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Therein Lies a Soul

Under the bridge, there’s a veiled woman. She’s said to be merged with the dark, to be the shadow of a human being, or a creature, or some other kind of horrid thing. Over the years, paintings have been rendered to capture her likeness, to describe something—someone to warn the others in the city. Often times, the work looks like chicken scratch—unfinished, rushed, and done in a hurry. The physical features are hard to make out, but there is a nail as long and sharp as a cat’s claw, and there is a wicked smile. You can clearly see a veil: black and lined with red, the signature feature. There is always a veil, and a smile, and a nail, but there is never anything else. You will never see a face.

One day, I looked too closely, and I saw an eye.

These days, not much has changed. The city still has its charm. Spiders have come again to invade, so the city has been marked with webs sticky enough to catch any prey. The dirtiness of the city is a reluctant thing, and despite all efforts, the smell of rancid market beans and black spots all over the land cannot be scrubbed out. The vultures have taken over the sky, leaving us in shade, and these days, it almost feels like there is no place in this city for humans to reside.

All I can do is sing. I came out of this world sticky and belting out the highest notes, and I’ve been doing that ever since. There are a lot of things that don’t work in this city, with broken down buildings that resemble an apocalypse street, but the choir is one thing that stays clean. We must have one good thing in this ghastly place, something for which lives can be laid down for, and the choir is it. The hours are endless, and the work is pure labor, but some joy comes from it. I still get to hum in synchronized peace with the other choir fellows, and for a moment all is still. I still get to close my eyes and let out my soul, and for that brief moment, it’s the safest I ever feel.

I finished choir practice early on the day of the eye sighting because I was excused. The Brothers told me to go higher, higher, higher, in the hymn and in response, my voice broke, shattered, then exploded into coughs. It was useless for me to be there if I could not be at my best for the Brothers, and so I left the hall, half ashamed but relieved for the opportunity to rest, and then I saw the eye.

My way home is always made up of the shortest routes I can find. I can take a pathway through a haunted forest if it would get me in my bed quicker, where I would know no trouble lies my way. It’s not a particularly violent city; it’s far too small to be murderous and I suppose it has its charm—but it isn’t one to linger in. It’s a simple law we have, really: that if no one should be found where they are not supposed to be, then no one may be a victim of circumstance. I always move fast, steps faster than my shadow, but when I crossed the bridge that day, even I had to stop for an eye.

It wasn’t possible to resist, to keep moving. The wind shifted, stopped, then came to a halt. My surroundings changed, warped, yet stayed the same. The soles of my feet burned each time I walked a step further, and my blood itched. My heart stopped. My black skin went cold. My ribs slammed into each other, like wind chimes, and I could feel the presence behind my back. A stare. A temptation. A calling.

So I looked. Underneath the bridge was complete darkness, an eternal void. Nothing. For a moment I thought I was dreaming, but this event was far too specific for my mind to conjure. But I couldn’t move, and I could barely breathe, and all I could see was the dark.

Then something amongst the darkness flapped in the wind. The silhouette of the veil, black and red. It looked like the hood of Death as it appeared, and chills went down my spine. Terror consumed me. I already knew what was happening, that the woman had come for me, so what followed was the smile. White lips parted to reveal a row of teeth that hung loose from their gums, tinted with specks of silver, coated with layers of ice. I’d seen all these features before in the pictures I’d memorized, but experiencing it in reality made me petrified. Frozen in place. Sweat rolled off me and my body burned faster than dead trees used to make wildfire.

But I’d seen the veil and the smile, the first two features, so I assumed next was the nail. Maybe after she revealed the spike hanging off her fingertip, she would let me go. Then I would run and not stop running till I’d fled this incident and any other like it. Till I had blocked it out of my memory, forced it down, repressed it. Slept it off and called it a nightmare, a common scare, drank it away with tea. Horrible things had happened in this town, worse to come, I don’t doubt, but what mattered was how I reacted when this was over.

But she didn’t show me the nail. She didn’t. That smile was too knowing, deceptive, and she turned her veil around. She stared at me with one good eye, one red eye, one wide colossal telescope and peered right into me. She took my breath away, seized my soul.

