbesi could pass for fifteen, though our mother birthed him two years before me. He will look his age, and worse, soon enough.
“Come on,” I urge him, when death rattles from his throat at last. “We can’t sit here and wallow. Your lover, remember? We must find her.”
The expression on his face as he sits up from his corpse — I can’t help laughing. “Am I reincarnated?” he asks.
Reincarnation exists, but makes no more difference in the universe than if it did not. Maggots that spring from a human corpse may incorporate that person’s essence, but it does no good asking maggots if their situation has improved. I do not tell him this.
“I can’t smell the jenkem.” He is trying to force his ghost-body to breathe. “I can’t smell anything — I can’t feel my body! If I’m not reincarnated, what is this?”
He won’t last long in this form, no matter how delicately I attempt to manipulate him. “You might say,” I explain, “that jenkem fools the body into releasing the spirit unto death. You might say it makes the body aware of what the soul already knows: that we are death, everything around us is death, and it isn’t growth but decay that moves the universe. Life is an anomalous condition, a temporary absence beyond which death extends in all directions. Life is precious, brief and fragile, and you’re wasting it sitting there.”
For now, my urgency shakes him from his fear. He rises and obeys. We climb up and out through the hole in the wall, though the hole is no bigger than a pair of fists together, hardly wider than the sewer-pipe that once departed through it. It doesn’t matter. We could as easily have climbed right through the wall — if I weren’t so devoted to coddling my brother’s fragile sense of self. He isn’t as desperate yet as I was, though he should be. I have no time to wait.
In the alley the cops pound their punching bags, and the punching bags lie there and take it, because they were too cowardly to choose a poison whose effects would let them do anything else. We cross the alley, all but ignoring both cops and crackheads because this city offers fights enough to wear us all to nothing, because choosing one’s fights is among the great and few luxuries of life, and their fight isn’t ours. Instead we dig our ghosts of limbs into the crumbling brick of the tenement opposite and ascend as though arising on a parting gust of jenkem fume, as though we weighed no more than a pair of dirty sheets blown on the wind. We are made not of sheet, but shit, and as this notion comes I cackle again and repeat it like a dying senile with nothing to live for but hideous laughter, and Mbesi looks into the wrinkled ghost of my laughing face and trembles — and yet he climbs the sheer side of that ruin with as much ease and lightness as I, until we reach the roof.
Once there, when he realizes what he has done, when he surveys the spread-cheeked orifice of the city with dropped jaw and the realization that he has allowed that orifice to devour him and emerged as something more, the pride and ambition of our shared blood fills him, as I knew it would, and I know I have won him.
I have missed Mbesi, since I gave my life to jenkem. It has been a long time since I had a brother.
We move by will. A toe on a rooftop, a fingertip on a telephone wire, and that only to keep us from forgetting the necessities of flesh. We float on, immaterial, while the world beneath us rusts.
I lead Mbesi to the house where his lover has been left to die: a rotting colonial behind a high chain-link fence in an area that once was wealthy. We transcend the fence like shadows. The place has been sealed, doors bolted from the outside, windows blocked with mesh: a prison. We enter unhindered.
We find his lover and her child sleeping under a table, curled together. The child is moribund, belly swollen, skin taut over bones, eyes enormous, outsized for their sockets and his head. She, embracing this ghoul-thing, is angelic. The sight enraptures my brother. He makes to lie down, to embrace them. I hide my laugh at his simplicity and wait for him to fail.
His arms pass through her, through the child and the floor. He stares at me, cow-eyed, uncomprehending.
“If you want to help her, ”— her, I say, and not them, because I’ve seen too many starve not to believe the child will die — “you’ll have to do much more than that.”
This time I lead Mbesi through the wall. A glimpse of stains behind the baseboard, roaches and rats building nests of their dead, then night again. No stars: too many streetlights, too many cop cars razoring along the roads. No wind. A malarial damp. A nightjar on the hunt flies through Mbesi’s chest. He gasps; I hush him.
