Teen Torn Apart by Dogs
July 18th—City Animal Control workers are yet again on the lookout for a pack of feral dogs blamed for the mauling death of fourteen-year-old Tawan Charles of Graves St., Roxbury. The incident occurred at 11:30 p.m. on the quiet, dead end street. There were no witnesses to the attack. Residents say they heard nothing unusual last night. Even though a thirty-eight recovered from the body and spent casings found in the area raise questions for investigators that the attack might be gang-related. Charles died of massive blood loss and asphyxiation. His partially clothed body was found only doors from his home. His is the third such death to occur this year in the vicinity.
This is not the first time I have heard a neighbor scream. Back home, it was nearly always a Tutsi—child, woman, or man whose cries filled the darkness. I want to forget about the trouble there. I meant to forget, but the boy’s scream brings it back. Neighbors bashing in the skulls of neighbors with machetes or using nail-studded clubs. When evil hunts us, sometimes it wears the faces of people.
So many lights. Americans think they can burn away the darkness. Branchless, concrete trees cast the same dim yellow from their single blossoms. Those sterile sticks spaced evenly apart offer no hand-hold, no security. They give only light. Why so many of them taking up space that the real trees should have? We should have more real trees on Graves Street. Even with all this bright, the wooden and brick houses do not look any clearer to me at night. I do not have to see every shingle or doorstep to know they are there. My neighbors leave their doors unlocked most of the time, but not tonight.
One apartment building, three single-families and four two-family homes huddle together on both sides. The paint-peeling houses are of little use except for managing to keep the Skinned out. So far. I am told I live in a peaceful part of town. Our street is not like Intervale, Homestead or Columbia Road. We have no gang-bangers congregating. No muggers. Car-jackings. Rapes. Graves St. seems forgotten by the world until another one of these deaths hits the papers. Then the goings-on here become everybody’s business.
Secrets are odd things. Sometimes they float away into forgetfulness, unspoken. Others roost in our minds. The new moon leaves the sky clotted with stars. The moon has its own secrets. I have mine.
• • • •
I smell the coming of death before it happens. I gasp for breath. A stink stronger than musk or human waste attacks my nose. The Skinned are here. My eyes water. I rub at them, but stick my head out the window. Night brings out the jackals and hyenas in my homeland, but here it is the Skinned who rule. I look down the empty street. The lights dim. The heat settles onto me.
The stick-tree/street lamps fail.
A bullet whizzes past my cheek. I hear a raw young voice.
I see sleek, bare-muscled animal bodies leap into the air and land on a human one. I hear the screams. The retort of a pistol. For once, I am disturbed by my own helplessness. I am too old and too slow to consider jumping from the window to the ground one story below. I have a game leg from a Tutsi fighting for his life who used my own masu on me. A brick building is all that separates me from them. It is wise to stay where I am. The Skinned. A boy lies crumpled. Dying. Throat torn open. Ripped Nike tank-top and shorts expose his entrails and genitals. Blood dries on the sidewalk, leaking in strange patterns. The Skinned finish the kill and run. Tongues loll. Bloodied jaws gleam. Cataract covered eyes glisten.
“My Baby!” His mother squeals in the apartment next door to mine. I can hear her through the thin walls. “Tawan!”
I hear another voice deeper than her own. “Shush up. You can’t do nothing for him now. You know the rules.”
The mother keeps safe inside her home. She will not come out until after the Skinned have gorged and left. No one who is familiar with their legend will do any differently. The doors stay closed. My terrified neighbors wait behind them. Wait for this night out of the several nights a year that the Skinned do what they do to end.
I hear the pack-leader calling to the rest. A long throaty howl. The Skinned lope into the dark. Into the edge of vision. I watch them go. They make very little sound, actually. Once they close in on a victim, it is the first time one hears them. I know this boy Tawan. I know he did not believe his mother’s tales. I know he thought if he were to be a man that he should be out at night with other men drinking beer, talking big talk and carrying a gun. We all heard the gun. It went off many times. Still the Skinned came.
And the boy is dead.
His ghost will stagger home and wonder why his kinfolk do not see it.
I close my eyes.
