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A Ghost in the Woods: A Short Story by Wesley Macheso

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash remixed

When the child started misbehaving, Jessica knew that something had gotten into him. She had always seen him as an empty vessel – a soul with no purpose, really. She understood that she was the one who was supposed to help him come alive and to show him the purpose for living. But how could she do that when she herself was living a lie and wasting her days trying to pick up the shattered pieces of a life she did not even break? Her life had been a journey – muddy roads, rumbled surfaces, and loves that drained in the rain – and she was in no position to raise a son. The weight of parenthood weighed heavily on her bosom because she had not planned on being a parent to begin with. And the fact that she did not love her husband made it worse.

She had always told Torah, her Canadian friend who had recently migrated to Liverpool, that the worst thing about being an African is that you rarely live for you. Most of the time you live for other people because everyone expects you to live for them or, if not, to live like them.

“They say we Africans are communal people and that we are unlike Westerners who are selfish and mean. So when you wake up every morning you have to be thinking of how you’ll make other people happy. It’s a struggle I tell you,” she would always lament.

And in that way she would go on and on to complain over a life that she felt she never owned despite being told that it was hers.

When she gave birth to Sammy, she thought, for a moment, that her life would take a positive turn and that she would make a new beginning. But she was defeated to realise that beyond every bend is a long and blinding end to be endured – sometimes even longer and more tedious than the path you are running away from. Sammy was not what she had expected. He was a strange child and on his face were scribbled memories that she had fought in her dreams countless times. The boy lit life in her heart but not in a good way. When she left for England, the thinking was that Africa and its memories were buried in dust only to realise that with the birth of her son, Africa followed her right into her bedroom.

It was her parents who insisted that she marries Dallas. Dallas’ father had been good friends with her father since their university days in Liverpool. Her father was one of those lucky Africans who benefitted from the reparations of colonialism by getting scholarships to study in Europe. Most of these scholars did not even deserve the scholarships but it was Europe’s trick of helping them kill the hangovers of whips and lynches. And when they came back, the people they left behind wished that these few brats never even went to Europe. They became pins in the buttocks and they would yuck in their experimental English in order to dazzle the brothers they had left behind.

Her father’s tastes were white and that is why his greatest desire was for Jessica to marry a white man. He had kept contact with friends he left behind in England and he would spend hours on the government phone in his office trying to catch up with a past he did not even remember. Every year during Christmas, he would wear a long face and looked as if he had diarrhoea because he said he missed the snow during Christmas.

“What kind of Christmas do you people have here? What is Christmas without snow? No wonder even Christ did not choose to be born here!” He would complain.

And other people who had a little knowledge about this world wondered whether Christ was born in Europe or in the Middle East. They wondered why this man wasted breath complaining about Christmas and snow when the Christ he was talking about was born in a manger and, for sure, snow must have been the least of worries on his parents’ minds.

So when Jessica brought Chisamba home for the first time, her father said no. She had told her mother that she was bringing a boyfriend and that he was a man she loved. He was tall, dark, and walked with the confidence of an angel. He had not accumulated a lot of money yet but he had an ambition. He talked about the future as if it was just at the end of his fingertips, ready to be clasped. Chisamba made her laugh and in him Jessica thought she had found everything she looked for in a man. The stories he shared about his life made her cry and she felt that she had to be the angel to heal the wounds in his life.

Chisamba told her that his life had been a slow but steady journey. Before he became a bank clerk he had been a security guard working nights on end to make ends meet. During that time he had a girlfriend who had promised to marry him but when her parents discovered that he was nothing but a watchman, they dismissed any possibility of the marriage. They told him to take his poverty to the grave and not to taint their lineage with watchman blood. They were afraid of poverty. The girl loved him and insisted that they elope but her parents got wind of the plans and decided to lock her away in the servants’ quarters so that she comes back to her senses. When they went there the next morning, she was hanging on a rope – her eyes the white of a pealed cassava tuber – facing the falling ceiling. That’s when Chisamba realised that love was not a drug. Love was poison.

And when Jessica’s father said no to Chisamba, Jessica was not surprised to see her lover still standing there solid as a rock, challenging like a wounded lion. The metallic glare in his gaze spoke of a man who was determined to fight for what he desired.

“Young man, go and find your type. My daughter is already engaged to be married to a young man in England. A Neurosurgeon,” her father had said. Jessica and her mother just stood at a distance without saying a word for they knew what the man of the house was capable of. He was a typical patriarch who treated his family as if they were sheep in his kraal.

“No! I’m not letting anyone take anything away from me anymore. I love your daughter and I will marry her!” Chisamba was challenging.

“Over my dead body!”

“Well, if that’s what it takes then.”

And Jessica’s father laughed hysterically like a mad man, tears of disbelief rolling down his cheeks. Maybe he could not believe that a boy with no name could stand in his compound and challenge him like that. He suddenly composed himself, took a deep breath and spoke.

“I don’t know if you are crazy or just dead stupid, but I warn you! I warn you young man! Stay away from my daughter!”

But Chisamba just stood there as if he did not hear the man or sense the fury in his voice. He looked at Jessica in search of confirmation and approval for his actions but the girl looked afraid and timid.

Jessica’s father turned around in full force and stormed into the house. When he came out, he was carrying a gun and he did not hesitate to fire in the air, scattering all the spectators who had come to witness the drama unfold. The way people ran for their lives, you’d think that the gunshot was aimed at them, but Chisamba did not move.

“What is it with you? Witchcraft?” Jessica’s father was in disbelief. And when he aimed the second time, the bullet went straight through Chisamba’s chest and he fell down like a rabid dog at the end of its life.

