Edition 4: The Mermithergate Grin by S. Marston
There is very old magic in Africa that only the isangoma know. Lloyd, in his quest for science, discovers viruses can create astounding influence when used in a particular way. Lloyd’s work begins in pure curiosity, but even the best of intentions can be perverted. SY
Before the NASDAQ and the dollar; before the Dutch took their first wind; before credit, paper, gold; this currency was traded and it was old even then.
In Africa, a ten dollar bill as the last page in your passport will get you across a border, but it will not sway the darkness. The original darkness. That one that was on the face of the abyss, at the beginning of all of this; for that entity, there is only one thing with which to trade. Now a goat’s blood will suffice as the price to remove a wart, or cure cramps. But for the big ticket items, for life or wealth, love or freedom, it won’t be a goat bleeding at your feet. The price takes the form of an organ. A small piece of someone. And that object, the soft tissue in itself is not the issue, but rather the act, the means, the bleeding. As was the lesson taught to Shakespeare’s merchant.
Deals are concluded. These middle men deliver to their clientele, and for them, they pull down lightning from the very sky itself, to end a rivalry, win a football match. There is much proof of this, albeit anecdotal. They dispatch the little man, the tokoloshe, to do their bidding. They cure diseases that should kill. Giving schoolchildren powers as a lark; reducing that what makes a man. Walking with hyena as if taking counsel from old friends. They offer curses tailored to read like Roman lead. They kill and worse still, they maim. And this is done daily.
This is fact, albeit offensive and shameful. Though vehemently denied and brushed aside by the powers, the suited ndunas of the day, it continues unabated, unregulated, and these brokers sit in ramshackle huts. Now, not far from here, they are seated in the dust and they bargain in the darkness there.
If you doubt what I am saying, then read a few local African papers and then tell me why the ten-year-old walked out of the bush with his privates and his lips missing. Tell him it’s an urban myth, even though they now dress him as a girl. Tell the albino from Tanzania, tell Adam of the Thames. Try digging into the dirt at the door of your local spaza shop. Tell the family of the footballers, dead from freak lightning, yet again. Ask why they arrested the lady with the head in her suitcase. Why the blood was in the bottle in the bag on the bus. Why is it thus, if it is not as I have stated?
There is a village, east of Ibhayi, where they laid to rest the young prophetess Nongqawuse. A girl with a gift, and given to visions, she who had the nation slaughter its wealth at her whim. For when she returned from Madiba’s island, she lived out her days in this village not far from modern day Alexandria.
In this village, the children walk the veld without shoes and they hunt rabbit and buck with their families’ dogs. A messy business. And it is here they lead their father’s cattle to better grazing in the cold mornings. The corn grows high, bending to a heavy yield. The veld is green, the hills smooth and blue gum trees nest the hardedars at night.
Most people would call him a witchdoctor, but that is a white man’s name for a white tradition. Locally and as a euphemism, Madala was referred to as a sangoma. But isangoma heal, mediate. Madala did nothing of the sort. A more accurate word to describe Madala would be tagati, though that word is also used to describe white men, but that’s another story. And the sangoma of this village, this Madala, is legendary in skill. It is said, when she was still well, the rain queen herself used to knock at his door, taking council. He remains true to the old ways and nothing like those charlatans of the cities, those who wail at nothing, call out to no one. He is simply called Madala, which means old man, for he is indeed very old.
He lives in a hut isolated from the rest of the village and children cut paths far from his hut. And the adults avoid him in the street, only daring to visit him when their need is dire.
Then Lloyd came a knocking at his door during Lloyd’s lonely year. Immensely frustrated, having exhausted the boundaries of the sciences, he turned to the old man in desperation.
Having grown up on a farm, Lloyd’s playmates were the children of the farmhands. And Lloyd scoffed at the nonsense they believed, and they did the same to him. But knowledge was passed between them regardless. And knowledge gained in youth is stronger somehow. It seeps into one’s being, bypassing the logical filters adults employ to discern fact from fiction.
A hint of his acceptance of the folklore was revealed while Lloyd was still in junior school. It took the form of a simple science project for which he won no accolades. His experiment was the analysis of an old Xhosa poultice which, it was claimed, cured infections. The recipe involved a ritual which had a foul-mouthed child chewing corn, only to spit it into a leather pouch, then to hang that pouch from a willow tree for three days, until the poultice was ready for application.
