I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I am the dead man. If l had a cross or a slab of marble, the name Ermelindo Mucanga would feature on it. But I passed away along with my name nearly two decades ago. For years, I was an esteemed inhabitant of life, a person of respectable origin. Though I was an upright citizen while alive, my death was inglorious. My burial lacked both ceremony and tradition. There wasn’t even anyone to bend my knees. People are supposed to leave the world just as they entered it, curled up as if saving on space. The dead should be humble enough not to take up much of the earth. But I wasn’t given a small grave. My resting place stretched from one end to the other of my whole length. No one unclasped my hands as I grew cold. I crossed over into death with my fists clenched, summoning curses upon the living. And to make matters worse, they didn’t turn my face towards the Nkulovumba Mountains. We Mucangas have obligations toward times gone by. Our dead gaze at the spot where the first woman jumped the moon, causing her belly and her soul to take on its roundness.
I wasn’t just denied a proper funeral. Their negligence went even further: as I had no other possessions, they buried me with my saw and hammer. They shouldn’t have done that. Metal should never be allowed into a tomb. Iron takes longer to rust away than a dead man’s bones. And what’s worse, a shiny object attracts a curse. With my tools by my side, I risk being one of those dead people who wreak havoc on the world.
All these upsets happened because I didn’t die in my rightful place. I was working far from my hometown. I was a carpenter at the Portuguese fort of São Nicolau, which was then being restored. I left the world just as my country was about to become free. That was the funny thing: my country was being born, dressed up in its flag, and I was being lowered into the ground, banished from the light. Maybe it was just as well, for I didn’t have to witness wars and other disasters.
As they didn’t assign me a proper funeral, I became a ghost, one of those souls who wander from somewhere to nowhere. Seeing as I hadn’t been given a formal send-off, I ended up as a dead man who couldn’t find his death. I shall never be elevated to the position of an ancestor, someone well and truly dead and gone for good, with a right to be invoked and cherished by the living. I’m one of those dead men who are still attached to life by their umbilical cords. I belong to the fellowship of those who are unremembered. But I don’t go around sowing confusion among the living. I accepted the captivity of my grave, I lay down quietly as befits the dead.
It helped that they had buried me near a tree. Where I come from, a maroola is chosen. Or a kapok tree. But the only tree here in the fort is a skinny little frangipani. That’s where they buried me. The sweet-scented flowers of the frangipani fall over the place where I lie. So many that I now smell of their petals. Is it worth sweetening me up like this? For nowadays, only the wind can smell me. No one else cares about me. I’ve long become resigned to it. Even those folk who can always be found in cemeteries, what do they know about the dead? Fears, shadows, and darkness. Even a veteran of death like me can count wisdom on the fingers of my hand. Dead people don’t dream much, that much I can tell you. They only dream on rainy nights. At other times, they are the ones who are dreamed. I, who never had anyone to spare me a moment of memory, who am I dreamt by? The tree. Only the frangipani devotes a few nightly thoughts to me.
The frangipani occupies the terrace of a colonial fort. This terrace has witnessed much history. Slaves, ivory, and cloth were all shipped out through it. From its stonework, Portuguese cannons blazed against Dutch ships. Toward the end of colonial times, it was decided to build a prison there to shut away the revolutionaries who were fighting the Portuguese. After independence, it was turned into a makeshift refuge for old people. With their arrival, the place went into decline. Then civil war came, producing a harvest of death. But the fighting took place far from the fort. When the war ended, the refuge remained, unclaimed by anyone as an inheritance. Here, time was drained of its color, everything starched by silence and emptiness. In this dissonant place, like a snake’s shadow, I established myself as an unlikely ancestor.
Until one day, I was awoken by a thumping and shaking. Someone was interfering with my grave. I thought it might be my neighbor, the mole, sightless so as to see in the dark. But it wasn’t that burrowing creature. My sacred ground was being abused by picks and shovels. What was it that spurred those people on, causing my death to come alive? I pried into their conversation and understood: the governors wanted to turn me into a national hero. They were wrapping me in glory. Rumors were even spreading that I had died in battle fighting the colonial oppressor. Now, they wanted my mortal remains. Or rather, my immortal remains. They needed a hero, but not just any old one. They wanted one of my particular race, tribe, and region. To satisfy discord and placate the aggrieved. They wanted to put race on display, to peel off the skin and show the fruit. The nation needed a stage. Or was it the other way around? From being needy, I became needed. That’s why they were digging up my burial ground, right there, nice and deep, in the yard of the fortress. When I realized what was happening, I didn’t know what to do.
