My first thought, naturally, was what to do with my urine. For such is life in a pit, brother of mine.
You didn’t exactly have to face such logistical issues yourself, I gather. Granted, I pictured you stopping to relieve yourself on a banana tree or two as I mulled over what I now term my storage problem, as you put some distance between yourself and the martial camp where I presently reside. Still, I assure you, a banana tree would be the stuff of a four star hotel after these last two weeks in my hole.
Not that we ever encountered anything sturdier than huts made of Makgadikgadi mud and lechwe dung, with their useless baobab wood rebar, which was almost like a joke. Because that’s going to stop the dung from melting in the rain, especially when it’s laced with some sulfur. Good contracting! But I must not let my newfound xenophobia get the better of me. I don’t hate Africa and Africans outright. We can’t all have suburban mansions with grade A contractors. Still, there we were, biding our time in a hut no better or worse than the rest of them, honest to goodness (well, not so honest, I guess) habitués of the western edge of the greatest salt pan, where we made, in the vernacular of these most indigent of natives, our bones. Madi. That sweet, sweet lucre, cash on top of cash, which I no longer have, because of your efforts to liberate it from me; and which you no longer have, I suspect, for reasons we will get into, when our friend—you well know who I mean—decides the time is right.
Life being what it is at the moment, I would be content to trade my present digs for one of those huts, although I am not yet crazy enough to tell you that I’d like to return to the one that we used to call home, back when it was you, me, her, and whatever you are choosing to call our all-knowing associate.
How does that terminology sit with you?
I tend to go with “him” or “he,” but I don’t blame you if you’re still using “it,” although I do hope all that talk about the netherworld and gods and monsters and their spunky, ocular-shaped representatives—viz., our supernal companion—has died down.
We both know that it was a mistake—and one never, ever to be repeated—in referring to him as our mascot, or, worse still, a pet. Though he didn’t seem any more fond of demon, did he? Of course, given that he’s deprived us of the power of speech, our Eye-based references are, naturally, internalized. What a clever bloke though. And what a method of punishment. Isn’t it a gas how the mind replays, over and over and over again, the incidents that most impacted it? Like it’s a record on repeat, over which you have no control. I hadn’t thought about the mind working that way before. Until I was subjected to all of your thoughts. And vice versa, of course.
I give you some begrudging credit for attempting to deny what we had seen, by fobbing it off on our discovery of that most hellacious of Botswana beers, the infamous Chibuku Shake Shake. Directions: Be sure to shake before drinking. What Westerner could have known that dropping a beer on the floor was actually advised before consuming it? Such a strange culture they have over here. And beer like paste. Or yogurt. Or curdled baby formula. And yet—so refreshing.
Anyway, looking back on that night now, I think we should have ignored the “shake at all costs” directive and simply drank the beer without first agitating it. Then again, the whole agitation angle plays nicely as metaphor given that on our final night together you made the pet comment not more than five sips in, leading our…creature…to burn the hut to the ground, after which you left me to deal with an angry local populace. Problems, problems. More so for me—given my entanglements with the local authorities and being interred and all—than for you, but as you’ve since learned, it has been one mean bothata all around, partner of mine. When did it start for you? When did the thoughts I had previously thought become thoughts that you had access to? I got yours as soon as I hit the bottom of my hole. For I was chucked in with little ceremony. And then I started to hear you whine on and on in my head about The Eye, and good God what have we done.
Despite everything, I am trying to be fair in passing my judgments these days. I think it’s reasonable to assume that you did not know that they’d stick me down in the earth when you gave me up, with her testimony to back you. Sitting here, you try to come up with some positives. For instance, they could have filled in the hole. And then there are the critters, who can be instructive, once you cease being terrified of their shuttlings and noises and textures.
Let us consider, for instance, the rats that have circled themselves around the lip of my bowl-shaped hollow. Normally, I do not mind a rat, in theory. Excepting someone who behaves as you have, and as she did. The two of you together. But like I said, I’m trying to be broad-minded. So, I try to take my example from the rats that dwell here with me (although it seems that they come and go, through a network of tunnels).
