Olufemi Terry

OLUFEMI TERRY has pub­lished fic­tion, poet­ry and non­fic­tion in sev­er­al pub­li­ca­tions, among them Chimurenga, New Contrast and Guernica. His short sto­ry “Stickfighting Days” won the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. He lives in Southwest Germany and is at work on a nov­el.  A ver­sion of this sto­ry will appear in the forth­com­ing Caine Anthology to be pub­lished in August 2011. You can find anoth­er won­der­ful sto­ry of his, “Digitalis Lust,” in the Caine Prize anthol­o­gy in 2008.

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Dark Triad

From the bed­room win­dow, an arc of the city is in view: squat tow­ers ser­ried in uneven, slant­i­ng rows.  Far below are streets like rib­bons of light, filled with slow-going cars. The air is icy clear. In his jour­nal, Ebanks writes,  An old, set­tled city, plain, inscrutable  facades: Europe. It had not been appar­ent when he alight­ed from the taxi that they’d fetched up near the brow of a hill.  The city forms a bowl rimmed by four or five such peaks. He sees unim­ped­ed all the way down into the basin, the city’s heart, where street lanterns blend and blur into an amber haze, and he hunts for a word that will cap his sense of the place. He knows this already:  it’s not right for the next project, which will be an instal­la­tion. Somewhere in the world is an inchoate city, some new Berlin or a Buenos Aires.  All is stale in London, in Paris, noth­ing untried.

Yann, do you want some of this?”

Samia’s in the liv­ing room.  Chopped out on the cof­fee table in front of her are four lines of cocaine.

Where did you get that?”  Ebanks says.

Tewodros left it for me.”   The flat has been loaned them by Tewodros, who he’s nev­er met, for as long as Samia needs it. “Did you think I brought it with me on the flight?” Samia’s not a fre­quent user but a social one; in the last six or sev­en months, the dura­tion, more or less of the rela­tion­ship, she’s invit­ed him to snort a line per­haps eight times. He turns away. He doesn’t care much for cocaine. In an unfa­mil­iar city, on a shiv­er­ing cold night, it’s the last thing he wants. From Tewodros’ liv­ing room, his view is obstruct­ed by a res­i­den­tial build­ing a few hun­dred yards down slope.   Samia snorts a line and anoth­er.  “What are you doing?”

Looking at the city,” he says and, open­ing his leather back jour­nal, he scans what’s writ­ten there about Aleppo, about Oran.  Tomorrow, or the day after per­haps, he’ll begin an explo­ration on foot, trac­ing the streets with his note­book and cam­eras.

The taxi driver’s prob­a­bly down­stairs.” Samia tips the rest of the pow­der back into her wrap.   “You ready?”

Ebanks goes to find a t-shirt that suits his mood. He owns near­ly sev­en­ty t-shirts, all sedi­tious or iron­ic.  He looks over one he print­ed up him­self, green cot­ton with yel­low let­ter­ing:  Baal shoots…  On the back are the words: Jesus saves. Serifs on the B and the S con­note Hebraic script. Ebanks pos­sess­es anoth­er one which invokes Mammon rather than Baal, but in either case the joke does not seem so clever as a year ago.  He choos­es at last a dif­fer­ent shirt, one giv­en him by Samia, an iron­ic gift; Dark Triad is bla­zoned on it in a small  unem­bell­ished font.  A fine irony.

Let’s go, Yann.” Samia’s wear­ing a short coat, bal­loon pant, boots that reach her calves.  Ebanks slides his jour­nal into the pock­et of his jack­et.

 

There will be six oth­er guests; this is all Samia knows, or is will­ing to dis­close, about the din­ner par­ty to which they’re invit­ed.  She gives the taxi dri­ver a slip of paper with an address on it, writ­ten in an unfa­mil­iar hand.  The roads are lone­ly, nar­row; seen from a taxi, the town has a provin­cial look, low-walled, iron gat­ed, with stands of tall leaf-less spruce trees.

