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Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone?

Stormy weather flicks the night sky with lightning and thunder. Old, two-storied buildings with unlit eyes watch the empty streets as if waiting for someone. Suddenly, a girl appears from one of the old brick-faced buildings wearing torn jeans and a waistcoat, and holding an umbrella to the sky. She wavers, appearing to be looking for something. She narrows her eyes trying to see through the dark. Suddenly her eyes settle on something when lightening flicks. She considers turning back, but she needs answers, she needs them now. There’s no one in sight except danger. Except danger and a standalone telephone booth untouched by the weather.

She decides to move forward with her plan.

The wind rips the umbrella from her hold, tosses it against the flailing treetops and whips her boxbraids about. Nonetheless, she hurries across the rain-swept streets and slips, nicking her palm against the hard tarred road. Blood leaks down her arm as she hobbles to a street phone—her knee hit something hard. Through a mighty struggle, she closes the glass encasement and it seals the outside noise of rain and wind whipping by.

She huddles inside like there’s a fireplace. She pulls out a business card from her back pocket: Spiritual consultant—contact a bae from the other side. Beneath the italic text a number. She scoffs. What a joke. Am I really that desperate to believe in this shit?

The lady ain’t on WhatsApp, ja, the helpful guy had said, pulling out a bunch of white cards kept together with a rubber band. There’s always a card for a specific issue with a specific number—call a wrong number and you’re fucked, he said, flipping through each card as if they were playing cards. Got it. Try it. Call this number. You will thank me. Just use a telephone booth. He stared through the window at the chaotic weather outside. And it’s a perfect time to call.

Where the hell am I supposed to find one? Do they still exist? she’d asked.

Apparently there’s one down the road—you only see it when you have the card—never saw it because never been in need of its service, he’d said.

Where? she’d asked? But he was already gone, whistling somewhere in their office building. She was tired, had been drinking, and was looking for a dose of comfort and love. She was yearning for something, that’s why she was standing in the middle of nowhere in a storm in a telephone booth just so she could hear her voice, ask her what happened.

With slippery fingers she picks the telephone earpiece, slips in some coins and dials a number, leaving bloody fingerprints. A jarring wound gapes at her from her palm.

“Fuck,” she mutters.

When she looks at the metal keypads, the blood is bubbling as if it’s being boiled, and it seeps into the spaces between the keypads, sucked in by something. The spiritual consultant not only takes money as payment, she takes blood as well.

“What are you still doing here?” she asks herself. “Leave now. Why are you getting mixed up with this? This is probably why you’ve never been promoted—you bring bad luck to yourself.”

She pulls off her scarf and wraps it around her hand. Nervously, she peeks outside the telephone booth and holds her breath.

The voice of a phone operator comes to: “Hello, please hold on as our servers are experiencing a technical difficulty due to the storms—”

“I heard it’s good to call during stormy weather,” she says, wiping rainwater from her face with her sleeve. “That it helps with the connection.”

“You are correct. I will be your phone operator today to help facilitate your call. How can I help you today?”

“I want to get in touch with someone.”

“Living or dead?”

A beat. She clears her throat and feels foolish, like she’s sitting in an exam room with sweaty fingers trying to recall what she studied for the hardest paper. Thunder cuts her off when she tries to speak, as if a sign to turn around and get back to her deadline. Her editor is going to be downright mad if he found out she wasn’t where he could see her working on those articles.

She’s confused. “Living? I thought—”

“Living people who are missing.”

“Oh.”

“Hello? Mma, are you still there?”

She rests her head back against the cold surface of the glass. “Dead.”

“Insert your bank card into the card slot and provide specific details of the deceased.”

As she whispers out the details of the deceased—twenty-year-old Goitseone who died in a fire—the girl wedges the phone between her ear and shoulder and rummages through her book bag—several things fall out: a pocket knife, a cellphone, lipstick, novels, a tape recorder and a photo of two Afroed girls laughing, a joke between their lips. She pauses, stares at the picture and rubs her thumb against one of the girl’s lips. She slips down against the glass casing until she’s cross-legged. “We used to be so happy. I miss your kisses.”

