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Maintenance

Professor Lock-up straightens behind his security screens as I push my detergent cart into the lobby. The drop in temperature shocks me. The lobby is like a refrigerator.

 

‘Good evening.’ Professor Lock-up inclines his head. ‘How is The Great Dr Clean-up today?’

 

‘I am well, thank you.’

 

We ask after each other’s wives and children and, throughout the exchange, his gaze roams beyond me and down over his screens.

 

‘God is good,’ I say. ‘Regrettably, I must hurry tonight.’

 

I cannot waste another minute here with him; I am no longer looking for a security man’s stories, ordinary tales such as:

 

Professor Li has flown home already. The heat was too much for him. His ankles swelled red and he shuffled about his lab in ordinary slippers. The next week, he did not sign in at all. His replacement will come on Tuesday.

 

or:

 

You have probably heard, but Dr Huang is flying his parents out for this ‘New Year’ celebration they do. Imagine.

 

‘We will talk soon.’ I fish my pass from my bag. ‘Another time.’

 

Professor Lock-up squints at his screens. His screens are divided into grids that show every empty corridor and laboratory in the Loop’s vast campus. He straightens, looks back to the glass doors and rubs his thick neck.

 

‘I don’t know if you have – ’

 

‘Oh, I have heard.’

 

Truly, the thrill of Professor Lock-up’s ability to translate the scientists’ abrupt language has faded; more so now that I am learning to understand it for myself. To hear one of their stories is to hear them all.

 

I no longer collect tales of decorated professors, of technicians and student researchers returning to Beijing.

 

I have wrung the last juice from rumours of small families and thin wives who wait indoors, afraid of how the sun might greet their skin.

 

These stories are everywhere. My children – even little Kofi, whose mouth is always open, who clings to his sisters’ legs to stand – are no longer satisfied by them. My little ones have realised the scientists are, under their differences, like us. No children want to hear tales about people like their parents.

 

‘I will clean Conference Suite Three tonight.’ I touch my card to the reader and the glass doors part.

 

‘We will talk soon.’

 

These days I seek bolder tales, of elephant ears grown on goats’ backs, bearded giants hatched from gargantuan eggs, women with three pairs of eyes.

 

My audience grows in numbers and shrewdness each time I return; every morning the crowds that spill from my veranda are replenished with more young companions caught up in my children’s games, or drawn to our home by the scent of Ohima’s groundnut soup. Their eyes shine when I tell of the military trucks that rolled up from Tamale by night, and of the soldiers who escorted a herd of five-legged creatures, scaly beasts from a far off planet, in through the Loop’s glass doors by moonlight.

 

I tell them this why the Loop was built here, of all places, in chalky heat where sensible villagers have long ago left, where husks of houses and wells crumble to orange dust.

 

My children want news of the boys who offer their tongues to taste potions and powders, those who come by bus, missing limbs, slow to speak, men with infants’ minds who limp up the road, who loan their limbs to be joined to metal claws, or to be studded with computers small as cashews.

 

They want to hear about the woman who sits in a room of mirrors, worrying her foamy hair, and muttering nonsense words all day. It is a spell, I tell them, and she tries again and again to make it work. She traded all she had for this spell, but it does not work at the Loop.

 

Cleaning Conference Hall Three will take half my shift. It is the second largest room on the campus.  Well, there is a space in the basement where biological waste is stored, a chamber of discarded organic matter. Thankfully, I have no business visiting that space; it is a hall dedicated to all that is unclean, and the only maintenance such a space requires is the regular and systematic removal of waste.  That chamber deep below may well be larger than any other space in here.

 

From outside, the Loop is a perfect ring of a building rising from flat sand-scoured plains against a skyline of pylons and a life-support web of cables. The Loop appears gently curved, but inside it is many square segments joined like links in a thick gold watch. There was a time when this story alone, of the Loop’s many rooms and labs, the truth of what it was within, captivated my children.

 

‘Tell us again,’ they’d say. ‘Papa, tell us about the moving stairs. Tell us about the glass floor.’