A man opens the front door to admit them. “Good to see you again.”   In the warm foy­er of a grand house, he kiss­es Samia’s cheeks.  “Call me sir,” he tells Ebanks, who has no answer to this advice. Sir?  He’s tall, the stranger, very tall with fine, dark skin. And some­thing about him is famil­iar. The man seems to know Ebanks, to rec­og­nize him. He looms close, Ebanks’ hand clasped in his, as if try­ing to see beneath the flesh. Ebanks pulls free; he’s reluc­tant to be known with­out first know­ing.       

The townhouse—a loft—is vast. Towering ceil­ings,  minia­ture and dis­creet light fix­tures. On the white walls are emp­ty pic­ture frames, man-high squares and rec­tan­gles that will nev­er be filled. A postmodernist’s house, mock­ing and self-ref­er­en­tial.   Samia is already in the salon, where oth­er guests are milling. Ebanks has an idea what to expect: voyeurs with one foot each in the worlds of art and hedo­nism, couch­ing their cupid­i­ty in phras­es of ennui;  or else, schol­ars and pur­vey­ors of crit­i­cal the­o­ries of kizom­ba or dub­step. It’s Samia’s crowd; Ebanks doesn’t have one of his own.

A Nigerian woman, a tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist with short bleached brown dread­locks, gives him a vicious hand­shake. A blond man with a red­dened Adams apple is wear­ing a white t-shirt with two words on it:  K(no)w Africa. Beneath the black let­ters is a styl­ized map of that con­ti­nent. nation­al bor­ders delin­eat­ed.  Ebanks stares at the shirt and tries to deci­pher the para­dox. He will, at the first oppor­tu­ni­ty, jot the for­mu­la­tion in his jour­nal.  “Howzit, man?” The t-shirt’s wear­er says, tak­ing no notice of Ebanks’ curios­i­ty. The accent is unplace­able.

Another man there, a black, may be famous but it’s hard to be sure; his eyes are hid­den by sil­ver-stud­ded sun­glass­es. On his cheeks and fore­head are smears like jaun­dice. In Guadeloupe, Basse Terre, there are count­less faces marred, like this one, by hydro­quinone. Skin bleach.  The man’s shoes are dag­ger-like and upcurl­ing; in them his feet appear inor­di­nate­ly long.  Dubai shoes, Samia calls the style. Grand Vizier shoes. Hovering at his shoul­der is a reedy woman that seems con­tin­u­al­ly on the point of say­ing some­thing to him and then decid­ing against it.   Ebanks intro­duces him­self, giv­ing his last name and the woman inclines her head in greet­ing.  The ges­ture strikes Ebanks as old-fash­ioned.  She’s French, he guess­es, or maybe Spanish; Galician. A semi­oti­cian or a decon­struc­tion­ist.  Ebanks expe­ri­ences a faint irri­ta­tion: the let­ters KO are stamped in yel­low on her brown t-shirt. His own is not the only t-shirt bear­ing a leg­end.

He recalls no one’s name. There’s no need. He fix­es peo­ple by what they say, through obser­va­tion. He’s met so far a mild­ly hys­ter­i­cal jour­nal­ist; the man, K(no)w Africa. The semi­oti­cian, who he’s named Ms KO and her com­pan­ion, yel­low fever. Ebanks comes up behind Samia—she is, for the moment, alone—and asks, “Why did that guy tell me to call him sir?”  He means the one that opened the door, who seems now to have van­ished.   

Samia regards him with pin­prick eyes.  “It’s a short­en­ing of his first name, Tamsir.”  Her nos­trils flare.  “That’s Tamsir daSouza-Jones.” She’s gone before Ebanks has a chance to admit he doesn’t rec­og­nize the name. how does Samia know these peo­ple?  Parties, in Samia’s view, are for meet­ing new peo­ple, not for stick­ing close to one’s part­ner.

