Bindura sucks! The whole town's essentially one main road, a few side streets and not a whole lot else. I spend half my pocket money jamming Space Invaders on the retro at the Total Service Station. I probably get high off the petrol fumes as I whoop every boy's ass on the game and so they let me jam with no wahala. Well, there used to be hustle, until someone tried to touch up my tits.
They found his balls dangling from a msasa tree half a mile away. Let's just say, the boys keep a respectful distance now.
I'm not really supposed to use my powers for my own benefit. To be fair, most of the time I'm more Peter Parker than Tony Stark, still, I Bruce Banner out sometimes. My dad went all Sauron and left us, so I live with my mum and little sis in Chiwaridzo Township.
Sis and I go to work every day, Sunday to Sunday. All mum does is veg out on the couch and watch Mexican Soaps and Nollywood dramas. No wonder dad left. I don't care anyway. Not really, I've got too much stuff to do. Knapf! I'm dead. I have to stop thinking about all this kak in the middle of the game.
I buy a freezit and am walking away from the petrol station when my first client of the day flashes in the corner of my eye. It's 2pm, the sun's blazing and this ghost is out in the shade of the acacia outside Spar. Must be really desperate. Deados avoid coming out in the day if they can help it. They're all white and stuff, so I reckon they don't have sunscreen in the great beyond. My client beckons with her pale hand. People walk past her without seeing anything.
"Alright, alright, I'm coming already!" I shout out, waiting for a car to pass before I cross the road. She looks impatient, but I'm not getting run over just to join her sorry ass.
She's naked, of course. Ghosts are like the ultimate naturalists. Used to freak me out when I was younger, but you get used to it. I hop onto the pavement and say hello.
She replies with something like, "Booga-wooga-wooga," or some such jazz. It's all right, they get a bit looney in the afterlife - the ones that get left behind, that is. You would, too, if you had to wander about the earth butt naked like that.
I say, "Is there anything I can help you with?"
Lord, give me strength. I inhale, hold my breath for a few seconds and blow on her face. She goes fuzzy for a bit, then comes back in focus.
"Okay, I can deliver a message from you to anyone you want within the town limits," I say. Rules and regulations. "There is a three tier charge for this service banded in a low flat fee, a middle flat fee, and a high flat fee plus twenty percent VAT. The band you fall into depends on the length, complexity and content of the message. If you cannot pay the bill, the fee will be reverse-charged to the recipient with a ten dollar surplus. Please note: this service does not allow vulgar, obscene, criminal or otherwise objectionable messages, but a fee may still be incurred if we decide to pass on a redacted version of the message. Do you understand?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
Okay, now the kauderwelsch's out of the way, I can go about helping this goon. I fish out my 22 key mini-mbira from my handbag. My sekuru made it; that was his thing, making instruments, right up until he died. That's what my dad does too, the douchebag. My mbira's small, but the mubvamaropa wood used to make the soundboard is pretty heavy and then you add on the metal keys and you have quite a bit of heft. I try to stand out of the stream of people walking past before I jam. I'm hoping this doesn't take too long, because I hate crowds gathering around when I'm in the middle of working. It's so knapf. Like, you think I'm a fucking street musician? Get a radio.
I pull a riff from Chiwoniso's melody Mai. She's, without a doubt, my favourite mbira player ever. I play it soft, soothing like the leaves swaying in the tree above us. I can feel Chiwoniso in my thumbs as they dance from key to key, callus striking the hard iron underneath. Ka-ra-ka-kata, ka-ra-ka-kata, ka-ra-ka-kata. And I sing:
Zviri mumoyo menyu,
Taurirai mwana wenyu,
Over and over, until at last her face lights up and she understands my voice. Tell me your name. Tell me his name. Your will. The deepest part of your heart. I am your child.
And she tells me she is Cecilia Mukanya. She died six months ago. I have to be very careful and ask her today's date. That's because ghosts travel through time as well, so sometimes you get future ghosts coming back all confused and the stuff they tell you doesn't make any sense because it hasn't happened yet or the people concerned haven't been born yet. Worst blunder I ever made was telling a guy a message from his future ghost, like, I told him how and when he was going to die, stuff like that. Major, major violation. If he'd reported me, I'd have had my licence revoked. Most important thing when dealing with future ghosts is to tell them to return to their own timeline right away. Don't get sucked in, don't give them the time of day, otherwise it gets real messy.
