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I bet you never thought you’d be hearing this from a dead girl. There are those who call you a coward, hiding behind YouTube while you send people to perdition. As the only other top story in the news, I want you to know I do not share this view. I bet you’ve been too busy to realize I exist. I will tell you about me, but that is not the reason I have occupied your head. My voice in your head will probably unhinge you, a cheerful young billionaire with no interest in death. That is not my intention. It is just that my dying coincided with your famous video, the one in which you call on the people to take to the streets. In that video you talk about cemetery children, families that are so poor they inhabit abandoned tombs in the city’s sprawling cemetery. If this was a righteous regime, you say, it wouldn’t let children grow up with the dead, and it occurs to me that, having fallen out with the leader, you fled the country just as my ordeal was starting, my most infernal ordeal, thirteen days before. Now that you feel safe enough to direct the course of history, maybe it is time for my ordeal to end? I watch you say, We’ll keep protesting till the leader stands down, and it’s as if an angel has stepped in. I can see your face now, more clearly than I saw it on Khalo’s smartphone screen that day, tied up while I got my dose of bread and water in his lap. As your lips curl to form the last vowel, your big brown eyes widen for emphasis. Heaven unfurls as you smile. In thirteen days I’ve suffered enough to make god stand down, but not until that moment can I let go of life. History happens while I’m disembodied and free. That’s how I get to be in your head now, to know things you don’t. No one actually saw the big protest that you denominated the End Night, anticipating it would bring down the regime, but as you say in your new video, if no big protest happened why would the authorities react? Your friends in high places are telling you the glass tower is cracking. Your Facebook fans swear you’re the hero of the shantytowns. All I ask is that, while you pat yourself on the back and ponder your next move, you stay hinged long enough for me to explain.
It might unhinge you but it is not accidental. My mother tells me I am your estranged daughter. She calls you her hot sweetheart and winks. Apart from Khalo, her younger brother, I have never had a father, it’s true. Is it possible that, six years ago, you paid for the company of a petite dark girl with blue eyes and a mole like a miniature nipple to the left of her Adam’s apple? She would’ve called herself Stella, the way Khalo goes by Cowboy. At the time she claims she looked so gorgeous she could work the bourgeois bars on her own. Mama is an inveterate liar as well as a gold digger, but whether or not your blood runs in my veins I know you and I are connected. I haven’t been dead forty-eight hours and already I am halfway across the world, whispering in your head. Even before I died I had access to your mind. It was spotty and irregular, like the wi-fi Khalo sometimes stole from the makeshift cybercafe at the end of the alley above our section of the tomb, but it was there. I was practically a toddler still. Who would’ve thought dying is growing up. Maybe the quality was bad because my modem was still sprouting. I’d had little human contact outside the graveyard we lived in, so when I went into your mind I rarely recognized what I found, the white powder you sniff insatiably or the fairytale places where you play with people. I did recognize the deliberate arrangements of bared body parts that make your heart race and leave you feeling like a child, as happy and as helpless as a child, but being a child myself it was as if I recognized me in you and was glad and jealous at the same time. Khalo had been arranging my parts in similar ways for as long as I could remember, but they were smaller and uglier than the ones in your mind and, even if his heart raced when he looked at them, it made me sad to think they were there for him to hurt, not for me to grow till they made a good-looking man feel happy and helpless. Who would’ve thought dying is knowing all this. When heaven unfurls it furls again and then you’re part of it. You can go wherever, whenever. You have the words to transport you in all the languages of the living. I died on my fifth birthday, that’s right.
