This story is based upon Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” though it’s set in modern-day Nigeria rather than colonial times. Beyond the locale, it has a few deliberate parallels. I loved how Achebe qualified the characters’ actions with wise sayings, which is something we’ve all seen before, but I have a soft spot for the device. The characters use the voice of tradition to give their actions weight, and so that’s an idea here too. Even the title speaks to it. With all the Shakespearean suffering in the original, I was convinced Achebe would focus on a father’s loss of a son. I’m still surprised that that was just a background detail, and so “Things My Father Taught Me” is the separation I wanted to see. It’s that same loss with a new family.
Things My Father Taught Me
by Rhoads Brazos
My father taught me old knowledge, not all of it useful. It was mostly platitudes that sounded profound until you realized that they were just the logic of one’s own wits. But I hold to this: If a man wants to go quickly, he travels alone. If he wants to go far, he travels with friends. Simple, direct, useful. I wanted to go far.
I was with Bwambale when he found the grenade amongst the scrapyard’s refuse. His uncle owned the business, an acre of steel skeletons rising from rust scale sheddings, and we often rooted about the new collections. His uncle was not a generous man, but if he didn’t know what it was that we had found, like the grenade, then we might pick it up cheap. Which is what happened.
And so afterwards, the three of us–Bwambale, myself, and our friend Godfrey–crouched in the dust behind the Soroti central market, looking as if we were throwing dice in its scant shade. The grenade sat between us like a squat little god.We wanted Godfrey’s opinion. Being the oldest, nearly twenty and full of wisdom, we valued his insights. His hair was already thinning, and his forehead swept back sharply like a falcon’s. The left lens of his round spectacles was cracked, and I wasn’t completely convinced he needed them. They might be an affectation. Understandable. A man should point to his strengths with two fingers–another of my father’s aphorisms.
“Concussion,” Godfrey said.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Mori,” he said, “you are truly stupid. Look.” He tapped at the grenade but was careful not to touch it directly. “You throw it high and when it lands, it doesn’t chew up your enemies. It thumps them so soundly that they fall asleep. Rather, it does.”
Bwambale’s eyes burned like two embers in a pool of pitch. “My enemies?”
“I am not your enemy,” Godfrey said.
“Nor am I.” I tossed a pebble at a stork that for the last quarter-hour had been watching us. Its ill breed flew in from Lake Kyoga to scavenge garbage off the streets of Soroti. The bird was a hideous thing with a face that seemed to be inside-out. I didn’t care for its hungry gaze.
“I know how we can make money,” Bwambale said. “You want money?”
We wanted money.
“Who has it for us to take?” he asked.
“Your uncle,” Godfrey said.
Bwambale scoffed. “He has the wealth of two paupers.”
“General Kony,” I said. The General was still on the lam, although his Lord’s Resistance Army and its thousands of child soldiers still roamed northern Uganda. I couldn’t remember a time that they hadn’t. If you were young, abduction was a way of life.
Bwambale squeezed his hands into two fists. He spoke hoarse and low. “You are mad.”
“The market,” Godfrey said. “But they don’t deserve that…”
“They don’t,” Bwambale said. He scooped up the grenade and balanced it on his palm like a bird’s egg. “I intend that we sell them goods.”
“We don’t have any goods,” I said.
“We are about to.”
I tossed another pebble at the stork. It struck it directly on the crown. The bird turned, snapped up the pebble in its long crusty beak, and out of vengeance, I thought, swallowed it like a tadpole.
The blue-helmeted Frenchmen came through town every weekend in one truck or in two. They filled their tanks with petrol and then drove the long way around the lake to Jinja, distributing charity in their wake. Food, clothes, useful implements–these were free to whoever grabbed them first, usually the wrong sorts, as most everything wound up being resold. From what Godfrey claimed, the Frenchmen then headed into Kenya where it was safer.
Sometimes, while the Frenchmen refueled their long dusty truck, we washed their windows. They didn’t tip many shillings, barely enough to buy banana pancakes and cassava chips between us. On a generous day, we might add a carbonated indulgence. Still, our situation was of Mistress Fortune’s design. Our faces were familiar.
There were always two men in the front cab, and we knew another fellow hid in back with the cargo. We never saw him, but had been scolded for getting too close to the rear hatch, and so it was plain that he was there. What these men had was of worth and they guarded it subtly to avoid undue attention.