With nimble fingers she forces out her bank card from the tight hold of her purse and slips it into the card slot of the telephone booth from which a green light whizzes left and right repeatedly, scanning.

“Thank you, Wame! Your card has been processed. We advise clients to remain on the line for thirty minutes and no longer due to unforeseen circumstances that may occur should you surpass the time. Failure to adhere to the rules will incur a fine. Terms and conditions apply. I will now connect you to Goitseone.”

“What happens—” But the phone rings for a span, which means she’s supposed to wait for her to answer. “Please answer,” she prays.

Thunder sounds and the telephone booth vibrates. The network catches on static, then pure silence. Her sense of touch is heightened. The air around her is a microphone and a voice echoes, soft, lyrical, strumming at certain pangs in her heart.

Hello?

The voice says hello again. Wame jerks, spinning around in the tiny telephone booth expecting to see someone, something but only darkness surrounds her.

“Goitseone, is that you?” She holds on tighter to the telephone earpiece.

I suppose you want answers.

“You don’t sound happy to see—hear me? Can you see me at all?”

A heavy breath. I can . . . taste you.

“Taste me?”

How alive you are. It makes me hungry.

Wame shuffles around.

I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable . . . it’s a bit hard here. I’m hungry all the time. Not for food. For something else. I’m sorry, love, I missed you. But . . . you never believe in superstition, and for you to risk your life . . . I just wish you hadn’t tried to reach out . . . you’re just not only reaching out to me . . .

The silence is a taut rope between the girls.

You’re gripping the phone. You don’t need it. I can hear you perfectly without it.

“I need to hold onto something and it feels like I’m still holding onto reality,” Wame says. “Do you still love her?”

I love her. But I love you, too.

“I’m competing with a ghost for your love,” Wame says.

It’s not like that.

“Is she there with you? Never mind, I don’t want to know. Tell me about her.”

I don’t think I will ever be ready—

“She’s all over the newspapers. You’re all over the newspapers. Tell. Me. About. Her. You owe me that.”

You sound like an investigator.

“The police station is my home now. I spend my days there getting interrogated. And the editor is breathing down my neck to get info on you for a story. Insensitive bastard.”

I missed your sarcasm . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to get mixed up in all of this.

“It’s so cold. Why has it become so cold?”

My presence is meant to suck the warmth from living people. We can’t be on this line for too long, otherwise they’ll come for you.

“Who?” Wame asks.

Spirits. Bad spirits. They’ll make things in your room move. They’ll scratch your thighs when you’re sleeping. They’ll terrorize you out of your body.

“You’re scaring me. Where are you? Hello . . . ? Are you still there?”

Yes.

“Tell me about her. Start from the beginning.”

The Beginning

An ancient cemetery exists on the periphery of an old-town hospital. When night wraps itself around clock, things are upturned. The dirt road moves it murky tail from the edge of the village beyond the trees to the thorn bushes like a snake. It awakens when the moonlight drips into our village, shaking pedestrians askew off its path into thicker darkness.

She—Izhani—had migrated a month from it after she’d completed her IGCSE exams. Her shoulders were always slouched down, for something painted air always bared its weight on them. She was twisted that girl, well, people used to say. Something tagged along behind her, leashed itself to her legs so she walked strangely. She smelled weird, too. The night before she’d left, the time struck at a point where everyone’s limbs were lined in slumber. So no one saw how the father jinxed her as the night allied with him castrating the air of sound, muffing her noise.

Her father assumed the city a cure of some sorts, and thought by removing himself of everything (to be healed), he could rub like ointment his bad luck onto her skin, until her shade bore a something else, and his evils became the pores of her body, so each time her body inhaled and exhaled it calibrated her life in a series of to-happens. Wicked to-happens. In their roof, a scuffling noise rose, and bestowed its evil into her lungs.