I saw an eye only hell could have known, with fiery pupils, filled with damnation and pain and suffering. War and pestilence and truth. I saw an eye that turned my guts to blackwater, dissolved my spirit to the endless grey, and clouded my mind. I saw an eye that birthed spiders, that bulged the writhing things out of its corneas, then let them roam the earth. A cursed thing, an eye no one should ever see; the true evidence that I have never lived in a good world with peace and love.

And then my body started dragging forward. Moving on its own. Closer to the edge of the bridge. Stepping on the ledge. Ready to fall. But just close to my end, just as I was about to descend, I sang wide and deep, calling like a whale, and the eye closed.

The town bell rings like a mangy mutt coming out from a bath, shaking off its dust the way one would shake off water. The bell hits the side of buildings like it wants to collapse them, but its call is nonetheless effective, signaling everyone to move forward.

As the bell rings, I run to choir practice in my singing gown, holding the traditional attire of woven beads up to my knees to prevent it from catching any black spot this city leaks. Despite my brother’s best efforts, the men’s youth fit of the choir uniform is still baggy, and when the wind rises on my gown, I believe that I resemble an umbrella.

Since my sighting of the eye, I have always been late to things, but I have always been forgiven. Normally, the Brothers would have me scrubbing the floors for coming hours behind practicing time, but since my incident, they’ve been lenient with me. I’ve finally captured their attention. I told them of the evil that befell me that wretched day, and though they were sympathetic, they were more interested in the wonder my voice could do.

“Don’t you understand?” The Brothers told me, “This is what art should do. To heal. To cast a light. You could be the ticket to curing this city of its wretchedness, one note at a time.”

“But not in your current state,” another Brother said, glanced at me in contempt. “You need to refine yourself, lest we’ll all die by spider’s web and black spot.”

I don’t particularly believe what the Brothers say, but they seemed insistent on training me, so I am willing. Truth be told, anything that will make me feel like I am somewhat conquering the veiled woman is already a victory to me.

So my hours have become longer, longer than any other child that sings. The Brothers have become impatient with the other singers to make up for their leniency with me. Erratic. Temperamental. A wrong note these days for any other singer will end with a slap. A kick. Time spent outside, to lay bare in the rainy season cold. I would feel bad for the other choir members if I didn’t have more work to do myself. I am barely allowed a break, a moment to feed myself or take a midday nap, as every moment I must rehearse. Hours, till dawn, I am yelling, screaming, screeching in this dark hall. Midnight I am belting, baring my spirit, bleating. But despite all the labour, I treasure the work. I love the opportunity to sing, to make my voice better, to sing these notes and make the Brothers proud. These cords have become my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and these Brothers have become more than family—they’ve become my soul.

“And of course we’ll need to introduce you,” Brother Dumebi says, halting my voice and his play on the talking drum. “A concert, maybe, at the town symposium. Let everyone know that you’re the one to battle.”

“What nonsense!” Brother Festus screams, and though I am jilted, I am not allowed speak, unless it’s to sing. I am to keep my voice at optimum temperature, to be passive, still. “Absolutely not, Brother Dumebi. We can’t let anyone know. You can’t tell anyone anything in this town unless you want it to be ruined against your favour. And we cannot have this going wrong.”

“Superstition,” Brother Dumebi rants, standing up. “He’s almost perfect—he should be showcased! A marvel to all the work we have done. This sends a message that we’re strong—invincible.”

“Only someone working with the veiled woman would utter such logic,” Brother Festus says, then there is silence. Rain outside. Brother Dumebi looks speechless at the accusation, brows furrowed, mouth wide. Then he becomes enraged.

“You think I’m an agent of the veiled woman?”

“You might not know it. We don’t know how she works. And you’re known to walk that bridge late at night. Who knows what could have happened?”

Brother Dumebi’s eyes narrow, nostrils flare. His neck tightens, teeth clench. “The nerve of you to even suggest that—no, you know what, I’m not even going to give you the satisfaction of an argument. I’m just going to ask, if I’m the agent of darkness, if that’s your logic because God forbid I want to do things a different way—then how do we know the boy isn’t possessed?”

