They caught the thief in a city a far distance away, after the apocalypse came. God began wrapping up the world little by little. Most people didn’t notice, but if they had wanted to look, it was right there to see. God isn’t cruel.
It was a big city, and in the middle was a slum. Everyone lived in the slum. The big buildings were all abandoned. People lived in tiny mud shacks for the closeness and for the feeling of being near other people. It was like huddling near the tippy top of a sinking boat. The slum was a valley with two hills, and it was packed with houses made of corrugated steel and scrap wood.
When new people were born, the community would throw them into the air. They would gather in a crowd and throw the baby up as high as they could, and then try to catch it.
There was a prophet in the slum called Ondeto. One day, Ondeto told his followers to go to the Central Business District, climb to the highest building, and fly. If they jumped, he told them, he would give them wings.
Many people died.
When Ondeto died, his body was kept for many days, in case he came back to life. His followers dressed in colorful robes. Each color had a power given by a certain saint, and when God spoke to the people he told them which color to wear. The men wore these bright robes, and carried wooden swords. Some carved wooden AK47s. They used them to shoot angels. One day a man walked into the Central Business District wearing bright robes, carrying two wooden AK47s.
He was arrested.
One day, a thief was captured stealing from a house by some men. The men took the thief out and beat him. They hit him with a deflated bicycle tire, a stick. They karate kicked him. A long line of men formed. They were pushing the thief along the railroad tracks.
The railroad tracks ran right through the middle of the slum. When a train came by, it shook the slum to pieces, and people had to rebuild. Some of the shacks right around the railroad held churches. The pastors in the churches all said that their churches would soon be destroyed because of the railroad.
There was a daycare, which was nothing more than a dark shack about the size of a swimming pool. In the room there were seventy babies. The babies were crying. The daycare was managed by three young women, all of them were named Mercy. In the darkness, it was impossible to tell who was crying. Mercy told me the real problem was food. Then Mercy told me that the real point of the daycare was just to keep the babies inside, to keep them from being defiled by the outside world. I asked her what she meant by “Defiled.” She whispered it to me.
The long line of men walked past. The thief was bleeding now. They spun him around in circles. They hit him. They shouted up to heaven: We have been killing thieves!
Finally the thief collapsed on the railroad tracks. “He is trying to die!” the men shouted. They surrounded him. The thief’s finger was a bloody mess, blood was coming out of his mouth. He spit out a tooth. One man raised a shovel, to hit the thief, another man stopped him. There was a fierce debate.
Along the railroad tracks where they stopped there were people who were selling things. They sold bits of pipe and pieces of broken TVs and missing shoes and so on. So when the thief was released, and the crowd dissipated, the main thing that happened was that the selling people came back and set up their little shops again.
This particular part of railroad track overlooked the rest of the slum, which laid in a valley below. There was a dragon in the center of the valley. It had multicolored scales made of corrugated steel and scrap wood. It was impenetrable. It was the only thing in the slum that never got destroyed when it rained. The dragon was usually asleep. Once in awhile it ate someone. Inside it’s stomach was an enormous pile of gold bricks.
The thief was led away, in the opposite direction. This time, only two men held him. Behind him, there was a line of women in bright dresses. Some of them carried babies. Others of them carried food.
When Fred was small he had a gun. He used to rob people. He was twelve years old when he joined a gang called the 42 Brothers. He would burst into shops and wave his gun back and forth. He would take whatever he wanted.
He could do a move to take the gun away from someone trying to shoot him. He believed it was scarier to face a gun the farther away from him it was. If he was close, it was not scary. He could take the gun and use it.
Now Fred was older. His wife was taken from him by a dragon. The dragon touched Fred’s wife, and ever since they were separated. She was not dead. She just didn’t love him anymore.
She and Fred had a son together. Their son was 9 years old and as he walked through the slum, between the scrap buildings, the little boy would appear now and then and cling on to Fred’s clothes. The little boy would walk a few paces like this, then disappear again.
Fred and his son lived together in a shack, and slept in a bed that Fred built himself.
He built a shop for himself, and called it Fredy and Sons. It was a plan to make money, but the shop had nothing to sell. No goods. No food.
Once Fred’s tribe had a fight with another tribe. The other tribe was evil. Fred’s tribe threw stones and cut their enemies with machetes. The other group chopped off heads and hands and threw them as weapons.
Fred’s friend Michael had an idea to get money by doing forex trading. If he had one dollar, he said, that was really valuable. But if he had ten dollars, it would be really really valuable. He wanted to know if forex trading was the way to do that.