I was never a man of many ideas, but nor am I so dead that I can’t get my tongue round words. I had to undo their deception. Otherwise I’d never get any peace. If I had died, it was in order to become a lone shadow. It wasn’t for parties, for loud singsongs, for drum dances. Apart from this, a hero is like a saint. No one really and truly loves him. He is remembered in times of personal grief and national affliction. I wasn’t loved when I was alive, and I didn’t need this intrusion now.
I remembered the story of the chameleon. Everyone knows the tale: God sent the chameleon to bear the message of eternity. The creature dallied in giving men the secret of everlasting life. He dallied so much that God had time to change his mind and send another messenger with countertidings. Well, I am a back-to-front messenger: I take messages from men to the gods. I’m taking too long to deliver my tidings. By the time I get to where the gods dwell, they will have received untidings from someone else.
What’s certain is that I had no desire to be a hero after my death. That award was to be avoided, whatever the cost. But what could I do, as a ghost with neither law nor respect on my side? I even thought of reappearing in the body I had when I was alive, the body of a youth. I would double back through my navel and come out the other side, a ghost of flesh and bone, with a voice that could be heard by other mortals. But a spirit that reoccupies its former body risks mortal dangers: when it touches or is touched, it’s enough to send hearts thumping backward and sow fatal consequences.
I consulted my pet anteater. Is there anyone who doesn’t know of the powers of this scaly beast, the halakavuma, as we call it? Well, this mammal lives with the dead. It descends from the heavens during the rainy season. It falls to earth to spread news to the world, to the ancestors of the future. I’ve got an anteater with me, just as I had a dog when I was alive. It curls up by my feet, and I use it as a pillow. I asked my halakavuma what I should do.
—Dont you want to be a hero?
But a hero of what, beloved of whom? Now that the country is a harvest of ruins, why do they call for me, a humble carpenter? The anteater began to prey upon my interest.
—Wouldn’t you like to be alive again?
—No, I wouldn’t. Not with the state my country is in.
The anteater turned round on itself. Was it following its rear end, or tuning its voice so that I could hear it better? For the creature doesn’t talk to all and sundry. It drew itself up on its hind legs, like a real person trying to rouse my interest. Pointing towards the courtyard of the fortress, it said
—Look around you, Ermelindo. Even among these ruins, wildflowers have taken root.
—I don’t want to go back there.
—But it will forever be your garden: there between those wounded stones and wasteland blooms.
The scaly creature’s meanderings began to irritate me. I reminded him that it was advice I wanted, a solution. The halakavuma assumed a solemn tone and said
—You, Ermelindo, you should relive your death.
Die again? As if it wasn’t hard enough to leave life the first time! If my family’s tradition was anything to go by, it would surely be an impossible task. My grandfather, for instance, has lasted an infinity. He wasn’t dead yet for sure. The old man slept with his legs spread out from his trunk, next to dangerous foliage. By doing this, he tempted snakebites. In small doses, their poison increases our vitality. Anyway, that’s what he used to tell us. And life seemed to prove him right: he was ever more full of strength and energies. The halakavuma was like my grandfather, as persistent as a pendulum. The creature pressed his case.
—Choose one who’s about to peg out.
Isn’t the surest place a mamba’s nest? I should emigrate into the body of one about to die. Hitch a ride on another death and dissolve into the birth of its end. It didn’t seem hard. In the refuge there would be no shortage of people on their last legs.
—You mean, I’m going to ghost myself—via someone else’s body?
—You’ll take the form of a shipoco, a night spirit.
—Let me think, I said.
Deep down, the decision had already been made. I was only pretending to be master of my own will. That night, I was already on my way to becoming a shipoco. In other words, I was turning into a night spirit, traveling in someone else’s shape. If I were to return to my own body, I would only be visible from the front. Seen from the back, I would merely be a hollow hole, a piece of vacant emptiness. But I was going to occupy another man’s body. I was in transit from the prison of my grave to the prison of a body. I was forbidden to touch life, to feel the wind’s breath directly. From my little corner, I would see the world through a gauze, translucently. My only advantage would be in the matter of time. For the dead, time follows in yesterday’s tracks. For them, there are no surprises.
At first, I still had my doubts: was the halakavuma telling me the truth? Or had he been away from the world for so long that he was making it up? He hadn’t touched the earths surface for years, his nails were growing round and round in numerous coils. If even his paws yearned for the ground, why should his head not be full of raving lunacies? But soon I began to busy myself thinking about my journey back to the world of the living.