Lloyd took the recipe and duplicated it as best as he could, the resultant mould that grew on the corn was analyzed and proven to be identical to the one Fleming had found all those years ago.
The project wasn’t very popular. For the government’s teachers of the day to admit that the Xhosa had penicillin well before the white man was not aligned with the zeitgeist of the time.
But it was true and he had proven it, and with it he had shown to himself, if no one else, that there might be more to the old Xhosa traditions than simple superstitions.
Madala’s shack was made in Brazil if you were to believe the signage, having been built from old crates that had once housed vehicle parts for the nearby Mercedes factory. This shack lacked that new car smell. It stank of weed and imphepho, and meat left out for far too long. There was something cooking in a large cast-iron pot on the fire, in the centre of the room. An ancient man, Madala was stirring that pot.
“Molo,” said Lloyd, using a full breath on the word.
“You are very kind to see me at such a late hour,” he continued.
“What do you want?” asked Madala
“I have come far to ask for your help.”
Lloyd noticed the old man’s hands were filthy, some fingers had nails, while others did not. He stirred the pot wearing old military overalls, the leggings at least, the top half was tied around his waist. He howled. He skittered about the room at random. Drank from a bottle of skip. Then he stirred the pot again, while howling, a general sign of his kind. Skulls and skins hung off nails on the walls. Lloyd identified a baboon, hyena, blesbok, and vlakvarke.
Madala stopped stirring and looked at Lloyd. His face was without emotion, he was reading Lloyd’s intentions.
“What do you want?” he asked slowly.
Lloyd pulled out a roll of hundred Rand notes and placed them on the floor before the tagati who was back squatting near the fire.
“Just a little information,” said Lloyd as he sat down on the earth in front of the old man.
“Madala, I am a scientist and I have been doing some research. But I’ve kind of hit a wall. I think you might know something that could help me. Please, humour me for a moment. When I was young, I grew up on a farm and our maid told me things about sangomas. Lots of things. You see, she told me about the tokoloshe. I don’t think I believe in the tokoloshe but I remember the stories. I never gave it much attention until a few weeks ago. While I was reading a book by a man named Paracelsus. Have you heard of him?”
“He lived a long time ago in Europe, in Venice to be precise. He was a doctor and an alchemist. Do you know about alchemists?”
Not waiting for a response Lloyd continued. “Alchemists were, I guess, a bit like the sangoma of today; a few tricks and some basic healing skills most of which are purely placebo in nature. Anyway, this Paracelsus wrote, well it was more like bragging if the truth be told, about his abilities and his adventures, and in one of the stories he wrote about creating a homunculus. Do you know what a homunculus is Madala?
“It’s a small humanoid creature, which alchemists could create by following a kind of ritual, or recipe. You build them out of men’s meat and blood and eleven secret herbs and spices. Then you add the hair of an animal you want it to resemble. Does that sound familiar to you Madala?
“A little man, with animal-like qualities. Powerful. Obedient. Created to do your bidding? Doesn’t it sound like a tokoloshe Madala? Because I thought it did. Well, the thing is, Paracelsus describes how to make the homunculus in a lot of detail but he left out a few vital steps. On purpose, he claimed, to prevent others from trying the same.”
“You want me to make you a tokoloshe?” Madala asked, happy he could understand what Lloyd was talking about at last.
“No Madala. Nothing like that. That would be crazy. Do I seem crazy to you? What use would I have with some silly toe-biting diminutive rapist? No Madala, I just want the recipe. You see, inside that ritual of yours is a key that I need. I must have it. One of those herbs, or some combination of those ingredients, allows flesh to reanimate. It allows flesh to either heal or continue to function in a necrotic state. I suspect it may even allow flesh to mesh with other foreign matter and I want to understand that mechanism. That is all. The medical applications would be endless.
“So how about it Madala? Will you tell me the recipe? Will you show me how you make the tokoloshe?”
Lloyd sits in the dirt and waits for a response.
Lloyds sits cross-legged like a school boy.
He seems comfortable.
Lloyd readies his notebook to receive; he pulls a pencil from its spine.
