Old Woman sits outside a cedar plank house watching the ghosts of her nephews dig out the center of a new war canoe. It sits near the high tide line, balanced in the damp sand. The sun hangs low on the horizon, its soft light shimmering through their transparent bodies.
She leans back, her fingers clenched around a clump of russet fur. The wall is cool against her fevered skin. Children’s voices echo from inside the house. She should get up and check on them, but her body is sapped and although she has tried, she cannot even lift a handful of clean water from the bentwood box at her side. Besides, she thinks she saw their bodies buried a few days ago, back when there were others still alive.
A tear seeps from the corner of her eye.
“Why do you cry?” rumbles a voice out of the mist of memory.
With an effort, she turns her head. Bear stands at the corner of the house. He is half-hidden in shadows, but she knows him. She tries to speak, but her parched throat can only squawk.
He wears nothing but a breechcloth and supple deer-hide leggings. His bare feet make no sound as he comes to squat in front of her. Time has not dulled his beauty. Sleek black hair hangs over his shoulder in a long braid. No wrinkles mar his skin. The taut leggings cling to his muscular thighs as the setting sun limns his broad frame.
A seagull perches on the roof, shrieks, and flies out to sea. Bear brings a handful of water from the bentwood box to her lips and coaxes her to drink. The cool liquid soothes her parched throat, and his soft touch kindles shivers across her skin.
When the water is gone, she licks her lips. “It’s been too long.”
“Not so very long.”
Old Woman manages a sad smile. “Long enough. Our child is grown and married. She has a son of her own now.”
Bear rocks back on his heels. “What happened here? Why are you alone?”
Old Woman inhales the sea air. Its salty tang comforts her. “A strange boy washed up on the shore half-drowned-a pale boy, silent and small. The shamans tended him with herbs and prayers. When he grew stronger, he walked among us. He never spoke, only watched us with ice-eyes.” She shakes her head, remembering. “Three days later, the fever came.”
A boy-ghost runs through the doorway, shouting and waving a carved, painted stick. He barrels into Bear, fading then reappearing on the other side. Bear’s black eyes never leave Old Woman’s face. “Are there any others left?”
“I don’t know. The ice-eyed boy was the last soul I saw.” She glances down at the bentwood box. “He left me water, then walked into the sea. I saw him pass the breakers before he vanished.”
Bear rises, eyes flashing. He ducks as he enters the plank house. Old Woman waits, her breathing shallow, and wonders if she is dreaming fever-dreams and whether it matters if she is.
Although she has lost many memories, the day she came upon Bear in the forest while she harvested huckleberries remains clear as rain—his low voice whispering endearments, fingers grazing her own as she plucked the smooth, salmon-red fruits.
So many years she prayed for a child, her heart growing numb as Tall Man’s seed failed to take root. When Bear wrapped her close—kissing her with eager lips, musky scent enveloping her until she thrummed with desire and begged him to come within her—she let herself believe this was the answer to her prayers.
After, when she returned to her husband’s quiet, comfortable caresses, she never spoke of what had passed that day. When Bear’s child quickened in her womb, she let Tall Man crow, even though she knew the child was not his.
Through all the years that followed, she never saw Bear again, but she thought he watched them when he could. She found his prints in the forest and one morning, when she woke, she found a handful of his fur clutched tight in her daughter’s chubby baby-fist. She’d kept the fur in a talisman pouch over her heart, until she was left alone among the dead and she pulled it into her hand, her last tangible memory.
All of them are gone now. Tall Man, years ago in a hunting accident, her daughter, Huckleberry, given in marriage to the chief of the tribe across the strait, and so many others lost to the fever, their ghosts roaming the village as if they had never passed over.
Bear crashes through the door in a bristling rush of russet fur, claws gouging the earth. Old Woman’s eyes follow him as he runs to the neighboring plank house, then the next, until there are no more.
The great bear lumbers down the beach until the waves lap his wide paws, then rears up on cedar-strong hind limbs. He roars toward the setting sun. Old Woman’s nephew-ghosts pause in their labors to stare as Bear rages at the sky.
