Disgrace - He buys a small television

Sunday, 01 January, Year 9 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

He buys a small television set to replace the larger one that was stolen. Television must go on, it is true if unflattering. He remembers reading a report of the Brazilian countryside, where supposedly eighty percent of households have a television set even while forty percent have a working fridge. It seems absurd, on the face of it, food spoils without refrigeration even as television spoils the brain, yet he is not surprised. The same is true here. In the stifling, warm heat of African kitchens -- shoddy, makeshift approximations of their ideal form -- refrigeration is a revolution, even merely the sealed box, unplugged, an unspeakable advance. Yet men must watch their football and political debates, must participate in the life of the community, must see the forum even if just imagined, a figment of irreality. Of surreal antireality. Women will have to do with the flies and heat, the grubs and the molds. And they do. Until there is more money, at the least.

In the evenings, after supper, he and Lucy sit side by side on the sofa. They watch the news and then, if they can bear it, the entertainment. It is true, the visit has gone on too long, in his opinion as well as in Lucy's. He is tired of living out of a suitcase, tired of listening all the while for the crunch of gravel on the pathway. He wants to be able to sit at his own desk again, sleep in his own bed. But Cape Town is far away, almost another country. Despite Bev's counsel, despite Petrus's assurances, despite Lucy's obstinacy, he is not prepared to let go of his daughter. This is where he lives, for the present: in this time, in this place.

He has recovered the sight of his eye completely. His scalp is healing over; he need no longer use the oily dressing. Only the ear still needs daily attention. So time does indeed heal, does it. Presumably Lucy is healing too, or if not healing then forgetting. Growing scar tissue, so that one day she may be able to say, 'The day we were robbed,' and think of it as merely the day when they were robbed.

He tries to spend the daytime hours outdoors, leaving Lucy free to breathe in the house. He works in the garden; when he is tired he sits by the dam, observing the ups and downs of the duck family, brooding over the Byron project. The project is not moving. All he can grasp of it are fragments, and dimmer than before. The first words of the first act still resist him; the first notes remain as elusive as waistlines made of smoke. Sometimes he fears that the characters in the story, who for more than a year have been his ghostly companions, are beginning to fade away. Even the most appealing of them, Margarita Cogni, whose passionate contralto attacks hurled against Byron's bitch-mate Teresa Guiccioli he aches to hear, is slipping. Their loss fills him with despair, despair as grey and even and unimportant, in the larger scheme, as an evening headache.

He goes off to the Animal Welfare clinic as often as he can, offering himself for whatever jobs call for no skill: feeding, cleaning, mopping up. The animals they care for at the clinic are mainly dogs, less frequently cats ; for livestock, D Village appears to have its own veterinary lore, its own pharmacopoeia, and its own healers. Whether their system works well or not at all is a question past his ability to discern. It evidently works for them, or rather, as far as they're concerned.

The dogs that are brought in suffer from distempers, from broken limbs, from infected bites, from mange, from neglect, benign or malign, from old age, from malnutrition, from intestinal parasites, but first of all from their own fertility. There are simply too many of them. There will forever be too many of them. The abundant, unyielding, productive arrangements of the canine womb ensure it. There is always somewhere a bitch in heat. Reproduction without cease, a surfeit of fertility, undeterred by impending doom. Stimulated by impending doom, rather. The dogs that are brought in always attempt and often enough succeed to copulate while waiting for their turn.

When people bring a dog in they do not say straight out, 'I have brought you this dog to kill'. Not even in Africa. They wait for one of two brothers to fall on hard times, yes. To break a leg, to catch a bug. They wait for nature to settle things, to pick a winner by itself, for its own needs. Once that occurs they bring the losers in, to be abstracted away. Yet even then they do not say 'This is the loser, give him the loser's lot ; do of him, do unto him as befits his station in this life'.

They do avoid the misfortunate, sad dog's flower stall, yes ; but no, they do not say, 'Give him the loser's lot.' They think it, but never speak it, they act their whole life around it, strictly around it, yet never utter it. Propriety, in African terms. These mongrels, who will stop at nothing, who will stoop to anything, still stay well short of saying it. Is that enough ? It doesn't seem enough ; but as Bev says, it is the only Petrus you have got.

