Whenever I thought about my mother I would think of jewels. Racing back to the events leading to her death, my mind would capture a gem, the size of the white of the eye of a fried fish, spiraling down an endless abyss into oblivion. Oh! And how we tried to cling to her life as if it were a snail on a mossy rock until we watched it sink to the bottom of the unknown.
I was there, and I felt cheated. I was convinced she never lived for me. Ma lived in a world of her own—a bottomless void whose emptiness could be seen in the nothing in her eyes. She never talked a lot and loved to listen. Ma never laughed—only chuckled when the muse of laughter choked her. She had told me that one day she would tell me about the war, but she died.
Today I can tell you everything about my life because I’m on the other side. Secrets are for you humans and other freaks with bodies, and shapes, and forms. I am a ghost; the invisible type. They call us black ghosts, and you humans cannot see us. You believe that ghosts are made of white stuff, that they stroll in graveyards and haunt houses and dreams of those who fail to let go of memories of their loved ones. But that’s not all there is to our lives. The ones you see in your dreams or hallucinations are my friends too. We call them silent ghosts. They are the most ominous. They died good deaths and are allowed to visit the world of the living. But whether you see them or just imagine them is something I don’t know. I’m a black ghost because they say I died a bad death. We are not allowed to roam your world.
Jade, my white ghost friend, tells me that she knew my mother in her former life. She tells me that she was with her in Mozambique and that together they tried to purge the memories of the war by finding things to live for. Jade found a man and Ma found me. She says Ma said a man was not enough for her since it was men who had killed her soul long before she decided to get rid of her body. Looking back at Ma through Jade’s eyes, a lot of things become clear to me, and I regret having done the things I did. I have known Ma better in death than I ever did my entire life.
“She was a good woman,” Jade told me.
“But I never knew her as such. She never opened up to me.”
“Maybe she was trying to protect you. Ever thought of that?”
“Protect me from what exactly?”
“Well, hell yeah! Maybe that’s why I’m dead!”
“Never say that about her. She was a child of war, and children of war are war.”
It was the war I wanted to find out about. What had it done to Ma? Jade tells me that had it not been for the war, Ma would have been the person she was when she was born. She says people who have been in wars never come back the same. She says it was the war that made her divorce my dad. Having experienced the violence of men, Ma felt like death whenever she was with a man. She says Ma only married dad so that she could have something to call her own, and that was me.
“But how come she never loved me?”
“She did. Trust me, she did. But she loved you like war; violently.”
And Jade said that if it wasn’t for that terrible war, Ma wouldn’t have killed herself to leave me wondering if life had any meaning at all or if we were nothing but hopeless ghosts wandering the universe in search of nothing while bearing the pangs of everything. If the way she struggled with her past and her eventual suicide didn’t make me think in these lines, I definitely wouldn’t have killed myself and you would have never heard our story.
After listening to Jade talk about Ma, I see life differently. I don’t blame people for what they do or how they end up being weird because I know that we’re all battered by experiences too grave to carry in our minds. Ma never wanted to talk about the things that made her scream at night, and I don’t blame her. But had she shared with me, I would have been the thing she always wanted—something to call her own. I would have understood had she told me how the rebels came to their village to take men and women who would fight and please their generals. Jade says the rebels found them sleeping at the darkest hour of the night and set the grass-thatched roofs on fire before dragging them naked onto the village square. Children saw the nakedness of their mothers; pubic hair shining in the orange glow of the blaze to disappear where the legs met to hide what is covered in clothes. Little girls saw their fathers’ penises dangling in the threatening darkness like snakes hung on trees for Israelites to look up to when they got sick in the desert. Fathers were made to see their daughters’ ripening breasts, and some were forced to taste them. Helpless men were forced to defile innocent daughters they had brought into the world to love and protect.
And Ma’s first experience with war haunted her to death. She had a life, dreams, and hopes that were consumed in the darkness of that awful night. Jade said the rebels tied Ma to a tree, and made the whole village see the bare shape of her dark body. Then one of them suggested that they play a little game where the one who would take three straight shots of rum would be given a chance to rape the woman tied to the tree for the whole village to see. They played their silly game while shooting into the air to remind the villagers of what they were up against. They shouted the name of their leader and poked the men with hot rifles.
“Long live Bastante!”
“Renamo will rule! Forward with the revolution!”
Then guns banged and cracked, leaving the villagers mortified in deadly silence.
As the first man attempted to take his turn on Ma, her husband stormed from the terrified group, naked as he was, to protect the woman he loved. He must have been thinking about the family that the rebels were about to destroy through such a shameful act. He must have been thinking about his wife who was forced against the tree like a sheep to slaughter. Ma’s first husband, whom I never knew, must have been thinking about his two daughters who were about to watch their mother degraded and shamed for life. And as he ran for that monster rebel to defend his own, he forgot about the guns. He never got to hear the deafening sound of those weapons tearing his body apart. It’s only Ma and his daughters who had the horror of seeing his beautiful mind splayed on the ground like a gothic painting in a colonial museum.