There was a man who painted storefronts using car paint. He wrapped his brushes in plastic to keep them from drying out. He could paint anything. Any animal, any living thing. Any piece of any machine. He painted on every building. His goal was not to make his work beautiful, but bright and accurate.
There was a man in the slum with the power to fight demons. He worked in a small shack. Outside the shack was a woman in a pink dress. She was wobbling back and forth. The woman went into the shack and past a curtain. Behind the curtain, there were paintings of Jesus and Mary and Ondeto. There were robes of every color. The woman knelt. There was singing, and shouting, the flicker of a candle.
The man who could fight demons put on a purple robe. Everyone kneeled and prayed to God. Then the man who could fight demons stood up in front of the lady, who was still kneeling. He shouted up to heaven for the angels to come down. The woman held a candle. The man who could fight demons had an assistant. They shouted up to God. Sometimes they whistled or cried.
A chicken wandered in. The man who could fight demons kicked it. He lifted the chicken up and threw it through the curtain into the other room. He laughed.
The woman rolled on the floor.
A few hours later, the man who could fight demons had his normal clothes on, a tee shirt and dirty trousers. He was repairing electronics. Screws and bolts were everywhere. He wiped his brow. It was easy to repair people, he thought. Electronics were hard.
Fred had a poster on his wall. It said: TO MARRY IS TO DECLARE WAR.
One day, Fred came upon his wife unexpectedly. She was in a quiet place, a place away from many people, and she was standing in a spot where there was light, so that when Fred walked up it was especially quiet. He stood next to her and she looked at him and many things were not said. Fred started to say something, but then a man in a bright tracksuit stumbled through a corridor.
The man was drunk, and he spoke to Fred, and then Fred spoke to the man. Fred looked at his wife again, and then he left. The drunk man was lost. He was looking for a place to buy weed. Fred believed that it was good to help people that were lost, so he went and showed the lost man where to buy weed.
There was a schoolmaster who took the children’s school fees and got drunk by 11 a.m. He sat in a tailor’s shop, and the whole shack smelled of alcohol. There were men wobbling and falling down drunk. The alcohol could make you blind, or kill you. Some people went crazy. They completely lost their minds.
Alcohol, weed, tablets. Some pills. The pills were red. Some were white. If you went to a location for mad people, those were the pills that were given. Now, those pills were being sold to other people.
When a man wanted to get drunk like whiskey, he ordered a pill. So now he felt like he was everything.
He felt like he could kill anyone. He could do everything.
Fred’s parents were using these things, his brothers were using these things. They were always asking him how he lived without them. Without anything.
One day Fred walked down to where the river was. He walked across a bridge, and a group of boys approached him from behind, waving their arms. The oldest and biggest boy carried a piece of rebar like a sword. Others carried rocks, and one, the smallest, had a sharpened piece of plastic. He held it against Fred’s stomach like knife. The boy was only about twelve. He looked like he was going to throw up.
The boys were shouting, pushing Fred against the bridge. They wanted Fred to pay. They said it was their bridge.
Fred looked both ways. No one would help him. He put his forehead directly against the forehead of the leader boy, and he and Fred slowly circled each other. Beneath the bridge there was a dead pig. The pig was laying sideways on a pile of trash, and the river flowed around it.
Fred pressed his forehead against the leader of these boys, and waited. He turned again in a circle. The leader of the boys said he would beat Fred senseless. Fred said he didn’t care.
Sometime later Fred went back and found the bridge completely covered in blood. The pig was killed by electricity.
He walked to the river, and blood came off his boots. “Weren’t you scared?” the river asked Fred.
“What you should know is that here is the same as back home,” Fred said. “Here is the same as back home. So you should not be here and be polite. You be hard and be strong, yeah? The challenges you face at home are the very same challenges you face here. The way people are rude back home is the way people are rude back here. You get polite people here, polite people there. So, for you to achieve your goals…” then a strong wind came up.
One day he was walking when he saw people running, and he saw that some men had caught a thief. The men spun the thief around. They led him to an open place and beat him, then the thief collapsed on the railroad tracks.
Fred ran after them. He got in front, and watched the beating. He stood close to it, he watched it carefully. He photographed it, and made a video.
The men stood around the thief and let him bleed, then they stood him up and walked him away. People brought their shops back out. They laid out their good on blankets. The people walked away. The railroad tracks were overlooking the valley.