A rat is undeniably hardy, so I tell myself, Buck up! Do as the rat does. Or a human variation thereof. Nice, right? Did you know that a rat can swim three miles at sea? And yet, you and I could barely swim across the Boteti at its narrowest point on our way back from our agate-gathering missions. Granted, our booty weighed us down, but to the rat, that would be one poor excuse.
I’d even go so far as to argue that you loaded me up with far more agates—as ballast, basically—if I thought you were capable of parting with that kind of money. Ah, Botswana agate, known by the locals as eye agate. And you know who that led us to. No less than the mighty Eye himself! We were drunk, but no one’s that drunk. All of that folklore, and us cackling about it, with the lady of the house/lechwe-dung hut joining in with cackles of her own. I probably should have done a better job of understanding those cackles. Nonetheless, it was that laughter that, for some reason, spurred me to check and ready the guns, a necessity in these parts. To clean, prime, and load, in case anything went way, way wrong. But I was only thinking about the earthly side of things. Silly me.
What an idea we had for our business model though: here’s a rock that’s believed to have talismanic, magical qualities in these parts. Sorry—a mineral. And we mined enough of them—knowing where to look because of her Princeton geology background—that we could set ourselves up for some nice profits. These natives love their luck. Life comes down to luck. And the caprices and wants of the fates. The gods back you, or they have it in for you. And agate baubles are the way to tip the balance in your favor. They are the currency of the gods. We thought it quaint.
To be fair to the quality of our stones themselves—right—minerals—people really did love the aesthetic qualities of our best specimens, the ones that were all clouded over, downright rheumy almost, with those blended bands of opal whites and frosty aquamarines, like the shifting seas of time themselves. Sea upon different colored sea layered on top of each other, like a cross-section of another world.
And to think: if we didn’t have the stones, we wouldn’t have met The Eye himself, and we never would have started printing those t-shirts that featured The Eye done up like that eyeball in the famous old Jimi Hendrix poster—only without the red veins—with a bunch of agates floating all around him, and what we conferred on him as his slogan: Because He Knows!
Those were some popular t-shirts. Then again, had we forgone the t-shirts and all of the condescending talk—“why look, it’s our mascot come to visit”—The Eye probably would not have taken it upon himself to sabotage our business. Not that tampering with sacred beliefs for profit helped. And then you and she wouldn’t have absconded, and I wouldn’t be preparing to hunt you down right now. Which I am. As The Eye can verify, which you assuredly know by the way these thoughts pass between us, a horror The Eye meted out as punishment, I believe. So: Boo! Bitch. I mean that in the “you’re a bastard but I’m going to further insult you by calling you a bitch” way—as though we were rival NFL players insulting each other on the gridiron. Bitch. Who knows how long this unholy telepathy will last. Might as well be clear as can be while we have it. I notice you spend a lot of time worrying that it’ll be forever. You know where I stand._
So what can we conclude from all of this? Well, ours was surely a weird little ecosystem, with the three of us in cahoots, for a little bit, at least. And while I’ve been grappling with my own failure to recognize what you and she were up to, I’ve had to deal with the irony that the rats of my hole seem to manage their own ecosystem with total understanding, if not aplomb.
This leads me back to the various rat facts that I know. For example, the rat can survive being flushed down a toilet and come out to thrive in his new surroundings. Impressive. I sometimes imagine that they do what they do with a theatrical flourish, as if to say match that, fellow earth dweller! And I can’t—which makes me feel sub-Rattus norvegicus, but maybe that’s not as bad as it seems, all things considered.
But even though I respect the rat, I do not enjoy their late night scurrying. I often find myself praying for a full moon, or at least a generous helping of moonlight, so that I’ll be able to look around the confines of my earthen hole and know when to dodge their advances, for rats will try to eat you, as it turns out. I did not know that.
