“Do you have any tools down there?”
“A book, a ham sandwich, a money belt – you’d think I could buy my way out, for Christ’s sake. A flashlight – just a second, maybe I can get a hold of that flashlight.”
I squirmed around and managed to get my hand in my pocket. It was the wrong pocket. I squirmed some more and found the right pocket and got the flashlight out. I switched it on. It was a tiny little thing but it was blinding in there. I blinked at the light for a few seconds, then played it around the interior of the casket. There were all sorts of hinges and clasps and things, and none of them looked as though my fingernails would have much effect on them.
“You have the light, Evan? Will you be able to get out now?”
“I don’t see how,” I said. “I would need, oh, a screwdriver and a knife and a saw and God knows what else.”
“I have them.”
“I’ll give them to you.”
“Sure, Plum. That’s wonderful.”
“What is the matter, Evan?”
I said, “Once upon a time there were two brothers, and they both went out and bought horses. And they had to figure out how to tell the horses apart. They counted their hoofs, but both horses had the same number. They painted a big X on one, but the rain washed it off. Finally they measured them, and lo and behold they had a sure-fire way to tell them apart, because the black horse was two inches shorter than the white horse.”
“But if one was black and the other white-”
“That’s the point, Plum.”
“I don’t understand why you raise the question of color at a time like this.”
I closed my eyes for a few seconds. Then I said, “No, you don’t understand, Plum. It’s the same as telling the horses apart. If you could pass me a knife and a screwdriver and a saw and I don’t know what else, there would be a space big enough to crawl through, and I wouldn’t need the tools to begin with. Like the horses.”
“Look out, Evan.”
Look out for what, I wondered. And, in answer to my question, something plummeted through the breathing tube and hit me in the mouth. I made the appropriate noise and Plum said that she was sorry but that she had warned me. This was true enough.
I found the thing that had hit me. I said, “Oh.”
“You see, Evan?”
“It’s one of those knives,” I said.
“One of those knives with a hundred blades in it.”
“Sixteen blades, I think.”
“They sell them in those little schlock shops on Times Square. Swiss Navy knives or something-”
“Swiss Army pocketknives.”
“That’s it.” I began opening the knife. There was a nail file, a tiny pair of scissors, a thing for making holes in your belt-
“It was my father’s,” Plum said. “It was his legacy to me. I always carry it.”
“I didn’t know he was in the Swiss Army.”
“He was in every army at one time or another. My mother told me this. My father was a brave mad Welshman with wild eyes and the soul of a poet.”
I kept on opening the knife. A can opener, a cap lifter, a saw, a couple of cutting blades, a chisel-
“You carry this around all the time?”
“I’m glad you do, but why?”
“For protection, Evan. A girl my age-”
“By the time you found the right blade, and got it open, you wouldn’t have much left to protect.”
She began to giggle. I opened a few more blades and found one that was designed, among other things, for unscrewing screws. I think it also told time, recited the Lord’s Prayer in three languages, and kept bridge scores. Plum went on giggling, and I started doing things to the screws that held the hinges that connected the coffin lid to the coffin.
None of this was very easy. Coffins, after all, are designed with the law of inertia in mind; their dimensions are founded on the assumption that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest. There is thus rather little room to move around in.
But the human body contends throughout life with the task of fitting itself into and through impossibly narrow apertures. But for this propensity, we would none of us be born. Or, come to think of it, conceived.
I did everything I could think of to the coffin, and while I worked Plum prattled on and on about her father and her mother and the problems of being neither black nor white in a country where everyone else was one or the other. I suspect that much of what she had to say was very interesting, but I was in no position to pay any attention to it. I was glad she was talking; it was a sort of verbal Muzak, and now and then I would grunt something at her so that she would know I was still alive.
I’m sure I didn’t use all sixteen of those blades. I don’t remember cutting anything with the scissors, for example, and I can’t recall lifting any caps or opening any cans. But I cut and I twisted and I pried and I poked and I probed and I filed and I unscrewed and I got the hinges off on one side and worked the lid up on the other side and loosened the nails and got them out and finally, incredibly, the cover was off.
“Hey!” I said. “It’s off.”
There was no answer.
“The cover,” I said. “It’s loose. It’s off, I got it off, your father’s knife, it did the job. God bless the Swiss Army. We did it. Hey-”
The drums began.