I try to get up and defend myself but a Brother shuts me down, pushes me back in my chair. A flame rises in my chest.

The Brothers laugh, then Brother Festus speaks. “Don’t be a fool because you’re emotional, Dumebi. The boy shut the veiled woman’s eye.”

“How do we know he’s not been working with her? He could be a traitor to this city, this town, this choir. Seeing as we just let him in, we’d—”

“I’m not possessed!” I scream, rising out of my chair. I can’t let this man speak ill against me. The flame spreads across my chest, and heat fills up all the words I speak. “I’m sorry, and I mean no disrespect. But I will not allow myself to be ruined. I’m not possessed. You don’t know what I’ve seen.”

“I’m not your enemy,” Brother Dumebi says. It was not my intention to speak with fury, but the man looks merciful, almost pleading. “I just wanted to point out the hypocrisy of my fellow mates.”

“Not with me as your scapegoat,” I say, but whatever flame I had is gone. The words come out as mild as water; a soft cloud buried by the cold.

The night is clearly over after the arguments. Every note I try to hit thereafter—there is voice, but there is no soul. The Brothers barely pay attention to me, lost in minds of their own. I can’t help but worry that Brother Dumebi has planted a seed in them that I’m some sort of hellspawn. Deep down, I fear that because of the eye incident, I may never get to perform again.

But I can’t think about that. I can’t even imagine it. I should be grateful the Brothers are protecting me.There’s so much already going on my thoughts, a whirlwind of disaster that clogs my throat. I can’t lose myself to conspiracy, but superstition and suspicion has always been the way of this town, so it’s hard to break from that.

One of the Brothers takes me home in their rickety ride, a bumpy carriage on the verge of giving up its ghost. Streets are outlined in shadows in this dark night, this hour of omens. Even in the company of others, I still feel alone whenever I cross the bridge. Isolated, frozen stiff, like I’m just about to fall.

And I still see the eye. It is forever. It is eternal. Where that image has planted itself in me, it can’t be avoided. It’s ever present yet it’s post traumatic, but it follows me wherever I go, and it’s real. And it’s haunting me. And it won’t let me go.

I don’t know why this is happening to me. I don’t know why this has happened to me. There’s no justification for why I suffer this unlucky occurrence, and it’s possible that there might even be no explanation. I’ve never lived in a world that was good and just, and its logic has never been like that of a fairytale.

But even though there might be no fairytale theories, there still might be reason. Cause—a motive. Support. I am not alone in this. I am not the only one to have experienced this. And I am not possessed. I rebuke the thought.

Other people, over the years, have crossed that bridge to see a veil, a nail, a smile. Other people have had their lives stirred like a ladle in a pot; their bodies frozen to see those features. Many of them have existed to illustrate their visions and pass on folktales.

Most of them are dead. I know of no other that has seen the eye.

There’s a special graveyard for the deceased who saw the strange things lurking in this town. It’s outlined in white chalk and ground crayfish powder. It’s truly a ghost town with one or two visitors, as most things are with the supernatural, and over the years, it’s been inhabited by spiders. Just close to the graveyard is the official library, a creaking frame of woodwork and old parts. I guess it makes sense, really: for silent things to be put together.

The history section is where I discover the descriptions of the veiled woman. There are only three books on this topic and they’ve been touched far too many times, either by skeptics or the petrified.

When I hear a noise in the library, I am shaken up. I look around, frozen stiff again, imagining an eye the size of planets, but it’s nothing really. It’s just the shifting of chairs, along with the sigh of long hours spent researching to no avail, and the quiet whistle of the librarian organizing the catalogue.

I relax and bring out my journal, for the notes I plan to take. Being in a constant state of panic all the time is exhausting, a drain on my source of life, and I grow weary of it. But even that’s an understatement—I’m sick of it. The feeling of being powerless, of accepting these horrible events just happen because this town breeds it—it’s irritating. I’m starting to despise the loud bells and the inactivity of a ghost town, the unfriendliness and quick movements. It’s truly an awful thing—the black spots and the spiderwebs and the dustiness of city streets. Everything about this place is ancient and dusty, fading or breaking. To ponder on it, I never liked this city. I just took it for what it was.