After so many years, even Bear’s anger is welcome. Old Woman struggles to stay awake, but she drifts into a troubled slumber.
“Where is the ice-eyed boy?” says a voice Old Woman doesn’t know.
Warm softness pillows her head. “She saw him go into the sea.” Bear’s voice rumbles through her failing body. “I searched the shore, but he has not washed up again.”
Old Woman opens her eyes. The changed light tells her it is morning. Shivers race through her, raising gooseflesh on her skin. A stranger stands before her, smaller than Bear, wiry, with quick, obsidian eyes that flash as he glances from side to side.
“Not dead yet, Old Woman?”
“Oh, relax, Large One. I’m not offering to do it for her.”
Her gaze slides along the beach. Halfway to the tideline, a circle of ghost-women sit cross-legged, throwing wooden dice and laughing. Old Woman’s sister-in-law, Fern, is among them, rocking left and right, singing a song to welcome the sunrise in her rich, low voice. They look happy. Old Woman licks her parched lips.
The stranger cocks his head. “Or maybe she wishes it? Do you, Old Woman?”
Bear shifts his form until the dense pelt on which she rests becomes soft skin. His chest rises and falls under her head while he cradles her with strong arms. “I didn’t call you here for your mercy, Raven. I called you for your healing.”
Raven blinks. “I can’t heal what I don’t know. Who was this ice-eye? An evil spirit, come to kill for pleasure? Or is he like us, Bear? Was it the appointed time for this village?”
Old Woman croaks, “Water.” Bear dips one hand into the bentwood box and brings it to her lips. She gulps it down. “Another.”
This handful she sips. The water rouses her. “I don’t know who he was or where he came from. When we found him, he wore nothing but a strange amulet. The shamans took it to study. It may still be here.”
“Well, that’s better than nothing. Come, Bear. If you want my help, you’d best search with me.”
Reluctantly, Bear settles Old Woman against the doorframe. She leans back, panting, and watches Bear and Raven walk toward the sacred place.
Fern’s song comes to a close and she rises, waving farewell to the circle of women. Old Woman watches as Fern makes her way toward their family house. Her long hair hangs loose, swaying as she moves. Dawn’s soft light filters through her. One hand rests on her protruding belly and a sad smile plays over her lips. Deep inside is another spark, Fern’s unborn child, as much a ghost as the others.
Longing strikes Old Woman with a sharp pang. Her own daughter has been gone for years now. Word came by trading canoe four years back that she’d borne a son with fat cheeks and a strong cry. Old Woman wanted to make the trip to welcome the young one into the world, but the strain of the journey to bring Huckleberry to her new husband had been too much for her, leaving her too weakened to travel so far again. She aches to see Huckleberry one last time, aches to meet her grandson.
Fern draws near and Old Woman waits for her to pass by, unseeing, as all the ghosts do. “Greetings, Elder Sister,” Fern says.
Old Woman blinks, startled. “Greetings, Fern.”
“I’ve missed you. Where have you been?”
Old Woman doesn’t know what to say; does Fern know she is dead? “I went to the forest for huckleberries?”
A broad smile creases Fern’s face. “Huckleberries, you sly woman. I’ve seen you haunt the woods. You hunt memories there.”
“I have to hunt them somewhere,” Old Woman replies, tart as berries. “So many have run away in my old age, I must track them down and trap them.”
Fern throws her head back and laughs. “Keep your secrets then.”
Then she is gone and Old Woman closes her eyes again.
“Wake up, Old Woman.”
She lifts one eyelid. Raven squats in front of her.
“What is it?”
“I found the amulet.” He holds it up. Shaped like two flattened, crossed sticks, it gleams gold in the early morning light. “I’ll need to study it.”
Bear lumbers up behind Raven, shakes out of his pelt and into his human skin. “Do it, then.” He lays a hand on her brow. “This fever burns hot.”
“I wish . . .” Old Woman whispers.
“What do you wish?” Bear brushes his lips against her brow.