There’s a fourth woman, wear­ing a laced peas­ant blouse, whom Ebanks has not yet met. She’s tall, with a dom­i­neer­ing, deter­mined face and a com­plex­ion a few shades lighter than his own.  He takes her for a lec­tur­er in a con­ven­tion­al dis­ci­pline: English or History. He does not intro­duce him­self, instead duck­ing into the bath­room so he can take notes undis­turbed. Artificially eclec­tic din­ner par­ty crowd, he writes on a fresh page. Samia’s milieu: Academics and wealthy pseu­do-artists. And yet these people—yellow fever comes to mind—do not real­ly cor­re­spond to his expec­ta­tions of Samia’s milieu, mem­bers of which he finds tire­some.  Who is Ms KO?  Dasouza-Jones (sp?) resem­bles a cul­ti­vat­ed pimp. His poi­son: Ayahuasca or datu­ra? He does not write that he per­ceives some­thing of the shaman in daSouza-Jones’ long dark face, an occult ten­den­cy con­cealed beneath an anglophile façade.

He resur­faces and finds the oth­ers have tak­en seats at the high, round table in a din­ing room adja­cent to the salon. Having absent­ed him­self a while, daSouza-Jones has reap­peared and is seat­ed between Samia and the English pro­fes­sor. Like row­dy school­child­ren, sev­er­al guests talk at once, and under cov­er of the pre­tence of dis­in­hi­bi­tion, of being at ease, each scru­ti­nizes the oth­ers. Couples, it seems, are dis­cour­aged from sit­ting togeth­er.  Ebanks slips into the sole avail­able place, between the Nigerian jour­nal­ist and Ms KO. On her right is the blond man, K(no)w Africa. Yellow fever sits at Samia’s right hand, sun­glass­es in place. He’s so unre­spon­sive to the shouts, to the faint ten­sion, he might as well be deaf and blind.

A serv­er cir­cles the table, pour­ing wine. Samia, eyes down­cast, accepts only water. In a minute, Ebanks pre­dicts, she will get up, go to the bath­room and ingest anoth­er line of cocaine. “What the hell,” won­ders the Nigerian woman, look­ing at no one, “is a Dark Triad?”  She has a voice that will pen­e­trate any chat­ter.

It’s a clus­ter of per­son­al­i­ty traits, typ­i­cal­ly but not exclu­sive­ly found in men.” Ms KO is the one who answers. “The main ele­ments are nar­cis­sism, psy­chopa­thy and Machiavellianism. Women find the com­bi­na­tion irre­sistible, appar­ent­ly.”  Samia opens her mouth and clos­es it. Like Ebanks, she prefers to remain incon­spic­u­ous. Even if nar­cis­sism is a sub­ject on which she’s able to speak at length.

Interesting.”  The jour­nal­ist eyes Ebanks with a hint of reassess­ment. He ignores her.  He wants to ask Ms KO, Are you an ana­lyst?  but he hes­i­tates and the oppor­tu­ni­ty is lost.

Tell me,” Ms KO is turn­ing to the man at her right, “What exact­ly is Know Africa?

K(no)w Africa sits up straight. “It’s an NGO I found­ed to help peo­ple think dif­fer­ent­ly about the con­ti­nent.”

The African con­ti­nent?”  won­ders the TV jour­nal­ist.  A serv­er enters the room, steps over daSouza-Jones’ out­stretched legs and begins ladling soup into bowls.

Our con­ti­nent, yes,” K(no)w Africa’s nod­ding.  “I’m South African.”  It sounds like Sairth Effrican.  “We all have broad and fuzzy ideas but no one seems to know or care much about the indi­vid­ual coun­tries, hey? Hence the paren­the­ses.”  He glances at the shirt with a furtive sat­is­fac­tion.  “The name invites the world to know the con­ti­nent and at the same time to refuse to per­ceive it as an undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed mass of suf­fer­ing and dis­ease.”

Intriguing,” says Ms KO, not at all intrigued. She watch­es yel­low fever in much the same way daSouza-Jones peered at Ebanks while shak­ing his hand.