They seemed to be everywhere. It was the unusual acoustics of my little pied à terre that was responsible for the effect, no doubt, but what an effect it was. I seemed to be hearing a drum concert on the ultimate stereo rig, one that had me completely surrounded with woofers and tweeters. Drumming pulsed up from beneath me, pounded at me from all sides, came down upon me from above. It sounded as though the very continent of Africa itself was displaying its natural sense of rhythm. There was something particularly enervating about the beat of those drums, and I think it may have been that the tempo was just a shade faster than my own heartbeat, so that I felt as though I was struggling unsuccessfully to keep up with it.
Water was once again trickling through my breathing tube. Plum had gone off somewhere, and I couldn’t exactly blame her. Some idiots with drums had taken possession of the graveyard. I wanted to go off somewhere myself.
Keep calm, I urged myself. Some sort of pagan cranks were having some sort of ritual in the cemetery. Swinging dead cats over their heads as a remedy for warts, perhaps. Or some equally innocent pursuit. Just a group of religious fanatics exercising their civil rites. They wouldn’t stick around forever. It was raining, and before very long they would bow their heads for the benediction and go back to their huts. All I had to do was wait until they went away.
If it hadn’t been for the drums, I might have been able to wait them out. But I had spent too many hours watching too many movies in which Stewart Granger crouched with his arm around Eleanor Parker and she said, “What do the drums mean?” or “Why did the drums stop?” or “Do you hear the drums?” The drums always signaled the beginning of something horrible. The more I listened to them the more nervous and apprehensive I became, and I had not been precisely relaxed to begin with, and things were not getting better.
I doubled up, and sought out a new position in the coffin, and got my feet braced against the now unfastened coffin lid, and snorted like a karate master, and thrust out with both feet at once.
The lid raised up about two and a half inches.
Two more tries netted another half inch at best. That seemed to be all the play I was going to get.
Okay, I decided.
No more Mr. Nice Guy.
I kicked at one side of the coffin until it loosened up some, then pried it apart with various knife blades. I pulled it into the box with me, got it down flat, crawled over it, and shoved it over to the opposite side of the coffin. There was a space of a few inches between the edge of the coffin and earthen wall of the grave. Digging at the grave wall didn’t do much good – it was hard-packed earth, untouched by the gravediggers’ spades. But I managed to squeeze myself against the wall of the grave and work the coffin lid down past me and into the coffin itself. I scooped dirt from the top of the coffin lid and stuffed it into empty spaces in the coffin, and I got myself on top of the lid and put more dirt where I had been, creating new places for me to put me, creating new places to put new dirt, and so on.
What it amounted to, really, was that I was pulling the hole in after me. Swimming through loose wet mud. Of course it was impossible to see or breathe or do much of anything, and if I had stopped anywhere along the line to think about what I was doing I might have given up. There was a point somewhere along the line when the fleeting thought came to mind that perhaps, God forbid, I was going in the wrong direction. I assured myself that this line of thinking was unproductive and potentially depressing, and I kept digging and squirming and writhing, and although an earthworm probably gets more of a kick out of this sort of thing, it works just the same when a person does it.
Boomlay boomlay boomlay boom, the drums said. I wormed my way skyward, and the drums got louder, and the drummers began to chant, and my lungs sent threatening letters to my brain, and the pulse in my ears was louder than the drums, and I gave a last wriggling squirming kick and broke through the surface of the earth.
The drums stopped, and there was a long and thoughtful silence, and then everyone in Africa started screaming.
It had the quality of a dream sequence in a motion picture. Everything slightly out of focus, and the action shown in a ponderous, heavy-limbed slow motion. I ascended from the grave, head, neck, shoulders, chest, all of me imperfectly coated with wet mud. And all around me in a slightly off-center circle, naked black men with paint on their cheeks and foreheads waved bleached white bones overhead, pounded their feet on the ground, rolled their eyes, and screamed.
There must have been thirty of them. Plum supplied that figure later on, and she had had time to count the house. It looked to me as though there were at least a hundred of them, and they made enough noise for a thousand.
I sort of stayed where I was. They happily did not. As if on a signal they tossed their bones into the air – the ones they had been waving about, that is. And before the bones could touch the ground, the men turned and ran screaming in all directions. The bones clattered to the ground and the men kept running and kept screaming, and their screams gradually faded in the distance.
I coughed and shrugged and said, “Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch,” and otherwise reassured myself that I was still there. I scrambled the rest of the way out of the hole and turned to look at it. I looked down at myself and decided that I looked like something that might logically have crawled out of a grave.
I picked up one of the abandoned bones. I decided at first that it was a human leg bone, the meat but recently gnawed off by similarly human teeth. I looked at it some more and decided it was more likely the shinbone of an ox. I was still looking at it when Plum called to me. I turned, and she was just emerging from a clump of trees.