18 Feb The Remains of the Last Emperor by Adebayo Williams: Read Chapter 1 & 2
It was, to say the least, an unusually busy day at the Sailors’ Quayside. From the tower of the Cowrie Merchant Bank, the dense human traffic that coursed through the narrow, winding lane resembled a huge unwieldy snake. Sitting atop a disused shed and barricaded by huge mounds of human waste was the notorious king of beggars aka The Mayor of Carter Bridge. He was a huge, well-built man with a warrior’s mien straight out of the tribal upheavals of the previous century. Earlier that morning, accompanied by armed lieutenants, he had swept upfront from his base at the foot of Carter Bridge. After a fierce skirmish, he had succeeded in smashing a rival begging syndicate that had sprouted around the Sailors’ Quayside. This battle of beggars had been watched by a cheering crowd. Now flushed with the excitement of victory, the Mayor, as usual, was boasting to passers-by about his invincibility.
‘Me I dey tell dem say shit no get bone, but pesin wey step am go dance kokoma,’ he snorted.
A grave-looking gentleman, possibly a clergyman, was obviously unimpressed by the Mayor’s antics. He had taken a contemptuous look at the Mayor in his empire of filth and turned away in disgust.
‘Human toxic waste,’ the Mayor offered with a smile in obvious reference to the mountain of excrement.
‘Toxic human waste,’ the grave-looking man snapped in correction as he hurried away. An outsize white handkerchief covered his entire face.
‘Foolish man. All human waste is toxic,’ the Mayor shouted angrily at his heels.
At the intersection with Baloney Street, an old man sat squat on the brick pavement in a Gandhi-like posture. Actually, there was a lot about him that reminded one of the great Indian leader. He was naked but for a pair of tattered jumpers. In the sweltering heat which was unpacified by the breeze from the lagoon, the old man’s wrinkled, scaled skin seemed to peel off. He reminded one of a victim of acute psoriasis.
The noxious vapour from the foul and murky water of the lagoon found its way through the nostrils. The stench from rotting fish, decaying planks, decomposing stilts, abandoned boats and human waste was almost unbearable. There were many people from the hinterland who claimed that for them, this was the distinctive, alluring aroma of the island capital. In the distance, the imposing and elegant Liberation Building which had arisen from the ashes of destruction looked down on the shore with majestic arrogance. The old man was lost in meditation. His thin lips pursed in a contemptuous sneer, he was completely unaware of the huge waves of commuters that passed by.
All of a sudden, a distraught figure emerged from the direction of Baloney Street. He was dressed in a grey, double-breasted suit that had clearly seen better days, and was muttering and mumbling to himself. He took his seat beside the old man without saying a word.
A passer-by shook her head in commiseration. Compared to the old man, he was a much younger fellow possibly in his mid-thirties. His bushy eyebrows and full hair that was about to lose its well-cultivated shape gave an air of distinction. But there was a deranged intensity about his expression which reminded one of someone on the verge of losing a short, full-scale battle with insanity.
‘I told you that the truth is often more fatal than lies and that you may not survive it. Here we are, you are already showing all the
signs that the truth does not sit well with you,’ the old man said after a long time as he eyed his disturbed companion with compassion.
The younger man did not reply. He had begun to fidget with the edge of his suit. At this point, a quack with a rather misbegotten physique shambled towards the younger man and asked him whether he needed an aphrodisiac.
‘This is the Tiger’s Brew,’ observed the quack who quickly latched on to three well-dressed gentlemen. The old man smiled in
appreciation of the drama.
‘I told you I would take the manuscript back this morning. There is nothing in it that you will ever understand because it is
written in an ancient script. It is an insurance that I will return to tell you the full story of what happened on the day of the boa constrictor. But you were trying to cheat,’ the old man said with a mild frown.
At this point, the younger man seemed to have recovered from his lethargy. A wide, devious grin, manic in its intensity, split his
‘But how are you sure that I have not photocopied the manuscript?’ he asked suddenly.
The old man, with a deft flick of his haggard left hand, swatted two huge flies that had perched on his nostrils.
