Blessed Are The Meek
By Dele Sikuade
Getting out of bed is oddly difficult since I feel like I spent the night fully conscious. Perhaps I did doze off, if so it was only to be woken within minutes by the howling of next door’s dog, a creature seemingly driven to madness by moonlight. My neighbour bought it for his protection but surely it’s not just wishful thinking on my part to think his dog is the most likely thing to kill him.
I picture the great, black-haired beast lying face down in a pool of frothy saliva, ribs heaving as it recovers from its nocturnal marathon. In tranquil silence I prick my ears. Is that Mama stirring? No, it’s an echo of the past playing on a loop in my head, a fragment of memory from a time when she could call out to me. The thought of her lying in bed, needing me, even if only to shift for comfort, makes me rub the grit from my eyes and rise.
I walk barefoot along the corridor, appreciating the cool terra-cotta tiles and a light breath of wind that passes between louver windows whose panes are so dusty they’d be opaque if they were made of clear glass. The house is musty and old, dark and cool, a colonial relic where long-stemmed fans turn like arthritic spiders and the tapestries and carvings look like they’ve been pillaged from angry natives. It would be beautiful if it weren’t so grimy.
The sweetening wind on my bare chest and face cannot last. In a couple of hours if I stood in the exact same spot I’d be reminded of an exhaust emissions test. Hot, smelly, toxic air, filled with particulate matter one can taste, gets stirred up by the midday heat and flows everywhere. I stop by the bathroom to wash my face and hands and wonder why I bother. The soap is dirty with the soot of diesel. It is quiet now, but a million generators run in the city once darkness falls, raping the night with their brutal roar, spewing out carcinogenic filth. In such an environment nothing can be clean for long. I muse to myself that in the current theme of twinning cities, this one should be twinned with Mordor.
Outside Mama’s bedroom I don the medi-vac suit I stole from work, and remove the sticky tape seal from around the door. She is awake; her red-rimmed eyes tell me she too hardly slept a wink. In my case it is a beggared conscience that denies me sleep, in hers it is pain and the fear of dying. She can’t speak but she doesn’t have to. I have seen that particular haunted expression a thousand times. She will die soon and we both know it. If anything I am the more certain of this fact since I am the one who is killing her.
I sit on the edge of the bed and take her fragile hand. It reminds me of the time as a child when I found the skeleton of a baby lizard. When I tried to lift it, to put it in my Shoebox of Special Things, it crumbled to dust. Mama is like that, crumbling to dust. I smile at her but she doesn’t smile back. She can’t smile. She can’t eat. She can’t speak. She can’t move, not really, not more than her eyes and the odd faint twitch that I have to think is involuntary.
The bed is dry and I think about placing her on a commode, but the faint glow that was in her face yesterday has gone. She will die today. I am struck by the thought that today is the beginning of the end, and wonder why I should be so surprised when I not only knew this day would come but I engendered it. I run a gloved hand tenderly along her jawline, lean over and touch the visor of my suit to her forehead. There’s a hint of recognition in her eyes, not of me - she cannot see my face behind the tinted plastic - but of the finality of the gesture. She closes her eyes and as I back away I know they won’t open again.
By the time I reseal the room and remove the suit it is time for work. I prepare myself mentally for the Institute for Tropical Medicine where I am a bit part actor on a grubby little stage. I play the part of a respected academic and seeker of truths, a moral man with a mission to improve the lot of his people. I am not a moral man. I have sought and found the truth, but in so doing I became a man who lost all hope for his people, and so despises every human in the world other than the mother who was the only person I loved, and who loved me back. I’m a good actor though, or maybe I am just a gifted liar? Is there a difference, and to whom does it matter? Nobody notices me anymore. I pass through work like an irritating ghost, seen but not scary. Nobody cares for me, least of all me.
I change into the work clothes of a fraudulent scientist and take the short walk to work. Normally I avoid the route through the shantytown that sprawls out from our back garden, where a rag tag army of children with skinny appendages and swollen stomachs call me rude names behind my back. I nod at the mothers and grandmothers whom I have known most of my life. They sit outside their hovels and stare out at the world through dead eyes. They don’t nod back. Even the prostitutes are sullen and disinterested. Where are your menfolk? I wonder, and the answer comes easily to mind. They left home hours before I had to rise, and went in search of work and sustenance for their families. I used to hate this journey, but today it’s not only tolerable, it’s a pleasure. I’m going to strike a blow for you I think, and I imagine that instead of scowling and disliking me, the people who watch my passing do so in awe of the man who from nowhere rose to become Champion of the Oppressed. I want to scream out loud I am the man who will today reset the world! I don’t though, they’d only sneer at me and regard me as a madman. My people steer clear of madmen. Madmen are victims of witchcraft, afflicted with bad juju that is in all probability contagious.