Samia smiles, mouths ‘Excuse me’ to daSouza-Jones and stands up.   Ebanks tries to catch  her eye.  Into the silence, K(no)w Africa asks, “Do you know who the Wodaabe are?”

Who?” asks the jour­nal­ist.

Wodaabe.  Nomads in Niger and Chad.  They hold nar­cis­sis­tic mat­ing cer­e­monies that last for days. The men use kohl and pow­der…”

Fulanis,” the jour­nal­ist kiss­es her teeth.   “Bororo. Of course now. I cov­ered one of their mar­riage fes­ti­vals in my show. What’s this Wodaabe non­sense?”

I’m Foula,” daSouza-Jones tells the room. Ebanks has a feel­ing he’s miss­ing some­thing; per­haps its no acci­dent the talk of nar­cis­sism has resur­faced.

You sound British,” some­one else—Ebanks can­not be sure which woman it is—tells daSouza-Jones as if lay­ing a charge.

You’re Foula?”  asks the English lec­tur­er. “With a name like daSouza-Jones?”   K(no)w Africa is assess­ing her, Ms KO also, as if her knowl­edge of Fulani names is sus­pi­cious.

We have such names in Gambia,” he says. “Downs-Thomas, Beckley-Lines. My mother’s Foula.”   The top­ic bores him. He’s slouched in his chair, the whiskey in his tum­bler bril­liant beneath the lights.  The shifts in the con­ver­sa­tion are jar­ring and Ebanks expe­ri­ences a momen­tary dis­em­bod­i­ment, a sen­sa­tion like freefall in a dream. Although, it might be fatigue from the long flight. After the meal, if not soon­er, he’ll return direct­ly to Tewodros’ place and sleep.

The guests are eat­ing soup now, and talk­ing each to his neigh­bour rather than to the table at large. Ebanks remains curi­ous about Ms KO but the Nigerian jour­nal­ist snares him in a con­ver­sa­tion.  There are, she con­fides, too many projects on her plate.  She can­not find time for friend­ships, let alone a roman­tic rela­tion­ship.  “The last two months, I’ve been in Mauritius, Ukraine, Sao Tome, South Africa…the con­di­tions in rur­al Ukraine…not much bet­ter than the North.” She goes on with­out con­cern for whether Ebanks is lis­ten­ing. Swallowing care­ful mouth­fuls of aspara­gus soup, he sup­pos­es she means Northern Nigeria. Fragments of oth­er con­ver­sa­tions fil­ter through her words:

It’s inter­est­ing, with the Wodaabe…”

I actu­al­ly agree with what Genet said about betray­ing one’s…”

What are nar­cis­sists,” says daSouza-Jones, “but black holes, suck­ing every­thing into them­selves, swal­low­ing all light, ener­gy, all cre­ativ­i­ty and spit­ting back noth­ing.”

Wodaabe, Wodaabe,” the jour­nal­ist com­plains and it star­tles Ebanks that she is also eaves­drop­ping.  He strains to over­hear Samia’s reply to the Gambian’s remark.   “As if Wodaabe are the only peo­ple worth know­ing about in Africa.”

I was sure,” the English pro­fes­sor says, fin­ish­ing her soup, “I’d be the lone South African here, but there’s actu­al­ly three of us.”

Who’s the third?”  asks K(no)w Africa.

I think that gen­tle­man there’s from the Western Cape.” She stares at Ebanks’ face. “Jy is van die Kaap, nê?” she says in a loud voice and the unac­cus­tomed lan­guage cuts through all talk.

Excuse me?”

English pro­fes­sor makes a face of dis­be­lief. Don’t pre­tend, her expres­sion seems to say. Don’t deny. “You look like a Capetonian.”

Ebanks has heard he could be Persian, or Moroccan, even Israeli. But nev­er this.  “I’m not South African,” he says.

What are you?”  asks the English pro­fes­sor, caus­ing daSouza-Jones to hike his eye­brow.

Ebanks decides to omit men­tion of Trinidad and Guadeloupe.  “I’m a doogla,” he tells her.