‘You see, that is where you are still a child. You can’t sew with a spider’s web, can you? So, you cannot photocopy a mirage,’ he said with a cunning smile.
‘But I want the whole world to know the facts of this national tragedy, I want to publish it. Without knowing the past, the present is useless, and the future is non-existent,’ the young man cried.
‘That is not how to go about it. That is the way of lazy journalists and editors. Do not tempt me to believe that you are unworthy of the Revelation,’ the old man said with a slight hint of anger.
‘How?’ his young companion stuttered. ‘You see,’ the old man began with a smile, ‘facts without the backing of brute force are useless. In other words, facts are profane; fiction is sacred. For example, it may be a fact that I died several years ago, but the fiction of it all is that I’m here in flesh and blood talking to you. Our recent history has taught us that there are more powerful ways of lodging the truth in human memory than through facts.’
‘I’m going to lose my mind!’ the younger man screamed.
‘That, I must confess, is the first precondition for self-discovery,’ the older man noted with a laconic grin.
As if overcome by the searing heat and the strange occasion, the younger man began to unbutton his clothes. This attracted the cynical comments of some passers-by who thought that they were about to witness another of those regular suicide bids.
‘Let us hope that the old rogue has left his address with the Peoples’
Bank,’ one of them observed.
‘And let him know that there is no free lunch in heaven,’ another snorted.
The old man smiled and hissed in an affable manner at the commuters.
‘I hope you will not do anything funny. But before I start the story, do not hesitate to ask me any question,’ he said with considerable compassion.
‘How did I come to be chosen for this immense burden that torments the soul and tortures the mind?’ the young man asked after
some hesitation. ‘I don’t really know,’ the old man began in a calm tone. ‘I’m only obeying higher orders. Follow the rainbow, I was told, and everything will fall into place. I suppose that just as there are some religions waiting for priests, there are also some priests waiting for a religion.’
‘Who gave you the instructions?’
The people of the great beyond of course. The spirit of the dead who are living weighs heavily upon the living that are dead. There are so many dead people around. There are at least a million of them crammed into this small space. You see we have wasted too many of our people, and there is a huge pile-up at the Gate of Transition. Right now I can see several youths from that very famous secondary school over there that drowned at the beach about eighty years ago.
They are still in their swimming trunks. By the way, there is a gap-toothed old man who is stroking your forehead. I have a feeling he is your grandfather who was killed in a land feud.’
At this the young man lurched forward, his pupils dilated in terror. ‘How do you know him?’ he moaned.
The old man’s face twitched in acute irritation at what must have seemed a mindless question.
‘Now you are wasting my time. I have no time for idle questions, and I haven’t much time left to spend with you. Are you ready for the story?’
The young man nodded meekly, in complete acceptance of his fate. The old man smiled and nodded back in satisfaction. Out of nowhere, the old man conjured an immaculate white cock. The sprightly bird crowed lustily as the old man cuddled it in his haggard palms. Then in a lightning move which spoke volumes for his enduring physical strength, the old man wrung apart the head of the cock from its body. As the headless body spun round in a demented spiral, a hot fountain of blood traced a bold trajectory in the air before spraying the young man with its gory contents. A weak stream trickled down the young man’s face toward the corners of his mouth. Involuntarily, he began to lick it, tongue darting in and out like a huge python. Several commuters took to their heels, apparently dazed by this bizarre ritual. Among them was an armed policeman who in his panic had thrown his Mark 4 rifle into the lagoon. The old man beamed a smile of contentment. ‘I’m now convinced that you are ready to know what happened on the day of the boa constrictor.’
If anybody, a week earlier, had told the younger man that his life was about to take such a dramatic turn, he would have dismissed it as the ranting of a depraved mind. They met four days earlier, the old man and the younger man, in the most unusual of circumstances. It had been a cold and wet May evening. The young man left his office at A.J. Wisemann where he worked as the principal editor feeling rather _tired and overworked. Although he had promised to take his son to the Amusement Park that evening, he changed his mind. He headed instead for his favourite palm wine bar for a ‘nightcap.’ For city drinking buffs, a nightcap usually meant a jug of stale palm wine. But perhaps the real drama began six days earlier when he was recalled from annual leave by his boss and managing director of his company. He had gone to the village to spend some time with his mother. He was about to settle down to a breakfast of corn pap and fried melon specially prepared by his mother when a telegram arrived from the local post-office. He frantically tore through it. It read: REPORT IMMEDIATELY STOP GENERAL STRIKES AGAIN STOP.