And so, the next weekend, we waited near the petrol station. Bwambale and Godfrey’s cudgels drove off the younger children. They watched from the sweet shade of the jackfruit grove. They knew we had grave designs. Whether he wants to or not, a man wears his intentions boldly. Once more, my father’s wisdom. It would never be added to. I couldn’t afford to stay. An ambitious man only waits for the sun to rise; everything else he makes happen.
A truck approached and my blood was singing. Since there was no partner, this would be the day.
The truck creaked to a stop at the petrol pumps, heat bleeding off its engine like a fever. The two Frenchmen hopped down. They were as pale as watery milk and smelled of cloves. We shouted greetings and they waved in kind. That’s when we struck. Bwambale clubbed the heavyset man with more force than I wished to see. He may not be rising again. Godfrey jabbed the other hard in his soft gut, and the fellow’s breath wooshed out in a great blast. I’d already yanked the grenade’s pin. It was lost somewhere in the dust. I raced the length of the truck, counting to five, six, smashed the glass of the back window. Eight, nine? I threw the grenade in, fell back with my hands over my ears.
I may have counted too fast. Godfrey said that if the grenade went off in my hand then the birds would snack on my fingers. But there couldn’t have been more than two seconds extra, three at the most. Thoughts spun in my head, chiefly, what if it’s a dud?
My body lifted from the hard-packed earth, and I was floating. I was an oily iridescence sliding upon the puddle of the world. I was alive. I was dead. I was both. I dreamed of the future and all the wonderful things it held. Lacquered furniture, shade and soft music, a beautiful wife. A hand grasped my own. I was not sure whose. Its grip yanked me to my feet and I was pushed up into the cab. My belongings were tossed in after me. It’s a sad state of affairs when a man can wrap his world in a gunnysack.
But as my father used to say: We don’t hold our most important possessions in our hands. We hold them in our hearts.
I didn’t remember our escape. I blamed the concussion. Later, Godfrey described how he and Bwambale threw the men from the back compartment and how they fell as limp as laundry. They were stripped of their weapons, ours now. The onlooking children cheered, and before any elders reached us, we were off in the truck. As a ruse, Bwambale drove southeast. A couple kilometers away, he juked the truck off-road and met a disused track he’d scouted earlier. We headed north.
This isn’t to say our plan was foolproof. We had bested the angels and left them bleeding. We had their ride and their treasure. But there was an eventuality we’d overlooked. The Frenchmen had been refilling in Soroti for a reason. On a dusty red track scored from the flesh of Uganda, we coasted to a stop.
Bwambale pounded the wheel and swore every curse he knew. I argued with him over our next course of action. Abandoning the truck would be dismal. We’d gambled everything in an empty exchange.
We had yet to hear from Godfrey. He squinted at the passenger mirror and our settling dust. “It is suicide to return.”
The Frenchmen would be searching the city. We couldn’t go back.
He spoke to Bwambale. “How far are we from Arapai?”
“Ten kilometers, twenty?”
“You always brag of your stride. There are none so swift.” Godfrey said the last in a sing-song voice.
“I am not a braggart.”
Bwambale scratched grime from the wheel with his nails. He flicked it away. “I have to return too.”
“That would be wise.”
“Time cannot be bought,” I said, “only borrowed.”
“Our poet,” Bwambale said, and cracked open the door and slid to the road. Godfrey tossed him the driver’s wallet. While I had been woozy, the two had relieved each Frenchmen of his effects. With one last smoldering look at the truck, Bwambale departed down the track at a long lope, which I had to admit, was quite impressive.
“We shall have a wait,” Godfrey said, and passed me a pistol. I tucked it in my jeans. “Come.”
We circled around the truck’s back and unfastened the hatch. Its lip was bloodstained. As Godfrey explained, the grenade had gone off in a man’s lap, there had been some blood. The pronouncement made my insides tumble. Godfrey rubbed a palmful of dirt over the evidence.
He opened the door. Inside, it was a slaughterhouse.