 

I told them with my hands: the escalator, the viewing tower where you can step out on glass sheets and see black tarmac glisten below, see how far its ingenious construction has raised you over true ground. There was a time when such stories satisfied.

 

I park my cart against the wall and start the disinfectant mixer. Fumes sting my throat as foam brews. I rest my foot on the shivering mixer and look up to the lights: six bowls of blue-white brilliance.

 

The stories I seek – composed from possibilities men like Professor Lock-up could never fathom – are clearest when electricity cuts out. I wait until lights flicker. The disinfectant mixer sputters under my sandal. I have discovered that if I start the vacuum machine while the detergent mixer runs, all the lights cut out. Sometimes, lights cut out for no reason.

 

Illumination blinks and dims. The mixer stills. Darkness closes around me.

 

I love these failures. At home we call them ‘light-offs’, but the scientists call them ‘power shorts’ or ‘cuts’. In these interruptions of darkness I become, again, a man robed in white, with breath gathering hot in my mask, almost alone in Ghana’s largest international biotechnology research campus. I am the one who clears crumbs of strange foods, spillages and stains, broken glass, grime from their boots and footwear, sand carried by wind or steps or smuggled in the folds of their clothes.

 

Tonight’s light-off drags; generators are slow to respond. I reach under my shirt and pat for my beads. I wear them as a compromise for Ohima, since I insist on working ungodly hours in a place where so many sick and deformed people stay. The way she loves beads. She says before Obroni brought the Bible to our land, our ancestors ran between every force of nature with unilateral sacrifices and offerings: to wind, to sky, to fathers of fathers. Only Jesus’s death made it simple.

 

I hold the beads and wait for tales to come.

 

*

Every morning, I return and find Settlement emptier. It was never a true village – it sprouted fifteen years ago around the bus station built to connect the Loop with routes south. I hear if you stay on the bus you can go all the way to Accra. The road reaches someway north too; families arrived from Bolgatanga and surrounding places I had never heard of, places that do not appear even when I look closely at my tablet computer’s map. The map shows this place as a series of grey scabs behind the word ‘Settlement’. The story behind this name is simple: when the Chinese realised workers had taken to sleeping in tents near the bus stop up to a mile along the road, they acknowledged the camp with a big sign that read Settlement. With that sign came electricians and carpenters, and plumbers who fitted flushing toilets and covered the gutters men had etched. Many of those plumbers found wives in Settlement, and remain to this day.

 

As the Loop grew, waves of young men came seeking work, found wives in Settlement and stayed. The Loop no longer needs bricklayers and labourers. It needs only light maintenance.

 

Now Settlement’s strong men hover, with no business to anchor them. Men tall and healthy loiter at the bus stop in groups, in jeans and dust-bronzed vests. Chiseled unsmiling faces watch me, and fellow night-workers climb down from the bus.

 

Our house is visible from the roadside; it is the one that over-spills. Ohima’s yellow tarp stretches back from the kitchen, and the corrugated sheets I gathered for extensions reflect the sun in white strips. Beneath the tarp wait eviscerated refrigerators, gas cookers, deconstructed motorcycles I agreed to fix.

 

Children rush from our veranda and their voices compete for stories, for biscuits and toffees. Older children slouch in the cool indoors, tired from sweeping the courtyard, carrying water, washing clothes, chasing chickens to flight. Little Kofi is snoring, curled with two sisters on the mat.

 

‘Welcome, Papa.’ My eldest meets me in the courtyard. He stands like Ohima: ready and eager, with curious worry in his smile. ‘Please. Shall I charge your tablet?’

 

Ohima leans out behind him.

 

‘Very good.’ I get the tablet out and place it in his hands. Away he goes to the socket in our bedroom. The house dims as the tablet drinks power.

 

‘You should let him use it,’ Ohima says.

 

‘Woman.’

 

‘He could read a course. He could study.’

 

I explain again, my tablet computer is for work. The Loop distributed tablet computers only amongst employees.

 

‘Learn,’ they told us. ‘Access our resources; try any course that interests you.’