He knew the implications. It meant that the old general, fiery controversialist, consummate political tactician and distinguished military historian, had released another explosive manuscript. His professional instincts had been aroused immediately. The general, a past master of political power-play, had become quite famous for his turbulent interventions in the country’s political process. His last book had caused quite a storm in the country. While the storm lasted, he had maintained a characteristic impassive silence which occasionally gave way to ominous one-liners aimed at the more ferocious of his critics. He was a bold and cunning strategist, and many believed that for him book-writing was merely the continuation of a hidden war by other means.
After the publication of his first book with Wisemann, the general had insisted on meeting the young man to offer his compliments on his editorial brilliance personally. A rather secretive and retiring fellow, the general had chosen the lobby of a remote hotel as the rendezvous. Gangling editor and military supremo had walked up smartly to each other. The general was a large, heavy-set man with an ample waistline. He warmly embraced the younger man, almost suffocating him with his massive flowing robe.
‘You are a bright boy, you know. The country can do with more people like you,’ the general said as he dismissed his aides.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘You know, I keep telling people that this country is blessed with immense natural and human resources. What we lack is the will to turn our dear country into a paradise on earth. Take a person like yourself as an example. If I had known you during my military days, I would have conscripted you into the army,’ the general said as his unwieldy frame sank into a nearby chair.
‘Why the army, sir?’ he was asked.
‘Because whatever anybody may say, the army has the finest brains in the land, and it remains our most patriotic institution,’ the general said in a matter of fact tone. He sounded as if he had repeated the line a million times in front of unbelievers. ‘You don’t have to believe me, you know,’ he added laconically, his face a strange mixture of jollity and deadpan impudence.
The waiter who had been waiting to take orders was visibly overwhelmed by the fame and national importance of the general. The military kingpin shot a friendly scowl in his direction. The general ordered a soft drink for himself and then suddenly ordered his companion to buy a drink for himself.
‘You buy yourself a drink; I buy myself a drink. That, to my mind, is the foundation of true friendship. Shikena.’
If the younger man had not heard of the general’s famous eccentricities, he would have thought that that was quite the limit. But as the memorable evening wore on, he discovered that the crusty warlord was as impossible as they come.
‘General, who are your military heroes?’ he asked him at one point. ‘Myself, myself and of course myself!’ the general said with a grunt and calmly emptied his glass of soft drink.
At another point, the younger man wanted to find out the general’s opinion about Charles de Gaulle, the great French leader. He had thought that De Gaulle’s higher seriousness, his masterly prose style and above all his exemplary patriotism would have greatly impressed the general. It turned out, surprisingly, that the earthy general had no time for De Gaulle.
‘General,’ the younger man began as warily as possible, ‘it seems to me that there are similarities between your prose style and that of De Gaulle.’
The general gave him a mischievous wink. ‘De Gaulle,’ he began with a wicked smile, ‘will surely be flattered by that.’
The younger man could not resist a hearty laugh. The general appeared to be endowed with an impish sense of humour. He was an incorrigible egotist all right, but he was a jolly fellow, nevertheless.
‘Actually, I read his memoirs a long time ago,’ the general added as his face assumed a mercurial, contemplative pose.
‘How long ago?’ he asked, hoping that at last, he might be able to wheedle an intellectual conversation out of him.
‘I can’t remember exactly. It must have been when Ironside passed me over for promotion,’ the warlord said, a measure of bitterness creeping into his voice.
‘De Gaulle himself never had a glorious military career,’ he said, trying to console the general.
‘But that is because he was a rebel! Rebels must never expect a glorious career. The army is founded on discipline and order. You cannot eat your cake and have it. In my own case, I was never a rebel. I did everything they asked me to do, but that son of a bitch thought otherwise.’
