THE SONS OF THE TRIBE
Translated by Michael Ugarte
The frown made his face look deformed, convulsed in a final moment of dread and fury. A pasteboard mask, brilliant, livid and wrinkled, the consequence of the heat of the last struggle, an indefinable expression, something like pleasure, pain and shock all in one, like the ineffable cruelty of a scythe as it cuts away a haughty and exceptional life enjoying the supreme pleasure. The right hand of His Most Distinguished First Magistrate squeezed his left nipple tightly as if it were trying to contain a cry of intense pain. The left hand lay motionless on the bed showing the palm in a mute and inconclusive interrogation. The stupefied faces contemplating him showed consternation, but their leathery bodies stood still like granite statues, motionless, incredulous, dejected: this was not possible, it couldn’t be true that they were living this momentous and dreaded event, unimaginable, unreal. Death was a common occurrence, vulgar, it only happened to others, never to them, and certainly never to him, the giver of all things bad and good that came from his stagnant universe. One could feel the vertigo circling his eyes from an unusual anxiety, from a thick silence broken only by the monotonous rhythm of the air conditioner and the barely repressed whimpering of young Anastasia, known as Niña Tasia. Anguish, stupor, tension, and an irremediable sense of irresolution saturated the atmosphere of that microcosm. Not accustomed to decide on their own, their smallest actions were imposed by the incontestable will of the Guide of the People, they vacillated, unable to move, without understanding, terrorized, not knowing what to do now that the First Citizen, lying still on the bed, was reduced to nothing. Tortured by doubts about themselves, about their capabilities and their destiny, they were the nucleolus of a regime that for nearly four decades took charge of everything and everybody without any limits other than those of satiety. Heads down, lost expressions, eyes whose humanity had been stripped as a consequence of centuries of inability to feel anything other than envy, or indifference, they saw from their obscurity the morbid remains of His Excellency, that proud body, always gesticulating, reduced to a minute figure stripped of its proverbial arrogance, a simple cadaver, helpless and naked, highlighted by an erect, proud and protruding organ perforating the air as an act of defiance against nothingness. It was the sum total of his power, the foundation of his authority, symbol of his portentous virility, vestige of his energy and secular domination of all living beings. Esom Esom, more moved by fear than tragedy, spoke in silence: my brother has died as he lived, like a real man, with his boots on, ready for a fight, as he always said. And he recalled the favorite saying of Nze Mebiang, his beloved father who was now sheltered lovingly in the world of the dead, a reputed sorcerer who had become the protecting spirit of the family and the clan, whose remains had been infused with wisdom by competent witch doctors whose powers protected them from all harm and conspiracy: the goat eats and dies in the same place he is tied.
The illustrious people who gathered there well knew they must react quickly to keep the crowds from contemplating such an irritating and grotesque spectacle, just what the enemies would like, both within and outside the country, either underground or in exile, since the first secretions of blood had begun to show from his half open mouth, running down his cheeks toward the pure satin white sheets; however, due to the usual lack of resolve, they awaited the orders of the Master without considering that the Founder had left this world, unable to give orders ever again. Brigadier General Esom Esom, Chief of Intelligence was known for his hunter instinct, despite the fact that he couldn’t even sign his name with an X, the most revered of the brothers, the only person to whom the Founder opened his heart. Now he was more hesitant than ever. He had never made a decision on his own because his brother thought for him, even to the point of choosing his three wives, women who had warmed his bed and had given him an extensive progeny: privileges of the only male born to the parents of the Courageous Marshal exceptional member of a numerous family, a man who had learned to read and write after his father, the revered Nze Mebiang, sent him to the Colonial Guard so that his military lineage would be kept intact, so that he would become tough and frugal, and so that he would learn the art of submission to authority from the whites. He was destined to become the guide and protector of his people, a plentiful tribe, as numerous as grains of sand in the sea. Even in the midst of the disaster, Esom Esom could not avoid dedicating certain moments of his pleasurable and tense life to the protection of his older brother, for whom he felt great devotion and admiration. He was so blinded by the terror of uncertainty that he continued to stare dauntlessly at the naked corpse. Or is it possible that he thought of the erection as evidence of the unequivocal magical powers of the Invincible Chief, powers that he had shown even after he had taken his last