This is what is expected of them, the one function of the white man that Africa has so far incorporated into its ancient mechanism : to dispose of the loser. Cleanly. Make it disappear, dispatch it to oblivion. What is being asked for is, in fact, Lösung (German, always at hand with an appropriately structured chunk of blank incomphrehension). Sublimation, as alcohol from water, leaving behind no residue, no aftertaste. Unexistence without signification. An implementation of the white conception of death is useful to the barking savages roaming this insane land, and so on Sunday afternoons the clinic door is closed and locked while he helps Bev Shaw lösen the week's superfluous canines.

One at a time he fetches them out of the cage at the back and leads or carries them into the theatre, into the nest of vipers. To each, in what will be its last minutes, Bev gives her fullest attention, stroking it, talking to it, easing its passage. Kaffir is an Arabic word, denoting the infidel, the unbeliever. It was the impression ancient Arab traders formed of the locals, and over time it became the ethnonym for all the black swarms, distinct even as they are indistinguishable. Yet there is no black kaffir in Africa.

Bev, for all her private struggle to believe, for all her desperate attempts nevertheless believes exactly as he does : that there is nothing beyond. Nothing at all. She, Bev, will not come back as anything, not even as a tiny dik-dik. Slender ankles and an elegant neck. Never again. She, Lucy, will not come back as dog, nor pig. Never again. He, David, he, himself, will never be back again, a snake to slither on the warm, cracked earth, to shed his skins and stalk his prey. Never again. No residue, no afterlife, no coming back. Lösung, sublimation, without residue, without aftertaste. It is true, it is the truth, there is nothing past it. Kaffir.

Yet if, more often than not, the dog fails to be charmed, it is because of his presence, not because of hers. He gives off the wrong smell. He is the one who holds the dog still, as Bev talks and soothes, as the needle finds the vein and the drug hits the heart and the legs buckle and the eyes dim. He had thought he would get used to it. But that is not what happens. The more killings he assists in, the more jittery he gets. One Sunday evening, driving home in Lucy's kombi, he actually has to stop at the roadside to recover himself. Tears flow down his face that he cannot stop; his hands shake. He does not understand what is happening to him. He read stories of Mafia killers who found God and life's meaning in the wake of their carnage, but none that ever made any sense to him.

Until now he has been more or less indifferent to animals. Although in an abstract way he disapproves of cruelty, the disapproval is based on ancillary meaninglessness, not on the cruelty itself. It is the disapproval of a brain pickled in a jar all by itself. He cannot, even with deliberate examination, tell whether by nature he is cruel or kind. He's that unlived. He is bereft of the experience of life, lived life, the life of seeing himself living, alive. He is simply nothing, a figment of his own imagination. He had assumed that people from whom cruelty is demanded in the line of duty, people who work in slaughterhouses, for instance, grow carapaces over their souls. Habit hardens. It may, it must be so in most cases. But it does not seem to be so in his. He does not seem to have the gift of hardness.

His whole being is gripped by what happens on the old table. He is convinced the dogs know their time has come. Despite the silence and the painlessness of the procedure, despite the good thoughts that Bev Shaw supposedly thinks, despite the airtight bags in which they isolate the newly made corpses, the dogs in the yard smell what is going on inside. They flatten their ears, they droop their tails, as if they too feel the disgrace of dying. Locking their legs, they have to be pulled or pushed or carried over the threshold. None go willingly. On the table some snap wildly left and right, or whine plaintively. None will look straight at the needle in Bev's hand, which they somehow know is going to harm them terribly, if painlessly.

Worst are those that sniff him and try to lick his hand. He has never liked being licked, and his first impulse is to pull away. Why pretend to be a chum when in fact one is a murderer? But then he relents. Why should a creature with the shadow of death upon it feel him flinch away as if its touch were abhorrent? So he lets them lick him, if they want to, just as Bev Shaw strokes them and kisses them if they will let her.

