The Acquisitionist

by David Kerr

 

As Kadar rolled out of the Kulturburo he glanced at the Pillage Permit flashing yellow on his pulsar.

It took only two days to pick up the Outland visa, his jabs, a couple of well-armed Intrazone pacifiers from New Nairobi, a portacraft, a few hand-tools, and some immicredits.

Not that Kadar was new to Outland.  His first visa had been for the Chittagong murals.  He’d needed a whole platoon of pacifiers to procure the art work.  But it was worth it.  The pulsar A rate for South Asian murals had gone up 0.0137 after that acquisition.  Then there’d been the Michiko masks and most successful of all, the Kisangali Mama Wati prints.

This was the smallest expedition Kadar had ever led.  The lanky, male pacifier, with the stupid nom-de-guerre, Dragon, doubled up as driver.  The other, Kamoto, a stocky Amazon, was their local linguist, though in Kadar’s experience, Outlander dialects changed so fast, she might have a tough time.

Basically, Kadar’s niche had been carved out of the Kulturburo’s negligence during Partition.  The Buro had assumed that post-Partition aesthetics would be conservative, hankering for the great European, Central Asian, North African and Chinese classics – a Noah’s ark collection of elegance from stable eras before fiscal Armageddon.

In a way they were right, but the kulturiks had failed to anticipate an interesting backlash, Inlander curiosity for submerged byways of pre-Partition world culture.  At first the kulturiks were suspicious of Kadar, with his folklore interests and expertise in Outlander naiferie.  But the pulsar rates dictated terms, and he started getting contracts – to fill the Buro’s acquisition gaps.

Dragon slowed the portacraft down when they reached the gate.  Their destination, a large village, called Namadzi (“in-the-water” according to Kamoto) was close to the partition wall, as the 6th vector Inland corridor connecting the Eastern and Southern blocks, snaked down the Rift Valley.  The nearest gate, however, was about three hundred kilometers to the South at Tete on the Zambezi

Kadar’s quest seemed hay-stack-needlish, but he trusted his good nose for acquisitions.  The grail was a 1998 Ngwiri ball-point sketch.  Solomon Ngwiri was probably Kadar’s greatest achievement; the African artist’s mukwa sculptures, wax-print textiles, and his last period, line-drawing portraits adorned Inland’s finest Kultur houses.  Fortunately for the artist’s reputation, Kadar had assiduously collected Ngwiriana during the transition to Partition.  But even Kadar couldn’t believe the astronomical rise in Ngwiri’s recent A ratings, especially for the drawings.  The free-flow of those peasant portraits seemed to hit some chord of Insider nostalgia for a lost world of simple human harmony.

Kadar flashed his Outland visa and his security number.  Dragon switched on the shield, the gate opened and the craft eased out.  Kadar had left Inland many times, but the shock of exit never ceased to affect him.  The ride from New Nairobi had been exquisite, the herds of zebra, elephants and wildebeest teeming in the Rift Valley grasslands, were stunningly vivid.

As soon as they went through the gate, however, the early morning air, dense with shooter tree smoke, flecked sooty particles onto the portacraft screen, which Dragon had to periodically wipe.  A gang of Outsider juveniles, as if waiting for any crafts, hurled a few stones, which bounced harmlessly off the shield.  Though twinges of conscience sometimes pricked his comfortable life, Kadar had no real sympathy for them; like all Insiders he had the arguments for Partition by heart.

Dragon headed the craft North, keeping the corridor wall to his starboard.  They passed over numerous fires, several trudging lines of forced labour gangs, and, near Lunzu, one vicious spear skirmish, next to a contested well.  Kamoto occasionally switched the vidi controls to manual to zoom up a closer picture.

Kadar had learned about the missing Ngwiri drawing from an unpublished, Pre-partition memoir written by Julian Gray, an English friend of the artist.  Kadar’s excitement on paging through the memoir was intense.

One day I got a lift from Sollie to go shopping in Blantyre.  On the way

back he insisted on stopping at every little road-side bar for a beer.  In

one place, at a dive called the Sharp Sharp  Nightclub, Sollie latched

onto a beautiful bar-girl, whose name I still recall – Doreen.  He fondled

her breasts and bought her beer, but she always wriggled free, as if

she belonged on a higher plane.  Then Sollie suddenly changed

his mood.  He grabbed an empty cigarette packet and tore it open, told

Doreen to sit still on the bar stool, took a biro from his safari jacket,

and drew a miniature portrait of her on the inside of the packet.  It was

a stunning profile, executed in less than three minutes, but expressing

Doreen’s character precisely.  When he’d finished, he threw the packet

at her.  She picked it up and the other girls crowded round to admire.

