By Innocent Chizaram Ilo
If Nneora had died two weeks earlier, her daughter, Anaeto, would not have resurrected her ghost. That was the night Nneora ran a fever, laid convulsing in bed, a slimy froth trickling from the corners of her lips. She had just finished telling Anaeto a story about a woman who fled home to find love. And when the fever subsided, she proceeded to talk to her late mother, Lolo-Nwa, in a tongue that reeked of everything living and dead. Dying on a night like that would have meant Nneora died complete, that her daughter was prepared for her death.
But Nneora will die this evening, when the air is the same as the feel of damp salt on dry skin. She will die midway telling Anaeto a new story. Nobody would believe, not that you can blame them, that Anaeto will do what she does because she is scared the Ghost Of Unfinished Stories will haunt her. Not even Anaeto herself. At some point, she will tell herself this lie: that she resurrected her mother’s ghost because the inquisitive scientist in her wanted to know how the story that numbed on the old woman’s lifeless lips ended. This is more plausible, more logical. A more scientific reason.
Before all of this will happen, mother and daughter are in the parlor reclining on the threadbare sofa that has brown cushion-fillings peeking out in all the conspicuous places. A waning solar-lamp on the center-table lights the room. They are sipping mango juice and eating gingerbread, Anaeto’s favorite. Nneora baked the cookies earlier in the afternoon, before her daughter came back from work. Today is Thursday and the electric power is out for the third consecutive night this week. Fumes from Olili Eat & Grill’s generator flounder in and out of the room through the open window. The restaurant is the only place on the entire street that can afford to pay the exorbitant carbon-taxes imposed by Town Council since the launch of the Ozone Purity Project.
“It’s 2090,” Nneora says, balancing the juice glass on the paper-saucer on her lap, “and we know they’re test-running houses on Mars and flying cars, but we cannot spend two nights without these power cuts.”
Anaeto kisses her teeth and nods in agreement. She knows her mother will never stop talking about how technological advancement in Selemku is grossly mis-prioritized. “We are doing the best we can, Mama. But rest assured we’re going to have uninterrupted electric power supply on Mars.”
Nneora scoffs. “You talk as if you’re one of those fancy scientists who are actually putting us on Mars.”
“Mama, i bia kwa ozo, you have come again. I am actually one of those fancy scientists.” Anaeto rolls her eyes and crunches on the gingerbread in her mouth.
“No you’re not.” Nneora sets the now empty juice glass on the side-stool and refills it. “I’ve always wondered what it is a neuro-programmer does? Is it a real job, or something this faux-Utopia invented so people like my daughter can have jobs?”
The diss bites into Anaeto’s skin. She gets this a lot; people trivializing her job, and the exhaustion that comes with having to explain the relevance of what she does. She may be used to this by now, but she will never get used to when these people is her own mother.
Anaeto begins a rehearsed explanation she reels out each time her mother or anyone makes snide comments about her job. “A neuro-programmer studies the brain as a fully functional computer system. We try to unblur what we think we know about memories, intelligence, and general consciousness.”
“Here we go again.” Nneora stops to wipe the crumbs of gingerbread spritzed on her jaw. “You know you could have just become a systems programmer like me, like your mother’s mother, like every other woman in this family.”
Truth is, Anaeto did not come from a bloodline of all system programmers as her mother claims. Theirs is a bloodline of women who eked out a living from telling stories. Several hundred years ago, a woman named Buchi migrated to Selemku. Nobody knew where she had come from. Not that it matters in Selemku, this town where the skyline draws you in, pushes you through a thin-sized mesh, and wrings you out until the memory of wherever you came from erodes your mind like hearts drawn on seashores. Buchi sat under Halala Bridge and told stories to any passerby who was kind enough to drop buza coins in the shiny bowl at her feet. When her popularity grew, the elite of Selemku tried to persuade her to come to their homes, sit on their spiffy furniture, bury her feet in their plush vicuña rugs, while she told them stories. But Buchi would not hear of it. “You either drag yourself down to Halala Bridge or forget about listening to my stories.”
