ON OBEDIENCE

JONATHAN MAY

 
 

The day our house caught on fire, my family drove towards Gatlinburg to see Dollywood and the mountains for our vacation. It was our first vacation since returning to the United States from Zimbabwe, where we’d lived for the past seven years.
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The two main tribes of Zimbabwe are the Ndebele people and the Shona; these are also the names of the two main languages. In Ndebele, the word for dog is “inja.” Students learn Ndebele in public and parochial schools, beginning in Grade Two.
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That morning, we left our dog Thulani in the care of one of my dad’s seminary students. She left to go to work, giving Thulani free reign of the house, as my parents had instructed. He was a puffy, black affair, a hybrid between a poodle and a Pekingese. In Ndebele, “thulani” means “shut up.”
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We had taught Thulani to scratch at the glass part of the backdoor whenever he wanted to be let out. It took weeks of his crap all over the floor, and my sister and I dragging him to the door, raising his paws, pretending to scratch, rewarding with cheese, to get it right. Finally I came downstairs one morning, and Thulani sprang to attention, positioned himself by the backdoor, and scratched happily, having finally pieced all together through our Pavlovian dairy antics.
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In Zimbabwe, we had two Jack Russell terriers and two German shepherds. Jennifer, Steven, and I played with the dogs for hours. Our yard was large enough to house elaborate games of war, the dogs our mighty steeds bathed in light. The German shepherds were trained as guard dogs by the police. They loved us, though, in that loyal nuzzling way which dogs have. We would march them all around the yard, guiding them
into a straight line as my siblings and I paraded as dignitaries in our parents’ clothes. Natalia and Chokwadi were the German shepherds. The Jack Russells were named Inky and Lady.
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We got the call seven hours from Memphis. Our neighbor told my father that the house was on fire; the firemen thought it could have started in the living room, near the back door. My father told us this with tears in his eyes. We prayed there at the gas station where we had stopped. Our hands joined together in a circle. My mother’s voice resounded in my head, scratch, ragged, as she prayed words of comfort down upon us. I looked up and saw my family’s heads bowed, eyes closed. Looking up further, I saw birds wheeling overhead. Go away, go away.
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What my father didn’t tell us was that Thulani had died. He said the firemen were looking. Maybe he had escaped. We drove seven hours back home, stopping at the hotel the insurance company provided. Around hour three, we starting talking. Around hour five, Jennifer and I were making jokes. After we arrived, my father and I drove over to the ruins of our house. I could smell the smoke before we hit our block.
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The Zimbabwean government sent notice by mail towards the end of 1996 that we had thirty days to leave the country. My parents’ work permits had been revoked, no appeal possible. We had to sell everything we couldn’t fit into a crate. We asked if the dogs could go in the crate. It occurred to me at that point in my life that my parents had as many answers as I did. My parents gave the dogs away as my siblings and I cried inside the house.
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When I went back in 2001, I asked about the dogs. The German shepherds had run off, back to our house on Colne Road, where they died of starvation, said the German couple to whom we’d given our pets. They also said that, during those first few months after we’d left, the dogs would trot around in a single-file line, as if on parade.
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I found out Thulani had died on the way to house from the hotel. Dad told me finally, right before we pulled into the driveway. We came in through the back door. I saw then the pile of black-blue blanket. The firemen had wrapped him up for us, so he wasn’t lying in the ash. I turned around towards the door and saw where, in the charred part of the wall, Thulani had scratched over and over again to be let out.
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When a child talks to an adult in Ndebele, a rigid formula must be followed, so as to establish deference to age. The child is addressed as a child, the elder addressed as such. The inflections of Ndebele allow for this level of address to continue throughout the entire conversation.
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During Grade Four, I accompanied my dad to the gym to play squash. One day in particular, he decided to play doubles with friends while I went swimming. There was an African man in the pool; we went through the conversational pleasantries. He was younger, maybe twenty. His beautiful body glided through the water, effortless as the standard Ndebele which rolled from both our tongues.
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I left to change in the locker-room first. An amateur swimmer, I wore out easily after twenty or so laps. He came into the locker-room just a few minutes later and, with one hand, removed his Speedo. His penis was large and purple-black, my own a white trifle. Though I didn’t know what it meant at the time, I could see it growing. Just a few years
later, I learned that this is called “arousal.”
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I left to find my father after the dark stranger had sat me on his lap and ran his hands over my small, white body. He made me laugh, tickling my tiny pink nipples, and rubbing, so slightly, his mouth across the back of my head. As I left the locker-room, he told me to be a good boy. I replied that I would. I was shaking all over.

 

 
 

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