 

That is how I started learning Mandarin. I listen to lessons on the bus home and on weekends, while I mend under the tarp. In addition to this, using the tablet I have mapped our route south and learned the proper process for securing visas and booking flights. In fact, I need only contact Awurama, my cousin in Kumasi, and advise her to expect us. By God’s grace, after two more months at the Loop I will have saved enough to move.

 

First, we will move south, so the children can attend school while our visa applications progress. Later, God-willing, we shall travel abroad.

 

‘Papa,’ daughter number three tugs my trousers. Her eyes are too great for her face, big black stones. ‘Will you tell us a story?’

 

*

 

On rare days when there have been no conferences or exhibitions at the Loop, I start cleaning anywhere I please. I usually begin on the ground floor in the first lab by the stairwell, and work up in a spiral until I reach the sixth floor’s heights. There, I watch the sun rise over the plain, all of it blazing gold.

 

Early workers trickle in as I descend, as I check floors have dried without smears and ensure I have left no footprints. The early morning scientists are crowned with white hair. They are building big homes – in fact, whole towns – in Cape Coast, and often exchange ideas for furnishings and designs.

 

‘It’s beautiful. It is like a completely different country.’

 

‘It was a slave port.’

 

‘Yes. Have you visited the castle? You must.’

 

‘Imagine how many Africans left the continent there.’

 

Conversation is easiest to follow when it is halting like this – when it is filled with gaps. I clear my throat, prepare to test a greeting on them.

 

The pause deepens so I hear gadgets ticking, feel all the Loop’s strange tools pulsing, walls coursing with electricity, water gurgling through pipes and pumps, vents gasping.

 

I peer around the wall’s curve. The scientists have hesitated, leaning close over a glistening pink ball. Whole, sitting on a tray on the white counter. A mind: like a mass of dead pink maggots. Their gloved hands touch it gently, prod it, point, as they gesture and their conversation resumes, speeds beyond comprehension.

 

*

 

Today, Ohima’s mood meets me at the bus stop. Her anger has soured the road. I hear her chastisements as I approach the house.

 

‘If you don’t stop that nonsense,’ she says, ‘I will send you and this big head of yours to church.’

 

The children are kneeling before her on the veranda. They glance my way and bow their heads.

 

‘Can you buy even one chicken? Do you know how to kill and prepare one?’

 

‘No, Mama,’ they chorus.

 

‘Haven’t I told you to stop worrying them? If you want to chase something, chase your own shadows.’

 

I sit on the step and set my bag down. Ohima sucks her teeth, stands and goes her way. Her slippers slap dust clouds.

 

‘Papa, welcome.’ My eldest rises. He wipes his palms in his shorts. ‘Shall I charge the tablet?’

 

I pull my handkerchief out and dab my brow. ‘Do you know something?’

 

‘No, Papa.’

 

‘The scientists at the Loop fear no gods.’

 

They glance up at me, all of them.

 

‘Have you seen any of the researchers enter a church?’

 

‘No, Papa.’

 

‘In China, they fear no gods.’

 

‘Why?’

 

I chuckle.

 

Their faces are wide open. Every answer waits in their eyes.

 

*

 

Whenever I reach the top floor before dawn, I open the cupboards where devices and gadgets are kept. The cupboards respond to command words, and opening them is a way to test my pronunciation. Scientists set odd commands for their cupboards, ‘Blue socks’, and ‘Feed my eyes’, and ‘More space, please’. Tonight, I am in the prosthetics lab and the sky outside is yet to be cut by daylight. The command here is simple.

 

I look back. The corridor is dark, with no sign of early risers. I clear my throat.

 

‘Dǎ kāi.’ The voice sounds like it belongs to someone else. ‘Dǎ kāi,’ I say, higher this time.

 

*

 

Ohima tells me not to use my tablet outside the house, but where else will I use it? At work I must work. At home the children won’t leave me in peace.

 

I keep it in my bag as I ride the bus, only my headphones show.

 

Years ago every house in Settlement was fitted with a desktop computer. The Chinese brought a very fast Internet connection here and installed one bulky computer in every home. After just four weeks, road boys arrived in vans coloured like old teeth. Waving cutlasses, they collected every computer, loaded their vans and left.

