The fantastic voices of Rachel Hartman’s “Ghost Story,” materialize today, and they will stay with you for a long time after. ~ Julian and Fran, February 19, 2023
By Rachel Hartman
I’d resigned myself to fading away—no one visited my portal-tomb anymore, and the roaches and rats that did wander in barely kept me going. If a human chanced to enter my tunnel, they weren’t seeking a Sage; they’d crawled in lost and were unable or unwilling to see me.
Spirit-sight was rare enough in my time, but now even someone capable of discerning a ghost’s ethereal shimmer knew better than to believe their own eyes. Those know-it-all, usurping Saints, two centuries ago, had decreed that ghosts couldn’t possibly exist. That was all it took for the likes of me to be entirely forgotten; they built a city on top of my dolmen, and buried me twice.
Why did I hold on so long? I don’t know. Maybe I was hoping for one last aspirant. I’d volunteered to remain here, foregoing the Blue Country in service of those who sought my wisdom, but at some point generosity became duty, duty became stubbornness, and stubbornness congealed into fear. Without the occasional infusion of fresh life, I would disappear for good. The thought terrified me.
I was nearly faded, even so, but as my selfhood ebbed away, I barely recognized what remained. The last living thing I’d touched, a rat, had left a distressing, furtive flavor in my soul.
So when a child crawled into my passageway, his life-stuff glowing fiercely blue against the black, I was compelled to take a little for myself. Not because I wanted to linger longer, in the dark alone, but because I wanted to go out on a human note.
I didn’t question his presence here, where no one ever ventured, or consider what memories my icy touch might cause him to relive. He was crying before I ever touched him, but I was too preoccupied to notice.
We ghosts see every nightmare we induce; we haunt and are haunted in turn. I’ve witnessed unimaginable pain in people’s memories, but rarely anything as fresh and terrifying as this: a serpentine monster spewing flame, mother dead, father dying, grabbing his sister’s sweat-slicked hand, the panicked crush of people, and now he’s lost her in the trampling crowd, he screams her name into the flames—
This wasn’t some years-old worst day of his life. It was still happening: dragons were razing the city above our heads. Now that I was awake and not half-faded, I could feel the ground shake as buildings collapsed, and sense human lives winking out, souls sent screaming to the place they now call Heaven (it’s the Blue Country, I promise you. I am a Corna of my people, and I know). This boy had fled the destruction, scrambling down into the dark maze of the city’s dragon refuge—a warren of root cellars, catacombs, sewers, and forgotten tunnels, one of which was my crumbling tomb.
This boy—Sol, I’d gleaned—had lived a horror, and I had made him relive it, intensely, before he’d had time to so much as catch his breath. He was curled up, crying; I hurt along with him, in sympathy. Unbidden, my long-dead sons sprang to mind, and I wished my touch could have been a comfort to him—to them—to anyone, ever.
O Three, O Powers, I prayed as if my gods still listened, ease his burden. Let him forget.
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