No one knows what he did to pass off his debts onto her. Back then, debts weren’t of a financial tongue. He’d taken that murky road to access the thicker-dark where if you wished for something, automatically it would get granted. It would form into welts on your skin until you repaid back the debt. And once you compensated it, the thicker-dark would sweat itself of you, a gradual revealing of self. Except, no one knew what he wished for. Money? Love? In that thicker-dark, the village lay quiet under the darkly spread night, but the air was thick, acrid with spirits.

Anyway, it doesn’t sound logic, nè? To scoop bad luck from one’s skin and layer it like lotion onto another’s body seems impossible. It latched onto your skin, a language visible only to the thicker-dark’s debt collector. Those who remained in its debt were left with something that tied itself to their legs. If she weren’t careful, her children would be born with it for it seemed poverty and misfortune covered her with a lasting stench.

You talked of the father, what of the mother?

Her mother died when she was young, and her father wasn’t in the mood for a kid. Her father left her nothing but bad luck. She trekked to the city with just a backpack of misery and lonely.

You said the father rubbed bad luck onto her skin. What happened after?

After the father finished massaging her limbs, do you know what the village did then? Purged itself of her. She woke up sweaty, the air squeezing in on her like walls, as if to erase her into inexistence. She hurried to the bus rank, climbing into a morning bus. That’s when I made first contact with her.

We met on the bus and giggled all the way to the city. She had large Bantu knots, and she told me she was a natural, had been growing her natural hair for six years. My hair was chemically relaxed, tied into a tight bun. She talked to me about God and Mars, galaxies and black holes, and I was swept into her, her mouth a black hole of some sorts.

Anyway we remained friends during our varsity years. Usually, her dorm room was thick as smoke, but clear as air. It clogged visitors’ throats. Our bronchioles felt chockful of something, instead of phlegm, things we tried coughing up, that only evaporated into our minds, turning them dewy, our thoughts sticky with issues. In those strange night-hugged hours, sometimes our names were unknown, even to ourselves.

Sometimes I find another memory, scorch-free of dreams but whispers of what other students would say: she is bewitched; her wardrobe is filled with bottles of different colored liquids; a thokolosi sleeps in her room. I didn’t believe them because we always spent time in her dorm room. It was clean and holy.

Before, I remember how Izhani pointed at those tall Palo Verde trees, stark green against the red-brick building of the Sciences’ block?

“Tsalu, have you ever seen such a beauty?” she asked.

I’d only stared at her smile and, in a near whisper, said, “No, I haven’t.”

And we sat there, every lunch. Magwinya and chips, our lips oily with kisses.

I only remember our lives in phases.

When she burned herself, she burned my memories, too.

(phase 0)

Murky memories

It was during the cold August winter, nearing our first year at the university. Gabs was starting to burn that day, riding high on the Celsius scale. The roads were chockful with taxis and combis; the food vendors, bo mma-seapei, were eagerly waiting at every entry to the university for the exorbitant influx of new-and-old students. That was the only time I ever saw her smile.

Her class was cancelled and I skipped mine because let’s face it, I hardly understood what happened in Design Mathematics. We left.

We sat in that old tea garden, somewhere in the city’s body that was covered in foliage and innocence, covered in a culture that sang in delight at our names in a mother-tongue music. The food: pap and oxtail stew. The air was dense with laughter. The wind whispered through trees and tables.

She’d looked up and irritation carved her face ugly. “Eish, this guy. He’s stuck to me like fly on shit. Mxm, I don’t know why he won’t get the message—he is not my type.”

A short boy approached us. “Vatsay, vatsay, my gang!” I think he was in my former Form 5 class. “Guy, I have major gossip for you that your balls will drop.”

“Eish, will you stop talking like that? I don’t have balls!” Her tinny hand gripped the table.

He snickered. “Mma, this news is so major that you gonna grow balls. So you know about this snaksnyana ghost-story going around town? Like, you gots to have heard it. It’s such a tjatjarag story that even my grandmother was bragging to me about it. Like, my jaw has been slack for days ever since she told me.”

I coughed as I laughed. The things he said could fill a mouth with bile like a toxic shot.