The old man realizes it is now time to decide.
The old man looks Lloyd over again then his eyes are drawn down to the dust between them and to the money.
Madala considers the weight of that roll of notes.
He imagines how it would feel to hold it.
Madala stretches out his hand.
And Lloyd smiles.
Yes, in the beginning his work was raw, even dangerous, but it wasn’t born of the malice that they’d have you believe. It was something more, a kind of curiosity, ponderings of a refined mind put to the exploration of new things. And what wondrous possibilities they were, those new things.
As for the malice; well that only came later.
It was summer in the city that sleeps. Lloyd had his eye on a girl on the dance floor. She was pretty in spite of the late hour. She had a nice smile, long legs, and Lloyd pulled her aside and they spoke for a while. Whatever he said didn’t work and she moved on. Lloyd took a drink from his beer and then he shifted gears. He dropped something and then quickly covered whatever it was with his shoe. I might have paid more attention if it had not been for a hot brunette expressing a wanton lack of piety through some form of interpretive dance. We were near the bathrooms, hitting on the girls as they squeezed passed us. After Lloyd dropped it, within moments, everyone stepped through the looking glass.
The girls, every one of them, began moving their hands over the nearest man they could find. I found a blonde girl clinging to me, then she kissed me forcefully and her hand slipped down my pants. Lloyd was tangling with the brunette. Within three minutes all the bathroom stalls were full. Within four, the first couple was going for it on the dance floor. The DJ was being pleasured in his booth. The music died. In its place grew the sound of fluid mechanics. Meat on meat. Heavy breathing. Moaning. Within five minutes there were no longer couples but groupings, threesomes and more, all writhing as far as the eye could see; across the entire dance floor, then spilling out into the hall, into the pub next door. The barman was ringing the barmaids’ bell. This lasted for an hour and then, as quickly as it came, it stopped.
The moment had somehow passed. Bathroom doors were unlocked. A few men were slapped and a strange silence snuck in amongst us. An awkwardness. There was confusion. Disgust. A ruffling of clothes. No one spoke as they left in droves.
I was as taken back as everyone there. I was zipping up, with the blonde rearranging her hair in the gaudy lights, and I apologized. She said nothing. She just left. I found Lloyd and the two of us joined the exodus.
I was angry on the way back to the car, having put two and two together. I turned to him, in the street and I said, “Well aren’t you fucking clever?” I was readying a fist for his face.
“What do you mean?” he replied.
“Don’t screw with me, I saw you drop something. I saw you drop that just before it all started. Are you pushing drugs? Some new sort of E? Tik?”
“Relax,” he said, “Sure, I did it, but it’s not a drug. It’s a harmless virus. I just, kind of, uh, tweaked it. All it does is make girls feel…a little more loving. It plays with their heads, they, err…kind of…let themselves go. You know?”
“Ja—it has no effect on guys.”
“Oh.” I said.
“I know.” He was smiling.
A creepy sort of unnatural smile.
A creepy, Machiavellian, megalomaniacal, just-got-laid sort of smile.
We went back to his house in Walmer and he showed me that vial science, explaining all the inner workings of his discovery. It all seemed quite simple. Clever. Like Velcro. Like a flip-top toothpaste lid or rubber horseshoes.
He had taken to breeding strains of known viruses. The common kinds of viruses which were, for the most part, harmless, well understood, with their genome sequences mapped. There was no radiation involved, no exotic chemicals. No henchmen and harnessing of lightning, no calls to Igor for brains. All he had was a powerful microscope constantly searching virus cultures. He controlled the device with some software of his own design and linked it to some intricate mechanics. The system merely watched the virus multiply in its host while scanning for new mutations. If his system spotted a mutation, the new virus was removed, and placed in its own solution and allowed to breed, segregated from its bland brethren. That was the sum of his evil science; identifying the freaks of a gene pool and protecting them from cruel Darwinian scrutiny.
At that point he had identified several new strains of interest. The first one had been catalogued and tested on rats. The female rats had shown heightened sexual interest for a few minutes. It was entirely reasonable, for Lloyd, to take his science to the next level. Hence the double blind, peer-reviewed test we had undergone at the club that very night.