The real practical problem, as always—in life, and in metaphor—takes me back to where I began all of this, and that is what to do with one’s waste. That’s your real conundrum. The rats glint their eyes and bare their teeth, but they are at least natural—imposingly so—while sitting amongst one’s disjecta membra, so to speak, is not.
So here’s what you do: you scratch away the side of your hole—for this will be the makeshift water closet—on a night when the moonlight streams brightly enough through the grating, fifteen feet above, doing your best to dodge the marauding vermin. And you scoop out that last soft wedge of clay and hope you do not pull a handful of baby rats from their mother’s nest, as I did. If you had been there and heard my scream—which was loud enough that one of the Defence Force officers dumped a bucket of offal down on my head—you would have thought I was in no position to do anything but rain down vengeance—on you, on her—if I ever got the chance.
You would be wrong, actually. Tonight marks my last night in my hole. It seems that one can reduce the duration of one’s sentence with agates, provided these agates are believed to have come from a higher power. No mean trick for me, given our crimes. Anyway, they were on my person all along—we need not get into matters of where—and these yokels became convinced that they actually were placed in the bottom of my pit, courtesy of the gods. Weirdly, my inability to speak seemed to sell it, like I’ve officially become a living talisman. Neat.
But anyway: I am signing off, and I—or, more to the point, we—come bearing a proposition. You should hear us out. To that end, I will now hand you over to The Eye himself, who has returned from whatever celestial sphere he calls home, and he will do that thing he does where he makes known to one of us everything—now that we are cursed—that the other has been thinking. So this is between you and The Eye for the time being. To be honest, I’m glad that this gets to take place in your head, instead of mine, because I could do with a long rest. No offense, Eye. Enjoy!
Hello. I have, unfortunately, been privy to my brother Gilbert’s testimony, thanks to that creature, the one who now fills up my head, and just because we were after a little scratch, Botswana style. So, no, I’m not a fan of the terminology, Gil.
I don’t think this Eye thing can kill you of its own accord, but this is a kind of death, make no mistake. A parasite of the brain, with the voice of a brother.
I will not lie—you would know. I thought The Eye, as he became known, and for good reason, was going to do us mortal harm on that first night we saw him after drinking all that weird beer that you shake. There’s a concept for you. Chibuku Shake Shake—the beloved local elixir that is not exactly a beverage for smooth, back-porch sipping. But if you want to see demons, late of hell—here’s your stuff. For us, anyway.
There he was, having risen from out of God knows where, and hovering before us, first outside our makeshift window, and then inside the hut itself, after somehow gaining admittance.
She was out. She was always out, it seemed, posing as an expert lapidary going from hut to hut and apprising the locals of the quality of their agates, and whether their given quantity and type was sufficient to assure good fortunes. Which was rather a conflict of interest, given that everyone knew she lived with us, but superstition has a way of overriding sense.
You will not fault me for thinking there were drugs in that murky fizz, and I suspect you thought it too as we toasted the spoils of our ad hoc agate business. Two Peace Corps brothers—one with a Peace Corps wife—who were less interested in peace than in profits. Who knew. Neither one of us is quite as moral as the other one thought, as we discovered when you found me looting our unit’s medical emergency kitty, and you chastised me with nothing more than “I want in.”
Indeed you did, didn’t you? And soon enough we left our half-assed good Samaritanship behind to prey on the bank accounts—buried-under-the-wafer-thin-mattress accounts is more like it—of the locals, but what were we really selling them? Just a little hope, some better luck. If I had AIDS, like loads of these locals do, I’d want some happier prospects. Death wasn’t far off for lots of them anyway. You said we could bestow a kindness, I said we could make money. It’s not like we had anything else going on.
So we drank up our carbonated roofies in celebration of our well-realized plans. One day was as profitable as any other as we trafficked in the favorable, ever-upticking fortunes that come along with high-grade eye agate. You could still look yourself in the mirror during the day because, after all, some AIDS-ridden dirt farmer wasn’t having his livestock die on him anymore and was—miracle of miracles—acquiring livestock that he had not previously owned. God provides. God being us in this instance, but what are you going to do. It’s business.