 

Today, the sun has risen by the time I reach home and women are washing clothes in the square. My children are still sleeping. I enter their room and watch their heaving chests.

 

The cost of maintaining their bodies, their little room, our sprawling home is outstanding; every month it surprises me, and compels me to work and save a little longer.

 

My children disturb each other from sleep and, one by one, fall into wakefulness. They rise and run and wash under the tarp at the back.

 

Ohima has breakfast ready when they return, and I announce they are invited.

 

While they munch bread I stir my tea. My reflection shimmers, brighter at home than when I see it at the Loop. I am luminous here. Ohima looks up at me. Her smile says she sees it too.

 

I look around and the children’s gazes rest on me. ‘I suppose you know,’ I stir my tea, ‘about the insects.’

 

‘No, Papa.’

 

‘You haven’t heard?’

 

They shake their heads.

 

I set my mug down. I need both hands to tell this one. ‘Whole rooms are filled with bugs in the Loop. The scientists have created mosquitos they control, with tiny cameras for eyes and speakers that cry reeeeeeeeeee. That is how they live in their land. Their politicians are always watching them.’

 

‘Better than our own politicians,’ Ohima says, and puts a plate of fried plantains before me, ‘who need to be watched themselves.’

 

*

 

Every tool in the Loop is heavy with stories waiting to be made.

 

Given enough time, every story matures into truth. The truest story is of theft and decay; of returning all to dust. At the start, there was only dust. From the dust came gold, bauxite, sugar, cocoa and more. From dust came men and women with strong limbs eager to work, and work took them across oceans, to any land that would have them. Now those places fill and work grows scarce everywhere, men and women return to this dust.

 

But that is not for me to worry about.

 

Fifty thousand cedis is ten thousand euros is fifteen thousand dollars.

 

That is the value of a year spent worrying over the cleanliness of the Loop’s floors.

 

*

 

‘So you people don’t know about the enchanted hairnets?’

 

‘No, Papa.’

 

‘Well. The scientists made a pair of hairnets that, when worn, bind two ordinary strangers. Any idea one has, the other person will also have. What one imagines the other person also sees.’

 

Silence follows.

 

‘Will you bring one, Papa?’

 

‘Bring one what?’

 

She covers her face.

 

‘Go on. What is it?’

 

She peeps out at me. ‘One hairnet, Papa. No, two. Two. Will you bring two so we can hear each other’s thoughts?’

 

‘Do I not bring enough?’ I tickle her tummy. ‘Is that not enough? Are you still hungry? Small girl like you?’

 

Squealing, she curls away.

 

*

 

Professor Lock Up says his wife is pregnant again, with twins.

 

‘We thank God,’ he says. His smile does not light his eyes.

 

*

 

‘One sweltering  day at the Loop, as scientists were going home after a hard day’s work, one man – Professor Lu Chan – stayed behind. He had a secret  project. He worked with animals.’

 

‘Which animals, Papa?’

 

‘Oh. Lizards, chickens, goats, butterflies and talking birds. Sometimes bulls and monkeys too. It is true. He was determined to restore beasts that had died and, that night, Lu Chan prepared to test his formula. What a formula. Do you know how he began mixing it?’

 

‘No, Papa.’

 

‘He created that formula to turn sand to forest. Yes. The scientists wanted to bring back the thick bush that once covered this land. This particular formula was too strong to use on dust, and Lu Chan was ordered to destroy it. Instead, when all had left, Lu Chan sprayed a little of the mixture onto his bald head.

 

‘Wow, come and see. In a matter of minutes, his hair sprouted thicker than your mama’s.’

 

‘You.’ Ohima, who leans in the doorway, shakes her head.

 

‘So, that day, Lu Chan stayed late and sprayed his concoction over the still bodies of birds, goats and butterflies. He waited and watched. He waited all night. He gathered the dead animals and he tore his hair out in grief. He was so angry, he tore the animals too, tore dead birds’ wings away and threw their parts in the waste chute, the chute that carries all waste to the space deep below the Loop.

