“Woma” by Kelle Alden

Woma, you already know that during my visit to your music academy in Ghana, I climbed the mountain that nestles against your hometown, the one your family named after you. I trudged up the paths you cut through the jungle, rested on the boulders you moved aside, and photographed the fields you plowed. When we finally reached the sunlight at the apex of Mount Woma, our guide pointed out a lone log cabin in a shaded glade and talked about the spirits who hide in the treetops and roll in that cool grass.

I took more photos. Hiked back to the compound. Rehearsed the group dance exercises. Enjoyed your nieces’ red beans and plantains. Showered. Slept. Dreamed.

I was back on your mountain, where laughing creatures danced and sang to the irregular heartbeat of your drumline. Our students had been practicing the rhythm for days. Count three, then two, Wo-ma. When I neared the cabin, the trees blackened and twisted, and glowing animals, half solid, half spirit, disappeared into the dark. I heard the voice of one of my students back home, Decora, shouting a message I couldn’t understand, and she, too, faded away. I called out to her and followed, sensing a long journey ahead, but then the neighborhood boys kicked a soccer ball against my bedroom window and I woke up, heart racing.

I never told anyone (“This obruni,” they’d say. “She thinks she’s connected to Africa now”), but I treasured that dream: the vivid color, the resounding beat, the thrilling living memory of the mountain. As soon as I pinned down the details in my journal, they became another souvenir to keep, a beautiful story about a mysterious place. I spent another week in Ghana before I flew home, went to work, opened my email, and learned that Decora had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend while I was away.

She was twenty years old, Woma.

Explain yourself to me, Woma.

Was it a warning? If you had spirit energy to play with that night, why not send a message to her family, or her room mates, or her? What was I supposed to do from the other side of the world, Woma?

Why even let me dream about her, Woma? I was just her composition teacher. Didn’t her friends deserve that dream more? They’re the ones who attended the campus memorial and bore their grief in front of the greedy cameras. They gave statements for the press and collected funds for the funeral expenses while I collected shells on a beach on the other side of the Atlantic. She was already in the ground when I returned, Woma.

Was it a favor from one teacher to another, Woma? The common room in your family’s compound is a wall-to-wall photo memorial showcasing your lifelong commitment to our vocation. Hundreds of concerts. Thousands of students. Smiling faces in ceremonial dress. In all those decades, Woma, did you ever lose a student? Did you take a photo with them before they died? I meant to, someday, at her graduation.

What could I have possibly told her family about any of it, Woma? What need did they have for my self-pity, my ten-day-late delusions about spirits? Instead, I downloaded all the essays Decora wrote for class to my computer, reread them, then buried them in my hard drive. I see Decora’s aunt sometimes in town, but I wave, smile, burn with shame. The files rot in my laptop. She was my student, Woma. I should have been at that memorial.

Did you know that Decora was studying to rehabilitate athletes, Woma? She loved music and dancing, just like you, and she idolized her aunt, who taught her the value of hard work. (Decora told me all about it in her essays.) When Decora’s friends missed coursework due to personal troubles, she stayed after class to ask me to help them. Decora missed class herself once for a court date, but she avoided saying what it was about. Do you enjoy possessing knowledge that doesn’t change the outcome, Woma? I have so much to trade for what you gave me.

Woma, you all-seeing spirit, you dead person, you beloved grandfather of a dozen music teachers, you complete asshole: I do not understand you. I was only in Ghana for ten days, and that wasn’t enough time to know what you are, why you let me dream of my student, or why I think of you in present tense and Decora in past. I know why my student is dead, Woma, but I will never understand that, either.

Don’t tease me with hints of otherworldly power, Woma. Don’t call the rhythm if I can’t respond. Don’t let me think that I could buy another ticket to Ghana, reclimb your mountain, fall asleep in that cabin, and visit the spirit world. Don’t let me imagine that ten more seconds would have been enough, that I could have reached out a hand to her, pulled her back into that overpowering sunshine on the mountaintop, delivered her into the arms of everyone who loved her.

Don’t put strange ideas in my head, Woma, because I don’t know what to do when they don’t work.

Kelle Alden teaches writing and gives a generally normal life. She revised her work a lot and submitted it to several magazines before it was published, same as any author. You can do it, too.