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Amanda Gersh

Idi Amin Will Get You

 

Cam is saving up. One more weekís pocket money and she will have her Sea Monkeys. She wants these creatures more than anything, more than a broken arm or a limp.

The Sea Monkeys are pictured on the front of their cardboard box: they have monkey heads and mermaid tails and swim in turquoise water with swirly words running through it: Create Instant LifeTM! There is even a king and a queen with coral crowns, and the king has a throne. A throne! Cam does not know if the throne is to be bought separately nor how to get the king monkey onto the throne, but the box says you can train your Sea Monkeys. The training manual is inside.

Camís mother spotted the Sea Monkeys in the window of the toy shop. The cardboard sea, its extreme blue, caught her eye. "Remember water?" she said. In the three months since the transfer to Windhoek from Cape Town, she talks about water all the time because there is no water for flipping-bloody-four-hundred-kilometers. But Cam is prepared to go beachless so long as she gets the Monkeys and soon. She has the round glass aquarium bowl ready for the miniature sea they will live in.

She loves the Monkeysí lashy eyes the most.

Only two more days! Cam moves from room to room in the house. She doesnít want to read and she doesnít want to make a Shrinky Dink. She doesnít want to do anything and she is hateful towards two more days. "How much dollars is one Rand in America?" Cam asks her brother Neil, who is ten, who is two years older than she. He tells her to bugger off or he will throw a dart in her leg. He is worse than usual because his hamster Pete was divided into little bits and scattered around the room by the cat. Cam laughs when she sees a piece of Pete. She laughs, then runs away.

"Appalling," her mother is saying in the master bedroom, when Cam wanders in. Since Camís father joined the Windhoek Business Association, there are appalling monthly dinners, which he says are unavoidable. Mom repeats the word "appalling" and Dad repeats the word "unavoidable" and then Mom applies lipstick. She hates this place and the people in it, from the appalling city to their appalling suburb, Luxury Hill. "This is not my concept of luxury," she tells her Cape Town friends on the phone, as she looks out the window at the desert. "You would not believe this hideous hill."

On the bed, Camís dad tells Pink the four-year-old a bedtime story. It is always the same one over and over, about a butcher bird called Jackie Hangar that flies through the air looking for lizards and field mice to hang on barbed wire fences. Pink loves this story; it makes her laugh and clap. She snuggles in the bed. "Jackie," she says, and sticks her finger in her ear.

The parents leave Cam, Neil, and Pink with the new maid, Baby. Baby is a Herero, which Cam understands means she is at least seven feet tall and must wear a triangular hat. Cam is shy of Baby and does not know what to say. Outside, the air is flat with heat, the sky the color of a saucepan, the color of a headache. Neil tries to make her play with marbles but she wonít. He asks her to stand on his back and crack it but she wonít. He gets angry and swears and she runs to Baby and tells. Baby pats her head and turns on the radio. Neil walks through the living room, tapping a stick on his leg. Cam gets suspicious but he is not in his room or hers and not in the garden or at the pool. She knows then, where he must be and he is, in the shed making a chlorine bomb, measuring sugar and pool chlorine into something made of glass. She shouts. The bomb is the Sea Monkeysí home! But he pushes past her and puts the bomb on the grass. He tells her to shut her face or heíll blow that face up. "Iíll break your head," Cam says, but he is going to blow up the aquarium anyway and there is nothing she can do, he is already filling a bottle with water from the garden tap and pouring it in and if she goes near, she will look like the boy she saw in the newspaper, all inside out from making bombs when his parents were out.

Cam runs and Neil runs. They half-hide behind the shed and watch. The bomb goes off and Neilís face scrunches into a tight fist of pleasure. When it is over, he knots Camís wrists, his chlorine fingers all powdery. "If you tell Iíll get you."

But she does tell and he has to give up two weeksí pocket money for a new aquarium bowl. Cam gloats but she does it very quietly and privately. Their mom cannot abide gloating. In their family, if you enjoy anotherís punishment, you get the same. Cam gloats but she is afraid not of her momís punishment in this case but of the punishment she knows will come from Neil, though she does not know when or where or how it will come to her, or if it will come before they go away next weekend, for there was a surprise prize-giving at the Windhoek Business Association dinner: their father has won Best Dressed Businessman 1977, and a weekend trip to a beach, with accommodation for the whole family.

