A storm in Africa.
Heavy rain. Moaning rain. Lightning cracks the black bowl of
heaven. On a mountain of stone a naked man walks upside down, strapped
into a leather harness suspended on a steel cable. The giant strides
across a cliff-face, defying gravity. He looks up. His beard
is black and wet. He laughs at the lightning, the threatening but
beautiful broken veins of silver. He reaches out, muscles flexing,
and his big hands lock onto the jackhammer slung on his back. He
swings the heavy metal with a grunt, then stabs the mountain with it.
The jackhammer sparks and chatters; its whirring, diamond-edged drill bit
digs in and cuts a blasting hole into the black rock.
Two thousand feet below, on a green carpet, slapping limbs and flapping leaves cling to acacia trees in dark fluttering masses. Jungle plants, rooted in frozen lava, do their wild dance on the crater floor. Ancient trees groan and lean away from cold blasts of wind.
Black men are singing. When the sky drums beat, the walls of the hollow mountain dance. The black men watch and sing while the white lion, the Master, works his magic upon the crater rim, sculpting the mountain with red sticks of dynamite.
Upon a dancing nude woman of black stone, taller than the tallest tree, the Master works, high on the mountain, and his tough Kihuyu workmen watch with reverence and sing their magic songs.
Boom: the padded rolling of thunder. Ba-BOOM. Lightning strikes the dancer. An explosion of silver. The white lion falls.
My father's last words
were not loud enough to be heard. He did not cry out. He just
stopped breathing. He drew air in, let it out, drew it in, let it
out. . . . and then he was quiet. There was nothing noble or tragic
or notable about his death--nothing to color his passing with the grandeur
so often attributed to the deaths of great men. I expected a more
dramatic struggle. I assumed that his manner of dying would be unique,
like his life.
In his final moments, in a deep coma, my father concentrated with fierce determination, as though his delirious mind were locked in some hopeless and desperate battle.
I stand over him now, waiting for his breathing to resume. Then, controlling myself, I ring for the night nurse.
Minutes pass. My breathing is the only sound. I look out the door, suddenly afraid to be alone.
Far down the corridor, seated inside the nurses' station, is the fat, indifferent little R.N. She glances up from her magazine, obviously annoyed that another patient has selected her shift in which to die.
I find my way back to the bed and try very hard not to concentrate on the squeaking of rubber wheels and the clack-clack of footsteps in the corridor.
The night nurse is coming with her cart.
The gathering of the
hyenas: dozens of newspaper reporters, wire-service agents and camera
crews converge upon me, armed with tattered pocket notebooks, black-body
Nikons and blue minicams. They have come to do an autopsy in ink.
I answer questions, unable to focus my eyes upon the floating balloons of their faces. Yes, my mother died when I was born. No, my father didn't work upon his masterpiece, Voodoo Dancer, for years after my mother's death. Yes, I lived alone with my father in Tanganyika until I was ten years old, and then I came to Glendale, California, to live with my Uncle Rodney.
Leaning against the big red coffee machine in the nurses' lounge, I remember how my father always said that being a successful celebrity required nothing more than learning the art of repeating yourself. I spell my father's African names--Bula Matari, "rock breaker"; Simba-eupe, "the white lion"; and Peki Yaki, "the lonely one."
I try to rephrase the old stories: the loss of my father's left eye to a granite splinter, his glass eye, the storms, the avalanches, ribs cracked by a rock python, Kikuyu workmen buried alive beneath tons of rock, two fingers lost to premature explosions of detonator caps, scorpion stings, broken bones. And then I retreat.
I go home to Opal.
Paul Cezanne, my father's
favorite artist, fell into a terminal coma while painting a landscape of
the Chateau Noir during a storm in Aix-en-Provence. Like Cezanne,
my father fell at his work, dying in the rain. Death can never draw
the color from Cezanne's completed canvases, while my father's life work
has been abruptly abandoned, half-finished.
The Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale is the world's most offensive example of nature imprisoned in unblemished rank and file. Italian saints, sculpted by robots, stand guard in precise alignment--marble sentries protecting visitors from nasty thoughts of death. Shrubs dissect the featureless golf course of the final slumber. The grass is cropped close to the ground, each blade as clean and perfect as the cellophane grass in Easter baskets.
All of the buildings at Forest Lawn look like medieval gas stations. As Opal and I walk into the Memorial Court of Honor, I can feel the structure over me--the organized bricks, the great weight of stone. I am seeing with my father's eyes, just as I did when he was alive. Standing so close to death must be stimulating my imagination, for I am seeing many thing I cannot explain. Dark corridors lit by torchlight. A panther with fangs of gold. Melting dream colors. Flaws in the fine marble slabs on the wall.
They are going to seal my father's remains in a marble crypt in the wall in the Court of Honor. A heavy bronze plaque set in stone will record: JOHN WHITING LOCKWOOD--AMERICAN SCULPTOR 1901-1979. The great marble hall is dominated by a vast stained-glass reproduction of da Vinci's Last Supper. My father would have thrown a chair through it.
Tourists, family and friends file by the coffin. It is a white coffin, topped off with a heavy wreath of blood-red roses. Across a broad, pale-yellow sash, black letters proclaim RODNEY AND MARY.
Uncle Rodney and Aunt Mary greet us in the acceptably subdued fashion. Aunt Mary clutches her new Bible, which is bound in white calfskin.
"My father wanted to be cremated," I say. "You know that, Uncle Rodney. The Master thought that funerals were obscene."
Uncle Rodney puffs his Tiparillo. "Your father was a child, Victor. Gifted, but a child. Everyone always said so. This cremation stuff is a fad. Everybody needs a decent Christian burial. This is a great tribute to his genius and all that. They don't put everybody in this Court of Honor."
I start to object more strongly, but Opal presses my arm with her fingers. She's right. I have never been able to stand up to Uncle Rodney the way my father could. And this is neither the time nor the place.
Suddenly I choke with
fear. I don't know what to do. Something ugly is happening.
My thoughts are dark fragments that collide inside my head without meaning,
without continuity. I touch my father's corpse.
I see my father dancing. He is Mundunugu, the magician, dancing sweaty and naked. Bantu tribesmen pound upon empty oil drums, which have been heated to increase resonance. A bonfire of logs and cow dung throws golden shadows across the swaying multitudes. Beautiful black women dance in circles around my father. They are naked, their full breasts swaying. My father dances faster as his arousal peaks. An angry African god enters his body and possesses him, shaking him into a frenzy. My father struggles with the dark spirit and, screaming, he rejects the unnamed god, throwing it out of his body with a violence that leaves him unconscious.
Death. Without warning I suddenly have a corpse's-eye view. I seem to be swaying. I call out for Opal. I am falling . . .
Death is like being
dropped from an airplane into the Arctic Ocean, bound inside a black rubber
bag. There are no golden angels here. The song of death is
silence--a cold shit-cake of silence. The land of the dead is an
ocean of blood in which float black islands ringed by bone corrals.
In the galaxy of the dead, God is a fat white spider, and stars are beads
of dew shimmering upon his hard black web.
Here, smothering in polar darkness, I hover above the funeral ritual taking place in life. They are shoving me into the stone crypt. I have been decorated with the most expensive mortician's cosmetics: dye in the embalming fluid to make me pink, eyelids cemented together. Vaseline on my eyelashes, clear nail polish on my teeth. My jaw has been dislocated and then wired into place to keep my mouth from opening. My lips have been smeared with lipstick and then sewn to my gums so that I won't smile.
In the embalming room they hoisted me up on straps, opened a vein in my neck, inserted a brown rubber tube and drained out my blood. A hollow needle was inserted near my navel, into my abdomen, and the fluids were drawn from my torso. An incision was made under my right arm, and another brown rubber tube was inserted. Six gallons of formaldehyde were pumped into me to permeate my dead tissue. My intestines were removed, dipped in embalming fluid, powdered and replaced. With the skill and the tools of a sculptor, they massaged and molded me like pale-yellow modeling clay, filling hollow and sunken areas with injections from a hypodermic syringe, even attaching flesh-toned plaster of Paris hands to my severed wrists.