I show him the apartment of his lover’s lover, her supplier, creditor, landlord and pimp. I show him the calendar covered in deadlines, the safe, and the place where the combination is written under the desk. I show him his rival’s sleeping form, huge, lithe, insuperable.
“You knew all this?” Mbesi says.
“I watch them,” I answer. “Like I watch you.”
“You didn’t stop him. You wouldn’t even have told me, if I hadn’t hunted you down.”
He’s wrong. “I can’t stop him,” I lie. “Soon I’ll be dead. The dead can change nothing. But you … ”
If he possessed any substance, he would try to hurt me now, the way he used to try when we were orphans together and I outwitted him, outraced him to the affections of a stranger and then ignored his efforts to revenge himself as easily as though he were nothing.
I am smarter, but my brother was never a fool. This time I am so far beyond him he knows he can only endure it. I wonder, as I never did when we were children, whether this time he will hate me.
Mbesi begins to lose control, to be drawn back toward his flesh. His lover is dying, his enemy invincible, his sister a ghost who laughs at his misfortunes, and he himself is a bodiless eye, helpless to do anything but see. I forgive him. He has seen enough for his first night.
The truth is, I need Mbesi. Not his help — not really, though that’s what I’ll tell him. I need him to become what I am. Take my place. Or else I can’t let myself go.
• • •
The massed squatters who occupy the tenement’s upper floors paw at us, fling questions and beg, because they know what I am, what I hope Mbesi will become, and because there will never be anyone else they can beg from and condescend to in one breath. They at least can afford to pay for the drugs that kill them and give them escape — no matter that escape takes all they have and forces them to sell themselves for more; at least they had money once, however briefly. I have nothing but what I can scavenge, the foulness that others excrete. For my drug, my escape, I choose to breathe their shit.
I tried to help them once and failed; they were too broken to be saved. Perhaps, if I can help Mbesi, he will save them when I’m gone.
Outside, it is dawn. Mbesi collapses in the street.
“It’s time to help your lover,” I say, bending over him, my nineteen-year-old ankles trembling, bones calcified, flesh infested with carcinogens and fecal bacteria. “My body is dying of jenkem, yet I stand, I walk. Because I have purpose. Get up.”
“Why did you do this to me?” my brother moans. His cough is wet with jenkem, and his spittle glistens yellow on the tar.
“I can’t carry you, Mbesi. My body would shatter.”
“You knew how to save her. You knew about the other man. You even knew how I could beat him. I came to you for help, and you told me this was the only way. Jenkem.”
“It is,” I say. “Get up. Your lover and her pusher-pimp live far away. In this form, we must depend on frail life to propel us.”
A cop car rounds the corner. I shove my brother into its path. It swerves, speeds away. He gets up, cursing me.
Leaning on each other, we make our way down the street to the bus. It’s good to have him with me, even if I must be cruel.
Our stench empties the seats around us. “Your rival,” I whisper, “meets a courier outside his house at ten past nine. In the moments between when he leaves and returns, you must enter and hide. He will likely put the package in the safe. He then walks to the bodega to collect from a debtor. During this time you will empty the safe, then fetch something for me from the basement.”
Mbesi sits doubled over himself, his eyes red, legs splayed. “God I’m hungry.”
After four stops, we are thrown off the bus. There are twelve kilometers to go, no bus here again for hours. We walk.
I’m hungry too.
As we pass, people gasp for breath, push money at us, and flee. I don’t even need to beg.
Jenkem lingers on the senses. Nothing I’ve found — except for death — can smother it. Food tastes like shit. Drink tastes like shit. I have acquired a taste for burning-hot, bitter-black coffee brewed strong, and for the smoked-dried chile peppers they sell at the grocery on Euphrates Street. I chew chiles like rawhide at breakfast and supper. Washed down with coffee, they taste, like everything else, of things expelled from bowels and then reconsumed — but also of wood ash and heat.
Mbesi is not the same. At the grocery, he vomits up what I feed him, cries awhile on the floor, then claws his way back to the food and eats more. He’s still a boy, still growing. Until he sampled jenkem, he had not begun to die.