Now one of us must call the Police. It will be done because it must. Because there is no hiding something this terrible except by putting it out in the open. Soon, we will hear the sirens, but the Skinned will have gone and the body will have stiffened. The ghost will come. I hear Tawan’s mother weeping. I hear the deep low voice say. “Get yourself together. Don’t let nothing slip.”
“I can’t,” says Tawan’s mother.
“You gotta talk to the 5-0.”
“You will,” says the voice, “You want them to take you away?”
“Like the Skinned won’t sniff your sorry ass out?”
The woman sucks in her breath. I can almost see her straightening her shoulders, wiping her eyes, finding the words which will be what the men and women in blue want to hear. She will say nothing of the truth. She will say what she has to say and her neighbors will back her up. There is nothing wrong here. There are no problems. Tawan’s death—well it was an accident. Some one let loose their dogs. Gunshots? Well, we thought it was kids with firecrackers. I say we because my silence means I am practically helping them to murder.
I don’t need to hear anymore. I retreat deeper into my apartment. Shadows blight the furniture into one coherent darkness. My window is still open. The air is so still, the curtains don’t move. The stink of blood and death follows me. I take in a burning breath. I turn on the radio. The international station soothes me with the sound of drums and bells. Loud. The Latinos learned these rhythms from their black slaves. It is almost like home. Kiss will be upset she left me alone when another death happened. She cannot help it. She has the graveyard shift. Come morning, she will walk into our apartment and demand to know why I have not called her. Why she must learn what goes on from the lips of strangers rather than her own father’s?
What could I possibly tell her?
• • • •
So, I have come to wicked America. Where, if I breathe in too deeply, my nose burns and my skin itches. Where it is not just hot in the summer, but humid. Where the air is clammy. No wonder bad things happen here. The air is thick with spirits. Where I have never seen so many fair-haired pink people with too-bright eyes. Where the people who look most like me make the baboons of my homeland seem better behaved. Where no one greets an elder respectfully or gives them the right of way. Where the only time I hear the sound of the drum is on the international station. Kiss keeps her radio tuned to it just for me. She prefers the noise they call R&B.
America is the land of hard gray streets with its grass and herbs shut up behind fences the way farmers keep cattle. It seems to me only the cars run free. Hundreds of them, horns blaring, clog the roads and threaten to run over the foolish who pay no attention to the absence of a red light. The Cape Buffalo is more predictable. Instead of chopping wood for a fire or pumping well water, I must turn on a light or a faucet. Whole families back home could have dined well on the wasted food I see dumped by my neighbors. The only welcome change I can find is in having a toilet. No one who has squatted over a muck-filled hole would blame me.
I sleep during the day. America is a land of many restless spirits and many unclean things. I can smell them. The stink of evil here does not wash off even with Ivory Soap and Tide. It does not matter how often I bathe my body or how often anyone else bathes their own. I can still smell it. Kiss tires of my complaints, so I say nothing. She can tell from the look on my face what I am thinking. If someone were to give me a herd of shorthorned cattle and a sharp panga, perhaps I could clean my street and all who lived on it. There is not enough blood to scrub this city, never mind America itself.
I come from a large village in Rwanda called Jambere. No one in the village called Roxbury has heard of it except for a Hutu who lives on the other side and a family of Tutsis who live in the village called Dorchester (they do not speak to me) and my daughter, Kiss. We two are people whose bad fortune was to be caught in the fighting between Hutu and Tutsi. Kiss, like so many others, thought to come here to escape. We have merely traded one danger for another. I think my neighbors do not like me because I am African. Because I remind them of what they lost—language, religion, a sense of place. Before I came here, I was Rwandan. Now I know better.
• • • •
I listen to footsteps in the outside hall. Tawan’s mother. The door to our building creaks. She is a large-bodied woman, the kind who gives her man joy to ride, to grasp her wide behind. She wears a damp T-shirt, shorts and house slippers. Her straightened hair is wild on her head.
“M-my boy,” she whispers at first and then louder, “M-my boy!” She gathers his head into her lap and rocks him. I see no sign of her man. He is probably dialing nine-one-one. Silently, my neighbors file out and take their places about her, their heads hang. I see them all: a retired minister and her husband, the postman and his girlfriend, a hair dresser, a graduate student, a young couple who are the grown son of the minister and his fiancé, a construction foreman, a single mother with another swollen belly full of baby, a crack dealer who keeps his trade off our street. The windows reveal the faces of children who have seen what they are not supposed to and manage to keep silent, as will the others. They do not even cry aloud, but I see the tears glinting.