Cecilia tells me her husband remarried pronto-quick, like, the month after her funeral. (If you've been in this game as long as I have, you'll know men are bastards like that). The new wife is abusing the kids. Cecilia wants it to stop. Or else.
I play my mbira around her sweet voice, each note I strike catches a tear on her face which I can't dry. And I find I'm crying with her like a fool in the street. I promise to deliver the message right away. She thanks me by blowing away with the summer breeze. Shhh.
My mum used to do be in this business. She was the best ghostalker in all of Mashonaland Central. Even got a certificate from the governor's office in 96. But after a while she just burnt out and never got her spark back. Apparently the same thing that happens to shrinks. One day, she just didn't have any light in her eyes.
You gotta be careful when you deal with the dead. They've got a lot of crazy kak going on, so it's important to be firm, set boundaries for them. Like, I have this one stalker ghost that won't go away. He/she/it is like always following me around. I don't get paid enough for that kind of weirdness. That's why I started doing deliveries during the day, makes it harder for he/she/it to follow me.
I go to the phone box opposite the POSB. There's a long line stretching out onto the pavement, people trying to withdraw their cash. The receiver on the phone in the booth's been broken and stolen. Smells of pee or something in here. I'm not Clark Kenting, though; I just come in to use the phone book so I can get addresses for my deliveries.
My cell rings retro-Crazy Frog style. I check the number and it's Kush again. Full name's Kushinga, he's, no, was my boyffff, call him my ex, my, well, it's complicated. I wanna answer it but I don't - I let it ring out. 27 missed calls. It's kinda psychocute in a strange way. I've got way too much to do. Call me career woman. I give a thaza to the crazy beggar woman walking past in rags. At least she can get something to eat. What goes around comes around.
I catch the kombi to Trojan. There's a few deliveries I have there. You can smell Trojan before you even get to it. The chemical smell from the smelter. Then it appears, sprawled out on a hill, small matchbox houses climbing up the terraces. And the whole town is black from slag dumped everywhere. Huge Caterpillars and earth moving equipment caked in dirt drive around.
The men in Trojan all either wear blue overalls or khaki outfits if they're the bosses. I got my lucky steel toe cap boots from a miner here. They're really good for kicking people's shins if they try to fuck with me. But I don't Bruce Lee that often, not really anyway.
The tallest things here are the two chimney pipes striped red and white like a barber's pole. Women line the streets selling forest fruit and maheu. I climb up the hill and find the right house, then I brace myself and wear my serious grown-up face.
People react differently to ghostalkers. Some are welcoming, others are harsh. They are a bit suspicious because there's so many charlatans out there, but I have an official government I.D. and that usually makes it kosher. A woman answers the door.
"I have a reverse charge message for Melody Makunike from her grandfather Sixpence Molaicho," I say.
"What is this about?"
"The sharing of the goats, but you have to pay me first, if you want to hear the rest." I dangle part of the message to show I'm authentic, then I wait to get paid. I can read Melody thinking, trying to decide whether or not to take the message. Rule number zero: never, ever, ever, relay the message before you've been paid.
"Okay, how much?"
They always bite. Too curious, or fearing to incur the wrath of the dead. Though sometimes...
I was eleven when I got, sick, like really, really sick. I had a fever, my sweat could have formed a river thick and fast like the Mazowe. Doctors thought I had malaria and they put me on norolon or something like that. Didn't help one bit. And I was seeing all sorts of fantastic kak swimming around me, sort of like a blurry picture taken from far, far away. They called in my Grandpa, Garaba, and he said that I had the gift, but first I must be cleansed. On and off, I remember three days in a mud hut in Madziwa, smokey as hell, good thing I don't have asthma. The old man did some chanting to the ancestors, waved stuff about and made me drink vile potions (yuk). Three days later, I was right as rain. Except I saw dead people everywhere. Didn't have a choice in the matter. You kinda get drafted into this gig. There's worse ways to earn a living, I suppose.
Missed call alert. Go away, Kush, it's over. Twilight; the sun's getting low. I'm walking to Chipindura, but I have to take the long way round, avoid the cemetery. Most ghosts are all right one on one, but they go insane when you meet them in a group. Sort of the same herd mentality that soccer fans have. So you gotta avoid that cemetery or risk getting your ass booga-woogaed.