Many weeks went by before men from Town Council dragged Buchi off her mat under Halala Bridge. They said they were instructed to evict an obstruction. But that was not the last of Buchi, iyaskiwa. This woman from a town-nobody-knows continued to tell stories to her daughters, who told them to her granddaughters, who told them to her daughter’s granddaughters. By the fifth generation, Buchi’s descendants were telling stories in books, blogs, podcasts, and any other form Town Planning could not evict from under Halala Bridge. Finally, when the smugness of the world made people lose interest in stories, Buchi’s descendants became system programmers who wrote stories– encoded scripts and algorithmic narratives.
“Mama, do we have to go into this again? Everything and everyone around me, growing up, screamed systems programming. I wanted to do something different.”
“Ehen… you could have done systems programming differently.”
“It’s not even as if you or grandma or grandma’s mother were storytellers like Mama Buchi.”
“Systems programmers are storytellers, but for computers.”
Anaeto wrinkles her nose. “Well a neuro-programmer is also a storyteller, but for the brain and computers.”
The electric power indicator beeps, interrupting their conversation. White light from the halogen-bulb floods the room and the whoosh of the overhead ventilator resumes. Any moment now, Yemisi and Ayobami, the kids who live next door, will start screaming “Up NEPA. Up NEPA. They have brought light.” They will unbolt their door and scuttle towards Olili Eat & Grill to notify the manager that electrical power has been restored. Yemisi and Ayobami do this out of the goodness of their hearts, but more importantly, to guilt the restaurant’s manager into giving them leftover shrimp soup and bread.
“I hope you’re not putting on the TV,” Nneora says as Anaeto makes for the remote. “Thursday night is always story night and you know this.”
“But Mama, they’re rerunning October One.” Anaeto coils on the sofa and mumbles something inaudible.
“If I got a buza for every time you have watched that movie, then maybe we can afford to pay carbon taxes and buy one of those tika-tika-tika…”
“Ah, it’s called a generator, Mama.”
“I know what it’s called but I choose to call it tika-tika-tika to show how out-of-place they are in the twenty-fifth century.”
“So what story are you going tell me this night? The one about the Ogbanje Sisters, or the boy who came from the river, or the one about the woman who escaped her home to find love?”
“Chelu, don’t be faster than your shadow. I haven’t told you this one before. It’s about a food vendor, Iyawo. Iyawo, her daughter, Adaku, and their mule, Danda, lived in a little house at the bank of River Bambu, many years ago. Iyawo sold food at a shack near Dare Ridge, just before you get to the Crossroads of Fate. Mother and daughter spent their days serving food to their customers until Agulu came.”
“Who is Agulu?”
“A man from the Land of Innumerable Shadows. Agulu had visited Selemku some years back, specifically on the day Adaku would come into this world. Iyawo had…”
The older woman’s grip slackens on the juice glass. It slips and shatters on the floor.
“Mama, look at the mess you’ve made,” Anaeto gasps as she rushes to her mother’s side. She tears open the now empty juice carton, flattens it, and proceeds to gather the shards with it. “You can’t control your grip, but you still insist on using glassware instead of paper cups.” Anaeto prises open her mother’s palm to see if she cut herself or some shards are stuck there. “Glad you didn’t hurt yourself.”
She folds up the flattened juice carton and disposes into the trashcan at the door.
“Biko, let’s continue the story,” Anaeto says as she resumes her position on the sofa.
Nneora does not respond.
“Mama,” Anaeto draws closer to her mother and taps her shoulder. “Did you doze off?” The older woman does not as much as stir. “Mama,” Anaeto calls again. This time, a trail of dread runs deep in her voice. She raises Nneora’s hands and checks for a pulse on both her wrists. Nothing. She places her ear on her mother’s chest but it is silent as if someone reached into it and wrangled away the heart that used to beat there.
