by Natisha Parsons
On a still, still night when the air is crisp with the promising predawn frostiness sharp at its edges, and the moon rides high, closely hugging the pristine star-spangled night-sky, you will hear it.
When the Seven Sisters blaze their brilliance abroad in the perfect beauty of the night, and the Southern Cross points the way, you certainly will hear it.
When the soughing of the trees mingles with the baying of the dogs, you may think that’s it, that you’ve finally heard it. You may think that you, too, have a story to tell.
“Listen... do you hear that?” someone will be asking.
“I know I heard her,” another will be firmly declaring.
“You are going round the bend!” yet another will be mocking.
Conjecture... hearsay... speculation... spread more efficiently than softened butter over warm toast.
It is a high-pitched eerie, sorrowful keening, shrill and sharp, and it tears at your every nerve. Your hair stands straight up, and your spine tingles with horror most unbearable.
It is said to be a dirge... a wounded soul lamenting her own untimely departure.
It is the agonising woe of one who, having crossed the here-there line, must search, gravely tormented, because the body she diligently seeks is no more.
Conjecture thrives... It is the heartbroken cries of a maid jilted by her lover, and she took this permanent option rather than face life deserted and alone.
Oh, but no, this is the ghost of that young girl who led so many into the sea so many, many years ago, and her restless spirit is struggling to find peace after the terrible thing she did.
The more daring whisper: why are we being so obtuse? We all know whose ghost that is: she killed herself with her own two hands, and her own brain told her to do it! She was ashamed to face up to the dreadful things she had done while she was away supposedly working in the City.
Aha! But how can you prove that? We can think what we like, but we must be careful of what we say!
* * *
The weekly Mothers’ Meetings trill with speculative Spooky-guesswork:
One spiteful voice swears it is the deep, vicious anger of one out to avenge herself of her killer, whoever that may be. And heads nod sagely, eyes sneakily gazing at Theodora under lowered lids. Everyone knows that Theodora’s husband killed a woman when he was trying to rob a café in Mthatha but got off with it because, “It’s not what you know that counts, but who you know.” The wretched woman mutely squirms in her seat and pays her chunk of cake closer attention.
Granny Sheba, whose husband went to the mines decades ago so he could feed his family and who never came back, is adamant: it’s the ghost of a humiliated young mother who died of starvation after burying her starved children! The poor, unfortunate woman still mourns deeply for what should have been, she swears.
“But, aww, Granny, how long ago was that? We’d have been there for her.”
“Who knows, child?” Granny shrugs impatiently. “Things happened in those days. Money was not as freely available as it is today, even though you may not understand that.” Her body language emphatically declares: subject closed! Memories of her erstwhile resultant struggle as a domestic servant for a very racist Afrikaner family wash briefly over her. She stuck things out because the pay was good, and they helped her with their children’s cast-offs and left-over food each day. She shakes her head vigorously and chases away the memories. Life is good now. Her children see to her material comforts, and the pension she receives is all right.
Ma-Thuli, who was so proud she bragged into every ear within sight when her son went away to university, was bitter and showed it in her whole demeanour because her boy decided he was a girl in boy skin and took unto himself a lover: another boy! The story got back via the super-efficient jungle drums, and the whole area jigged to the juicy tidbit. She could never live down the shame.
She wrote to her son to formally disown him and refuse him entry to her home, not even to attend her funeral. His father felt the whole thing even more acutely. He was quite ignorant and understood no reasoning to excuse his only son’s treachery. They were of the unwavering opinion that the devil had got into him. The grass and stones that covered the plains would all disappear in a day when a boy could rightly claim to be a girl inside!
Some had even more graphic questions, to which there was a round response: “H-a-a-u! I changed his napkins!” Ma-Thuli exploded, banging her chest dramatically. “I gave him birth! I should know who and what my child is!” Ma-Thuli firmly believes it to be a grief-stricken woman out there who’d killed herself rather than face life with the terrible shame of her son who became her daughter.
Sara-Lee, who everybody knew was an abortionist with many women’s secrets hidden in that “cold, killer heart” of hers, swore it was the ghosts of babies, seeking their murderous mothers who had sent them away before they had tasted life on earth.
Matilda, the sharpest tongue in the entire district viciously struck back: no, she exploded fixing her steely, narrowed gaze on the culprit, it was the dreadful ululating of the ghosts of embittered grannies whose grandbabies were being slaughtered in the womb, and she was after the hands that were doing the deadly deeds. Sara-Lee looked around, trying to look as innocent as everyone else. Although everyone knew who the abortionist was, too few had not been helped by those bloodstained hands.
