The Black Man with a Horn has an Epiphany on the L3 – Raphael Kariuki

Rows of bright yellow plasteel seats on white rubberized floors, strips of aluminium-alloy and clear plasteel panes, the world outside streaks past in colour-coded blurs between programmed stops. Efficient whirs precise hisses. It’s the giant sequencer playing the giant song, and now, on another quiet, chilly dawn, a lone note walks along the staff, a few octaves down.

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An unremarkable book

A few weeks ago, in an agreeably empty coach in the Tom Mboya L3 at around 5.00am, I found a book. Nothing special, just a book forgotten in a MATT. 

A book!

To call me old would be inaccurate. I am immortal. And for longer than history have I cultivated the habit of a keener sniff, with many wonderful tales to tell as a result. And here was the beginning of another one. Now, chances of finding a book anywhere in this or any other city on earth in this age are very, very, very thin. Not impossible, just thin thin. But being a book wasn’t the only thing fascinating about the book. Something seemed curiously inviting about its situation. No, it felt practically thrust at your face by the starkly contrasting yellow of the cold, faceless seat. Of course I picked it up, and was immediately struck by the remarkable state of its preservation (it was a paperback). Disappointingly though, novelty was about all there was to it, about a third of the way through, and I was tempted on many occasions to forget it as well in some random coach. Still, I read on, one story at a time (it was a collection), always in the MATT, half-hoping to maybe meet the owner, who might be a frequent commuter of my current haunt on the L3.

When you have witnessed the risings and fallings of oceans and continents, when you have blinked back at the earliest stars at the first dusk, you acquire, er, a taste for adventure. And, now and then and a lot, you have these experiences that serve as constant, pleasant reminders that you are still, what, surprisable.  A blessing indeed. They often leave one with an energizing sense of wonder, a refreshing anointing of sorts…

The book of the matter was Cthulhu 2000, “A spine-tingling collection of the macabre inspired by H.P Lovecraft,” edited by Jim Turner. It was a first edition, first printed in 1999. A rather under-whelming collection of stories that did not quite live up to the association with the legendary writer’s name so prominently placed, no, emblazoned across its cliché cover. Still, one story at a time. Until I got to the one that, with absolutely no warning, opened up and swallowed me whole with the turning of a page. 

I landed head first in the deliciously bizarre piece of drama that follows.

 

            Black Man with a Horn, by T.E.D Klein

The story was titled “Black Man with a Horn,” by a septuagenarian author at the end of his tether, one T.E.D Klein who is at pains at the beginning to establish that it is not a work of fiction. Even though it is written in first-person past tense, the reader should not presume the mystery solved, on the strength of the obvious fact that writer must have survived whatever perils to tell the story. Not so, stresses Klein – and quite the opposite, it turns out. He is only writing what he can before the unstoppable creature of darkness catches up with him too. And even beyond that, the ancient abomination lurks in the shadows still…

What follows is an entertaining one-hour read that is part Tin-Tin, part Indiana Jones, part Catherine Miles. Klein even mentions that he would have liked to make works of fiction out of the events surrounding Mortimer’s encounter with the extinct Tchortchos of the islands of Malaya, they provided him with sufficient material for “two or three plots.” Unfortunately, he never gets to work on any story. Instead, the aged writer leaves us with a simple, quivering account of the events that eventually led to our meeting, him and I, and his subsequent demise.

Klein was from 1970s New York and jaded. He had seen all there was to see in his time. Back here, this superstreet was just getting started. Anyway, Mr.Klein seems to have heard of me for the first time from a former missionary suffering paranoid delusions, on a shared Air Malay flight to New York from London. The man claimed to be on the run, being trailed across the continents from Eastern Asia by this mysterious black man with a horn, the herald of death. Mortimer was the fugitive’s name.

Mortimer narrates a harrowing story of the missionary experience with natives and cults and so on, leading up to an assignment in an unknown region of the Malayan archipelago that brings him into contact with the dark forces that had haunted his shadow since.  Having downed both his faith and tools, he was intent on making it to the safe shelter of a familiar, normal American life.

Death catches up with Mortimer in America nevertheless. Somehow, his passing is connected to a mysterious man with a Malaysian passport, who has been staying for a long time in a hotel in Mortimer’s town. The man has been seen with a negro child at times…

A boy detective still alive in T.E.D Klein starts hunting for the clues, in museums, libraries, newspapers and other secondary sources between New York and Miami. Through the forgotten transcript of an obscure documentary recorded decades earlier, the trail ends in dark Asian jungles whose true names will never again find utterance, where, he meets his quarry, the demon Shoo Goron. The demon gets identified in a scene where a child sketches its picture on an exercise book, as they always do, and spells out the name. The picture is of a dark man blowing a large horn. “no blow out, blow in.” Knowing the demon’s name and last recorded location seems to achieve nothing for Mr.Klein apart from solidify the sense of dread that’s been growing in him. Now he knows the nightmare is real and his turn is next…

 

My reaction

The part in the documentary where they identify the horn-blower as a demon, I nearly hit the alloy roof during evening rush hour. That was the moment I decided to write a short story of my own.

