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Library: Born With the Dead

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Author: merja
Date:Jul 13 2003


                    1.
     And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
     They can tell you, being dead: the communication
     Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                              T.S. Eliot: LITTLE GIDDING
     
   Supposedly his late wife Sybille was on her way to Zanzibar. That was what
they told him, and he believed it. Jorge Klein had reached that stage in his
search when he would believe anything, if belief would only lead him to
Sybille. Anyway, it wasn't so absurd that she would go to Zanibar. Sybille had
always wanted to go there. In some unfathombable obsessive way the place had
seized the center of her consciousness long ago. When she was alive it hadn't
been possible for her to go there, but now, lossed from all bonds, she would
be drawn toward Zanzibar like a bird to its nest, like Ulysses to Ithaca, like
a moth to a flame.
     
   The plane, a small Air Zanzibar Havilland FP-803, took off more than
half-empty from Dar es Salaam at 0915 on a mild bright morning, gaily circled
above the dense masses of mango trees, red-flowering flamboyants and tall
coconut palms along the aquamarine shores of the Indian Ocean, and headed
northward on the short hop across the strait to Zanzibar. This day-Tuesday,
the ninth of March, 1993-would be an unusual one for Zanzibar: five deads were
aboard the plane, the first of their kind ever to visit that fragrant isle.
Daud Mahmoud Barwani, the health officer on duty that morning at Zanzibar's
Karume Airport, had been warned of this by the emigration officials on the
mainland. He had no idea how he was going to handle the situation, and he was
apprehensive: these were tense times in Zanzibar. Times are always tense in
Zanzibar. Should he refuse them entry? Did deads pose any threat to Zanzibar's
ever-precarious political stability? What about subtler menaces? Deads might
be carriers of dangerous spiritual maladies. Was there anything in the Revised
Admininstration Code about refusing visas on grounds of suspected contagions
of the spirit? Daud Mahmoud Barwani nibbled moodily at his breakfast-a cold
chapatti, a mound of cold curried potato-and waited without eagerness for the
arrival of the deads.
     
   Almost two and a half  years had passed since Jorge Klein had last seen
Sybille: the afternoon of Saturday, October 13, 1990, the day of her funeral.
That day she lay in her casket as though merely asleep, her beauty altogether
unmarred by her final ordeal: pale skin, dark lustrous hair, delicate
nostrils, full lips.  Iridescent gold and violet fabric enfolded her serene
body; a shimmering electrostatic haze, faintly perfumed with a jasmine
fragrance, protected her from decay. For five hours she floated on the dais
while the rites of parting were read and the condolences were offered-offered
almost furtively, as if her death were a thing too monstrous to aknowledge
with a show of strong feelings; then, when only a few people remained, the
inner core of their circle of friends, Klein kissed her lightly on the lips
and surrendered her to the silent dark-clad men whom the Cold Town had sent. 
She had asked in her will to be rekindled; they took her away in a black van
to work their magic on her corpse. The casket, retreating on their broad
shoulders, seemed to Klein to be disappearing into a throbbing gray vortex
that he was helpless to penetrate. Presumably he would never hear from her
again. In those days the deads kept strictly to themselves, sequestered behind
the walls of their self-imposed ghettos; it was rare to see one outside the
Cold Towns, rare even for one of them to make oblique contact with the world
of the living.
   So a redefinition of their relationship was forced on him. For nine years
it had been Jorge and Sybille, Sybille and Jorge, I and thou forming we, above
all we, a transcendental we. He had loved her with almost painful intensity.
In life they had gone everywhere together, had done everything together,
shared research tasks and classroom assignments, thought interchangeable
thoughts, expressed tastes that were nearly always identical, so completely
had each permeated the other. She was a part of him, he of her, and until the
moment of her unexpected death, he had assumed it would be like that forever.
They were still youn, he thirty-eight, she thirty-four, decades to look
forward to. Then she was gone. And now they were mere anonymities to one
another, she not Sybille but only a dead, he not Jorge but only a warm. She
was somewhere on the North American continent, walking about, talking, eating,
reading, and yet she was gone, lost to him, and it behooved him to accept that
alteration in his life, and outwardly he did accept it, but yet, though he
knew he could never again have things as they had once been, he allowed
himself the indulgence of a lingering wistful hope of regaining her.
     