These are some of the contributions the speculators put on the table at Mothers’ Meetings. Between stories and mugs of sweet tea and chunks of homemade cake and scones, the meetings last till well into the evening when reminders of supper get them up and away. The meetings are always well-attended. The church yard is equipped with stone tables and benches and is sheltered from the weather; it’s the ideal spot.
When the night is cold and rainy and the family sits huddled around the fire, each wrapped in their favourite rug, cold hands hugging mugs of sparingly sugared bolani (Bush tea) or cocoa or chicory-laden coffee, well stewed in lots of milk fresh from the cows in the kraal, and chunks of mealie bread freshly steamed that day, by Gogo (granny) or Mama, dripping with butter churned by one of the lads before school, they take turns telling stories about the poor, unfortunate ghost girl, popularly known as Spooky. The best story wins the narrator a prize: usually, a chore of their choice would be taken over by the “loser” for a day. The story is rated on how much terror and horror are put into it and how much the listeners shudder and squeal in delightful, scalp-tingling torment.
* * *
When a chilling, inglorious din is set up by the mutts and mongrels of the entire district, it is murmured with delicious little shivers and even great big, exaggerated shudders that Spooky is on the prowl.
Pragmatic, nerdy Cyril pipes up: “All dogs bay the moon.” But he is cut short during the schoolyard discussions.
“Shut up, you geek!” someone shrieks at him. “My mother told me what makes the dogs go on so, so there!”
Everyone speaks English around Cyril just to try to better his command of the language. He annoys everyone intensely with his sensible one-track mindedness. When he starts a sentence with, “At my school in Pretoria...” they shout him down with, “This is not Pretoria! Get with this programme.”
Cyril is the textbook example of the literal thinker, and that makes for amusing moments that are always taken home for the amusement of the rest of the family. Often the gist of the message is quite lost in translation, which makes for even more hilarious moments. A clutch of Cyril-isms keeps even the adults amused when he and his family are not around.
The day Cyril announces he is going to creep out when the dogs do their thing, just to see what he will see, everyone is goggle-eyed and in shock. “Of course, if you open your mouths and the parents get to hear of it, it’s off.” He slices the air dramatically with an extended arm. Everyone zips their lips and places the imaginary key in their chests. Cyril laughs uproariously. “So you also saw that movie, here in the sticks! Of course: the wonder of electronics, DVD players an all that. Never mind, as long as that key stays there.”
“For your information, Mr Know-it-all, we have DStv if you never noticed the dingus on our roof,” Pieter snarls.
“I suppose you mean the aerial—”
“The dish, you moegoe!” shrieks an irate Pieter.
“Ja-ja. I knew that. But to get back to the point: not a word until after the deeds been done!” Then he turns to Pieter and says with arched eyebrows and an exaggerated British accent, “I prefer mampara, do you mind? Moegoe is so yesteryear.”
From their reactions, the others find that highly amusing. They return to class with “moegoe” and “mampara” dominant in their babblings. For the uninitiated, both words are synonymous for “one who lacks good judgment.”
* * *
There are those who claim they have actually seen Spooky weeping bitterly. They saw her perched on the very rock weary passersby rested on while going to and from the shops. The shady glade offered the perfect spot on hot days. The nearby gurgling stream was soothing to tired ears, nectar to parched throats and balm to hot, sweaty feet.
Nora stayed a little late one day because she wanted to take one last puff before she did the final steep climb home. Seated cross-legged on the rock, she felt like a queen surveying her own domain. Smoking was a no-no in their home. Her parents had strict rules and a stout rod of flexible willow!
Carefully she spread the tobacco along the length of the brown paper and daintily licked one edge of it. She sealed it and gently tamped the tobacco in at the business end. She’d watched her father enough times. Then she tore away the excess paper and lit up. Cigarettes were too expensive! Who could afford them? And why bother anyway, when she could sneak the stuff for free from her father’s little drawstring tobacco bag? She sighed deeply as she stubbed out the remaining damp butt end.
Jumping from the rock, she gathered her parcels, ripped her gum from its resting place on the rock beside her and went off at a smart pace.
Halfway home, she heard the soughing of the wind in the trees — not an unfamiliar sound at all — and dared to look back. There on the rock, as clearly as she was looking at her very own palm right now, was Spooky! Dark and shadowy but most definitely Spooky! “And,” she muttered with a defiant shrug, “we all know who that is! And I wish she’d stay dead!” Nonetheless she hastened her steps.
