“An old woman’s husband goes on a journey and never returns. Next thing she starts seeing ghosts—it’s obvious what happened, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” I say politely, taking out my journal and a sharpened pencil.
“Mad with grief, it’s said. But I’m not.” She looks up from the cast-iron stove, strangely modern in this tiny valley hamlet. Perhaps her trader husband brought it home from one of his trips to the factory towns. “Tea?”
“Do you believe the stories you write down?”
I watch her pour the tea into a thick earthenware mug. It smells of herbs, not imported leaves. As a witch’s brew should.
But I’m skeptical whether she is truly a witch. A healer, maybe. But a ghostwitch?
She sits across from me and inhales the steam. Behind its rising veil, her eyes are bright. “I never speak to him,” she says. “Never see him. I don’t think I can. We only meet them once, I believe, alive or dead … So no, I didn’t become a ghostwitch so I could speak with my husband again.”
“I’ll be sure not to write that.”
She nods. “Still, I know why it’s said. Things like these, people like to have a tidy explanation.”
“Yes,” I say, thinking of the sea.
“There are two kinds of ghosts,” she says.
I turn to an empty page in my journal. Ghost Lore, I write. On the opposite page, words reach for my eyes—voices in the surf, a child, playing, lost—but I’m too busy to read them.
“The real ones, they have substance, though you can’t always see it. They have minds, and hearts. They often don’t realize they’re dead. When they do…” She shudders, her bent old body quivering dramatically. I’m not sure how old she is—in the countryside, age falls so fast.
“Are those the ghosts you speak to?” I ask.
“The only kind you can. The other isn’t capable of that.”
“…And what is that sort like?” I ask, ending a minute when the only sound is the scratch of my lead pencil over paper.
“A remembering.” She sounds uncertain, though. “An impression—the shape of something past. It lingers where they died, or around the means that killed them. A sort of feeling, usually. People have told me of that, sometimes, when they come seeking advice, but I’ve never experienced one personally.”
An urge, the opposite page calls to me. To walk…
“I think they’re the most dangerous.”
Into the waves…
“Why do you say that?”
The ghostwitch sighs. “A feeling that can’t be resisted—isn’t that the most dangerous thing in the world?”
And could not be called back…
My pencil scratches furiously, leaving scars across the paper.
“I was a witch even before the ghosts came.”
I shut my journal, our interview complete—at least for now. No need to wait for ink to dry. I don’t use ink anymore. It’s so hard to correct, and stories always seem to need corrections. Clarifications. Additions. Sometimes deletions.
I couldn’t find a publisher for the story of the bloodstained man, for example, or certain details of the bone bridge. And that last was even real, something I’d seen with my own eyes.
Anyway, I’ve written enough of ghosts and witches. Now I just let her talk.
“I had my little tricks. Healing ways…other things, too, more hurtful, I admit. But always useful. Like the charm to know if a lover’s been faithful. Knowing can help.” She looked out the dust-speckled window. “I know that he’s dead.”
“Who?” She speaks with such gravity I think she wants me to hear this even more than any of her stories about ghosts.
“The man who killed my husband. A common road bandit.”
“You know for sure? I mean, your husband wasn’t…lost…in an accident on his journey?”
She shakes her head, more in confusion than negation. “You’re right, perhaps he was. But if a bandit killed him, the bastard’s dead.”
She says the imprecation with no anger, no inflection at all.
“I made sure, another little trick. In my husband’s purse, I left a coin—telling him, of course, so he wouldn’t touch it—a single gold coin among the silver. Coated with poison. Anyone who took the purse from his corpse, and handled that gold…” Her smile is toothless and not vengeful so much as sad.
“I should have left the coin unpoisoned and used it to buy my husband a musket instead,” she says. “I’ve heard bandits run at the sight of those, no need even to fire. Then he’d still be alive.”
I ask what she used to make the poison, but the herbs are familiar from past herb-women I’ve written about and so I have nothing to add to the journal.
Midsummer appears in my journals, over and over again. Also Midwinter and Solstice. And dark of the night, new moon. Over and over.
A clouded night, free even of stars, reads the page about the sea.
Today is Midsummer’s Eve, and for the first time since I began collecting tales, a new moon as well.
“In any of the stories you’ve collected,” she says, “do they tell of a way to stop them?”
“Any sort of such creatures.” She smiles. “But ghosts, of course, are my special interest.”
“Why would you want to stop them? I thought you made your living from them.”
“Not a very steady living.” She sighs. “People come to me, hoping I’ve seen their loved ones, but it’s chance at best whether I have. And I see so many, bearing messages I can’t deliver, because those who need them never come to this blot on the earth. I’m too old to travel to them, to carry notes at a dead one’s bidding. Things could be more…peaceful.”
She has been seeing the ghosts for seven years, she claims, ever since her husband’s death. Coincidentally, it is the same amount of time I have been making my living bearing tales of another sort, to whoever will pay to read them.
