Fiction - Hyssop and Hermetics, The Absinthe Literary Review

Odour of Fate
a short story by Muthoni Garland
 

She was both the center of attraction and the orbit of disgrace. I was not the only man equally attracted and repelled by the giant woman, black as midnight, dancing by herself under ultraviolet light in the infamous Bora Bora Disco. She was wild excess, the sensual figure writhing in rising mists of dry ice, and the comparative excuse for others to dance with greater wantonness. Her clothes were form-fitting, barely there, not an uncommon sight in this loud den of prostitutes answering the mating call of British and American soldiers on shore leave in the dirty, exotic town of Mombasa.

I did not mind them, the twilight girls and the soldiers of sexual fortune. In fact, I greatly enjoyed the buzz of their unfettered lifestyle, which was so different from the restrained, prettified atmosphere of my world. It was my weekend escape, the bump slowing the journey to premature aging; a warm refuge from a boring conventional wife who loved my diplomatic wallet but hated the country that stuffed it. Our two teenage children in England were her excuse for staying away months at a time, even though they were in expensive boarding schools. It left me at liberty to enjoy the freedom of local friendships.

Of course, I had to be careful. An accidental meeting with United Nations paper-shufflers, expatriate bosses or fellow diplomats would severely dent my image. And Kenya is an AIDS hotspot. So I sat myself down and carefully planned how to avoid the penalties of immoral fun. I cultivated places, tested various looks and practiced lines to use in case I got caught. And I bought reinforced Dutch condoms.

In the end, the simplest strategy proved the most successful. The fact is that white people working on contract in black countries do not go to black places, and they certainly do not go anywhere low class. They write their proposals for poverty eradication and recommendations for development projects from the comfort of leafy, high-class neighborhoods. Only the odd one, perhaps, consults with a high-class black person.

I could not care less for race and racial problems. The more they are given time to breathe, the more oxygen they suck. But this simple delineation across race and class lines made it possible for me to dip back and forth, frolicking with the hares and drinking with the hounds.

My eyes, like the purple light above, were glued to the dancing figure in constant motion. She moved her body as though it were anchored on two different axes. Her generous breasts vibrated while she rotated her sumptuous bottom in fast, continuous motion. Just when I was sure that something would break, or that centrifugal force would fling her up and out the glassed dome roof, she stopped and changed direction. She rotated her top end, swaying arms to the sky and then, with legs apart, dipped almost to the floor and vibrated up again, exhibiting restraint and abandon in equal measure.

My mind filled with shuddering images of earthquakes. They come with a bang, crack open our fault lines and can even swallow us whole. Our hope lies in the fact that they are soon gone, leaving us to grapple with the consequences.

Other dancers moved away, crowding me to the fringes, and I had to cut loose from a pretty hopeful to force my way through to the inner circle. I soon realized they had melted away not only to get a clearer view of her rapturous dance, but also to escape from her strong odour. An extraordinarily complex odour that brought to mind autumn leaves composting, yeasty underwear, clay earth after a heavy rain, overripe fruit, full-bodied red wine and yes, unrefrigerated meat. And all of this was overlaid with a stinging oriental perfume.

This incredible odour moved and turned with her, drifting over in short drafts. It bit my nose and lingered in my mouth, and had so much character I momentarily left her altar to find a drink to wash it down.

I gulped the gin and lemon and finally moved back in, ever closer, as one is wont to do when confronted with the seductive whispers of one’s dangerous longing. She was now within reach but I did not attempt to touch her. Instead I moved my body to the frenetic Lingala beat more vigorously than ever before, and chased away the passing thought that I probably looked an absolute fool.

A new sweat gathered under the silk shirt that now clung to my armpits and love handles. My heart thumped in tune with the music. I snapped my fingers in the air while my feet jerked about, released of all inhibition. The beginnings of an erection tingled pleasurably. My mind floated on a cloud of vapors and heat. I throbbed with my giantess and her music, bestirred and becalmed.

I could not recall the exact moment I became part of her rapture. It was as smooth as the way the music changed to the deep gravel tones of Barry White. It was as uncomplicated as the way her long arms reached around my waist, and as natural as the way I eased my head onto her heaving bosom and let her overwhelming redolence imprison me.

Smoother yet was the path, cleared as if by magic, through other dancers into the cool dark night. The taxi could have been old, held together with safety pins. The ride to my room in a third rate hotel in the middle of the town probably bumped over potholed roads. It could have cost more than the Concorde from London to New York. But I did not register any of that.