Then Nora heard it! What began as a soft whiny sighing, spiralled until it reached a crescendo that made the hair on her head stand straight up and caused the skin on her back to crawl. She held tightly onto her groceries and sped home, stumbling feverishly and jabbering incoherently, not daring to look back again.
Then the laughter started! That laughter... Help! help! she silently screamed. That laughter gave her the deep heebie-jeebies.
Of course the terror-stricken Nora gave breathless feedback of the horrific spectacle, and her mother dosed her with Red Lavender, an Old Dutch remedy for palpitations she was told, that she’d bought at a chemist in Mthatha.
Word spread faster than the smell when the night soil is collected by the night truck on a Wednesday evening! Opinions varied. Some said she had imagined it; it was not the right kind of night for an “appearance.” Others swore she was just looking for attention. And there were those who were excited to know someone who had actually seen Spooky with her own two eyes!
Nora said she knew that it was definitely Pinky! “Definitely! It was Pinky, I swear it on my granny’s eyes!”
“Your granny died a long time ago, Nora!”
“Oh you! You know what I mean. S’true. It was Pinky. It was getting a bit dark, but I know it was her. It was! It was!”
Pinky’s mother got to hear that and she was as mad as an old man with a scalded tongue and blistered lips. Her Pinky, she emphatically stated, was with God and at rest! Her Pinky had died a hero’s death! She had been contaminated with the Virus while caring for a half-mad patient. She had withdrawn blood and was about to place the syringe on the table when the patient went berserk and caused Pinky to jab herself and to release the contaminated blood into her own thigh.
There was much speculation in the community, and many unanswered questions,
* * *
In the meantime, Cyril was planning to make his move. On the very day Nora decided to have a smoke break, Cyril was in the area to strategise. He was going to invent a ghost, if one did not appear! It was still a little early for the appearance of a ghost, but he was not going to allow this opportunity to pass.
He sat very still watching her approach. Fortunately for him, she made her presence known by singing loudly the song the seniors at school were practicing for the forthcoming choir competition. She had a lovely voice, but... what was that? No! She would surely ruin her voice smoking cigarettes... and not even a cigarette at that... a zoll, hand-made with tobacco and newspaper or brown paper.
Highly amused he watched her. He never thought he’s see a girl smoking a zoll. He lovingly caressed the recorder he was holding, rather annoyed that a singer would self-destruct like that! Clearly she was a dab hand at swaai-ing — rolling — that zoll thing.
Well hidden in the copse on the far side of the stream, he watched Nora puffing with gusto. Eventually, when she was halfway up the hill, he went into action. Donning the cloak he had brought with him, he sped silently to the rock and sat powwow fashion on it. With the bush as his backdrop, he’d sort of blend in, and she wouldn’t make him out, surely!
The recorder he learned to play quite expertly at his school in Pretoria came in handy. For some reason he’d kept his skill a secret. With his back to the retreating girl — just in case — he went into action. When he finally turned around, he laughed loudly and long and it sounded quite maniacal to the terrified girl, who was not daring to look back. Cyril was standing on the rock, arms outstretched, head thrown back, laughing like a demented hyena.
Cyril wished with all his heart he had a way of recording the happenings. Watching the terrified girl amused him no end. The sounds he produced on his recorder should have been taped and sold to a film producer; ideal sounds for a creepy movie. Even he felt spooked-out by his own sounds. What a thing to have to keep to himself!
He made his way home, hopping and skipping and whooping with joy. Only when he entered the kitchen door did he remember that he’d been sent on an errand to Granny Duduse. He turned around and sped off. Lucky for him, his mother was on night duty and had left by the time he got home.
He put the item he had fetched from Sis Thobile under his mother’s pillow; then he watched the news with his dad. In bed at last, he gloated over the earlier events. He giggled himself to sleep only to have the mother and father of all nightmares that brought his alarmed father running.
His report to the group was spoiled by memories of the horrors he’d experienced in that dream. Even telling them his grossly exaggerated story gave him the heebie-jeebies.
“There is no such thing as a Spooky coming out in the night. The trees make a natural noise when the wind blows through them; you all know that. I sat on that rock and no one joined me even though it was a clear night.”
“You are a fraud. Last night was not a Spooky night. You have to wait until the moon is full—”
“What if the moon is hidden behind rain clouds when it is full?”
“Then you wait until the next full moon. You have to do it again.”
“Not on your life! Once is enough! There are animals that creep and crawl and fly around, and I’m not risking it again!”
Cyril fell a few degrees on the group’s feelings barometer, but he didn’t mind that.
Copyright © 2019 by Natisha Parsons