As my corpse is sculpted residue, so is my Dancer. Just as my life exists in action, the art in my Dancer consists of the valuable energy invested in its execution. The stone object I have left behind is not important to me, but not even death itself can stop me from finishing what I have begun. I must have more time. Time is the shadow. I see clearly now; I broke all that rock for nothing. Death has given vision to my glass eye.
"I regret that I am dying," said Michelangelo on his deathbed, "just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession."
In his last piece of marble sculpture, Rondanini Pieta, Michelangelo was groping for new forms, as though all his earlier work had, in the shadow of death, become meaningless to him. The piece, one of two intended for his own sarcophagus, was a rough fragment, destroyed partly by his own hand. He was still struggling with it a few days before he died. The unfinished marble depicts a cowled figure with Michelangelo's features holding the dead Christ. The figures are half polished stone and half crude outline, as though they are struggling to be free of the stone and have been arrested in limbo. Now I see the cruelty of an intense creative urge--just as a man starts to free himself from the stone, his time runs out.
Victor, my good son, reaches down into my coffin and lifts me up.
I concentrate harder--and harder.
My son screams, "Opal!"
And then he faints.
Ten years went by quickly--ten
years of wandering and fighting and stale bread and jeers and arrests and
a marriage to Helen, my most gifted protégé. Then came
recognition, success, fame, wild adulation. I developed a passion
for the study of primitive art. Helen and I journeyed to Tanganyika
in the summer of 1923. There, without warning, I saw the girl I had
seen in my studio in Paris. She was a beautiful shadow trapped inside
a high cliff on the inner rim of the world's largest volcanic caldera.
Today, as I am swallowed by darkness, I am back in Africa, standing on the crater's rim, holding Helen's hand, pausing to gasp at the spectacle--the unending rim, the crater floor stretching out beyond our vision, a green carpet peppered with wild animals. And then, laughing with joy at having found a home, Helen and I led our safari down the steep animal track into the vast and awesome beauty of the Ngorongoro Crater. . . .
Victor and I were married
in Westwood, and then flew to East Africa for our honeymoon. All
of my friends were stunned that Victor Lockwood, husky UCLA Bruins fullback,
tall and strong and handsome and the son of a household word, would marry
me, a mediocre photography student. I'm not beautiful. I'm
not witty. The UCLA campus is overpopulated with tall, slender, blue-eyed
blondes with big chests and something witty to say every minute.
I was a freshman, only 17. We met in the library. Victor would
bring me study problems he couldn't solve, and I always helped him.
Victor needs me very much. And, at first, I needed him. I had
so much desire, so much energy--I needed a focal point. I thought
that with Victor I would be safe and that he and I could become valuable
Africa. The janitor in the Nairobi airport sang tribal songs and smiled as he shoved his broom. We rented a zebra-striped Landrover and drove the hundred miles through storybook countryside where signs read: ELEPHANTS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. We drank well water and joked with playful yet dignified Masai moran, admiring their scarlet robes and long-bladed spears.
The Ngorongoro Crater, the largest unbroken, unflooded volcanic caldera in the world, was nine miles in diameter. The emerald-green floor of the crater is a surprisingly peaceful and idyllic homeland for 40,000 wild animals--rhinos, giraffes, lions, elephants, wildebeests, Thomson's gazelles, and dozens of other species. It is an unblemished natural zoo, the last stronghold for these animals in Africa. Standing in the gentle sunlight on the crater's rim, high above the Master's hut in the Laianai Forest, I took a deep breath and fell in love with Africa.
My first meeting with my husband's world-famous father did not go as I had expected. The Master ignored Victor's attempts to introduce me and said, "Victor, I will need dynamite. A truckload of dynamite. And a work crew."
Then he looked me square in the face and said, "You--hand me that chisel."
I handed him the chisel. The work on his Voodoo Dancer--in limbo for 18 years--started once again, and I was a part of it. The Master treated me as though I had always been a member of the family. He spoke to Victor, who had been in America for years, as though Victor had only just come back from a two-day safari.
