Ninjas are silent. Ninjas do not make a sound as they move. Wanyama and I were not ninjas as we stumbled through the overgrown grass behind our dormitory block. Wanyama’s big Umoja slippers slapped against his massive feet with each step he took, and the polyester pyjama bottoms I’d had the bad taste to purchase from a trade show made an irritating rustling sound as I moved.
“Man, you and Betty are weird,” he complained, “Why do you want to meet at that well when you can sneak into one of the classrooms?”
I grinned at him. “Because a classroom is not as romantic, man. Keep up.”
We were both students at Heart of Gold SSSS, Mbale. No one knew what the fourth S stood for, but I liked to think it stood for shitty. Heart of Gold SSSS was one of those schools that made it justifiable for children to hate school. It was established in the 1950s under shady circumstances, and boasted a staff trained in the art of corporal punishment and little else. Like all tough schools, it also boasted a tenacious population of renegade students who liked to break rules, and on this particular night, Wanyama and I wore our rebel underwear.
The tap-tap of someone either wearing heels or bearing bony heels rang out in the still night and Wanyama and I dropped to our haunches, giggling like idiots when the sound ceased.
“What if it’s the kalabanda Kenny is always talking about?”
Wanyama whispered, his teeth flashing white in the moonlight, and I hushed him. Grass rustled a few feet from us, and then the hateful voice of my least favourite teacher called out, “Who is there?”
“Fucking Obwoitum and his bukondo,” I cursed under my breath, “We need to get rid of him.”
My ingenious partner-in-crime raised his hand and waved it while he let out a bark that sounded convincingly canine. There was more rustling, and then Mr. Obwoitum’s voice came to us from a distance, muttering about stray dogs while we stared at each other and covered our mouths to keep the laughter from spilling out. We waited for a few minutes, listening to the nocturnal birds making their haunting calls and slapping at the long grass when it blew into our faces before we rose and resumed our walk.
Betty was waiting for us when we got to the abandoned well at the edge of the football pitch, her lush bottom perched on the moss-covered brick lip of the well and her foot tapping against its side.
“Jovan, you’re late,” she said, flaring her nostrils. I gathered her into my arms and murmured, “We ran into Obwoitum.”
Her eyes softened and she lifted a hand to my face. “Oh my God, I hope he didn’t see you.”
“Ah. Forget that. Now,” I ran my hand over braided hair, “Tell me what a beautiful girl like you is doing is this village school. Behind us, Wanyama made a gagging sound and said, “Who needs Telemundo when we have you?”
Betty laughed and pulled my head down to hers, kissing me noisily, with a playful giggle at first, and then with darker intent, pressing her soft body against me. I pulled back to ask Wanyama to give us more privacy, and stopped when I heard a scratching sound.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Betty, raising my eyebrows. She shook her head, took my hand and placed it on her breast, leaning forward to kiss me again. I sank into her taste for another minute, and then I heard something that made the hairs on my nape rise.
“Kaka, kaka, kaka kalabanda.”
“Wanyama, was that you?” I demanded, stepping back from Betty and turning to pin Wanyama with a hard look. He shrugged, eyes wide, and replied, “No, man, I thought that was you!”
The voice came again, eerie and haunting. “Abaana mwebase?”
I turned back to Betty, and she crossed her arms over her chest and said, “Okay, what the fuck are you guys up to? Whatever it is, it’s not funny. Did you bring someone else?”
“No way, no. We didn’t.”
“I’m not an idiot. You guys are ¬–”
Betty’s words were cut short by a shrill scream, and then she tipped backwards into the well in a flurry of skirts and braids. I rushed to the well and grabbed the hand I could see holding on to the edge, barely noticing Wanyama until he grabbed Betty’s other hand.
“Pull me up!” she screamed, her eyes wide, glinting with tears, “Oh God, something is holding my legs! You guys, pull me up! I don’t want to die here!”
“We’re trying!” Wanyama ground out through clenched teeth. And we were. I pulled so hard that the veins on my arms popped out and my feet dug into the ground, but whatever was holding her was stronger than we were. Betty’s screams blasted into my face as we were pulled forward. Tears and snot ran down her face and she begged and threatened and begged. Then, suddenly, a bone white arm shot up from the darkness of the well, latched onto Wanyama’s arm and, with a sharp tug, ripped it free from his shoulder. The sickening sound of flesh and tendons tearing and bone popping free filled my head, and I felt Betty’s hand slip from mine a split second before I fell backwards and the blood hit. I tasted salt and iron in my mouth, felt it in my eyes and soaking into my clothes. Next to me, Wanyama lay on his back, clutching the stump of his arm while blood streamed through the spaces between his fingers and spurted in the places he couldn’t cover.
The only thing louder than his agonised groans was the silence where Betty’s screams should have been. My eyes darted to the well; two skeletal arms appeared over its edge, their fleshless paleness even more ghostly in the dim moonlight. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the arm that was still attached to Wanyama.
“We’ve got to go!” I barked, pulling at his arm, my gaze fixed on the skeletal arms that had now been joined by bony legs, “Come on, man, we’ve got to go!”
Wanyama got to his feet and stumbled after me. Right before I broke into a run, I caught a glimpse of the face of the thing we had mocked; called a childish myth and laughed at. That face, with the empty sockets and the teeth bared in a permanent grin, belonged to the thing that was going to kill us.
We ran across the large football pitch, and I cursed at its size, cursed Kenny and his stupid tales, and cursed Obwoitum. Kalabanda were real! Why were they real? I heard a thud behind me and I turned. Wanyama lay on the ground, curled in on himself, his face scrunched up in pain. Behind him, a fucking army of living skeletons marched briskly in our direction, their long strides eating up the ground.