When he manages to keep down enough chocolate and cola to satisfy his need, I drop money in the pool of vomit and drag him out before we are thrown out.
As we continue on, I take a coat hanger from the trash, untwist it into a rod and drag it on the street. When one end is sharp, I turn the other down.
“So what do we need from his basement?” asks Mbesi. “Can’t you stop making that noise? It hurts my head.”
“A plastic jug. You’ll know it when you see it.”
I stop a passing suit, hooking a claw through the band of his watch. He cringes, shrugs it off into my hand. After a glance, I hand it back. His face tells me I have contaminated it, turned his vain device for counting the moments until his dissipation into something he can no longer pretend to possess. He drops it in the gutter.
My time is nearly up.
“Hurry on to his house,” I say to Mbesi. “Hide in the ceiba tree until he goes out, then run inside and hide yourself. You saw how it was. Find a place.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“You don’t want me along. I’m dying of age. After I do, you’ll live without me.”
He stops short in the street. “Why do you keep saying these things? I’m already living without you. When were you ever here when I needed you? Why did I have to come looking for you when the worst had happened? Jenkem. I can’t trust you, sister. I don’t even know you.” His eyes flash with anger, yet I see in them a readiness, a strength. It is this self-reliance, which lies beneath his vain self-worth, that I must cultivate, or soon he’ll be no better off than his lover: a possession. A thing that only sits and counts the time until its death.
“I’ll meet you at Elise’s house,” I say, and hurry on, leaving him fuming.
I find I too am fuming, for having allowed myself to name her.
Why did I show Mbesi these things? Why have I doomed him to die an old child with lungs full of shit? He desired it. He came to me. Mbesi saw nothing in what I could teach him beyond a way out of his troubles. He was desperate enough that he took it. But I know he needs jenkem, for reasons more than his nearsighted desires. He will benefit by its perspective, become practical, even wise, given time. And when I die, he will become what I was. Not by reincarnation — he won’t be me. But maybe he can take my place. I must give him time.
I reach the bodega, the steel grate half-open, no one inside but the owner. I have beaten my enemy here. When he enters, flanked by his addicted underlings, he will demand of his debtor a bottle of flavored-stimulant “health” water, from the back of the case to ensure it is cold.
I smash a milk jug on the floor. While the debtor is distracted, I retrieve the bottle my enemy will choose. I open it, squeeze in some “antibacterial” soap from a massive container under the counter. I carefully replace the bottle’s plastic seal, wipe the bottle on my filthy clothes until it looks clean, and replace it.
Then I retreat to the bathroom, choking back laughter, to wait and cry tears of mirth into my sleeve. Nothing is ever clean. I have been planning this for weeks.
I huddle in a corner underneath the wipes to wait, cradling my coat-hanger lance in my lap, and settle into the dementia of withdrawal. My body doesn’t need jenkem; it would like nothing more than to be purged, but I need it. I need the knowledge it brings to ward off my terrors. I need detachment, freedom to leave behind my screaming, dying body for the safety of my spirit-soul. I would give anything not to scent this room’s teasing cocktail of excrement and antiseptics, not to feel the cold tile beneath my bare feet or the goosebumps on my wrists. But it’s too late.
Once, I would have given all I had to be exactly where I am.
The bathroom door swings to make way for my enemy. He surveys himself in the mirror, appraising, seeking in his vibrant features, marble muscles, fine clothes the source of the teeth that eat at his gut. His name is Jacques Inongo. He is just a man. Handsome, powerful, immense. Older in years than I will ever be, but in vision, understanding, little better than my brother. Insulated by his serfs, his possessions, his false sense of self-worth. He has not seen his life from the perspective of the dead. He doesn’t know what I know. Still— residually — I fear him.
Only when he drops his pants and sits on the toilet to purge does he know I am here.
He doesn’t recognize me. I’m too hobbled, too decayed, and there have been too many others since he had me. It’s all right; I don’t need his understanding. The irony is enough.
I am old and slow, but the room is cramped and close, and I am striking before he can scream. With sharp, quick thrusts, I pierce his eyes, his brain. The coat hanger’s ends click and scrape against the inside of his skull. He thrashes a bit, expels gas and a moan, but soon he is dead.