Anaeto grabs her ZipPhone from the center-table and dials 112. As the phone connects to the other end, Anaeto, knowing it will take a while before it goes through, performs CPR using the textbook procedure she learned during the Health And Safety class in uni.
“Selemku Central Emergency Services, who am I on to?” A voice comes screeching into the phone’s speaker after almost half an hour of playing Selemku’s anthem and telling Anaeto to wait a bit more for an agent.
“My name is Ms. Anaeto… It’s my mother…she…she was telling me a story, and she just slumped. Her…her heart stopped beating,” Anaeto says in half a breath.
“Is she breathing? Is there any heartbeat? Can you check for a pulse?”
“No. No. I just said her heart is not beating.”
“She. Is. Not. Breathing. There is no heartbeat. I can’t find a pulse.”
“Okay, that’s good.”
“Sorry, I mean I’m checking in to send our ambulance your way. Can I have your address?”
“7 B Ojukwu Close.”
“Ms. Aniele, could you please hold on while I run a service-check.”
“It’s Ms. Anaeto.”
“Umm… sorry for mixing up your name, Ms. Anaeto. You would have to wait for at least two hours forty-five minutes for the next available ambulance to come your way, Ms. Aniele.”
“Two hours forty-five minutes!”
“We’re so sorry. There is a queue of about 150 persons ahead of you and we cannot predict the traffic on Fiofio Expressway. I’d suggest you keep your mother in a well-ventilated room, perform CPR, if you can, and hope for the best while you wait for us. Thank you for using Selemku Central Emergency Service, please do rate this call after the beep…”
Anaeto slams her ZipPhone facedown on the sofa, after the beep. Then, she springs up, as if someone just pinched her, and starts to pace around the parlor. Two hours forty-five minutes! And this is if the traffic on Fiofio Expressway is at its best behavior, which rarely happens. Thirty minutes of unresponsive CPR is enough to tell Anaeto that her mother is dead but she still needs someone to confirm the news to her. Someone whose job it is to announce death to people. In the midst of this tumult, it hits Anaeto that her mother was still telling a new story before she slumped.
Since she was a little girl, Anaeto’s mother had warned her about the Ghost of Unfinished Stories. Anytime she felt drowsy and was about to doze off during one of Nneora’s bedtime stories, her mother would nudge her awake because if one does not finish listening to a story, the Ghost of Unfinished Stories will come to gnaw at your head by midnight. Anaeto never believed in her mother’s plenitude of myths about this ghost; how they have a blank face with no eyes, no mouth, no nose, but still managed to be beautiful, how Nneora had seen them in her uni room when one of her roommates dozed off while she was telling her a story. She indulged her mother because it was extra funny that a doctoral fellow at Selemku Coding Institute believed in ghosts.
But something happened in Anaeto’s sophomore year at uni that rocked the core of her disbelief. It was the night her mother was telling her the story of the two Ogbanje Sisters via Facetime. Her cellphone’s battery was flat and the dorm’s Internet router was malfunctioning so she told her mother that they would continue the next day and logged off. That night, something had curled up around her throat, threatening to sap all the air out of her. She lunged for her laptop with the last shred of strength left in her and ran out of the room. Anaeto had wandered around campus that night until she found a free WiFi at Students’ Welfare where she called her mother and completed the Facetime with her. She never told anyone about that night.
As two shadows crisscross across the wall and skitter away into the corner towards the kitchen and goosebumps begin to callous through her skin, forming a tight knot around her nape, Anaeto knows what she has to do.
Allen Lane, which shoots from Anaeto’s apartment to Selemku Neuro-Programming Institute (SENPI), is lifeless save for the flickering of the solar streetlights. Anaeto could drive her rattly, snail-oil-powered saloon up to the institute with her eyes closed. This is how well she knows this path she has taken to work for five years. But now, as she struggles to steady her shaky grip on the steering wheel, she fears the road may hit a dead end, collapse, or fragment into a thousand serpentine paths, instead of being the normal straight road it has always been.