Victor and I never returned to UCLA. We worked at the Master's side for almost a year. Until the accident.
The Master's Voodoo Dancer was a thousand feet tall. With very little imagination, it was possible to see what the Master was striving to bring into focus in frozen black lava. Half-completed, the dancer was a childlike black woman--nude, with braided hair, full lips, full breasts, muscular thighs--caught up in the ecstasy of the dance, giving birth to a skull. The Master's ebony sorceress was lost in a trance, spastic, sinews taut, sweat glistening, the jungle drums pounding inside her heart, her desirable body inhabited, for that instant, by some obscene African deity. The Voodoo Dancer was mother to Death itself--dancing, moaning, straining to give the skull within her to the world.
In high school, my classmates and I were once assigned to write compositions giving opinion on why John Lockwood, the world's greatest sculptor, had abandoned his masterpiece. My own paper argued that Mr. Lockwood could no longer work because of the loss of his eye, aggravated by all of the other physical injuries he had sustained during the construction of his monumental work. And while I got a B-plus on that paper, I was wrong. The real reason the world's greatest sculptor could not complete his life's work was revealed to me a few weeks after Victor and I arrived at Ngorongoro. The Master recruited a crew of Kikuyu laborers and began to drive them on and on. The Master's energy and determination were electric, and his will vibrated through all who knew him. He worked hard and was happy.
Within a month he had put my face on the Dancer.
A few weeks before the accident the Master took me to a cave a mile from the Dancer. The cave was a place of magic, frequented by witch doctors since time began. Staring at the bizarre rock paintings in flickering torchlight, deep inside the cave, I wondered how much truth there might be in the legends that in the dawn of time the crater had been the magic center of the earth, and that the black lava from the earth's core was charged with great power, a power which caused the first primitive people to converge here, seeking magic emanations. And I wondered why the Kikuyu, who worshipped mountains, were so confident that one night soon the Master's Dancer would come to life and begin to dance and then the primal core of people all over the globe would surface.
"I would like to have been a caveman," said the Master. "My senses would have been clean. And perhaps my mind would have been naturally creative, like a child's." The Master indicated a group of crude stick figures--a reindeer, a boy, a girl, and two water buffaloes--near the bottom of the cave wall.
"These rock paintings were made by a hundred clans over a period of a hundred centuries. The artists were priests and magicians. You see how disrespectful one faith is of all others, how they paint over the older designs, or overlap an old design, incorporating its best features into their own particular configuration."
The Master pointed a second time, and I squinted until I realized that a mark on the wall, next to the stick figures, was the handprint of a child, fossilized. And overlapping was a slightly larger handprint. Sometime, millions of years before I was born, two children had amused themselves by pressing their hands into the damp clay wall of their shelter. Now that clay had hardened to stone, like the stone skulls of Olduvai Gorge, and suddenly my 17 years seemed like nothing.
When I agreed to go down into the cave with the Master I was sure that he intended to make love to me. In the months that Victor and I had worked alongside the Master, I had seen his suffering. The Master loved me more than he could say. He was imposing the beautiful structure of his love for me upon the mountain.
He held my face in his powerful hands. His callused fingers caressed my face tenderly for a long time. Then I unbuttoned my khaki shirt, and he put his hands on my breasts. My nipples were hard and tender.
He turned me around and shoved down my khaki shorts and pressed me forward, gently. I put my hands on the damp cave wall and braced myself, legs apart. Muscular thighs pressed hard into my rear and his penis entered me and he grunted, working his body at an awkward angle, hands locked around my waist, lifting me with every thrust.
I came almost immediately, exhaling all of the air that was in me in one desperate moan. The Master's body pounded into me more urgently. I clawed the damp wall with my fingernails, sobbing.
A voice called out at the mouth of the cave.
A form appeared in the jagged piece of light. "Opal? Opal!"
The Master quickly withdrew from inside me and pulled up his ragged cutoffs. I pulled up my shorts and fumbled with the buttons on my shirt. I took a deep breath and said, "Victor? Is that you?"
The Master never touched me again.
