This is a story about a girl who fell deep down into the dark. Lost and forgotten, her body died and her soul lingered. She faded away, day by day, until her name vanished and she was only a shadow of the person she used to be.
One day, this ghost was found by a girl with magic in her delicate heart. The warmth of life and the glow of magic brought the ghost back from the edges of oblivion, and she found a little bit of her voice again. The sound of her voice was quiet and far away, so the magic girl called her “Whisper”.
For a short time, Whisper was reconnected to the living world. She helped her new friend save the patchwork boy from the wicked wizard. And when the boy slipped through the space between worlds to return to his home far away, Whisper followed his bright light into the unknown.
But her path was not his. The boy vanished through a door that shut tight after him. Whisper was left behind in the grey wastes between her old world of the living and the land beyond the edge of sleep.
She knew that this land was reserved for the dead, and she was one of them. The sky was a featureless grey fog. The only light was a dim distant glow from somewhere beyond the fog. At her feet lay the beginning of a wide road of cobblestones, made of yellowed ivory. This was the Road of Bones.
The road was choked with legions of restless spirits. The dead shuffled from side to side. They cried out with confusion, surprise and regret. As she stood in the throng, Whisper felt the push of newly arrived spirits behind her. All the ghosts wanted to move on, but none could.
Whisper did not want to wait in the dark anymore. She pushed forward between the ranks of idle ghosts in front of her. To keep track of time, she counted the rows of the dead that she passed. 100.
After a thousand rows, the procession changed. There were fewer ghosts on the road. They still spilled over the edges of the road, but she could see the end of the row to the left and to the right. And past the row end lay camps and shanties built by the waiting dead. The buildings were constructed out of bricks made of the soot that covered every inch of the land. The dead owners of the buildings lingered nearby, simulating the routines of the living. The ghosts sitting by the extinguished campfires held no new information for Whisper, so she continued on.
Each set of 1000 rows brought Whisper to another improvised way-station. Each settlement was older than the last one she had passed, and the ghosts that haunted them were more faded and undefined. The buildings matched their owners, in style and in substance. The numbers of dead in the way-stations and on the road were much lower. Where were the dead going?
Further on, the road in front of Whisper was empty. In the distance there was a wall blocking the entire road. The wall rose up to the fog above and stretched out as far as she could see to either side. She stopped to watch the path ahead for an explanation of the sudden absence of ghosts.
A handful of ragged ghosts stumbled past her, all of them moaning a wordless sound full of desperation and anger. Their moan was answered by a gust of wind that filled her ears with a terrible howl. It grabbed the tattered spirits and pulled them in to join the wind. Their voices became part of the howling wind as the last pieces of their selves were shredded into nothingness. The howling roared on continually, a sound that Whisper could not block out no matter how much she wished to. But she pushed on.
Holding her arms tightly to her body, Whisper staggered forward into the full force of the crosswind. The Howling sang her a story of madness and rage. She felt the same terrible emotions rise in the darkest parts of her heart.
She focused on the smooth stones under her feet until she arrived at the wall. It was made of machined parts, glass and aluminum, steel and plastic, all coated in gasoline. Whisper knew that the road continued on past this manufactured obstacle, but there was no way for her to move past it.
The howling wind demanded that she give up and join it. She closed her eyes and placed her left hand on the wall for support as she fought against the wind. As her fingers touched the smooth surface, all of the hateful noise disappeared. The wall turned transparent and became a window into the utter blackness on the other side.
Whisper stared at the hand that matched her own, pressed against the wall on the other side. The thin fingers were the colour of sun-bleached bone, long and elegant. They ended in beautiful but wickedly pointed fingernails that were the colour of dark red blood. She followed the long slender arm up to the dark grey hair falling around the woman’s shoulder and framing her face. And in the unending darkness that lay in the woman’s eyes, Whisper saw the promise of restful oblivion. Through the invisible barrier between them, Whisper felt cold radiating from the woman. The woman’s lips parted and she spoke.
“Rebecca Ann. I know you. I return your lost name. I remember you to this world, the last and the next.”