breath? What a rod, Lord! What a waste that singular apparatus was, desired and contemplated by his numerous women, soon it would be eaten by worms! What a pity that the Supreme Man’s modesty stood in the way of an initiative to erect a monument to his genitals, the source of the most glorious pages of the history of the Father Land, this according to a group of fervent and uncompromising women, activists in the Women’s Caucus of the Party who had become furious that the plan was not to be realized, women who had experienced –against their will at first– the unforgettable thrusts of that hardness satisfying them to no end, maddening them, as they fought for it in the market place. Now nothing would be the same. What to do? Why wasn’t he named the successor? Should he play his hand smartly by relying on his status as the most loved of the brothers and chief of Domestic Security, a position that would allow him to maneuver around all the irregularities and other dirty activity of which he had kept record? Politics are complicated, he told himself, intuiting that his hour had arrived, and he would not let anything get in his way. It was important to keep ahead of it all. His triumph, his power, would be inexorable if he managed to conserve the skull and ingest the brains and gonads of the corpse that he would exhume after the burial so that the abilities and qualities that solidified the leadership of the dead man would enter into him, transmitted by Nze Mebiang, his honorable father, whose skull was kept somewhere as a golden relic in a mysterious hidden sanctuary. This would be the basis for his own supremacy. It was necessary to get rid of that little kid at all costs, the nephew Gumersín, a frivolous and quarrelsome bon vivant who would make them lose everything and open the gates to the opposition, if he didn’t prevent it. And what were the intentions of his opportunistic and envious uncle, Lieutenant General Obigli, a man who had made a personal fiefdom of the Army, a man of dubious loyalty despite his persistent servility and his frequent highfalutin expressions of unquestionable allegiance? If he hadn’t organized a coup until then, it was only because of his superstition: he believed firmly in the ancestral norms that prohibited infliction of the slightest harm to any children of a sister, under penalty of death or madness. That norm favored him; he was as much a nephew as his dead brother.
His chin in his right hand, absorbed in the fascination of his nephew’s extraordinary phallus, the maternal uncle, Lieutenant General Obigli, was also mumbling his own thoughts. He struggled to find convincing arguments to change the customary rules without upsetting family ties and keep Esom Esom, Gumersín, and other interested parties from assuming leadership. Although the traditional laws allowed him to make decisions regarding the funeral rites of the inanimate body of the deceased, the lines separating the public from the private were so tenuous due to dirty politics that it would be more prudent to wait lest they think that his zeal was actually ambition. He did not even dare to have someone take care of the cadaverous odors by covering this strikingly indecent nakedness. The voluminous midsection of the First Leader looked as if it was about to burst, indiscreet and rhythmic flatulencies filled the large room with an air that made it more and more difficult to breathe, but none of those present dared to cover their noses thereby exposing themselves to the reprisals of the Maximum Leader for their disrespect and grotesque behavior. Despite the higher status over Brigadier Esom Esom and the little brother that was conferred to him by tradition, Obigli had never had the courage to express his own opinion in front of the Supreme Guide, and he was not sure how the taciturn and crafty Esom Esom might react. After all, it was Esom Esom who appeared to be the successor to the orphaned land, either he or the first-born Gumersín, however capricious, unpredictable, or immature. He was somewhat surprised when he became conscious of a terrible curse that assaulted his brain: the carelessness of the Luminous Torch which had never specified the laws of inheritance during the time of the autocracy of traditional leaders. These were delicate matters, taboos that no one had had the courage to bring up so that his own opportunity might be put in jeopardy, because impatience might lead to their expulsion to some dark place outside the land. He knew about the tragic end suffered by the crazy rebels who defied the all-encompassing authority of the Liberator. But the soothsayers seemed to be on his side: the sudden disappearance of the Perpetual Protector placed real power in his hands, since now as the chief of the Armed Forces, it would not be difficult for him to take charge of the situation in order to prevent chaos in the country: Esom Esom was a country bumpkin, filled with complexes, ignorant, tribal, he didn’t even know how to write his own name, and now that the man who was everything to him was extinct, he was reduced to his own shadow; and Gumersín, a pusillanimous dandy, a mere adornment, did not have what it takes to assume such high responsibility; the others were little people, minor characters, fortunate to