A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS
BY IAN HUNTER
He could not remember how long he had been a ghost. Certainly, after all these years it felt like forever. Nor, could he think of a reason why he still lingered here, and had not crossed over.
Did he have some unfinished business to deal with? Someone to protect? Someone to avenge? Possibly, even himself? He did not know. His death was so long ago, he could not remember the circumstances surrounding it. Whether he had died naturally of old age, or illness, perhaps even in some accident, or at the hands of another for some dark reason – advancement or greed, or some twisted desire. The only thing that seemed to drive him occasionally was the need to find a new secluded spot where he could shelter from the sun’s rays. Not that he had any real control over that, because people inevitably found him, and drove him away.
Take the last time. Some village elders had called on an old man who passed himself off as a Prophet, which he was not, although he knew enough of the old words and symbols to draw the ghost from the cave on the mountainside, and erect some unseen barrier that prevented him from returning. It was all too much. He had stayed in that cave for years, troubling no one, not even the mountain goats, who had the sense to keep away from the place.
All animals could see him, and they either did one of two things: stand rooted to the spot, hoping not to attract his attention, or they bolted, kicking up dust with their fleeing hooves. Now, he was the one who was bolting, and he had liked that cave, and fancied it was cool, even if he could not feel the air; but at least it protected him from the sun. Ghosts and daylight did not mix very well. Still, he supposed it was good in a way to be moving on, and have some purpose again in his afterlife, even if it was only to find another resting place, or hiding place, if he admitted it, a bolthole from the outside world.
What a poor ghost he was, content to haunt only himself; but he enjoyed walking across the desert in the moonlight, running down the dunes, even turning round to run backwards, laughing at the sight of sand which held no traces of his passing. He ran, he walked, he even flitted from time to time, hoping to find a place of shelter.
It was as the night approached its darkest, that worry began to nibble at him slightly, gnawing at his reason. Looking around, he could see there were no mountains in the distance. No foothills, or buildings, or temples, not even ruins of temples to fallen gods. Only sand, endless sand. Off to his right, he could see wind spirits playing with the sand, creating a churning pillar, which spiralled upwards towards the stars. Soon the sun would be rising, ready to grab him in its hot grasp and dry him out, leaving a misshapen husk behind. A distorted outline of a ghost, as ineffectual as an echo dying on the wind.
There was no choice but to move on, to keep searching for shelter, and try and ignore the nagging voice in his mind that cursed him for his foolishness and his cowardice for not standing up to the villagers and their false prophet. For not drawing on what little powers he possessed and make them run and hide.
Then his spirits rose as he came over another dune and saw a clump of trees and a fire, around which three men laughed, and talked, endlessly it seemed, in excited tones, tramping over each other’s words in tongues he did not understand. He walked past their skitterish camels, who strained and turned against the reins which held them to this spot and settled on a rock next to the men, imagining that the flames were warming his pale skin, and his equally ghostly shroud.
They were a strange trio; old, and enthusiastic, almost child-like in the way their eyes shone and their faces seemed to brim with happiness. Yet, he sensed, there was something furtive about them, and he through they might be spies from another land. Given their age, they were unlikely to be assassins or mercenaries. They were more likely criminals, traders of the forbidden, or just simply the best-dressed thieves he had ever seen.
Eventually, two of the men turned over to sleep, backs to the fire. The third stood up and sighed, stretching out wide until parts of his body cracked. Bending, he poured some wine into a cup and placed it beside a crust of bread on the rock he had been sitting on.
‘For a fellow traveller,’ he said to the ghost, arm gesturing to the rock, an impish grin on his face, but his eyes were clear and calm, as if someone else had borrowed his vision to see through.
His eyes aside, it was still it was the grin of a drunkard, the ghost thought. He knew that drinking too much wine sometimes gave people the ability to see his kind. Yet the old man had looked at him unafraid, even uttered words he could understand, despite the earlier conversation which had been in a foreign tongue.
Soon all three travellers were sleeping and the ghost went over to the rock and bent towards it, concentrating hard, until he made the cup flip over, spilling the wine, watching it leak into the thirsty ground. It was harder to send the bread spinning off in the direction of the three camels, but he managed it and watched with some satisfaction as they fought over the crust for a second or two, forgetting about the ghost in their midst.
He smiled. Let the old man think he had accepted his generosity, or his offering. Even a poor ghost like himself should not be slighted or given offence in the dark of a desert night.
Then he slept beneath the trees, body straight, hands crossed over his chest, like the dead man he was.
He knew the men were gone when he woke up. It was almost the end of daylight, and the criss-cross of branches above him had kept away most of the sun’s rays. He opened his eyes and stared straight into those of a sheep dog, which was practically standing on top of him. Yet it did not bark, or become agitated, but stared into his eyes with a look he seemed to recognise from somewhere.
The dog ran off a few paces, then stopped and looked back at him, tail wagging. Clearly, an invitation, and what else could he do but accept.
As he followed, the sand thinned out. Vegetation dotted the land, then strips of grass appeared. Night filled the sky. He could hear singing ahead and over a rise saw shepherds huddled together, singing to ward off several shining winged spirits that weaved and bobbed above them. He wondered if they might be fire demons. Bright, brilliant things which could sear him to a crisp. He was glad when the dog veered off in another direction, bounding for the town sprawled across the hillside.
From somewhere, the animal had found more energy, and even, he, a thing that did not tire, found it difficult to keep up until it stopped before the open gates of a low building and crouched down, barking once, tail wagging again. The ghost nodded his thanks and walked on, aware that the sky was brightening behind him. The winged ones were coming this way, following him. Better to get inside he thought, out of harm’s way. Demons would not cross a threshold uninvited.
And even though there was no need, the people inside the stable parted to let him through and the animals gathered there barely watched him at all. Not scared, not staying still, he realised, and not even tensing to bolt. They could see him, he knew, and they were not afraid, just like the people who watched him, almost with a sense of wonder.
Only the woman lying on the ground beside the new-born infant seemed alarmed, struggling to rise, until an old man calmed her with an outstretched hand. The same hand that had offered him wine and bread the night before.
The ghost stepped forward and crouched beside the newborn, heads almost touching, as close as the dog had been to him earlier. He stared into eyes that shared a look with an old man, and a sheepdog, with everybody and everything.
A podgy, pawing hand reached up and snagged him somehow, tightening around the pain at the heart of his nothingness, crushing it, and holding him for an instant, and binding him until the end of time.
Then the hand opened, but he still felt its reassuring touch as he stood up. He knew he always would as he bowed to mother and child, and moved away to sit down on the straw. Smiling, knowing finally, that he was home.