 

            My story

In ages recently past but long forgotten, we spent much time with the scattered humans of the jungles and wilds. Over generations, protocols and traditions had evolved to guide the affairs of the varied souls of the forests. It was a more interesting ecology then, when spirits were not strangers. I must confess that I still consider the woodland savannah that grew here then, long before the GRID, more, what, wholesome. Quieter times, when the horn was heard as the music of the wind. They were wild days, but these ones are far wilder, in their ever increasing new ways. The jungle has never been thicker.

I frequented East Asia a lot, as a matter of social preference, before the ever-restless winds of humanity started blowing across the earth in new streams. Our interactions with the people referred to as the TchoTcho/Chaucha/Tchortcho/etc lasted up until, at last, the new order had to be, ending with the great final parting.

WTF, so I am the demon? Shoo Goron, the black man with the horn? Yes. No. Wait, wait. Remember that this story has primarily been based on Mortimer’s recollections, which are by no means irrefutable. Indeed, Mortimer does not appear to have held robust enough a mind for an accurate recount of the events at the heart of this comedy. I’ll have to tell you a bit of old Morty’s story before we proceed.

 

            Jehovah’s Juggernaut goes partying

Mortimer was a middle-aged Christian missionary, those “infernal nuisances”, destroyers of civilizations, of the gentle type known as Giant Zealots. They are valued highly for their combination of evangelistic zeal with football-player bulk.

Mortimer “The Holy Bear” was already some sort of celebrity around the islands of New Guinea, where he had settled some tricky issue by challenging a great chief to an epic wrestling duel, which he won with divine assistance. “Heaven’s Heavyweight!”

But by the time Mortimer was landing on the muddy mangrove beaches of his last assignment, here to provide much needed muscle for the planting of a new post deep in the rainforest, he was a man firmly in the choke-hold of a personal crisis that slowly, secretly, tightened its grip. You could see the turmoil within on the giant zealot’s honest eyes. Let’s just say he was not in the best state for the kind of encounter through which we were to meet.

People draw too many conclusions from those so-called first impressions. The thing is many humans never really pay attention, themselves too occupied of their own presentation to notice yours. Equally complicated are those situations where someone creates and sets an impression of you before their eyes without having seen you, or without looking. A spectacular variety of fears, desires, prejudices, assumptions, passions, traumas, regrets, vanities and many other insects are constantly flying noisily in and out of human heads, through the orifices and in the brains.

The moon of the night was sublime. Full and radiant against a clear, dark sky. The jungle felt extraordinarily alive. The celebrations in the clearing had been picking up the energy steadily. The glittering voices of playing children rose up with the sparks of the many fires burning in the great circle, joining beetles, moths and flies of all hues and timbre in the energetic air above the clearing, you could touch the buzz. A midnight carnival of dance, revelry and a healthy amount of what men like Mortimer and Klein feel happy to label “pagan rites”. It was after one such rite, this one meant to officially welcome the spirits of the forest into the gathering, that we were meant to manifest. And manifest we did.

Mortimer was at the party. The party happened to be happening a few days after the sudden disappearance of his Christian Man Friday. Please allow a quick diversion, we’ll be back at the party but this information will help much in understanding the upcoming incident involving the missionary. Circumstances surrounding the grounds-keeper’s disappearance differ significantly from Mortimer’s recollection to Klein, as re-told in the latter’s writing. The thing is, Mortimer had, over the years in the East, acquired a thorn in the flesh in the form of a liking for a certain local preparation made with tincture of poppy. This unholy appetite was at the root of the lonely struggle of God’s Gorilla, so far from home… By the time he had made contact with the Chaucha, the increasingly worldly-wise man had lost a great deal of his original fervor. Consequently, he approached this latest task with, well, a more open mind. This led to a state of rather comfortable compromise with the heathens that was not unnoticed by the grounds-keeper, a dependable man still loyal to the head of the mission over at Borneo. Hence his disappearance.

Anyway, on that night, old Morty sat back on a long, low cane chair in a state of pure bliss, on a pleasant, surreal mushroom trip accentuated by the gay sights and sounds awash over him.  He also seemed to be enjoying the company of two teenage girls, both apprentices of the medicine-woman, both probably sent to him by the chief, both old friends of mine.

The drums start a slow, steady, hypnotic ascent over the party noise.

A few sleeping insects stir.

The drums grow stronger, heavier, faster, until the forest now seems to reverberate with a deep syncopated rumble… I blow a few teasing notes through the trees, we’re all poised on the tips of our toenails on taut piano wire, waiting-

A swarm is forming around Mortimer’s head.

– for the drums to stop dead. Then the soul-drying scream of a talented virgin, at that very moment of the hush, tears a bleeding gash through the shocked air, trailing off in singular moans that echo across the world, searching through trees…

We manifested.  Right in the middle of the circle, holy chaos of creation, another riot! Our set for the night started with an intro from my horn, and I fittingly opened with a hurricane, ruffling the heads of trees in the periphery before every being in the vicinity jumped in, and the tree trunks rumbled and vibrated all around. A true spectacle, always enjoyable, the dance of the mixing of spirits.