I page through my journal. Playing her game, I tell myself. Only playing. I do not believe it makes a difference. “Some leave this earth when informed of their death. Or when a task is completed, or a message delivered. Do you ever see it happen?”
“That’s for the first kind. The other, what you call impressions… I’ve never heard of a way to stop them.”
Together, we shiver. I’m embarrassed, but thankfully she doesn’t seem to notice.
Sacrifice, reminds a page of my journal.
“Sometimes,” I say, “it helps to give them what they want.”
“When you know what they want.”
Words formed: cold, drowning, help, air…life…
“There is that,” I say.
The offer is on the tip of my tongue: I could stay the night. I believe she would accept if I did. As the sun drops, our conversation dries up, but she looks at me, darting glances, and smiles each time. As if grateful.
It gets very dark out in the country, without gas lamps lining the streets, without the blazing windows of public houses, without companions on every sidewalk and a dull glow rising at all hours from the behemoth factories on the horizon’s edge, the red stain in the sky that means progress.
The offer slips away. But as I open the door, she makes one of her own.
“Is there a message I could bear, if someone drops by?”
I stare at her, my hat in my hands. “There is,” I manage at last.
“A drowned…” Child, I mean to say, it was a girl who walked into the water, but instead I say, “man.”
“No. Two of them. A man and a boy.”
“And what should I say?”
A father and a son, the boy nine, his father only twenty-seven—my age. A tragic loss. Tragedy leaves impressions, a feeling of unease. Just that. Only a feeling. “I’m sorry,” I say, and I put my hat on and walk away.
A fishing village so small his best match was a salt-cured maid of thirty-one, a place so benighted none of the inhabitants learned how to read—he was the only one who even wanted to. I read aloud to him from my journals. We grew close—close as his son had been to the only girl his age. Close enough that we kept in touch, his rough letters determinedly written and posted with painfully saved pennies. Until they didn’t come anymore. Then I returned—in time to write about the sea. Of the storm and the fishing boat toppled, both its crew drowned, one found tangled in his net among the rocks offshore. Of the voices. And of the night when the lost boy’s best friend…
“What sort of conversations do you have with the ghosts?” I had asked her.
“Not pleasant ones. They always ask for things.”
She doesn’t ask me to stay. Only to tell her story, as true as she could make it.
I go to her house in the morning, and when no answer comes at my call I force the door in. Exertion leaves me sweating, a warm sweat, not frightened. I was expecting this.
The golden coin lies on the floor of an empty room, in an empty house. I do not touch it.
I ride north to the shore in two days, changing horses at each inn, barely stopping for rest myself. Sleep is useless.
Even in two nights the moon is born again, a thin sliver in the sky, and nights begin to grow longer; Midsummer is over.
But the night I come to the sea is cloudy, the sky free of moon and stars.
I listen to the surf as I walk down to it, past the rickety cottages of the village, but I don’t believe I hear words. The words that haunt me are the ones I see, that I wrote, the ones that cry out every time I turn that page.
Help…save us…save me…give us air, give us life…give me…
The night of the girl’s loss, the words her distraught mother claimed to hear, Thank you. Thank you.
Just an eerie feeling.
To tell the ghostwitch’s story, I will have to face that page again and again, to read from my notes and write something and check it for accuracy and coherency. The words will slide through my mind, again and again.
As they do now, just beneath the threshold of hearing.
In the dark, I don’t realize how far I’ve come until I feel the suck of surf on my boots. You are dead, I think, but don’t say. They know it.
Give me breath, give me life.
“I gave you a voice,” I say. Nine hundred copies, sold in the better-off towns up and down the coast and the cities inland. The story of my friend, and of what happened afterwards, in the sticky hands of giggling schoolchildren, paged through by bored merchants, stared at by girls on their way to the factories with eyes almost too bleary with sleep to read. A voice much clearer than the rush of surf.
But it was not a voice they wanted.
The sequel remains to be written. Those nine hundred copies told merely of voices in the surf; yet to be told is the tale of the young girl. If it would be accepted. I’ve told myself it wouldn’t, that I shouldn’t bother writing it, that I shouldn’t have to.
Give us…give us…
Only an eerie feeling. No mind or heart, she’d said. She’d said nothing of voices, either.
We can only meet them once, alive or dead.
Well, even ghostwitches don’t know everything.
I tip the cover of my journal, knowing the page it will fall open to. Soft as the murmuring surf comes the sound of tearing paper. It drops, silent as held breath.
I start back up the beach as salty water washes the ink from the page.
Theresa Arkenberg’s work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, Analog, Ares, and the anthologies Thoughtcrime Experiments and Sword and Sorceress XXIV. She writes science fiction, fantasy, and the occasional love story. Some of her darker work has been described, to her surprise and secret pleasure, as horror. Her science fiction novella Aqua Vitae was released by WolfSinger Publications in December 2011.
Learn more at her site HERE.