Doreen ecstatically hugged the packet and pushed it in her blouse

between her breasts.  Sollie and I finished our drinks and left, with me

feeling deflated, at the thought of that masterpiece still sticking to the

bar-girl’s sweaty body.

Kadar wanted that miniature as if it was the Rosetta Stone and Benin bronzes all wrapped together.  He knew that Doreen might have just used the cigarette packet to light a fire.  But somehow, he felt not.  From Gray’s description Kadar had a hunch that she’d treasured the pure image of herself and kept it safe.

The portacraft reached Namadzi by 9.30.  It was a squalid settlement, surviving on a primitive cig industry.  The only sign of water was a filthy stream trickling through the village.  There was a mob of juveniles at the landing site who seemed more curious than hostile.  To be on the safe side, Dragon let off a low level acoustic blast, and the mob ran screaming for cover behind a tobacco-drying shed.

Kadar stayed onboard while Dragon and Kamoto, in their silver protection suits, reccied the area.  Kadar wriggled into his own suit, the visor protecting from pollution as well as missiles.  The pacifiers came back to the craft to pronounce Namadzi safe.  Dragon activated a parking guard for the craft and the three of them walked past staring crowds to the Boma.

The commandant was an ingratiating man, obsessed with finding out if Kadar had any immicredits.  Kadar had no intention of saying he had.  One Australian expedition was wiped out in old Port Moresby by rioters trying to get Inland clearance.  Kadar had a difficult time explaining to the Commandant what he wanted.  Kamoto tried in Chinyanja, the local lingua franca.

“A bar-girl called Doreen?” the Commandant began to mull.  “1998?  That’s long before Partition.”

Without a surname he thought it would be difficult.  He summoned three elderly men.  Kadar and Kamoto removed their visors to encourage communication.  Kamoto asked the men about the Sharp Sharp nightclub.  There was some ribald laughter.  They asked for pandrex.  Kadar pulled out a strip.  After they started chewing, the stories began to crystallize about the good old days.  One of the men seemed to recall that Doreen had got married to a Chiradzulu man, but it hadn’t lasted.  More pandrex and the memories flowed even stronger.

Gibson, a toothless farm drone, smelling foully of kachasu, recalled that after the failure of her childless marriage, Doreen had become very religious.  She joined a nantongwe spirit possession group, emerging as the leader of Mizimu ya Moyo, an ancestral cult attracting many followers during the trauma of Armageddon.  She also changed her name to Chisoni, which Kamoto translated as “Compassion”.  Gibson believed he knew some surviving members of Mizimu ya Moyo, even though the cult had declined rapidly after Chisoni’s death.

Kadar persuaded the commandant to allow him, Gibson, Kamoto and Dragon to travel by donkey cart to a nearby hamlet, the center of Mizimu ya Moyo.  While they were waiting for the donkey cart, hundreds of villagers gathered in a circle, silent except for a rumbling, accusatory murmur.  Occasionally a beggar would venture forward, displaying blind eyes, pock-marked back, or polio-twisted legs.  Dragon had to let off an acoustic blast to keep the circle at a distance.  Kadar was glad of the visor, not just for the smell, but to insulate himself from persistent twinges of guilt.  When the four of them left on the creaking cart, the murmur turned into jeering.

It took less than an hour’s bone-jolting journey past stunted maize fields and dreary plantations of shooter trees to reach Chisoni’s village.  The reception here, rather than hostile was simply stunned.  Several children ran away screaming, obviously their first time to see Inlanders.  Gibson went to a few ramshackle mud huts to ask questions, before announcing that he’d located some Mizimu ya Moyo members.

Before he would take them there he demanded an immicredit.  Kadar had to suppress his laughter.  Gibson, with his decrepitude, lack of both English and usable Inland skills, had not the slightest chance of passing through immiscreening.  Kadar lied that he would source the immicredit if they found what they were looking for.

Gibson, grumbling, took them to a hut on the edge of the village, next to a steep outcrop of rocks.  He called “Odi!”, and after a while a gaunt woman, probably in her sixties came out wearing a tattered robe and monkey-skin hat.  She greeted them in her language, and went inside the house, emerging with reed mat, which she spread under the shade of a mango tree.  From the mat they could see another woman behind the shack, roasting mice on a fire of maize stalks and shooter twigs.

From Kamoto’s enquiries it seemed their host, Namalenga, was the current leader of Mizimu ya Moyo.  She declined Kadar’s offer of pandrex.  Kadar, his heart beginning to pound with a hunter’s adrenalin, instructed Kamoto in the line of questioning – to probe back to 1998, and the incident of Ngwiri’s sketch.  Namalenga became increasingly uneasy about the questions.  Kadar asked Kamoto what the problem was.

“This woman doesn’t want to contemplate the time before Doreen’s religious conversion.”

