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 out the way, you certainly will hear it.
When the soughing of the trees mingles with the chilling, inglorious din set up by the mutts and mongrels of the entire district, you too, may murmur with delicious little shivers and even great big, exaggerated shudders that Spooky is on the prowl. You may think that you, too, have a story to tell… or one to make up.
“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…for the body she diligently seeks is no more.
It’s 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’d done.
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 did 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 Mother’s 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 tried 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 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, a-a-u-w, 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 kind Afrikaner family wash briefly over her. The pay was good and they helped her with their children’s cast-offs and left-over food each day. She shook her head vigorously and chased away the memories. Life was good now. Her children saw to her material comforts and the pension she received was alright.
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.
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, seriously 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 blood-stained hands.
These are some of the contributions the speculators put on the table at Mother’s Meetings. Between stories and mugs of sweet tea and chunks of home made 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.
It is a dark, rainy night. The lone figure, closely resembling a column of smoke or a wispy cloud sits on a mound on the grass verge at the side of the N1. The only light comes intermittently from passing vehicles. Hunched over, chin firmly set on clasped hands, she sits up to attention when the huffing and chuffing of the bus reaches her as it climbs the hill opposite ‘Emma’s Trees’. She flows to her feet… smoke driven by a light breeze. She shakes her cobwebby head, disappointed. She loves this spot opposite ‘Emma’s Trees’ because she feels strangely at ease here. It’s the place where she should complete her assignment and avenge not only herself of what a man did to her, but another she’d heard of way back when. Everyone knew the story. She did not examine her logic. What had to be done must be done.
Not the one.
Dejected, she gracefully makes her way back to her seat on the ant heap. Staring sightlessly into the distance, she remains perfectly still until she hears the sound of a bus again. Excitedly she jumps up.
Is this it?
0ver the past three months or so, four buses have had accidents at this exact spot. There have been fatalities, serious injuries, and the lucky ones with light bruises. Among them, those with just a bit of shock yet much to relate and expand given an audience. The stories gained with each telling. Those with no Spooky story began to feel deprived. They listened avidly and repeated the story wherever they went. Spooky stories spread like wildfire. It was not unusual to be told that so-and-so’s cousin told so-and-so that her cousin’s best friend fore-e-ver-r-r was in the bus! She was returning to East London from Pietermaritzburg.
Strangely selective, the wraithlike figure chooses only the luxury Transco coach that travels from Johannesburg to East London. If it’s another, she returns to her seat. Looking the picture of misery, she waits and waits…and when the bus is the right one, she becomes animated. Arms lifted, she seems to flow into the road.
The figure of a white, ghostlike wraith of a girl is caught in the headlights, much to the consternation of the driver. Like a ballerina in a lithesome upward jump, one arm along her hip, the other pointed upward, at a graceful angle, she dances her dance of death. The shocked driver makes a desperate attempt to avoid colliding with the figure, to his and his passengers’ detriment.
Her chosen rendezvous is a vast rural residential stretch—an interesting patchwork of hedges and houses, kraals and trees, spanning the road for quite a distance on either side. Undulating terrain ascends sharply to the left, and to the right it descends gradually until it levels out for as far as the eye can see. The glistening N1 hugs the sharp curves and stretches between. On bright, clear moonlit nights there is neither sight nor sound of Spooky. It is said that she chooses those nights to patrol elsewhere.
‘Emma’s Trees’, the grove not too far across the road from her, is a sinister looking patch in the dark but a rendezvous for lovers when the moon rides high overhead. The place was named after a girl who had been taken there on a moonlit night by an admirer whose intentions proved to be far from upright. She fought, bit and scratched and managed to hold onto her virtue. Shamed-faced he took her back home, left her at her gate with a rude word for her ears only. She disgraced him by broadcasting why he sported scratches and bad bruises on his face and hands. The name ‘Emma’s Trees’ stuck. Spooky had taken on her cause as well.
One second the road is clear of humanity and the next… there she is!
The driver sharply applies brakes, loses control and the bus ends up at an angle in the very watery ditch on the side of the road.
The pitiful screaming and moaning carries on the howling wind.
“Hai-eee-bo! Not again!”