At the table the children repeat the name of the beach town. Swakopmund? Impossible! The word is such a shock, the sound of car crashes, of choking on a fishbone. "German waves," their mother says. "Cold waves." She shrugs. "But beggars canít etcetera."

Cam repeats the word in her head. Swakopmund spells trouble. Its hard bits break apart and come at her like rocks and stones. Swak. Op. "And to think you children are learning that appalling language," Mom says and Dad wants to know must we always insult the Germans.

"Mund," Cam says. "Mund means mouth." She sees a blue mouth waiting, and does not want to go.

The world is a happy perfect bubble. The Sea Monkeys are in Camís very own hands, which are damp from love and waiting. She almost does not want to open the box. It is special to hold a box that has been behind glass, in a window. It is extra-special to hold a box containing something that waits, has been waiting, for her to wake it up.

She would almost rather just stand there and hold the secrets of this box, keep the mystery life inside for just a little longer.

She rips the box open. It contains plastic pieces -- a blue stick, a spray of coral, a strip growing a fringe of green cellophane seaweed -- and three sachets. She reads the instructions very carefully. She adds the contents of sachet one to the aquarium water, stirring with the special stick. She waits, watching the water change color from an invisible color to a thicker invisible one that is a disappointment in its clearness, in its lack of blueness. But sachet two dissolves all disappointment with its label Instant Life!TM and the pale crystals inside. Somehow -- how? --these crystals contain the Sea Monkeys. She touches them. They are white and dry. They gleam with the promise of magic, more magic than when you watch cupcakes rise, more than the flat round rainbow of a new paint set, more than the perforated doors of advent calendars.

Cam pours and stares. It is easy to believe in Instant Life!TM , in the blue words alone. They have the power of cursive. Cursive makes them stronger and better than abracadabra. The letters lean, they move toward somethingÖ

Nothing. She looks hard and close but the water is just water except with small dark specks and an oilier sea-throughness than before. She gets nervous and only an inch away from cross until she sees maybe something, maybe the specks are plumping into white dots?

They are growing!

They are hatching before your very eyes, white swelling eggs on the surface of the water!

Cam hunches over the floating Sea Monkeys. The world is a perfect happy bubble and she will live in it with her Monkeys forever, except forever is taking too long, it is taking a whole afternoon, and it is starting to look boring and bad. Hours are passing and the Monkeys show no signs of Monkeyness. She leaves the room but checks every five minutes for growth. They are hardly even bigger by six oíclock, and are as exciting as what they look like: polystyrene balls, the ones packed around precious things when they get shipped, not precious themselves, not anything themselves.

"A watched pot," her mother says, but even when there is no watching, even when Cam goes to sleep nothing much happens because by morning the monkeys are no bigger than granadilla pips and the same blobby shape except wiggling. More food? Cam sprinkles more magic Life GrowthTM crystals from sachet number three into the water, but the blobs just wiggle in a sluggish way. They are not even hungry and they are far from trainable.

Cam does not know if she can wait days to see the monkeys grow their adorable lashy eyes and mermaid tails and show their cheeky personalities when she teaches them to perform tricks. Waiting is torture. "Iíll show you torture, Iíll show you growth," Neil says at breakfast. She is going to get Chinese torture. He is going to tie her to a piece of wood and grow bamboo through her body, because bamboo grows the quickest and will get up through you in days and come out of your neck.

"Not here it doesnít," Mom says. "Look around you. We are talking desert! Nothing grows in sand but rocks. Just ask Erhardt." Erhardt is the neighbor, a geologist who wears an African kikoi skirt and juggles with lumps of rose quartz. Cam and Neil laugh at all Germans, but especially Air Heart and his stupid name. They make games around it. "Guten morgen, Air Heart!" they say. "How are your rocks?" But Neil is not joking at breakfast this week. He is busy thinking. Chinese torture might not work, but Cam knows he will find something that does.