What?” The jour­nal­ist says.  “Whetin be doogla?”

An Antillean of mixed Asian and African parent­age,” It is, once again, Ms KO answer­ing a ques­tion intend­ed for Ebanks. All the while, she’s look­ing at Samia and Samia gazes back. Whatever pass­es between the two women goes almost unno­ticed.

English pro­fes­sor tells Ebanks, “Ah, like what­shis­name? Suresh.” She turns to K(no)w Africa for con­fir­ma­tion.

K(no)w Africa says, “What did you say your name was again?”

Suresh?  Ebanks shakes his head at English Professor, sig­nal­ing igno­rance.

What about you?” She is address­ing Samia now. “What’s your sto­ry?”  And with­out tran­si­tion, the room’s atten­tion has swept over Ebanks and on to a dif­fer­ent object. His replies have been imma­te­r­i­al. Even whether or no he’s answered is unim­por­tant.

Samia tilts back her head. “I’m doing research for an anthro­po­log­i­cal book.”   “What field of anthro­pol­o­gy?” Ms KO wants to know.

I’m mak­ing a study of white­ness.”

Whiteness?”   says the English pro­fes­sor,  K(no)w Africa repeats the word like an echo.

Ebanks makes for the bath­room. The serv­er, a woman in an apron and tight black trousers, is gath­er­ing up soup bowls. DaSouza-Jones is apprais­ing her fig­ure and then he draws in his long legs and comes in an instant to his feet; he’s noticed Ebanks depart­ing the room.  “Excuse me,” he says.

The Nigerian jour­nal­ist choos­es this moment to ask, “What are you work­ing on now, Tamsir?”

Are you white?”  K(no)w Africa is ask­ing Samia.

Ebanks, at the door, hears Samia answer, “Parsi,” which is not strict­ly accu­rate.

There’s no oppor­tu­ni­ty to enter the bath­room; on the thresh­old daSouza-Jones catch­es up to Ebanks, and he tens­es for vio­lence. “Come with me,” the Gambian says and moves off in the oppo­site direc­tion to the din­ing room. The house has been designed so that entry to it upper and low­er sto­ries is con­cealed.  Ebanks trails him, curi­ous. The two men tra­verse a stor­age room full of plinths and sculp­tures.  On one wall is a string of sur­re­al­ist paint­ings; sun­sets, vari­a­tions on a theme Ebanks can­not inter­pret.   “I thought Down and Out was genius, Yannick,” daSouza-Jones tells him with­out look­ing round, a ref­er­ence to Ebanks’ most recent project.  His walk is a lope.  “I want to show you some­thing.”

The room daSouza-Jones steps into is dim if not entire­ly dark. He holds the door ajar for Ebanks, who, enter­ing, sees a pro­ject­ed image on the wall fac­ing the entry­way. A mino­taur, a 3D ani­ma­tion; the deep chest heaves with each inhala­tion and it turns its horned head from left to right as if hunt­ing for a scent. At his back, Ebanks hears the door shut.  For a moment,  he can­not com­pre­hend what he’s see­ing. “Where did you get this?” he asks.

Try it out,” daSouza-Jones says. There’s an undertone—amusement—in his voice.  “It still works.”  Ebanks gapes at the screen. DaSouza-Jones holds in his hand a visor, and he prof­fers it to Ebanks. A large LED has been affixed to it, the beam direct­ed upward.  Ebanks thumbs the switch and, with­out pulling the visor over his head, takes two dart­ing strides for­ward. The LED emits a hard white gleam. The pro­jec­tion changes all at once and Ebanks is fac­ing an image he’s very near­ly for­got­ten: a labyrinth of his own design, viewed from above. Within it are two humanoid fig­ures; one is rec­og­niz­able as the mino­taur.  The sec­ond avatar, a man, changes its posi­tion in mim­ic­ry of Ebanks’ quick steps. And the mino­taur now is has­ten­ing toward it.   Ebanks sidles to his left, and the man on the screen does like­wise. The mino­taur appears to lose inter­est in pur­suit. It stands motion­less once more. It works still. Perhaps even bet­ter than before.