We were together more often after that, and we talked. The Master had no secrets. He talked of the indignity of 18 years of artistic and sexual impotence. He joked that he had been "castrated by angels." He told me dirty stories, like the one about how Rembrandt had pretended to fear the arrogant King Ferdinand while screwing the king's daughter every night. But he refused to take me again. He directed his excess energy into his work, driving his steam shovels and bulldozers (his "yellow dinosaurs"), drilling with his jackhammer, and drinking and fighting with his Kikuyu workmen.
Victor knew that there was a special bond between me and the Master, but he said nothing. Victor loved us; he understood. Late at night I would walk barefoot to the Master's hut and I would lie down and sleep beside him. Or I would lie awake and watch him sleeping. Those were necessary hours for me. I never felt closer to him.
The only time I cried was the night I was walking to his hut and saw him climbing the crude path which zigzagged up the cliff to the Dancer. I followed him. Then, standing high on the crater rim, under the bright African moon, I saw him clinging to the rough stone, naked, rubbing himself upon it and making silent love to his Dancer until he bled, and until he was rewarded with relief, if not satisfaction.
The day after the Master's
funeral Victor and I return to East Africa. We live in Nairobi for
a while, but Victor insists that we return to the Dancer. Uncle Rodney's
engineers greet us; Uncle Rodney is planning to promote the Dancer as a
major tourist attraction. We will try to make a life here, but we
don't know what to do. We both feel a great loss, a chilling emptiness.
Victor and I are having gruesome nightmares. I see myself dead in the earth. My hair has grown longer and longer and longer and has entered the earth like roots, and now my body is decomposing and is being absorbed into the moist soil and is sucked up by the roots of a tree and then the bones of my fingers grow out of a bare branch and hang against a moonlit sky, cold and white.
Victor is going insane. He sleeps with a cocked Smith & Wesson revolver. He is convinced that he is being stalked by a panther. He is afraid to go to sleep because of the dreams in which a panther tears out his throat and laps up every drop of his blood. The panther then licks the bloodless flesh from his bones. Victor raves that the panther in his nightmare is the Master. In those ten long years of living together, Victor and the Master had developed some form of extrasensory communication, I know. Perhaps when the Master died, part of Victor's mind died with him.
Unless I can divert Victor's attention from these ugly delusions, we will soon both be insane.
We go for a Sunday picnic
on the bank of the Munge River on the crater floor. It is a pearl
of a morning.
The clean African sunlight warms us as we sit on a red-checkered tablecloth and watch the vast flock of pink flamingos feeding in the shallow soda lake nearby. I eat sandwiches I have made from roasted antelope and mayonnaise. I drink English beer. I watch lion cubs practicing future kills with playful mock attacks.
He does not reply. He's watching something in the river. Perhaps a bird on a floating log. Or a hippo's snout. He keeps his eyes on the river and won't look at me.
"Goodbye, Opal," he says with a terrible finality.
"You're not eating," I say, forcing a facsimile of good humor into my voice. I try to hand him a sandwich. "You haven't eaten all day."
Victor looks at me and smiles. It is not a happy smile. It's as though I made a joke without knowing it.
Victor hits himself in the face.
I'm not surprised. I just want to cry.
I don't know what to do. The silence between us is expanding. So I watch the object in the river, too. It is soon carried out of sight.
Victor stands up. He squints, staring downriver. Without a word he jogs down the riverbank and plunges into the muddy water.
I run after him. I can't see him anymore. I run along the riverbank until I stumble into an elephant wallow and fall. Pulling myself out of the sucking black mud, I see Victor. He's tearing off his clothes. Naked, he dives down into the dark water and swims into the mainstream. A powerful current catches him. His hands clutch his throat. I catch my breath. The current is carrying him away.
Victor struggles, goes under.
I stumble into the river and I swim, as hard as I can.
The current is too strong for me. I sink into liquid darkness. I feel the cold tug of the deep and I know that I am drowning.
Gustav Hasford, author of the novel
"Short-Timers" (Harper and Row), ventured to Africa to research this story.
As he stood high on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, he swears he saw
the Voodoo Dancer.