 

‘Days later, waste collectors came to empty the rubbish from that space and take it away to burn. But when the first worker entered that space, a butterfly flew out over his shoulder. He hesitated. From the basement’s depths, rumbles and growls came.’ I press my lips together.

 

‘What was there, Papa?’

 

I lean close. ‘The animal parts were returning to life, and they had become a beast of many parts. They formed a giant, made from many eyes and slices of minds and strong shoulders and claws.

 

Their silence is sweet.

 

‘And that is why only masked waste collectors in special suits enter the basement to collect waste. And you. If you don’t clean your waste away, monsters may grow and stay hidden in your mess.’

 

*

 

Professor Lock-up says. ‘Nǐ hǎo ma?’

 

‘Wo hen hao,’ I say.  After that we stare at each other.

 

‘Well said.’ His posture says he has a huge story and his body is tense to deliver it.

 

I rummage for my pass.

 

‘You know, we in security can see everything that is searched and read on staff tablets.’

 

‘Yes?’

 

His grin is fantastic. ‘My role is not just to mind security for the building; it is to make sure all our staff are safe and well.’

 

‘Oh?’

 

‘Well, don’t I always take time to ask after your health and family business?’

 

‘That is true. All this time I thought you were really interested in my wellbeing.’

 

He laughs. ‘I am thoroughly interested, Dr Clean-up. That is why I love my work. We must look out for each other, you know.’

 

I tell him yes, I know.

 

‘From now, let us talk in Mandarin. That way we will both improve.’

 

‘I look forward to it.’

 

‘We will talk soon.’

 

Halfway through my shift, I forget to unplug the detergent mixer before I start the vacuum. The lights beat like God himself is blinking. Darkness triumphs.

 

I like this darkness because when I close my eyes, nothing changes. I imagine Professor Lock-up sitting in the luminous black of his dead screens, no bigger than the body his mama birthed him with.

 

*

 

This morning I have an idea for a big story, a tale of computers smart enough to research without scientists. It will be a story about computers conspiring to lock patients in their rooms, and give scientists specific instructions for how every subject should be improved based on what computers deem best for them.

 

The bus reaches Settlement before I have thought through the ending. I take my headphones out.

 

Men mill around the bus stop.

 

‘Good morning,’ I say.

 

‘Good morning,’ they chorus.

 

We walk together.

 

More strangers wait on my veranda. Their eyes avoid mine.

 

Ohima is among them and stands as I approach.

 

‘Why don’t you explain?’ she says. ‘Explain exactly what you saw.’

 

One of the newcomers points at me. ‘These doctors you work for. Are they really using technology to possess people?’

 

‘Is it true they fear no god?’ another asks.

 

I set my bag down by the step.

 

‘We hear you have been given laptops.’

 

‘Who said such a thing?’ I say. Beyond, more crowds approach. ‘Do you see any laptop here?’

 

A murmur of annoyance spreads.

 

‘Don’t you people have somewhere to be; is this how you mean to start your day?’

 

‘So there is no laptop?’ A youth’s bare foot nudges my bag. ‘Nothing is inside here?’

 

‘Kwesi,’ Ohima says. Her burning eyes say more.

 

I look around. I cannot guess where these men hail from. I bend and draw the tablet from my bag. They pass it around. They tap the screen, turn it over. It looks smaller in their hands.

 

‘Anyone who works at the Loop gets one.’ I clear my throat. ‘You know, they are seeking more workers.’

 

‘Work?’

 

‘Maintaining the premises.’

 

‘Sweeping floors?’

 

‘The work varies.’

 

The man holding my tablet lifts his chin. ‘Is that not your role? To clean their toilets?’

 

‘It may well be. But that,’ I gesture for my tablet. ‘Is also my computer.’

 

Laughter is immediate, rumbling and squawking. Under the noise, my tablet is returned to Ohima, who passes it back to my eldest, who retreats into the house.

 

‘You work there every night?’ one boy asks.

 

‘I do.’

 

‘Is it true they are creating gadgets that will let them enter each other’s heads?’

