Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   w i l l i a m    o r e m   ~   w a l t h a m,   m a s s a c h u s e t t s

ON THE night Johnny Renelus was turned into a zombi, he hopped out of his coffin, ran to the house where his mother and four sisters lived, and kissed them in their sleep.

"I'm sorry, manman," he he whispered to the old woman's curled form, awkwardly bent over the sid with the missing arm as if she were protecting something. "But I'm so dead now. Ain't no help for it."

In the greenish moonlight he could see the grave-dirt marking their cheeks where his lips had touched.

On the second night he lay out in the uncut grass of the Titanyen graveyard and waited for the bokor to make his call. When a dead man is made zombi, the bokor can claim him as a personal slave; he will have to do anything the bokor wants, for as long as the bokor wants it. Some, Johnny knew, had been sent down into the sand mines to labor all night, like tireless mules; some had crossed the border into the D.R. to turn the massive wooden spikes of the sugar mills, in the days before electric machinery. Some were the bokor's personal servants: they stayed in his cellar like rats and rose whenever he called them, carrying the bokor's horse if it was tired and singing songs from the dead stench of their mouths. Johnny had heard of one night when the bokor had friends in his house. In order to amuse them he had one of his zombis hold out its hand and the bokor set the thumb on fire with a match. They lit all their cigars from the burning hand and then they sat back and watched the zombi's face as his thumb slowly dripped and blackened. The expression never changed.

Now it was his turn. He had died of malarial fever, gwo chalè, and it had taken him too long to wrestle his spirit out of the confines of the flesh. That was his fault. His friends at the woodcutting shop, when they found out he had the chalè and was not going to be able to shake it away or live with it, advised him to die quickly.

"Get on out of the skin, man," Ezil Layaren said. "Give it away before Nwa-nwa sees you go. You can beat him to it."

The others all nodded agreement. Nwa-nwa was the name given to the bokor around Les Cayes, although his real name was Rouleau Piti. He called himself Nwa-nwa and all the people Johnny knew called him that, and besides, it was bad luck to pronounce the bokor's family name even if you knew who he was. The moment you did it you opened up a connection between the bokor's name and your own name, like opening a window that would follow you around all day. The bokor could look through and see you there, just as if you had called him.

The bokor had not liked Johnny Renelus when he was alive. They had not been enemies, but one day the bokor walked into the shop when Johnny was working, and out of all the woodcutters, only Johnny had refused to bow his head.

"You know who I am?" the bokor asked him.

"Know about you," Johnny said, brushing sawdust from his upper lip where the sweat made it stick. He was just doing his work, not looking up at the bokor but not looking away either; he was doing his work.

"Why you don't bow your head, boy?" the bokor said. "Why not?"

"Don't see no king of the world in here," Johnny said. He was doing his work and he hadn't meant to make a scene with the bokor, only now the bokor was confronting him in front of the others and an anger was rising inside Johnny and he knew he wasn't going to back down. The anger was red and thin, like a vein growing inside him, and whenever he felt it he knew he wasn't going to back down, not even to a Macoute. His mother had told him once that this anger was both his fortune and his curse, same as it had been for his father; when Johnny felt it before he had raised his fist to a Macoute man and once to two men with machetes. He did his work.

"We'll see," the bokor said.

After he left the woodcutting shop Johnny's friends swore that the bokor had cast something at him, just subtly, before walking away. Some said they had seen a quick flick of his hand in Johnny's direction, others that he had raised a finger and marked the air around where Johnny stood with a point. Johnny himsellf had seen nothing. It was not long afterward that he caught the chalè that killed him.

So he had tried to die quickly, going home at once to his mother's house when he coughed blood into his hands and knew for certain that the heat and the sweating were not going to stop. He went home to the little house near the water at Les Cayes where he had been born and lay down on the same woven mat and tried to die. But it would not come.

