NAMES ARE FOR TOMBSTONES
By Lawrence Kadzitche
Villains are always thought to have hard, evil faces. Yes, the young man who sat on the stone in the bush toying with a knife was bad. As bad as they come. The knife he was playing with had dispatched several men to their early graves.
But the evil did not show on his handsome face. Even his crumpled overcoat underneath which were dirty clothes failed him to give him a tough look. Not even the ugly knife; it did not have a menacing look.
Maybe he was not cut out to be a bad man because recently he had been thinking of stopping his trade. Something had been telling him that what he was doing was bad and he should stop before it was too late.
It was that damn evangelist, he concluded. The pesky preacher had been irritating him with visits to his shack in the slum, playing good cop and bad cop at the same time. He would tell him of God’s infinite love and then of the wrath of the same God towards sinful people who did not repent.
“If you do not repent, there is an oven in hades with your name on it, Zalimba,” the pastor enjoyed threatening him. “But if you repent, a place of milk and honey awaits you.”
Zalimba had tried to resist but somehow the man’s message had been getting to him, making him question things he had never questioned before. If he got a good catch that day, he concluded that he would be through with waylaying people and robbing them.
His mind made up, he swayed his head to the music of the birds singing in the trees and crickets chirping. Then all over a sudden the bush fell silent.
“Hello,” a man croaked behind him.
The criminal whirled. Coming towards him was a thin tall man with a gaunt face that looked like a skull. He was in vestments of the dead. Sunken eyes that looked like those of a dead fish stared out of their sockets at him. A frozen grimace exposed his teeth.
Recognition was instant. Zalimba’s eyes threatened to pop out, his mouth opening and closing like that of a fish out of water.
“We meet again, Zalimba,” the man drawled.
Zalimba shook his head to clear his vision. It should be his eyes playing a cruel trick on him. This could not be possible. This man was dead. He had killed him several months ago right on this spot. There was no way he could come back from the grave. No way!
“Who…who are you?”
The man laughed. “Names are for tombstones, Zalimba. Unfortunately, there’ll be no name on your grave.”
“What…what do you want?”
“I’m here to kill you, Zalimba,” the man said with devilish relish.
Zalimba swallowed. This was not happening. It must be a bad dream. He didn’t believe in ghosts. That was for children’s fireside stories.
“You’re dead,” he shrieked. “You’re no longer living. I killed you and that was your end. A dead man cannot kill a living person.”
The man let out an evil laugh that made fear drill into Zalimba’s vitals. “We’ll see about that today.”
Zalimba was a hardened criminal. He had killed many people before. He didn’t believe in people coming from the dead to haunt the living. You can’t believe in such nonsense and still kill people.
His mind clicked to a conclusion. If the man was alive then he could kill him.
“You make one more step towards me and I’ll kill you,” he said, threatening the man with his knife.
The man laughed again and stepped forward. “Be my guest, walking dead man.”
Zalimba raised his knife and stabbed the man in the chest. When he pulled out the knife, no blood came out and the man was still standing.
“You’re a fool, Zalimba. Remember what the pastor told you? People are destined to die once, and then to face God’s judgement,” the man explained patiently.
“What are you trying to say?” Zalimba asked.
“What I’m saying is that a man dies only once in his life. You can’t kill man who is already dead,” the man snarled.
“A dead man doesn’t move or talk; how come you’re moving and talking?”
The man let out evil laughter again. “A complex problem is it? You’re a smart man, Zalimba; figure it out!”
The thug’s heart was beating like a drum. The man was right. There was something going on he should decipher. Ghost stories were just works of fiction.
The man seemed to read his mind. “Thinking of the ghosts and apparitions you read in Macbeth?”
“Yes, Macbeth was real. But the witches, ghosts and apparitions were imaginary,” blurted out Zalimba. “So who are you?”
“Will it suffice if I say you are unwanted grass and I am the lawnmower? Or you are a broken machine and I’m the repair man?”
This answer jolted the goon. That accursed evangelist had made him soft. Lately he had been thinking about his behavior. Born and raised in a well to do family, he had stolen his parents’ money and ran away to town where he squandered it on beer and women. Looking for easy money, it started with pick pocketing then ended with the heavy stuff like robbery with violence.
He quickly specialized in bushwhacking people. If it was at night, the victim would go off minus his money and other possessions. But if it was during the day he would also kill the victim to avoid being identified. His usual stomping ground was the big forest which served as the city’s nature sanctuary. This was the last man he had killed.
Since he had killed him, something had been telling him to change his behavior. Egged on by the pastor, he had even gone to attend church twice and was seriously thinking of changing what he now thought were his bad ways.
“I shouldn’t have hesitated when I thought of stopping this life,” Zalimba whined regretfully. “Something told me I would get into serious trouble.”
“I wouldn’t have been here Zalimba if those thoughts hadn’t been crossing your mind,” the man pointed out.
Zalimba frowned. “Why should you be happy that I should continue killing people? Were you happy when I killed you?”
The man shook his head pityingly. “The man you killed was necessary collateral damage.”
“What do you mean ‘the man I killed’? I thought I killed you?”
“You ‘re a practical man, Zalimba. You know a dead man cannot walk or talk.”
“So who are you?”
“This is your lucky day,” the man said. “I’m your master. Others meet me only when they’re dead but because of the good work you have been doing for me, I’ve given you the honour to meet me in person.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Shut up!” the man said violently. “You were my most reliable worker here to the effect that I prepared a special place for you back home. How could you dare think of changing? How?”
Zalimba stood frozen with fear. The man continued harshly. “I’m here for damage control. The pastor was right. We’ve a place in hell with your name on it. I’ll take you to that place of brimstone and fire now.”
The villain thought he smelled something like burning charcoal. That did it. Zalimba’s mind, already unhinged, snapped completely. He repeatedly stabbed at the man. When he realized that he couldn’t kill the man, he stabbed himself in the chest. There was no way he was going to let the man take him alive.
In his state of nervous breakdown, Zalimba had predicted correctly that there was going to be no name on his grave. For when the remains of what was left of his body by hyaenas were discovered days later by a passerby and reported to the police, it was impossible to identify his body and so he was buried in an unmarked grave. Not even the knife marks made on the tree trunk Zalimba had stabbed repeatedly gave the police a clue that the dead man had gone mad and killed himself.