Alex Smith – the three known tales of hatim muzumbo
Men are in the village. Tall men, healthy, but not like the last men who planted wooden stakes
or tied orange ribbons to bushes in the nearby fields – not white men. Their skin was like ours a
bit, their rubber suits pipe lightning down their arms and legs and their chests shine brighter than
moons. They are here to see Hatim.
“There.” Nairobi points to the hut that shakes in the barely there breeze, that sheds sticks and
coarse grass from its roof. “This is where he is.” Nairobi, as ever, willing to sate the curiosity
of outsiders, guides them down the narrow pathway connecting our houses. The men stomp
past those of us aroused from slumber, past sick men lying without mercy on the dusty earth
floor, past women who have huddled several small children as close to their breasts as they can,
scolding any who dare to venture into the path to touch the glowing garments of these men.
Nairobi stops ten feet from the door of the small hut where Hatim is sleeping; even he, the
crier, pauses. The men look back at him for a second, then at each other, until the one in front
nods, signaling all three to continue moving.
We saw their vessel erupt out of the sky, just appear in the stillness of the night. Nasir and
I, we sat by the river and listened to wild cats hissing and jostling on the other side, to things
swimming underneath the water and imagined a strange world calling to us. We imagined that
the world under the river’s surface was vast and filled with creeping and crawling things, with
scaly demons whose bites were worse than a piranha’s, that they were spawn from the souls
of the dead bodies we sometimes saw float down from the some nearby city. Until the ship
announced itself with a roar, we had not thought of anything more terrifying, more loud. It fell
into the atmosphere and hovered over the ground. The air got thick and felt wet. My skin felt like
it was being stung by mosquitos and ticks as the machine hummed and whirred. We ran back as
fast as we could, yelled at the elders, and when they would not believe us, we hit under our mats
and clutched sticks and waited.
They flash lights into the hut, checking machines and pushing buttons on their arms. When the
third one pulls out his gun, a collective moan rips through the village. These men who look like
us, they have come to murder us all! The elders tell of such things, when evil men come and burn
down homes and kill all of the men, leaving the survivors to long walks through the jungle for a
hundred days, some dying along the way.
The man with the gun lifts a finger to his lips as the other two went in. Was this happening?
And why our village? We were of no consequence to the rebels, my father had told, because
we had nothing they wanted, no resources we could be forced to mine or leave our land for. I
believed him, until strange men started showing up and so many of us started disappearing.
The men rush from the hut, barking. One of them is carrying Hatim, who is limp and barely
dressed and foaming at the mouth. Their boots move so quickly that dust billows into clouds. I
cannot make out what they are saying, but they are frantic. Their voices are mechanical and wiry
and muffled by the strange devices emanating out of their ears, eyes, mouths. They run until they
are far off into the distant fields, by the river, until we can no longer follow the trace of the glow
of their suits, until all the light that’s left is from the stars in the sky.
We strain to see where they have disappeared over the horizon. Nothing. Then, a bright
white explosion peels outward from the direction of the river, accompanied by a thundering that
knocks the weaker of us to the ground, including the hut that housed Hatim until he was taken
by the strange men. The gravity around us increases and presses into us as something shoots out
over our heads. The ship! When it passes seconds later, we find pieces of the hut’s thatched roof
scattered for yards. Hatim had grown sicker and sicker and spent his days in that hut; some of
us envied him that he did not have to tend to the goats or hunt wild boar or carry crumbling clay
pots of dirty water in the radiant sun. Only Djinji, the man who can make sweet liquids from
plants that can pass through a body and kick out that body’s demons, was allowed to enter.
“I am sorry,” he told Hatim’s mother after a month of trying to care for him. “There’s nothing
I can do. The ancestors are all that’s with him now.” Hatim’s mother sank to her knees, cradled
her son in her arms, sobbing violently. As Nasir and his brother tore her away, she had run off
into the forest never to be seen again. I am remembering this when Nasir puts his hand on my
shoulder. I am reminded that I am in the village, that tomorrow I will take the goats far up north
to pasture and that I will carry my longest stick in case a tiger shows himself, starved and bold
and insistent on a feast.
