Me Tanner, You Jane

Page 14

Under a wide and starry sky,

Dig my grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea

And the hunter home from the hill.

“I thought that might make a good epitaph for him, that it was fitting. But I had nothing to write with and nothing to write on, and anyway I knew I’d never be able to mark that grave so I could find it again. So what was the point of an epitaph if wasn’t anybody going to know who was buried there? What I did was I just spoke the words aloud, and I don’t suppose that did any more good than writin’ them, but it was something to do and I did it.”

He heaved a sigh, and we were all three respectfully silent for a few moments. “He must have been a very great man,” Plum said. A few moments ago, I seemed to recall, she had characterized the late Retriever as a fascist bastard. Women are decidedly fickle.

Bowman agreed that the Retriever had indeed been a great man. “You hear all these people talk about Black Power,” he said, “and here’s a guy actually went and did something about it. And with such style, such flair.”

“You must have been terribly devoted to him,” she said.

“Well, I could say it was just a job. Just the same old shuck.” He grinned gently. “But I’ll tell you a thing as straight as anything anybody ever told you, Plum kitten. And that’s that nobody on earth was ever as devoted to anybody as I was to Knanda Ndoro. And that’s the truth.”

Plum bowed her head and closed her eyes. Bowman let the poetic beauty of the scene build to a peak, then borrowed my Swiss Army pocketknife to scalp his two former comrades. Scalp is not the right word for it, but it will have to do. There was still some alcohol in my jug, and we used it to wash the red dye from the, uh, scalps. They would be presented to Sheena, who would accept them as trophies of the hunt even as she accepted Plum and me as faithful members of her rebel band. At least that was the theory.

I pictured Bowman digging Knanda Ndoro’s grave with his own two hands. I wanted to ask him about the treasure, but it seemed inappropriate to bring it up now.

Chapter 10

“And the voice of the Lord came unto Jane, and spake unto her. And the Lord said, Lo, thou art white, and thy father was white and his father before him. And the whiteness of thy father and thy father’s father is an abomination in my eyes, and thou art whitened as a sepulcher. So henceforth shalt thy name not be Jane, but from this day forward and forevermore shalt thou be called Sheena, which means Queen of the Jungle.

“And the voice of the Lord spake unto Jane called Sheena, and said unto her, Lo, over every living thing shalt thou have dominion, over them that groweth in the ground and them that creepeth in the sky and them that lieth down and them that riseth up. And over every man and every woman shalt thou have dominion, and of the men, if they be white, then shalt they surely be put to death. And of the women, if they be black or white, they shall be surely put to death. And of the men, if they be black, let them come into thy tent, and let them lie with thee, and let them come unto thee when thou liest down and when thou risest up.

“And the voice of the Lord-”

I tuned out the voice of the Lord, no disrespect intended, and let my eyes take over for my ears. Sheena was a far cry better to look at than to listen to. As far as the eyes were concerned, she was a Playboy centerfold brought miraculously to life, the ideal Playmate of this or any other month. She had hair so golden the French peasantry would have hoarded it and eyes as blue as a Billie Holiday record. Her breasts convinced one that mammals were God’s chosen creatures, and that God had the right idea. Her legs went all the way up to her neck.

The ears received another message entirely. If she looked like a wet dream, she sounded like Cotton Mather on an acid trip. She ran down the gospel according to St. Sheena with the precise cadence of a New England preacher. I was occasionally reminded of the Book of Mormon; the Angel Moroni, like Sheena, had tended to transmit his revelations in King James English. And, also like Sheena, he had frequently made less than an abundance of sense. It kept sounding right, but it kept not meaning anything.

Actually, she might almost as well have been reciting the Book of Mormon, or the Magna Carta, or the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or the Complete Works of Chester Alan Arthur, for all the impression it was making on her disciples. They evidently liked the sound of it, and the sound of it was all they got, because Sheena was babbling on and on in English – albeit her own personal version thereof – and of all the crowd gathered around her, only Plum and Bowman and I understood English. The rest of them – of us – could no more understand English than I could understand them.

I drew Sam aside and asked him if Sheena spoke the native language. “Just English,” he said. “I don’t think she understands the native tongue, either. And they don’t understand her. It’s a very heavy relationship.”

“What language do the natives speak?”

“I don’t know the name of it. I can get around in it without breaking a leg, but I don’t know what you’d call it. Some local dialect. It’s nothing like what they speak farther south.”

“How does Sheena talk to the men?”

“You’re hearing her.”

“I mean how does she communicate?”