‘Sir, but it seems to me that the greatest military geniuses the world has produced have been rebels. Take Napoleon, Montgomery and Patton as examples.’
The general gave a disapproving squint. ‘What about Welling-ton, Alexander, Eisenhower and the whole lot of them?’
‘Now sir, I know who your military heroes are!’ the younger man crowed triumphantly.
‘You are a clever rogue. But if I were you, I wouldn’t put my money on that,’ the general said with a testy smile.
By now the waiter who had been hovering aimlessly around fi-nally gathered enough courage. He gingerly placed the bill in front of the younger man who promptly ordered him to pass it on to the general. The poor soul looked at him as if he had just pronounced a death sentence on him. Shivering with fright and premonition, he placed the bill in front of the general.
‘Very well then,’ the general chuckled as he reluctantly picked the bill. ‘If I’m supposed to pay for your drink, on top of lecturing you on De Gaulle, then we had better be going.’ With this, he rose to his full frame and briskly bade the younger man goodbye. At the lob-by, the younger man asked the general when they would meet again.
‘When they lift the ban on old soldiers,’ the eccentric warrior said with a crooked grin as his military aides leapt to attention and helped him into the waiting car.
The general was a truly impossible fellow; the young man thought that night as he took his first sip of the stale palm wine. His mind went back to the new manuscript which he had carried with him into the palmwine shed. It had occupied his thought for the greater part of a week. The political ramifications were far greater than the editorial considerations. Why had the general chosen such a moment to break the ice on a matter the nation would rather pre-tend had never happened in the first instance? Could this be a sign of a deadly power struggle among the ruling groups? It was an event on which it had become politically unwise to comment, but which the patriotic and the sensitive found impossible to ignore. Only the eccentric and daring general could have the courage to pronounce on the issue. But why he had permitted himself the luxury of a philo-sophical treatise on this unsurpassed national tragedy was what made the whole affair more puzzling. Perhaps even the general was afraid of reopening old wounds and was more interested in asking the na-tion to draw the correct lesson from the tragedy. Or perhaps
Two decades earlier, a terrible calamity befell the nation. The economy had been pillaged beyond redemption. A series of natural disasters compounded the problems of the country. There was a severe drought in the north. Huge flooding became the order of the day in the south. A terrible famine descended on the land. There were huge public demonstrations. Effigies of the Emperor and his aides were burnt by angry mobs.
The young man was then in his first year at the university. The leaders of their students’ union had issued a forty-eight hour ulti-matum asking the government to quit or face the wrath of naked undergraduates marching on the capital. This was not to be. The following morning, ‘a group of patients from the nation’s premier mental institution, joined by a huge army of the jobless, the hungry and the dispossessed marched on the capital and seized the Libera-tion Building, the nation’s premier symbol of independence. The government, supported by a section of the army, moved to crush the uprising with iron severity. The actual details of what happened had become shrouded in myth and bitter controversy. Did the gov-ernment fire the rockets which brought the building down as it was widely reported by the Western press? Or did the patients who the government described as communist insurgents infiltrated into the country by a hostile neighbouring country and blew up the building rather than surrender, as claimed by the government? The matter was hardly helped by the fact that a day after this, another section of the army seized power in the first military coup in the nation’s his-tory. The leaders claimed that they had executed the emperor whom they accused of corruption, cruelty and incompetence.
Nobody, several moons after, could claim to know what actually happened, or where the remains of the old emperor were buried. For shortly after this, the entire land entered the season of a million tongues in which everyone from family, clan to tribe spoke at cross purpose. It was worse than the affliction of Babel. For every million explanations, there sprang another million contradictory explana-tions cancelling themselves out in a spiral of demented confusion. After this, a strange stupor descended on the nation. It was not unlike the stupor of somebody recovering from a violent religious trance, except that this time around it was a trance of shame and misery.