One guest did not appreciate the idea, unfortunately. Constantly in the torment of a deeply buried conviction (one that lay in cold, dank coils just beyond the reaches of his conscious mind secreting a stream of toxic guilt into the soul, unnoticed) Mortimer was helplessly in the grip of a very strong notion in his mind that he was due for a great and deserved punishment, he had sinned with foreign gods, he lusted after foreign women… In that moment Mortimer realized that all his life, he had been living for this moment, this was where his road ended, where the just wages of sin finally catch up with him. Death. And here it is. In this infested Sodom and Gomorrah in the forest, wallowing in wickedness and iniquity, the betrayer of the lord faces his nightmare, at last.

A bunch of high spirits enters the party in style.

A hoard of dark demonic beings emerges out of the very foul air of a feast of sin and evil, landing on the earth only a few yards away, in an orgy of the most foul dancing of godless savages and with so much terror that all sphincter control immediately gives way. This is followed by dozens of sharp, sudden internal stabbings, as shards of guilt and loathing, originating from deep inside, trigger a flurry of mercifully light heart attacks that nevertheless leave the big sinner unconscious. The following morning, struggling to get the sound, no, the voices of the great loathsome horn out of his head, he rows the yellow dingy out into the lagoon and away, never to be seen again. He floats in hazy silence through the shrieks and screams of hundreds of millions of cursed cicadas and birds, at a loss to explain his reanimation, distantly accepting it as a second chance…

And that’s where the story actually starts.

 

A loose end

About the Malaysian passport holder and the negro child, investigations found the matter to be of more importance to the immigration department.

 

The end of Mortimer’s story

Whatever good old T.E.D Klein learnt from his friend Mortimer, his own, first-hand experience of the hellish “scuba negro” is almost certainly the most interesting part of his story, for he did not live to tell.

 

Meanwhile, back in the L3

Tom Mboya L3, superstreet, is as alive and mysterious a place today as it ever was. Despite the concrete/alloy lattice that is the GRID, which has replaced the sky with an energy-efficient light distribution system, despite nearly all the minds running MESH in the background nearly all the time, despite the Consumer Credit Control, a soul that was never born, an immortal affair, is happy to have a supply of constant surprises that never seems to run out of material for plots. It is never boring.

            Grow old along with me,

            The best is yet to come.
 

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INDEX

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01. The 4L Urban Transit System

The 4 tier carriageway system of Tom Mboya accords it the status of Superstreet, core trunks of the city’s famous 4L Urban Transit System. The four tiers are designated L4, L3, L2, L1. L4 is at ground level, corresponding closely to the original street layout of the city, though with certain significant alterations done in places to align closer to the greater, multi-level GRID. L4 is used almost exclusively for industrial/commercial transport.

The next level above, L3 where you find the Mass Transit Track or the MATT. This is an elaborate, fully automated affair built around thousands of independent MATT coaches that circulate one way or the other around the track or oscillate between two stations, on frequencies determined by a computer that makes predictions of traffic patterns based on incoming commuter route requests, sampled in 5 minute intervals. L3 is, as would be expected, a most energetic zone of trade, and the shops in the grid at this level are literally stacked above each other like the cartons that hold their wares. The L3 tier holds an average of 8 million people at any given moment, and rush hour peaks of double that number surprise nobody.

L2, above, is essentially a semi-private MATT, for those willing/able to pay significantly higher credit for the added prestige, more and better shopping, more and less crowded coffee bars. Above it is the L1, reserved for government and VIP traffic. This is the only level where private, human-driven cars are allowed. There are no trains here.

The multi-level carriageways of the 4L run stacked above each other in an elegant yet utilitarian design universally considered an architectural wonder. The 6pm traffic management spectacle is just as celebrated, for its remarkable efficacy.

The 4L system is the main factor behind the rise of the complex, interconnected superstructures that give Nairobi its singular topographic profile, dominated by the new great pyramids.

 

02. Wapi mat za buru?

Excuse me, wapi mat za buru buru? Mimi ni mgeni, sijawahi kuingia tao…

Er, ok. Sasa hivi tuko L3, Tom Mboya Superstreet. Ukitaka kwenda buru, kwanza unafaa kujua iko zone gani. Tumia info-terminal kama hii hapa, ama uliza MESH. Ukishajua zone, kwa mfano najua buru inakuanga East Zone, enda kwa MATT station kama ile pale, ungojee the next coach yenye inaflash “EastZone” kwa kibao. Hizi ma-coach ni mingi, so hautakaa hata 5 minutes. Ukishapanda moja utajua inapofika station ya east. Ukiwa east, tafuta ka-interface kama haka, enter destination kutoka hii drop-down menu, halafu utapatiwa a choice of routes, na pia estimate ya time and credit. Reply with the route of your choice halafu utapatiwa S-MATT Card disposable yenye imeprogramiwa route yako. Ukifika EastZone exchange, swipe kuingia gate ya route yako. Haitawork ukiswipe kwa gate ambayo haiko kwa card.

Asante!

Karibu!

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