Ben Okri offers a message from the house that was a country.
That country was a house with a gutter of earth in front of it. And the shallow gutter was clogged with things that made the air foul and terrible to breathe. There was a dead cow upended with its feet sticking out from the shallow gutter of earth and muddy water. This poisoned everything. And there were thick books drowned in the gutter. And it was suspected that there were dead human beings in there too, their arms sticking out, barely discernible. A hospital bed rested, lopsided, atop all this poisonous detritus, and on the bed were people who were ill and diseased because of the foulness of all that was concealed in the gutter and that was now leaking out noxious gases and smells and diseases into the whole world.
Then, in a vision, I saw trestle tables and benches, thousands and thousands of them, and lying on these benches and tables were innumerable men and women stricken with a nightmare disease for which, as yet, there was no cure. It was an inferno of bodies, of dying people, a nightmare from which there was no awakening except death. The rows of victims seemed infinite.
On a stand, before a platform of dignitaries, the archbishop kept repeating the same words into a microphone:
“This is a husband-and-wife thing, a husband-and-wife thing, a thing between husbands and wives.”
He didn’t seem to know what else to say. He was trying to simplify the problem so that it could be dealt with, section by section.
Crowds of people were gathered.
The plague had plunged the world into gloom.
They eventually woke up to the dead cow and the dead books and the dead bodies in the great gutter in front of the house that was a country. A world-famous pop star took an interest in the house. This made the house also conscious of itself. It took a lot of time for this to happen. Children played near the gutter and caught a mysterious illness and died. The liquids from the dead cow leaked into the drinking water. For a long while no one did anything. All pretended the problem wasn’t there. Or that it wasn’t a problem.
On the trestle tables, on the benches, women were naked and dying in the nightmare grip of the merciless disease. One woman on a bench was making sexual motions, writhing and making love to the air. Not because it was what she wanted to do. But because the motion eased her agony. There was a steam, a veil, a mist over all these bodies writhing like the condemned in a hell that no one had ever imagined. Millions of women on the path to perishing. Nothing done. Watching them die in their lonely dumb-and-mute agony.
Someone’s thought circulated in the air, but was not expressed. Someone full of fear; unsympathetic, selfish. Someone spoiled. A dictator might also have thought it. The thought was this: They should all be killed. No one can express such a holocaustal notion, such a genocidal nightmare.
We had to watch them in their long, lonely deaths. Prevent more people from joining their numbers. Change the traditions, the behaviour patterns, the habits that led to this monstrosity, this hell on Earth. The big drug companies thought only of their profits, not of the dying, and so wouldn’t make the drugs that could help available and cheap. So many thoughts circulating the air. So many thoughts: some extreme, some spiritual, some practical. Here is a medley of these thoughts:
“The people must change. They must change. They must change. Sex must be transcended. Asceticism must enter the thoughts of the people. They must master their desires, their appetites. Sex must change. Sex cannot be allowed to wipe out a whole people. It cannot be that in a battle between sex and death that death wins. Sex is not death. If sex leads to death then sex and desire must change. Not just protected sex; that is important. But sex must be transformed. It is clearly a master-lesson to be learned. The people must rise above their desires. They must be spiritualized. Sex is not to be killed, or abolished, or repressed, or stopped. But it cannot be our master. Sex cannot be the angel of the death of a whole people. If we master sex, people will be transformed and many of our other problems will be solved because we would become a higher people, a people who can be the master of itself, a people with a new kind of discipline. We would become a new humanity, and we would become a people who can master its problems, a higher race, a transformed people for a new age. The key to this is our mastery of sex, of self, of desire. This is the lesson of this monstrous plague. We have to become a people with a higher will. To conquer sex under the intense provocation of the sun will make us into a people undreamt of, the magnet of a beautiful new future, a radiant new people of the earth, knowing the secret of the alchemy of suffering, transforming death into golden living.”
And it came about that one day the people in the house had simply had enough. A woman borrowed my boots and went into the gutter and began to probe and heave. Foul water ran into the boots, but she was undeterred. She worked hard at clearing the mess. She worked alone. And we watched and did not watch. And then, gradually, people joined in. They waded into the gutter. They lifted up the hospital bed and pulled out the sunken books thick like telephone directories. They hoisted out the dead cow and lowered it onto the back of a cart and took it far away and dug a very deep hole and buried it there. Some thought it should have been burned. Others couldn’t bear the smoke of death and diseases in the air they breathed. They dug out the corpses in the gutter and gave them an honourable funeral.
It was plenty for a day’s work. A symbolic day. The gutter still had its grim secrets though. The hospital bed was still there, atop the mud and detritus. But the gutter was less clogged than before. Fewer people were dying. Fewer people caught the mysterious illness. The people felt better about themselves. The long denial was over. Something was being done at last. Children could begin, tentatively, to play in the front of the house that was a country.
Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and novelist. Ode’s interview with Okri, “Treat life as a workshop to find out who you are,” appeared in the May 2006 issue.
Copyright Ben Okri. All rights reserved.