As he emptied his glass that cold and soggy night, the young editor was quite sure that the national debate that was bound to fol-low the publication of the manuscript he was carrying might liber-ate the nation from its self-imprisonment. The nation was about to go through a period of deep soul-searching possibly followed by a spiritual rebirth. He himself might be caught in the cross-firing, in the smouldering flame of self-purification. It would be a small price to pay for the redemption of the fatherland; he thought to himself as he cast a glance at the two men left with him in the bar. One of them was the proprietor. The other man was his friend and constant companion. He was a lean, wiry man with a harsh nasal intonation. He reserved a mildly sinister smile for people he considered to be of superior social standing.
A crackling thunder shattered the peace of the night. The light-ning that followed blazed a fiery trail through the forest like an en-emy tracer bullet. The proprietor was telling his friend about the antics of a celebrated local deity who always chose such moments to appear. He had barely finished when a’ strange old man trudged into the bar. He was wizened and appeared road-weary. His thin legs were dust-bitten and swollen in several places. Under the dull, sickly glare of the clay lamp, his snow-white hair added a frightening dimension to his person. It might be this that gave his wrecked physique its extraordinary authority. On sighting the younger man, he made a strange gesture akin to the gesture of gratitude for deliverance before ordering a jug of palm wine.
‘How much?’ the old man asked.
‘Thirty shillings,’ he was told.
The old man counted from his sack, his mouth twitching uncontrollably. The coins clambered all over the trunks. The owners of the bar picked one of the coins and examined it intently. Suspicion was written all over his face as he held it against the clay lamp.
‘Old coin sir,’ he growled in good-natured exasperation. ‘Where have you been? We stopped spending this more than twenty years ago. This coin was in fact used to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the old emperor’s ascension.’
‘I took it… Well, I took it from the old devil’s juju pouch amidst thunder and lightning…on the day of the boa constrictor,’ the old man said as if recounting from a terrible dream. Then he hung up.
‘Elder, please drink on,’ the owner of the bar said with a kind smile.
The strange old man rapidly emptied the first cup and immediately began to doze. The profile of what appeared to be a bundle of sheets loosely tied together showed through the sack he was carrying. After some time, he suddenly shot up as if stung by an insect. He apologised for his poor posture as he rubbed his eyes with a wretch-ed handkerchief. He mumbled something about his body not being able to keep up with the punishing pace. He made a valiant effort to sit upright. Then he emptied his cup. He was now staring hard at the ceiling as if he was trying to remember how he got there. By now, the younger man had made up his mind that the old man was nothing but an exhausted charlatan. He paid his bill and rose to go.
‘Mister, you can’t go. I have a message for you,’ the old man announced in a business-like voice. The younger man was dumb-founded. He could not believe his ears. The rumbling thunder in the background added to the eerie atmosphere.
‘You will sit down,’ the old man suddenly commanded in a voice which brooks no opposition. The young man complied without further hesitation.
The proprietor and his friend had been watching this strange drama with fascination.
‘How long have you been on the road, sir?’ he asked the old man with immense respect.
‘I have lost count. The journey of human beings must not be measured by years. There are many people who spend a hundred of years on earth without doing a single memorable thing,’ the old man replied.
There was silence. The proprietor looked at his friend and they both turned a puzzled look on the strange old man.
‘Where sir — if you won’t think my mouth is too big for my own good — is your destination?’ the hunter asked.
‘I’m the boomerang. I’m going to where I was coming from. Human history has no beginning in view and no end in sight,’ the old man said as an intriguing smile danced around his lips. Then he began to sing, his voice surprisingly resonant for his battered physique.
‘If you don’t know the elephant
Don’t you know the elephant’s voice?
If you don’t know the lagoon
Don’t you eat salt in your soup?
I am OgidiOlu
Owner of the dawn well
The son of Fehintola.’
There was a hypnotic quality to the old man’s ancient falsetto.
‘You sound like a magician from the deep West. Are you one?’ the proprietor asked with all reverence.
‘Of some sort. I’m the wall that stands while the fire burns. I am the chief masquerade that picks the rear in the forest of mystery,’ the old man replied in a sing-song manner. He shot a knowing wink in the direction of the younger man. The poor fellow had been eyeing him with barely concealed apprehension.