What I did not like is that joke that you just had to make, fully gassed on the Chibuku: “Look, Baldwin, it’s like the Great Pumpkin—but in eye form.” And so it was. An eye, an actual eye, three feet tall, sans skull, sans socket, just an eye, perfectly lucid, radiating awareness, with a pupil that, if it resembled anything, resembled one of our better specimens of eye agate.
Only, two people aren’t supposed to share the same hallucination. I would have mentioned this in the following days, but I thought I had a better chance of survival if I tried to get into the spirit of this place as a land where gods and monsters come to play. We just happened to be right in the middle of an ancient, dusty ball field.
And sure enough, The Eye showed up each time we counted out our agates in the night, but he did seem fairly docile, and, as you suggested—with your lip trembling and your voice squeaky—maybe this was proof that we were on the good side of the supernatural. After all, this eye seemed approving, in that it did us no harm. You might even say it—he, sorry—was a gentle onlooker, a vision—one that was flesh; or, at least, vitreous humour—of tacit approval. I even had my t-shirt idea, and soon the whole village was nattily attired in what I brilliantly dubbed Eye-wear.
She agreed with our business tactics, even as you cowered. She—Oh, enough of this. Your wife. She was technically my wife at the time—owing to a local ceremony that we did not invite you to (I trust you recall that time I told you we had double orders of agates from a number of customers and that you had to round them up, post-haste) at which the local priest, the top moperesita, stated that his marriage ceremony was the one which overrode all others—especially those of the Western variety. Giddy up. We had plans to pull out soon anyhow._
We got better and better at the midnight portion of our partnership. The establishment of the market. The creation of demand, so that we could so subtly supply.
I still do not know how these people failed to realize that they never all had it good or bad at the same time, but that their fortunes flip-flopped, basically, depending on who was buying the most agate. You said they must be a private kind of people, and that they didn’t talk much amongst themselves. Fine, whatever. It’s not like any of them had cell phones.
You were good at carrying off livestock without some otherwise squawky chicken making all sorts of racket. And I was good, sad to say, at the killing—killing which we both know was far more than mere killing, as it was no small task mutilating an animal corpse to make it look as though nothing earthly had anything to do with its demise. Don’t make the gods angry! Boogity boogity.
I am still inclined to think well of our business model:
1. Purchase two ghillie suits, a garment that resembles foliage—or looks as if it is blanketed with foliage—for maximum camouflage. We bought the African variety.
2. Roam about furtively in the middle of the night. Steal livestock.
3. Take livestock several miles away, downstream from the Boteti River. Tether to trees.
4. Sell agate to AIDS-ridden dirt farmers who are losing livestock.
5. Cease stealing livestock from said dirt farmers. For a time.
6. Steal livestock from other dirt farmers in other villages. Give that livestock to initial dirt farmers. The gods provide. It’s a miracle.
7. When suspicion arises, slaughter an animal and render its corpse in such a way that suggests a death by some ferocious, one-of-a-kind beast—preferably one not of this earth. Use electric hedge trimmers to score face and bones. Break spinal column and pull hindquarters of animal through the animal’s mouth and digestive cavity, essentially turning it inside out. Deposit in village.
Maybe all brothers, at heart, are some version of us. What do you think? Or do you believe The Eye ever finds himself a situation — if he does indeed make a habit of this kind of devilry — where conjoining two people like this simply wouldn’t pay off as torture? I don’t suppose we could just ask him._
The hallucinations increased. Or, rather, what we were trying to laugh off as hallucinations. I know you shat yourself that last time we both saw him together. It takes something to out-pungent the perpetual dung-ish smell of this fine and fertile land, but make no mistake, you did alright for yourself there. And there is no harm in telling you that I followed in kind about ten seconds later, right about the time The Eye began to glow and vibrate and give off the heat that set the hut ablaze with blue flames going off in every direction. And it’s not like I wasn’t kind enough to drag you outside, before she and I legged it to Defence Force headquarters to give you up as the blasphemer who had caused the gods to kill off the local livestock, outed by a miracle of spontaneous combustion—after all, mud isn’t supposed to burn like that. The gods, the spirits, the demons, what have you, wanted their 175 lbs. of flesh and that was you. Eighty kilograms, actually. Almost forgot that they use the metric system here.