I couldn’t imagine men escaping this and still breathing. The floor was slippery and the air stank like a charnel pit. The stacked boxes, not as many as I’d supposed there to be, they were still intact. French stenciled their sides along with cryptic markings I was embarrassed to not understand, because I had the impression that the average child was meant to. Red was a warning, after all. In the center of the truck lay a long, low box. It was set off from the others, not even touching them.
We peeked into the open containers, expecting to find dry beans and meal. We found diesel generators, a vast array of lights, long ropey cables, and gadgets covered with screens and dials.
“A metal detector,” Godfrey said. “Hallelujah, look at this! Cameras.” He pulled out one in each hand. They were massive, all-black with long tubular noses, like nothing I’d ever seen. He flipped a switch on one and pointed the barrel at me. It snap-flashed like lightning, and he showed me a picture of myself on its little TV screen. My face looked thin and scared.
“We can’t sell these at a market,” he said. “They are worth too much. My man, we are rich.”
“Who will buy this if not shopkeepers?” I asked.
He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “Interested parties, men of means. We must only reach the city to find them. We want to be paid in pounds, not chickens, yes? And this vehicle”–he stomped on its floor–“we shall trade it too. Fifty head of cattle. Fifty, I tell you! But we will insist on pounds.” He pointed to the long box.
We had yet to open it. Its slats were nailed shut and wrapped with chain, four times about its breadth, twice about its length.
We found a few tool chests, a veritable treasure that we could sell for half a year’s pay, and Godfrey passed me a pair of long-handled bolt cutters. Though they had great value, the locks had to be sacrificed. If any of the Frenchmen had had keys to them, neither Godfrey nor Bwambale had found them.
As I worked at the locks, snapping through each with some sense of regret, Godfrey picked up a rifle. There was a stack of them along with a pile of pistols, knives, and other dangerous implements picked free from the guards.
“Wait,” I said, my bolt cutters poised upon the last lock. “How many men were there?”
“Eight.” Godfrey flipped the safety off.
“They were all back here in the dark?”
He pulled a flashlight from the pile and tossed it to me. I caught it. “Not in the dark, no.”
“But eight? It is very hot and–”
“Look at all this.” He gestured broadly with the rifle. “It is too much for one man to guard. It was too much for eight.”
Godfrey spoke with the confidence of leisure, yet his eyes told another story. They were furtive and didn’t meet mine. They scoured the box. I did not think he spoke French, but not everything upon the wood was written in words, and he was wise. He held his rifle casually, low at his hip, the barrel steady.
We hear the most when we hear nothing. That is when we hear ourselves. I heard grief, regret, shame. And something else, more than a betrayal of honor. An ancestral fear. I was a rodent in the bright light of day. A shadow fell over me. I heard the beat of wings and impending demise. No, not wings. A scratching, here with me now, beneath wooden slats. A nest of vermin waiting for me to join it.
I should have moved away. Godfrey spoke a warning, and as I cut the last lock, the chains snaked to the floor.
Godfrey laughed nervously, set down his rifle and picked up a prybar. He tore the lid free.
Inside lay a coffin. Its stone sides were carved with sinuous designs–provocative women dancing with skeletons, or worse. It wasn’t the kind of depravity you expected outside of city graffiti. I couldn’t even guess the coffin’s age. It looked older than any chapel.
“Fantastic,” Godfrey whispered. “The Princess of Ganda.”
“She conjures the winds with the seed of men,” I said.
Godfrey looked at me strangely. He grasped the coffin lid while I pushed from the other side. We slid it open.
We looked upon a woman, a princess, a queen. A goddess. Her face was haloed by the white pillow of her hair. She hadn’t been dead a thousand years, because she was sculpted when the primal clay was untainted. Perfect creations live forever. Her spirit slid under the earth in veins of perfect black, like an oil under its flesh, and her color shone through its skin as darkness. I’m not sure how I knew this.
“What the in the name of Heaven is wrong with you?”
A man on a bicycle waited outside the truck. Suspended from a long pole slung over his shoulders were two heavy plastic containers. Liquid sloshed within them. The man set down his load and climbed up with us.
“I said, what is wrong–”
The man was Bwambale, but back so soon? He looked into the coffin, and he laughed. He reached forward. Godfrey snatched ahold of his hand. For a moment, loose on his feet as he was, it looked like he might hug Bwambale.
Bwambale tore away. “That is gold.”