I have a home visit - happens sometimes. A ghost has taken up residency in Rudo Chisano's house and it's spooking the kids out. Hasn't paid any rent either, so the Chisanos want it out. Kak, stalker ghost appears out of the corner of my eye. I speed up, jog a little and hurry towards the two-bedroom bungalow in front of me. I hop over the low fence and knock on the door. Stalker ghost is drawing closer and closer. I give him/her/it the finger just as I jump inside. He/She/It won't follow. Most ghosts don't like being indoors, unless you build over their graves, then you're pretty much stuck with them.
I make sure the Chisanos pay me first before I whip out my mbira. Their living room is spare, blackened walls and I can smell the primus stove burning in the kitchen. There's a photo of an old granny on the wall alongside some wedding pics.
Mbuya Stella Chiweshe has the best jams for this sort of situation, so I riff off Paite Rima. Everyone knows that song, so the family sings along with me. Their little girl, maybe seven or eight, has a beautiful voice. I've just started when the ghost pops up from between the floor boards.
"What do you want?" he says all gruffy.
"You spooking people out," I reply. "I wanna know what you're doing here."
"Who the hell do you think you are?"
"I'm the diplomat. If you don't play nice, I'll bring in a Mapostori airstrike."
His toothless face cracks up and he laughs, long, loud and rattily. He's got balls, I'll give him that. Then he looks at the little girl and points. Stupid me, I should have noticed that from the start.
"There's a mhondoro in the making here, and the ancestors have sent me to protect her."
Bummer. No one can dislodge an emissary from the ancestors.
"You know if you had wings and a halo, people might be okay with you," I say. Resolution: "How about you fix up your face, stop popping up unannounced, and stay in the background, like a good bodyguard? That way everyone will be copasetic."
The family aren't exactly happy that they've paid me to tell them they're stuck with the ghost. I try to convince them he's there to protect their daughter and won't bother them too much from now on. They'll probably try someone else and lose a lot of money doing it, but hey, that's life. Just because you pay to see the doctor doesn't mean she can cure you, right? I should know.
Withheld number calling. Nice one, Kush, but I won't fall for that. Ignore. Sooo annoying, just can't take a hint. But that's why I fell for him in the first place. Dorky comic book reading kid, thick glasses, of course he was my type. Okay, I made the first move. We swapped my Spawn for his Beano and it was magic. The two of us sitting at the athletics grounds, reading or just holding hands. Kush. But that was another life. Should have seen his tears when I broke it off. The whole thing was wimp-adorable. But it was for his own good. Too much on my plate with my condition.
I love moonlight pouring through my window. The silver light has a cool purity to it. I feel it cleansing my pores and washing everything away. Power's gone off again, so I can see millions of stars in the sky, ghosts wandering the streets, smoke rising from chimneys and open fires in the township.
My little sis, Chris, walks in. She's come back from Bindura Musika where she sells kachasu moonshine to the folks getting on and off buses to Glendale and Mt Darwin. It's a good little business she's got, but I make sure she goes to school. Won't be much without an education. I make sure her fees are paid and her uniform is clean and pressed for her first thing in the morning.
From the canned laughter on TV, I know mum's watching ZBC reruns of Sanford and Son on her battery powered mini. She's not just watching it, she's in it, deep inside a part of that fake reality in ways I could never understand. Dad said she saw her future ghost and it fried her brain, inducing permanent vegeosis. I squash a big, fat mosquito, smearing blood on the white walls of my bedroom.
I spent two months' wages visiting the doctor's surgery. No use going to the government hospital where I was born - they have long queues and not much else there. I don't like doctors anyway, the way they touch you like you're a disease, not a person. And the smell. Knapf.
She sat all prim and proper behind the desk in her office, posters on the walls for malaria, HIV and cholera, and read my test results. It was two weeks before my sixteenth birthday when I was told I was going to die.
"Without treatment, you have six months, maybe up to a year."
It felt more like she was talking about someone else's sickness. I knew death, hell I saw dead people all the time. But it was something that happened to other people, not-to-me. I was sick to my stomach.
"We don't have the right type of specialists in this country for your condition. You'll need to go abroad for treatment," doc said, keeping a straight face as if that was a possibility.
Did she see Bruce Wayne sitting in the chair opposite? Abroad - I'd never been to Harare, let alone left the fucking country. Who was gonna pay for that?
