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.
I must have spoken aloud, because Sol raised his tear-streaked face and looked at me. Not in a questioning, is-anything-there-in-the-darkness way, but direct. Focused.
He could see me.
“Are you talking . . . to me?” he asked.
It’s disconcerting to feel yourself tremble when you have no corporeal form. I was praying for you, I said. It’s been so long since anyone could hear me, I forgot it was possible.
He had the spirit-sight, and it hadn’t been beaten out of him yet, by some miracle. In my day, he’d have been sent to a Corna for training, or to the Antler-men. My youngest, Uy, a sensitive soul, had trained with the Sage Pelor and gone on to be the Augur of Aglaban.
Sol wiped his hair out of his face. He was about fourteen, and ye gods, the very mirror of my other son, Taic. Pain welled up in me, grief and parent-love, shockingly immediate. After eight hundred years and a steady diet of vermin, you’d think all such human feeling would have desiccated and blown away.
You’ve seen ghosts before, I said, needing to distract myself. Maybe he’d welcome it too. I was cold, and no comfort, but distraction could be its own kind of relief.
“I have,” said Sol warily. He’d clearly been informed that he hadn’t, really. “The one at my nana’s can’t see me, though. He walks through us like we aren’t there, complaining of a toothache.”
Ah, a chance to teach! I was always a more sure-footed teacher than parent. Ordinarily ghosts don’t understand they’re dead. They’ve gotten lost on their way to the Blue Country.
“You’re not lost, I take it,” said Sol.
Ha, no. I was a Corna—that’s a type of priest or priestess, I told him. I used to free such ghosts, lead them toward the Blue. Now I am a different sort of ghost—a Sage, purposefully bound to this place—so I can impart my wisdom across the ages.
Only to be forgotten, and stuck here alone. For all my wisdom, I hadn’t anticipated that.
Aspirants used to come to my tomb after ritual fasting, I continued, to petition me. If they proved openhearted, I would lay hands upon them, filling them with knowledge and receiving a bit of their life in exchange.
The boy’s face puckered, and for a moment I feared I’d opened up his grief again, although I couldn’t see how. When he finally spoke, he sounded angry. “Are you a vampire?”
No, I said, taken aback.
“But you touched me and took something, didn’t you? I recognized the cold touch and bad memories—like how it feels when Old Toothy walks through you. I used to bump my sister aside and take the hit myself, since she couldn’t see him.” His lip trembled. “Back then, my worst memory was the time my cat ran away.”
He started crying again, hard. I balled my hands into fists to keep from patting his arm.
Touching life sustains us, I said, hoping that knowledge could bring solace. If you close off that room, and nobody touches him for several years, Old Toothy will fade away.
Sol was crying like he might never stop.
I’m sorry, I said. I should not have taken without asking.
There was more I wanted to add—how I’d assumed it would be pointless to ask, how little I had taken (and how his life’s well had already replenished itself), how close I’d been to gone. But I’d known full well that it would hurt, even if I hadn’t realized how bad it could be.
He ran out of tears eventually, and fell into a deep, obliviating sleep. I stood vigil, keeping rats and roaches away. I don’t sleep—until the day I achieve that final sleep—so I had plenty of time to ponder my life’s choices, and wonder whether it was inevitable that yesterday’s Sage should be tomorrow’s parasite, if not an outright vampire.
* * *
Other people arrived in the tunnels, sheltering from dragon fire. I could sense their bright-shining, burgeoning life through soil and stone. They weren’t likely to enter my narrow, obscure passage. If Sol stayed here, he’d never be found.
You’ll need water soon, and sustenance, I said when he awoke. There are townspeople nearby, a large number. If you go out the way you came, but take a left—
He buried his face in his arms. “I crawled into a tomb. Maybe this is where I belong.”
I was at a loss. Taic used to fall into dark moods, and I always, always said the wrong thing and made it worse. O my son. He warred against the world, against his brother, and now I can only wonder what I could have done differently. All parents torture themselves with these questions, but most don’t get to see how everything turns out, eight centuries on.
I was so wrapped up in my own misery that I almost didn’t hear Sol’s question: “What did you used to teach the people who came to you?”
It took me a minute. History, theology, astronomy. The language of dragons.
“Dragons have language?” He emitted a despairing laugh. “Then how come nobody talks to them?”
We used to, I said. We used to make treaties, share knowledge, find ways to get along.
“What happened?” he breathed.
