[Things Americans do not know about zombis:]
They are not dead. They are near death. There’s a difference.
They are not imaginary.
They do not eat human flesh.
They cannot eat salt.
They do not walk around with their arms and legs locked stiffly.
They can be saved.
[How you pronounce zombi:]
Zaahhhhnnnnnn-Beee. You have to feel it in the roof your mouth, let it vibrate. Say it fast.
The “m” is silent. Sort of.
[How to make a zombi:]
You need a good reason, a very good reason.
You need a pufferfish, and a small sample of blood and hair from your chosen candidate.
Instructions: Kill the pufferfish. Don’t be squeamish. Extract the poison. Just find a way. Allow it to dry. Grind it with the blood and hair to create your coup de poudre. A good chemist can help. Blow the powder into the candidate’s face. Wait.
Micheline Bérnard always loved Lionel Desormeaux. Their parents were friends though that bonhomie had not quite carried on to the children. Micheline and Lionel went to primary and secondary school together, had known each other all their lives—when Lionel looked upon Micheline he was always overcome with the vague feeling he had seen her somewhere before while she was overcome with the precise knowledge that he was the man of her dreams. In truth, everyone loved Lionel Desormeaux. He was tall and brown with high cheekbones and full lips. His body was perfectly muscled and after a long day of swimming in the ocean, he would emerge from the salty water, glistening. Micheline would sit in a cabana, invisible. She would lick her lips and she would stare. She would think, “Look at me, Lionel,” but he never did. When Lionel walked, there was an air about him. He moved slowly but with deliberate steps and sometimes, when he walked, people swore they could hear the bass of a deep drum. His mother, who loved her only boy more than any other, always told him, “Lionel, you are the son of L’Ouverture.” He believed her. He believed everything his mother ever told him. Lionel always told his friends, “My father freed our people. I am his greatest son.”
In Port-au-Prince, there were too many women. Micheline knew competition for Lionel’s attention was fierce. She was attractive, petite. She wore her thick hair in a sensible bun. On weekends, she would let that hair down and when she walked by, men would shout, “Quelle belle paire de jambes,” what beautiful legs, and Micheline would savor the thrilling taste of their attention. Most Friday nights, Micheline and her friends would gather at Oasis, a popular nightclub on the edge of the Bel Air slum. She drank fruity drinks and smoked French cigarettes and wore skirts revealing just the right amount of leg. Lionel was always surrounded by a mob of adoring women. He let them buy him rum and Cokes and always sat at the center of the room wearing his pressed linen slacks and dark tee shirts that showed off his perfect, chiseled arms. At the end of the night, he would select one woman to take home, bed her thoroughly, and wish her well the following morning. The stone path to his front door was lined with the tears and soiled panties of the women Lionel had sexed then scorned.
On her birthday, Micheline decided she would be the woman Lionel took home. She wore a bright sundress, strapless. She dabbed perfume everywhere she wanted to feel Lionel’s lips. She wore high heels so high her brother had to help her into the nightclub. When Lionel arrived to hold court, Micheline made sure she was closest. She smiled widely and angled her shoulders just so and leaned in so he could see everything he wanted to see within her ample cleavage. At the end of the night, Lionel nodded in her direction. He said, “Tonight you will know the affections of L’Ouverture’s greatest son.”
In Lionel’s bed, Micheline fell deeper in love than she thought possible. Lionel knelt between her thighs, gently massaging her knees. He smiled luminously, casting a bright shaft of light across her body. Micheline reached for Lionel, her hands thrumming as she felt his skin. When he was inside her, she thought her heart might stop it seized so painfully. He whispered in her ear, his breath so hot it blistered her. He said, “Everything on this island is mine. You are mine.” Micheline moaned. She said, “I am your victory.” He said, “Yes, tonight you are.” As he fucked her, Micheline heard the bass of a deep drum.
The following morning, Lionel walked Micheline home. He kissed her chastely on the cheek. As he pulled away, Micheline grabbed his hand in hers, pressing a knuckle with her thumb. She said, “I will come to you tonight.” Lionel placed one finger over her lips and shook his head.
Micheline was unable to rise from her bed for a long while. She could only remember Lionel’s touch, his words, how the inside of her body had molded itself to him. Her parents sent for a doctor, then a priest, and finally a mambo which they were hesitant to do because they were a good, Catholic family but the sight of their youngest daughter lying in bed, perfectly still, not speaking, not eating, was too much to bear. The mambo sat on the edge of the bed and clucked. She held Micheline’s limp wrist. She said, “Love,” and Micheline nodded. The mambo shooed the girl’s parents out of the room and they left, overjoyed that the child had finally moved. The mambo leaned down, got so close, Micheline could feel the old woman’s dry lips against her ear. When the mambo left, Micheline bathed, dabbed herself everywhere she wanted to feel Lionel’s lips. She went to Oasis and found Lionel at the center of the room holding a pale, young thing in his lap. Micheline pushed the girl out of Lionel’s lap and took her place. She said, “Just one more night,” and Lionel remembered her dark moans and the strength of her thighs and how she looked at him like the conquering hero he knew himself to be.
They made love that night, and Micheline was possessed. She dug her fingernails in his back until he bled. She locked her ankles in the small of Lionel’s back, and sank her teeth into his strong shoulder. There were no sweet words between them. Micheline walked herself home before he woke. She went to the kitchen and filled a mortar and pestle with blood from beneath her fingernails and between her teeth. She added a few strands of Lionel’s hair and a powder the mambo had given her. She ground these things together and put the coup de poudre as it was called into a silk sachet. She ran back to Lionel’s, where he was still sleeping, opened her sachet, paused. She traced the edge of his face, kissed his forehead, then blew her precious powder into his face. Lionel coughed in his sleep, then stilled. Micheline undressed and stretched herself along his body, sliding her arm beneath his. As his body grew cooler, she kissed the back of his neck.
They slept entwined for three days. Lionel’s skin grew clammy and gray. His eyes hollowed. He began to smell like soil and salt wind. When Micheline woke, she whispered, “Turn and look at me.” Lionel slowly turned and stared at Micheline, his eyes wide open, unblinking. She gasped at his appearance, how his body had changed. She said, “Touch me,” and Lionel reached for her with a heavy hand, pawing at her until she said, “Touch me gently.” She said, “Sit up.” Lionel slowly sat up, listing from side to side until Micheline steadied him. She kissed Lionel’s thinned lips, his fingertips. His cold body filled her with a sadness she could hardly bear. She said, “Smile,” and his lips stretched tightly into something that resembled what she knew of a smile. Micheline thought about the second silk sachet, the one hidden beneath her pillow between the pages of her bible, the sachet with a powder containing the power to make Lionel the man he once was—tall, vibrant, the greatest son of L’Ouverture, a man who filled the air with the bass of a deep drum when he walked. She made herself forget about that power; instead, she would always remember that man. She pressed her hand against the sharpness of Lionel’s cheekbone. She said, “Love me.”
by Roxane Gay