“So,” he continued, “remember those cute yellowbone chicks? Third year?”

“How very descriptive,” I’d said.

“Ja, I think I remember,” she’d said only to hurry him up.

“Dead. Both of them.” He clapped his hands.

“What?” we’d both asked.

“Ja nè. Look who’s interested. Anyways, you hear about the ghost that picks its target? Enters houses, dorms, when people are in bed sleeping—it just picks them. Eerie on what criteria it selects them on. That’s them. The ghosts. The girls. Like, this is the real stuff. Not that Pinky Pinky toilet story—that’s kindergarten shit.”

“Toilet story?” I’d asked.

“Kante wena, where did you grow up? You lock yourself in a toilet, some creature—Pinky Pinky, apparently it’s the comical version of a thokolosi—kidnaps you from the toilet bowl after you repeat its name. Man, couldn’t piss for days when I heard that.”

“You’re joking, nè?” I couldn’t help but laugh. How old was that kid anyway?

“These girls have a different haunting. Their hands are sprinkled with badness. They walk into your homes, into your bedroom and just pick you. And you’re gone forever. They say when you hear someone open the door, play dead beneath your bed covers and hope they don’t choose you.”

“No way,” I’d said.

“And then what happens?”

He winked. “Try it out and let me know.”

We should’ve ignored that story. We should’ve tried. But when she lay in my bed and I lay next to her and the door crept open: we disappeared from ourselves. So suddenly, but yet so slowly. I remember how, at that moment, the rain danced with the sun outside and she thought, “Funny how we used to think monkeys get married in this shit, huh, tsalu?”

She laughed. A bell tinkled and I suppose we were gone.

The boy was wrong, but he was also right. It wasn’t the ghost girls. The thicker-dark’s debt collector followed her, haunted her.

(phase I)

There are men in this city who hunt other men’s children.

I have seen them part their wounds with aged tongues and arthritic hands.

Who are they?

You know them; they feed you holy when you aren’t looking.

(phase 2)

I remember: she never liked kissing.

I remember those varsity nights. I gave her my knees to burn the ground; I gave her my hands to bowl the prayers; my heart, a structure of church; my soul, the stained glass where my love the sun lit in golden rays. But, I was never enough.

Is that when your relationship went downhill?

It’s one of the many reasons. All I remember is that last conversation between us before we dispersed from that tea garden.

“So you gonna come with me?” she’d asked. “To try out this ghost thing. We could enjoy a little bit of cuddling.” She’d winked.

I’d sniffed something fishy in the air. “Nah, busy. School stuff.”

“Seriously, what you doing ain’t right. You promised me.”

“Ao, I can come,” he, the stranger, had said. “I’ll probably protect you better.”

She shook her head. “Eish, you talk too much. No one asked for your opinion. Mxm, relax your mouth, you’re attracting flies.”

He stepped away blowing insults into the air.

And thereafter, the city carried us towards its belly through pockmarked roads and a sun only the desert knew like a lovesick ex. When night cloaked us, she’d said, “The sun won’t be out today.” The home, the war. She was remembering her family that she left. She turned away and counted the clouds.

I saw the secrets she hid from me. I remember that slightly bald-headed lecturer of ours. The one with the beautiful wife and two kids. The one who liked her and teased her skin open with his teeth. What a terrible time that was. That man, instead of teaching her law, he broke the law in her body. It got so difficult. I begged for her back.

She didn’t want me. All I wanted to do was stop the pain. I tried to forget her by being with some fool. I remember lying back, thighs around the fool, feet pressed to the ceiling of his car. I did this to murder my loneliness. There was no feeling below me when he kissed me. I was just wait for the end. That same night, the bald-headed man drove her home.

I remember after her time with the bald-headed man, how bad our weeks were. Days passed. She skipped classes and lunch dates. She was waiting for daylight, when daylight long past. When the sun long buried the moon.

The only thing I didn’t do was save her.

(phase III)

Fear is a walking creature in my soul

One night, her fingers trembled from the overuse of alcohol.