I haven’t been dead forty-eight hours but I can tell you what will come of this revolution. I trust you will manage to forget these spoilers, otherwise as the movie of your life progresses you’ll second-guess yourself insane. You’ll probably have to purge your memory of me entirely, but the truth is I can see the city’s future. I can see its past too, as far back or forward as I like, and whatever I focus on becomes present. Who would’ve thought. A year after your thirty-fifth and final video, nobody remembers your name. People still talk of the End Night, they say all kinds of things about what happened at the city center, but no one seems sorry it failed. When you watch them closely, you get the sense even your militant followers are relieved that it’s over. Not many things would surprise you. Torturers and terrorists still play cat and mouse while activists tweet truth to power from the safety of offshore workstations, unless they end up indefinitely jailed. Having amended the constitution so he can stay in power, your former best friend and mentor is running for leader unchallenged. Stellas look for rich boyfriends that Cowboys can blackmail while pushing drugs. Except for one little detail, everything is as you left it. The city is equally overpopulated, children grow up with the dead, but even in the busiest places, the informal economy of parking and public transport has diversified into mugging. Begging is a dying profession, and the sidewalks look clean. At any given time few people can be seen anywhere. Nobody says it in so many words but nobody doubts this is the End Night’s legacy. Over the weeks, then the months while more and more people went missing, a kind of chronic absence overtook those who remained. Everybody was scared of the police, it’s true, too paranoid or dispirited to step out, but once it became clear the police weren’t responsible for everything, there emerged something stranger, something supernatural in the outcome. It was as if the End Night had been the people’s pledge to become ghosts and, without planning or discussing it, they transitioned to that state. Who would’ve thought ghosts are so radically unlike the dead. In their homes, among their loved ones, people remained normal human beings, but wherever they might encounter the authorities they became invisible and unreal, as frightening as they were frightened, so that even if the city didn’t quite empty it still turned into a ghost town.
Everybody was scared of the police before there was an End Night, but as my caregivers watch your first few videos while I hang hogtied by the stove like some horrible human hammock, they manage to keep their cool. I have returned to the days of my ordeal and everything is in the present again, but it’s a present that feeds on the knowledge death has given me, so that even in my dumb four-year-old state I can make sense of things. I’m being disciplined for soiling myself. Khalo is squeezing where the pee spurted out, his other hand sealing my mouth while, holding the gravedigger’s spade over the fire, Mama tells me the skin on my thighs will come off easily once the blade glows white. It hasn’t crossed their minds that their pictures might end up in the papers alongside that of my corpse while they are beaten to death by fellow inmates, literally beaten to death. I realize what’s happening to me is exactly the kind of thing people are scared the police will do to them when they try to bring down the regime whether or not a former crony of the leader’s is telling them to, and I’m struggling with my sphincter when it occurs to me that only people who can hurt other people are immune to fear. They’re good at ducking when you lunge, weeping and trembling and begging for mercy, but they know nothing of the paralysis and despair of real fear, the fear that everything you live for will turn out to be on loan from a despicable stranger who can claim it back at any time, that the meaning of life is contained in a plainclothes man’s slap. Khalo keeps kicking my tailbone with his army boot, squeezing my nose without releasing my mouth. The pain becomes unbearable as I begin to asphyxiate. My eyes are level with the spade’s flame-licked blade, upside down, so that the fire seems to descend from a miniature metal heaven, an ersatz heaven, and it’s as if I can feel the fear of every one of them over the years and the decades, the centuries, millions of people who stood up for what they lived for only to realize the regime owned their lives, and suddenly an immense sob unravels me, a sob the size of an ocean, so that, struggling to break free of the clothesline, my sphincter finally gives, blobs of poop splash my face and I quiver till I black out.
My eyes are level with the flame-licked blade but let me come back to real time. It is crucial that I explain to you what’s happening. You’ll probably have to forget it all, but I’m here and I can’t be elsewhere. Our connection compels me, not my being your alleged daughter but the fact that you’re mounting a revolution while I am the victim of oppression, even if it’s not the authorities that oppressed me and even if I was a toddler when it happened. That just makes it more real, a picture of victimhood with all the posturing squeezed out. You too, being a protégé of the leader’s, are a more authentic dissenter, innocent of the vile pretense that dissent can be driven by anything other than self-interest. Maybe there is such a thing as a historical daughter, the way there is a biological one, a daughter by virtue of historical role. That would explain how I feel about you considering you probably never fucked my mother. It would explain how I know you need this. Like a policeman gesturing for your identification card at a checkpoint, soon the universe will require a dead girl’s account of the events you initiated, and if you don’t store it in your unconscious while you can, who knows what the universe will do to you. Listen. No one saw the End Night because the End Night never happened. By the time you make your video everybody will be sure of that. No protesters gathered anywhere in answer to your call, but as people, perfectly compliant people swarmed the city center as usual, the police decided to move in. Sirens blaring, the cavalry drove into crowds, and when people ran for their lives the infantry gave chase. Batons came crashing down on bare skulls, rubber bullets pierced the jelly of unprotected eyes. The night sky glittered with incredibly bright explosions but, while cyanocarbon outmuscled oxygen in the air, there appeared in the shimmering cobalt-blue of the sky idyllically white clouds. Since then the police haven’t stopped rounding people up, occupying traffic intersections and perusing the smartphones of passersby on pain of instant disappearance, dragging people out of houses and cafes and escorting them blindfolded to undisclosed locations where they suffer unspeakable things before resurfacing in prison. I bet you never thought you’d hear this, but there are those who call you a secret agent of the regime’s, your falling out with the leader a ruse and your sole purpose to justify the crackdown.