"Tokolosh," Neil whispers in her ear as she eats her bowl of Pronutro porridge the next morning. "The Tokolosh is coming."

"The Tokolosh is coming," Cam repeats. She laughs. In Cape Town Neil could talk of the tiny three-foot man with his giant thing, a thing so big he couldnít fit it in his pants and had to wear it over his shoulder. In Cape Town Neil would say, "Ask Honoria if you donít believe me!" And Cam tried to ask their maid Honoria but Honoria got cross and said "Haai," Honoria did not like the T-word to be spoken aloud which made it scarier and truer, almost as scary and true as seeing Honoriaís bed high up on bricks so the Tokolosh could not reach because that is what the Tokolosh wants, to get into your bed at night if you are a girl.

But they are not in Cape Town anymore so ha ha ha. The Tokolosh belongs in South Africa with the Xhosa people. The Tokolosh is miles away.

"Look around you," Mom says to Neil. "We are talking the Herero tribe. Seven feet tall! Do you honestly think someone like Baby would be scared of a three foot man?"

"Itís all the same lying down," Camís father says but Cam is not worried. Itís a thousand kilometers from Cape Town to Windhoek. A long way away, especially if your legs are short.

Neil whispers in her ear. It is another day, another bowl of Pronutro. "Idi Amin." He pauses. "Idi Amin Dada."

Cam puts her spoon down. "Durr, man!" She rolls her eyes and makes a big dumb click noise. But she does not like the sound of what her brother has just said. Idi Amin. No. She does not like this new sound at all and Neil sees it because he sees everything and takes it and gets you with it. Idi Amin is ten feet tall. Idi Amin has a jolly smiling face. Idi Amin eats children. Idi Amin has his own plane and will come to their house, will be very polite to Mom and Dad, go up to Camís room, eat her and then eat the Sea Monkeys like sunflower seeds, like after dinner mints, pit-stopping on the way back to Uganda at Swakopmund to shake hands with the Nazis who hide in the butcheries and thatís enough Neil.

Cam does not believe in the details but how can she not believe in the name! It has a feeling of murder in it. She must not, must never think of it again. But when she pushes him out of her head, Idi Amin pushes back. He makes appalling rhythms in the dark --IdiA -- and in the light -- MinDa; in tune with her walk Ė Da da -- and he flows into the tracks below the hideous hill where the train clacks pastÖAmin Dada Amin Dada!

There is only one way to keep Idi Amin away, Cam decides. She will never say his name aloud and as long as she keeps to this rule, bad things will not happen.

No monkey heads. It has been a week and two days. No mermaid tails either so how can Cam teach the Monkeys any tricks? The instructions say at ten days the Monkeys will be ready to leap toward their food crystals in a move called Breakfast Run. The instructions also say to put small food rocks on both sides of the seaweed strip so the monkeys can do Neptuneís Dance, darting between the rippling weed, weaving in and out. But where is the king? And what kind of tricks are these anyway? Itís not as though the Monkeys have choices, Cam thinks. They go to the food; they swim through the weed. Where is the magic?

The Monkeys donít look like any animal. They are pearl-colored bits. They travel together in a miserable small cloud. Mom is appalled. "Total rip off," she says. "Some kind of gogo! A marine maggot." She is going to write to the company and demand a full refund, how dare they scam little girls with their drawings of adorable lashy eyes and enchanted kingdoms with flipping bloody thrones but donít worry lovey, we will find you something much nicer.

But there is nothing nicer. Cam has only one last hope: they are going away to Swakopmund in three days and Air Heart the geologist is going to feed the Monkeys their daily Life GrowthTM sachet number three. Maybe he wears a kikoi and maybe he is a German with a stupid name, but he is also a rock scientist so he must have a way with crystals. He must have the magic touch.

"Donít forget to see Moonlandscape!"

"Rock beds are not my concept of landscape, Erhardt," says Mom. As the car pulls away, Cam stares hard at the house, pressing her wish through the walls and into her room. Next to her in the car, Neil sits, eating his fingernail. His eyes hold a new and bad white spark but he wonít say anything and Cam knows she wonít find out what this means until he lets her. She slides all the way down the seat and closes her eyes. Tiny creatures with tails dance on her lids.

