For T. N.
The day after Rudo Dumisa was released from detention, he was dragged from his bed by six men who beat him in front of his family and forced him into a pick-up truck that was parked outside. Two weeks later, by chance, his corpse was identified by members of the Opposition summoned to the hospital morgue to retrieve two other bodies.
“This one came in yesterday,” the attendant told them. “Or maybe it was the day before.”
They hardly recognized the body, first because they had never looked down on someone so tall (and that alone was jarring), and second, because the lips and tongue were gone, cut off or decomposed, and the knuckles on both hands had been flattened. The right side of the face was crushed and a gleaming maggot wriggled in the cheek below where the eye had been. In the back of the head was a shadowy dent made by a hammer. In the chest, like an afterthought, was a single bullet hole.
Dumisa’s fatal mistake had been to pass an illegal soap vendor on his way home from talking with his father. Dumisa wrapped the two bars of soap in an old newspaper and brought them to his wife. She was pleased, although surprised, to see him twice in one day. Twelve hours later, Dumisa’s nose would be broken in his living room while he struggled in his underwear against the six men who had come to arrest him.
It was common knowledge that Dumisa had been in hiding since the election, moving up to four times per week. He had been sighted at his uncle’s house and at his father’s, and it was largely assumed that he absconded to the surrounding villages when the raids peaked between the election and the run-off. The President’s supporters were reluctant to use the fuel that was required to reach the villages, so they preferred to call on his relatives.
“Where is Rudo Dumisa?” they demanded regularly of his uncle.
“You are mistaken,” said his uncle. “He is not here.”
While children watched through cracked doors across the street, the men shouldered into the corrugated aluminum entrance of Dumisa’s uncle’s house, smashed the wooden table inside, and hacked at the mattress with machetes until tufts of white cotton were scattered around the house. The uncle later described that he had felt invisible as the men shouted, not at him, but at the objects in the room.
“Rudo! Eh! Are you here?”
A neighbour later enquired, “Where could a man of one hundred ninety centimetres hide in a room that is two metres by two metres?”
The first time the President’s supporters came to call in this fashion, the uncle’s replies had been sincere: he had not seen Rudo Dumisa in almost a week. The second time was a bald-faced lie—at that moment Dumisa had been behind the house, relieving himself on a slab of cement. The third, fourth, fifth, and subsequent times had been manipulations of truth and lie with varying degrees of effectiveness.
In spite of his evasive maneuvers and his uncle’s modest wit, Rudo Dumisa had been apprehended thirty-four times. His charges included, but were not limited to: fraud, treason, assault, petrol-bombing, drug trafficking, theft from a hospital, public disruption, manipulation of a child’s mind, embezzlement, accessory to the sale of illegal beverage, teacher of illegitimate literacy classes, and mobilization of a group of five or more. The only charge for which any evidence could be produced was the final one, but it was confounded when two hundred sixteen residents of Zone B, where Dumisa lived in the capital city, each claimed the leadership role in a letter addressed to the President, typed in fading ink on newsprint, and signed with Xs. That Saturday afternoon, the police had hurtled through the dust of Zone B, waving nightsticks and handcuffs at the crowd of demonstrators, arresting at least fifty people before realizing that the detention facilities had been filled beyond capacity since the previous election.
Such a revelation did not prevent them from engaging a short pursuit of Dumisa through the open sewer alleys of Zone B, punching him in the stomach, and accommodating him with handcuffs to a copper pipe in the lavatory of the prison. He had to bribe a night guard to discover the most recent charge against him.
“Plotting to assassinate your country,” the guard said confidently.
The details of that arrest were corroborated by a junior member of the Opposition who had defected from the President’s supporters while they were occupied with burning down a hair salon. The youth, who declined to give his name, was ineligible to vote because of his age.
According to the youth’s account, Rudo Dumisa had been easy to spot because of his height. The mob of police officers, some in uniform and some in civilian clothes, demanded his identity card, then struck him in the ribs with a wooden cane and twice on the left shoulder with the flat of a shovel when he said he was busy and asked whether they could come back next week. In a daring intervention, one of the demonstrators broke a police officer’s wooden cane with the back of his head while Dumisa fled along a dried ditch between two houses before being apprehended.