Two coins covered the corpse’s eyes. I had never seen such luster but didn’t need to be told its name. I knew it as well as my own. Bwambale lunged. He shoved Godfrey away in an inglorious tumble, and snatched both coins from her lids. I thought of pelicans and pebbles.
He turned to me with his hands outstretched. Gold lay upon his palms. He looked like Jesus showing his wounds. When he tried to speak, words wouldn’t come. He smiled down at his hands and pressed his lips tight, like he was holding in grief.
Finally, he managed: “What are these worth?”
The last was directed toward Godfrey, who rose scowling. He held his rifle by the bore and I could tell that he wanted to swing it at Bwambale’s skull. In the brief moment before his gaze found mine, he wanted nothing more.
“That seal belongs to Caligula,” he said.
“Does it?” Bwambale choked the words.
It did. I too knew it with surety, though I couldn’t explain who that person was nor how I knew his name.
“They’re priceless,” Godfrey said.
Bwambale licked his lips. He slipped the coins into his pockets and looked to me. “We must leave far away. Fill the tanks.”
We were moving again, bounding northward with the world for our taking. We’d stripped away the rind and her flesh lay naked before us. Three men are enough to make an army.
Driving ever northward, we slipped into fuel depots to fill our canisters. We never ventured in directly. The stations were where the authorities would inquire of the truck, and if it wasn’t seen, there would be great confusion in tracking us. The stratagem was Godfrey’s, and I saw its wisdom. We were lions treading upon stones. Temper your failure with guile and it is rechristened as success. With the wealth of the unexpected equipment, the gold, the truck, and–by god–the corpse of a princess, our futures were brighter than the noonday sun.
We rolled over the wide land and the soil lightened from the red clay of Uganda to the ashes and sand of the Sudan. Our plan was to skirt its border, swing back around to the southern cities. The capitol of Kampala was the obvious place for us to sell, but not if its roads were guarded. We would sell everything in Masaka, where no one thought we could be. Then we would take a boat across Lake Victoria and into Kenya. Kenya, where a man might shape himself into a new form. The Kenyen men shaped themselves into new forms, unlike the Sudanese, who were only useful when burying carcasses.
Bwambale boasted of his purchases and his frugality. It was fate that he had learned to ride so long ago. He’d taught himself because no one else would. When he reached Mombasa he would buy himself a ten-speed and cycle with the tourists on the beach.
I sat between him and Godfrey, listening to this, not caring that it was a reverie. When Godfrey and I had gone to purchase more fuel, it dawned on us that Bwambale could simply drive away. As we trekked back from town, we thought it very likely. But there was the truck parked under the palm-shade of a towering tugu, and there was Bwambale sitting across the road with a rifle in his lap. Later, on the last refuel of the day, he told me to stay behind, a generosity on his part, and I kept behind the wheel for a while, not very long. I realized why he had been sitting on the other side of the road. The scratching from the back compartment filled my mind with forebodings.
Late in the day, we stopped at a dark crossroads outside of Adjumani. The dusk was uncomfortably warm, like the fetid breath of a vast, inky lizard. Godfrey wanted to cross the White Nile and continue down the Congo and Bwambale did not. Godfrey was still incensed about being bested earlier at the coffin. He may be the oldest, but Bwambale was a brute in manners and stature. I offered no opinion. I swore I heard a pacing tread in back. So stealthy.
“Look!” Bwambale cried. “Blessed Redeemer!”
Three figures crowded the road. They were at the knife-edge years when an admirer might either call them girls or women, depending on intentions. Their bundles lay in the ditch. One of them was sobbing into her hands while her sisters stood over her and wrung their hands.
They were not thin; they were lithe, like the tawny kob antelope. Muscular under their sleekness, an underbelly soft with fuzz and floss. Bwambale killed the engine and yanked the keys free.
“You fool!” Godfrey said.
“I am a moneyed man.” Bwambale jingled the keys within Godfrey’s reach, and when Godfrey snatched at them, he pulled them away. “Infinitely desirable. And we shall keep to this shore.” He slid from the truck and rushed to the women.
I hurried after him because there were three women and I might be of help with one. My flashlight lit the way. Godfrey followed. When the two sisters saw us coming, they helped the third to her feet. I spotlighted each in turn. They were indeed beautiful, maidens in distress, and what were we if not heroes?