She bumps through a pothole in front of the tiny kiosk that sells toolboxes in the mornings. Her cargo, zipped into a sleeping bag and lodged under her back seat, creaks.
“Hang on Mama, we’ll soon be there,” Anaeto says, and the creaking stops in seeming agreement.
Anaeto counts her breaths until she eases the car into the white-sand driveway of SENPI. Seventy-three breaths. Odd. She unlocks the car and hauls the sleeping bag across her shoulder. She murmurs thanks to some distant god that Town Council funded the institute so little that they could not afford security personnel, so there is nobody within the premises to interrogate her. She would have been worried that Kairaamaka would be badged into the facility, to log one of those many Eureka moments she got at odd hours, but her co-worker had taken a casual leave two days before to go see the mountains with her dog.
Her mother’s weight cranks her neck as Anaeto inputs her passcode into the automatic lock.
“Do you have anything to declare before entering the Selemku Neuro-Programming Institute, Ms. Anaeto?” the door asks, in the same nasal voice used by everything-tech these days.
“No,” Anaeto says.
She slants her shoulder to better distribute her mother’s weight. Inside, she eases her mother onto the scan table, tightens the straps to keep the body still, and wheels her into the Control Room. The table’s wheels jam when they hit the Control Room’s doorpost, ramming the table straight into Anaeto’s midriff. She groans before tilting the table upwards and pushing it into the room.
The Control Room is always heavy with the smell of circuit boards and animal fur. Kaira and Anaeto always use pets; cats, dogs, rabbits, a possum, once, for their project. They would scan the dead pet’s brain, particularly the cerebrum, which would feed the computer with enough sets of encrypted data. The computer would run over tens of quadrillions of simulations, augmented with pictures, audio, and visual recordings of the pet to produce the Script. The Script would then be downloaded into a hologram of the pet, and the owner would take it home. People never cared about the project because it was just stupid pets and stupid people and stupid people who can’t get over stupid pets.
One time there was a Qwitter conspiracy theorist—the same type that sees the Turing Virus in every AI—who raised dust that the project was already using human beings. #IHaveARightToDie had trended on Qwitter for like an hour, and that was it. Kairaamaka and Anaeto had to release a statement on SENPI’s blog that even though the project was modeled after the human brain, they had not started experimenting with human beings but would very much like volunteers for this proposed experiment. The blog post garnered four views, including the two times Kairaamaka and Anaeto viewed it to check for comments.
“Am I breaking any laws here?” Anaeto asks the room.
Technically, she thinks to herself, no. She has full legal custody of her mother’s body. She could decide to do whatever she wanted to with it, but that would be after Nneora was certified dead. Ugh. Certified dead.
Anaeto flicks the brain scanner’s switch and attaches the transmitter-clips to her mother’s scalp.
Anaeto made sure she lay her mother in the same position she was on the sofa before calling 112 to check up on the ambulance. This time, the responder does not mispronounce her name and assures her that the ambulance has already been dispatched and that it was just a few minutes away. When Emergency Services finally shows up at her door, she has dozed off and woken up twice. They check Nneora’s pulse, shake their head, and mumble something among themselves before unrolling the stretcher.
“So, what? Is she dead?” Anaeto asks, wide-eyed.
“We are paramedics, Madam. We can’t really say anything until we get her to a hospital,” one of the ES says.