The clay lamp hoisted on a huge trunk was burning with a dull, anaemic glow. The owner of the bar stood up to pour some palm oil on the wick. The whole bar came frantically aglow. The atmosphere was invaded by the smell of roasting insects trapped in the huge lamp. It was at this point that the old man brought out an old but surprisingly well-kept newspaper. As he began to read the centre spread, he thrust the front page banner headline in the direction of the younger man.
DISASTER AT NOON: MAD MEN TAKE OVER THE COUNTRY, the headlines thundered. On the back, page was another screamer: HUNT FOR PSYCHIATRIST CONTINUES.
‘You must be quite familiar with this?’ the old man asked with a cunning smile. He had been monitoring the reaction of the younger man. The poor fellow, apparently dazed, let out a shriek of surprise. His grip tightened on the general’s manuscript. By another strange coincidence, the general had appended an article from the same newspaper to his manuscript in order to demonstrate what he caustically described as ‘our national pastime of confusing the symptom with the disease and the intellectual bankruptcy of our university professors.’
By that time, it was clear to everybody in the bar that they were witnessing a unique drama. The proprietor and his friend eyed the old man with the awe normally reserved for monster personages. It was by now clear that the last had not been heard on the event which gave rise to the season of a million tongues.
‘The truth of the matter,’ the old man began in a calm measured tone after a long silence, ‘is that I was one of them. I was the oldest of them all, and the one who was asked to clean up.’
The younger man let out another scream at the bombshell. In the distance, a hyena began to wail. The whole bar suddenly took on the spine-chilling atmosphere of a cult house in some remote forest.
‘But pardon my effrontery sir, because I was not quite a young chap when it happened. But I believe the official report said that nobody survived the inferno,’ the owner of the bar said.
‘That, as you rightly said, was the official report,’ the old man snapped with bitter contempt.
‘But weren’t you inside the building? How did you survive the crash when your people blew up the building?’ the owner of the bar asked.
‘Our people did not blow up any building. That is the official lie. Cheap rotten lies,’ the old man said with an angry sneer.
‘Then tell us what happened!’ the younger man muttered in misery and frustration. The old man gave him a bizarre glance as if he was just noticing his presence.
‘Editor, I cannot tell you. He that they are bringing a new wife to must not sprain his neck in anticipation,’ the old man said with a knowing smile.
The bar-owner and his friend exchanged glances of disbelief. By this time, the younger may appear to have become inured to shock. He sat in a dazed stupor, like a sacrificial lamb. Something must have told him that he was in for an extraordinary adventure which was bound to change the course of his life.
After some time the old man suddenly screamed, ‘But how could all of you, including the most intelligent and the best educated, have bought the idea that a group of poor sick fellows could possess enough explosives to blow up such a huge structure?’
The owner of the bar stood up and raised his hand in polite objection. He explained that nobody thought of them as poor, sick fellows but as well-trained insurgents who had come to take over the country.
‘And you believe that?’ the old man asked with a contemptuous sneer.
‘We believe what we are told, sir, and we are told what to believe. That, I’m afraid, is the shabby reality of our miserable existence,’ the younger man said suddenly with a trance-like assurance. His submission seemed to have impressed the old man a lot. He eyed him with affection and admiration.
‘Hmmmm. You are a truly worthy son of your ancestors, a noble custodian of the truth. I have been asked by greater powers that be to deposit the truth with you,’ the old man said directly to the young man with all solemnity.
‘I’m highly honoured,’ he muttered.
‘It is not an honour; it is a duty. As you must have known you may not be able to do much hereafter in terms of worldly advancement. This is because the pursuit of truth is a full-time career. Those who opt for it may suffer pains and persecution, but they live in the hearts of their fellow citizens forever,’ the old man said and then brought out a huge bundle of sheets from the sack he had put down.
‘Take this,’ he said and handed over the bundle to the young man, ‘that is the book of revelation. It tells you what happened on the day of the boa constrictor. Don’t bother to open it, because the more you look, the less you will see. I will tell you the full story in four days’ time at the Sailors’ Quayside. Let me tell you though that I know you will not comply with the instructions. You will try to read the book. But curiosity is not a crime. It may only compound your anxiety.’
Before anybody could say a word, the old man had vanished into the brooding night.