I looked forward to it so much that even my dreams were devoid of rain or night. What did I dream? I dreamt they were burying me in the time-honored way, as required by our beliefs. I was dying resting on my haunches, my chin perched on my knees. That’s how I was lowered into the earth, and my body came to rest on sand dug from a termite mound. Live sand, colonized by the restless. Then they covered me with sand gently, as if they were dressing a child. They didn’t use spades. Only their hands did the work. When the sand reached my eyes, they stopped. Then they planted acacia shoots all around me. Everything ready to burst into flower. And to summon the rain, they covered me with damp earth. And that’s how I learned that when we are alive we tread the ground, but when we are dead we are trodden by it.
And I dreamt still more: after my death, all the women in the world slept out in the open. It wasn’t just the widows who were forbidden to seek shelter, as is normal in our beliefs. No. It was as if all the women had lost a husband in me. All were tainted by my death. Grief spread through every village like a thick blanket of mist. Lamps lit up the corn, trembling hands holding their crucible of fire passed along the rows of maize. They were protecting the fields from the evil eye.
Next day, hardly had I awoken than I began to shake the halakavuma. I wanted to know whose body I was going to occupy.
—It’s someone who hasn’t arrived yet.
—It’s someone from outside. He’s arriving tomorrow. Then, he added—It’s a pity I didn’t remember earlier. A week before, and everything would have been over and done with by now. Just a few days ago, a bigwig was killed, right here in the refuge.
—The director of the refuge. He was shot dead.
It was because of this murder that a police investigator was being sent from the capital. I should install myself in his body, for he was bound to die.
—You’re going to enter the policeman. Leave the rest to me.
—How long am I going to be out there in life?
—Six days. That’s how long it’ll take for the policeman to die.
This was the first time I was going to leave death. For the very first time I would be able to listen to human voices in the refuge, free of the earth’s filter. To hear the old folks without them being aware of me. But then I was furrowed by a doubt. Suppose at the end of it I enjoyed being a night spirit? And what if, upon dying for a second time, I had fallen in love with the other side? After all, I was lonely in my death. I had never been anything but a pre-ancestor. What surprised me was that I had almost no recollection of the time when I was alive. I could only remember one or two moments, but always things outside myself. In particular, I could remember the smell of the earth when it rained. Watching the rain flow through January, I would ask myself: How do we know this smell is of the earth rather than the sky? On the other hand, I couldn’t recall any intimate detail of the life I had led. Is that always the case? Do all the dead lose their private memories? I don’t know. In my case, though, I had set my sights on gaining access to my private experiences. What I really and truly yearned to remember were the women I had loved. I confessed my desire to the anteater.
—As soon as you reach life, burn some pumpkin seeds, he suggested.
—Don’t you know? Burning seeds brings back the memory of forgotten loves.
But the next day, I reconsidered my journey into life. That anteater of mine was already more dead than alive. Could I really have any confidence in his powers? His body creaked like a bend in the road. He was exhausted because of the weight of his shell. The scaly anteater is like a tortoise—it carries its home along with it on its travels. That’s why it is always so tired.
I called the halakavuma and told him I had decided not to cross over into life. He must understand: a crocodile’s strength is water. My strength was to be far away from the living. I had never known how to live, even when I was alive. Now, if I plunged into another man’s flesh, I would be chewed by my own nails.
—Look here, Ermelindo: go, the weather there is beautiful, and moistened with good rains.
I should go, and wrap my soul in green. Who knows, I might find a woman and stumble into love. The anteater greased his talk and larded his description. He knew it wasn’t so easy. I was afraid, as afraid as the living feel when they imagine dying. The anteater gave me assurances of a more-than-perfect future. Everything would happen right there on that very same terrace, under the tree where I was buried. I looked at the frangipani and already I began to miss it. The tree and I were alike. Who had ever watered our roots? Both of us were creatures reared on the mist. The halakavuma also had his reasons to be grateful to the tree. Pointing at the terrace, he said
—This is where the gods come to pray.
Translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw.
David Brookshaw, translator, is professor of Luso-Brazilian studies at Bristol University. He has written widely on colonial and postcolonial writers in the Portuguese-speaking world and has translated Mia Couto’s Voices Made Night (1990), and Every Man is a Race (1994).
Mia Couto was born in 1955 in Mozambique and is the most prominent of the younger generation of writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. He has been active as a journalist and for several years headed the AIM news agency in Maputo, where he still lives, and works as an environmental biologist. Two collections of his short stories, Voices Made Night and Every Man is a Race, have been translated into English. He has been short-listed for the Michael Caine African Fiction Prize. His novel, Under the Frangipani, is just out from Serpent’s Tail.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee