A Vampiric Tale for Hallowe’en.
The cover of Marechera’s The House of Hunger shows a deathly face with a long wound that is being sewed by a spider’s web. This illustration alludes to "The Slow Sound of His Feet", one of the volume’s short stories. Robert Fraser has studied this particular work in some depth, but he finds the seriousness of the piece in the wrong quarters. For Fraser, the opening epigram draws a serious parallel between the story and JDC Pellow’s poem on Christ. His effort to make this parallel, however, causes him to miss the wicked joke by Marechera. Pellow was a minor Georgian poet, a civil servant who wrote civilized, devotional poetry. The lines that Marechera quotes are from the poem Tenebrae, included in the volume Paternalia. Marechera’s short story offers a very un-English mental blackness and a very non-Classical festival for one’s dead parents. The story is a post-Blakeian vision, a dark gospel that testifies to an all-circumscribing Death. The writing mocks the Classical pastoralism of Georgian poetry and its English sentiments (the tweedy, country atmosphere of Oxford University...so distant from the Universe). As Pellow’s beggar waits in physical darkness for the Father of mankind, Marechera’s persona waits in mental blackness, recounting a motherless and fatherless dream. It is a story about being psychologically orphaned. Instead of Christian elegy, Marechera introduces something close to deathly voodoo. Into the story, Marechera works two key biographical details: his own stammer and having to view his father’s damaged body on a mortuary table. Like Basquiat’s painting “Brown Jaw” (1986), the story concerns itself with speechlessness and the anxiety of speech…even the room, like the dead father, struggles to articulate and move its mandibles. There is no happy meeting with the ancestors in Marechera’s story. The parents magnetize the writer (and reader) and have all the characteristics of vampires. The father and mother, Father and Mother, fatherland and motherland, the roots (like teeth) of identity bleed painfully between life and death.
The Slow Sound of His Feet.
. . .But someday if I sit
Quietly at this corner listening, there
May come this way the slow sound of his feet.
I dreamt last night that the Prussian surgeon Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach had decided that I stuttered because my tongue was too large; and he cut my large organ down to size by snipping of chunks from the tip and the sides. Mother woke me up to tell me that father had been struck down by a speeding car at the roundabout; I went to the mortuary to see him, and they had sewn back his head to the trunk and his eyes were open. I tried to close them but they would not shut, and later we buried him with his eyes still staring upwards.
It was raining when we buried him.
It was raining when I woke up looking for him. His pipe lay where it had always been, on the mantelpiece. When I looked at it the rain came down strongly and rattled the tin roof of my memories of him. His leatherbound books were upright and very still in the bookcase. One of them was Oliver Bloodstein's A Handbook on Stuttering. There was also a cuneiform tablet - a replica of the original - on which was written, several centuries before Christ, an earnest prayer for release from the anguish of stuttering. He had told me that Moses, Demosthenes and Aristotle also had a speech impediment; that Prince Battus, advised by the oracle, cured himself of stuttering by conquering the North Africans; and that Demosthenes taught himself to speak without blocks by outshouting the surf through a mouthful of pebbles.
It was still raining when I lay down and closed my eyes, and I could see him stretched out in the sodden grave and trying to move his mandibles. When I woke up I could feel him inside me; and he was trying to speak, but I could not. Aristotle muttered something about my tongue being abnormally thick and hard. Hippocrates then forced my mouth open and stuck blistering substances to my tongue to drain away the dark fluid. Celsus shook his head and said: "All that the tongue needs is a good gargle and a massage." But Galen, who would not be left out, said my tongue was merely too cold and wet. And Francis Bacon suggested a glass of hot wine.
As I walked down to the beerhall I saw a long line of troop-carriers drawn up at the gates of the township. They were all white soldiers. One of them jumped down and prodded me with his rifle and demanded to see my papers. I had only my University student card. He scrutinized it for such a long time that I wondered what was wrong with it.
Why are you sweating?" he asked.
I took out my paper and pencil and wrote something and showed it to him.
"And you think I'm dumb too, eh?"
I shook my head. But before I could finish shaking my head, his hand came up fast and smacked my jaw. I brought up my hand to wipe away the blood, but he blocked it and hit me again. My false teeth cracked and I was afraid I would swallow the jagged fragments. I spat them out without bringing up my hand to my mouth.
"False teeth too, eh?"
My eyes were stinging. I couldn't see him clearly. But I nodded.
"False identity too, eh?"
I had an overwhelming desire to move my jaws and force my tongue to repeat what my student card had told him. But I only managed to croak out unintelligible sounds. I pointed to my paper and pencil which had fallen to the ground.
But as I bent down to pick them up, he brought up his knee suddenly and almost broke my neck.
"Lookng for a stone, were you, eh?"
I shook my head and it hurt so much I couldn't stop shaking my head any more. There were running feet behind me; my mother's and my sister's voices. There was the sharp report of firing. Mother, struck in mid-stride, her body held rigid by the acrid air, was staring straight through her eyes. A second later, something broke inside her and she toppled over. My sister's outstretched hand, coming up to touch my face, flew to her opening mouth and I could see her straining her vocal muscles to scream through my mouth.
Mother died in the ambulance.
The sun was screaming soundlessly when I buried her. There were hot and cold rings around its wet brightness. My sister and I, we walked the four miles back home, passing the Africans Only hospital, the Europeans Only hospital, the British South Africa Police camp, the Post Office, the railway station, and walked across the mile-wide green belt, and walked into the black township.
The room was so silent I could feel it trying to move its tongue and mandibles, trying to speak to me. I was staring up at the wooden beams of the roof. I could hear my sister pacing up and down in her room which was next to mine. I could feel her strongly inside me. My room contained nothing but my iron bed, my desk, my books, and the canvases upon which I had for so long tried to paint the feeling of the silent but desperate voices inside me. I stung back the tears and felt her so strongly inside me I could not bear it. But the door mercifully opened and they came in leading her by the hand. She was dressed in pure white. A pale blue light was emanating from her. On her slender feet were the sandals of gleaming white leather. But the magnet of her fleshless face, the two empty eye-sockets, the sharp grinning teeth (one of her teeth was slightly chipped), and high cheekbones, and the cruelly missing nose - the magnet of them held my gaze until, it seemed, my straining eyes were abruptly sucked into her rigid stillness.
He was dressed in black. Her fleshless hand lay still in his fleshless fingers. His head had not been sewn back properly; it was precariously leaning to one side and it seemed as if it would fall off any moment. His skull had a jagged crack running down the centre of his forehead to the tip of the lower jaw; the skull had been crudely welded back into shape, so much as it looked as though it would fall apart any moment.
The pain in my eyes was unbearable. I blinked. When I opened my eyes they had gone. My sister was standing in their place. She was breathing heavily and that made my chest ache. I held out my hand and touched her; she was warm and alive and her very breath was painfully anxious in my voice. I had to speak! but before I could utter a single sound she bent down over me and kissed me. The hot flush of it shook us in each other's arms. Outside, the night was making a muffled gibberish upon the roof and the wind had tightened its hold upon the windows. We could hear, in the distance, the brass and strings of a military band.
DC Marechera (1978).