And the people with their madly excited dogs hurry from their homes huddled in blankets and plastic bags, raincoats and umbrellas. Some are eager to help, some to loot. Some have come simply to stand and stare. They blink owlishly in the driving rain. The flashing lights from passing traffic that has slowed to a crawl intermittently lights up the bizarre scene.
The smell of diesel hastens the proceedings. Old men and women, dazed and distressed youngsters crying pitifully for their parents, babies…all are dragged out quite unceremoniously by the diligent helpers. Thankfully the angle of the fallen bus allows for crouched passage in and out the narrow doorway. There is cursing and swearing because the looters get in the way and will not be told what to do! There is gentle but firm encouragement for the terror-struck. There is a scrambling and a shouting from those still lying on top of others in uncomfortable-looking positions attained only by acrobats or by accident.
Finally chaotic confusion slows to a miraculous halt. Everyone is helped out and the injured are set aside to be taken to the hospital when the ambulance arrives. Even the rain has co-operated and stopped.
The dazed driver is seated on the bank, his head in his hands, recounting his experience to an elder from the community across the way seated alongside him. This is the fifth sighting in less than four months, and always at this spot, he is informed.
The driver has a story to tell as well. Transco is aware of this seeming conflict with a spirit being. What, they wanted to know but had no chance of knowing, did this girl have against the company. They are warned to be on guard before they leave the station. Marty, a well-respected driver, was killed when it happened to him. They gleaned that this girl appeared only on rainy nights. When the bus left Johannesburg there was no knowing what the weather would be like when they reached Transkei—East Cape. The weather reports were not always reliable. The driver, Moses Allen, told the elder that he was so sure he was prepared for anything. When it began to rain when he reached Tsolo, he hoped it would be clear further along. However, when it was still pouring in Mthatha, he braced himself. He was on the alert, his whole body tense as steel. His eyes were all over the road. “When we passed Shell garage, I knew I was headed for the spot! My breathing became difficult; my heart beat like a Zionist’s drum.” The old man laughed.
“I’m a Zionist,” he said, “I know what you mean.”
“Well,” continued Moses, “all for nothing. Nothing prepared me for the unexpected and sudden appearance of a cloud-shaped girl.” The crowd gathered around them was listening avidly and responding but to each other. Periodically a wordy commentator was shut up: “We are listening! Shoesh!” “Haibo!” “Yo-o-o!” “Aau!” peppered the air as the driver spoke and a translator softly helped those who’d gathered around him. The crowd has thinned for the looters have disappeared.
Of one thing Moses is sure: it was a girl! Spooky was a girl and—just like that—she’s in the middle of the road. Before his mind can register what he is seeing, he acts to avoid hitting the thing in front of him. He swerves sharply, fights with the steering wheel to keep the bus straight on the road, applies brakes…and loses control. BAAH!
His body language has the crowd captivated. They unconsciously imitate him, accompanied by relevant expressions as they see fit. The driver’s body language is a great guide for the translator who is not having an easy time of it.
He drives right through her—just like that! He ends in the ditch with his huge load. He is dazed and in shock! His passengers! Finally he comes to his senses and looks around him. Pandemonium inside, no one in the road before him! No body to collect…nothing! It’s the strangest thing and many passengers swear they’ve seen her. They all describe the same ghostly figure. This time, the elder tells him, it is not so bad; there are no deaths. Injuries galore, but no dead bodies.
Suddenly the piercing sound of sirens splits the night. The ambulance and the police! People return to their homes, chattering about the happenings of the night.
“Well, we’ll meet again here on the next rainy night,” one old crone announces.
“This is bad,” announces another. “We need to get a witch doctor out here to take away that demon from the road.”
“No! What witch doctor?” shouts another, affronted. “We need Holy Water. A priest must come here and…”
“Nonsense! What priest? What do they know about spooks and things like that? We need…GHOSTBUSTERS!” This youngster laughs out loud and runs ahead before someone slaps him upside the head.
His younger brother, left behind, has some explaining to do.
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Natisha Parsons was born in Umtata (now Mthatha) former Transkei. She is a retired teacher and loves to write. She presently lives on the KZN South Coast, in Ramsgate, South Africa.