The Deadest Man in the Underworld / Tristan Foster

For Kabid Farooque; I found your iPod on my street—if you read this and want it back, please get in touch

 

I met the dead man in the only place appropriate: underground. I was in Cappadocia, Turkey, in a tunnel dug more than a millennium ago by Byzantines hiding with their faith. I was—I admit this only reluctantly—lost; I’d separated from the tour group soon after the smiling guide had explained that the network of tunnels stretched out under the countryside for kilometres, and was alone in the ancient hallways for long enough to imagine being swallowed whole by them. I come to a room. The dead man is in it, busy shining a small torch at the wall. He sees me and flashes the light in my direction, gesturing me in. I am already crouching but I have to duck further to enter. He shows me what he is studying: faded paintings of Jesus surrounded by saints in robes, faces long, discs behind their heads. Their eyes are scratched out, as if with a coin or a screwdriver. The dead man points, his hand casting a shadow on the wall, making sure I see the missing eyes. He shrugs and switches off his torch. Before we enter back into the tunnels, he clicks the torch on again and traces out a cross gouged into the stone—the dead man and I have been in an ancient chapel. He leads me out, back to the others, closer than what seems possible, and he slips into the crowd of chattering tourists. Just as quickly, I forget what the dead man looks like, what he is wearing, the features of his face. Later, on the road back into town, our bus slows and pulls over. The driver gets out and some of us, when we see why we’ve stopped, quickly follow: another tour bus is on its side in a ditch, black smoke rising, some passengers standing on it and lifting each other out. I hurry to a group of the injured, huddled in, sobbing. They have already removed the worst among them—the dead man from the underground chapel is lying on the road, lifeless under the autumn sun.

The dead man has a locust in his skull. The Sphinx has a dead man in her skull. No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach to hell, Jung said. And what do you have to say for yourself now, Carl? Speak up, I can’t hear you. The dead man has a twisted sense of humour. Know what else stretches to hell? Human stupidity. Said someone, or they should have, but that’s beside the point. Got a story for you, a story about the dead man. The dead man did everything that was asked of him and more. Did everything he was supposed to do and everything that was expected. He is his father’s favourite son. The dead man enjoys the company of people, is well liked. Enjoys rubbing his thumb against the grain of his beard stubble, bloody steak and sweet potato, easy, unlikely things. He likes drinking at the pub with friends until late into the night. Laughing deeply, grinning wetly, whiskey after beer. Then coming home—he always comes home—and listening to Spanish guitar music. He tries not to think about things too much because thoughts are liquid in which you can sink and drown. But then something happens. The dead man realises there is much wrong with the world. This realisation appears one morning like a raven at a window and makes it difficult to go about his business. To work, to raise his children, to satisfy his wife. The problem has the weight of water; the dead man feels like he is the first person to have noticed this, to be awake to it—it’s possible he is. His concerns compound: he worries he is more than a man, is some sort of seer. The idea pollutes his nights. The stresses and pressures of life begin to mount. This is the crisis he is experiencing when his brother kills him. Abel is buried at dawn; each member of his family helps to fill in the grave—even his murderer, Cain. Once their work is done, Cain rubs the dirt off his hands, wipes the sweat off his brow then announces that Abel’s farm will be his farm now, Abel’s wife his wife, Abel’s children his, and so on. He says these words then turns and leaves with a smile. The dead man watches as another man takes his place in the world. Takes and absorbs it, filling the space he has left, doubling the dead man into nothing. He watches the world spin and finds it very hard to look. He sits in the darkness, smoking. The dead man is lonely. Maybe it has something to do with his dog of a brother and the way he turned away from his grave and smiled. More likely it is because the dead man thought those left would tell stories of him around a campfire then dance to celebrate his life, the footprints of the dancers still impressed in the dirt long after they have gone to sleep, while the embers of the fire blink in the night. Though he is a humble man, he still wanted, maybe, a monument erected in homage. A thing to remember his physical presence by, even just a piece of crooked timber at which people could point and say: “There is Abel, the dead man.” But there is no monument, no dance, only bones, and even they don’t last forever. So the dead man has been dead a very long time. On that we can at least agree.

I met the dead man again, later, this time in my city. I was lost, no, drunk, after a long night of drinking and laughing. The dead man steadied me, took my arm, helped me home. While we walked he told me he had returned from war where he was killed by an IED. What are the words of that Kipling poem, dead man? You remember them now as you remembered them then, trying to sleep in the compound. Trying to sleep without the use of pills but your adrenalin was up, your brain still abuzz, ears still ringing. You showered but you were sweating again. You tried your tricks—shuffling imaginary cards, recalling the words of poems memorised in school—but sleeping was impossible. East was east and west was west, but you didn’t know which way was up. The dead man couldn’t sleep because of all he had witnessed but also because he had been summoned. At the end of the week he would be meeting with the commanding officer. A misdemeanour, or a commendation—here, both could be as bad as each other. He just wanted to do his job then go home. Anyway, a few days later an IED took care of that for him. He tells me that in the moment he died he thought of the white houses of Santorini, where he had never been. He thought of his brother, older, perpetually unknowable, who he hadn’t seen for years. He thought of fishing alone on the river and of his first crush and kiss and maybe love, which hadn’t even seemed all that important at the time.

Are you lonely, dead man? Stay here, then. Pull up a chair. Stay and watch over us. Watch over me—I need it. Watch us turning in imperfect circles. The dead man crouches on the chandelier like a daytime gargoyle, bearing witness to our pain. Watching it rise off our backs into nothingness like factory steam.

The dead man was disappeared, bundled away like a Russian dissident. But the dead don’t stay gone for long—it’s against their nature. He takes work in a denim factory east of Chittagong. Gets teased by his flatmates for doing a woman’s job. Enjoys the dawn bus ride, listens, yawning, to illicit Bollywood hits while the packed bus jolts along the highway and the sun rises over foggy rice paddies. The same rice paddies Kabid visited with his father as a child to catch eels. His father ordered him around—stand there, hold this—kept his methods a secret, as if his son was an enemy. It was Kabid’s job to carry the eels, hooked over his shoulder, on the back of his father’s motorbike as they buzzed along the highway into the city then weaved through alleyways to their small home in the blue apartment block. His mother stood hands on hips in the kitchen as they carried the catch in, commenting on the size of the eels or the number, grabbing one around the cheeks and looking into its clouded eyes. Soon, the smell of spiced eel soup permeated the apartment. Kabid’s job is a woman’s one and he is sick of the jokes. He borrows money to leave the country but doesn’t leave, confusing his debtors. Debtors don’t like confusion; thugs take the loan back and gut Kabid using a similar method his mother used to gut a rice paddy eel. Why didn’t you leave, Kabid? They dump his body in a lot that was supposed to be a hotel with views of the bay. Maybe a casino, the grandest in all the land. There were supposed to be concierges bustling around polished limousines, a gaudy lobby and zoo animals enclosed in the yard. But the money for it ran out years ago and Kabid’s mother tells herself he left without saying goodbye and will one day call but it and the ideas for the hotel and all the other things in the world are nothing more than a dead man’s dream.

 

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.

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