Ten days later when the guard unlocked Dumisa from the pipe where he had been handcuffed in the lavatory, Dumisa’s bruises had faded and only a small cut remained over his eye where a guard’s broken bottle had grazed him. His father, a traditional chief in their own village and an ink vendor in Zone B, met him on the street outside the police station with a package of biscuits.
“I know they don’t feed you in there,” he said.
An unwritten rule prevented the President’s supporters from re-apprehending a member of the Opposition on the same day as their release from detention. Knowing that he had until dusk to move around freely in Zone B before the clean slate of his liberty would be scribbled with threats, Dumisa visited his wife, reminded himself what the nape of her neck smelled like as they laid together in the afternoon, thanked his uncle for his hospitality thus far, and walked with his father along the train tracks that cut Zone B in half, their hands in their pockets, each on separate rails, with the ties crossing between them.
Witnesses have speculated that they discussed the implications of the presidential run-off, the location and activities of the Opposition leader, a strategy for including water treatment in the forthcoming municipal plan to redesign the slums of the capital city, and a debriefing of the demonstration that had detained him.
“I was telling him the football scores,” Dumisa’s father later clarified.
Rudo Dumisa ascended from the tracks, crossed the taxi junction and passed the soap vendor just as his path would have forked towards his uncle’s house.
Accounts of Dumisa’s original plan vary. His uncle was surprised that he returned to see his wife.
“It was Tuesday,” he explained. “He always stayed with me on Tuesday. It is incredible that the President’s supporters never figured that one out.”
Rudo Dumisa’s wife, when interviewed after his body had been recovered, said through a face worn by tears that he had planned to retreat to the village.
“He liked to ponder the light out there,” she sobbed.
It is now widely believed that either spending the night at his uncle’s or the village would have inflated Dumisa’s flattened knuckles, filled in the hole in his chest and the dent at the back of his head, smoothed the cheek which he had rested against his wife’s shoulder, and cancelled out (or at least postponed) one happy maggot’s entire life. Instead, Dumisa was seen variously in discussion with the owner of the burnt down hair salon, drinking a soda with friends he had not seen since the demonstration, and then returning home carrying something wrapped in newspaper. The only people to see him alive after that would be his family.
His wife recounted that he laid down that night “as if to sleep forever,” exhausted from the detention sentence. She set a cup of beans to soak in a plastic basin before lying down beside him, smelling freshly of soap. Their two children had already retired on mats beside the bed. When heavy fists pounded the corrugated aluminum door at five o’clock the next morning, Dumisa’s wife had already been awake for half an hour and washed and hung the children’s uniforms on a line outside the window.
“They came to my house first,” the neighbour later elaborated. Six men had flattened her door, ripped clothes from nails on the wall, and emptied the meagre contents of a purse she had hung by her bed. “If we find even a piece of you … ” they began, before realizing that the woman’s pleas were guided by logic greater than the usual will for self-preservation.
“This isn’t the house,” confirmed one of the men, poised to fling a cylinder of lipstick at the wall.
She shook her head.
“It’s next door, isn’t it?”
The woman nodded, then buried her face in her hands. The men withdrew from her house, even pulled the door back up to jam it in place, then backed the pick-up truck to the house beside hers. The neighbour listened, distraught and ashamed, as their shoes crunched on the rocky dust and their voices raised up again.
Through the wall, the neighbour heard the trembling voice of Dumisa’s wife. “Rudo, there are some people here to see you.”
“Tell them to come back later,” came the reply from the other room.
His wife winced and bit her tongue until it bled.
That was when the crashing began. Another neighbour reported that the sound of breaking furniture had seemed far away, but the screaming of the children seemed much closer.
Two shots were fired, one of which, it was later revealed, crumbled the cement beside the mirror that Dumisa used for shaving, and the other escaped through the window, piercing one of the children’s uniforms that hung on the line. Holding a handkerchief to her mouth, the neighbour listened as Dumisa shouted, then was dragged into the street and stuffed into the waiting pick-up truck, struck with a wooden cane, and driven off while gravel popped under the tires. Dumisa’s wife and two children wailed from the doorway. Then it was safe to enter the street and comfort them.
Dumisa’s wife said she had a bad feeling about this particular apprehension.
