Imaginary Numbers

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Magaliesburg, South Africa

One by one he set them free. None of the constructs gave him any trouble, except for the rhino, which had staggered and knocked over a rack of equipment, including the centrifuge and a variety of test tubes. Each of the beasts woke up disoriented, out of place, and as if drunk, they stumbled into the wilderness without any self-awareness, or any real destination. They were sleep-walking in a vivid dream.

Marius watched proudly as the dream creatures left his property and disappeared into the savanna. He wished he could tell someone that those were his creations. He had been struggling to come to terms with his persona. The professor seemed to be fading away under the upside-down skies of the southern hemisphere. It was as if with each animal that ventures forth from his laboratory, he released back into the wild something of himself, an element more Marius than professor. His daily lunches with Tannie Noepie, the owner of the general store, drew memories out of him that he had completely forgotten, parts of himself that he had repressed under the weight of becoming someone else—“someone greater” is what he had always told himself. But here he was, watching the last of his creations fly off into the cloudless cerulean horizon, and wondering whether it was finally time to give up the professor’s persona. After all, the professor could not speak Afrikaans. His refined manners were moot in a rough African world of scorpions and lizards.

At the core of this argument he was having with himself was the fact that he was starting to believe that his own creations far outstripped the efforts of Dr. Borgiac. Arms crossed over his barrel chest, Marius leaned against the wall in the shade of his dusty laboratory. A large rocky arachnid with long glassy wings flew high up, circling like a vulture. Languidly, it regarded its maker down below. Long spider legs tucked beneath it in a point, the silhouette of his newest creation looked like a diamond floating on long wings. It was the fantasy of a tattoo artist, or a heavy metal album designer.

It is beautiful, Marius thought. And for a moment he wondered why God hadn’t sidestepped evolution like he had.

The family of meerkats scurried around him, leaping onto a rock jutting out of the ground nearby. They kept him company, and he had forged a strong bond with them, chasing them around in a cloud of rising dust. He remarked to himself that he has lost count of them. One thing the professor would have done is to keep a log book. Marius did not, and so he couldn’t be certain if those skittish creatures have started to reproduce or not. He shook his head and told himself that the meerkats were his most perfect creations, lifelike and precious.

These alien creatures were becoming easier and easier to produce. Lately he hardly thought about which parts he would join together. He had even introduced plant parts spliced onto land animals—a turtle that creeps along on long vines instead of flippers, it was essentially a land octopus. These amazing fabrications made him proud. It was a feeling of accomplishment, a success for Marius van Niekerk, the man, not the actor. No, he thought, not Marius the man. Marius the creator.

* * *

With the kloof to his left side, Marius could look down to the swatch of greenery where the ancient river sat at the bottom of its carved valley. The car ground pebbles on the tarmac, and perhaps because it was midday and very hot, the roadside was void of women walking to the market. The window was open and a breeze blew through his hair. As he gazed at the hilly landscape to his left, he noticed ahead of him, an animal emerging from the bushes marking the edge of the road. Marius slowed down as two giant aardvarks crossed the road. He leaned forward onto the dashboard to get a closer look. One of them was built of the same red African earth he used for his own constructs. It was bigger than his aardvark, and rocky. The second one was also a giant sandy beast, but more crude—like a photocopy of a photocopy. Marius shook his head. They were multiplying. And it was as if those beasts have no limit to their growth. They were, as the professor would say, ‘megafauna’. And somehow they were reproducing. But not sexually, of course. Marius had made only one clay aardvark, and yet there were two crossing the road in front of him.

He flipped down the visor and looked up at himself in the vanity mirror. He inspected his eyes: vibrant blue oases. He was looking for a clue within himself, an answer to the riddle of this artificial life. He wondered if he had made some enormous mistake. With his hand stretched over his chest, he felt for his heartbeat. It was rapid and loud. Of the things Marius was sure about himself, having a steady heartbeat was definitely one of them. He cocked his head and felt again—anxiety perhaps? There was a second beating, an arrhythmia. But the earth itself was shaking, a pounding, heavy hoofbeat of a powerful, and angry animal. When he looked up, it was too late.