Our connection compels me to share the view from here. In one of your videos you ask, The man who spends the day torturing his charge, how does that man sleep at night? He sleeps very well, I can tell you. He snores deeply, sometimes sniggers through happy dreams, or his hairy arm, so sinewy it looks like the sculpture of an arm, will suddenly flex, rehearsing the uppercut which is his principal interface with the world, and with which he grabs more often than he strikes. He can wake momentarily to slap his charge the way you’d swat a mosquito, laughing, or to draw her to him by the hair so he can bite on her Adam’s apple like a lozenge. He loves her. As your historical daughter or the only other story in the news, I want you to know I am not convinced by your rhetoric. It doesn’t become you, making appeals to the essential goodness of humanity when you obviously know the thing to appeal to is the beast. That man would fuck his sister if he didn’t have his preferred breed of bed partner to send himself to sleep with. He would do it with a clear conscience, the way he genuinely believes the least he deserves is a beer and a joint and an hour with the girl, and just like the leader telling his people he knows what is best for them, he would take an earnest pedagogical attitude. I’ve been a good girl, so afterwards he gives me a bar of chocolate to put in my mouth. If I keep quiet while he does what he does no matter how much it hurts me, maybe I get a hot meal. I’ve been a bad girl so, never mind him coming all over it, he’s going to have to spank my sweet little bottom till it bleeds. Sometimes I’ve been so bad he ties my wrists and ankles together with a clothesline and hangs me up from a hook in the ceiling by the stove. He can adjust my height as he pleases, and if he is sick of me crying he can stuff a roll of cloth in my mouth, holding it in place with a piece of string he ties behind my neck. Sometimes he leaves me there for a day, only the occasional uppercut announcing he’s still around. When Mama comes home and finds me that way she scowls. What have you done this time, she snaps as she passes.
I’ve been a good girl for a whole week when I commit the indefensible transgression of wetting the bed. This is the day you flee with enough money to set up your own country, and I don’t realize that this time I am to be suspended indefinitely. There is only one bed in our tomb, large enough for all three of us though Mama rarely spends the night at home, and pretending to be angry out of concern for me, Khalo is impatient for my punishment. He has a hypochondriac streak, and when I used to pee in my sleep he would savage me so thoroughly I ended up pooping as well. It became his excuse for time on the stove, as he calls it, tying me up and hanging me like something freshly slaughtered at the butcher’s. Before today I’ve never been on the stove for longer than a day, so until I realize it isn’t over after I am taken down to be fed, this isn’t especially distressing. Thirteen days before my fifth birthday I am still soiling myself not just because I’m terrified of knuckles and blood, pining for a breast, an embrace Mama never gives, but also because I was never potty trained. I haven’t even had the benefit of a diaper. Budgeting made the disposable kind out of the question, and the sole cotton diaper Mama sewed out of rags when I was born, she has never bothered to wash. Until the age of two they had a plastic basin for me to wallow in, Khalo hosing me down when he had use for me. By the time I wore clothes and moved onto the bed, I was expected miraculously to have the faculty of continence. That is how Mama started branding me all around my groin, with the white-hot blade of an ancient but unused gravedigger’s spade that they found here when they moved in, to punish me for bedwetting. The perpetual pain of untreated burns actually helped. I learned to start awake whenever something was about to drop out of me, even blood from my nose or a cut, and this made the spade a regular feature. It feels normal at first, not too scary, a little more muscle pain, that’s all. I just hope he won’t hurt me too much where I’m sore. I can see me now, skeletal, bruised and blackened, obviously gangrenous in places, docilely lying on my back while he turns me into a human hammock. It is heartbreaking.