He is not, he hopes, a sentimentalist. He tries not to sentimentalize the animals he kills, or to sentimentalize Bev Shaw. He avoids saying to her, 'I don't know how you do it,' in order not to have to hear her say in return, 'Someone has to do it.' He does not dismiss the possibility that at the deepest level Bev Shaw may be not a liberating angel but a devil, that beneath her show of compassion may hide a heart as leathery as a butcher's. He tries to keep an open mind.

Since Bev Shaw is the one who inflicts the needle, it is he who takes charge of disposing of the remains. The morning after each killing session he drives the loaded kombi to the grounds of Settlers Hospital, to the incinerator, and there consigns the bodies in their black bags to the flames. It would be simpler to cart the bags to the incinerator immediately after the session and leave them there for the incinerator crew to dispose of. But that would mean leaving them to spend the night on the dump, with the rest of the weekend's scourings: waste from the hospital wards, carrion scooped up at the roadside, malodorous refuse from the tannery - a mixture both casual and terrible. He opts not to inflict such dishonour upon them.

So on Sunday evenings he brings the bags to the farm in the back of Lucy's kombi, parks them overnight, and on Monday mornings drives them to the hospital grounds. There he himself loads them, one at a time, on to the feeder trolley, cranks the mechanism that hauls the trolley through the steel gate into the flames, pulls the lever to empty it of its contents, and cranks it back, while the workmen whose job this normally is stand by and watch.

At first he left it to them to do the incinerating. Rigor mortis had stiffened the corpses overnight. The dead legs caught in the bars of the trolley so on the return from its trip to the furnace it would bring along for the ride, back from the flames, a dog or two, blackened and grinning, smelling of singed fur, plastic shroud burnt away. After a while the workmen began to beat the bags with the backs of their shovels before loading them, to break the rigid limbs. It was then that he intervened and took over the job himself.

The incinerator is anthracite-fuelled, with an electric fan to suck air through the flues; he guesses that it dates from the 1950s, when the hospital itself was built. It operates six days of the week, Monday to Saturday. On the seventh day it rests. When the crew arrive for work they first rake out the ashes from the previous day, then charge the fire. By nine a.m. temperatures of a thousand degrees centigrade are being generated in the inner chamber, hot enough to calcify bone. The fire is stoked until mid-morning; it takes all afternoon to cool down.

He does not know the names of the crew and they do not know his. To them he is simply the man who began arriving on Mondays with the bags from Animal Welfare and has since then been turning up earlier and earlier. He comes, he does his work, he goes; he does not form part of the society of which the incinerator, despite the wire fence and the padlocked gate and the notice in three languages, is the hub. The fence has long ago been cut through; the gate and the notice are simply ignored. By the time the orderlies arrive in the morning with the first bags of hospital waste, there are already numbers of women and children waiting to pick through it for syringes, pins, washable bandages, anything for which there is a market, but particularly for pills, which they sell to muti shops or trade in the streets. There are vagrants too, who hang about the hospital grounds by day and sleep by night against the wall of the incinerator, or perhaps even in the tunnel, for the warmth.

It is not a sodality he aims to join, but if so why is he with them there ? When he is there, they are there. What he brings to the dump does not interest them, because the parts of a dead dog can be neither sold nor eaten, and what else is there ? What they bring to the dump does not interest him, because they mean nothing nor have anything to say, and what else is there ?

Why has he taken on this job? To lighten the burden on Bev Shaw? For that it would be enough to drop off the bags at the dump and drive away. For the sake of the dogs? But the dogs are dead. He never knew them before they were met, and once they were the dogs lingered very briefly in his company. What do dogs know of honour and dishonour anyway? For himself, then. For his idea of the world, an imagined world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into the shape most convenient for ulterior processing.

On to the next chapter, "The dogs are brought..."

Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte
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  1. [...] to the next chapter, "He buys a small television..." ———In Romanian in original. [↩] Category: Cuvinte Sfiinte Comments [...]

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