In death, his flesh forgets its vanity. His muscles loosen. The contents of his intestines splash into the bowl. I take the keys from his pants, then shove him off the toilet to the floor. With my hands I scoop the sludge of my enemy’s guts from the cold toilet water and drop it, one slithering chunk at a time, into the bottle he left by the sink.
Toilets—the longer I live as a wielder of jenkem, the bigger a joke they become. Smooth, pristine white, designed to conceal, so easily cleaned of the grime that defines them. I make an art of undermining them, subverting their purpose to my own. If I could take my spirit form, I would dive into this toilet and escape through sewer-pipes into the streets. But though he has been released forever, I remain trapped in flesh. Holding his shit to my chest where I can scent it, I hobble through the door.
Outside, the underlings wait for their parasite master with doting concern. They see me. They’ll remember, once they discover what I’ve done. With luck, when they find me, I’ll be dead.
• • •
In the jug is jenkem, aged and ready. Potent. Yes, I want it. Who knows what has transpired in this city’s rotting bowels since night? What knowledge have I lost, what truths forgotten while trapped here inside my flesh? Jenkem will show me. But not yet.
“That’s yours,” I tell him.
In the bag are the contents of Jacques Inongo’s safe: drugs — the kind that cost money and grant only oblivion; a fist of cash, three different denominations; a cache of diamonds; assorted wedding rings of which I know the owners’ fates. And last, the calendar of debts. With all these worthless worldly things, Mbesi could become a pusher-pimp, become another Jacques Inongo, more easily that he could become me. A glance shows me the thought never occurred to him. I love my brother.
I empty it all down the sewer.
“What are you doing?” he shouts. “I risked my life to get that — you can’t throw it away! I stuffed myself into the cupboard under his sink with the rats and the roaches. He nearly caught me. He could have killed me! I could have sold those diamonds, spent the money on Elise, to feed her baby!”
“Go in. Rescue her.” I give him Jacques Inongo’s keys.
He hesitates. He fears her, even though he loves her. Or else fears she is already dead.
I wait outside. I have no desire to witness the scene.
She comes out first, swanlike and emaciated, blind from her imprisonment, ugly with despair. Her son is dead, murdered by one of her lovers; the other failed to save him. She looks through me without seeing; almost, I can believe I have become my spirit-self. Stumbling, sun-blind, she runs off down the street.
Mbesi screams her name. He tries to chase her. I throw my arms around his waist. We fall; black blood flows from his knee. “She’s going to his house,” I say. “By now his serfs will have returned there. They will tell her he is dead. If you follow, they will find you. They know I killed him, but they’ll be looking for the thief.”
“You killed him?”
I go into the house. He follows, plodding, a body with no life. I find the dead child under the table and scoop his shit into the bottle with a spoon. “Each body,” I explain, “expels a different vintage. It must be collected, kept safe, allowed to age, ferment. Only after months of festering will it grant vision. Here, take this. Keep it.”
But he doesn’t. He is staring at the child. “He was alive last night.”
“Listen to me, Mbesi. You’re still an innocent, my brother, even now. You can’t afford to be innocent. You must be cruel and shrewd and bitter to survive. I need you to learn about jenkem. I need you to use it like I did, to find out about the world.”
“You knew where they were. You knew what would happen, and you did nothing until I came and begged. You let him die. And now you come in here to drink his shit!”
It has happened, and I shouldn’t be surprised. My brother Mbesi hates me at last. It’s too late, but I still try to stop it. “Do you think I wanted you to be this? You could never guess the times I’ve intervened on your behalf — to prevent you becoming what everyone born to survive in this city must become. To keep you what you were. It was vain of me. Stupid.” How many Jacques Inongos did I kill before I learned it never made a difference? “The naive don’t survive in this city — or this world. You have to be cold and rotten inside and know everything. That’s why I chose jenkem.”
“You’re not my sister. I don’t know who you are. She was cruel when I knew her. Selfish. But even she couldn’t be so callous. You could be anyone under those wrinkles. She must already be dead.”