Up close, the citrus notes in her oriental perfume stung like a nest of angry wasps, overriding the fetid muskiness of her unwashed body and yet, every now and then, a waft of that something unsavory made me cringe. Still, I fucked her and fucked her and fucked her. She was the burning center of the volcano, the voracious black hole, the source of evil and ecstasy. She swallowed me whole, agitated and regurgitated me, extracting the essence of my very being before disgorging me, a limp rag shaken and hung out to dry.

On the equator everything dries quickly, but it still surprised me how soon I hungered for her again. I fed the hunger that day and the next and the next. Such was my consuming need that for days I barely left that stained bed. In mindless frenzy, I spanked, sodomized and came all over her. I licked up every drop of heady sweat on her body and then created more. I tore through the condoms and eventually threw them away. I experimented as I pleased, doing unspeakable things, making loud groaning noises that would have had me arrested on suspicion of murder in old Blighty.

She always obliged, moving her body this way and that, letting me dictate method, pitch and frequency.

Three delirious days passed before I remembered to call the Embassy, lying to the receptionist that I had to fly out on an unexpected trip for family reasons. I hung up before she could summon a superior to take responsibility for this strange message. All other obligations flew from my head on the wings of powerful, unmitigated lust.

Her name, when I finally asked, was Anastasia.

Her face was not conventionally attractive although individual features had their own charm: milk white teeth, unblemished skin, a flaring nose. Her figure though was cartoon-like in its dramatic disproportion. Slim shoulders rested on a mighty bust hinged on a tiny waist that in turn swiveled on a bottom that was a firm bench on which you could rest the Greater Oxford Dictionary. And her slim well-muscled legs went all the way from Cape to Cairo and back again, all the way up to her magnificent buttocks.

She spoke in a discordant voice, with an accent that told me right away that she had learned her English at a late age from American customers. It was a strange ratatouille of Bantu, American slang and bits of English so that when you finally heard a word you recognized, you said Ah! It was just as well that her gestures were illustrative enough that you rarely needed to understand her speech.

Her laugh, though, was an encouraging rumble like a diesel engine accelerating uphill. And even in repose her dark face rippled with a quiet amusement that indicated she had experienced the depths of the ocean, come up surfing, and was now unable to take the floating world too seriously. It made me want to prove that I had to be taken seriously.

So I fucked her. Again and again.

Her various appetites were all healthy. She consumed snacks, fruit, tea, drinks, and all her meals as well as half of mine. At first, I had them delivered on a tray or we ate downstairs in the small dining room. As the month wore on and my body screamed for pause, I took her to small Swahili and Indian restaurants where she happily mopped up fish sauces with balls of maize meal rolled up in her hand, or gulped down lamb koftas with rice biryani. And she attracted attention without inviting it in any way that I could see.

The attention awakened Mr. Jealousy, who stimulated the need, so I would take her to our room and fuck her.

I was generous, gave her money and compliments as extravagantly as a teenager in the grips of hormonal rage. She smiled and said something that I took to mean thank you. We went shopping and I bought her a number of voluminous kanzus. It was in vain bid to cover her voluptuousness from the myriad eyes that followed her, as though she was a glow-worm in the dark, a sumo wrestler in pink lingerie, or even a caged gorilla with an erection.

Those lustful looks made me behave even more outrageously. I dipped a hand inside her cleavage to massage her bosom. I turned her chair to face mine so she could extend her leg for me to slurp over her long toes. I felt under her robes and then licked my fingers in full sight of scandalized men and women.

Unappeased, I took her back to our room and fucked her.

She expressed no curiosity about me or anything else, asked no questions, offered no insights. But she answered every question put to her, so I gleaned the bare, sad and ugly facts of her life. She had grown up in the slums of Nairobi, born of parents who had too many children and were too poor to keep them in school. Her own children were burnt in a fire set by a jealous lover, and her family disowned her for turning to a life of prostitution.

A lust-struck Italian took her to his country where he was immediately ostracized by his community and soon committed suicide. She came back to Kenya on the arm of another older Italian and landed in play-town Mombasa. The romance was short-lived as he too died, of a heart attack. It barely created a ripple in her life although she confessed that she would rather not go out with an Italian, given the choice, as they were so prone to dying on her. Strangely, this Italian oddity weighed more on my enraptured mind than the incredible burdens of her past.

She acquiesced to everything with a beatific peace, be it her lifestyle, copulation, lustful looks, food, clothes, money, compliments, suicide, customers, me. She asked for nothing and accepted all she was given.

Maybe that’s why the dissatisfaction began, a constant gnawing at the edges of my obsession; a growing feeling that I could never give enough or get enough to make an ultimate difference. Or maybe it was the fact that I had also begun to wear kanzus, eat with my hands and happily fart in public. Was I facing a mid-life crisis and these were the symptoms? Me, a healthy civilized man of fifty-four with husbandly, fatherly and professional responsibilities which, for now, could go chew curd or bay at the moon for all the attention I spared for them?