"What you lying down in the middle of the day for?" his sister said. She was walking through on the way to her own job; she had found work a month ago, and the day before her boss had told her and her friends to only come in half-days now because he didn't need bamma any more than that. Her boss was a white man from South Africa.

"Trying to die," Johnny said.


"Trying," he said.

When his mother heard he was lying on the mat in the middle of the afternoon she at first became angry, believing he had been fired. Then she knelt over and smelled him for tafia.

"You drunk, boy?" she said.

"Trying to die, manman," Johnny said without looking up. He was half-curled on the mat and the sweat came down off him in little audible drops. "I got the chalè and I got to die fast."

"Oh my baby," his mother said then, her stern broken features softening and the one arm trying to take him in and rock him. "Baron leave my baby be, leave this one be…" But Johnny remained bent halfway on the floor, and all his manman could do was to roll him back and forth like a wooden horse on rockers. In a little while he was dead.

On the third night he came out of the coffin again and walked around the colorless grass of the cemetery and listened to the waves landing softly beyond the line of scrub. He wondered that the bokor had not come to claim him, wondered how long he would have to wait for the labors to begin. It seemed to him he had been dead a long time now, and the numbness that had begun creeping over him the first night had grown until he felt every part of his body was beginning to disappear: he wondered if he were even still made of physical stuff or if he had passed over already into a spirit-body. He went and kicked his foot lightly against the side of the stone mausoleum where he had been laid by his mother and sisters and a small crowd of people, the sisters whooping loud and his mother resting herself down against the lid of his coffin while the priest threw soil and tried to say something about the future life of the just. But he could not feel anything. His toes seemed numbed and absent; it was only on inspecting them that he found they were still in place. His fingers too were strangely numb and disappearing. He decided he must be vanishing into spirit form by by bit, like an angle of shadow as the day increases. Perhaps if he waited long enough, Johnny thought, his body would slip out of itself completely and he would be free, rising up above the palms and dappled banyan trees like a clean shaft of moonlight. Then the bokor appeared.

He was standing at the gateway to the cemetery, wearing a formal suit and Baron Samedi hat and carrying a cane, his hands luminous inside two white felt gloves. He looked as if he were wearing the fanciest clothes he had, which were not entirely black but a deep shade of gray with pinstripes in the jacket and a slightly wider stripe in the pants. He stood halfway in and halfway out of the cemetery and called out.

"All zombi mine, come on here," the bokor said, in a long, sing-song kind of way. "All you zombi made mine, come on here."

Johnny went to him and stood by.

"The that best clothes your family have to buy you in?" the bokor asked, flicking grave dirt unhappily from his shirt collar and cuffs. "Well, well. It just have to do."

At the bokor's house Johnny was set to work carrying plates and bottles back and forth from the kitchen. The bokor was entertaining a large number of guests all the time, and different groups came to see him almost every night. There were people from the army, wearing their olive-green uniform pants and casual shirts thrown over them; one night a man who was called the General came by, drinking heavily and smoking cigars inside the house and laughing. It was not Namphy or Désinor, Johnny knew, because the General was a mulatto and Johnny had seen photographs of these men in the Haïti Progres when he had been alive. But the General apparently enjoyed the bokor's parties, because he came back several weeks in a row, and always when he was in the room there were people standing around him and laughing loudly when he laughed. The General drank constantly and sometimes he shifted his fat belly in the chair where he always sat, sliding his pistol around underneath the belt so it would not stab him.

"More clairin, zizi," the bokor said to Johnny, calling him by his zombi name, the name that held power over his soulless body. Johnny brought clairin and tafia for the General, and the General would laugh whenever he saw Johnny and take the bottle from him and toast the bokor. Sometimes the parties went until nearly dawn.

When the party was over the bokor would sigh and tell him to clean up the mess the General always left behind, and later he would come into the kitchen and complain about the food, saying how zombi could not cook. The he would put a spoonful of sugar on Johnny's tongue and light a match and blow it out and send Johnny to the shed out back where the zombis stayed.

