I saw my first khat chewer in Kenya.
I was attending an international conference on physical cosmology, and while strolling back to my hotel after an edifying day of lectures—Copernicus, quantum mechanics and CMBR sloshing about my head—he appeared:
Or appeared his eyes, reflecting the streetlights.
His face remained dark.
He stared at me and I at him, and all the while he chewed.
Slowly; dumbly, like a human cow.
Not saying a word.
Eventually my companion, a hired local named Kirui, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away. “Don’t mind him,” Kirui said. “He’s harmless, just a khat chewer.”
Khat: a flowering plant native to east Africa chewed for its alkaloid, cathinone, an amphetamine-like compound causing excitement and euphoria.
Except the khat chewer had looked anything but euphoric.
Even in my hotel room, alone and in the dark, did his eyes remain: staring at me from a face of memory melting into nightmare—
I awoke, cold, wet, but remembering nothing from my fever dream save for a peculiar sensation of reality somehow condensing into me.
In the late morning, I went to a lecture on cosmic expansion but could not focus.
My thoughts were scattered, limp.
During the lunch break, I drank three cups of coffee but they didn’t help. Several colleagues tried to speak with me; I ignored them.
Until bumping into—
“Here is the leaf that begins all life worth having!”
The man staring back at me, with slight bewilderment, was Dr. Mukherjee, under whom I had earned my doctorate at MIT.
“Gilgamesh,” he said. “The name of—”
I felt a sudden tightening in my chest. Gilgamesh had been the name of my first (and most famous) contribution to the field of cosmology: a software model of the beginnings of the universe.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes,” I said, pushing past him, but now changing direction and heading for the doors leading outside—
Through which I pushed into the blinding noonday sun.
My hand firm against my chest.
People staring at me—
“Kirui!” I yelled out. “Kirui, are you here?”
He materialized obediently as if out of the local ether. “Yes, sir.”
“Take me to the place we passed last night. To where we saw the khat chewer,” I said in syncopation.
When we arrived, he was there.
His jaws masticating.
“Leave us,” I told Kirui. When he had gone, the khat chewer stood and in his eyes I felt an understanding. I followed him into a building, down a ladder, deeper and deeper into a hole, until time meant nothing: until my feet touched ground:
An underground chamber of impossible proportions.
The inward pressure was immense.
Through the permanent gloam I gazed rows and rows of khat chewers.
I sat among them.
I willingly received my leaf.
The expansion of the universe is slowing. There is too much matter. And the only thing preventing collapse—pushing against it with each grinding motion—is us: the khat chewers, dutifully delaying the inevitable.