The foreman says, “He’s gone Luwilla. Ain’t nothin more you can do for him.”
Luwilla says, “Don’t tell me that! He ain’t supposed t’be!”
“The Lord has him.” The minister’s husband says. He looks meaningfully at his wife.
“Jesus will take away his pain.” The Reverend Ames agrees.
“Died and gone to Hell is more like it.” Someone else says. “Don’t even play like Tawan was innocent or something. He knew.”
Luwilla shakes her head. “No he didn’t. He didn’t.”
“Shut your fool mouth, Nigger!” Says the Postman. He is a tall, bony fellow, more skeleton than man. His clothes stick to him, soaked with sweat, as do everyone else’s. He and the crack-dealer are almost nose to nose like animals themselves, gleaming with fear on a hot night.
“Did they have to—” asks Luwilla, “kill my baby?”
The hair dresser shrugs. “He was out there. It don’t matter to them.”
“He should’a known better.” A student says, “He lived here.”
“Didn’t believe.” Another says.
The fiancé whispers, “They didn’t take his soul too, did they?”
Reverend Ames has no answer for her.
“The African,” the minister’s son says, “he couldn’t sleep through this.”
“He ain’t sleep. He scared.” The crack dealer jerks his chin in my window’s direction.
“He won’t tell.”
“Better not.” Says the Postman. “They got good ears you know.”
• • • •
An hour and a half after Tawan dies, the Police show up. Two squad cars roll onto Graves St., side by side. Sirens cut off. Doors swing open. A question fires into the night.
What the fuck happened here?
One woman officer and three men stand around Tawan Charles. He lies twisted half on the sidewalk, half in the gutter. White bone peeks through his throat. The smell of blood and shit has not left yet. The streetlights show everything. Except the pale double sitting on the sidewalk with its head in its bloody hands. Tawan’s ghost.
I look out the window. I keep my lights off.
“Did you see what happened Ma’am?”
Luwilla has gone mute. She is holding her son. Her man has his arms around her. He croons some nonsense song in her ear. She grunts.
“Mama,” says Tawan’s ghost. “I’m so sorry.”
No one hears it.
A Police officer says “Is that a no or a yes?”
“She’s in shock.” the female officer says.
“What about the rest of you, did you see anything?”
My neighbors shake their heads and mumble.
“By the time I got to the window,” the Postman says, “the pack was running away.”
“Six or seven,” says the young mother.
“Nine,” says the crack dealer.
Others grunt in agreement.
“You sure?” The third officer asks.
“No I’m not sure,” says the Postman. “The only thing I am sure of is that this boy is dead.”
Tawan’s ghost groans. It stands between the officers and my neighbors waving its arms.
The police seem tired of their own questions. “You saw no other people on the street?”
“Just him.” My neighbors speak as one.
I shake my head. They let this happen! I am ready to blurt it out. But I won’t. I am not afraid of the Skinned for myself, but for Kiss, who does not believe in such things. She lives here too, and she will listen to no talk about her neighbors. She refuses to acknowledge the things we left back home could follow us here. She thinks where we are is ideal. Except for the few victims of the Skinned—there is no trouble on Graves Street—no drive-by shootings, no crack houses, no husbands beating wives or children, no prostitutes. Such a peace has its price. And far longer than Kiss and I moved here, these people have been willing to pay it.
Their foul promise has claimed one of their own. Now what will they do? Will Luwilla forget herself and bring the Skinned to her door? Will it be someone else who cracks? Will the truth blaze its way past my chapped lips and to the ears of the Police? Will they think me a crazy old man? My head sings.
I totter into the bathroom. By the fluorescent glow of the night-lite, I stare into my own bloodshot eyes and hollowed out cheeks. Sometimes a secret feeds on one. It steals all strength from a living body. It can be as evil as the madman who first unleashed the Skinned. Did I forget to mention someone made them?
I am aware of such means only because it was my trade to hunt down the inevitable products along with their Makers. Someone who hates powerfully made the Skinned. Someone who could whittle the fat and fur off still living canine bodies. Someone who smoked his victims so that the flesh would dry and preserve well, not caring if their eyeballs seared. Someone who buried nine animals on the land that these houses were built long ago.