Once through the shantytown and out onto the dusty streets made of compacted mud, I pass dozens of rusted hulks of cars and buses. They were built to run on fossil fuels and so became fossils once the fuel failed to fire the economy. I like the alliteration I have created in my mind, and play with the words, reorganizing them, until I reach a road where I have to stop and think. I don’t want to think so I think of stupid things, like wanting to cross Adamu Street by walking through the shell of a bus that nobody has cared to move in a decade. Once it was yellow, I remember, now it is brown with rust and flecked with green algae. Clambering through it is like passing through a time warp, and I imagine the seats filled with souls of the living dead. I nod to them and they nod back in silent acknowledgment of our shared knowledge of the past. We desire to live in bygone days the ghosts and I. I reach the other side and turn right, twisting my head to see if I can still read the sign on the side of the bus. It is illegible now, but I know it used to say Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. I walk on, my head full of scorn. It is a saying as trite and as untrue as the rubbish Mama used to read in her evangelical Christian pamphlets, packed with nonsense slogans like: Great leaders learn to lead by first learning to follow. Lies! Great leaders are psychopathic wolves who don’t give a damn for the sheep that follow them blindly.
I pause at the next junction to look up and down the empty highway. I think of times past when petrol and diesel powered vehicles were so ubiquitous we had nose to bumper traffic. Too bad we only ever learned to sell the stuff vehicles burned, and not how to make vehicles themselves. When the Americans and the Europeans and the Chinese and the Indians no longer needed our filthy fossil fuel for their clean and shiny electric cars, we were stuffed. Poor us, the only thing rarer than good governance in Africa is electricity. Electric cars? You might as well give us barking lizards. Our economy crashed and burned as the countries that used to make the vehicles we depended on suddenly announced that due to global warming no vehicles could be made that relied on our precious oil. One day we had a national income and millions of vehicles to choose from (if we had the money), the next we had nothing but dirty diesel nobody wanted, and millions of rusty generators with no filters to burn it in.
Senior government officials and the millionaires and billionaires have electric vehicles of course. They also have massive generators that run twenty-four seven. I could have an electric car too if I applied, and mortgaged my soul, and took the risk of being killed for it in a robbery. But I have nowhere I want to go and no ego to appease, so like the rest of the population I walk or cycle. Today I’m glad to walk. I’m in no hurry. I want to see all the poverty and hopelessness of my people, my poor, failed people. I want the injustice of their sorry lives etched into my soul. I need to picture their pain as a fetid, pus-filled boil just begging to be lanced, so that when the moment comes to choose, and life seems to offer so much, I’ll remember that I already chose to side with those who never had, and never will have, choices.
In the office my colleague, Kola Benson, is hard at work. He gives me a look of disdain and casts a sideways glance at the clock. I almost laugh at his transparency. Fuck him! He’s trying to isolate the unusual protein molecule in a strain of Ebola that wiped out a quarter of our people. I nod in his direction, he grunts in mine. We long ago stopped feigning civility, or co-operating. I isolated the molecule a year ago, but I’m not going to tell him that. I’m not going to tell him because he’s a jealous fool who wanted to go to the big conference in San Francisco in my place. I’m not going to tell him because I planned to release a bombshell by telling the gathering of scientists that I believe the strain of Ebola was a weaponised trial conducted in Africa, which went wrong. The speed with which it was dealt with when it transferred itself to the more advanced nations of the West was proof they already had a cure, but left the outbreak to do its worst for reasons too dastardly to contemplate. That is what I was going to say. Now I think I might smile and talk some bullshit about clostrenderitis liviticus, a bacterium I shall pretend to have discovered, and the scourge of diarrhoea in nations with an inadequate water supply.
I sit at my table and look around the office. The place is a hole. The whole building is a tip. A man with my responsibility should be working in a pristine laboratory with state-of-the-art gas chromatography, a laser microtome, mass spectrometer, electron microscope, isolation chambers, biohazard zones and suits, you name it. What have I got instead? Electricity for ten percent of the working day, none at all at night, and a crack on the lens of my handheld microscope!
I think of Mama and smile, and cry. She’s almost certainly dead by now. I unlock my desk drawer and take out a syringe and a bottle that contains a sample of the new Ebola strain, my strain, which I cross-cultivated with the old. It took ages, but it was worth every second of my time.
I remember my joy at discovering the vaccine we bankrupted the country to buy from western pharmaceuticals had no effect on the sample in my drawer. Mama is the final proof. Bowel cancer got her first, and would have killed her slowly and painfully in time, but it was my hybrid Ebola strain that ended her life. It took two weeks for the symptoms to show, and from then on forty-eight hours until death. Two weeks to notice the symptoms of a lethal virus transmitted in blood, breath, sweat and saliva, and only forty-eight hours to kill - those are the core ingredients of an extinction level global pandemic. I wipe away tears and smile, wondering if anyone will name it after me.
I put the syringe and a needle in my bag. There’s only one way to deliver my agent and that’s to slip a needle under my skin and introduce the virus into my bloodstream. Kola Benson doesn’t know it but I have more than a ticket to San Francisco; I have tickets that take me to New York, a whistle-stop tour of Europe, thence to China, a one-night stopover in Japan, before coming home via Australia. It’ll be one hell of a journey. I’ll get to see so much to be thankful for, but then blessed are the meek eh?
Dele Sikuade writes short stories and political satire. Much of his work is based in Africa or contains elements of African culture, reflecting his Nigerian heritage.