“To see Huckleberry again, and meet our grandchild.”
Bear pauses. “I can bring them to you. Orca will take me across the strait. I’ll find them and bring them back to you. Just promise you’ll be here when I return.”
A smile tugs at the corner of Old Woman’s lips. “How can I promise that? Do I have the power of life and death?”
Raven glances up from the amulet, his gaze distant and distracted. “I can keep her alive long enough for you to bring them, Fuzzy One. If you hurry.”
Bear surges to his feet. “I’ll return with our child and grandson. Wait for me.”
He drops to all fours, shifting with the motion. Long claws dig into the sand as he lumbers to the east. Old Woman watches him go, the sun’s glow on his pelt fading into the distance.
Raven wanders through the center of the ring of ghost-women playing their dice game, his bright eyes shut, running his hands over the amulet and muttering under his breath. The women ignore him, even as they reach through his legs to pick up the wooden dice.
Old Woman lets their ghostly laughter lull her back into rest.
“Do you want to play?”
Old Woman startles awake, blinking. The ghost-boy stands before her, digging a toe into the ground, the carved stick tucked in a fist behind his back. “What?” she croaks.
“Play with me?”
She tries to shake her head, but the effort is too much. “I can’t,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
The boy presses his lips together and his chin trembles. His features are blurry. “No one will play with me.”
She watches him walk away, the soft evening breeze drifting through his long hair. He stoops to pick up a rock and throws it toward the trees.
“It’s a pity,” says Raven. “He’s lonely.”
Old Woman manages to turn her head. Raven is perched on a driftwood log, the amulet clutched under his talons.
“Water?” whispers Old Woman.
Raven blinks and fans out his feathers. “Don’t you want to know what I’ve learned from the amulet?”
She wants water, Huckleberry’s smiling face, Bear’s warm sturdy presence. She wants the world to stop spinning. She nods. “Tell me.”
“I can keep you alive long enough for Bear to bring your kin,” Raven says, “but if I do, you’ll curse me for it.”
Old Woman runs her tongue over her upper lip. The sweat beads are salty, teasing her with their false promise of moisture. She swallows. “I don’t have time for riddles.”
He stretches his wings, fingers sliding from the tips, and grows until he stands upright in his man-skin. “The fever-taint burns in your breath. If your kin come while you still live, it will claim them. If they return across the strait, it will claim their village, maybe more.”
Old Woman turns away and looks toward the ghost-boy, now digging in the sand with his stick, shoulders hunched up to his ears. Her breath comes in shallow pants. She thinks of Fern and the light of her unborn child.
She thinks of Huckleberry’s face, faded and soft around the edges. Passing years have dimmed the memory. Only Huckleberry’s smile remains bright, and the memory of her clear laughter. It blends with voices from the beach. Her nephews have finished their work on the war canoe and are making their way toward the houses.
She licks her lips again. “I promised.”
Raven laughs, a harsh, cackling sound. “As it happens, you didn’t. Old Fuzzy didn’t wait for it.”
She doesn’t reply. The wind fans her fevered skin. As her nephews draw near, she frowns. They are fading, some nothing more than shimmering clusters, vaguely man-shaped.
Could ghosts die? Or were they there at all? What about Raven? What about Bear? It is so hard to think.
Her gaze turns to the ghost-boy. The beach’s contours are visible through his small body: rounded stones, an upturned crab, little bubbling holes in the sand where clams hide, ripe for harvesting.
“They’re coming,” Raven says. “Bear races across the waters on Orca’s back. Huckleberry’s canoe follows behind.”
“My Huckleberry . . .”
“Will live, if you are gone when she reaches here.”
The ghost-boy pauses in his digging and hugs his knees. He rocks back and forth, shoulders shaking.
A tear trembles down Old Woman’s cheek. “I wanted to meet my grandson.”
“He’d be about the same age as that little one over there.” Raven gestures, his hand tipped with jet-black feathers.
“I should play with him.”
Raven’s face hovers a breath away from her own. His beak is so close she can feel the soft rush of air from his nares. “You can,” he whispers. “All you have to do is ask.”
