One Thick Black Cord
Perhaps the most memorable act of General Mensavi's career came
at the beginning, when he had his predecessor, the illustrious Bosa
M'Bosi, buried alive. General Mensavi did not condemn M'Bosi to
death, but simply accused him of being dead.
"What is this corpse doing here?" he said. "Bury it."
He ignored Bosa M'Bosi's cries as soldiers stuffed M'Bosi
alive into the coffin and sealed the lid. M'Bosi's wife and two
children (who met death in a tragic automobile accident later that
same day) watched from behind barricades and lines of white-uniformed national police as the coffin was carried from the trial platform through the cemetery gates to the fresh grave.
The crowd was quiet and the wind dead. One could hear
the muffled blows of Bosa M'Bosi's fists against the padded lid of
the coffin. Some claimed to hear them after the earth had been
filled in and packed down with the flats of shovels. But General
Mensavi, standing on the platform watching the coffin moving
down the street through the crowd, through the gates and into the
graveyard, watching as the men slowly filled the grave, General
Mensavi could hear nothing but the beating of his heart. I am God
now, he was thinking, I rule death. I shall say who is dead.
Three years later, as he lay dying in the streets after having
been shot in the head and thrown out of his office window,
Mensavi thought to himself, I am not dead. He slowly stood. He
walked on the broken bones of his legs out of the street and up the
twenty-two flights of stairs to the presidential suite. "I am not
dead," he kept repeating, "I will never die."
When he appeared before the two guards at his office door,
blood had so obscured his face that they recognized him only by
the the 267 medals on his chest and by the peculiar rattling that
those medals made. They stared, unable to move, their weapons
heavy in their hands. He stretched out his arms and shook their
"My dear friends," he said, "you cannot kill me."
The guards flicked the safety catches off their guns and
walked through the double doors into the office, shooting the
revolutionaries who just minutes before they had helped to gain
power. By the time General Mensavi had wiped the blood from his
eyes, the revolutionaries were dead and the two guards had leaped
from the window to their deaths twenty-two stories below.
Mensavi would not allow the doctor to remove the bullet
from his head nor even to care for the wound for fear that, in
removing the bullet, a vital cord in his brain would be cut. He did
not believe that the brain was, as the traditional view held, a soft,
gray folded organ. Rather, it was a series of black and white cords,
stretched tightly from one side of the skull to the other, held in
place by miniature hooks of bone. Thought ran on these cords,
either the black or the white. The black cords were evil, the white
good. The bullet had lodged between the cords without severing
them. That is why I still think coherently, Mensavi thought.
The bullet hole scarred over black and round, and when
Mensavi touched it with his finger he could feel a pressure deep
within his skull. When there were magnetic storms, he felt the
bullet tugging inside his head, trying to get out. He would not go
out during storms, fearing to be struck by lightning. His bones
healed crooked after the fall, but he did not die for, as he told his
people, he would decide who was dead and who was not.
There were those who thought he was Galtieri reborn, or
Pasolini reincarnated. Surely he is Pasolini, many said, yet a
Pasolini free of foibles. The young and uncorrupted Pasolini, the
Pasolini we loved.
Certainly, there were similarities. Like Pasolini, General
Mensavi had been born in Labaise and had spent his youth there.
Unlike Pasolini, he had not returned to Labaise after leaving it.
And he did not die in Labaise a broken shadow man as had
Pasolini. Rather, he would die in the capital, surrounded by
thousands. And, of course, he could not be Pasolini reborn, for
General Mensavi had been born nine years before Pasolini's death.
General Mensavi had been born during siesta on a hot day
on the only paved road of Labaise as his mother hurried towards
the midwife's house. She had stripped and squatted and had given
birth to him in the deserted street, tearing the umbilical with her
teeth, her only companion a dog named Almodovar who had
wandered in from the West side of the island after the Revolution.
"Look," the people of Labaise had said when the dog first came,
"even the animals flee." They named the dog and took turns
leaving food out for him until one morning Vasquez had found the
dog dead on the cobbles of the central square, legs broken, tongue
The mother of General Mensavi bore him in the afternoon
heat at that time of day when all others had retreated inside.
Almodovar lapped up the afterbirth. The black hot road touching
the baby's back burnt it red, raising a mark that would never fade.
"That is a curious birthmark," her father said to her when
she returned home with the baby.
"It is not a birthmark," she said. "It is a baby. His name is
General Mensavi," she said.
"Mensavi," he said. "A pleasant name."
"General Mensavi," she said.
At home, she called him that. "General is your first name,"
she instructed him when he was four and five. "Mensavi is your
family name. General Mensavi."
"But your family name is not Mensavi," General Mensavi
She touched his lips, told him to hush.
At the school in Labaise, he told them that he was General
Mensavi. They laughed and patted him on the head and called him
Mensavi, simply Mensavi, or Mensavi Lactare, Lactare being his
"My family name is Mensavi," he insisted, but nobody paid
him any heed.
When he was six his father, whose name was not Mensavi,
returned from the sea voyage he had taken shortly before Mensavi's
birth. He arrived afflicted with a tropical disease whose name he
forbid to be uttered in his presence. The disease had caused his
skin to turn dark red and to break out in sores which wept a clear
fluid. When his wife was absent General Mensavi's father would
ponder a stack of dogeared photographs he kept in his shirt pocket.
They were pictures of bare women, their skin much like his
"This," his father would say, "is nature in all her beauty."
He showed the pictures to Mensavi over and over, saying
things about them and about the women in them that Mensavi did
not want to understand.