But that’s not all, is it, Goitseone? At one point, you stopped socializing with her?

Ja.

What happened?

Izhani’s bedroom was stuffed with darkness, it carried the scent of mothballs mottled with sickness. She was soaked in sleep. She skipped classes, her bones became her frame. No one thought to report her condition. People were busy with classes, lecture notes, tests. So I stayed in her dorm room. One night she woke up, halfway to the door. When the air dried its way into your lungs and you feel the blood change the skin, and your nails curl back and the strands of hair loosen from your skull, how do you hold your breath, afraid? My eyes were open, but I pretended to sleep. I reached to my side feeling for her presence. She’d stared at me as if she were a ghost. If I continued to be aware of her, I was going to be ridden by her fate, because I wasn’t supposed to be awake, ja.

I saw the thing by her legs. I pretended to be outside the gun-look of its eye. Its hairy hands were wrapped around her knees like rope. I prayed, and pee oiled my limbs. I became a coward; our relationship became a desert, no oasis in sight. I didn’t want that shit, ja. I’m not that brave.

So I slept in packets of chips, chocolate bars, bottle stores and anything that gave a clean cut. I’d see her in the university’s brick-laden corridors, and I’d turn the other way. I was on a strict diet of a religion, attending the mosque nearby during a time where fire churches were trending. Everyone gave me weird looks for my choice of religion.

One Friday after class, I found her waiting outside. She’d shaved off her Afro. Someone said she’d sacrificed it for something—they’d found her burning it near some forest. When I saw her, my eyes touched the floor as I recalled Mama’s words: “Eyes give access to your soul. Never look at something straight in the eye. It creates a link between you and it.”

I walked away, but her hands gripped me, soft as the material of my abaya. “Choms?” Her voice was teary. “Please. Just talk to me, tuu.”

The sun in the sky screamed close to noon. “I have to go for prayers,” I said, running away, knitting my hijab across my face.

Her words clung to my neck. “You’re fake, joh. How can you wear a religion just because you’re scared? It’s not genuine. You’re a sham,” she cried, “just like your skin.”

Her messages swept into my phone. I deleted them. She was trying to get to me. The words hula-hooped around me the whole day. This was someone I knew. And she made me feel bad.

I buckled. I visited her that night. She hugged me and lay across my shoulders like a warm garment. She whispered, “You’ll be safe, I promise now. It shouldn’t have been my hair. It should’ve been me. That’s how it will end. Askies, you don’t understand me, nè? S’cool, things will be fine now. You won’t have to be scared anymore after tomorrow.”

I thought things would be different. Shem, I really did. That night, I lay like a coffin around her body. But the next day I left. I ran away. She was crazy. She scared the hell out of me.

And then what happened? You guys graduated. You never mentioned her to me.

Ja, I got a job at a newspaper and I met you. For a year, things were perfect. I never spoke to her for a span. I heard snatches of info about her here and there but I never kept in touch.

Apparently she sent you emails and you read them. What did they say?

She was talking about how bad things were for her. She’d graduated from university with a high GPA that didn’t guarantee a high salaried job, and she was living in a tardy servant’s quarters that had no ceiling. Evening times when she knocked off, she’d sit in the corner of the room praying for warmth and mercy. Her bones were beginning to show.

Her colleagues kept a distance from her as she was bony with a distraught-something that they didn’t want to catch. During the day, they’d whisper that she perfumed herself with the toilet spray and cackle. She minded her own business and knew that the little P1,000 she’s been saving monthly for a year now would bring something to her. Saving it meant walking to work every morning and walking back home at night even if she knocked-off nearing 11pm working overtime with no overtime pay, avoiding transport costs. Saving it meant no takeaways, no outings, no new outfits.

She believed struggles were like pieces of pennies accumulating in an account, earning interest as she persevered through it, then one day, just one day she would be able to withdraw the fortune of her persistence and hope. And if she continued with this very persistence, things would be well. So she listened to them laugh as if it was music. People always wondered where people like her are made from with such strength. They saw loneliness covering her bony frame with dust and cobwebs and not a boyfriend or friend in sight. What did a person like her like, even? It’s not as if everything was hundreds for me. You and I were just surviving.