be the favorites, easy to neutralize, they would never have the support of the people like him, the beloved, respected and feared, above all when he donned his gala uniform with all the medals exhibiting the crispness and military decorum of a genuine leader of the masses. No one else possessed his acumen, his courage, his audacity, qualities hidden during thirty-six years of submission. Now was the moment to put these traits to work. But he would leave nothing to chance, it was necessary to highlight his unquestioned merits. So all he had to do was to entrust the head of his nephew to the sorcery of agile and efficient witch doctors, always affirming the authority of the ancestors and the permanent protection of the benefactor-spirits. Everything was perfect. Failure impossible. He felt it in his gut, it was a good feeling. He smiled to himself. Careful not to reveal such seditious thoughts that might give him away, since it was possible that the uncouth and silly Esom Esom might very well have the esoteric ability of mind-reading, powers transmitted to him by numerous medicine men and marabus who made sure that the family would remain in power, assuring success in the arduous and dangerous task of governance, or by foreigners who trained him in the ignoble rudiments of scrutinizing the intimacies of others, he stealthily checked around the room, and he rested easy only when he saw that all the eyes around him were fixed on the strange and admirable wonder in front of them: the overgrown erect member, whose silhouette fluttered in the whiteness of the bed sheets.
The unnerving quiet belied an intense inner agitation. They contemplated that strange and extraordinary phenomenon with feverous solemnity, the provocation presented by the death of a toreador as he lays proud and rigid with his sword, like the mast of a sail ship, another prodigy of the Supreme Master who had just embarked on the journey to eternity leaving them terrified orphans. Urgent action was necessary. What would be their immediate fate? Power? Exile? Imprisonment in one of those gloomy cells designed for subversives? Death? Would they taste the bitterness of poverty after so much opulence? It all depended on who would get the biggest piece of the pie, and each one of them was betting on himself as the one in charge of administering the inheritance coming from the great Nze Mebiang. They trusted no one, suspicious of everything, aware of the great impending chaos. Demons had been unleashed. With the cunning of a tiger ready to attack or the danger of a trapped lion, the sons of the tribe measured their own weaknesses and strengths: the first offspring of the Grande Dame, Gumersín, fatuous and irresponsible, had been in charge of all the ministries and now was head of the Department of Special Cases, recently returning from who knows where, determined to push all the buttons to make sure he would receive the booty, with the assurance he would have the support of his mother, he intended to retire all those old retrogrades who were destroying the family; he would leave them in poverty, just as his father had done to the descendents of his predecessor; the half-brothers, coronels Monsuy me Nze, Governor of the Island Region, specialists in sophisticated torture techniques; the cousins, Commandant Ayecaba Mesaa, director of National Gendarmerie, and Eyi Medang, Admiral of the New Forces, whose fleet consisted of a single coastguard ship which was Uncle Sam’s gift and whose function was to transport the most conspicuous subversives into exile, it had once been a noble battle ship in the glory days of the war in Vietnam, and the nephew, Eyegue Asúu, an affable ruffian, eternal minister of Economy and Finances, not easy for him to navigate through the entanglements of macroeconomics, clueless in the management of the budget, yet rigorous and astute in his real responsibility: to kick back funds, to plunder state revenue in the benefit of Number One and to make sure the highest members of the tribe’s oligarchy would be compensated properly knowing that their mentor and commander would cover them; and at last there was Ela Ngomo, ambassador to the United Nations, an expert in verbal tricks to defend his uncles against persistent criticisms from the opposition having to do with violation of Human Rights, he painted a picture of the country as a model of democracy and prosperity, even more perfect than the United States; and above all that dangerous and arrogant hypocrite, Abaha Si Melén, the dead man’s brother in law, skillful at poisonous schemes that leave no trace, brother of the Grand Dame, lord possessor of Natural Resources. Each one devised ways to assume the place of the Elevated One, repressing any indication of resistance by keeping ahead of the others to fill the vacuum left by the dead man, with no regard to the means, imposing order so as to save themselves from the possibility of the opposition’s seizure of power: that crowd of resentful malcontents claiming to be fighting for liberty when in reality their only program consisted of bringing down the government so that they could possess the public assets and bring back the people to colonialist slavery. The dreaded time had come: it was all against all, either me or chaos.