 

*

 

Dialogue is the zest of a story. Regrettably, none of the Loop’s patients talk to me.

 

*

 

‘Did I mention the room of skies?’

 

They shake their heads.

 

‘The room is three floors high, with a ceiling of thick stone. Inside, scientists cook thick clouds and stir hurricanes. They press rain and snow from that room. They will do it here soon, you will see. They will send clouds over the dust, and raise a forest in the time a pot takes to boil.’

 

*

 

I am counting the money I have saved when pounding shakes the walls.

 

A crowd waits on my veranda, thick with road youths and lanky men in dusty t-shirts. One man removes a long knife from his pack.

 

‘Son,’ I call to my eldest. ‘Bring the tablet.’

 

He brings it and presents it to them. It vanishes into their company.

 

‘A simple computer,’ I say. ‘You can only use it for very basic things. If you want a full computer, you must be more than a simple maintenance man. They have plenty of serious computers, big tablets as well, smart phones in that place. In fact, they are still hiring.’

 

The tablet is returned to me.

 

‘It is an interesting place to work. The things I have seen there.’

 

The quiet plunges and pulls words from me. Stories flow half-formed.

 

When I run out of words, they study the mat with stony eyes. They are older, it seems, than I had assumed. Bald patches spread atop their heads.

 

‘We thought,’ one says, ‘they were going to open a hospital.’

 

‘We thought they were finding ways to grow new foods.’

 

I shake my head.

 

Their eyes wait.

 

‘Biotechnologists are not ordinary farmers, neither are they medical doctors.’

 

I lean closer. ‘I have seen a human brain, on a table, still thinking even without a body.’

 

They recoil.

 

‘A whole naked brain, pink, big like this.’ I outline its shape with my hands.

 

‘We heard they have ways to see through each other’s eyes, and hear each other’s thoughts.’

 

‘Well. I saw three young women, who came from Tamale to make a little money to take them to Accra. They spoke to me, very polite young women. Well, they took part in trials and treatments.  In fact, next time I saw them, they seemed different.’

 

It is important to take one’s time with a story. To let ideas marinade and stew with silence. This is not easy; it is well known that a good story presses to be told.

 

‘And when we spoke, I understood. Their spirits were still connected. And they said, please don’t tell anyone. They wished to stay that way.’ I lift my shoulders.

 

A youth points his knife my way and panic flares in my chest.

 

‘The full computers,’ he says.

 

‘Yes?’

 

‘How many do they have?’

 

‘Plenty. I saw rooms filled with them. Of course, they are locked away. I glimpsed them on the security man’s screen. If I had not – ’

 

‘Who is this security man?’

 

‘Where does he live?’

 

*

 

Ohima says we must leave.

 

‘I told you to drink with the men, stay with them. But you only talk to tell them what happens in the Loop.’ Her eyes flash. ‘They say you have even learned the Chinese language. Imagine. But when I say you should learn Dagbani so that you can speak with the people here you say no.’

 

‘Woman.’

 

‘Am I lying, Kwesi? Have I lied to you?’

 

‘You like to talk.’

 

‘Oh?  Okay. So I like to talk. As much as you like to listen for all these stories with your big ears.’

 

*

 

Professor Lock-up wears a smirk tonight.

 

‘Good evening,’ I say.

 

‘Nǐ hǎo ma?’

 

‘Busy tonight. I have to clean Conference Room Three.’

 

He stands, a slow unfolding that gives me time to adjust to the shock of his grotesque height. How tapered and firm he seems. ‘I expect you have heard about the One-shine machine.’

 

‘I have not heard of such a thing.’

 

He dips his head. ‘It is a very advanced cleaning system. It combines vacuums, mops and sprays together in one machine. The machine is intelligent; it can steer around corridors and rooms. Every floor it passes over is left spotless. In fact, floors are left so spotless you can conduct a medical experiment there on the floor and the patient will not fall ill.’

 

‘Is that so?’

 

‘Yes. You know, we are lucky to work here.’

 

‘Well.’

 

‘Do you speak Ewe?’