“The other thirty-four arrests are in the past,” she said. “I am concerned for this present one.”
In the days that followed, Opposition members moved openly in groups through Zone B, some carrying shovels and rake handles, making loud proclamations against the President and demanding news of Rudo Dumisa. These verbal molestations caused no direct offense to the President nor to his supporters, but the dust stirred up by their movements inconvenienced a visiting delegation from the Union who narrowly missed crashing into a dried-out fountain in a red cloud of myopia. Days later, an unidentified body was dragged into public view when a farmer discovered vehicle tracks that he first thought belonged to cattle thieves. In fact, they had left more than they had taken: Dumisa’s body was tangled at the base of a jacaranda tree with his shorts pulled over his head.
Dumisa’s wife and father argued with police at the hospital morgue for more than three days in order to get custody of the corpse.
“What is found on the President’s land belongs to the President,” said the police at the hospital. “We must keep this one as evidence so that the perpetrators of such crimes may be apprehended.”
“He deserves to be buried,” said Dumisa’s father.
“He will be released only when he is no longer required as evidence—when the perpetrators are identified, or when the charges against them are dropped.”
The funeral was to be held on Saturday, but an official letter from the Opposition leader himself requested that it be postponed until Sunday so that he could attend. Until then, and for the last five weeks since the disputed election, the Opposition leader had been “drumming up support” in neighbouring countries; when one of his aids was questioned about the seventeen pairs of new leather shoes that he was carrying, the aid replied, “Our man is always on his feet.”
Dumisa’s body was too long to fit in the little box that was customary to his condition, so a special one had to be built that would accommodate his length. The closed casket was positioned in the middle of Dumisa’s father’s living room and draped in a white cloth. Dumisa’s wife, her two sisters, and four other women from Zone B sat with their hands on the wood, rocking and weeping, while Dumisa’s son rocked beside them, his hands fiercely over his ears to smother the tragic moans around him. Dumisa’s father served soft drinks to the guests, but one bottle per four people left a lot of people thirsty.
“With this government,” he later said, “Suffering is more abundant than Coca-Cola.”
Led by Dumisa’s father and uncle, the casket was carried to the cemetery at the far side of Zone B. The procession began by walking along the tracks, with the pallbearers balancing on each side of the parallel rails in tribute to Dumisa’s customary way of conversing, but when they were pelted with stones by a youth group of the President’s supporters, they were compelled to reroute their passage.
Contradicting the expectations of those in attendance and indeed the entire country, the Opposition leader arrived just as Rudo Dumisa’s body was lowered into the ground. His bodyguards stood with their hands clasped as he addressed the mourners. “He was our friend, and I have come back to this beautiful country to see that he has a fair send off. We will continue to fight in his name.”
But by then, the crowd seemed to have lost interest in the Opposition leader’s words. It could have been the late hour, the lengthening shadows, or simply a matter of endurance. Some of them moved away in little lines, weaving around the white graves of the cemetery while the Opposition leader described his plans for the run-off, what they all must do to prepare, how Dumisa’s body had watered the tree of liberation, and that they must fight, fight, fight.
Slowly his voice became harder and harder to discern among the gentler sounds of Zone B: the murmur of other voices, a bicycle creaking in the distance, steps on gravel, a drop of water in a plastic pail. The cemetery darkened as dusk set across it, breaking into places of light on the bright facing walls of the houses and places of shadow in the inky alleys between them. The remaining crowd looked like a little cluster of dots beneath the many lines of the tree that hung over them, then the cluster broke apart, plotting its scattered network among the square white headstones until only Dumisa’s wife, father, and uncle remained; then finally they retreated, too. The Opposition leader stood by the grave without anyone to hear him until he became only a block of shadow, a line of ink, among the alleys and the walls and the graves. Around the cemetery, the lines of people had spread across the open spaces while a breeze went through the trees overhead like the rustle of turning newspaper pages.
Adrian McKerracher is a writer and illustrator from Quadra Island, BC. His fiction has been published in The New Quarterly and the Hart House Review. His research on how people learn from metaphors has been published in the Creativity Research Journal, the Journal of International Dialogues on Education, and the Canadian Review of Art Education. He lives in Toronto.