Johnny did not know for how long he had been a slave to the bokor, because since he died he had no sense of time. But the moon had risen thin and sparse more than once outside the leaning shed, and it was voluptuous fat again along the mountains on the night when he first saw the bokor's girl. The General was back and had given the bokor a present of a human ear in a box, and the bokor's expression when he opened it made the General laugh until tears appeared on his heavy cheeks. The bokor took the box then and smilingly put it aside, nodding to show it was all right, the General could have his fun; but later Johnny had seen the bokor frantically washing his hands, his expression drawn. Johnny was carrying empty glasses into the kitchen and there she was, the bokor's girl, hollowing meat out of a boiled lobster. She looked up as he came in.

Johnny set the glasses down so they would make no noise. She had a thin, even face that reminded him of sea-turned wood: a large clean forehead shone out underneath her hair-wrap, and her eyes that had first met him when he came into the room now danced in little trills of energy around the lobster meat half-emptied onto a plate. She would not look up.

"You so beautiful," Johnny said. It was the first time he had spoken since his zombification.

"Don't touch me," the girl said, her thin hands going back behind her head once to pull the hair-wrap straight and then working more quickly. "I'm dead."

After that he began seeing her more and more around the bokor's house. She passed him when he was bringing charcoal into the kitchen and her seeing eyes looked at his and away. When the bokor made him clean out the gutters he spotted her in the distance, coming across the treelined fields with a basket of bright mangoes balanced on her head. One evening when the bokor sent him back to his shed Johnny found a yellow piece of paper there with a word written on it in crude strokes of pencil: M'ionet. He folded it into a knot and worked it between two boards.

People continued to come by for the bokor's evening parties and sit on the front veranda drinking or smoking cigarettes with cocaine powdered on them. When the bokor had become a little drunk himself and was smiling steadily from his wicker chair, he would say that some evening he was going to show them his clair lune, a little moon he had caught in a mirror and could hold now in his hands. When he wanted to the bokor could speak in schoolbook French, an effect that was startling. Always the guests wanted to know what was this little moon; some remained quiet, as if leery of being taken in, while others flattered the bokor by saying his powers were surely enough to do such a thing. When they flattered him the bokor called for more rum and more cocaine, and fireworks, and seemed very pleased with himself; but the evening would end and he would always say no, his clair lune had to remain his alone for now. But perhaps they would please him by coming again?

Then one night the General started teasing the bokor, saying how there was no moon kept in a glass; and when the bokor politely assured the company that there was, the General only laughed louder, as if the two of them were in on an unannounced joke. When the General laughed the fat rim of his neck jumped in and out around his collar. The bokor tried to dismiss the subject and ordered more drinks but the General teased him again, and by the end of the evening Johnny could tell the bokor had made himself very drunk. When the first group stood up to leave at dawn the bokor suddenly clapped his hands and commanded them to all sit down.

"Zuzu," he called. "Zuzu."

She appeared from the kitchen in a white dress and hoop earrings. Johnny was amazed to see his zombi girl in clothes like a living woman: her bandana was gone and her hair opened freely out to the night air, framing the lean narrow face, skin the color of sand after water has caressed it. Slowly she cam walking forward until she was full in their midst.

As the men watched, M'ionet began to dance, her legs coming slow and powerful from the edge of her dress and carrying her forward minutely or straight up, up sometimes on the fronts of her bare feet, the pale bottoms of her feet showing, so that Johnny thought in another step she would lift herself into the air and be gone. Then she descended, poured down into the earth with her spine bent low like something flowing, a weird, rhythmless pulsation of movement touching off movement. Around them all she danced, the men on the veranda and the ones standing or crouching in the dry grass, and where there had been sounds of talking and even argument there was now only silence, silence and the little winking eyes of the men's cigarettes in the dark. It was so quiet that after a minute Johnny realized he could hear bugs clicking inside the paper lanterns.