"Witness the beauty of the Namib desert," Mom says. "Thorn bushes, thorn trees. Camel thorn." She lights a cigarette. "White thorn. Common thorn."

"Jackie Hangar loves the desert," Dad says to Pink. "She doesnít need to look for barbed wire here. She can hang her food on all the lovely thorns!"

Brown land opens and closes at the same time out the window, and the desert makes a silent noise when Cam looks at it, the echo of what it is. Nothing. She hears her parents and does not hear them. How can you say a sand dune is not stunning it is not my concept of stunning I cannot conceive of how the bushmen live so exhausting their lives are pure survival appalling the endless bloody search for water so depressing pure coping but they do survive my darling they do cope they are adapted and isnít that something in the grand schemeÖglass half full for onceÖI am sick of your bloody glass...

Something. Cam puts her hand out of the window and covers the sun. They are in the biggest amount of nothing in the whole world, she thinks, a nothing so big that it is famous.

The outside flicks past in beige and brown and sand. It presses its heat onto the car, and into it when the air-conditioning breaks. Neil and Cam hit and punch. Their mother swats them and shouts and their father says "nearly there" every five minutes, but nearly there is never near anywhere. And now Cam knows that nearly there is like waiting for your birthday. It is that long. When he veers off gravel and onto a dirt road, nearly there begins to feel nearer but Mom shouts again and the end fades away. "Itís en route!" Dad pleads. "And it will prove my point! The worldís oldest living thing!" he repeats in the way he sounds these days, his voice always high, like asking for a favor.

"But you are killing us," Mom says. Dust clouds rise as the car kicks and rumbles on the new road. "Pink is red!" she shouts. "She has heatstroke!" Pink smiles and cries and smiles and waves her hot snotty fists around Camís head until they get there, until they get to a special piece of dust with a fence.

Car doors open. Pink runs to the fence and grabs the wire. "Pinky!" Mom shouts. And "Pink!"

"Welwitschia Mirabilis!" Dad introduces the plant with a proud voice, as though he made it himself. "They can live for two thousand years!"

Cam goes up to the fence for a good look at the oldest living thing. The thing is an explosion. It is also like a collapse. It is green, but it is black. It is shriveled but huge. Huge as a monster bush. It is ugly but the fence makes it special. Because you canít touch it, you want to. Sweat runs down the backs of Camís legs. She sees a glass window shimmer in the glint of the heat.

But how can something so withery-looking push out of the sand and get to be so big, how can such a big pile of dead be so good at living, better than everything else in the world? Her dad says it is a miracle. "Same age as Jesus," he says, shaking his head in wonder.

"Indeed," says Mom. "And every bit as dead."

Cam watches the plant like it will do something before your very eyes, send out a shoot, wave it and say hi! Or will it send out a shoot and choke you if you go near, a witch plant casting a spell of death? She backs away. Now she is glad there is a fence. She has never seen such terrible leaves, like straps, like belts. Why was it born? "It looks like a dead elephant bum."

"No, it looks like a hideous hairstyle," Mom corrects her. "And donít say bum, itís rude. Say bottom."

"Idi Amin loves Welwitschias, and he has the biggest bloody bum in the world," Neil says into Camís ear. "A bloody big black bum!" And she kicks him and he kicks her and she keeps kicking. She hates him so much and her parents are saying bloody terrible names to each other. Welwitschia! Swakopmund! Misery seeps from the dust and into Cam, and when Neil pulls her hair in the car she grows quiet with hate and heat, heat and hate, she canít tell one from the other and she thinks what is an actual mermaid, what does it actually look like and when will we get there are we nearly there.

The desert spreads. It looks as though it is growing if you watch its long lines creep.
Mom and Dadís words dip and jerk with the car in a familiar rhythm. Just listen to the names look at the facts Skeleton Coast dead ships dead towns survival of the hideous. You Idi Amin me all the time and I donít believe in anything you do. You fail to Da Idi Amin Dada Idi Amin Dada da da da da da until there is a clump in the distance, a town, and Camís mother Ė her face flat and shiny as a razor blade -- says Whatís that scab on the horizon, Best-dressed Businessman?