“Why not?”

“Chisoni is like a messiah to these people, they can’t imagine her a prostitute.”

Kadar was surprised at the subtlety of Kamoto’s analysis.

“We know Doreen probably died of AIDS, like Ngwiri and much of the population, but to her followers she was a virgin who was taken by the spirits to be a bride.  They worship her.”

“Have you asked about the portrait?”

“Yes.  Namalenga just blanks out the possibility of Chisoni being in a bar.”

Kadar began to lose heart.  The portrait must have been destroyed within days of its creation.  Or Gibson might be wrong about Doreen and Chisoni being the same woman.  The whole expedition was probably a waste of energy.

Namalenga spoke again.

“She’s inviting you to see the shrine they have for Chisoni.”

Despite his crumbling hopes, Kadar couldn’t completely quell his curiosity.  He suggested going without Gibson and Dragon.  Namalenga said the party would also have to include her daughter, Nkhondo, who was the shrine’s main custodian.  Namalenga called out to the younger woman, who kicked the fire out and took the roast mice into the hut.  When she joined them she was wearing a crown of leaves and carried a gourd.  Dragon was not happy with the idea of splitting the party, but Kadar over-ruled him.

Nkhondo led the way over the bare and rocky hill, then steeply down a dried-out stream-bed, which led to what once must have been a lake, containing an island of trees.  They walked across the cracked mud and entered a wood of shooter trees.  In the middle of the wood was an even denser copse of indigenous trees, and a few graves.  Kadar guessed the copse had only escaped the axe because of Outland superstition about Mizimu ya Moyo.  The path was little used, and they had to duck under tangles of creepers and whippy branches.

At the center of the copse was a two metre high cairn of undressed stones, held together with dried mud.  A canopy made of reeds and chicken feathers dangled over the top part of the shrine.  Despite noon sunshine filtering through the branches, it was cool in the copse.  Instinctively, Kadar and Kamoto spoke in whispers.

Nkhondo put her gourd down on a stone in front of the shrine.  She and Namalenga knelt down and started a sing-song chant.  Kamoto failed to interpret the prayer because it was not in Chinyanja.  When it was over, Nkhondo stood up and removed the canopy.  Kadar’s heart suddenly roared with delirious joy.  Inbedded in the shrine, within a frame of shells, broken pieces of old beer bottles and shiny, pre-Partition Coca Cola bottle tops, and protected from the rain by a strip of cracked glass, was the Ngwiri portrait of Doreen.  The style was unmistakable.  The quick ball-point scribbles and cross-hatching, condensed to the size of the cigarette packet, evoked Doreen’s extraordinary dignity, an almost luminous self-assurance snatched from that fiendish bar.

No longer whispering, Kadar asked Kamoto to interpret.  He could offer both Namalenga and Nkhondo immicredits, if they would allow him to take the picture of Doreen.  He would use his personal clout to ensure the success of immiscreening.  They could become Kultur dancers or artists.  Anything.  He’d sort that out later.  Kamoto began to translate the offer.  Still kneeling on their haunches, Nkhondo and Namalenga glanced at each other, emitting an occasional ideophonic squeal.  Namalenga replied.

“They re refusing, sir” Kamoto interpreted.  “They say they’re only interested in preserving the shrine and praying to Chisoni’s spirit to intervene with the spirits.”

“But this is crazy.  Nobody refuses entry to Inland.  They’ll lead comfortable lives.  No pollution.  No fights over water.  They won’t have to live in a leaky shack or eat roast mice.  They’ll have the best of everything.”

“They seem very determined.”

The two women turned back to the shrine, and started singing.  Of course Kadar could just pull down the flimsy cairn and tear out the drawing by hand.  He had his pillage permit.  But something about the song restrained him.  It swelled and ebbed, then throbbed more intensely again.  The women’s faces glowed with a fervour Kadar never saw in Inland, except in classic works of religious or erotic art.

Nkhondo poured frothy grey beer from the gourd onto the ground in front of the shrine.  The women began clapping.  The beer soaked into the soil and the song seemed to reach a climax of liquid intensity.  Kadar stared at the portrait and it flared back like a pure flame.  A cold tingle of recognition went down his spine.  He had been to the pyramids, Stonehenge, Beijing, Matu Pichu, but they had all seemed sanitised.  This was totally different, like a rivulet that was yet the source of a mighty river.

The song came to an end and the women stood up.  Kadar, with a cleansed feeling almost of relief, turned to Kamoto.

“Don’t tell Dragon what we saw.  Let’s go back.  Mission unsuccessful.”

Kamoto’s eyes flickered then went coldly complicit.  She too, touched by the ceremony, seemed to fully understand Kadar’s inaction.  Silently, they made their way out of the trees into the noon sunshine.

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