The first time you wake up with your chest straining, an aching sternum and something scraping your ribs, you’ve been to an ‘All You Can Eat’ Chinese buffet and cleaned them out of prawn toast. You wonder where you’ve left the antacids, open your eyes and there’s a high cheekboned, thin-lipped woman in armour sitting on your chest. You say loudly to the empty room: Khutulun. The best way to vanish phantoms is to name them. You resolve not to mix history books and salt and pepper squid again, and attempt to turn over.
Khutulun doesn’t seem to understand she’s been vanquished.
“You should make your own myths.”
Her voice is smoky and slight, not the sound of a powerful warrior who won horses in bets with complacent men. The spirit starts squeezing your arms, slowly working down from biceps to elbows. It feels like hairy caterpillars creeping under your skin.
“Wait for the right partner, don’t limit yourself.”
Would a woman who challenged suitors to wrestling-matches manifest to give relationship advice? This is every conversation you run away from with the Aunties, the ‘why-aren’t-you-married-yet’ gauntlet. The spirit grins, her mouth a bloody cavern, her teeth sharp as flints.
“Of course, this could be you talking to yourself. You don’t need to defend yourself to me.”
The questing hands reach down into your stomach, the gurgling there swirling into a vortex.
“Ah, that’s the problem. No guts. What are you relying on then?”
Khutulun wrenches her arms away, then splinters into atoms. The pressure of her nails leaves bites of pain. You push away your sweaty fringe and try to remember how to breathe.
The next time, you’re worn out from your night job at the supermarket and might have pulled a muscle scanning a watermelon. You read until your head hurts as much as every other part of your body. The jerk into wakefulness could be the ibuprofen wearing off, but a smooth-faced woman with a high forehead and pointed chin is reclining crossed-legged across your knees. ‘Letters of a Javenese Princess’ is still blinking on your tablet, Raden Ajeng Kartini has arrived as an apparition. Because you apparently need an extra tone for the chorus of how you’re wasting your education.
“But what’s the point of fighting for education for girls?”
Her imagined weight presses against the thin bones of your lower legs, which creak as if they could snap at any moment. Girls should be educated so they can achieve. And so they can be more attractive. Your abandoning of dentistry school and unrequited love for encyclopaedias are the opposite of everything this woman lived and worked for.
“It’s choice, isn’t it? The more you learn, the more options you have.”
Somehow Kartini’s long fingers probe through your skull. Down through the throbbing ache, down into the cells, on a fruitless search. ‘Night mares’ are named after a special type of bad dream, waking up feeling like a witch is sitting on your chest. But what’s a witch if not a woman who didn’t do what was expected of her?
“So, it’s not the learning that’s the waste, it’s the not choosing.”
Raden’s outline lingers, fades incrementally. Only her words press down.
You’re awake for the next one, or at least your eyelids aren’t closed. It’s a long time since the last unruffled sleep, day is leaching into night. A persistent murk fogs your thoughts. You’ve trudged through your life as a series of bitter swallows, not worrying about how all that poison stays in the body because you deserve to live this way. But now your subconscious is fighting back.
There’s a gentle cough, and a quizzical-looking woman with a wide, soft mouth sits beside you on the narrow bed. You’ve only seen one picture of Saroljini Naidu, the poet-politician, but her languid eyes are difficult to forget.
“You can have many forms, my dear.”
Thick fingers stroke your waist, from hips to diaphragm.
“If you’re trying to find my heart, I don’t have one. How else could I have trashed my parent’s dreams?” You’re harsher than you meant to be, vocal cords heavy with long-supressed words.
“I’m trying to find the real you, the old soul. It’s hiding.”
The other night hags haven’t spoken back, have responded only to inner fears. It seems you’ve internalised all the unwritten rules to create patterns of perfect beings that poke at your wounds.
“No-one’ s perfect, we all have the invisible stick we beat ourselves with. I found out who I was through my work, showed that through my poems. We don’t have to dwell in one life.”
Fingertips massage your kidneys, dance over your liver. There’s a rush, a release as if the poison has found an outlet.
You wake up before your alarm, your hygienist uniform is neatly folded, the room feels cool and fresh. Snatches of poems and stories resound in your head as you look up scholarships to fund a history degree.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in, former cactus mag, Litro, New Flash Fiction Review, Porridge and Longleaf Review. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer.
Featured photograph by Karissa Lang