The quietly spoken words bore deep into Whisper’s heart and made it tremble in fear and joy. They pierced the veil of forgetfulness that had been tied tight around Whisper. Her living memories came back to her. Moments of joy and sorrow, of love and loss. The rush of her returning past threatened to consume her mind entirely. The majestic woman spoke again.
“Find yourself again, Rebecca Ann. You know who I am. Speak my name.”
Her mouth found the words that had been hidden within her all along. Whisper held her free hand over her heart and recited the ancient prayer.
“You are Mother Moon. You bring the peaceful rest at the end of day. You shelter us from the unrelenting Sun. Your knife cuts the wicked.”
Mother Moon smiled and her long white teeth gleamed. For a moment, Whisper saw thick red blood crusted at the corners of Mother’s mouth, with a spider web of thin scars running along her jaw. A ring of ridged scars appeared on Mother’s left wrist, and heavy chained shackles were bound around Mother’s ankles and right wrist. As Mother began to speak again, the injuries and restraints disappeared with a flicker.
“Every soul is born knowing my name and my promise in their heart. They follow my call when their lives end. I call them to their rest, as it is the natural end of all things.
But nature has been interrupted by the too clever thinkers of your kind. They invented a divide between the living and the dead, and the wall became real. And they refused to believe in the spirit of humanity, and so they bound me here beyond the edge of sleep. The keys to my prison were hidden in the six worlds.
I stood silent in the darkness for hundreds of years. Then the first key was returned, and the gag around my mouth fell. I could speak across the worlds and the void between them, but only in whispered dreams.
The second key was found by those who heard me, and my hand was free. I clawed through the wall to reach you, if just for a moment before the wall closed again. Because I need you, Rebecca Ann. You will be my hands, my heart, and my eyes. In the world where the dead crowd against the living, you will keep the speaker from harm. She must be safe until she is ready.”
“Who is the speaker? Is it Mallory? She could hear me.”
“No. My Mallory walks a different path, a solitary road into darkness. The speaker must return and stay in the light. She will be able to hear the vanishing spirits, and she can bring them back. But her life is fragile. You will protect her. When she reminds the living of the forgotten dead, your work will be done.”
Will…will I rest then? I’m tired, Mother Moon. The wind tears at me and pulls me apart.”
“The howling of the lost souls can no longer touch you. You have your name again. Hold it close to your heart.”
The wall shuddered and turned translucent. The radiating cold coming through the wall intensified and the barrier became clear again. Mother Moon winced with the effort of fighting the wall. The wounds on her pale silver flesh were visible again. Her skin was pulled taut over her skeletal frame, and blood covered every inch of her exposed skin. Her struggles to free herself had taken a terrible toll on her. With a rasp she issued her final instructions to Whisper.
“Go child. Go to the river and find the speaker in the deep, dark water.”
The chains snaked up from the shackles to wrap around Mother Moon’s limbs and pull her away from the wall. Whisper lost sight of Mother Moon as the wall returned to its original state, and her ears filled once again with the ugly sound of the howling wind. It burrowed into her ears tried to shake lose her resolve. Whisper stood tall and shouted into the dull sky.
“I am Rebecca Ann and Mother Moon needs me!”
She repeated those words until the howling was drowned out. Whisper turned and hurried along the Road of Bones to look for some sign of a river.
At the nearest ghost camp she stopped to search. She moved among the semi-circle of small, vacant huts that surrounded a partially completed longhouse. Ghostly versions of the items of daily life were left scattered around the huts, as testimonials to the lives left behind, but there was no clue pointing to a river running through this purgatory.
Whisper walked into the dimly lit longhouse. Memories of old smoke hung in the open room. The few ghosts left in this camp were moving aimlessly through the longhouse in search of purpose. The spirits were hazy and see-through. It would not be long before they gave up and joined the howling.
She walked deeper into the longhouse until she found the strongest remaining spirit. It crouched over a fire pit, tending to the ash as if it was a roaring fire.
“Please help me. Where is the river?”