“Wanyama!” my voice broke as I shook my friend’s shoulder. He moaned and rolled onto his back.
“Man, stand up!” I begged, “They’re coming for us, man! You have to stand up!”
Liquid welled in my eyes and overflowed, dripping onto my hands when they wrapped around Wanyama and tried to pull.
“Fuck, man, help me!” I pleaded hoarsely. Before my eyes, death approached, wearing nothing but a smile, and in my arms, my friend’s body grew cold. I tried to pull one more time, and then the fear took over my limbs and I dropped him and ran.
“You guys! You need to get up and hide! Kalabanda are coming here!”
My loud words were met by silence in the darkness of the dormitory. Words alone wouldn’t work with this bunch.
“I know you’re awake!” I shouted. I strode over to the switch and flipped it. Immediately, the large room was filled with loud curses. A pillow flew at me from one of the triple-decker beds to my left.
“Ssenkatuka shut up and switch off the light. Some of us are trying to get some sleep here,” Kenny’s voice called out.
“I’m not lying!” I cried. His head appeared from the shadows of his middle bed and I watched his expression morph from irritation to wide-eyed shock.
“Shit,” he said, “Man, you’re covered in blood. He’s covered in blood!”
“Could be a prank!” someone yelled from the back. I threw my hands up and yelled back, “Then come and smell it! I don’t have time for this.”
I turned and slammed the door shut.
“Those of you who want to listen to me, listen,” I said, reaching for the windows. I heard shuffling behind me, and when I turned, half the dormitory was standing in the corridor between the beds,
staring at me with expressions ranging from resigned sleepiness to absolute terror.
“So, what do we do?” a short kid with tightly coiled hair asked. I shifted my gaze to Kenny and he shrugged.
“Just make sure you’re on either a middle bed or the lowest bed,” he said, his voice hesitant, “Apparently, kalabanda can’t bend, so you’ll be safe there… but Ssenkatuka, if this is a prank…”
“It’s not,” I said earnestly, “Why would I joke about something like this? This is Wanyama’s blood, and Betty’s probably dead.”
Wariness entered the eyes of some of the boys standing before me, but they quietly walked back to follow Kenny’s instructions.
“And if you have a rosary, hold on to it!” Kenny yelled, walking back to his own bed. I sighed and walked over to the bed next to one of the windows. The Form One kid on the middle looked at me with wide eyes for a second before scooting to the side to make room for me. For a few minutes, murmurs filled the dormitory, and then they ran out of steam and there was silence. I held my breath, keeping my gaze trained on the window.
Tap, tap, tap.
The sound of bone against cement filtered into the dormitory. Next to me, the Form One boy stared at the window with bug eyes. Unease so evident it was almost tangible rippled through the air in the form of whispers and creaking beds.
“Kaka, kaka, kaka kalabanda.”
A hand – my neighbour’s – wrapped around my arm and silence returned to the dormitory. This time, I knew I wasn’t the only one waiting with bated breath.
Tap, tap, tap.
I heard someone murmuring to the Virgin Mary.
A sound like fingernails grating against wood squealed in the night. My temporary bed mate was now hyperventilating.
A grinning skull popped up in the window, its dark empty sockets providing me with a nasty glimpse into hell. Next to me, the boy let out an ear-splitting scream, and everything went downhill from there. The grinning kalabanda in the window punched a hole through the glass and grabbed the boy’s face. I only had a second to suck in a breath before blood, bone and brain splattered against me. Someone yelled, “The middle beds aren’t safe!” and I tumbled onto a floor littered with boys who had jumped from their beds and were now struggling to crawl under the beds. A boy jumped from the top level of a triple-decker bed and his leg twisted under him. Glass exploded into the dormitory from the windows and the door as bony hands, legs and skulls forced their way inside. I crawled under a bed just as the kalabanda started to stream into the dormitory, slipping on glass shards that dug into my skin, and that’s when the screams really began. A boy, a little too overweight, scrambled across the floor and tried to get under the bed with me. Instead, his torso got lodged in a horrible midland between safety and peril.
“Come on,” he begged, “Pull me under!”
I grabbed his hand and tugged. Bony feet approached. I pulled harder, heart pounding, sweat running down my face, mixing with human debris. The boy screamed at me. One of the bony feet lifted. I joined the boy’s screams with my own. I got a good deal of his blood in my mouth.
For a long time that seemed to stretch beyond eternity, I lay under the bed, listening to the screams, the ripping and crunching sounds, the plop of blood and organs as they hit the floor… The blood of the dead clotted on my skin, and was joined by more until the screams ceased and all I could hear was bone against cement. Feet of bloodstained bone walked along the long corridor, over the bodies of my schoolmates. Across from me, under another bed, a boy lay curled into himself, clutching a glowing rosary to his chest. More feet moved past the beds towards the door, in long strides that told me nothing about the motivation of these skeletal monsters. One pair of bony feet walked slowly in my direction. My heart leapt to my throat and started to race. I tried, and failed, to keep my breathing even and soundless. The feet stopped right before the bed. There was no sound except my harsh breathing.
Then I heard it.
The tap-tap of bone against metal. A final message before the last of the kalabanda walked out of the bloody dormitory.
We stayed under the beds until night ended; until the sunlight glistened on the blood of our fallen comrades; until the police came in with their big black boots and dragged us out into the cutting morning chill. We sat in the middle of the football pitch behind the dormitory, wrapped in rough blankets and saying nothing to each other. At the edge of the pitch, the abandoned well stood, and I saw a flash of white rise from it.