Jade said they raped Ma and made her carry the gun that killed her husband deep into the night. She never got to see her two daughters again, but their cries, as the rebels dragged her away into the night, still lingered on the shores of her mind and any attempt at sleep gave them life to play with her mind whenever she closed her eyes. That must be why Ma always insisted on taking sleeping pills every time she could not afford a bottle of liquor. All the while I thought she was careless and that she just had a weird desire for killing herself softly. I regret that I never had the patience to sit down and listen to her heart. There must have been voices there. Resting my unknowing head against her chest could have allowed me to listen to the words that her mouth never uttered. Maybe I never gathered that courage because I always heard dad shouting insults at her, calling her a lazy lesbian because she refused to have sex with him ever since she gave birth to me. That was fifteen years ago and throughout the years he had been bringing in girls at different hours of the night. And these girls screamed so loud from pleasure and pain that I had to cover my head with a pillow.
“Get over the war!” he would shout. “We all have problems, but we don’t suckle them like fat babies! Get over it!”
And on those nights I wished I would run away and disappear with the wind rushing outside my window.
“We had apartheid here, but do you see us whining or draining those useless pills? South Africa has even seen worse than Mozambique… At least you managed to run away from your country, but we are stuck here, man! And we are still facing it… The unemployment and shit! Get over it!”
Ma never said anything to any of that, and I kept silent, because, in my culture, you never ask when adults are having problems. And when she finally took me from Pretoria to live in Johannesburg, not much changed in her attitude towards life. She always looked bored and tired. Whenever she yawned a smile at me or stroked my kinky hair, which felt like sand, I felt no sincerity in her affection. We had left behind the man who made her unhappy, but it seemed like happiness was still something she just imagined existed. I felt that maybe I was also one of the things that made her unhappy because she did not stop the drinking or draining the pills that made her eyes falter. I was convinced that I made Ma unhappy, and I felt inadequate. I did not love her enough to kill her pain. She did not love me enough to be happy. At least that’s how I saw it with my mortal eyes.
So when I found her choking on her vomit on that fateful day, I felt my heart sinking into a bottomless abyss of despair. I beheld her eyes narrowing, closing, and her pulse sinking into that same bottomless abyss. The only words she said on that day still haunt me even now that I live on this side of life.
“I love you… find a reason to live… I’ve failed….”
And at that moment tears burst from my eyes like a flash flood on a steep slope. I knew that I was losing her. I realized how much I loved and cherished her despite her shortfalls as a mother. I realized that she was a rare gem, a precious jewel to keep in a place where precious things dwell—the heart. Ma was a feeling, not the physical being who needed pills to sleep.
When the ambulance came to pick her up, it was too late. We failed to resuscitate her, and the only things remaining with me were the words she said to me. These words haunted me, and I asked myself what love really meant if somebody could love you and at the same time choose to die and leave you alone. Wasn’t it just a fancy name given to pain and betrayal? I felt cheated and as weeks turned into months, I felt that my life was one ugly mess. I never talked to my friends about it. I never told them the tiny details of my life that gave me sleepless nights. Ma had a war inside her heart, and that war sent her to the grave. These emotions I was keeping in my heart were also, in a way, rebels, wars, guns, and bullets, which finally sent me to this place after I took twenty pills of that tranquilizer to sleep and woke up no more. I was convinced I had nothing to live for.
Now that Jade told me what happened to Ma before I met her, I understand things better. She drank too much to drown the daughters she lost in the war. My father could never have replaced the husband she lost to the gun. And no matter how much she loved the world and me, she would never have loved enough to make up for the people she had killed when she was made to fight in that army.
Standing in this vastness of eternity after that successful suicide, I see things clearly. For the living, the world is always ugly. It is hell lived and relived because you think that beauty is always on the other side since the mysterious always seduces the unwitting heart. You live your lives like tadpoles in a deep green sea, always on the edge; others desperate to get out and some craving to get in. I have lived in that world, and I managed to get away thinking I would purge my loss as the world learned to forget me.
Did I tell you I did not find Ma here? I wish I could get back in but this spiral synchronizing the souls of the living and the dead keeps spinning and spinning—casting us further away from the world we knew. I’m now from both worlds and I can see that there is nothing more than what remains of what you were given. Your life is beautiful as it is.
The image in the post is an adapted version of a photograph by Nick Kenrick via Flickr.
About the Author:
Wesley Macheso is a Malawian writer with keen interest in human character and relationships. He currently teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Mzuzu University. His short story “This Land is Mine” made the long list and is published in Water: new short story fiction from Africa (2016) by Short Story Day Africa. He won the 2014/ 2015 Peer Gynt Literary Award in Malawi for his children’s book Akuzike and the Gods. Some of his work can be read on The Kalahari Review, Storymoja Africa, and Africanwriter.com. He tweets via @Wesleymax89.