Anaeto is sure the rest of the night will pass in a haze of ground glass. The drive to the hospital is silent and bumpy. She wedges the stretcher with her weight throughout the ride so her mother will not tip over. At the hospital, the doctor rubs her palms together and sniffs her nose as she tells Anaeto that her mother had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, the deadliest of all, and there is nothing the hospital or Anaeto could have done to save her. Dr. Nkoli, as Anaeto will later learn is the doctor’s name, assists her with the necessary documents to fill and sign and says all the medical charges are on the house. Anaeto wonders if she looks so poor or so broken as to deserve such a degree of compassion from this doctor, whose skin is the color of brown sand washed over by the sea countless times.
Back in her apartment, Anaeto is sitting at the table in the study. Her Ugegbe is open and the curtains are drawn. The Ugegbe’s screen shows Script Download Complete, Click Any Key To Begin Hologram Projection. Anaeto taps ENTER and the LCD Projector beside the Ugegbe flickers on. It is her mother’s head that forms first, then the arms and torso, and finally the legs. Follows a logical sequence—that is a good thing, right? There was something offbeat about the brain scan. It was forty-five minutes longer than the usual one for pets, and the computer kept churning out simulations. At one point, she had wanted to pull the plug, take her mother home, and wait until Emergency Services showed up.
“Anaeto,” the hologram says, smiling, barely baring a tooth, just like Nneora.
Anaeto’s heart nearly leaps out of her mouth. It works. It works. She and Kairaamaka had spent months teaching the scanner the algorithm that they formulated on how to identify consciousness, intelligence, and behavior in the human brain. This was the dream of the project all along. Helping owners of dead pets was just a stepping-stone.
“Stop talking.” Nneora’s eyes deepen with seriousness. “It’s almost midnight and I need to complete my story before the Ghost of Unfinished Stories visits to gnaw at your head. When Agulu came to Selemku, Iyawo overfed him until he fell asleep, then she stuck her hands into Agulu’s wish-granting pockets and wished upon herself a daughter. You see, because of an ancient curse placed on them by a coven of witches, women like Iyawo could not bear children the way other women do. Years later, Agulu came to claim Adaku. Iyawo was ready for him. She did what she knew how to do best: cook. This time she employed her foremothers to curse the food so Agulu would eat until it began to shoot out from his eyes, nose, and ears. Iyawo and her daughter carried the food-bloated Agulu to the river and drowned him. But he would come back when Adaku took over the shop, to be overfed, and Adaku would wish upon herself a daughter. It is their circle of life.”
The Ugegbe’s clock beeps midnight. Anaeto heaves a troubled sigh and exits the hologram window. She goes to FILE, deletes the folder Nneora’s Script, and clears it from the recycle bin. There is no need of holding on to this figment of her mother. Nneora is gone now, gone forever, Anaeto chides herself. Now that the finality of her mother’s death hits her, the tears begin to tumble down Anaeto’s cheeks.
Good morning, Anaeto.
The words slice clean through Anaeto, the way a sharp knife cuts through crusty bread. Her eyes are still groggy and her arms are sore because she slept on them throughout the night. A foot from the door is the Ugegbe’s screen on and the hologram hoisted on the flickering LCD projector. She rubs her eyes awake and hopes it is all some dark hallucination that will clear as soon as enough sunrays stream in.
I said, good morning Anaeto, since you’re so grown you can’t greet your own mother.
Ah, I get it now, Anaeto says to herself. All the stress from last night must have made her forget to delete the folder Nneora’s Script. Relief washes down her throat. She considers for a moment or two to not delete the file until she comes back from work, but she decides against this. She did not spend two semesters studying the ethics of virtual reality not to know how deep she is already in for even making that hologram complete Iyawo’s story last night. Anaeto exits the hologram window, deletes the folder for Nneora’s script, and clears the recycle bin.
The time is seven o’clock, and the drive to work is barely five minutes long, so Anaeto can afford to splurge time a bit. She turns on the home sound-system and selects the twentieth-century highlife classic, Ekwe, before getting into the bathroom. She hums along to the song as the tub fills with warm water. As Onyeka Owenu’s soulful voice is getting to the bridge, the song stops. Anaeto groans. The sound-system sometimes glitches, and one needs to press “pause” and “play” to get it working again. If Nneora wasn’t dead, Aneato would have called her to—
The sound of this song is damn too loud, Anaeto. We have neighbors.