Then she finished her dance and there was a roar of man clapping their hands and calling for anko, encore. The bokor's eyes shone wetly in the candles.

As she walked back into the house the guests all tried to look into her face, but her face had the lifeless quiet again that is the look of a zombi. The General alone stood up from his chair, but the bokor interceded.

"Not this one," he said, taking the General's hand by the wrist. The General looked down at the hand touching his own as if it were a parasite. "This one is special," the bokor said, coughing a little. And he sent her away.

In the weeks afterward, Johnny spoke with M'ionet again in the kitchen. He told her that he too was dead and that she had nothing to fear from him. He touched the calloused edges of her fingers with his own and once his hand found its way to the smooth forehead and gently down to where it met the small bridge of her nose. M'ionet continued to work but when he touched her she closed her eyelids and let him feel across her skin.

Still she was afraid the bokor would hear; always her eyes flashed toward the half-swung doors when they met. Her mother had refused to dance with the bokor at the hill ceremony for Kouzinn Zaka, to which the bokor had only replied, "We will see." That very day she had stepped on a nail on the way home and gotten tetanus and died. She slipped the shoe from her foot and showed him the little bite-kiss where the tip had entered. Now she slept every night in the bokor's room, and even in his bed, although the bokor never touched her. Each night he sat on the side of his mattress and looked at her for a long time, drinking until his head sagged while she danced, slowly, slowly; then he commanded her to undress and get into bed. But when she did he only lay next to her with his arms rigid, staring at the gradual turn of the ceiling fan and sometimes groaning. One night she had moved a little in the bed and when her elbow touched his the bokor shuddered and left the room.

When the moon was eaten thin and sparse again over the hills Johnny took the yellow paper he had kept and passed it back into her hand. On it he had written Zombi, you my love.

The next day the bokor brought him into the house and told him there was going to be another party. The bokor did not seem pleased with this information; and after he had said it and explained the work that Johnny would need to do in preparation, he stood apart and seemed to think to himself for a while. Johnny thought the bokor seemed lonely.

"Well. No use talking to dead man, anyway," the bokor said, and sent him out to chop wood.

The party was larger than the ones he had seen so far. A line of cars and jeeps with tinted windows formed gradually in front of the two-story house, and the drinking began befure the sun had even gone down. Johnny was up and down from the wine cellar and the iceboxes without cease, taking bottles into the kitchen and carrying plates of food out onto tables. There were more men in the olive-green costumes of the army, but this time they had taken care to wear matching shirts and pants and to have their shirts tucked in. There were also men he had never seen before who wore gray, a white man who came with bodyguards and who smoked a pipe made out of a hollow tube of dried corn, and even some who openly wore the red bandannas of the Macoute. No one noticed him as he worked.

Eventually the General showed up, arriving in a jeep with a small red and green flag pushed down into the antenna slot. He was wearing his army uniform and there were medals on the left side of his jacket. Johnny put out his hands to take the jacket but the General ignored him and walked to the middle of the room. He was not laughing tonight.

At twilight the bokor appeared, walking among the guests in a colored sash and loose-fitting shirt that he only wore for ceremonial occasions. He had a bright earring in one ear and had bathed and shaved himself. He walked from table to table with a wide, friendly smile and asked how different people were doing, who would care for more pistaches, had they tried the cheese. Even the slight round of his belly seemed pleasant. When the General sat down in the bokor's own wicker chair, the bokor seemed to consider him for a moment and then, managing a smile, went to a different side of the room.

After a while the bokor clapped his hands and three young men carrying guitars came in. The small crowd that had formed around the punch bowls moved aside and game them a centerspace. The bokor grinned at the room as a whole, and then at the General, who did not smile back. There were men in gray standing around the General now in the bokor's chair, and they did not smile either. The guitarists sang Haïti Chéri and then started to play a merengue tune that had been popular the year before, and some of the people who had been drinking the most tried to dance with their women. Halfway through the second piece the General clapped his own hands. The music stopped.