And so I knew his secret, or part of it anyway. I probably should have stopped him at that point. I should have gone to the university and the police and warned them. But I didn’t. I did not even consider it.
We began in earnest and many a night I sat beside his scrying device and waited for the tell-tale blip, which signaled the birth of a new life-form, possibly a new and shiny toy.
One Thursday afternoon, we took a green vial with a new virus to a funeral and watched that entire church pack out in laughter. One small test-tube opened in the back row was all it took. Even the dead man’s children were laughing as the eulogy was giggled out by the brother of the corpse in the coffin.
A few weeks after that, we saw a wedding fall apart in tears and that too was amusing. Everyone was struck with sorrow, no one knew why they were sad, they just were.
One Friday night, we went to a small town on the outskirts of PE and hit on the girls there. We hadn’t dropped anything before the local males, four of them, called us out and we followed, reasonably relaxed. The rush of it, the power, it takes you. We walked out calmly and Lloyd let slip a new cocktail and we spoke for a few seconds while the virus took effect. Then we watched them grow afraid, until they were terrified of us and each other. We scared them off, just by threatening them. Lloyd’s thumbs were in his fists and they cleared off with hardly a word. Leaving us alone in the street with nothing but the smell of piss and diesel and walking back inside, you should have seen the look of surprise on those girls’ faces.
You have no idea what that sort of power can do to a person. We lost the ability to be afraid and there was very little we couldn’t do. Any girl, was ours if we so desired. Any person could be made to do our bidding. Free will did not come into it. We could go anywhere, do anything. It was like cocaine, only rather than altering our perception of reality, we bent reality itself. Reality was our plaything and this thing, we did abuse.
A few months passed like this, developing strains and testing them. And then, one evening, we had gone down to our local pub to discuss the latest strain Lloyd was working on. He was telling me about an interesting parasite he had his eye on called Toxoplasmosis and all the amazing complexity it was capable of. He spoke of rats and their changes in behavior, the dormant infection rates within humans, personality alterations and schizophrenia. Why the French are such grumpy fucks.
There was a girl there, sitting with her friend at the bar. She was pretty. She was loud and little drunk and Lloyd had learned that that never hurt his chances. So he walked on over to her and sat beside her as if he belonged there, next to her like that. They spoke for ages. And we used no science and I kept the large friend occupied and plied us all with alcohol. They genuinely hit it off.
She was something to behold, this girl of Lloyd’s. She was tall and lithe and laughing, constantly in motion. Her blonde hair was cut in a Chinese bob. She was easy on the eyes, smooth on the dance floor, light and whimsical in bed and hard on the wallet. She was also thick as parboiled pig poo, but she was fun as all hell. They hit it off and her name was Louise.
And so pebbling was put on hold. For a few months, they dated and things were good for Lloyd. He was looking at getting a job and settling down, seeming to have lost interest in his new science. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, but I saw her out a few times, with other men, in other places. She was all over those men. She was fucking around like a wood-nymph just out of catholic school, on crack and out of pocket money. One night Lloyd came home and found another man skillfully poking her in their bed. He stood in the doorway and when she saw him watching, he turned and left without saying a word.
Louise didn’t run after him. And when he did not call, she left it. She assumed it was over and she moved on. But for our Lloyd, it was anything but over.
Evil, true evil, is not some horned creature promising the world. It is not some ethereal entity. Evil is not madness, though they might be allied in a cause or two. True evil is a child, sulking, alone in a room. Plotting. Brooding. And that is what Lloyd did for the longest of time.
Phone calls and doorbells went unanswered. The curtains to his house remained permanently drawn during this period of his life. And if he left his house it was late at night and it was to visit the university laboratories. And when he finally emerged well over a year later, he emerged with a plan and with that creepy smile. It was then, with a year’s worth of dedication that Lloyd pulled his chair to the table. It was then that he sat down to that cold dish.
Lloyd entered a biker bar on the outskirts of town, he bought himself a beer but didn’t drink it; he went to the bathroom and then left. He moved slowly and seemed self-assured, almost as if savouring the moment. A fight broke out, seconds later. Everyone got involved. First, it was fists and then beer bottles and chairs; then it turned to throttling, biting and eye-gouging. Modern man quickly recalled the old ways to fight, fighting to kill, not to settle an argument or to impress a girl. This was base-brain, reptilian brawling. The bar became a Darwinian elimination round for a little while. People died. People were arrested, hospitalized. All as the blind lady and the weaver saw fit.
