[Trigger warning: this story contains scenes of violence]
PANG! Went the pan into my back as a sharp pain traveled upwards in my spine and into my head. I stumbled to turn around to face a woman who grudgingly exclaimed,“You think your negro cunt holds all the magic in the world don’t cha.” Panting for air I looked around the mess that made up the kitchen. There was flour spread out on the floor, broken glass shattered everywhere, ripped curtains barely hanging on to the windows, and a screaming kettle echoed the ringing in my ears. Standing on the other side of a table that separated the two of us, the woman continued, “KEEP OPENING YOUR LEGS FOR MY HUSBAND AND THE GOOD LORD SHALL STRIKE YA...” Her voice became a murmur as I started to notice the lavish details of her French Creole fashion. My gaze was immediately brought to the attention of a letter spread out on the table between us, dated 1751. I became appalled in the midst of her rage. Next thing I knew I was falling backwards… Was I fainting? Or was I being pulled back into reality again? In a strange way the two felt similar.
“Woiii!!! Jistis, where you go this time?” my sister inquired.
“Same place. 1751,” I mustered as the room spun. “This time the Mistress hit me over the head with a soup pan, talking about how I open my legs for her husband and all kinna ting. If you could have seen the white lady Priscilla, bloodshot eyes and all—”
“What di bumbarass?!?!” she fired. “My girl is being taken from 2017 and brought back to the olden days slavery,” she went on in disbelief.
“You could imagine my surprise. Hopefully, soon Gwanmanman is going to be h—”
“Relax!” she insisted, snapping at the mention of our grandmother.
The hairs on my back stood up as I sensed something threatening my being with another spell. Since my sister and I moved into this house I’ve felt oppressed by these visions. My memories before here have become hard for me to remember. It’s as if these visions have replaced my memories, making themselves at home in my consciousness.
My attention was soon caught by my sister’s necklace as it shone with familiarity when she moved towards the kitchen. Ignoring her question, I asked, “Pris, where did you get that necklace? It’s so beautiful and oddly eccentric.”
“Ocean gave it to me. Man said I’m the apple of his eye. Could you believe that!? He is pure papisho.” She laughed as she walked off into the kitchen. The necklace had some kind of energy attached to it, pulling me in and pushing me out again.
As I tried to stabilize my thoughts I heard some thuds at the door, “Ouvri pòt la!!”
“Pris, it’s Gwanmanman!! I’ll get it!” Running for the door in all my excitement for my grandmother to work her obeah on this spell I tripped over the mat. Priscilla’s feet were suddenly in front of me walking towards the front door whilst passing me straight. Before I could ask for help I hit my head on a giant vase. Unconscious, I could hear Gwanmanman’s light feet sweep the foyer of our old house. As she spoke her voice had a certain edge to it, different from when she was outside shouting as if she owned the home like every Caribbean mother does. Priscilla’s voice was going in and out softly in response. However, with every syllable a sinister twist hijacked the natural calibre of her voice. Something was off.
“...Priscilla…” Gwanmanman paused, “my child, where is Jistis?”
“Gwanmanman, moi la! I’m here!! I’m here,” I mumbled as I tried to push past the painful breathing in my throat. I don’t know how she did, above Priscilla’s nonsense rambling, but she heard me.
“My baby, what happened to you?” she gasped as she kneeled to my aid. She then leaned in and whispered in my ear, “That is NOT Priscilla. It is a very dark presence that has attached itself to her trying to get to you.” She began to speak faster: “As soon as I step foot in the house I sensed it.” She continued, “I do not mean to scare you but I can see the shadow of the presence attached to her energy.”
I slowly tilted my head to see the truth in Gwanmanman’s face. However, behind her the most terrifying yet familiar eyes penetrated my soul. These eyes did not belong to Priscilla, yet they moved like they were born with her.
Just then Priscilla raised the handle of a machete above grandma’s head. —BOOP! Went the sound of grandma’s body. As the machete hit my grandmother's skull I heard a crack and her body fell to the floor. I shut my eyes tight quick. Play dead Jistis, play dead!
Play dead Jistis. Play— “Sara, baby open your eyes and take off your dress,” he gently commanded. I opened my eyes and the words flowed out of my mouth on their own, an instant response to such a bland name that nobody has ever called me outside these visions. “But Massuh, yuh lady say—”“Shhh... shhh... she’s dying from the miscarriage and not nearly as beautiful as you are.” He continued, “You fathered me three children and still not a crack in that smile of yours.” With his hand groping my waist and lips kissing my neck I could recall the last flashback I had with the Mistress and the look of her bloodshot rageful eyes. I never asked for this. Massuh always comin unto me with his old breath. “I have something for you, my beautiful Sara.” Just then he pulled out a necklace and put it around my neck. I acted surprised and, in awe, cracked his favourite smile. When I glanced at the pendant it looked all too familiar. That was Mistress’s necklace. *GASP* “Priscilla!”...“I beg your pardon?” Massuh responded in confusion as I felt my consciousness being pulled back into the house.
I awoke to my unconscious grandmother lying next to my stiff body. Through the window I could see the deep orange Caribbean sun starting to go down on my sweet St. Lucia, sealing the existence of yet another day. Quietness stole my breath as my head ached with pain. Remaining laid out on the ground, I lifted my head to look around the room. I wondered where Priscilla was. With the help of Gwanmanman and her obeah senses I now knew the truth. Life with these spells was finally starting to make sense. It was not Priscilla in my sister’s body. It was the Mistress from my former slave life. But what did she want from getting closer to me?