We made sure to tell our Defence Force friends—before they halfheartedly chased us out of their headquarters—call it mild guilt by association—that you might try some of our now infamous agate hoodoo. I advised that there need not be any great worries on their part. A couple weeks in the earth would kill off your powers (if I remember correctly, the gist was that the gods forsake their conduits when their conduits are below sea level, and thus out of range, so you would not be able to conjure any spirits to slaughter valuable livestock)—so long as a creature that was clearly not of this world did not float, hover, manifest itself, what have you, on the scene. This would be The Eye, naturally. Or unnaturally. However one chooses to view him. It. Him. Sorry. The DF guys did, admittedly, look baffled on that point, but we told them they’d know—for sure—beyond any doubt if this creature was in their midst. Just keep your eyes open. Wokka wokka. I thought you’d like that.
I make the joke because I know you are approaching. You have wanted me to know it. As The Eye is no loyalist, and will probably get me to slip up at some point, fully, so that another one of my protected thoughts is let loose from my mind, and given to you, I might as well state outright that she took off about the time you were sealed up in your hole, and I lost my ability to talk. With everything I had taken from you, and everything I had as well. There was a note, which basically said that while she could understand one brother being crazy—she meant you there—she did not understand how the other one could turn crazy too. What are the chances? And that’s where she meant me. It might have been better had she seen The Eye herself. Or if we simply kept news of his visitations to ourselves. It is too late now, of course.
I await you, Gilbert. There is no need to call out your arrival. I will be ready._
And so I am, and here you are.
I suppose that it would have to come to this, even though there is no money, no fortune, at stake. Your proposal is, I admit, one that does appeal to me.
And yes, I know you thought it would. Let’s keep the jokes at a minimum.
You wish to do it with the Chibuku Shake Shake—an imbibing contest, as I understand you—so there is a competition factor, but we both know that you would be the first to pass out, and I do not believe I can do to you what I did to those animals, essentially. Given that I would be inebriated but still mostly functional, and that you would be but a lump on the ground, The Eye might be further annoyed by me breaking the neck of a helpless creature. Who knows what he might then do to me, and I would have to bear the burden alone. You, at least, would have release. So no, I don’t think that’s fair at all.
I say we draw pistols. We head out to where we tethered the animals, away from the villages, we count paces, and we do it. The survivor puts the other one under. That should do it. Do you concur? Good. We both get free of the Eye, in a different way. Let’s not pretend that he is not hovering here beside the table. You see how his coloring is fainter than usual? He looks almost transparent. Let’s go.
You always preferred silence, even as children when we tramped through the woods. This is more brush than woods, but it’s not totally dissimilar. Only, I’d no more want to walk in front of you, than you in front of me. But as this is to be our last brotherly act of trust, I’ll do just that. I’ll make the good show of faith and affection. The Eye looked like he had some of his color back as we passed through that grove of baobab trees. He’s more transparent again out here in the open. It’s like the sun goes right through—
Tell me you didn’t just do that. Gilbert. Gilbert. Come on. You’re breathing, you’re still here. Stay with me. Or go. Go if you want. Who manages not to get the job done with a pistol pressed up against their temple? Gilbert. Still breathing. Gasping a little. Just barely gasping. You’re gone. The shovel. Okay. Sweating now. Fill up the mound. You’re under. It’s over. I can’t see The Eye.
What? What? What’s that? No. God no. No. Gods no? Eye? I don’t care what the soil is like. I don’t care that it feels acidic. And no, I am not interested in any more rat facts. This is hardly the same. This is anything but the same
p style=”text-align: justify;”>Colin Fleming’s first book, Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories, is forthcoming. His fiction appears in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Boulevard, and Slice Magazine, and he also contributes to The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review. Find him on the web at ColinFlemingLit.com.