I was clearly falling out of control, flirting with insanity.

I tried to rein in the sex, ration it, tether it as far away as possible from whatever sticky patch of sanity remained. I rented an adjacent room, locked both her door and mine, and fell asleep watching soccer on a little black and white television. By 3 a.m. I awoke with such an insistent erection that I forgot I had the keys and broke down the doors in my haste to fuck her.

Then I tried to tire myself out with masturbation, three to five times a day, and proved the theory that it drives one mad by fucking her.

The odour was to blame, for baiting me and groping everywhere, ignoring all obstacles, even doors. It seemed a separate living thing on a mission to provoke my need and stifle my dreams. And uninvited, this multi-textured, malodorous odour finally invaded and lodged in my body.

A few times, I had caught its unsavory waft on myself but quickly dismissed it as arising from her proximity. But on the day I left her in the room to walk to the bank, even people across the street wrinkled their noses and looked in my direction, puzzled. At the bank, the queue mysteriously dwindled. I took a taxi back and the driver insisted that all windows stay open.

I took to referring it as The Odour. It was strange indeed. When I was by myself, it disgusted me. But when I was with her, The Odour acted like a fertilizer, a catalyst, and an integral part of our aches and desires. It fomented, agitated and copulated along with us like the pressure that pushes pistons in an engine block. And the stronger it was, the greater my need for her. And the more I fucked her the stronger it became. I was held fast in its grips, sucked into its raging whirlpool from which there could be no escape.

I became convinced that if I could get rid of The Odour I would be free of my obsession. But no matter what I tried, it was no use. Nothing I did would strip it off.

It was not the type of hotel to have running hot water, but twice, thrice and even four times a day, I had the old fashioned claw-footed bathtub filled with hot water brought to the room in plastic buckets by two teenage boys. They shyly glimpsed sideways at her lying on the bed, so I stroked her breast or fondled her stomach or just stood between them and her, glowing with a dangerous jealousy. She accepted it all without comment and gave no sign that she was aware of the turbulence in my heart.

I washed her with scented soaps and scrubbed her raw with a loofah pad. I buffed her with mentholated toothpaste. I used a machine wash detergent that claimed it contained “enzymes guaranteed to give the most power-foam clean and eliminate all odours.” I soaked her for hours in bubble baths, shampoos and foaming gels. Once I poured in a bottle of olive oil, which had us slithering around like baby snakes trying to get out of the deep tub. On another memorable occasion, I abraded her with ash, collected from charcoal jikos in the kitchen, which had us turning everything in the bathroom black.

Everything I tried on her, I used on myself with exactly the same result. No change. If anything, The Odour raged with greater potency as though recognizing a worthy foe.

I tried various potions and lotions recommended by Indian chemists but to no avail. I went to see an elderly, local doctor who bent towards me, asked me to open my mouth wide and say Aaah.

He fainted.

When he roused, gagging, he asked me to sit outside while he wrote the prescription. It was for drugs that added another layer, a medicinal coat, to The Odour rather than eliminating an iota of its punch.

I consulted a famous healer—a witchdoctor. He fed me bark broth, sprinkled me with chicken feathers and made incantations. When this did not work, he ushered me out with two proverbs, “He who leaves a white goat will meet another of the same color,” and “He who is the cause of his own troubles never gets to the end of them.”

I was clearly getting nowhere near the end of The Odour.

Finally I tried masking scents, of which her oriental perfume was the most successful—especially when compared to baby powder, antiseptic, mentholated spirit, vapor-rub and several designer colognes, all of which made us gag, itch, or break out in a rash, or all three at once.

I hired a car and took to driving to the Shimba hills for long periods of contemplation. I lifted an old Bible from the drawer in the room and read long passages but they revealed no epiphanies for my salvation.

Each time I left her in the room, I would find her there on my return, but she never asked where I had been.

So I fucked her.

My anxiety grew. And The Odour increased along with my need.

Enveloped in this odorous torpor, my mind cast back forty-five years to when I was nine, growing up in Yorkshire. My mother lay dying of cancer on a French Colonial bed in her faded pink bedroom. The cancer had been diagnosed five years earlier at the tail end of the war—a war in which my father lost the use of his legs in a grenade mishap involving his own countrymen during the Battle of Dunkirk, that last frantic push by British soldiers on French shore, and gained a lifelong cynicism that regarded any effort expended beyond the minimum required to do your duty, as a complete waste of time.

He insisted that I visit Mother for an hour every afternoon after school. Sometimes dour Nurse Grubber sat with us, sipping tea by the window, and she insisted that I read only from the Bible. But more often than not, I perched on the side of Mother’s huge bed and read Revelations, alone with her and uninterrupted. She occasionally nodded or rasped indecipherable comments that I ignored. Mostly she fell asleep in the middle of my reading.