Nobody, not even Jessica, could believe that her father was capable of such cruelty. She rushed in to shake Chisamba’s body lying on the ground. She was shouting. She was crying out for help. Her mother had rushed into the house, not knowing what to do. Her father was still ranting incomprehensible words. And Chisamba was lying there, grunting in pain with froths of blood burping out of his mouth. When the ambulance came, he had only managed to tell Jessica that he would fight for her and that he was coming back for her. Then he went silent. The paramedics covered him up and took him into the ambulance – cruising through the neighbourhood – trying to save a life that Jessica knew was already lost. She never heard of him again. Her father made her leave for England a week later and a marriage with Dallas was quickly arranged in Liverpool.

It was five years now since this happened but the memories of that experience refused to die in Jessica’s mind. Mostly, it was her son who reminded her of the life she had left behind. He was born as black as tar and she instantly knew that he was not Dallas’ son. She saw the brow of Chisamba on his face. She heard Chisamba’s voice in his cries. Since he was born, Chisamba had come back to torment her in her dreams – reminding her that he was still coming for her and keeping his promise. She did not understand why Dallas did not question the boy’s genetic makeup. He must have expected a black baby, yes, but maybe with a tinge of white. At least the baby was not to come out entirely black as he did. But Dallas did not say anything about any of this and Jessica felt tortured. She understood that Dallas may not have been interested in her after all and that maybe to him this marriage was just an obligation too as it was with her. She felt like a burden carrying a burden.

And when Sammy started misbehaving at 5 years, things got worse. He was saying strange things for a boy of five. He kept telling her about a man he met in the woods when he went to play there. He said there was a tall, dark, man who lived in the woods close to their house and that he played with him. When she first heard this, Jessica shuddered and she pinched the boy on the cheeks, telling him never to say that again. Sammy recoiled to the silence of children and wished that his mother believed him.

The next time he went into the woods to play, Sammy brought back a box of chocolates and a note written ‘Jessica, my love’. The child came straight to where Jessica was knitting in the living room and handed her the box and the note. Jessica could not believe her eyes when she noticed the curves in the handwriting. It was Chisamba’s hand that had scribbled on this paper. She knew how his ink flowed in love letters. She remembered quite well how he curved the ‘J’ in ‘Jessica’ – as if it was about to fall on the helpless ‘e’. She just sat there bewildered, looking at Sammy with unwavering eyes as if he were a ghost.

“Where did you get this?” she demanded.

“The man gave it to me, mommy,” the boy was frightened to death on seeing the rage in his mother’s eyes.

Jessica was lost for words and just took the boy into her arms and went to close down all the windows and curtains in the house. She knew that her past was back and it was real. She wondered why a ghost would follow her to Europe to torment her instead of dealing with her father – the one who had done Chisamba wrong. The one who had killed him.

For the next three weeks everything was normal. Jessica tried to look out for tads of strange behaviour in her son but the boy seemed to be normal but for his usual quietness. She never mentioned any of what had happened to her husband. In fact she doubted if Dallas at all knew anything about Chisamba. But on one Sunday evening, a few minutes after Dallas had left for evening prayers, there was a gentle knock on her door. When she went to open the door, Jessica almost fainted. Chisamba was standing there in flesh and blood – kicking and alive. He was smiling. Jessica felt like the world around her was suddenly spinning and she failed to inhale the oxygen that was in abundance around her. Her mouth was ajar as if it was waiting for words she had forgotten.

“I told you I would come for you,” Chisamba was calm.

“No! No! No! No!” Jessica stepped back into the house and almost tripped on something in the haziness of her confusion. Chisamba was walking majestically towards her. He was entering the house. It was a horror she had never dreamed of.

“Go back please! Don’t torture me! Go back!” She tried to scream.

“But Jessica, I’m alive. It’s me. I told you I would come. We can live our life Jessica. I came for you.”

Jessica grabbed her son, who was standing behind an orange couch, and pulled him towards the corridor. She rushed into her bedroom and grabbed a pistol.  She left the boy there, banged the door behind her, and pointed the gun at Chisamba. She was sure it was a ghost. He looked unsteady and his speech was slurred. Jessica was shaking like an addict in withdrawal.

“Chisamba died in my arms! You are a ghost! Leave! Don’t torture me!” She was crying and her voice became louder with each tremble it gained.

Chisamba raised his arms and began to retreat towards the door. He was afraid – a ghost in disbelief. There was something in his eyes and, for a moment, Jessica wanted to give the man a chance. But something strongly told her that Chisamba had died. It was a conviction more fierce than death. Maybe it was her fear of the past or an unknown that she could not fathom. Maybe when true love is suddenly uprooted from someone’s heart, the space that remains there is haunted by fear such that all traits of trust and belief in what could be are tainted by the horror of loss. It was a fear she could not explain and she did not want to take any chances.

Chisamba slipped out of the door and was slowly consumed by the darkness that lay waiting outside that door. Jessica lunged for the door and locked it as if her fate depended on it. She slid down against the door and crouched herself on the floor with the gun gripped tightly in her hands. She was sobbing and shaking as if she did not know what life was all about. Like she did not believe in life after death. As if she never believed in promises.


Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash (remixed)

Wesley Macheso
Wesley Macheso
Wesley Macheso, PhD, is a Malawian writer. He teaches literature at the University of Malawi to survive and he writes to live. His short story “This Land is Mine” is published in Water: new short story fiction from Africa (2016) by Short Story Day Africa. He won the 2015 Peer Gynt Literary Award in Malawi for his children’s book Akuzike and the Gods (2017). Some of his poems are anthologised in Wreaths for a Wayfarer (2020). His work can be read online on African Writer, Brittle Paper, Storymoja, The Kalahari Review, and Agbowo magazines. He edits for and Twitter handle: @Wesleymax89


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