Niña Tasia whimpered all huddled up in a corner, her eyes covered by the palms of her hands. More than the misfortune of being widowed at the age of nineteen, what scared her was having been the cause of her husband’s death –the direct cause?– all because of the demands of her youthful body, demands the lustful old man could not satisfy; his legendary virility had been reduced to interminable, monotonous, and oniric harangues about his past adventures, all unbelievable to her, because he cried like a baby when he found he was incapable of deflowering her. But above all, she was terrified about the uncertainty of the future, how would my husband’s relatives react after the funeral, they’ll blame me for his death because he died between my legs. I’ll be mistreated, jailed, or separated from my children, I’ll be confined to my miserable little town where the cement house that my father asked for as a dowry is still under construction, all because of the miserliness of a man highly respected among the most upstanding magnates, the most powerful people on earth who humbled themselves in front of him even though they took him for a delinquent, an opportunist, a cretin who every week took great pleasure in counting the money that came to him in suitcases left at his various palaces, examining the numerous bills he distributed to certain international corporations; always taking great care in scrutinizing where every cent was going; his accumulated fortune was the cause of much merriment. This sly son of the renowned Nze Mebiang, whose enchantments had prepared him to be the leader among the leaders and the richest among the rich. It was a great pleasure to look at the records showing the luxurious mansions he had here and there in the major cities in the world, all this the fruit of systematic robbery of the people’s resources leaving them in abject poverty. Why so much avarice, she thought, after all, we leave this world for eternity as naked as when we arrived. And even when it was not yet time for lamentation, or official mourning, Niña Tasia did all she could to show her sorrow at such an irreparable loss, although in reality all she felt was relief about that sudden moment that would change her life. She was only one of many prisoners in the harem. It was necessary to act with intelligence and discretion, be cautious in every detail, study the gestures, steps, attitudes, words, in order not to end up in Esom Esom’s dungeons and not become a victim of Obigli’s fierce witchcraft, or tortured sadistically by the dissolute nephews, all of whom were standing right there contemplating the defiant prick: so he came out of the battle on top –they said– he was hiding the proof of his victory in his own body, proof that the astute brother of brothers would soon discover. Niña Tasia now regretted the haste with which she had alerted the guard on the other side of the door; the old man had fallen flat on her body as the last breaths of agony ceased: she barely had time to respond or think. She should not have panicked. She well knew the habits of the spirits, and how they would frolic in their nights of witchcraft. This was a country in which the loyal ones went unpunished and the rest of the population was sentenced to death, excepting only the head man and his acolyte, Esom Esom, the only one who humanized him due perhaps to his loyalty. Although she had a dowry –she was as much a wife as the others–, in reality she was only the ninth official concubine of the Supreme Chief, and as much for her youth as for her status as favorite, her rivals could easily turn against her if they conspired with those close to the depraved old man and decided to sacrifice thereby doing what was right under the circumstances. Indeed it was possible to imagine such a concubinage. And what if, in adherence to tradition, Esom Esom was to inherit and marry her? She knew it: there was no possibility of escaping destiny; she could not let the inevitable happen; she would not allow it. I swear: better exile than a boor like that, better to be dead than possessed by a perverted criminal whose hands were dripping with the blood of innocents.