"M'ionet," he said.

From behind one of the punch bowls the bokor nodded a little, the wide grin staying on his face before and after like a pinned-on thing.

"M'ionet," the General said again, and he did not smile and the men around him did not smile.

"Well, well. The dead ought to be buried," the bokor mused pleasantly, as if this were an observation that might be applied to any number of situations. "Don't you agree? My little moon was lovely, wi, but my moon has faded away."

He raised his shoulders slightly to the crowd as if to say: No help for it. The General waited in the wicker chair, not speaking. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses and had not taken them off.

"Give me M'ionet, Rouleau Piti," he said slowly. "Nwa-nwa Piti. Rouleau Piti."

The bokor tried to laugh a second time, but the sound that came from him was too high-pitched, a little dying cough. The guitarists were beginning to look uncomfortable.

"Please," the bokor said to the room, his arms raised slightly in the robe as if he were preparing for a small oration. "We must of course bury the dead… wouldn't you agree? It is only right space…" His second chin shone wet.

Tow of the gray-shirted ones who had come before the General moved in behind the bokor, who had been leaning toward the doorway to the veranda. "Please…" the bokor said feebly, his undrunk eyes going red now around the edges. "Please…"

Johnny stepped out into the center of the room.

"Why don't you bow your head when the bokor right there?" he said to the General. "Why don't you bow it, boy?"

The combined faces of the room turned toward him in a slow rush, like the mounting pressure of an overflowing well. The General's expression dropped into a visible slackness even underneath the sunglasses. His mouth hung a little bit.

"What…" he stumbled. "Who…"

"I said, why don't you bow it? Bow down for the bokor like you should!"

The man with the corn-stem pipe, who had been watching both the General and the bokor from his side of the room, suddenly spread his lips wide and laughed. The General looked as if he had been dealt a physical blow and his entire body began to tremble.

"I'll…have…that…girl!" he raged, beating the weak arm of the chair and half-rising. But it was a mistake: the effect was childish and, in an indecisive moment, he allowed himself to fall back again into the seat. Johnny turned toward the crowd.

"Don't see no king of the world in here," he said.

This time the laughter was spontaneous at all tables, and as the General stormed to his feet the bokor made a sudden run for the veranda. Eyes turned in that direction and Johnny flew through the back door instead, flew through the kitchen and out the back proch even as he heard things inside beginning to shatter: flew because he was spirit now and no longer needed legs nor feet nor earth underneath to give him passage; he was passage itself. He flew past the edge of the bokor's property where no zombi can pass, and passed it; flew past the mapou tree where no spell of the bokor's can be broken, and broke it; flew past scrub cactus and underneath crisp spinning stars until he found himself back at the cemetery, three miles or more from the bokor's place, dancing around the mausoleums and the boxes and the still unspeaking earth. He pulled coffins from their shelves and checked their gummy remains: he knocked lead-lined doors with his fists until they ran like bells: he hallooed into the ground and slapped it with his hands and listened. And when he found the patch of new black loam that had been broken and turned he grabbed out a spade from a pile and dug deep, deep and straight down and with a zombi's unfailing energy, dug until he had found her and popped the ridiculous lid and pulled his love streaming back out of the earth. The night filled in the hole behind them, and the holes left by his enormous feet as he ran; his feet that were becoming more solid and massy with every step, every step ripping free a grave, until the earth on which he trod shook and had to recognize him.

"You feel it right here," Johnny said, his new arms tense and strong under M'ionet's weightless weight. It was the red vein swimming inside him: the vein that started somewhere in his center and moved itself all the way into his fiery throat and his flying head. "That's the anger in me all along," Johnny sang as he ran. "I guess manman was right. I just couldn't put it down."

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