So I left her office with a death penalty and prescription painkillers.
I suppose in many ways, GTs are just like the old telegram service, only we link up two worlds. I hold my surgery at the shopping centre between 7pm and 10pm. There's still a lot of people at the centre, especially the bottle store, so the deados are well behaved.
I sit down on the pavement with my mbira on one side and a notepad on the other. I've seen all types of ghosts out there, needy ghosts, spooky, pervy, aggressive, manipulative, you name it. The key thing is to let them know who's in charge. But I sometimes wonder why anyone would want to stay on this little rock if they were free to fly to all corners of the universe. If I was a ghost I'd be busy exploring outer space, I wouldn't waste my time on this planet. I suppose the ones that get left behind are sort of like those losers who hang around school after they've finished, because they can't let go.
A grotesque appears in front of me. Head swollen up to the size of a pudzi, face smashed into a pulp. Doesn't scare me one bit. I play my mbira, jamming Sekuru Gora's hit tune Kana Ndafa and let the grotesque tell his story as drunks walk by carrying scuds and empty bottles. Litter blows across the dusty forecourt and a firefly blinks along.
The ghost wants me to help his family find his body. It's hidden somewhere, a dam or a reservoir of water. The water fills his lungs, he can't breathe. It's everywhere around him and inside of him. Fish have eaten his eyeballs. He refuses to name his killers. He doesn't want revenge. It's pointless, he says. All he wants is a decent burial in the family plot and for his mother to gain some closure.
I let him weep to the mbira, playing the chords gently, very lightly, almost inaudibly, especially with the bar radio nearby blasting pop songs.
I leave the shops as I always do, notepad full of leads, clients I have to find tomorrow. If I steal the directory, I can save myself quite a bit of time, getting my addresses at home instead. Seems kinda low though, stealing a directory, WTF?
Knapf, stalker ghost appears out of the corner of my eye. I pick up pace, break into a slow trot. Truth: I'm kicking up dust, Barry Allening it. Stalker ghost is booga-woogaring and tearing down towards me. All I can see is one gigantic mouth, dangling uvula dancing like a Zulu.
Dogs bark behind fences as I bolt along the dirt track. Stalker ghost is gaining on me. I hit a pothole, feel my ankle twist slow-mo, then I'm watching my feet swing over my head before I hit the ground. I don't even have half a second to cry ouch before stalker ghost is there, proper mupogonyonyo style, all tall, head in the clouds.
The ground underneath me trembles.
My elbows and the palms of my hands bleed. I pick up my mbira and sing.
Tortured Soul is the quintessential Zimbabwean song of all time, and in quintessential Zimbabwean fashion, it was composed by a Mozambican, Matias Xavier. It's always on rotation on ZBC during the Heroes, Independence and Defence Forces holidays.
As I strum my mbira, replacing Matias's acoustic guitar, I let the lament escape my throat, "Yeeeyi, yeeeyi, yeyelele". This song contains all time within it, every grief spoken and unspoken, every fear, lost love and lost time, all of human history beyond word. Truth. It contains truth you can't run from. And as stalker ghost, shrinks back down to normal size, I see her face, I see my naked face in hers, she's my future ghost.
I take a day off, pick up the phone and call Kush. It's break time at Chipindura High and the yard is full of maroon and white uniforms walking about. He comes out of somewhere in the crowd with his A' Level swag. I used to learn here, once upon a distant past.
"You wanna go somewhere with me?" I say.
He doesn't ask where I've been, or why I haven't answered his calls. Just throws his satchel over the diamond wire fence, climbs up it and lands next to me. His face shines from too much Vaseline. It makes me smile.
"I have the latest Civil War if you want it," he says.
"I'm sorry I've been AWOL. Had a lot of crazy kak going on," I reply.
"I missed you."
We hold hands under the hot sun and head out past the town, into the forest to find a ruware where we can sit down, carve our names into the stone and watch the clouds drift across the sky.
I don't tell him I'm the walking dead, that at any moment, my heart could explode. I picture it, a giant spray of blood from my chest. I don't tell him that I'm trying to make sure mum and Chris are okay for when I'm gone, that I haven't told anyone I'll be going away soon. I don't tell him that I'm here because after I'm gone, I ain't coming back. Never. Ever. But before that happens, I'm going to wear my suit of armour, make memories that last forever and wipe away every molecule of regret.