She felt uncomfortable in that ill smelling room; she could not get away from it. What to do? She thought of her mother. Although she had consented to the plan to deliver her to the decrepit powerful man in his attempt to dismiss rumors about a cancer rendering him impotent, in the end Niña Tasia forgave her, for she knew that her mother could not possibly go against the relationship, not only because she was incapable of resisting the tyrant’s coercion, but also because her refusal would cause irreparable harm to her family and her clan. Her sacrifice brought security and well being. Who would dare deny it? Who would go against the family of His Excellency’s favorite? In that world of fear, agony, and baseness, it was the best solution: her brothers landed good jobs; her in-laws –in reality her sisters– all prospered; her friends envied her; she traveled in opulent cars; she had more than enough to eat, and she sent her mother entire sacks of rice and salted fish, pasta, chick peas, and boxes of canned tomato sauce. Her people now ate like the whites. And they got fat. She herself satisfied her own whims more than she could possibly imagine. She traveled to Europe for a manicure or to replenish her wardrobe. Yes, for abortions too. Two of them. It was painful to think of those two crimes, to kill the children of her one-and-only. It led her to a chemical solution with the same innocence–perhaps even with the same devilish attraction–as when she convinced him that the two first pregnancies were the result of his incomparable energy. Filled with pride, he swallowed the story. The old goat’s gullibility was beyond belief. A real fool. But she had to admit that they were both devoted to those seeds in her body: he, the supposed father, because they confirmed to an unbelieving world that his potency was unwavering; and she because she had conceived them in genuine acts of love. No one could ever discover the lie. Only she knew the secret. But she did not dare to add to the scheme: anyone –the other wives, the in-laws, or even he– might doubt his portentous abilities; the whole thing was almost miraculous. Or it was possible that her Lover, heart-struck, might give away the lie. Men were not to be trusted, her mother used to say, and that’s why she aborted. Twice. For her security, her prosperity, and for the good of her family. Later she discovered contraception, and that’s when the anxiety stopped…And she had convinced him a moment ago, that he should take the pill; no, two better than one, the effect would be twice as strong, she encouraged him, smiling, as her fleshy lips swelled, showing her fine white teeth, her clear skin, smooth and tight, and her lovely protruding breasts, like ripe mangos. It did not take long for him to fall on top of her, with his thing ready, as ready as it ever was, a bit grotesque, really. It seemed a joke; later she was scared and she lost her wits. Terror devastated her. As the God of Justice was here witness, it was not her intention. It had all happened by His design. She was merely an instrument in His will. Never had it occurred to her that two pills could lead to death. She only wanted to enjoy herself a bit at his expense, make merry with him, give him a pleasurable afternoon, nourish his petulance. But what was done was done, and no one would believe the truth, that a mere accident had accelerated History. She had managed to fulfill the wish of half the country; they could think of a treacherous intention, they could think of her as a shrew, an heartless monster at the service of the radical opposition or international terrorism, an enemy of the regime that had been feeding him so sumptuously, who knows… And in which case… Perhaps… Perhaps it was better to think of the facts in her favor, she was well respected, feared; she had climbed to the top and now she was “somebody” in society, not the anonymous girl, skinny, poor and pretty, until she danced for him as part of a public performance four years ago. It was then that she had begun to learn to be a Lady, as her subordinates and everyone called her, only to leave behind that rude peasant she was destined to be before then. All that in return for silently putting up with his snorts, his repugnant hands all over her, his repulsive withering skin, his disgusting toothless mouth when he took out his false teeth before bed. Yes, security and prosperity in return for keeping his secrets, lying by omission, feign always, say nothing always, always. She did not remember being young. She never enjoyed life. She was never happy. She became aware of this many years later, at first as the days passed, she was dazzled