It means your eyes carry bags so heavy your face drops to the floor. Ghost babies never sleep. They let out continuous screams loud enough to penetrate concrete walls. They will eat nothing. They will listen to no lullaby. They do not lie still in their cots but move around the house at will. Only you can hear it. Sometimes your husband says he can hear it, but you know he’s lying. You know what he’s doing. Even when you decide to ignore it, a big pillow over your head doesn’t muffle out the shrill. Of course, it’s not just your eyes that droops towards the floor but your entire 40-year-old body. It is as though the wooden floor of your two-storey house is a magnet, and you are made of steel. It becomes tough to lift your feet, to move your lips, to even breathe in the smell of first rain outside the window. At first, your husband is helpful. He buys ear plugs, then one of those white noise producing things. He carries you in his arms, plans a night with bright candles and jollof rice on the dining table, scented candles in the bathroom, scented candles in the bedroom, but he doesn’t understand what it means to have a ghost baby.
You somehow knew, always suspected. Your right palm was glued to your bump the whole nine months. You rubbed, listened. There was that one time, right in the middle of the day, while watching home birth videos on YouTube that you touched your bump and it spoke to you. I am a ghost baby, it said. You jumped out of the couch, asked it to say it again, but it didn’t need to, it was embedded in your brain now.
You made positive affirmations as your mother’s pastor instructed, saying over and over again—a ghost baby is not my portion. But like a festering wound attracts houseflies, you now saw a ghost baby being handed out everywhere you looked. It was there on your Facebook timeline, on the Expectant Mothers’ thread, on your WhatsApp old students’ group, on the front page of the Newspapers street vendors shoved at your window in slow traffic. It was there at the hospital when you went for antenatal.
Let’s not even get started with those hospital visits. All you did was lie there and study, not the monitor, but the doctor’s expressions. While rubbing pink gooey jelly all over your belly with that probe stick thingy, the doctor, like something rehearsed, went from frowning, to creasing his eyebrows, to a straight face, and then, a smile, while he peered at the monitor. It was the smile you paid attention to. Was it a smile of pity, or was it the I’m-so-relieved-I-don’t-have-to-announce-you’re-having-a-ghost- baby kind? It was all a façade anyway, this studying of the doctor’s face. Because even with the I’m-so-relieved-I-don’t-have-to-announce-you’re-having-a-ghost-baby smile you got every visit, you still got a ghost baby.
Nobody can tell you where ghost babies come from. The doctor dances around the subject. Medical science offers no explanation. Your mother turns out to be even more clueless than the doctor. She didn’t get one, no woman in your family has, it’s just you.
Nobody mentions the wild stories about ghost babies: how they go to the women who eat certain fruits or don’t eat certain fruits, or to the women who expose their pregnant bellies and allow strangers to stroke them, to women who don’t stay up at night shouting loud prayers that get their neighbors to fling open their windows and cuss at them. They don’t tell you about how evil spirits can go deep into your ancestral lineage and fetch ghost babies out, or (finally, when all stories have been exhausted) how they go to people who are just unlucky in this world. You don’t know which category you belong to, and you wish somebody would tell you. Your husband’s family announces their disclaimer right at the hospital. They’d never had one, no woman in their family has ever had a ghost baby. Maybe you got it because you are Igbo, ghost babies are not common amongst their tribe, they suggested, turning away their faces.
We will figure out how to take care of this, your mother promises.
Him. The ghost baby is a boy, you want to remind her.
Everything will turn out alright, your mother says with the audacity that could only come from one who has no experience in these things.
You know more about this baby than she does, but you allow her to move into the guest room anyway. Getting a ghost baby means the walls are always closing in on you when the baby stops crying, and you go from room to room searching for him. You need your mother. But you don’t need her. It’s all so confusing.
The ghost baby makes everyone nervous. And not for the obvious reasons. It’s those bags under your eyes. When the neighbors visit, their eyes dart from side to side as if looking for somewhere safe to set their gaze. And you, you sit there in that wicker chair, right across from them, rocking back and forth, and it’s hard to tell if you’re staring at them or through them. It’s worse with the neighbors who have ghost babies of their own because they always say, it gets better. You glare at them, you want to ask them to take my screaming boy home please. You watch them dig into the sofa in their discomfort praying it will swallow them whole. You’re easier on the ignorant neighbours. They show up with a bowl of yam pepper soup and chat about the boiling weather with your mother, or the economy with your husband, or try to talk to your dark eyes about the terrible traffic they had to sit in all day, and then they’re out of there, almost running down the street back to their homes. Nobody asks to hold the ghost baby, to dance around the room with the ghost baby in their arms and perhaps help stop the screaming. Nobody asks what you’ve named him.