I did not mind that she looked like a skeleton, all bone and drooping skin. I did not mind the eerie yellow glow of her jaundice. I did not mind her silent tears or the powdery handkerchief she held to her face to hide them.

But I did mind the smell of dying that clung to her, filled the room and pervaded the whole house. For years I could tell by the pungency of the smell what state of unwell she was in, even before I entered the front door. On some days it was so oppressive it made me angry enough to vomit.

Mother’s odour was particularly putrid the day she passed away.

I tried to tell Nurse Grubber that it was my fault. I tried to tell her I had pressed down that awful smell with one hand while holding the Bible with the other. But Nurse Grubber told me to stop imagining I could do such a terrible thing and shooed me away. When I insisted, Father told me to stop being so damn self-indulgent.

I awoke from reverie feeling weak with relief that the awful death smell was finally gone, momentarily confusing the disappearance of one odour with the other. Then I caught a heady whiff of myself and suddenly understood that the long ago odour was now reincarnated with an even more potent means to oppress me.

Even as I reflected on this insight, I felt my Judas body stir.

My thoughts turned morbid. Was this how I was doomed to live the rest of my life, yet another foreigner fucking pliant Africa, or would my days be prematurely shortened by these endless exertions? Could I forget my past and build a future on this stinking foundation? Surely it could not be my fate to forever wallow in this malodorous miasma of obsession.

I came to see that there was only one way to rid myself of the madness that had taken over my life. There was only one sure method to make The Odour disappear. I had to kill the source. Yes, I had to murder it.

I had no doubt that she would accept death just as she accepted everything else life dealt her. And I had no doubt that I could do it. And get away with it. But I could not bear the thought of leaving no monument to honour her remarkable potency, no Mecca to go for pilgrimage to flay the devils that so often beset me; no confessional in which to seek absolution and forgiveness. She was, after all, to be a sacrifice for my sanity.

So I bought a plot in a cemetery in the high-class Nyali suburb and hired artisans to build a fine tomb—an underground tomb with steps leading to a Lamu-style door made of hardwood mvuli which is guaranteed to last the ages. I had carved on it, in Swahili, italicized inscriptions of everything I knew about her life. Inside was a Kisii-soapstone sarcophagus, raised on a hollow platform, to encase her coffin.

She watched me spread the shower curtain on the bed and cover it with a blanket. She watched me place the knife under the pillow. I got her on her hands and knees then executed an ultimate fuck that almost killed me before I could finish the job on her. Then I did the deed as quickly and cleanly as I could. I did not want to cause her unnecessary pain. I just wanted her dead and done with. She collapsed without a sound, without a shred of resistance. I wrapped her in both shower curtain and blanket, and flung the bundle over my shoulder.

Tears of exhilaration and horror coursed down my face, flooding the room, floating us down the stairs and into the hired car. I drove her to the Hindu crematorium, where I paid the blind assistant to burn her body. And after a few moments of listening to my silent crying, he did just that.

I opened the mvuli door and entered the tomb. In her coffin I sprinkled her ashes. They had no odour.

I looked around for the last time and locked the door, climbed the narrow stairs and drove to nearby Nyali beach where I intended to throw the key into the sea but found I could not. The sea was at full tide, frothing and spraying the pier, but it offered me no assurance that I was now purged and sane. I needed respite, a place to rest my aching head and delay the moment of reckoning.

So I went back to her tomb and lay on top of it, lay on top of its pruned carpet of grass. I slept there that night, and the following day and night.

Nothing disturbed me, not even the rain.

What I realized when I finally came to was that at my hand she had died one type of death and I another. Yes, I was dead already. I was merely wearing a mask, like her oriental perfume, making worthless motions. I existed without purpose, principle or challenge. I gave no love or inspiration and received none in return. I expended no meaningful energy.

On this third day, I found an old Bible in the glove compartment of the hired car. It seemed appropriate. I used the Mont Blanc pen given me by my wife the previous Christmas, to write over its thin pages. That too seemed appropriate.

And it all poured out in one long, concentrated stream, this testament to illustrate the folly of wasting opportunity and the dangers of excess.

Now I lie on top of her tomb shouting sacrilegious nonsense at the stars. It seems appropriate that they are not moved.

At midnight, I will leave the Bible on the grass covering her tomb, where it might be found. Then I will walk down the stairs, enter her tomb and relock it. I will creep beneath the platform of her coffin and lie down under my lover, to sleep.

To finally sleep the odourless sleep of the dead.

  

© 2003 Muthoni Garland

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