   Shortly the plan was in view, dark against the brightness of the sky, a
suspended mote, an irritating fleck in Barwani's eye, growing larger, causing
him to blink and sneeze. Barwani was not ready for it. When Ameri Kombo, the
flight controller in the cubicle next door, phoned him with the routine
announcement of the landing, Barwani replied, "Notify the pilot that no one is
to debark until I have given clearance. I must consult with the regulations.
there is possibly a peril to public health." For twenty minutes he let the
plane sit, all hatches sealed, on the quiet runway. Wandering goats emerged
from the shrubbery and inspected it. Barwani consulted no regulations. He
finished his modest meal; then he folded his arms and sought to attain the
proper state of tranquility. These deads, he told himself, could do no harm.
They were people like all other people, except that they had undergone
extraordinary medical treatement. He must overcome his superstitious fear of
them: he was no peasant, no silly clove-picker, nor was Zanzibar an abode of
primitives. He would admit them, he would give them their antimalaria tablets
as though they were ordinary tourists, he would send them on their way. Very
well. Now he was ready. He phoned Ameri Kombo. "There is no danger," he said.
"The passengers may exit."
   There were nine altogether, a sparse load. The four warms emerged first,
looking somber and a little congealed, like people whohad had to travel with a
party of uncaged cobras. Barwani knew them all: the German consul's wife, the
merchant Chowdhary's son and two Chinese engineers, all returning from brief
holidays in Dar. He waved them through the gate without formalities. Then came
the deads, after an interval of half a minute: probably they had been sitting
together at one end of the nearly empty plane and the others had been at the
other. There were two women, three men, all of them tall and surprisingly
robust looking. He had expected them to shamble, to shuffle, to limp, to
falter, but they moved with aggressive strides, as if they wre in better
health now than when they had been alive.  When they reached the gate, Barwani
stepped forward to greet them, saying softly, "Health regulations, come this
way, kindly." They were breathing, undoubtably breathing: he teasted an
emanation of liquor from the big red-haired man, a mysterious and pleasant
sweet flavor, perhaps anise, from the dark-haired woman. It seemed to Barwani
that their skins had an odd waxy-texture, an unreal glossiness, but possibly
that was his imagination; white skins had always looked artificial to him. 
The only certain difference he could detect about the deads was in their eyhey
had of remaininng unnervingly fixed in a single intense gaze for many seconds
before shifting. Those were the eyes, Barwani thought, of people who had
looked upon the Emptiness without having been swallowed into it. A turbulence
of questions erupted within him: what is it like, how do you feel, what do you
remember, where did you go? He left them unspoken. Politely he said, "Welcome
to the isle of cloves. We ask you to observe that malaria has been wholly
eradicated here through extensive precautionary measures, and to prevent
recurrence of the unwanted disease we require of you that you take these
tablets before proceeding further." Tourists often object to that; these
people swallowed their pills without a word of protest. Again Barwani yearned
to reach toward them, to achieve some sort of contact that might perhaps help
him to transcend the leaden weight of being. But an aura, a shield of
strangeness, surrounded these five, and, though he was an amiable man who
tended to fall into conversation easily with strangers, he passed them on in
silence to Mponda the immigration man. Mponda's high forehead was shiny with
sweat, and he chewed at his lower lip; evidently he was as disturbed by the
deads as Barwani. He fumbled forms, he stamped a visa in the wrong place, he
stammered while telling the deads that he must keep their passports overnight.
"I shall post them by messenger to your hotel in the morning." Mponda promised
them, and sent the visitors onward to the baggage pickup area with undue
haste.
     