It feels normal that during a crackdown people will suddenly go missing. They won’t show up at home or at work and you won’t get through to them on their phones, then you know they’ve been arrested or, in activist-speak, subjected to a forced disappearance. Within a week or a month those people always reappear, though, if not at their homes then at court being given a heavy sentence, the media having turned them into criminal fiends. This too would not surprise you. Sometimes people never resurface, it’s true, whether because the regime has killed and disposed of them in secret or for some unknown reason, but even in the worst crackdown, that never happens to more than one in a hundred. In the months following your thirty-fifth video, by contrast, thousands stay missing. Nobody believes the authorities when they say they know nothing of their fate, but there has been no civil war, no invasion or natural disaster, and as it becomes clear there is no force at the regime’s disposal that would be physically capable of disappearing people at this rate, a different order of terror reigns over the city. Even activists are talking about unexplained as opposed to forced disappearances now, blaming the regime for facilitating or not investigating rather than perpetrating them. I am at an earlier point in the future, most people do remember your name, the End Night is still more event than legend, but while an eighth, then nearly a quarter of the population goes missing without a trace, the streets are emptying not because there aren’t enough people left to swarm them but because more and more people have stopped going out. The hive mind is in flux, people talk about the authorities using ancient magic, they talk about zombies and demons and spirit dwellings, even an imperceptible invasion from outer space, but no bodies, no evidence, nothing to hold onto is uncovered. People are scared of the police but, more than that, they’re scared of the unknown power the authorities evidently unleashed on the End Night, a horror more unspeakable than anything they can conceive of, and to which what the police do to them, the assaults and the arrests and the interrogations, is merely the portal. The big question is how aware the authorities have been of their role as a bridge between the world we know and that other place. I bet it hasn’t occurred to you even now how many have come to associate that other place with you.
The hive mind is in flux while the crackdown peaks in real time and, dead for just under forty-eight hours, I am moving across your head as I whisper, past the spot where you’re planning out your next video, sensing it is time to exit back into the void and seek out my dead-girl fortunes. Handsome and moneyed in your pretty surroundings, you blame the leader for hunger and sickness, for penury and humiliation, while cornered in their respective cells, facing death with neither remorse nor real fear, Stella and Cowboy are being systematically, mercilessly beaten. I know now how, within a day of my death, while the cavalry and the infantry were savaging the city center and people scampered around for shelter, a rival pusher had managed to report Khalo to the authorities. He did not report him for abusing his helpless niece, which he couldn’t have known or cared about. He did not report him for pushing drugs while pimping his sister, for which ventures Khalo had made the appropriate arrangements with the relevant authorities a long time before. He reported him, dear otherworldly father, for regularly watching your videos, something Khalo had made the mistake of mentioning in passing, being a fan of the renegade billionaire who’s been inciting rebellion on YouTube, and the police coming in search of one more non-existent protester, one more ghost of history, they found Khalo making tea on the stove, the veins on his hairy arm like thick metal cords glowing, while my lifeless body lay unburied with the spade on top of it beneath the hook in the ceiling. He didn’t manage to exonerate himself, but he told on his sister in trying. Now he is barely conscious on all fours, tissue-spattered blood spurting from every part of his body while the streets heave. As to what’s happening to Mama, I don’t want to look. Forty-eight hours after the End Night, people are still running around deleting photos from their phones, purging their Facebook timelines of political jokes, bracing themselves. The city center looks eerily desolate even as plainclothes men scatter all around it, but elsewhere the streets are even busier than usual and, warily navigating them, people avoid eye contact with strangers while they circumvent the major intersections, walking fast. As they mutter your name and that of the leader, voicing prophesies, prayers, they laugh nervously or shudder and, except for a dead girl floating above them while she whispers in your head, nobody knows they’re turning into ghosts.