“Sebeteledi Holds The Dead” by Tlotlo Tsamaase

“Every Sunday,” the words bleed-out, crust, and remain like sores on the girl’s crow-black lips. “He prefers to die every Sunday.”

She crushes out the fire, which gasps into smoke, from her index finger onto the keypad’s D. “Ja, they still hang him there. The tall chimney-like tower dusted with black soot on the sides of grey, aging stone.”

“Mma?” responds the typewriter, unused to the accent dripping heavily onto her consonants. It was unfamiliar with the local dialect, but try as it might, the typewriter was determined to adapt to it. It’s such a load of kak that I was relocated to this bloody hot-hell place, thought the typewriter. How can it type out her speech unable to understand it?

“But sometimes they bury him,” she says. “Like today.” Her brown skin fades into a pale shade of sadness.

The door clicks open, and the oom drops the shovel at the door, muddy. “The system is broken. We have to input the man’s death manually. It’s your turn.”

“Bliksem! But it—it’s raining,” she says. Thunder cackles like a coughing, crackling fire.

“Death is indifferent.” The oom knocks twice on the door. “He’s still wet, eh.” Still breathing. “So I’ve hung him out to dry at the old Hangman’s tower but life’s taking a long time to evaporate from his body.”

“I’ll wait then.”

But time won’t. The luminescence of life, she imagines, melts away from the body with the celestial lilt of moonlight. And, gravity will cradle the Sunday-dying-man’s head forward until that soft, splintering CRACK of the neck bones commands it to stop.

“I’m knocking off.” The oom’s eyes lick at her sides with pity. “Eish, you know, love’s just like air. So much of it is around us, one day your lungs will learn to breathe again, yeah. Anyways. Nocha, I’m out.”

“Sho, laters,” I say.

Inside the dark office, the curtain slides apart to reveal the outside: the Hangman’s tower pokes upward like a large, stark white tooth waiting to scrape flesh from the sky’s skin. The rope twirls from the pitched roof where the bell used to hang. It twists the Sunday-dying-man around in many slow revolutions. The sunlight lines his silhouette like the edge of an eclipse. The rope tightens, tightens, tightens around his neck, clamping and squeezing all the air out, with the childish act of a kid sucking on an ice lolly for sugar.

The light from the typewriter’s pages leak a blurry, milky light into her face, holding her braids like one does snakes, fearful and shadow-reflective. The Sunday man smiles from the pages. His face, oval, brown, stares and blinks and cries—Why my skat? Why do you kill me so?until the image sizzles into dots of black and white muddled with antsy, creatures covered in black.

“I don’t know why I kill you,” she whispers, dragging her face across the desk’s edge. “But why do you return each time?”

The keyboard doesn’t click. It’s immune to the expulsion of sound for the air around its flesh rushes around, sneaks down the pipes of humans and into the graves of their abdomen. Death is fed by computer language, zeros and ones, like pills of dried up zol into the living’s mouths. The living have life moving through their veins like static voltage. But she knows the taste of death: delicious, viscous, elastic. It strings down from her teeth to the back of the throat, choking, so she shall not forget that she will die.

Her fingers hover over the keyboard—waiting, trembling, weeping. And then he died, she typed.

Now for the manual labour. The chair squeaks back as she pulls out for her night shift; it’s always night time in the graveyard, and anywhere else it’s sunlight. Her broken nails grate the handle of the shovel and taste the death of the previous deceased: 8-year-old, car accident, crushed skull, bones painted red.

The grave or him? Which first? She—thinks, thinks, thinks—chews the thoughts from her lips until they’re naked of skin.

“Stubborn bastard,” she mutters and looks at his drying body hanging under the sun’s last breath. A set of primary colours like painted steam hiss and float up from his hooked-up shoulders. Goat-hide wraps tautly around his lower body where dirt stains are indistinguishable from his skin. The sight teases bile into her mouth. She swallows, and decides: the grave first.

