[This isn’t the sort of novel excerpt that’s publishable as a short story. The narrator, Ned, is hiding in plain sight—on stage with a band called The Last Men, in front of a silent movie, he acts as narrator of the film between musical interludes.]
While the band skirled on, Foma whispered the words I was to repeat after him:
“One day, not long after the riots had congealed into marches, the head of sub-lieutenant Quý Quý Nangwa Danda and the body of sub-lieutenant Quý Quý Nangwa Danda sat in a windowless room, awaiting the return of their executioner.
“I say they ‘sat,’ but the head did not sit. The head of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda lay sideways atop a desk, its nose a chock that stopped it from rolling away. The body of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda sat slumped in a chair, spine gone slack. The neck had drooped to horizontal and its lopped-flat surface, ringed with bleeding shreds, was turned to the doorway, as if the plane of the neck-stump were now a face.
“The head, too, kept watch on the door.”
The screen showed nothing of the story Foma had just told me, no interrogation room, no head, no “Quý Quý Nangwa Danda”—all inventions of Foma’s. The scene remained as it had been at the start of our performance: survivors near ground zero, attending to the voices of the dead. I remember how those voices rose and fell as if modulated by waves of telluric energy. Sometimes the words of the dead sank beneath comprehensibility altogether, and then all we heard was a soft roaring: the murmur of the afterworld, a single clamor. That we could hear it at all promised great things, we thought.
Chanda Twala’s accordion wheezed a final chord and fell silent. Almut went on vamping for a bit, overblowing her baritone trumpet so that it throat-sang like a company of mystics, but then she too ceased, and Zamat rapped three times on his drum-box.
Behind me, Foma nudged my shoulder, and I relayed what I could of what he had told me. Of necessity, I spoke without Foma’s high style, but there was a feeling in the room as I told the story of the head and the body awaiting a second death. People listened.
I delivered my version of Foma’s last line— “the head watched the door, waiting”—and as the band resumed, Foma leaned down once more and whispered in my ear:
“The body of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda sat slumped in a chair in an interrogation room, and before it on the desk lay the head. Body and head both faced the door, awaiting their executioner’s return.
“The lips moved against the surface of the desk. ‘Quý Quý,’ said the head of sub-lieutenant Quý Quý Nangwa Danda to the body, ‘you will have to take dictation for us.’
“Behind the head, the seated stump, so addressed, said nothing.
“‘Quý Quý,’ the head’s lips murmured, ‘if only you and I had escaped.’
“The neck was a stump, and so, too, the entire body: a stump.
“‘Do not write this down,’ said the head to the body. ‘This part is just between us.’
“The head and body of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda went on dripping blood. The lopped-flat neck-top sat vertically poised like a face, as if still oriented to the world, still looking.
“The head of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda spoke to its body again. ‘Will we live to see the dawn, Quý, do you think?’
“The stump of the body dripped and oozed.”
“The head of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda said, ‘Our executioners are coming back for us. They’ll grab me by my hair, they’ll swing me up and toss me into a burlap sack. You they will drag away by the heels. I won’t see any of this. Inside my dark and lurching sack I will feel only nausea.
“‘I say I will ‘feel’ nausea,’ said the head, ‘but where will I feel it? In you? In the mind’s belly?
“‘They’ll fling us both onto the pyre. A burst of light, and then the reek of burning flesh. Will that be the end of it, Quý?’”
Again the band wheezed to a stop, and Zamat rapped three times on the floor. Foma squeezed my shoulder, and I spoke. I spoke of Quý Quý’s head’s lips brushing the desk as they murmured, and I spoke of the dread certainty, shared by body and head, that the executioners were coming back to kill them again.
I felt Foma’s hand on my shoulder, and I stopped speaking.
Foma’s gave a slow exhalation terminating in a voiced sigh, as if he must empty himself entirely before bringing his instrument to his lips. Then came his dirge-like honking, more rhythmic than last time and still accompanied by his unarticulated vocalizing—not quite a moan; a soft, vulnerable sound a body might make on its own, intending no message.
On the screen, at the edge of the lightless new hole in the world, survivors stood in groups of three and four, arms about each other’s shoulders, hearkening to the voices of the dead. The scene must have been filmed before anyone had yet dared to enter the hole: the hole’s rim was still free of stakes and belaying ropes—free, too, of those first astonished survivors who passed in and came out again, speaking of the wonders and terrors there, not yet knowing the damage such a journey cost them, nor anything yet of the rents that would soon be drawn from the new territories.
Everything unfolded in grainy black and white, the digital recording filtered to look like film stock. I remembered the uncommon tenor of those days: work and rent suspended, our grief given voice, there was nothing to do but tend to one another and lament.
Foma stopped his humming and honking, and then he exhaled noisily. The slumming audience, so high-spirited just minutes earlier, sat hushed. The movie-house’s regulars, too, paid somber attention.
From his seat by the fruit jars of turnip wine, Selmo stared at me, astonished; I gave a noncommittal moue, trying to suggest that I myself was surprised by my fluency in storytelling.
Now Chanda Twala and Almut took up Foma’s dirge, again pidginizing and translating it into something with a hook, one that bounced between Chanda Twala’s accordion bellows and the tarnished fittings of Almut’s baritone trumpet, while Zamat thumped along on his drum-box, syncopating.
As the band played, Foma whispered to me the further story of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda, body and head. When the other musicians finished, I told the story Foma had just told me, forgetting some parts and embellishing others as I went.
“Quý’s body went on oozing and cooling, dulling. The lopped-off throat-top formed a slab. Dead center of the throat-slab was a hole, the throat’s new eye or mouth.
“‘Write this down, Quý,’ said the head. ‘On this day, Quý Quý Nangwa Danda led a corps of guerilleras against the West Precinct. Quý, Penney Gina, Ling, and Ferminxta, and the two shootists Julie and Terry, and Djamilla the berserker. Rag-and-bottle brands alight in our hands, we burned that station down.
“‘All that long day we sent the enemy to hell one by one, there to bring news of conditions in the modern world. And Death was seen stalking the alleys of the city behind us, muttering, Today an M18 rifle in Quý’s hand is worth a hundred of my scythes.’”
The tale only got bloodier-minded from there, and as I went on listening to Foma tell it, Holst caught my eye. He was sitting on a lower bunk, spine slouched and knees akimbo, taking up room he might have ceded to the women on either side of him. In one hand he held a fruit jar full of cloudy yellow movie-house hooch, and he hoisted it at me, looking amused.
But then I noticed Wragge. He gazed back at me and drew the blade of his hand back and forth across his throat. I could tell he meant business but I saw no way to halt the performance; what Foma had whispered to me just now was obviously the conclusion, and I repeated it:
“‘Write this down, Quý,’ said the head. ‘Our executioner is coming back for us. He will fling us onto a pyre of cable spools and kerosene-soaked pallets. Who knows what other heads and limbs we may fall in amongst there, all of us jumbled together while tongues of flame lap at our already lidless eyes and white steam pours from ears and mouth and nose, and the flesh of the face shrinks to leathery, lozenge-shaped panes that drop from the skull and tumble down the shifting city of embers. Even then, we will go on crying out against them, Quý, against what they do in this world and the next.’”
“Enough!” said Wragge.
“They steal everything in both worlds!” I shouted in the voice of Quý Quý Nangwa Danda.
The screen went blank and the lights came on, and then someone in the audience bellowed like a lost calf. On the dirt floor, a dead man sat slumped, a gel-like black fluid drooping from his beard in wobbling threads.
“Who’s running this show?” Wragge asked the Last Men.
“I am,” I said.