I had many sour things to say on that subject, mostly pertaining to those dragon-hating, ghost-denying Saints, but it seemed unkind to uproot his religion—and whatever comfort it provided—when his world was on fire, so I hedged: That would fall under “history,” I suppose—
My heart—my dead, ethereal heart—fluttered, I could swear it did. It had been so long since anyone had wanted anything I had to give.
“Teach me dragon language,” Sol clarified.
That’s . . . difficult, I said. Mootya takes years of study, ordinarily, and you’d need to hear a dragon speak it. I can’t make those sounds; I merely understand them. I learned from another ghost-Sage, who laid hands on me and gave me the knowledge all in one go.
He recoiled as he realized what that meant—she’d exacted a price. “Did it hurt?”
More than anything I’d ever experienced, I said, although I’d been through worse since then. Childbed. One son murdering the other. Centuries in the dark alone. I won’t put you through that, Sol. Not when you’re already suffering so much.
“Thank you,” he said, but he sounded despondent again.
But listen, I added hastily, racking my brains for an alternate offering, I wasn’t always a ghost. I used to teach in the usual way, with stories. And I took without asking, so surely I owe you something.
“I guess,” he said unenthusiastically. “What kind of story?”
Well, let’s see what comes, I said. For it is an article of faith with me, a pillar of my belief, that stories are like dreams: You don’t choose them. The soul knows what it needs, and it provides.
And here is what mine, having taken scant replenishment, gave us:
* * *
At the dawn of the world, a witch named Eyrina lived underneath a great spruce tree in the heart of Ficklefern Forest. She lived alone, although one is never really alone in a forest. She knew every squirrel, skunk cabbage, and sprite by name. It was a quiet life, and she loved it, but one morning she woke up feeling that something was missing.
A baby. Not just any baby, but an entirely new baby that the world had never seen before. She did not know how to go about making one, however, and her observations of the creatures around her suggested that this was not something one could undertake alone.
She turned to her books for answers, but every spell for baby-making warned of a high failure rate, and one ended with a disturbingly specific warning: “If you are a witch living alone at the dawn of the world, you may be out of luck with regard to babies. Magic is wonderfully useful, but it can only take you so far.”
That last sentence was a word of wisdom, but no witch likes to hear it.
Still, Eyrina tried. She enchanted a figure of twigs and twine, which hopped about amusingly but could do nothing else. Twigs are mindless, and no spell will change that. Eyrina drank various elixirs and bathed in secret springs by the light of three full moons (harder than it sounds, since you must exist in three timelines simultaneously), but still she did not fall pregnant.
Then, one autumn day, when the birches flashed yellow against the dark spruces, Eyrina came across a wolf caught in a hole. He had lunged in after some prey and gotten stuck. His hind legs scrabbled frantically, but his claws got no purchase in the crumbly soil.
Wolves are wise and powerful, and you rarely see one in such an undignified position. His fur was matted, as if he’d been stuck a long time. Eyrina didn’t dare laugh; no creature has less sense of humor about itself than a wolf. Even if she freed him, he might never forgive her for having witnessed his humiliation.
Still, the wolf clearly needed help. She’d never forgive herself if she left him there to die.
“Wolf, I greet you,” called Eyrina. “I offer my meager assistance, if that is your will. I would not insult your dignity.”
The wolf stopped struggling and said, “I’ve been trapped since the new moon, stranger. Squirrels and mice have tried to nest in my fur. My dignity is dead and gone. I would greatly appreciate your assistance.”
“How did you survive so long?” Eyrina asked, reaching in to widen the hole.
“I was chasing a family of rabbits when I got stuck,” answered the wolf. “They were trapped with me, so I’ve been eating them. There’s only one left, the runt, who’s squeezed into a crevice out of reach.”
Eyrina paused in her digging. “If I pull you out, you must promise to let him go.”
“Of course,” said the wolf. “I am heartily sick of rabbit.”
Wolves are honorable creatures, normally, but this one had no dignity left and no way out without Eyrina’s help. A desperate wolf might lie. Eyrina noted him saying “Of course” rather than “I promise,” and dug on warily.
When the hole was wide enough, Eyrina grasped the wolf by the scruff and yanked him free. He shook himself and blinked, unaccustomed to the glaring sunlight.
The rabbit kit, seeing his opportunity, bolted out. Alas, he was also not used to light and ran headfirst into a tree. The poor creature staggered around, dazed.
The wolf would surely regain his sight before the kit recovered.
Without pausing to think, Eyrina cast a spell, the first that came to mind, and fiff! There sat a small child, rubbing the bump on his noggin, looking confused. Eyrina scooped him up.
The wolf, after twenty blinks, squinted at her. “You have something that belongs to me.”
“Indeed not,” said Eyrina. “This is my baby.”