She looks deep into one bright black eye as large as the moon. Finger by finger, she releases her grip on the handful of Bear’s fur. It falls to the sand, blowing away on the breeze.
Bear’s roar startles Old Woman’s eyes open. For the first time in days, she is cool. Cold, even. She should fetch a blanket.
Cautiously, she rises, propping herself against the wall for balance. Her legs do not buckle. Her back does not creak.
Bear roars again, very close. Old Woman looks down and blinks. Her body lies at her feet, unmoving, a gentle smile on its lips. Heavy fog the shade of damp moss presses close. It smells of loam and hearthfires. Beckoning voices dance within its shadows.
She kneels beside her corpse. The body clenches a raven feather in its crabbed hands. Bear nuzzles its shoulder with his heavy head.
Old Woman reaches out a hand to comfort him, but it slides through his dense pelt and muscled shoulder as if passing through air. She shakes her head. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s a canoe coming,” says a small voice. The ghost-boy beside her, still clutching the stick in one hand. Raven peers up at her from the stick’s carved surface with one painted-black eye.
The ghost-boy takes Old Woman’s hand and leads her down the beach. The women are gone. Only one nephew stirs down by the war canoe. He greets her with a raised hand.
The lapping waves make no sound rushing over the sand, nor do the gulls circling overhead, but the fog whispers against her eardrums, coaxing and cool.
“Where is your mother?” Old Woman asks.
“She went into the fog. They all do.”
The swirling moss-mist obscures Old Woman’s vision as she stares over the strait toward the incoming canoe. It rushes over the calm waters, trailing a glinting wake.
“Look how far I can throw!” The ghost-boy launches a rock toward the sea. It arcs through the mist, sending eddies swirling, the splashes soundless. Ripples spread over the water, until they reach a floating kelp bed and slip away into nothingness. “Can we play now?”
“Soon. I need to see the people in the canoe first.”
“They won’t see you.”
Three figures sit silhouetted in the dugout, the one in the center so small she can see little more than the outline of his head. “I know. It will be enough.”
But the fog swallows the canoe in its enveloping embrace. The whispering shadow-voices rise, singing a welcome song. Fern’s rich alto is among them. They pull like the tide, trying to drag Old Woman’s feet back up the shore.
Old Woman steps into the waves, fighting against the call. She can’t give up now. She’s too close to laying eyes on her grandson.
“May I borrow your stick?” she asks, remembering how the rock had churned the mist.
The ghost-boy presses the carving into her free hand. She raises it to her lips and breathes out her longing over its painted surface, wrapped in a single word. “Please.”
With all of her renewed strength, she hurls the stick toward where she last saw the canoe. It flies end-over-end, cutting a thin strip through the fog. Not enough. Old Woman’s nails dig into her palm.
Then the stick shrieks. Raven’s carved wings stretch wide and catch the clouds beneath his jet-black feathers. He circles once, then flaps twice and soars out to sea.
In his wake, the fog parts. Morning sunshine sparkles on the strait. The canoe dances over the waves. Huckleberry sits in the prow, paddling hard. Perspiration shines on her forehead. Her husband kneels in the stern, intent on the shore.
And in the center of the dugout, clinging to the sides so hard his knuckles pale, sits her grandson. Bear’s dark eyes shine in his little-boy face and the excitement of the journey has set huckleberry stains on his still-chubby cheeks.
A breeze blows his ebony hair across his face and swirls the scent of his cedar-fiber wrap toward her, stronger even than the earthy tinge of the fog.
Then the mossy miasma closes in and all that remains is the ghost-boy’s hand clasped in her own and the rising chant of the shadow-voices.
Old Woman stares a bit longer toward the vanished canoe. Beneath her feet, the sand rushes away with the receding tide. She sighs. “It is enough.”
“Come on! Let’s play!”
Old Woman turns away and follows the ghost-boy into the fog.
© 2012 by Rebecca Birch
First published in Penumbra eMag, September 2012.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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