“Through me, now. She’ll tell me something in English and I’ll translate it into wog-gabble. I don’t know how she worked it before I happened on. But dig, it’s weird. They always seem to know what she has in mind. Like I tried turning her orders upside down one day, and it didn’t take. She has this fantastic intuitive thing with them. A very down scene. She doesn’t tell them what to do so much as she does things, she gets into a set, and they act in concert with her.” He shook his head in reminiscence. “The best illustration is at a massacre. The lady’s at her best at a massacre. She doesn’t tell anybody what to do. She just wades right in and lets fly, reelin’ off her own personal scripture and swingin’ that machete of hers like the jawbone of an ass. When we raid a village or wipe out a mission, she is purely beautiful.”

“You sound as though you enjoy it.”

“Shit, man, who wouldn’t?” His eyes met mine. “It’s all the same scrum, baby. Whether it’s Oakland cops or back-country priests and nuns, it’s the same ofay establishment. It’s cuttin’ whitey up and makin’ him bleed, that’s what it’s all about. After four hundred years of slavery, you got to expect a little desire for vengeance.”

I must have backed off, or looked as though I was about to, because all at once the tension and fervor left his face and his features eased into a grin. “Nothing personal, Tanner cat. Course you understand that.”

“Sure,” I said, unsure.

“Just a matter of not cuttin’ off your hose despite your race, is how you maybe could put it. One white man is one thing. I can dig you on a personal level. But in the abstract, the whole lot of you, that’s somethin’ else.”

“But missionaries,” I said. “Priests and nuns, doctors and nurses. I don’t-”

“Missionaries!” He shouted the word, and several nearby warriors turned to gape at us. I tried to shrink away from them and avoid their eyes. My makeup job was fairly good, but the closer one looked at me the whiter I appeared. “Motherfucking bloodyminded missionaries,” he went on, in a lower register now. “Tanner cat, those are the worstest white devils of all. No question, no argument. Give me the straight-out colonialist any day of the week. You know where you stand with him. Like the Mississippi sheriff – he may kill you, but he won’t lay a load of bullshit on you. But the missionary, he comes into my country where I got my own religion and my own way of doing things, my own ceremonies and costumes and medicine and agriculture, and he gives out some vaccinations and passes around some food, and the next thing you know he’s sayin’ how my religion is a shuck and my ceremonies are a crock and my medicine’s a superstition and my crops don’t grow right, and what he’s tryin’ to do is turn me into a white man on the inside and leave me the same old bush nigger outside. The colonialist takes a man’s body and leaves him his soul, and that’s bad, but it’s a damn sight worse the other way around. That whole missionary attitude, that holier-than-thou routine, that white man’s burden birdsong. I hate that, man. It makes me want to reach out and rip things.”

And again the eyes were blazing, the forehead creased, the veins standing out on the glossy black temples. And again, too, the passion waned all at once and teeth flashed in a smile. “Course you wouldn’t buy that,” he said.

“No, I agree. Missionaries are the most arrogant people in the world, and they don’t even know it, they actually think they’re humble. But-”

“But you don’t buy killing them.”

“Not especially, no.”

“Because their hearts are pure, right?”

“Not exactly that, but-”

He clapped me on the shoulder. It was a friendly gesture but one that very nearly knocked me from my feet. “Tanner cat, the trouble with you, you know what it is?”

“I’m white.”

“Well, that’s maybe part of it. But you can’t help it, it’s just an accident at birth. The sort of thing that’s apt to happen to a man when both his parents is white. The real trouble is that you just aren’t a fanatic.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which checks my mail, thinks I’m a fanatic. The Central Intelligence Agency, which bugs my apartment, concurs in this judgment. The police of countries all over the globe, having spotted my name on lists of various unwelcome organizations, concur in the opinion. I’m not even allowed in Canada, and you can’t be a whole hell of a lot more fanatic than that.

But that wild-eyed fanatic was the old Evan Tanner. And if the leopard can change his spots and the Nixon his image, surely the Tanner can mature from youthful fanaticism to mature responsibility. And, I thought now, in my new role of Scarsdale Galahad and Levittown Lochinvar, in my chosen identity of breakfast-eating Brooks Brothers type, I couldn’t deny the truth of Samuel Lonestar Bowman’s remark. I just wasn’t a fanatic.

A little later I repeated most of the conversation with Plum. She didn’t concur in Bowman’s opinion of missionaries. As far as she was concerned, no one who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and healed the sick could be all bad. Her trouble was that she wasn’t a fanatic either.

“And they don’t just kill white people,” she pointed out. “They kill black people as well. There were black corpses at the mission.”

“I know. When they hit a mission, they kill everything that moves.”

“And when they raid the villages, they do not merely do this to get supplies and to recruit more men for their forces. They kill and loot and burn.”

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