All this I learned only because from the first that I came here I was disturbed. I can smell the work of witches. I can ask my mkisi to tell me where one is or compel them to tell me their secrets. But I do not know who was the Maker of the Skinned. It happened so long ago. One might think that the Native Americans, the original owners of the land left it. But it does not feel like them. I do not think the juju of African slaves is responsible either. I would know that at once. No, the Skinned are something a white mind would imagine. I feel only admiration for what he or she has crafted. Every three moons, the Skinned must rise and claim another victim. Bullets, blades, or fire will not hurt them. They are things of evil medicine. They are immortal. They are the Skinned.
I am an old man. My body is bowed by time. My heart flutters in my chest. I am not long for this world. It should make my dilemma easier. I do not have long to put up with the evil gnawing at my soul. I can choose to die even now, but my dying will change nothing.
The Skinned will do as they have been made to.
I must do as I am meant to. I will let no demons bind my tongue. I look to the clay pot with my mkisi inside it. I should take it with me. It would help repel the Skinned.
This is a matter for men, not magic. My eyes rest on another of my keepsakes from Rwanda. A masu— a nail-studded stick. With it I broke open many a Tutsi skull. No, again. I shuffle to my front door. I pull it open. My knee throbs. The dark hall yawns before me. Lightless. Empty. I head down the stairs sniffing, the smell of death growing closer.
My knee tries to hold me back. I ignore it.
My place is out there with the others.
The ghost rushes towards me. It knows I can see it. All the gory details.
I shake my head. “Not now.”
Tawan tries to grab my arm. I feel the cold.
“Not now!” I use a word of banishing on it.
With a wail, the ghost flickers into nothing.
The white Officer is saying into his walkie-talkie. “I need the Medical Examiner’s office to 9 1/2 Graves. We’re securing the area.”
The black officer says, “All right, People. There’s nothing more to see.”
The Police are fanning out, gesturing for the neighbors to move back. My neighbors obey. They keep their guilty faces turned from mine. They know I know the truth. They are trusting me not to speak of it.
I hear my own voice. Quavering. Old man-sounding. I say, “I saw what happened.”
The black Policeman squints at me. His brows furrow as if he is disappointed by what he sees: this wizened elder. He does not know in my youth I wore a uniform much like his. “And what did you see, Sir?”
He called me Sir. Perhaps not all his people here are baboons. Here and there are those who remember something of how to carry themselves.
“The Skinned,” I say, “I saw them.”
The minister groans. Luwilla’s eyes focus on mine and then she closes them. The crack dealer begins to back away. One of the students looks around herself wildly. The hairdresser is already headed back into her unit fast as her thick legs can carry her.
“What?” asks the woman officer.
“He’s some refugee from Africa,” the Postman says, “He sees and says things about what happened to him back there.”
I shake my head. Wicked man! “I wish things were so simple. A boy lies dead because they all agreed.”
The police glance at my neighbors. “Who all agreed? “
“Them. Even her.” I point at Luwilla. She breaks into fresh sobs. Her man pulls her to her feet.
He says, “We don’t need this. She’s just lost her son and you people are doing nothing.”
“Wait a minute here,” says the white policeman, “We have to follow up on every lead.”
“You won’t get nothing from him,” says the foreman. He jerks his chin at me.
“We’ll be the judge of that.”
I continue. “The Skinned killed this boy as part of their payment. Usually, it is strangers. Tonight was a mistake, but it does not matter to the Skinned.”
“The Skinned. Your wild dogs are not normal beasts. They are witch-things set loose.”
The white officer’s brows climb his forehead. I know he does not believe. I had no hope that he would. One of them must hear me.
The black officer explodes, “Look! The sooner you come forward with what you know the sooner we can deal with this. Aren’t you tired of the maulings every few months?”
“They should be,” I say. “They should be weary with guilt.”
“He’s crazy,” says the minister, “he doesn’t mean no one harm.”
The police become disgusted and send us away.