But it isn’t good enough for me.

So I read. I turn each page. Jot down notes under silence and little activity, patient to the hours that go by. Write down my theories. As every legend goes, I find that we, the people in this city, have made assumptions. Never in a paragraph do I see any information suggesting that the veiled woman is old, or is ugly, or resembles a witch, but growing up, these were the stories told to me. From the picture of her that is in my mind, the eye that won’t let me go, I know parts of her looked strange, but everything else about her is a mystery. Is she even alive? Is she a resident of this city too? I truly wonder, does she walk the streets at midnight hours, cackling to herself about the ruse she has played? Who is she, really, this woman of the bridge below, slowly revealing herself using the fear of the unknown?

Questions like these are strange to be thinking about. I have lived in this city for so long, that to even be skeptical signals doubt for the stories I’ve been raised on. It signal heresy, to even ponder on our tradition of fear and superstition. A good way to respect the elders in this city is by accepting all that they say, processing all of the lies as fact. But there are different versions to every story, and there’s always more to the tale.

And there is a connection. More often than not, the people writing down their experiences with the veiled woman have a name that’s familiar to me. They, in no way, sound similar to the other, nor are they related, but they spark stars in my mind.

But the connection is a thread. A wire. Bait. I spend more hours in the library. I look for books to support what I’m looking for. And flipping through a dusty old photography collection, circling each name I see, I find that most of survivors of this veiled woman’s attack—they were members of the choir.

The rainy season of the town only gets colder, and soon everyone starts wearing coats. Rain is supposed to dissolve most things, to weigh down the webs and drive down the rancid smells of the city, into the gutters to be flushed out, but the black spots of the town ground only get stickier. The city only gets slimier, like it’s coated with a thick layer of phlegm.

Most people tend not to come for choir practice because their lungs are cold, or they can’t make the walk, or they’ve caught a cold. One would think in a city where people keep to themselves, sickness would not spread so fast, like a match in dry heat, but sometimes, opposites occur.

My choir practice is still never ending, with hours and hours of work. I don’t believe the Brothers know what they’re doing, with no concrete plan to defeat the evil underneath the bridge, but my voice seems to give them hope. It used to give me hope too, and safety, but that feels so far away now. Distant, a relic of a life before.

I’ve yet to ask the Brothers anything about the connection between the choir and the veiled woman, but I doubt they know. Though they’ve become more pleasant towards me, I know their attitude is conditional. It’s all fake smiles, hidden to cover up their fear. When I let out my flame in my chest to defend myself against any allegation, they almost fled from me. If I told them I thought I had an eye in my throat, and deep inside my forehead, and one inside all of my very joints and bones, they would lock me up. I’m more spectacle than a human being at this point, an instrument to be seen out of by the things inside me. Maybe, through me, the veiled woman is watching our every move, our works, even though I don’t do anything in this practice room but sing.

The choir room is as shiny as polished shoes, with records all over the place. Old pictures, and instruments, and music. It has become a fertile place for my research: to look around and see if anything strikes a cord concerning the veiled woman and the town choir.

“Were there ever any strange women in the chorus?” I ask, stopping myself mid-lyric. Mid-song. As though I triggered a primal nerve in asking that question, the Brothers’ halt their play on their musical instruments, and their eyes turns to slits. Like magic, all traces of fear from their expressions seem to vanish, and they step closer to me.

“There have been all sorts of peculiar people amongst our league of choristers over the years,” Brother Festus tells me, in a sharp voice that makes it a matter-of-fact. “It doesn’t matter, as long as they can hit a note. Why?”

I try to explain my thoughts, quick, as though if I’m fast to make them understand then their anger will fade. “I’ve been doing a bit of research and I found out that many members of the choir have seen—”

“It doesn’t matter what they’ve seen!” Brother Festus cuts me mid-sentence; doesn’t let me finish. “You needn’t concern yourself with that. You have shown power to defeat her, and that’s all that matters now.”

My chest grows heavy, stirring with heat. “Exactly what are we defeating? What am I being trained to fight against—a scary face? A smile? An eye?”