 

His Ewe is clumsier than mine, sounds fit sloppily in the shapes his words form. The meaning they carry bears the weight of fresh knowledge, though it is old news.

 

‘When you connect too many plugs at once I can’t see anything at all here. All my screens turn black.’ He gestures over their displays. ‘The whole building is blind and its doors will open with the meekest breeze.’

 

‘Is that so.’

 

‘Yes. In those moments when the power is cut, any fool can enter this place.’

 

*

 

A good story is one whose ending brings surprise. This ending that approaches will surprise only me, but since I am not easily surprised, it shall suffice.

 

Two hours into my shift, I start my detergent mixer while the vacuum is running and the resulting light-off silences both devices. Silence gives way to shouts. Thugs burst through every entrance.

 

As instructed, I drop my pass and run. I am just a man robed in white and I have plenty-plenty children and a wife. Returning alive to them are this character’s priorities. He might be so shaken that by this incident that, upon reaching home, he will pack his family and all they own onto a bus, and head south to start again somewhere safe.

 

This is how the story ends: every door I push opens. I push and push into darkness and darkness turns full circle and light finds me.

 

Rooms without windows, deep in the bowels of the earth, are aglow. It is as though light will reclaim the Loop starting from the bottom and bleeding up. Sunrise today is indoors. A stench meets me. I know what it is, know the parts waiting to be collected. Body parts, waste and remains of beasts. The glow tugs. I fall into brilliance.

 

Yellow coils and tendrils tickle the shadows.  Orbs of light rise in gasps.

 

A gaunt woman coalesces from dazzling lime, while another is birthed from clots of violet and immediately hunches and tears her foamy hair.

 

‘So,’ a voice calls. ‘You were ready to leave without greeting us?’

 

I back away. A spiral of cold yellow tickles my cheek.

 

‘Take us with you,’ they say.

 

I back up until the wall slams my back.

 

‘We won’t take up space.’

 

‘Take us.’

 

‘We will travel inside you.’

 

‘We won’t take up space.’

 

I grope along the wall. When I look away, I see searing impressions where their silhouettes were.

 

Something soft presses my shoulder. ‘Pride.  Take me. I will raise you.’

 

‘I am hope. I will keep you.’

 

I bump against a slim woman whose eyes are burning coals. ‘You would be a fool to leave without me. I am Wisdom.’

 

Wisps of steam and light reach up. The room wavers with it, with them.

 

‘I am Guilt.’

 

‘I don’t want you. Please.’

 

‘Don’t look sad. You are not the first to see us.’

 

‘You will not be the last.’

 

I push out of the room. Run.

 

*

 

Settlement is silent. Our house is no longer visible from the roadside. The tarp is gone from the skyline and no evidence remains of the rusting appliances and motors that sheltered there. Every house looks the same: orange walls and dull, crinkled roofs.

 

No children tumble out to meet me. I stop, aching, and rest my foot on the veranda step.

 

Ohima. She stands surrounded by packed bags, our things folded in tarp.

 

My eldest steps out beside her. He is carrying Kofi, whose mouth is wide open. One by one, the children emerge. Each hugs a bundle of tarp.

 

‘Listen. I saw…’ I look back. At some point the sun rose. The sky is ripe and beckoning.

 

‘Papa.’ My eldest touches my shoulder. A tarp package is strapped under his shirt; it has made him bulky where he is not. ‘They have paid us. For your work.’

 

‘I saw…’

 

‘Papa, let us go,’ my eldest says. ‘There will be time for stories later.’


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a British-Ghanaian writer. She writes about ideas of home in the transient and unsettled, and how technology reveals - and distorts - the human condition. She lives and works in London.

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Interview with Rodrigo Hasbún

Enea Zaramella

Rodrigo Hasbún

TR. Sophie Hughes

Interview

March 2017

Rodrigo Hasbún (born Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1981) has published two novels and a collection of short stories; he was selected...

fiction

September 2013

Seiobo There Below

László Krasznahorkai

TR. Ottilie Mulzet

fiction

September 2013

1 KAMO-HUNTER Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the...

 

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