Anaeto springs out of the bathtub, grabs a towel, and dashes into the bedroom she shared with her mother. She throws on a cream shirt and blue denim shorts, fumbles into a pair of flats, snatches her car keys off the bedside stool, and runs downstairs to her car. She did not dare to go into the study because she did not want to believe that the hologram is still on display after she made sure she deleted the files.
Throughout the day, Anaeto tries to bury herself with work. No pet owner comes in today, so she goes over all the account files dating back the five years since she started working at SENPI. When she does not find any errors in them, she starts charting graphs and running covariance analysis on the spreadsheets. Before lunch break, she calls Kairaamaka twice to ask about her trip, how well she was enjoying the mountain with her dog. When she calls the third time, after lunch break, Anaeto bursts into tears and tells Kaira about her mother’s death. She does not tell her about the brain scan, or the script files that have refused to be deleted, or the hologram that self-projects. Kaira volunteers to cut her leave short and come back the next day, which Anaeto declines but her co-worker insists.
Just before closure, the hospital calls to remind her that she has still not decided the corpse management option for her mother. The form she filled last night listed Traditional Burial, Cremation, or Bio-Recomposition, as if they were food choices at some high-end restaurant. She finally chooses Bio-Recomposition because it will qualify her to claim a tax rebate the next year.
From work, she drives straight to Olili Eat And Grill. She has been to the restaurant just once, two years ago, when her mother retired from Selemku Coding Institute. The two had decided to try something new – eat out – and they regretted every bit of it. The restaurant was too loud and too smoky, and the tabletops and stools were coated with turkey grease. It still has not changed. Anaeto makes sure she wipes the stool and table this time before sitting down. A sweaty waiter wearing an un-tucked shirt and smudged lipstick strolls over to take her order.
“Chicken and chips.”
“Organic or GMO?”
When the order comes, Anaeto smiles at the waiter and stops her from apologizing that the restaurant has just run out of ketchup. She cuts a bit of chicken and tries to chew it. It tastes like leather, leather sprinkled with salt and black pepper. She spits it out, takes a large gulp of her Coke, and swirls it around her mouth. They are definitely diluting the Coke with water, but it is better than the leathery chicken and the burnt chips Anaeto would be caught dead tasting. Her ZipPhone buzzes and she picks up the call.
Anaeto, Anaeto, it’s past eight. Why are you still not home? You don’t usually stay out this late. Did something happen? Hello…Hello…Please…
Anaeto checks the caller identification panel. Mom (Home). She ends the call, gathers her things, and leaves the restaurant. She is not going to sleep in the apartment tonight.
The ceiling in the motel is so close that Anaeto imagines the boards will, at any moment now, descend and press against her chest. It is eight o’clock, and outside her window are people and cars bumping into each other to get to work. She looks at her ZipPhone under the pillow. It is switched off, has been since the creepy call came in last night. She knows she has to turn it on because Kaira is sure to call, and Anaeto needs to place some calls to Nneora’s former colleagues and friends to let them know of her mother’s demise. That can surely wait. Right now, she needs to get away from everything. Anaeto slips under the duvet, shut her eyes, and prays for sleep to come.
Sleep does not come. Instead, what comes is a knock on the door.
“Ms. Anaeto, are you in there?” a voice outside the door says.
“Anaeto, are you there? It’s me…”
“Kaira?” Anaeto, jumps out of the bed. “How did you find me?”
She unbolts the door to see Kairaamaka standing beside a policeman.
“Ms. Anaeto, a Ms. Nneora filed a Missing Person Report last night,” the policeman says.
“There must have been a mix up somewhere,” Anaeto stammers. “As you can see I am not missing.”