Mbesi leaves me then. He throws away the pot of jenkem and is gone.
I don’t see him in the flesh for months.
• • •
Elise never returned my brother’s love. To her, Mbesi was a pleasant distraction, a chance to entertain the illusion that someday she might escape Jacques, escape her debts and her addictions, settle down to a life with a father for her child.
Had Mbesi known this, I suspect he wouldn’t care. He would still keep on searching, still want to protect her.
I know where she is. I am everywhere; of course I know. She has gone back to filling her needs. She haunts the docks, the hovels by the river, waiting on sailors, selling herself with no-one for protection. The men bruise her, cut her, cheat her of pay. Inevitably, one of them will kill her. But no one tries to lock her up and starve her or demands her love. She mourns her child. Mbesi will never find her. She knows too many of this city’s shadowed crevices, so many more than he.
At night, he sleeps, and I watch over him.
As my flesh too-rapidly withers, my tolerance for the madness of drowning in the pheromones of death exponentially grows. Where Mbesi lasted a fraction of an hour, I leave my wasting, shriveled self behind for days and days. I wander the sky and the sewers. I troll the muck beneath the river. I drift on the slick that covers the bay. On the rare occasions I return to the pestilent basement where my body lies, it is only to verify the progress of its decay. I don’t bother anymore with collecting new shit to ferment. I no longer accept petitioners begging for secrets and help I can’t give. I do nothing at all to try to change the things I see. I only gnaw on a chile or two, wash them down with coffee, uncork another pot of jenkem, lie back, and dream of death.
I have never found a limit to that which false death allows me to perceive. If I desired, I believe I could propel my stain across the heavens, play witness to the deaths of nebulae, seek understanding in the desolation of some extrasolar moon. I have never done it. As long as my soul remains linked to my flesh, no matter how frayed the thread, I will always be that tiny bit afraid.
But it won’t be long now.
After weeks of walking, finding nothing, Mbesi returns to the house where Jacques Inongo starved Elise’s child to death. He lingers, listless, on the sidewalk, staring through the fence. He shakes the gate and kicks it with his bare and mangled feet. It doesn’t yield; Inongo’s keys no longer fit the lock. I watch at his shoulder, ubiquitous as hunger. I am proud: he never spares a glance for the sewer full of wealth.
Mbesi’s not an idiot; he knows she won’t come back here. This is where her son died, where her lovers failed and betrayed her. He knows by now he’ll never find her walking. That isn’t why he’s here. He came for jenkem: for the jug I made him take from Jacques Inongo’s basement. The jug that, out of hope, he refused.
He won’t find it. If he wants it, if he wants to take my place and be this sinking city’s callous ghost, he’ll have to come to me. When he does, I can cut the tether of my flesh. I can go on.
But days pass, and he doesn’t come. Beyond desperation, beyond hope, he keeps on wandering the same streets, searching places he’s already searched, finding nothing.
Meanwhile, the serfs who once played host to Jacques have chosen a new parasite to bleed them. At his command, they search for me, the withered hag who restored their god to his mortality. They ask after me in the streets: “An ugly, palsied thing, walks with a hunch and stinks of shit,” they say to the vagrants, the starving, the junkies and squatters and drunks. And they find answers. There are few I have not helped, or refused to help, or hurt. Every day they come closer to finding me. After they do, it won’t matter if Mbesi comes or not.
They have not yet asked Mbesi. If they did, would he betray me?
The first time I ever breathed jenkem, the first time I drowned myself in shit and went on living, the hungry spirit I’d become wanted only revenge: to find Jacques Inongo, and to find a way to beat him. Instead, I found Mbesi, sitting shirtless on a curb among a crowd of sweating boys in the oppressive, draining dark, beating a rhythm on his skinny chest and singing. And I couldn’t help stopping there to watch him, my brother, who I loved. To see him happy, celebrating fickle life in spite of all the rot that crowded it. And I found I couldn’t leave him, couldn’t drag myself away, even though my self was nothing, substanceless as smoke. Even though I knew the danger of my foe, the pain he had wreaked and must wreak upon me, the city, even on Mbesi.