This happened on the Saturday, and on Sunday another fight broke out, this time in a church. Two men and three teenage girls were killed. People were torn apart and scratched and bitten to ribbons. Unlike the night before, this one made the press. People spoke of the light bringer. People spoke of madness and demons and computer games. By no coincidence, this was Louise’s church.
I was in the hospital on the Monday morning when I found out about the incident in the church. I waited for the nurse to finish her rounds before I dressed and simply walked out of the hospital. Dressing was hard with my hands shattered from the punches I had thrown in the bikers bar. At least one of which was a killing blow, I’m pretty sure. The blows I had taken in turn had swollen my eyes shut and the doctor had doubled as my cut-man that morning. And the cops had been around to see me; the doctor had kept them at bay. I had no doubt that the bar brawl was for my benefit. The church was for Louise’s.
So I went to see him. My dad’s gun fitted uncomfortably in my swollen hand as I sat in the car summoning up the blood for what needed doing.
Lloyd’s car was missing from his driveway. It normally stood on the unkempt grass patch in front of his house. I walked across the wayward lawn anyway and knocked on his door with my father’s Beretta, my hand aching with each rap. There was no response, so I tried the door and it gave.
And there, inside, there was the malice, in that unlovely dark. The only light source in the house was the door I had just opened. No alarms sounded. There was a stench there, a smell that has since become all too familiar. It was quiet at first then I heard a scratching, as if a rat in the dark, now startled by my abrupt entrance, was making its way back to the safety of its nook.
The scratching set of more of the same. Until the whole room, was in a commotion. I found the light switch and there it was. His master plan revealed.
Rats in cages. Hundreds of them, stacked one on top of the other and each with their own labels and each with a single rat, scuffling about, excited to see me.
Further into the room, these rats grew older, shabbier in appearance. In the corridor, there were still more cages. I stepped lightly, following the wall and down the passageway until I saw a notebook on one of the cages. Lloyd always kept his experiments well documented so I reached for the book and took it but as I did so, the rat in that cage caught my eye.
It was obviously dead. Dead and somehow still moving, looking around I saw some of these rats had skulls exposed. Ribs displayed. Eyes lost. Some were dragging their own entrails behind them. Maggots were marbling the decaying meat. The tiny grubs were writhing in the flesh that itself was in motion. A true moveable feast.
I retched outside for some time, all the while looking around in fear. I kept expecting to see Lloyd appear. I ran to the car. Tried to phone people while driving, his mom, Louise, the cops. No one picked up. The phone just rang and rang. When I got home, the TV was on and the news was showing his first mermithergates. That’s what he called them in his journal. Like the worker ant. You wouldn’t call them mermithergates. Those parodies of man, in the city centre, were running amok. They were growing their own numbers, and doing their thing, shambling and killing in the windy city. Refusing to die. Spreading their disease. I remember thinking maybe I shouldn’t have fucked Louise.
Reading that journal was as disturbing as anything I saw during the outbreak. The journal spoke at length as to how he did it and why. His vial science, as we used to call it, only took him so far. He had moved far beyond the meager sciences we were dabbling in when I still knew him. He had turned to studying alchemists and scientists as if they were peers in the same field and then finally he had reached out to some old sangoma for a recipe. The second half of journal was about dissecting and scrutinizing that recipe. He detailed the hunt for certain herbs he required. Then he spoke about identifying the active components in those herbs. He spoke of his joy in seeing a single muscle working in a necrotic state. Then he described how, using his old scrying device and the vial sciences, he went about replicating a virus which could incorporate that recipe.
And some still believe it was the weaver’s work that led Lloyd down this path. That it was always going to happen, that it was destiny.
Others believe that voices came to him in the dark, during his lonely year. That these voices whispered to him and promised him an end to the pain, and that Lloyd merely jotted down the recipes for his virus. But personally, having known the man before he turned, I believe it was a choice. I believe if it wasn’t Louise, or me, he would have found another trigger with which to justify his decision. If the truth be told, Lloyd was born with that grin and one day, he simply woke and chose to wear it.