When he was ten, his father left again, climbing aboard a
banana boat, determined to work his way back to the islands.
General Mensavi's mother refused to walk the half mile to the river
to see him off. His father had dragged General Mensavi along to
watch him leave. Once on board, his father had turned, calling
back to him.
"Come with me!" he cried.
Mensavi stayed on the docks, looking at his feet. The
sailors untied the boat. As the boat left, his father dug into his shirt
pocket and pulled out the pictures.
"Look!" he cried to Mensavi. "Look! Look!" He was still
shouting as the boat rounded the bend and disappeared.
When he was fourteen Mensavi was crossing the river
when his barque struck a tapir and overturned. Mensavi, not
knowing how to swim, had sunk. Only after the town had held a
funeral and had buried an effigy of the young General Mensavi did
he return, dripping wet, green with scum. The skeptical claimed
that he managed to make it to the other side of the river and that,
unable to swim the return, he had walked up and down the bank for
several days until he had the sense to tear down an old dead tree
and use it to float himself across. Others believed he spent the five
days at the bottom of the river. General Mensavi himself claimed
not to remember.
Upon discovering that the people of Labaise had buried an
effigy of himself, he declared himself immortal. He had, he said,
died, and a man could die but once. "I have power over death," he
told the people, "I shall live forever."
When, at age sixty, he was tired and dying, President
General Mensavi was asked what had motivated him to attempt the
coup to become President General Mensavi.
He said, "I don't exactly know."
Ten years before, his mother, still living in Labaise, nursing
the babbling corpse of her husband and his worn photographs, had
declared that she had planned it all, that she had made it so he
could not rest until he became a general.
"I named him General," she said. "Nobody would believe
that was his name. But I taught him day after day when he was
young that it was his name."
"My mother has black cords in her head," Mensavi said.
"My father on the other hand has almost no cords in his head.
Most of his cords were broken by a tropical disease whose name I
have been forbidden to utter. I have mostly white cords," General
Mensavi said, "yet I was raised by my mother. Thus, I am more
deft at using the black."
When he was a child, his mother slaughtered a neighbor's
shoat to show him that the brain was not cords but rather a soft
gray organ that tore easily apart.
"Now, no more talk of cords," she said.
"It is a pig," he said.
"The principle is the same," she said.
"Pigs," he said, "are not men."
At sixteen, just before leaving Labaise forever, he found a
man lying outside of town, near the crossroads. The man was
lying off to the side, in the low grass, clutching his chest.
"What is wrong?" Mensavi had asked.
"I don't know," said the man. He was gasping.
"Who are you?" asked General Mensavi.
The man did not respond. General Mensavi ran back to
town to find his mother. Together they returned to the crossroads
to find the man lying face down, dead.
"He is not old," his mother said.
"No," said General Mensavi.
"He was dead when you arrived?" said his mother.
"Turn him up," his mother said.
General Mensavi grabbed the shoulder, pulled the corpse
"Yes," said his mother, "I thought as much. It is Mensavi.
Mensavi has returned."
They dragged the body off into the high grass, that night
returning with shovels to bury it. The next night General Mensavi
returned. He exhumed the corpse of Mensavi, split open the
forehead with the blade of his shovel. Inside he found a soft gray
"This," said Mensavi looking at the corpse, "is no man. It
is a pig."
He left the corpse exposed. Later, as General, General
Mensavi ordered that all corpses with broken heads be removed
before he arrived to survey the battlefield.
"I do not use my control over death simply to kill," wrote
General Mensavi in his memoirs. "I am a just leader. I use my
power to save as well. I have more white cords in me than black
cords," he said, "even if the black cords are bound more firmly to
the walls of my skull."
To prove he was a good man, he granted a reprieve to Bosa
M'Bosi, whom he had pronounced dead twenty years before, at the
beginning of his reign. In an official ceremony General Mensavi
exhumed the casket, opened it. Inside was the skeleton of his
illustrious predecessor. Before dying, Bosa M'Bosi had managed to
scrape the upholstery off the inner coffin lid, clawing down to the
metal. The inside of the coffin lid was marked with lines of dried
blood. The hands of the skeleton remained clenched, raised before
General Mensavi commanded the bones to rise and walk.
When they did not, he raged, screaming that he would decide who
was dead and who was not. Yet the bones would not rise.
Mensavi stared, baffled. In the end, he commanded two guards to
carry the skeleton, to speak in its stead. "I am the one who has
power over death," he told them. They carried the skeleton to
official functions, to dinners, to the bathhouse, to wherever
Mensavi commanded. The skeleton slowly fell apart until they
carried nothing but a jawless skull. They carried this until, at last,
a year after the exhumation, General Mensavi decided to kill Bosa
M'Bosi again, reinterring the little that was left of the remains,
along with the soldiers who had carried him.
President General Mensavi ran the state for thirty years
before suffering the death he was sure he could avoid. His corpse
was driven to Labaise for burial. They exhumed the coffin
containing his effigy, which they found infested with termites, and
buried General Mensavi's body in it.
But even then there was one thick cord in his head which
refused to snap. It was black. "I am not dead," the cold corpse of
Mensavi said as they washed it and dressed it in military regalia,
stringing it with medals. "I am not dead," it insisted as they carried
it through the streets of the capital in the old coffin to the grave-
yard, the coffin surrounded by the military, the people screaming
and shouting as if the world was at an end. As they stamped the
dirt flat with shovels, the corpse of the illustrious President General
Mensavi, trying to sit up, declared in a loud, firm voice, as it would
declare until the end of time, that it was not dead, that it would