The crying girl watched us with eyes dry and cool. “Remove your clothes,” she said.
“Excuse me?” Bwambale said. I couldn’t believe it either. Courtship demanded ritual.
“Take them off.”
Motion stirred behind the three, low and to the ground. We had stumbled onto a pride of lions. Shadows of pure menace slinked forward. They rose upon their hind legs and spoke in the language of the Lwoo.
“You die,” they said, or words to that effect, not so much a statement as a warning, for they were not lions. These soulless shells were the child warriors of the Lord’s Resistance, and if we did not give them everything, then despite us, they would take it.
I had never had a weapon pointed at me, and a dozen gunsights left me dizzy. I fumbled with my clothes. They were no longer mine. Soon, I stood naked. Bwambale had yet to move. He shook in a fury.
“Thieves!” he cried. “Despots!”
The children grinned like skulls. They were a catacomb’s array.
How difficult it is for a man to sacrifice. He would rather have his head taken than his finger given. The children would search every stitch and they would miss nothing. It was all of use to them, from sweat-stained T’s to American laces. They would find the gold in Bwambale’s pockets, and he knew it. At this moment, he’d had never had less. I had never had less.
Gunfire erupted. Bwambale had drawn the pistol from his waistband. The darkness flashed with fire and I watched my oldest friend die. He was struck a dozen times from all sides, and his body hit the earth as lifeless as a stone.
I ran amidst jeers. I was no danger to them and so caught no bullet in the backside. That didn’t mean I would be suffered to live. The Lord’s Resistance executed the defiant as a matter of course. Their small stature demanded the dread of rumor.
Godfrey dashed across the road. His shirt was gone, but he had his pants and shoes, and so he was faster than me. Little good it did him. Small shadows met him, and he fell in a heap.
I struggled up the driver side before realizing that I couldn’t drive away. Bwambale had taken the keys. I leapt free and ran the truck’s length, and though it was the last place I wished to see, I climbed into the back. I shut the hatch behind me.
The night of my future was lit by a moon-sliver of the slimmest escape. It was dark and though I still held my light, I had turned it off. Maybe . . . maybe they thought I’d ran down the road. Would they follow my footprints like a beast’s? Would they trap me here? Almost certainly, but that was not an absolute. Not if I hid so well that I was lost.
I shoved the coffin lid aside, nearly toppling it, and ignoring my own sacrilege, slid inside. I slipped under the princess’s corpse. She was as light as linen. If anyone looked inside, they would see only her. They would be too afraid to look further. Superstition would save me. Her hair was in my face and my lips were against the paper-wasp nest of her neck. I reached around her, and with both arms stiff, pushed and twisted the coffin lid. I lowered it quietly.
I lay in the black pitch of the tomb expecting the lid to be thrown free amid a sledge-hail of rifle butts. It was taking them a long time to find me, which was good, though I should have heard motion. The cargo was their obvious prize. Didn’t they want to see it? I breathed in the scent of flowers, sacred oils. Pressed against me as she was, by god, I could taste her. There was a woman beyond the withered centuries, and I tried not imagine what she’d been. Not so easy when I was naked beneath her, the rag of her body soaking my sweat into old pores.
I strained to hear beyond the stone partition. Any moment I would be met by the crash of the doors being thrown wide or the lurch of the truck. I would be stabbed, shot, worse. Nothing. I was a lost to the world, eclipsed, a shadow within shadow with no form. My next inhale was an exhale as hot as ashes, and I tasted sugar. I’d dropped my flashlight. My fingers grasped, searched for its slim body. They found it, and I turned on its light.
The princess was above me. Desiccated, but not dead. She had turned about to see me and was watching with empty eyes like two black funnels. Her lips moved against mine with a hungry insistence, and I felt the yearning of centuries. It was a passion too deep to be sated. When her tongue knotted about my own, and they coupled as snakes do, my screams went into her. She drank them down, sighing. She swallowed more than my breath. She consumed me.
In the land of Uganda, it said that when a man travels, he learns. I have traveled far. Only the dead have gone farther.
“Name him,” she said.
I didn’t see her. I looked down at the coffin, empty now. The rest of the cargo had been carted away. I stood naked and cold, like a babe fresh to the world. In that moment they’re never alone. Was I?