"Goanikontes, my darling." Dad puts his hand on Momís knee. "An oasis."

Swakopmund! It is terrible things! It is terrible resort hotels consisting of A-frames, roofs pointing to the sun like hands praying for more heat. Inside their own appalling A-frame, the tables and chairs are chained to the floor. The beach outside is white as a wall. There is a solid sea, a stripe of blue so hard and bright it looks like it could chip.

"This is not my concept of beach," Mom says.

And Dad opens his arms wide holding the view, the sea and the sand, in his arms. "For Chrissake, Renee!" he shouts. "It is not a concept! It is a beach!"

"Rest in peace," Mom says into the toilet bowl. And to Cam, "Flush, lovey." Cam flushes and her tears fall as the Sea Monkeys swirl in the water. They swirl, and then they are gone.

In the car on the way home, all mouths were tired and chapped and shut, even through this is not my concept of oasis and the road beyond. Cam had felt all of their bodies. Hard stones. And she recognized where and what they were in the empty spaces as they drove: five bits in nothing, of nothing. There would not be mermaid tails -- she understood this now -- but she decided to love her brown dots anyway, because they were her dots, her pets, her very own little bits of nothing.

But the Sea Monkeys are dead! Air Heart is out in the desert and he has left a note and a smooth lump of green stone beside the aquarium. The rock has eyes drawn onto it and it stares at the water. The Monkeys float on the surface, unmoving, a flat new smell beneath them.

Dear Camilla,

I am very sorry about this. It appears they must have overheated. They were all right when you left, but like this today. I believe the brine shrimp require a very specific chemistry of water, which perhaps our harsh temperatures cannot sustain. Please accept this pet rock, which is called Botryoidal Malachite. I put the eyes on myself. I may also be able to locate quartz points today and will bring some to show you. They are quite beautiful.

She cries and Neil laughs and Mom takes him outside and hits him with the barbecue grid, whacking him on the bum. Dad walks into the bathroom at the end of the funeral. He stares into the toilet bowl and pats Cam on the head. "Everybody in the pool," he says.

Cam puts her green rock onto the first step of the swimming pool. The gray evening falls to the edges of the water, turning them silver. "Mom." Neil kicks off his clothes. "Thereís stripes of chop on my pants from when you hit me with the thing."

"Call the police." Mom floats with Pink in her arms. "I am sure they will be very interested in what you have to say." Dad dives in and glides for a long time at the bottom of the water. When he comes up, Cam slides down to the second step. He grabs her ankle but she pulls it back.

Neil stands on the diving board. He raises his arm into the night, a shadow, and though she canít see it clearly, Cam knows his other hand is at his mouth, index finger making a moustache. He jumps high in the air, tucks his knees. "Heil Hitler!" he shouts, and bomb-drops, splashing everyone.

"Though I am half-Jewish," Camís mother says to no one in particular, "I still find that funny."

"No laughing!" Cam is cross. She does not want any laughing so soon after the funeral, especially not from them or because of them. But her parents draw closer, nearer to her. She can feel their plan -- they are trying to make her smile -- and even in the dark without anyone seeing the smile, she does not want it to happen.

"I donít think I ever told her about the sausage at our prize-giving dinner," Dad says. Cam tightens her face, forcing it flat.

"That dinner!" Mom swishes Pink from side to side. "Best Dressed and I had to eat the most appalling things."

Dad takes Pink from Mom and dips her up and down. "There was this unbelievable sausage," he says, "and it was filled with nothing but blood. It had a staple on either side and it sat on top of this bed of mashed potato, all hard and curved like a banana." Cam pretends she is not interested by kicking her feet. But a blood banana! "It was the most disgusting thing Iíd ever seen, but what could I do? Iím a new member of the group. They have given me this prize."

"There werenít staples," Cam scoffs. "You didnít eat it."