Mbesi will not come now to redeem me. I should arrange for them to find me, step back into my stick-and-paper body, puppet myself up the stairs and out into the street, lie there until a cop car comes to crush me.
But still my stubborn brother walks the streets, looking for his lover, and I follow him. I might be his shadow, his own is so thin. I can’t leave him, can’t stop watching him, even to die.
And then Mbesi finds Elise.
He runs into her stumbling from the mouth of an alley near the river, between a fishmonger’s shack and a seller of compost. A cop has his hand on her arm; his fingers on her wrist imprint a bruise like the tattoo a possessor inflicts upon chattel. He is not here to arrest her.
My brother feels suddenly sick; I know it by the way he hunches, swallowing his bile.
I step inside his skin. I witness the acid eating at his empty stomach, the foul air burning his lungs, the swell and contract of his heart as his tainted blood erodes him from within, and then I am behind his eyes. He takes in the bruises, the jutting angle of her pelvic bones, the stains of scale and shining fish intestine mottling her dress. The coldness of her as she meets his eyes, knowing it’s too late to hide. I can’t read his mind, only his flesh — but I’m his sister, and I know him well enough to guess.
Elise tells my brother what I could not. “I don’t love you, Mbesi,” she says. “I don’t need you. Kipat loved you, he did, but he’s gone now, so that chance is gone. Go away.”
Even I couldn’t be cruel enough for that.
I wonder a moment, while Mbesi withers and I wither inside him — who is Kipat? But of course she means her child. I forgot he had a name.
Elise trails her abuser away from Mbesi down the street, and with her, the last of my brother’s innocence is gone. He believes her. He would have read the truth in her, even if she hadn’t spoken.
But it isn’t all true. Elise needs my brother. She needs his protection, or soon she’ll be dead. If it were me, I’d let her die. But Elise is his Mbesi.
I return to my body. I resurrect it one last time, awaken it from jenkem visions, a heap of fragile bones and skin forced into human shape. I lift my last unopened jug. I climb the stairs. The jug weighs more than I do.
In the tenement lobby, where the squatters huddle, I seek out three young men. “If you help me,” I croak, “I will tell you where to find a certain sewer grate. If you open it and rake the muck, you’ll find enough wealth to keep all these people in comfort the rest of their lives. Assuming you don’t spend it first on whores and crack.” And they will.
The young men do not know me. They shrink from me, as anyone who’s never met jenkem would shrink from a walking corpse. But from all around us come whispers from those who have begged of me and been ill-rewarded or ignored. “Do as she says,” they insist. The boys listen.
They take turns carrying me through the streets, until we find Mbesi: slumped on a heap of compost, exactly where I left him, where I knew he would be. I whisper them the secret. They leave me in a pile.
Mbesi stares. I think he would not know me now, but for the jenkem pot.
“I told you I was dying. Do you understand me now? I made myself this way, by breathing jenkem. But I did it for a reason: it made me wise. It gave me power. Don’t believe Elise, Mbesi. She doesn’t love you now — but give her time to mourn. The life she is living will kill her too soon, unless you’re watching over her. You’ll have to pay for what you learn, like I have. But you love her that much, I know.”
I touch my brother’s hand. I can see his inclination to recoil, but he resists.
The journey has wearied the husk of my flesh. My eyes glaze, leak yellow, droop. The hard ground pains my bones. I can barely hold the jenkem in my arms.
In the street behind Mbesi, the underlings of Jacques Inongo have caught the three young men who carried me. I don’t need my spirit-self to guess their questions. The boys answer, pointing. Can I blame them, when I’ve done so much worse?
I try to voice my brother’s name, to tell him he must run. My lips won’t form the words. But it’s all right; with Mbesi, I don’t need to speak.
“I won’t use it like you do,” he says. “I’ll learn what I need — but then I’ll stop. I’ll live.”
I feel the jug of jenkem lift away.
© 2016 Michael J. DeLuca, all rights reserved