“The caller claims to be your mother and sounded genuinely worried that you didn’t come back from work on time and haven’t been picking up her calls. We contacted your co-worker, Ms. Kairaamaka who said she spoke to you yesterday. Luckily, we were able to track your phone navigation to a restaurant and the taxi you took to this motel.”
“Officer, this must be someone playing pranks with you. My mother is dead. She died two days ago.”
The policeman’s face softens. “I’m so sorry about that. I’ll leave now.”
“Your mother also called me last night,” Kairaamaka says when the policeman is out of earshot. “What have you done?” Kaira lets herself into the room and shuts the door.
“Nneora’s script has probably been attacked by the Turing Virus. That is why it can reprogram itself after being deleted and cleared from recycle,” Kairaamaka says. She and Anaeto are sitting on the bed, with empty boxes of pizza grazing their toes. All day, they have been going over what could have possibly gone wrong.
“But the Turing Virus is theoretical. Nobody has encountered it before. Machines and algorithms cannot act on their own, Kaira. That’s why we have programmers.”
“There is no other logical explanation. And the algorithm is not acting on its own, it has been programmed to act on its own.”
“What if it’s haunted? What if my mother’s ghost is haunting everything?”
“Anaeto, I’ll pretend that someone who graduated top of her class in uni and comes from a line of incredible programmers did not just talk about ghosts.”
“Did I tell you why I took my mother’s lifeless body to SENPI?”
“You didn’t have to. I know. The inquisitive scientist in you. For months we’ve been looking for people to volunteer a dead body for our research. An opportunity presented itself and you took it. I would have done the same. I am not judging…”
“No, Kaira, no. I resurrected my mother’s ghost because I didn’t want the Ghost of Unfinished Stories to gnaw at my head.”
“There are so many ghosts in this narrative, it’s becoming hard to follow.” Kaira scoffs.
“Are you making jest of me?” Anaeto frowns. “Why was it able to place a call and control the sound system?”
“You’re acting irrationally. Of course the program is on your Ugegbe, which is synced to your sound system and your mother’s phone. You are on your way to make a breakthrough to show that our project works for the human brain in a way so superior that the program begins to work on its own.” Kairaamaka gets up from the bed. “We’re going to your apartment. We’ll format your system. That way, we’ll clear the trace trails of the virus, and it can’t reprogram itself.”
Anaeto slow-nods and pretends to understand.
Anaeto, Where have you been?! Why haven’t you been answering your calls? You left me here. I can’t even leave this desk to cook and clean the house. Ah, you brought your co-worker with you. I had to disturb the poor girl yesterday when you didn’t come home. And why haven’t the police gotten back to me?
Anaeto is trembling even though Kairaamaka is holding her still and whispering, “This is a computer simulation and not your mother’s ghost,” to her.
You couldn’t even tell me your friend was coming, I would’ve at least ordered food.
“You should do it,” Anaeto tells Kaira.
Her co-worker goes over to the table and exits the hologram window on the Ugegbe. She holds down the Command and R keys, follows the prompt until she erases the OS.
“It’s over now,” Kaira says and hugs Anaeto. “I’ll be going home. I left my dog at a neighbor’s house. I doubt he’ll remember to feed her.”
“Thank you for everything.”
Anaeto stands transfixed at the door long after Kaira leaves. She is afraid that leaving the study will upset an invisible balance and her mother’s script will restart itself. An hour, two, three hours pass. Her feet give way, buckle, and she sprawls on the floor into a deep and troubled sleep.
Good morning, Anaeto. I must have slept off last night. Did you at least offer your friend water?
Anaeto freezes. Her first reaction is to call Kaira to tell her that formatting the OS did not work, but she decides against it. This is her ghost, and she is going to deal with it. She calls in sick for work and spends the entire morning browsing How To Get Rid Of Ghosts on her ZipPhone. By noon, she has settled for a three-day ritual from Death Dot Com.