I miss his wiry fingers on my cold flesh. I miss calling out to him from the bathroom with soap
in my eyes. I miss sitting on the couch reading bad romance novels while he made appliances
dance to his will, the kitchen echoing a determined clang and rattle, wondrous alien scents
whisking out to greet my nose. I miss even the tiny ridges of his forehead that canyoned up every
time he got nervous or angry.
And he was often angry. Or bruised, broken up in some way. He’d be on the fire escape
landing, tapping on my window with bloody knuckles, gasping.
“What the fuck, Hatim?” I’d scream. He’d put a long finger to his lips and motion to open up
the window. I’d let him in, and, in a quiet rasp again: “What the fuck, Hatim?”
A ubiquitous “they” were always after him. Goons in glowing red costumes or thugs carrying
scepters crafted from bones of rare sea life and imbued with black magic, anti-spies in grey suits
with machine gun boots, or weaponized wood nymphs with telekinetic mollusks for their brains.
I never saw any of them, only heard glimpses of stories, only saw strange lacerations and wounds
cut into his body in ways I didn’t know the human body could be cut. I only saw the artifacts and
memorabilia, usually some small exploding thing I’d have to pry out of his elbow with a hot pair
of scissors. “No! No we can’t go to the hospital. They will find me there.”
My apartment is cold, too small, and poorly ventilated, but sometimes, even on the most
wintry nights, I keep the window open in my room and just pile on the blankets my aunts have
given me over the past few Christmases and huddle in front of an old space heater. I leave the
window open so that the dust from the heater can circulate and rise out, and also I leave it open
for him. Tonight, I hope he returns.
The cold gets unbearable, so I go into the living room and watch Jay Leno squeak out tired
anecdotes at some beauty obsessed starlet and try, to no avail, to stay awake. I think that through
the haze of a dream, I can see his length emerging in front of me. He is all arms and legs, springy
and powerful. “Kevin.” His voice is reverberating in heavenly tones and it sounds like bells
falling on concrete. “Kevin.” I’m dreaming that I can hear him, that he’s surrounded by low
floating clouds and cosmic rainbows, until I feel something hot grip my arm. With a start, I’m
up. He is standing before me.
“Kevin, I have come to you.”
“My arm.” His grip is inescapable, the more I try to pry myself away, the more taut his grasp
becomes. “It’s fucking burning, Hatim.”
“I am sorry.” Slowly, he lets me go. Hatim looks at his hands wide-eyed, turning them over
in shock. There’s a strange glow to them, a crisp orange light that I’ve never seen before. I feel
guilty for having cursed and reach out to stretch and wrest myself out of sleep.
“That‘s new,” I say, pointing to his pulsing hands.
“I should not have come!” he exclaims, backing away. When he starts toward the window,
I‘m suddenly panicked. I may lose him again to coyness. I reach out for him; his skin is taut,
woodlike. I notice finally that he’s not wearing a shirt, just the leather pants he begged me to buy
for him at that goth store in Fishtown – no shoes, nothing. His hair is spikey, and his eyes flash
in a swirling aura-like array of color. I’m afraid, but I’m tethered to him, lost in his mystery.
“I should not have come. I am sorry.”
He is outlined by a slow, growing light hovering just beyond the invisible barrier of the
window. His eyes slowly dim; now he is more normal than I have ever seen him, standing there,
looking at his hands, whispering to himself, “I should not have come.” As the light increases,
a large ship appears in the alleyway, just hovering there at my apartment window. There’s a
deep hum that I can feel in my stomach that seems to roil through the building’s walls. It’s
barely audible, I simply feel it. Then, nothing. Hatim puts a flared fingertip to his lips that, in
the darkness of my apartment, looks like a pixie flitting in space. My ears pop, as glass shatters,
raining down into the room. Shards fall onto our bodies, tearing through our flesh, mostly just
bouncing off of his. I fall to my knees in agony. Dark clad mercenaries on wires rip through
every window, smash down my apartment door, kick over my furniture, all while screaming in
eerie robotic timbre. Without warning, I’m wrapped in one of my aunts’ blankets and pushed to
the floor. Through a sliver, I can see boots stomp by or bodies fall to the floor; I can hear things
breaking and blowing up, all in a cacophony like a rave in a casino beset with fireworks. There’s
a two second silence, and suddenly the ground beneath me disappears. I can’t see anything, as
the blanket has grown tighter around my body. Is someone carrying me? Hatim? I try to call out
to him, but I grow faint. There’s nothing there, just the vastness of the current around me that
increases exponentially as I drop. It feels like I’ve been drugged. I shut my eyes and Hatim’s
blurry visage ricochets in my head again, until it all dissolves into blackness.