• • • •
I asked the minister once why she did not call upon her god to smite the Skinned. She said they were here long before she came. They’ll be here after she dies or moves away. She said the first week she moved to Graves St. the Skinned appeared. They followed her home every night and no amount of Lord’s Psalms would drive them away. They hung about her doorstep as if to say the street was theirs. She used to call the police on them, but they would fade away. Then, they tore apart her cocker spaniel while she watched. The Skinned made their point. She knew then it would be her family next.
There is still no sign of Tawan’s ghost.
My neighbors have left me outside alone on the sidewalk. The houses slam their doors and seal their windows. My own door hangs open. I did not bother to close it. Or lock it. My mkisi is safe inside. Clamminess settles on me. Is it sweat or fear? I stand in front of my house watching the Medical Examiner’s van drive away. It uses no siren, but the lights flash like a regular ambulance. The police cars follow. The vehicles disappear, leaving a chalk outline and dried blood in their wake.
No one even looks out a window to watch them go.
They already know what happens next.
The shadows get longer.
When the Skinned are near, even the cats keep from our street. I can hear the strays hissing a few blocks away. It is hard for me to tell if they are scared too. I listen to the thrum of city generators feeding the stick-trees. I hear a lone plane miles overhead. The light grows dimmer. I can smell the Skinned. They smell like wet dog and something dead at the same time. They make no sound. Not until they kill.
The street lamps fail.
My game leg twinges. I can feel it cramp.
The Skinned form from the shadows.
Almost perfectly lightless.
I can see the reflected lights of their eyes.
The stink gets stronger.
I want to retch.
I can’t. At best, I could only hobble.
The Skinned move as one, heads lowered, their tails curled. They prowl with the lopsided gait of animals in great pain. They seem too clumsy to be dangerous. Until they get close enough.
The leader lifts its head and bares needlelike teeth. Lots of people think that packs are ruled by males. That is not always so. It is a bitch who gives throat to the sound rattling around inside her. Her growl threatens to loose my bowels.
I turn my back on them and walk away.
I know I cannot get far.
My game leg catches at every step.
I will die inside my own house.
I keep moving forward.
Kiss will know at once when she comes home what happened.
No one will believe her.
No one will help her.
There will be a chalk outline and a pool of dried blood on our carpet.
Was it worth it? I wonder to myself. To tell the truth about one evil when there are so many others gone unspoken in my long life?
I can hear them coming.
Clatter of paws on sidewalk.
I step into my own doorway. I do not turn around. I make my way for my mkisi. I left it slumbering inside its pot near my front door. Will I have time to unwrap it from its leather pouch and bare it?
My hand closes on nothing.
This is a matter for men.
I am no American child.
I leave the mkisi alone.
I turn to see the bitch has thrust herself into my door. My front room smells like rotted meat. She pulls back her slavering lips. An eager pack-mate almost shoulders her aside in its eagerness to tear at me. She snaps at it. It lets her enter first. She drags herself inside.
I step backwards.
If I am meant to die—let it come now.
I know I deserve the terror.
I snatch up the masu. I swing it over my head, ready to bring it down on her skull. Even if I only bring her down I might frighten the others.
The bitch halts.
She sniffs deeply.
Her cataract covered gaze pins mine.
I stare back.
Something in her gaze compels . . .
Around us appear the ghosts of my kills. Bloodied, broken-bodied fellow Rwandans rise up from my carpeted floor. They walk into each other and into the walls. They number by the hundreds. Children. Women. Men. Westerners. One by one as quickly as they appear—they vanish.
The bitch wags her tail.
I am so shocked I nearly let the masu drop.
She limps over towards me.
Should I trust her seeming change in behavior?
I remain still. Even though the pain deep in my leg-bone threatens to dump me on the floor.
The only force greater than my instinct for self-preservation is my curiosity.
My lungs fill with stink.
The bitch sidles against me and butts her head into my thigh.
She wags her tail.
Cautiously, I lower a free hand and scratch her behind the ears. My fingers glide over living dried sinews. The Skinned feel more leathery than once fur-bearing animal.
She licks my palm.
She growls once at the rest of her pack and they file inside silently. I am surrounded by the Skinned. They are gazing up into my face with their seared over eyes. They are sniffing me and the masu. One lifts a leg and marks the corner where my mkisi lives in its pot. Each one of them greets me.
They will leave me unharmed.
Evil knows its own kind.
Spread the word!