Day one: Anaeto gathers Nneora’s belongings—books, pictures, clothes, gadgets, utensils, spice containers—into a heap in the woods at the back of their apartment and burns it. Day two: she scrubs the house with a special lavender detergent she ordered from the website. Day three: she burns a full pack of incense (which she also ordered from the website). The incense is so heavy in the room that she has to sleep in a hotel that night.
So when Anaeto walks into her apartment on the fourth day and sees the hologram hoisted on the projector and her Ugegbe’s screen on, she stares directly into the hologram. All the fear inside her dissipates. Why should I make Nneora go away after all, Anaeto muses to herself. She knows the right thing to do: file a complaint with the AI Review Board for a proper investigation because clinging to this is not healthy or reasonable, should not be healthy or reasonable. And what if her mother returns after the folks from ARB have combed every motherboard inch on the laptops, LCD projector, and the brain scanner? This ghost, or simulation, is something she created. Something that is not interested in going away. Something Anaeto must now learn to live with.
“Mama, good morning.”
Why have you been avoiding me for the past four days? Kedu ife mmere gi? What have I done to you? Gbo, Anaeto.”
“I’m sorry, Mama. I’ve been having trouble with work, but it’s over now. I’ve fixed it.”
I forgive you nnem, but you need to tell me things like this so that we can go through it together.
“Thank you, Mama.”
What are we making for breakfast?
By S.B. Divya
The phrase “ghost in the machine” was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle as a way to criticize Décartes’s belief in the mind-body duality. This is the idea that there exists a mind or self that is separate from the physical body, and it’s one that plays well with certain religious beliefs. It plays less well with what biology and neuroscience tell us right now, not only that our selfhood is encapsulated in our physicality, but also that the brain functions in concert with the rest of the body, not just as its conductor.
Personally, I’m not particularly spiritual, but I – like many science fiction authors – am intrigued by the idea that we can house ourselves in bodies that aren’t the ones we’re born with. Whether this is the digital “uploading” of the self to a machine, or – as in this story – a simulated model of the original person, most fiction doesn’t ask the question that “Electronic Ghost” does: might the machine, once imbued with a persona, decide that it exists?
Décartes is the originator of the phrase “I think, therefore I am.” If Anaeto’s script can create a reasonable facsimile of a human’s mind, then surely that human might decide that they’re happy living on as a virtual entity in a tablet. And if that happens, then who are we, the organically living, to decide that they shouldn’t exist?
Equally interesting in the science of the mind is that how we perceive each other. The latest theories point to us carrying simplified models of how the world works in our neuronal structures. I have a model of myself that ends at my skin, and I have a model of you that starts at yours. From my perspective, you exist as a sort of fiction in my mind, and my version of you is different from anyone else’s, one that’s shaped by my memories of you.
I would not consider Nneora’s ghost-in-the-machine the same person as the one who inhabited her living body, and I suspect that Anaeto wouldn’t either. This is why she has to grieve, accept her mother’s passing, and then come around to accepting this new version of her mother into her life. The two entities are definitely related. Perhaps her tablet is imbued with her mother’s soul, if you believe in such a thing, or perhaps not. What ultimately matters, in this case, is whether the two are the same in Anaeto’s view, especially if they inhabit the same place in her heart.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Nigerian novelist Ben Okri, who said, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”
Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.
About the Author
Innocent Chizaram Ilo is Igbo. They write to make sense of the world around them.
About the Narrator
Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe is a young Nigerian writer and a reluctant lawyer. Through the mediums of poetry and personal essays, her work explores the themes of womanhood, memory and self. Her work majorly revolves around the complexity of human emotions and how we as human beings deal with them. Her work is published in The Kalahari Review, Agbowo and The IceFloe Press. Her Medium page is keenly followed and enjoys a healthy followership and engagement. She tweets @fiyinskosko on Twitter