When I awake, it’s broad daylight and I’m on a beach. A seagull has been poking at my dried-
out lips. It stands before me with a piece of my skin in its mouth. I am barely able to move, so I
let him have his lunch in peace in the high, beaming warmth of the sun. The beach stretches far,
but not wide. A steep craggy hill is only a few yards behind me. I crawl towards it and sit against
the rocks, waiting for the relentless sun to smash into the abyss of the sea.
I am Hatim Muzambo. I am the pilot of this ship. I am the ever light being of Earth, I am the Star
Sparkle of the universe, the lamp of God, traversing the ghost-strewn path of the cosmos. I am
the lightning avatar, the creeping hot death of heat, the burning bright light of the cold of Pluto
surrounded in the gate Nebula. I came to you as Horus. I came to you as Ahkenaton. I came to
you as Vishnu. I came to you in parabolic visions and far-flung tales of the mystics. I came to
you with my arms open and eyes blind, with my heart rendered into fragments as big and wide as the heavens itself. I gave you the sweet nectar of the rain, the cooling breeze, the Amazon. I, Hatim Muzambo, whose great grey ship sits aloft clouds, hovers amongst the innermost regions of your dreamscape, baring down on nightmares and shifting those dark, ominous clouds into the gutters of all reality, whose legions are armed and amassing, poised and sharp-willed and
righteous and baring the artillery of love, whose love is laser and light, I! With a horde, a fleet of
gods whose vessels’ afterburners dot the sky, whose souls streak auras and whose eyes, alit and
flashing, race across galaxy after galaxy, whose very light is simply a star. I am the pilot of this
ship, the master of this, the sword and the pen; I am why men fight wars, why love tears apart
kings, and why princes die valiantly or vainly in wanton massacre. I am why there are dug-out
pits filled with dead bodies after the revolution. I am why there are landfills and choking
pelicans stricken with mutating disease or choking on their own bile or strangled by plastic six-
pack lids. I am why there are roses growing on West Philadelphia sidewalks, why these roses’
thorns push through dried cement and still flower, are trampled on and fed exhaust and hate; yet,
I am why this, the rose, still rises and flowers. I am the ghostking, I am the nebula, I am the
abandoned parking lot littered with mattresses and glass and caskets. I am that great, seeking,
raging, god king, berdache. When they came for you in black masks, with their batons held high,
when they knocked on your door at midnight and called out for your sons, for your daughters,
for your souls, I and I alone, I, whose lonesome army descended upon them and did so smite
them, who blew up buildings for you. Who poisoned their water, who sent locusts, who burned
the bush. I, who built the mountains, who found your lover cold and naked and who fed and
clothed them, who sent the butterflies. I, who would paint Rothko’s on the side of a train, when
you are sleeping, I am the pilot of this great ship. I am rising, I am a star. Buddha, Texaco,
America, cosmic, nova, nuclear, unicorn, Microsoft, pixel, gravity, I am rising, I am a star.
Alex Smith, curator for queer sci-fi reading Laser Life, is a queer black activist, poet, dj, actor, musician, afro punk/afro-futurist chronicler of the naughty universe. Smith’s work speaks to the post-fringe dystopia slowly creeping upon us. Too cantankerous and flamboyant for the Saul Williams wanna-be/def poetry set, too tribal for academia, Smith paints viral inscriptions for an audience of armed pixie insurrectionists. Alex’s stories with its lines hashed like an SAT-word injected SEPTA bus graffiti, will kidnap you, convert you, shoot you in the leg and then set you free.