In the meantime, your mother takes care of the spiritual requirements prescribed for this circumstance. Prayers. Chants. Burning Incense. A frenetic dance you are pretty sure has nothing to do with the scriptures. You know she’s gone back to her village in the east and seen a traditional priest. There are palm leaves dangling from the ceiling of your living room. You’re not even sure why this needs to be done. You sit there on the couch next to your husband, with the ghost baby in your arms, and watch this ridiculousness. Your husband echoes the ritual responses, but you know he would rather be at a quiet bar with his office colleagues yelling at a TV showing a soccer game. He wants to take care of his ghost baby too, but like you, hasn’t figured out what works. He thinks participating in the ritual will help. Soon, he will think not talking about it will help. It’ll help. But not really.
There is a lot of movement in the house now. There’s the ghost baby roaming the house. There’s you following him. There’s your mother following you. There’s no space left for your husband. He enters the car and drives off. Office, he says. You take the screaming ghost baby in your arms and go for a walk. You know your mother won’t follow you. She’s worried about the parted blinds and curtains in the houses you walk by. She remains at the porch until you walk up to someone’s front door and ask for paracetamol to help with your pounding head, and she dashes over to take you home.
My head aches, you almost yell at her.
At home she gives you ginger tea.
When the ghost baby is a few months old, after your mother returns to the east, after the smell of new rain is gone and all that is left are wet walls and damp smells, after the movement stops and you lie in bed all day cuddling the ghost baby, you find a group of people who know how to care for ghost babies. Someone on your Expectant Mothers’ thread recommended them. They meet in the living room of a nice Church sister, she typed. But it’s a few weeks before you get in the car with the ghost baby strapped in the backseat. You’d searched for the car seat someone gave you at the shower but couldn’t find it. You remembered your mother had put away some of those things because ghost babies don’t need them anyway, and, you stood so long in the nursery staring at them you scared her. There are no regulations for ghost babies in vehicles. You could hold them in your lap while driving, strap them in the front seat, or just lay them there in the back seat. Nobody would care. Not even the police.
When you arrive the meeting, the women welcome you with smiles and someone vacates their chair for you. You look from one face to the other, but you find their eyes bagless, and you start to look towards the door. Your skepticism only starts to melt when they show you their own ghost babies. One even has twin ghost babies. How do you cope with them, you ask her? She smiles. They all smile. Soon, you’ll learn that smile, too.
By the time you’re back in the car driving home, you’ve learned a few things:
The crying will stop.
The headaches will go away.
Ghost babies are obedient when they’re older and will do whatever you ask of them.
Ghost babies become anything you want them to.
But before there’s a chance for any of this to happen, your husband sleeps with a 20- year-old from the neighborhood. Women that age are at a low risk of having ghost babies. Before he tells you, he suggests a vacation but instead of the Resort he drives you to your mother’s house. Sorry, he says, his head stuck out the window as he backs out of the yard, the three big suitcases he left at your feet confining you. You stand at the porch and watch the car until it splashes the puddle at the end of the street. The blinds in the house across your mother’s house stretch open. You stare at the window until the blinds snap shut.
An old friend suggests a therapist, but your mother thinks that’s just ridiculous! When your God is on the throne? This is an attack for god’s sake. Your mother invites her pastor over. There’s another session of frenetic dancing, this time with yelling and spitting and jerking. This time your husband is not there. This time the ghost baby is not in your arms, but you can hear him screaming and screaming. This time you don’t know who you are. At the end the pastor leaves you with a list of Psalms. Pray them. Bind the 20-year old woman caging your husband. Receive your miracle.
The next day you go back for your ghost baby. You husband is not home, but the ghost baby is there screaming for you. You pick him up and finally he stops crying. He sits there in your lap sucking his fingers. And it is in all that calmness that you finally see your ghost baby, first, a toddler, running around the house. You see him on a high school soccer team. You see him in the yard with his friends from the next street. You see him win a medal, graduate, get married. And you realize like human babies, he will stop coming to his mother so often. Listening to the sucking sound echoing in the empty house, you lean back in the wicker chair, and finally, you close your eyes.
To Have a Ghost Baby first appeared in Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 11 anthology.
Jane Kalu is a Nigerian short story writer, scriptwriter, and playwright. Her work has appeared in Munyori Journal, Jalada, and several anthologies. She’s currently an MFA student at the University of New Mexico.
Feature image: Ian Taylor (Unsplash)