“It’s my rabbit,” said the wolf. “Hark his long ears.”
Eyrina glanced down and saw that the child did have unusually long ears.
“Hark his fluffy tail,” said the wolf.
Eyrina confirmed this with her hand.
“Hark his wriggling nose,” said the wolf.
“Hark your lack of honor,” cried Eyrina. “You never promised—I was listening—but you said you were sick of rabbit.”
“You said he’s not a rabbit,” said the wolf.
At this, Eyrina grew taller, until she towered over the wolf and nearby saplings. In a voice that made the ground tremble she said, “He is my baby, and you shall not have him!”
Any other wolf might have put its tail between its legs, but this was Magla, the King of Wolves. He knew he was in the wrong, which only made him angrier. If he didn’t leap at Eyrina’s throat, it was because she’d saved his life.
“Mark me, witch,” Magla growled. “You’ve made your ‘child’ a powerful enemy upon his first day in the world. Consider the wisdom of that. You will regret what you have done.”
Eyrina’s heart felt frozen solid. Her reply caught in her throat.
But then a squeaky voice piped up—a new voice, never used. “We shall see who regrets what, Sharp-Snout,” cried the rabbit-child, thumbing his nose at the wolf.
King Magla’s hackles flared and his lips curled snarlishly, but underneath it he was frightened. The witch had turned that scrawny, shivering kit into something uncanny and new. King Magla gathered his last shreds of dignity and stalked off without another word.
Eyrina gazed upon the child, now looking a bit less rabbity (except the ears—always the ears). He smiled warmly, but the icy fist around her heart did not unclench.
“I’m so sorry,” said Eyrina. “I shouldn’t have bespelled you. It was selfish. I’ve saved you only to imperil you.”
“Who chooses to be born, Mother?” said the child. “Show me a person who volunteered for life, and I’ll show you someone who didn’t know what they were getting into.”
Eyrina laughed, but at the same time she was pierced through by a searing pain, a worry for this child that would haunt her all her days. Then she knew she was a parent at last.
She named the rabbit-child Pahennoeg, “unfettered” in her own tongue, and she carried him through the dappled dusk toward home.
* * *
I had barely any voice left by the end. Those words—I’ve saved you only to imperil you—hit me with a force they had never carried before, the full weight of eight hundred years. They felt like an accusation.
I had tried, and I had failed.
Because who or what did I save, with my wisdom? Not my sons. Not the world, crumbling above us. I had endured ceaseless, bitter darkness on the slender hope—or arrogant expectation—that my enduring presence was somehow helpful or necessary. At least when I finally faded, I wouldn’t be constantly aware of how little difference I’d made—
“All right,” said Sol, cutting through my self-pity again. “You convinced me.”
I could make no sense of this utterance.
“I’m asking to be born,” he said, as if this clarified anything. He crawled toward me over the worn flat stones and knelt with bowed head.
My baffled silence seemed to stretch on indefinitely.
He sounded a bit impatient with me now. “That’s what the story was about, wasn’t it? That life is painful and perilous for all, and we don’t know what we’re getting into? But sometimes we do, I think. You told me the price for knowledge, and I have decided it’s worth paying.”
Oh. Oh no.
Sol, how can I cause you more pain, when you’ve already suffered so much?
“Because I ask it,” he said. “And because some things have been forgotten that should not have been. The Saints were wrong about ghosts. I have to know whether dragons are worth talking to. If it could help, I have to try. Please, give me the tools I need.”
This child. What a Corna he might have been. He is already more sage than I am.
I lay my hands upon his head, and give him everything I’ve got.
And both of us scream as we go through it.
* * *
They hear us, the townspeople—or they hear him, at least, and follow the sound. Rays of light cut through my gloom for the first time in centuries. They call out: “Is someone there? Are you all right?”
“Here,” he answers weakly, exhausted from our ordeal. “I have . . . I have things to tell you all.”
Arms reach for him and gather him into the light. A blanket is thrown over his shoulders, everyone chattering at once, so glad to find someone alive. He shoots one last lingering look over his shoulder and meets my eyes.
And then they are gone. Darkness and silence return.
Silent as the grave.
I hope it helps, any of it. That it is not too late.
And I hope I can endure the long emptiness stretching before me. He was so hopeful, brave, and strong, a most openhearted aspirant, and I am full to overflowing with more life than I can possibly use.
It will be an age before I fade.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Rachel Hartman is the award-winning author of four YA fantasy novels, including Seraphina and Tess of the Road. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her family.
“Ghost Story,” © Rachel Hartman, 2023.
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