"I had to, Cammy!" Dad circles her ankles in his hands. "So I put my fork inÖand the sausage exploded. It jumped across the plate, spraying blood all over my nicely starched, crisp, white shirt!"

"Not funny." Cam kicks her way free.

"It is called bloedwurst." Mom shakes her head. "Can you honestly credit it? And do you know the word for please is bitter?" She makes a sour lemon mouth-smack in the dark. "Bitter! And the word for bread" Ė she is speaking to DadĖ "when I went to that Swakopmund bakery, I had to ask for brot."

"Who can say it the best?" Neil asks.

Cam feels for her pet rock on the step, closing her hand over its cool hard body. Its hardness helps to take the soft threat of smiling from her mouth. Her own body is empty and different in the water. She floats on her back so she can see the sky, its sharp stars. Mom suggests they make a permanent move into the pool. "Sleep on floaties. Eat off the diving board. That would be the way to live here."

"Bread!" Neil says.

"You have to make the r in the back of your throat," Cam says. "Like this. Brrrrot."

"All together," Mom says.

They roll their rís and it feels good until, in the distance, the night train clacks. Cam shivers. The pool is a black sheet. The train comes closer, gets louder. He is coming and he has a special message for you. You must not get out of the pool. If you get out, you are asking me, the unmentionable to follow you. You can only get out once you have touched the rock to the poolís furthest corner, the deep invisible death center from where the blackness spreads. You must do this to be safe. This is how you will live in Windhoek. Unless you drown on the way, because you are a terrible swimmer, worse than the Sea Monkeys. Afraid of the dark.

Slowly Cam edges along the pool length, hooking her forearm to the white cement lip. Her rock clicks on the pool side as she moves toward the diving board. Various thick shapes line up. Bush. Wall. She touches her rock to the corner. This feels like it might be cheating, however, because she did not swim to get here. And so she does not feel safe from the unmentionable; if anything he will now come for her sooner. Unless.

Cam hears the family splash at the other end of the world. "Brrrrot!" they say. "Brot." There is just one chance left, one last way to stay alive. You must swim back underwater, all the way, without stopping or taking a breath never looking back just going going, straight straight.

Cam looks out into the inky air and water; itís too dark to tell the difference now. A pulse ticks at the top of her neck. She sucks in air, kicks off the wall off and down. The pool is a black lid sliding over her head as the stone drags her lower, pulling her down to drown.

Panic pinches at her lungs. She will not make it. She struggles up, her hands snatching to break the waterís seal and turns back toward the side, a burn in the bones of her head. She almost screams as something brushes against her, some soft dread thing licking, grazing her arm. It is round and white; it is the pool filter. But somehow this white spark is the worst of all, worse than the dark water it floats in. It is appalling! It shines and glugs at her. It is a hot witch eyeball watching her, and as it bobs up and down it tells her things in its flat pool smell, it tells of a thick chlorine death, of how the Monkeys really died and who killed them.

Now Cam is not afraid of swimming anymore, because she knows what has been done and knowing will help her get back across the pool, never looking back at the filter and not drowning even with the stone in her hand, and she must do this because the Monkeys were not bad swimmers; they could have lived in Windhoek if her brother had not put pool salts in their tank to make them die. This is what happened. And her pet rock says yes, I saw them die with my very own eyes and now we will punish him.

Cam swims, striking the water with the rock in her fist. She sees Neil in the car when they left for Swakopmund, the death secret gleaming in his face. She holds her arm up as soon as her heels scrape the shallow end and calls out to her brother. And in the pause after she throws the rock, before the clean bone crack, before Neilís hiccup sound -- the wet shock from his throat like a bird flew in -- she shouts with all the power of the unmentionable and it feels like the best thing, better than Christmas, better than a double-bounce on a trampoline, better than a parcel in the post with your name on it.

It is a sweet wrong hard forever moment. She shouts, "Got you!"


Amanda Gersh  is working on a collection of stories about South African childhood, entitled "The Disappearing House." Her writing has appeared in such magazines as Open City, One-Story, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Believer, and Tin House. She teaches writing at The Gotham Writers' Workshop.

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