   Klein had only one friend with whom he dared talk about it, a colleague of
his at UCLA, a sleek little Parsee sociologist from Bombay named Framji
Jijibhoi, who was as deep into the elaborate new subculture of the deads as a
warm could get. "How can I accept this?" Klein demanded. "I can't accept it at
all. She's out there somewhere, she's alive, she's-" Jijibhoi cut him off with
a quick flick of his fingertips. "No, dear friend," he said sadly, "not alive,
not alive at all, merely rekindled. You must learn to grasp the distinction." 
Klein could not learn to grasp anything having to do with Sybille's death. He
could not bear to think that she had passed into another existence from whih
he was totally excluded. To find her, to speak with her, to participate in her
experience of death and whatever lay beyond death, became his only purpose. He
was inextricablybound to her, as though she were still his wife, as though
Jorge-and-Sybille still existed in any way.
   He waited for letters from her, but none ame. After a few months he began
trying to trace her, embarrassed by his own compulsiveness and by his
increasingly open breaches of the etiquette of this sort of widowerhood. He
traveled from one Cold Town to another-Sacramento, Boise, Anne Arbor,
Louisville-but none would admit him, none would even answer his questions.
Friends passed on rumors to him, that she was living among the deads of
Tucson, of Roanoke, of Rochester, of San Diego, but nothing came of these
tales; then Jijibhoi, who had tentacles into the world of the rekindled in
many places, and who was aiding Klein in his quest even though he disapproved
of its goal, brought him an authoritative-sounding report that she was Zion
Cold Town in southwester Utah. They turned him away there too, but not
entirely cruelly, for he did manage to secure plausible evidence that that was
where Sybille really was.
   In the summer of '92 Jijibhoi told him that Sybille had emerged from Cold
Town seclusion. She had been seen, he said, in Newark, Ohio, touring the
minicipal gold course at Octagon State Memorial in the company of a swaggering
red-haired archaeologist named Kent Zacharias, also a dead, formerly a
specialist in the mound-building Hopwellian cultures of the Ohio Valley. 
"It's a new phase," said Jijibhoi, "not unanticipated. The deads are beginning
to abandon their early philosophy of total separatism. We have started to
observe them as tourists visiting our world-exploring the life-death
interface, as they like to term it. It will be very interesting, dear friend."
Klein flew at once to Ohio and, without ever actually seeing her, tracked her
from Newark to Chillicothe to Marietta, from Marietta Moundsville and
Wheeling. Two months later she was said to be in London, then in Cairo, then
Addis Ababa. Early in '93 Klein learned, via the scholarly grapevine-an
ex-Californian now at Nyerere University in Arusha-that Sybille was on safari
in Tanzania and was plannning to go, ina few weeks, across to Zanzibar.
   Of course.  For ten years she had been working on a doctoral thesis on the
establishment of the Arab Sultanate in Zanzibar in the early nineteenth
centur-studies interrupted by other academic chores, by love affairs, by
marriage, by financial reverse, by illness, death and other responsibilities-an
d she had never actually been able to visit the island that was so central to
her. Now she was free of all entanglements. Why shouldn't she go to Zanzibar
at last? Why not? Of course: she was heading for Zanzibar. And Klein would go
to Zanzibar too, to wait for her.
   As the five disappeared into taxis, something occurred to Barwani. He asked
Mponda for the passports and scrutinized the names. Such strange ones: Kent
Zacharias, Nerita Tracy, Sybille Klein, Anthony Gracchus, Laurence Mortimer.
He had never grown accustomed to the names of Europeans. Without the
photographs he would be unable to tell which were the women, which the men.
Zacharias, Tracy, Klein... ah. Klein. He checked a memo, two weeks old, tacked
to his desk. Klein, yes. Barwani telephoned to the Shirazi Hotel-a project
that consumed several minutes-and asked to speak with the American who had
arrived ten days before, that slender man whose lips had been pressed tight in
tension, whose eyes had glittered with fatigue, the one who had asked a little
service of Barwani, a special favor, and had dashed him with a much-needed
hundred shillings as payment in advance. There was a lengthy delay, no doubt
while porters searched the hotel, looking in the men's room, the bar, the
lound, the garden, and then the American was on the line. "The person about
whom you inquired has just arrived, sir," Barwani told him.
   
                    2.
     The dance begins. Worms underneath fingertips, lips beginning to pulse,
     heartache and throat-catch. All slightly out of step and out of key, each
its
     own tempo and rhythm. Slowly, connections. Lip to lip, heart to heart,
     finding self in other, dreadfully, tentatively, bruning... notes finding
     themselves in chords in sequence, cacophony turning to polyphonous
     contrapuntal chorus, a diaspora of celebration.
                             R.D. Laing: THE BIRD OF PARADISE


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