The Brothers almost gasp, then their faces turn sour. A grimace etches itself onto Brother Festus’ face, but when he tries to grip my hand I pull away. For a moment, his face almost reverts to fear but he hides it up quickly. The Brothers are useless little lizards, deep down, and I’ve had just enough of their superstition and their work that needs to nowhere. I want answers.

“I don’t like your tone,” Brother Festus spits into my face, hisses into my ear. His words are full of venom and I am burning with a wretched fire.

“I apologise,” I say. I relax my breath till I am subdued. Till I am calm. The Brothers still have hold over me as the gatekeepers of the choir, and I have to be respectful, lest they may bar me from any singing outside of defeating the veiled woman. I give off a smile to placate them.

“We’ve all been operating on high emotions this night. I say—we do something light. The annual choir performance to celebrate another year’s end is coming up. I assume I’m the lead?”

The room goes quiet, as eerie as the supernatural graveyard. A lump forms in my throat. Brother Dumebi coughs.

“We’ve been talking about that. We don’t think you should be in it.”

“Surely there has to be room for reconsideration—”

“Absolutely not,” Brother Festus commands, with a shaky hand, and I am silenced. Pained. “And I’d watch that tone if I were you.”

My chest falls into my stomach with an awful sounding thud. I’m upset—no, an understatement—I’m too disappointed for words. But I’m not surprised. From the moment I told the Brothers about the day at the bridge, I knew my life would change, but the change hasn’t helped me.

The Brothers haven’t helped me either. Everything I’ve found out, all the work I’ve researched, I’ve discovered it myself. The people who I thought I was safe with were the ones I’ve had to defend myself against. And I don’t trust the Brothers, most of all, because they fear me. Whatever I’ve become, whoever I am now doesn’t matter—possessed or not, to them, I’m not human. To them, I’m an illusion, an idea, a bit of hope. A solution. They don’t care about me.

I suggest to go home early when I see everyone yawning, stretching arms and blinking

fast. The offer is taken up immediately, and that rickety carriage used by the Brothers drives me all the way home. For the first time, I don’t look at the bridge when the carriage crosses past it. I shut my eyes, all of them, and let the ride take me home.

They drop me off at the door and I let the Brother speed away. Everyone is sleeping, curled up in bed at this time—this hour of omens, this dark night. But I don’t open my door to lay in my bed, as I’ve done time and time before. I start running.

Running. Running. Running and into the woods, fleeing everything that’s held me captive. Shackled. Bound my feet stiff. I’m going to take action and run away, and I won’t even pack a bag. There’s nothing worth saving or taking with me. It’s just to leave. I hate this town.

But when I’ve lost track of place, when I’m clearing past awful tree branch for a damn way out, my heart stops. I seize up, barely able to move, blood boiling in my skull. I can’t take another step. But I can move back. Steps away, further into the horrors of the town I hate. But I can’t leave. This city won’t let me go.

And it’s not bloody fair. It’s not fair that I can’t exist in a good and kind world, and I can’t depart to find a better one. It’s not fair that I can’t even find comfort when I sing anymore, or hope of my own. It’s not fair that ghastly things happen, and I saw an eye, and I was forced to look at it. Life has never been anything but shambles and pain, horror and fear, and it’s not right.

Tears brim in my eyes. My stomach rumbles, louder than the silence of the night. My feet lay sore, even in the warmth of the ground. In this hour of darkness, the flame in my chest spreads through my entire being, and all my eyes snap open. In this hour of my hurt, of my disaster, the eyes all over my body start to speak.

Go to her, they say, but it is less of a command and more of a plead. I’ve always been curious of the veiled woman, and ever since our first meeting, I’ve had this little flutter in my chest, like I was bound to see her again. I suppose it was foolish of me to expect anything from the Brothers after I saw the eye, but that was when I still had hope. I don’t have hope anymore, just questions, and I can protect myself.

I saw an eye that was barely an eye itself, when it was more of a pulsating ball of flesh that was carved into, to be made into something that could see. I saw an eye of temptation, a blinking ball of fire that turned my head to its direction. I see eyes, so many eyes, in my sleep, stabbed into trees. This city is just a giant eye, if I think about it, big and blinking, made of unsteady things known to fall apart.