by the ideal of a soft and pleasurable life, from the first moment she had become older like him, obligated to move along those dangerous paths to keep her honor intact and not commit a carless error that might awaken the ire of the vengeful ogre. Always rise above the snares. Know how to contain his emotions. Fearlessly and vigorously stand off the adversity that plagued her miserable existence in her golden cage. But then melancholy became a permanent condition, just like the animals she saw one day in a zoo in Europe, where the frolic and noise of the lions, tigers, and monkeys lacked spirit, that spontaneous merriment of beasts not in captivity. Calculating each step, measuring each word, each gesture. Sadness, infinite sadness in her dry eyes, dry because they were tired of crying. Her body was yearning for tenderness, unsatisfied by the feigned submission to a conjugal obligation. She had suffocated herself in her luxurious dwellings, insufferable cages, without any companionship other than that of children, without any grip on reality, the irremediable tedium of the days and nights. Was it worth it? She remembered her mother’s advice, be strong, my daughter, and very patient, and never forget that a woman’s success comes from being a mother, and from fortitude. She remembered her loving caresses, empathy that transcended understanding. She would have loved to have her by her side at that moment, lose herself in her mother’s warm embraces so as to guide her at a time of such danger, but her mother was far away in her village. She was alone, atrociously alone. What to do? Although… Perhaps she was not alone: he too was thinking of her, yes, no doubt she needed him more than ever, nestling herself in his chest would calm her. To her, he was the indubitable triumph of good over evil, the certainty of the end of an unfortunate destiny, the hope for future splendor. Only he, with his abnegation, brought the hope of such a banal life. Only he could suffer with her, compensate for all the bitterness. Only he, just a few steps away, behind the closed door, embittered by jealousy and spite, humiliated by powerlessness, eaten by hatred, suffering in silence, was always waiting impatiently for the sly one to leave. Waiting for him to dose off in one of those lethargic, humid afternoons, in a corner of any one of his palaces, then he would come to her, taking advantage of any interruption in his daily habits only to prize himself with whatever the rotten old man had left of her, to possess her stealthily in all her fire, desperately welded to her as if it were his last opportunity before the end of the ages. At times she would dream of killing him and they would live a new life together; it couldn’t be so difficult since he was always one step behind him, carrying his wallet and his mobile phones or offering him a thrown in which he could rest his voluminous rear end. But she didn’t even allow herself the thought: fantasy gave way to anguish. Certain desires are more dangerous, more sinful than carnal infidelity, more than that love that smelled of death placing them at the edge of a disaster that passion fortified by the terror lacerating her senses both in the absences and each time she was with him. Was it worth it? What would become of him, of her, of the innocent children of all their family, now that she pondered the caressing possibility of feeling clean and free for the first time?
Less bewildered than the others in that dark enclosed room, spotless, tastefully decorated, Niña Tasia decided to wait. No one knew for what, it didn’t matter, only that they should make something good of this. Think. Measure. Calculate. Leave the enigma to the passing of time. Perhaps they had reached the end of the game. Perhaps the trumpets of Jericho had already sounded. Or perhaps not all was lost and there was a way to find salvation. These were indolent beings, brutal, now stupefied by the mist of their own tortured souls; they sensed that their time was ending as they prayed humbly and arduously to the protecting spirits and to all the gods of the universe that they would have the perseverance to control the situation and come out alright. They must not hurry. Never grow weak because miracles could happen: His Excellency Field Martial Don Gumersindo Nze Ebere Ekum, President of the Republic, Chief of Sate and Government, Commandant of The Army, President-Founder of the Party of the People’s Wellbeing, Invincible Head and Supreme Guide of the Nation, had passed the final test, and at any moment he could reappear from among the dead to restore the order, peace, and harmony that happily reigned in the country.