A mad man wandered by, with a scar on his head, and Fred thought about leaving the slum.
He picked up a pair of baby’s shoes off a blanket. He turned them around in his hands. Over and over again, looking at them.
There were children playing. Far below in the valley, there was a dragon. It had scales made of corrugated steel and scrap wood. It had ferocious claws. It could eat people. It could destroy lives. It was the only thing that could survive the rain, which washed away houses, and was loud on the tin roofs.
Three days later Fred came upon the body of the thief killed by men in the mud.
The small children in the slum dreamed of becoming pilots. Planes flew over them. No one knew where they were going. When babies were born, the people would gather and throw the babies into the air. When a prophet came, he told the people to go to the highest building, climb all the steps, and fly. Many people died.
It was impossible to fly, but sometimes people fell upwards. There was a man who covered himself in silver chains. There was a tailor, who kept a small box of sewing tools next to him. He worked on a broken table in a patch of dirt with a cloth draped over him, and in his sewing box was a tiny car for a child to play with.
People came from far away. There was a lady who came from a place that was like a garden, and plants were everywhere. Her name was “Evelyn,” or “born in the evening.” There was a man who did not remember his own name, who had no memory of who he was, or how he got there, or where he started.
When the thief was let go, a big debate started among the men who caught him. Most of the men wanted to kill the thief but a few strong hands stopped the others. They let him live.
Later, they met up again in secret.
A rumor was released that the thief had stolen again. But this did not make sense. A rumor was started that the thief was targeting a big man, an important man, and that he intended to harm that man. The thief was a threat. A rumor was circulated that someone was paying the thief. That someone had the idea to use the thief like a tool. Like a hammer. Or a knife. It was all false. All of these things were lies.
There was a little boy who stood next to a speaker one day. The speaker played very loud music. It was bigger than the boy. The speaker was there to announce that someone had died. The little boy collected money for the burial, because he had nothing.
There was a little girl in a yellow dress who ran three paces, and then vomited. She stumbled, and then vomited again. It rained.
Fred heard a rumor that the thief was dead, and so as the rain started he went looking. He found the body near the river. The thief’s body was covered with wounds from stones and machetes. His clothes were different. His face was beaten badly. Fred stood over the boy in the rain, and from then on, he could not refer to him as “the thief” any longer, but rather as “the young boy.”
A big man, an important man, went into a shack which was lined with brown cloth. Inside there was a playstation, and people could pay to play it for a short time. The big man, the important man, had the little boys thrown aside. He wanted to play FIFA.
Fred sat down across from where he found the thief. He was next to the river, near where the illegal alcohol was brewed, and he thought about the thief and the three days of life between when he was first caught and when he was killed. The rain began to flow down around him. It formed little rivers, going into the big river.
When he stood up to walk home again, the dragon was there in front of him. As big as a mountain, covered in hard scales, with teeth like knives.
It’s face was a mixture rebar, cloth, old wood, and broken piles of mud. Blood, poisoned water, the bodies of rats, candy wrappers, signs with writing on them. Children’s clothes. Fire. Rain.
Fred fell back down again, and couldn’t stand.
There was a hut where two witch doctors lived, and their magic stretched out so that they were good for curing anything. Not just illnesses, but business problems, marriage problems, and more. If you got in a fight with your wife, or if you were unable to make money selling tomatoes, you could go to them, and they would teach you a spell to perform.
The spells were obtuse, and often impossible. They would, for example, require the body of a fully black chicken, with no grey spots, even though such a chicken did not exist. That was how powerful the magic was.
When it rained, houses got destroyed or damaged. When Fred lay there underneath the dragon in the rain, he thought to himself. “It will not rain.”
When he stood up, and blinked, and got himself down off the rock, he said to himself “It will not rain.”
He walked to the underside of the dragon, and there beneath it was a door into the dragon’s stomach. Fred opened it, and he went in, and he took out a single tiny speck of gold. He closed the door again, and left. The dragon tore him to pieces. It ripped him apart and left him dead on the ground, then it put him together again.
He carried the piece of gold back to his shack, and he hid it under the bed that he built. He waited in there for ten minutes, then he got up again, took out the crumb, and carried it to his father’s house.
He had a long discussion with his father. Then he gave the dust to him, went outside, and went searching for something he could do. He rebuilt his home, and his bed. He considered what to do with his shop. He waited for several days, and when an idea came, he did it, and he got older like this, leaving some things to younger men.