Then . . . then . . . Please don’t make me go on. I can still smell the smoke.

I just want to know.

Will knowing make things better? It won’t bring me back.

People are putting thoughts in my head. I need the truth for closure. Your bodies were found next to each other. It shows that you two had been doing something behind my back for some time now.

Never!

What happened that morning I left for work? If things were perfect then why did you leave with her?

The thing that was leashed to her . . . visited me the morning you left for work.

What? But—but you said you had a migraine.

I did. Shortly after her pet came, I just saw her sitting there on our bed, breathing in the air that we warmed with our love. I don’t know how she came in. But she was just sitting there, saying she tried. She tried. Repeatedly. She started crying. That thing that was always leashed to her was sniffing your clothes, your notebooks, your laptop, taking you in. It picked your photo, its nose flared and it licked our picture. That’s when I knew our lives were over. You looked so happy in that picture, so full of love. How could I bring this into our lives?

Then Izhani’s knees buried themselves into the floor. “Papa did a terrible thing. This is the only way.”

She wanted to cleanse us before we left. Her shoulders hunched forward as she yanked something from a secret corner in my wardrobe. She burned it, waving it, without saying a word to me. I coughed. “We have to do this because who will clean our spirits when we’re gone?” she said.

She waved the thing in every corner until white smoke inflated our bachelor pad and our lungs. The windows cracked from the pressure, as if this mindless smoke was a beasty animal, hooves and all. She sang a funeral song I can never quite remember, and her pet held me down—I couldn’t move my arms, my legs, my whole body. I closed my eyes and prayed. One day we were us, in a flick we were . . . gone. Izhani and I, things could never be normal.

Stop . . . I don’t want to hear about the fire. Don’t go on.

Thank you. Please don’t cry. I want to hold you but I can’t. I’m okay. Please believe me.

What happened after? I mean, I know you died, but what happened after?

I don’t know how it happened. How that day led to now or if time has a body we used to feel. Something feeds at the edges of my memory. Our skin is no longer bark, worn by pain and endurance and men scarring her with heartbreak. I still see her now, you know? But she’s forgotten me. I cling to her, trying to remind her about everything, but her mouth is sewn strangely. Her eyes are dark loops like deep graves in her face. I can still taste her death in my throat.

Our vision looks into nothing, into no substance, into no matter. There is no reality to dissolve into. Here I am still, matter and bone, born for her sin-thesis.

You’ve been dead for days, what have you been doing?

I am nothing but time and so I am a loose thing in the world, a plastic in the wind. I have no direction, only sadness sails me. Phase IV: That day they spoke of ghosts, the wind rattled our ears begging us to hear. The transformation was a mysterious alchemy. That, one day we’re a pairs of lungs, and the next we’re a pair of ghosts. She died before she left her body.

We are nowhere but everywhere. I am invisible but I’m omnipresent. I’ve been watching you when I can. Sometimes you wake up startled. You cry because it hurts to exist. You feel like no one sees you, no one feels you. Please remember that I love you. Don’t cry, love. You’re freezing. You need to hang up now. We’ve been on the line for too long.

The two girls have been on the line for too long and lightning and thunder have come and gone.

I don’t want to hang up. I feel worse. I just . . . wanted to hug you, to say goodbye, to see if you’re doing well. Hearing the truth has healed nothing.

The story, the truth is awake in Wame’s body. Hours later, she is found, drenched in rainwater, still muttering, “Hello? Hello? Are you still there?” to a ghost that will never answer. A ghost that is nowhere but everywhere and in her body.

About the Author

Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and architectural articles, whose work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Wasafiri, The Fog Horn Magazine, Terraform, and other publications. Her poem “I Will Be Your Grave” is a Rhysling Award nominee and her short story, “Virtual Snapshots” was longlisted for the 2017 Nommo Awards. A full bibliography can be found at tlotlotsamaase.com.