The ruddy rhinoceros smashed into the car, piecing the driver side door with his horn. Marius screamed as his thigh was skewered by the large sharp object, and he looked out the window into the enormous, scaly eyes of a rhino with saber teeth. Painfully, it withdrew its horn, and a gush of blood pumped out of the hole in Marius’ leg. The car shook subtly, then slid across the road as the beast hip-checked it. With the second charge, the terrible horn protruded sharply through the soft seat cushion between his legs. The beast snorted and put the car into an aerial roll as it tossed its head back. Framed by the windshield, the blue horizon line rotated around an invisible vanishing point parallel to the earth, and it shattered, turning the glass into a dizzying kaleidoscope of glittering light. Loose objects did a slow-motion dance of physics; up is down and down is up. The window beside his face exploded, tearing into his skin. A violent bounce. The chassis crunched, metal crumpled, plastics cracked, and shards of glass clattered around inside the rolling automobile. He tasted dust and blood, and saw the slow reversal of gravity as coins, receipts, and glass shards turned mid-flight on their way down to fall back upwards. Then, as if all the sound was played in a last second crescendo, the terrible orchestra of destruction finished with the sounds of a the roof scraping. The car came to a halt on the edge of the kloof, balanced on a few thin, cracking trees. The dashboard lights were all flashing—a red, electric rainstorm through the thick dust sailing through the air.

To his right, the view outside his window was the fertile snake-like curve of the river, surrounded by greenery and crags in the vast emptiness of the savanna down below. To his left, seen through the passenger window was the cloudless blue sky, the vibrant heart of Africa, which he had almost forgotten. The crescent moon hung upside down.

He waited for the final impact, but nothing happened. With bloody fingers, he clicked the button to undo his seatbelt, and fell onto the ceiling of crushed glass. The car tilted precariously on the edge, and the sound of a tree cracking loudly echoed across the valley. The engine sputtered. Marius crawled, blood streaming down his thigh, out of the busted passenger window.

Lying on the ground outside the car, he tried to see if the beast was still around. When the coast was clear, he sat up, ripped his shirt, revealing cuts all over his right side. With the torn linen shirt, he bandaged his leg. The wheels of his car were still spinning when a motorist picked him up about twenty minutes later.

In the man’s car, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. His spine hurt. His neck was stiff. The good samaritan asked him if he was okay, told him they could talk to the police at the village. They could call the rangers to take care of the rogue animal, and the mechanics to fix his car. Tannie Noepie is even a pretty good doctor, he joked. He said not to worry, everything would be okay. But Marius knew that everything would not be okay.

Outside on the village, where normally there were plenty of street vendors and women carrying goods on their wrapped heads, there was no one. A murder of crows crowding the road, fluttered away fearless of the car, and returned to their spot in the middle of the black asphalt. Marius opened his eyes when he heard the cawing and saw only a black cloud of feathers and claws rise up and settle behind them in the rearview mirror. The man honked his horn and cursed the birds.

“Damn things don’t know what’s good for them!”

When they entered the village, there was a crowd of people around the general store. In the intersection, a hatchback police car sat flashing its lights, and an officer shouted directions in Zulu attempting in vain to clear the crowd. Women in patterned dresses, and bright head wraps, wore sullen faces, and some tried to tear shoeless children away from the scene. A few brave tsotsies had climbed on the roof of the store to get a better view. A white police man stopped the car, holding his hands high into the air. He blew a whistle and pointed to the side of the road.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “the street is closed.”

“What happened?”

“It was an animal attack.” Marius jerked his head, then scrunched his nose in pain.

“Well, officer,” the good samaritan said, “it wasn’t a rhino, was it?”

“No, we don’t really know what it was. It left a terrible mess out there. The villagers think it is the work of an evil spirit.” Then the officer noticed Marius. “What happened to you?”

“My car was run off the road by a… a rhino.”

“That looks serious.”

“Yes, I need a doctor. My leg is bloody awful.”

“Well, I’m afraid there’ll be no stopping here The nearest hospital is in Krugersdorp.” He signaled his partner to push the crowd off the road. The drivers let his foot of the brake and they cruised slowly forwards.

“Where’s Tannie Noepie? Can’t she sew him up?” The officer looked down, then across the hood of the car to some distant point away from his current reality.

“She,” he said, and placed his hand on the open window of the car, “she was mauled by the beast, I’m afraid. Poor lady. She was such a dear too.” It looked like his eyes were tearing up.

Ag nee! It can’t be,” Marius said loudly. Then he felt the blood draining from his head. He lifted up his bloody hands, palms up in front of his face; tiny black stars exploded in his vision, obscuring from the periphery everything until the crowds in front of the store vanished a tiny point of light, a world that cascaded from three-dimensions to a single speck of consciousness that could barely hold itself against the realization that these disastrous events were the effects of his lies.

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