I reach the bridge and take a deep breath, one that keeps itself in my throat when I look down at all the black below. I gulp and shake, and my heart beats too fast for me.

Go to her, the eyes say, and it’s all the push I needed. I fall. I descend. I enter pitch black radius, the center of the veil and the first eye to see me, and I land on my feet. Steady. Balanced.

She is sitting down, looking up at me with a smile, staring at me with her eye. The veil is covered over her—like she’s the bride in a wedding. The last time I saw her, she was the epitome of fear, but now, she looks rather ordinary. At peace. She lifts the veil, and her face—well, the face of the veiled woman—it’s not flesh. It’s sticky. It’s threaded. It’s finely put together, weaved around to be a complex frame of structure.

It’s cobwebs.

“You’ve arrived,” she says, waving her sharp fingers. One of her fingers looks fleshy, the one she most likely raises up to scare the people in this city. The rest of her hand is pure web. She looks ageless, refined. I can barely speak.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she says again. I can only nod. I’m lost in thought. Confused, really. What other horrors of this town have the spiders been weaving, creating, like the one right in front of me?

“You see,” she starts, and I am immediately attentive to what she has to say. Her voice sounds irritated, clogged with utmost annoyance. “When you sang that day, you made a situation rather complicated for me. All you had to do was shut your mouth, then the possession would be completed—”

“So you were trying to possess me!” My voice finally lets out, in a high-pitched scream. The heat in my chest starts to burn with anger, to the point of stroke, but more than anything, I just want to understand what’s happening.

“Of course I was,” she says, shaking her head, like I should know better. As she does so, the webs of her neck cross over and twist together. “The choir has some of the most glorious voices in this city. Over the years, there have been some terrific singers. None as great as me, if we’re being frank. So I let them go. Until you. You came past and I just knew that I had to have you, that I needed to be you, one last time.”

“One last time?” I question. My eyebrows furrow in concern. “What are you suggesting?”

“I died before my end of year performance, of cholera, if you can imagine, so I’ve always been unfinished.” She sighs, then takes a pause. When she speaks again, her voice, demeanor, starts to break. “I’m a ghost. The spiders crafted this body of mine to help me find the perfect host, of which to use their voice. I need to do this, to perform my final song so that people in this city will see I’m worth a damn. They never thought of me as much, but when the elders still hear my voice decades later, oh, they’ll remember. They’ll hold me in highest regard.”

I shake my head, holding my hands close to me. “No! Heavens, no. You don’t need to do anything but leave this place, ghost. Leave us alone.”

She gives off a sad laugh, then her voice becomes steely. “It’s foolish of you to think you can just command me. I can’t leave. Not without my last performance. I need a body to perform, or I will always be here. And I will always be terrified that I lived life unfinished, and this fright of mine will always end up harming the people in this place.”

She steps closer to me. My body becomes tense, but I’m not scared. I’m in control. I am my own.

“Just let me in. Lend me your voice. Don’t you want to free this town from me? Don’t you want me gone? The Brothers always said you could save this city from whatever curse that possesses it. Now is your chance. I need you to consent, that I can use your voice for my final performance, or you might sing again, and that would ruin everything.

I shuffle my feet and move to the other side of the room. I have to ponder it. I’m not allowed to sing at the year-end performance, so I’d have to disobey the Brothers. I’d have to break the rules. But what does that matter, anyway? Fear is such a desperate thing, a spot that exists between both living and dead. It is forever. It is eternal. It never goes away, just transforms to what the next thing might be. I look at her face again, the web strong and sturdy.

“One last time,” I tell her, then close my eyes. She gives off something between a cry and a cackle of a laugh then holds me still. Frozen. My throat becomes filled with slime, like mucous is being forced down my tongue. It tastes bitter, invaded, and the skin around my neck squirms and shifts as her body fights its way in. All the eyes in my body join together and settle in my vocal cords, and their numerous speech become one.

I shut my eyes and breathe.

My voice is filled with ghosts. It is a voice that is not my own.

About the Author

Osahon Ize-Iyamu is a writer of speculative fiction. You can find him online @osahon4545. He lives in Nigeria, where he is currently working on his first novel.