Stone, stone, stone—solid beneath her bare feet. Burning. Her sight, such a glutton for wattage, is switched off to reduce wastage of body power; she walks, blind, knowing of the longitudinal/latitudinal coordinates of the gravestone and its un-dug grave. Time, a moonlit number, floats before her head tugging at her with haste hands.

Impressed onto the gravestone: Scrawny words, lit and sipping voltage from the Sunday-dying-man’s bio-energy, count down the time her task of digging must take. 150 secs…149 secs …148 secs …147 secs…

“Bliksem!” Her shoulders droop. “I can’t dig this grave in under 2 bloody minutes.” The Sunday-dying-man must not be composed into the air’s particles, to float in and around us, poking into our nostrils, inhabiting our lungs and spreading out into our limbs.

“Possession,” she says. “That dirty word.” She spits to the side. He will not be the possessor.

He is still soaking wet of life. Death inches up his ankles to his knees, dripping black to the earth below, carving a hole, an open mouth into the ground with fire-teeth that snare at bystanders. The people! Oh! The ground eats the people. Their screams lunge down the ground’s throat. But the Sunday-dying-man’s bones are not yet soggy for his smile slithers up at the edges. He will be the possessor, he thinks, of her.

A gust of air punches out from her lungs as she digs open the hole where he will sleep and wake and haunt. From his arms, neck and shoulders, vapour— misty and molten— flows into the sky in the style of backward rain. The heavens open its pores in the shape of fish mouths, waiting and hungry, to suck him in. But: 100 secs…99 secs…98 secs…

He will not be the possessor.

His laugh, a strike of lightning, flashes into her heart; it doesn’t have the sense of thunder to weaken her. But his cackles wake skinny memories of their boneless love. The memories crawl out from the cracks and nooks of dead mouths, dried tongues and broken headstones. The memories, they’re scrabbling to her feet and burning her with the hatred of hissing, hot-fire coals. She jumps, squealing, and fails to avoid the skinless hands jutting out from the dried grains of the bulbous graves.

He will not possess me. Her words weep back into the sky where no sun lies. But her knees are crushed, golden and smeared with sunset red. Inside her skull: thoughts, pale and listless, flit about like formless ghost-bits caught in the wind. The typing—oh the typing. Die. Die. Die. He must die.

Woody bones. Soggy grounds. Melted eyes. The Hangman’s tower, old, stands and waits for her. He will not possess me.

Static flow of blood. Rump-rump. Loose veins, dilated pupils, wagging tongue. She digs. She prays. She whistles. He will not possess me. Because, Why my skat, do you kill the thing that sits in your heart?

A hole in her ear drinks his words. She falls and falls and falls into the never-ending depth of the grave. In it, Sebeteledi holds the dying, the way he will hold her in his heart.

Truancy 7, January 2020

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This story was previously published in An Alphabet of Embers, edited by R. B. Lemberg.

BIO:Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and architectural articles. Her work has appeared in TerraformApex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Wasafiri, The Fog Horn magazine, and other publications. Her poem “I Will Be Your Grave” was a 2017 Rhysling Award nominee. Her short story, “Virtual Snapshots” was longlisted for the 2017 Nommo Awards. Her novella The Silence of the Wilting Skins is forthcoming from Pink Narcisuss Press in 2020. You can find her on twitter at @tlotlotsamaase, on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/tlotlotsamaase, and at tlotlotsamaase.com

Tlotlo says: “Sebeteledi is sleep paralysis. But some African cultures regard it as witches or evil spirits or thokolosi attacking a human body, using paralysis to render the sleeper helpless and vulnerable.  To break away from this spell, the sleeper mentally enters into prayers to be rescued from these spiritual forces. Known as sebeteledi or setshitshama in Setswana, these experiences involve an overwhelming coldness that creeps over the sleeping person, followed by something, a creature of some sorts that you can somehow see, lying next to you or sitting on your chest trying to strangle you or do you harm.”

The illustration on this page is from: Wikimedia Commons .

This image was donated by Pearson Scott Foresman, an educational publisher, to Wikimedia Commons, and is thereby in the Public Domain.