Just then I saw something move in the shadows beside the curtain. The beams from the sun made it difficult to focus beyond the light. It was blinding just like the Mistress. But there she was staring through my soul with her own soul. As she moved closer to me her necklace caught the light. As I struggled to get up to run, she threw me against the wall and pinned me down by my throat. Her grip was strong. “My my oh my, now we can finally have a formal reintroduction,” she said as she laughed. “The sheer fact of knowing my husband was fucking you kept me barren and sick, childless and unmotherly...” She pressed against my neck, gradually blocking my breathing, then she swallowed hard and held back tears. Her eyes got darker and blood tears began to stream down her face as I gasped for air and my body jerked. The room got blurry and her voice got rough as her aura began to shift. I could taste the sorrow and dreadful misery that made up her eighteenth-century white womanhood climbing down my throat like a sandstorm in a desert. She was possessing me. My body was to be her slave once again. I could feel my consciousness tighten and fall back, making space for her intrusion. My body: a vessel for her own immortality, a Machine.
I was smacked in the middle of a sugarcane plantation. The hot sun was beating on my back. Sweat running down the sides of my face. The world in a sugarcane field looked the same at every corner. Negroes everywhere. Cutting sugarcane. Whips beating Black skin. Blood. Screams. Sunset. Massuh touching me up. Sleep was miniscule. Same damn pattern everyday. This was a loop, not a life. I had to find a glimmer of salvation. But what? I told myself, “LOOK UP JISTIS while Massuh is distracted. What do you see baby girl?” I see broken souls, ghosts of the past, present, and future. All their faces, erased. Bodies mechanical. “Try again!” I demanded of myself.
“Who do you see? What do you see?”
That sun hat looks familiar, I thought. Shouting the word “Gwanmanman” made time stop. It was nice to see her familiar face look up from the sugarcane. “How are you here?” I mouthed. “I have been looking everywhere for you,” she mouthed back as she made her way closer. When she came close enough, she whispered with a mix of sadness and happiness, “My child, oh how I’ve missed you.” “I missed you too mawmaw,” I replied as tears dripped down my face, becoming one with my sweat. As she wiped away my tears she gently informed me, “Sometimes in order to go forward, we must go back.” She further explained, “You’ve had many past lives my child, this is not the only one.” I slowly began to catch on. “Gwanmanman, this explains the loop I have been living in!” I said in deep realization. “Indeed, baby girl, and you must recognize this wretched existence of enslavement as an interruption to our true and complete Indigenous African presence upon this earth.”
I AM my ancestors, I thought. This recognition felt so warm and fuzzy, like a calm fire burning within me. My thoughts echoed into the universe as if I had said them out loud. The world began to convulse and my sight was altered by an odd intensifying pixelated view of life on the plantation surrounding me…
“SHIT! She’s waking up! Quick, retrieve the tranquilizer! She knows too much!” one man panicked.
“Doctor, I thought you said that the mental collapse is enough to—”
“I said what I said, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t loopholes. The computer simulation program is soon to be updated with a hardware that restricts awakening and we will soon be able to resolve the issue,” he said as he adjusted the incubator on my brain. “Come next year, 2050, we can…” His voice faded out as my ears started to ring.
Restricts “awakening”? Year 2050? As my eyes fluttered open, bright lights burned my sight. Once I was able to see beyond the light I could see that I was in what looked like a laboratory. Millions of see-through cubicles existed beyond the glass walls that surrounded me. Doctors in a frenzy. Blood splattered all over the glass levels, floors, and walls, tools flew everywhere, and Black people were breaking free. What was going on? As I twisted my head to look around I saw straps holding down all four of my limbs and my blood streamed from a needle in my forearm into a nearby machine. What were they doing to me? I was way too weak but I knew I had to try to fight it.
Just then, a white woman entered the cube. “Is my fertility injection ready?” she inquired. *GASP* Mistress?
I started to pull and tug at the table violently and one of the doctors proceeded to hold me down, but before he could stab his fat needle into my neck, a single bullet shot exited the Mistress’s forehead. My eyes widened in disbelief. As her body hit the floor, Priscilla’s presence with a firm grip on a gun was revealed in her place. The doctors’ bodies hit the floor just as quickly.
“PRISCILLA!” I shouted excitedly.
“Priscilla, what is going on?” “GURL!!!” she sighed and continued, “No time to explain sis, we have to run or we may never get another chance to break free.” As she cut me loose before running off, we paused. Our tears of joy bound our hug in the midst of the chaos. It wasn’t long before a loud siren went off and lights flickered red throughout the building, reminding us to get our legs moving. And just like that our search for a door to freedom in these winding glass halls transitioned us from ghosts in a machine to fugitives of the future.The essay “The Real Ghosts in The Machine” by Ricardo Guthrie inspired the title of this short story. The ghostly intimacies that Jistis, the protagonist, encounters during her reincarnation, hauntedness, and computer simulation is illuminated by the metaphor that is “the ghost in the machine.” This is intensified by the ways in which Jistis’s positionality as a Black person, more specifically an Afro-Caribbean woman, is implicated and rendered ghostly in the machine that is whiteness and colonialism in the different temporalities (past, present, and future) that she experiences throughout the story. Jistis’s soul represents the “many ways [in which] race fills … space as yet another ‘ghost’ in the machine.” "The Real Ghosts in the Machine: Afrofuturism and the Haunting of Racial Space in I, Robot and Detropia," in Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-blackness, ed. Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones (Lanham: Lexington, 2016), 47.