The spirit paused and looked up at Whisper. It slowly tilted its head to the side and soundlessly mouthed an undecipherable string of words. A gust of the angry wind blew through the longhouse and plucked at the fraying edges of the spirit. It moved a step towards the door behind Whisper.
“No! You can’t go! Mother Moon needs me to find the river! Please!”
The ghost stopped moving at the mention of Mother Moon. It settled back to ground and gestured for Whisper to come closer. It spoke again in words too quiet to be heard.
“Where? I can’t hear you. Where is the river?” she pleaded. She put her ear to the lips of the ghost as it repeated a single phrase.
It was a phrase from a language Whisper had never heard before. Whisper’s tongue stumbled over it as she tried to repeat the words. She struggled through its strangeness again and again until she was repeating it in time with the spirit. Their voices merged into a chant. With each repetition, Whisper saw a shudder run through the shapeless fog outside. She stood up and continued to say “Eshkani-ziibi” as loudly as she could. The air around her muffled her shout, but it was enough to open a path through the fog.
She walked through the fog until she reached the edge of the river. The grey and muddy water moved sluggishly. She was at a bend in the river, among the dry dead grass and scrawny birch trees. The water in front of her was churning against the current out where the river was at its deepest. A weak cry of terror bubbled up through the roiling water. A small hand broke the surface and clawed frantically at the air as a tiny voice begged for help. Without a thought Whisper dove in to the cold grey water and swam towards the small human form sinking slowly to the river bed.
Whisper swam down under the water and the world turned upside down. She flailed her arms to either side but could not find any trace of the drowning child. She swam deeper and discovered the bottom of the river was now the top. Whisper broke through the surface of the river into the blinding light of day, before slipping back under. She felt the pull of the water dragging her down, and she fought against it. Her hands found the slope of the bank and she clawed her way up the last few feet until she escaped the river.
For the first time in decades, Whisper gasped in a lungful of breath. A coughing fit came roaring up in response, and first violent cough sent her world spinning. She lost all sense of her surroundings.
A moment later Whisper reopened her eyes. She was now standing up on the higher part of the river bank, looking down on a girl being held tightly in the arms of a man and a woman. The girl was no more than 12 years old, and she was sopping wet. The girl gasped, and Whisper felt a wave of sadness pass over her as she realized that. she was once again a ghost in a living world The memory of that one brief gasp of air was all she was going to keep.
The girl rolled to her side and threw up a puddle of river water while continuing to cough and sputter. The adults held back her hair and spoke soothing words in between their tears. The girl’s coughing slowly subsided. The girl looked over the shoulder of the woman holding her and made eye contact with Whisper.
“Thank you for saving me. Your name is Rebecca Ann, isn’t it?”
Whisper nodded her head. The woman holding the little girl turned to look behind her.
“Who are you talking to, Emmaline? Dad and I are the only other people here.”
“The sad girl over there, in the long twirling skirt and the pretty pink sweater. She helped me swim out of the water and saved me. She’s not alive, not anymore.”
The parents exchanged a worried look while the girl continued to watch Whisper. She held up her hand and waved Whisper closer. The ghost complied and floated down to stand behind the mother and daughter. She tentatively held out her own hand as she leaned in close to the girl. Their fingers brushed against each other briefly before Whisper’s hand continued on through the girl’s fingers.
“Hello Emmaline. It’s nice to meet you. I’m going to keep you safe, is that okay?”
Emmaline smiled and caressed the curve of Whisper’s cheek.
“That’s okay. I’m going to help you too. You and all of the others. They all look very lonely.”
From all around the peculiar scene came the flickering movement of wandering spirits gathering around the little girl who could see and hear them. The circle of eager ghosts pressed in from every direction. Whisper waved the ghosts away and ordered them to step back from the girl. The spirits moaned but complied with her command. Emmaline was wide eyed.
“There’s so many of them, Rebecca Ann.”
“More than you can ever know, Emmaline.”
“I don’t know how to help them all.”
“Neither do I, not yet. But we’ll figure it out. We have to.”