Spook Asem

2,023 total words    

8 minutes of reading

One morning during an upstate New York winter, I stood barefoot in a T-shirt, towel over my shoulder, and turned the knob. The gas stove hissed, rattled, and spoofed up an orange-tinged blue flame that startled me. I reduced the intensity and placed the moka on the burner. The espresso sputtered, and the apartment smelled of medium-roast coffee. I asked, and Siri informed me it was seven degrees Fahrenheit outside. I zipped my topcoat up with gloved hands and stepped out, backpack snug against my layers. I live on a busy street in an industrial zone that is also partly residential, and often the emissions from the vehicles passing burn my throat. My exhales are thick like cotton candy.

My dad once bought me cotton candy wrapped in a clear polythene bag when I was maybe ten. When I asked what the stuff was, he’d said that it was spook asem. I frowned—a ghost’s breath? But with the climate-change crisis, and the mass extinction of species, the thought that a modern human like me could be a ghost is not far-fetched, especially if innocent-looking routines such as mine continue unchecked.

A ghost’s breath. Cotton candy, alveoli in lungs. When I was a child in upstate New York in the 1970s, my father worried about water. He drank every night, until his voice became spook asem. His words hung in the air: Lack of running water in the West. Colorado River dried up. No crops. Disrupted food supplies. I sat behind the wall and listened. Now it’s 2022, and the ghosts are out: “The Interior Department is seeking emergency cuts to reduce the risks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, declining to dangerously low levels next year. . . . We are facing the growing reality that water supplies for agriculture, fisheries, ecosystems, industry, and cities are no longer stable due to climate change.”[1]

The year my dad bought me cotton candy was the year I lost my cousin to a snake bite on a colonial reservation called Omutiuanduko in Namibia. She got bitten, wrapped her finger in her loin napkin’s hem, and kept playing. By the time my grandmother noticed, the venom had spread. Years later, I was in a first-aid class, and the teacher said, “Not all snakes in Namibia are venomous, but if you see a snake, you must assume it is venomous and steer clear of it.” Now, oil companies?

When I hear fracking, my mind rushes to Namibia’s scarcest resource: water. I think of my retired father’s newly acquired land in the Oshikoto region and how fracking might affect his garden and the few animals that will sustain the family for years to come. I ask him how close his land is to the fracking zone, and he tells me not to worry because it’s far away, but I worry because water flows there.

After the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania was fracked, water from kitchen faucets bubbled with methane. One night in 2015, I sat on a friend’s porch in Mansfield and watched the flames burn several hundred feet down the hill, open pits of fire set to burn excess natural gas. We were drinking whiskey that went down like its own form of poisoned flame. In front of me, a quilt of gray and green: oaks and maples, several hundred-foot evergreens, then flames shooting up from barren patches. People and places get sacrificed, my friend wrote in a book about cycling through the fracked land.[2] We talked about how much everything around him had changed. In New York, we’d held our breath as the state decided whether to frack. It didn’t, the reports from over the border too frightening: “Pennsylvania is awash in toxic waste produced by drilling and fracking . . . the Marcellus shale formation is highly radioactive, and that this radioactivity is brought to the surface through fracking and carried into the produced wastewater. Radium-226 has a half-life of 1600 years.”[3] Like an oil spill choking waves for generations, the radioactivity sits on the shale’s surface. We knew, but I’m not sure what many of us did. Like Mercia’s cousin, we just reached for whatever tourniquet of reassurance we could find, kept playing with all our things.

On Easter break’s first day, it rained. I pictured Kuiseb River’s waters crashing into Swakopmund’s coastline, people recording the first rush in eleven years. Namibia, the driest sub-Saharan African country, had gotten rain, the flock had been watered, people danced along water-filled perennial rivers, ululating. I pulled out my phone, called my stepmom back to hear why she’d called at a time as odd as noon on a Friday. It was six in the evening in Windhoek.

It rained on an unpaved road in the Omaruru area where my dad was traveling. In earlier talks, we’d discussed the movement of underground streams, fracking, the water as danger. That day, water had carved out a car-toppling donga, and the description of my dad lying by the roadside, neck broken, wouldn’t set in until I was sitting on my bed, waiting for updates.

Too much, not enough. Poisoned. The Susquehanna has flooded three times in the thirty years I’ve lived here. In 2011, the flood hit on my birthday, cresting higher than twenty-five feet. By noon, cars in the parking lot at the Walmart had gone under. Twenty-four thousand people were evacuated and set up camp at the events center at the university. There were 229 homes destroyed, 9,000 damaged. Governor Cuomo surveyed the damage by helicopter.

Binghamton Flood, 2011. Photo by Bill Walsh.

The great flood was the first thing I heard in the backseat of the yellow taxi that picked me up from the too-quiet airport in 2018. The air was humid, trees thriving, the cab driver pointing to all the parts once underwater. I nodded, overwhelmed by the sudden change from the dry climate I was accustomed to. I absorbed all the trees as the cab driver gave me a brief history of what used to be an industrial town, now with the university as the main employer. I rationed my breaths in between his sentences, oohing and aahing as my nose tasted the air, which felt a lot like Lubango’s. Watery. I knew I’d breathe better here, my skin would be suppler.