Where did you get this,” Ebanks says, for the sec­ond time. There’s no need to inform daSouza-Jones this is his master’s the­sis; the Gambian already knows it.  An intri­cate project, assem­bled from many ele­ments: the pow­er­ful LED; a video cam­era mount­ed on the ceil­ing and aim­ing down­ward; a FireWire cable link­ing the cam­era to a desk­top com­put­er run­ning soft­ware capa­ble of track­ing the move­ment of a bright light and repli­cat­ing it on screen; and a video pro­jec­tor.  Hours and hours of cod­ing went into the project. Curious that Ebank has done no pro­gram­ming since.

Samia, of course.”   daSouza-Jones turns on the light and the labyrinth pales into near-invis­i­bil­i­ty.  “She keeps it here. I cleaned things up a bit, of course.  A cos­tume design­er built the visor, it’s more durable than the one you made.” He says it with­out reproof.

Samia?   Ebanks is look­ing at daSouza-Jones and a Trinidadian expres­sion of his father’s occurs to him: The Gambian is try­ing to mam­aguy him.

You’re not at all what I expect­ed,” daSouza-Jones stoops again over Yannick, his eyes pierc­ing. “You know, I lived in Berlin around the same time you were mak­ing Down and Out. Funny that our paths nev­er crossed.” He turns pen­sive. “What will you do? Here, I mean. It’s noth­ing like Berlin, let me tell you.”

Ebanks is try­ing to mar­shall his thoughts. “I’ll think about my next project. Something very dif­fer­ent from Down and Out.” It’s true. He’ll leave Samia to her writ­ing, her the­o­ry of embod­ied white­ness, of the sub­li­ma­tion para­dox, none of which he ever under­stood.  “I don’t expect we’ll be here long. And I’ll be trav­el­ing quite often.”  He knows already the city does not fit into his plans.

Not long?” The Gambian is laugh­ing.  “You’re mis­tak­en, my friend.  And where would you move?  Buenos Aires is going the way of Paris and New York. You’ve done Berlin. And Syria, those sorts of coun­tries aren’t ready yet for what you do.”  Ebanks shakes his head in con­fu­sion.  “Tell me,” daSouza-Jones is ask­ing, “was Down and Out your idea or Samia’s?”

The ques­tion con­founds Yannick.  “I got it from Orwell,” he says. “You know, Down and Out in Paris.”

Of course, but didn’t Samia give you that book?  Didn’t she sug­gest doing a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion?”

I can’t recall.  A remark from a few moments ear­li­er has snagged his atten­tion. She keeps it here. He asks,  “isn’t this your house?”

It’s Samia’s.” daSouza-Jones turns off the instal­la­tion and retrieves the visor from Ebanks, who’s eye is fixed on the blank wall where the mino­taur had been vis­i­ble. Why did he nev­er give this project a title?  At the time, Theseus seemed too obvi­ous.  “She’s the one who knows these peo­ple. Although, between you and me, I’m not con­vinced any­one out there is who they claim to be.”  He ush­ers Ebanks from the room with a wave of his arm.  “You’ll get used to it here.  You may even decide it is right for an instal­la­tion.”

Samia’s house? They are walk­ing back to the front of the house to rejoin, pre­sum­ably, the oth­ers. Ebanks’ head is swim­ming.  DaSouza-Jones seems to know a great deal.  Plans for an instal­la­tion.  Trips to Aleppo.  He tries to dredge up mem­o­ries of the sequence of events lead­ing up to Down and Out.  He knew Samia only slight­ly when he hit on the idea for the project. Still, with­out con­sult­ing his old jour­nals he can­not be sure.

By the way, this dark tri­ad thing.” The Gambian seems deter­mined to con­found Ebanks, “Is it iron­ic or real?”  And he turns around to get a look at the t-shirt.

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