She had taken something from me and made it hers. For even the destitute can still give of themselves. I did willingly at the end, when her body had swallowed enough of mine to live again and shine with old flesh new. And though I feel shame and revulsion, I’m not entirely regretful.
The truck’s door was tied open, and outside it was dark. The same night, the next? I could not say. I lowered my aching body to the ground. Sharp stones bit into my soles like the teeth of a beast, and so I stepped gingerly. At least I felt something. A man stomped up to me, ragged fatigues upon his broad frame and a zigzagging cigarette pinched between his lips. He didn’t look my way but breezed by muttering to himself about a goddamned something or other. I was not accosted. Ahead, a fire lit the darkness. Small shadows moved around it, twinning themselves upon the low, surrounding buildings. This was the enemy’s hold. Naked, more frail than I’d ever been, I drifted to them.
I saw a child wearing my clothes with a scarecrow’s grace. He would grow into them one day. Another rode Bwambale’s bicycle about. He fell and his compatriots laughed. An older child took his place on the seat. The group was gathered about the steel mesh of a circular yard. At its center rose a tall pole, and against it was a man I knew. I went to him.
Godfrey. He still lived. His tongue was stretched high and nailed three times into the wood. He would never again speak wisdom, but perhaps he never had any to give. His waist had been sliced to ribbons and hung loosely over his hips like a skirt. Death would come for him soon. It wasn’t his state that told me this. When I grabbed his wrist, my fingers slipped from his flesh. He was a fish in the stream. How he writhed at my touch.
From the sky, I heard her voice again: “Name him.”
An important moment. Profundities come in threes. When I spoke at Godfrey’s ear, his eyes went wide.
“I am a father,” I said.
“Mori?” he mumbled, and looked all about with his eyes, as his head was fixed.
I called out loudly. “His name is Mwenzi!”
It means traveler. Just like me. A name should remind a boy of his lineage, so that even if he doesn’t know where he’s going, he knows where he’s been.
When the hot wind blew, the children covered their eyes and ran. Not fleeing–their type never cowered–they danced within the body of Num, which in these lands was how the dust dervish was known. Godfrey wept. He sensed its power. It was eager to rend.
“Here he is,” I said. My pride was sincere. “A sorcerer of the winds, just like his mother. He will wander the horizon on my borrowed dream.”
The children released their dogs, a loathsome mix of jackal and hound. The curs of my land are always hungry and never refuse a meal. I consoled Godfrey as they ruined him, as they tugged him in cardinal directions. There was frothing, screaming, chewing, pleading. He howled and the wind of Mwenzi Num roared and the children sang in chorus. I’d hoped Godfrey would join me; I didn’t want to be alone. But he went elsewhere. My son did too. He twirled over the rooftops, laughing. He’d tasted blood, and it was like wine.
There was little left, and I had no reason to stay, not with a wife and a son roaming free. What mischief they would wreak! Him conjuring the drought winds and poison miasmas, bearing the locust swarms. Her lures of illicit perfumes, treachery, and gossip. I would wander the nations and taste their demise. My family would live forever, and as their witness, I would too. Eternity is a strange place to be. It touches every shore yet crosses none.
I don’t deny my fate. I embrace it until the two of us are one. For as my father taught me: the fool hopes to reverse the river’s course. The wise man rides it like a leaf.
About the Author
Rhoads has written stories across the entire spectrum of speculative fiction, from light fantasy to the most decrepit tales of horror to quirky sci-fi. His works can be found in Ellen Datlow’s “The Best Horror of the Year,” Apex Magazine, “Death’s Realm” by Grey Matter Press, “Gaia: Shadow and Breath” anthologies vols. 1 & 2, and many other collections. He has a soft spot in his heart for Lovecraft, the poetically ingenious, and tales which give us reasons to cherish our own sanity. His regency horror series, “The Ladies Bristol: The Devil’s Trill,” is now available from Grey Matter Press. Rhoads currently lives in Colorado with his wife and son.
About the Narrator
Hollis Monroe is an award winning radio producer, opera and jazz singer and Shakespearean. He served as executive producer and also read for Iowa Public Radio’s “The Book Club” for many years and is an active voice actor, emcee and singer.