In the human body, water regulates temperature. It lubricates joints, protects organs, moistens the tissues of the eyes, nose, and mouth. It carries oxygen and nutrients to cells, flushes out the waste products filtered through the liver and kidneys. In the larger ecosystem, water is most important: all organisms need water to survive. It cycles through the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, lakes, and soil. Bodies of water divide environments into different habitats, determining who and what lives where. The Susquehanna River, which runs through Binghamton, is the most polluted river in the Northeast. People fish, but you can’t eat them. Across it, a toxic plume spreads out beneath the houses, the accumulated residues of fifty years of industrial prosperity in the heyday of the Endicott-Johnson shoe factory and the headquarters of IBM, the buildings empty now. The IBM Country Club, where one of my friends used to bowl and play cards as a boy, is spumes of fallen insulation, twisted wires, graffiti covering every space. Filthy river, ghosts of the factories, living wages, a time when people believed that the world was prosperity, growth.

Wreckage from the IBM Country Club, Endicott, NY, 2021.

Midcentury optimism and prosperity, always haunted by other things. My father drank beer like polluted water. When he was thirteen, his father shot his mother, then shot himself, a day that separated the first part of his life from all the rest. Spook asem. I am my father’s ghost breath. All around me, trees are uprooted in the short storms bewildering in their intensity, the ground too dry, too wet. His storms are my memories, and I try to breathe. Asthma, my doctor tells me.

I wonder what made my father joke as he lay on a stretcher with three crushed cervical vertebrae, his spinal cord worried for/across the unbreakable silences of time zones and hemispheres. I felt like a seven-year-old gnawing her fingers in terror of losing her dad—the one parent who chose not to leave her. I protested the neck surgery that, if successful, would have him back on his feet within a month—what about the flip side of that if? I desired no part of any future in which my dad did not come out intact, alive, to nurture like new growth, like water that splatters—shines like silver.

But the moment he knew I was on the phone, my dad said, “Yebo,” and I could see his wrinkled cheeks hollowing. A smile. He gave a thumb’s up in the hospital foyer, a blanket rolled beneath his neck. My dad, a pious man, said yes in Tsotsitaal even though he knew the future was, like Schrödinger’s cat, both there and not there.

My father died by himself. He contacted me nine months before, saying that he finally wanted me to visit, but only after he wrote me a letter first. He wanted to tell me the hell his early life had been. I checked the mail daily, but it never came.

It was his landlord who told me about his death. Jerry. “I knew something was wrong when he didn’t go out and feed those birds,” he said, a voice coming at me through my iPhone, a stranger I’d never met. “You couldn’t keep him away from them. I found him on the floor in the kitchen. He was one big man, and it wasn’t so easy to move him.”

I cleaned out his apartment a couple of weeks later. I looked for the letter in all of his things, the Wild America calendars, prescriptions for Lisinopril, spiral-bound notebooks with grocery lists with items like “two Del Monte Fruit Naturals,” in between his Kershaw wilderness knife and a Christmas card I sent him in 2006. No letter, no promised history.

Jerry saved his ashes for me. He found somewhere to place them in the forest where my father used to walk, a place, Jerry told me, between just the right confluence of trees, where the light hits all day. “I want him to have a little light,” Jerry said. I think about the light my father was, all those things he could foresee, now everywhere around us: Lack of running water in the West. Colorado River drying up, no water for the food crops. I don’t think he knew I was listening.

The United States is at a crossroads, the mandate to grow at all costs coming to a head, dead bodies discovered as the water recedes in Lake Mead. In Los Angeles, celebrities are issued “notices of exceedance,” having surpassed their water budgets in the drought. We have all been issued notices of exceedance; haunted by ghosts of Native Americans, land and lives were taken in the American genocide, in the Holocaust of slavery. Transgenerational transmission of trauma, human droughts.

We never get to choose how our lives go out. Mostly we fumble through darkness, unsure if our next step is a foot into the river that will swallow us. Scientists extrapolate timelines in which we no longer exist. Burning fossil fuels, we release Earth’s black breath, extracting the goo from the dead of prehistory. Consumption, consumption, consumption, there’ll soon be no familiar voice to tell us life will thrive. If Earth goes, so do we.

Water. Fathers. Human breath. Spook asem?


[1] Ian James, “As Water Crisis Worsens on Colorado River, an Urgent Call for Western States to ‘Act Now,’” LA Times, June 20, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-06-20/as-colorado-river-reservoirs-drop-states-urged-to-act-now.

[2] James S. Guignard, Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015).

[3] Tracy Carluccio, “Fracked Gas Lays Waste to Pennsylvania,” Sierra Club Pennsylvania, September 24, 2021, https://www.sierraclub.org/pennsylvania/blog/2021/09/fracked-gas-lays-waste-pennsylvania.

Image Credits: Featured image Bernice 1 and 2 moisture flare courtesy of Flickr Tim Evanson CC BY 2.0 DEED. All other photographs by Leslie Heywood taken in Endicott, New York, at the site of the former IBM Country Club in October 2021.

  • Mercia Kandukira

    Mercia Kandukira was born in Omaruru, Namibia where she obtained her B.Ed at the University of Namibia. As a Fulbright scholar, Mercia obtained her MA in English Creative Writing at Binghamton University, where she now pursues a doctoral degree in English. Her prose has appeared in Windmill: the Hofstra Journal of Literature and Art, in Alchemy Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.
  • Leslie Heywood

    Leslie Heywood is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University, where she is a member of the Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Executive Committee and teaches seminars in Animal Studies, Neuroaesthetics, and Creative Nonfiction. Her latest book is Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors (Red Hen Press), poetry that shows how behavior, emotions and experience are linked in the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

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