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Apr 29

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“Grandmother of Ghosts” by E. Catherine Tobler

The boats have stopped coming. After three long weeks without a single boat, I have stopped looking to the sea. The last rowboat that came rests belly up farther down the shore. It reminds me of a beached whale; a calf at that, dead before it ever really began. A woman sits there at sunset each day, waiting for a sailor who will never return.

The train still comes, bless the train. Every day at 1:10 p.m. it shimmers into being in the wheat field, but discharges fewer and fewer people each time. Pretty soon, no one will come and my keeping will be for naught.

I get to the field as morning light begins to pierce the stalks of wheat. Only their tips glow; the rest crouch in dark shadow. The field appears empty at first, but against the twin silhouettes of the grain silos I see Bernard and his companion, hunkered down at their debris-strewn table.

The scent of their cigar smoke reaches me even before I cross over to them. Bernard raises a worn hand, not to welcome me, but to shush me, even though I already know not to speak to him. His shoulders bunch under his olive green coat, hair all but invisible under his black beret.

“They haven’t ordered it yet,” he says, pressing the headset against his ear. “Any moment now—any moment.”

He’s waiting for the go ahead to strike Sicily; every day he listens to his worn out radio and its distant signal. I don’t know his companion’s name—he never speaks. I never ask. I glimpse the battered top hat on the table and pick it up before Bernard can begin to complain about it. I smile at the men and leave them to their work. I have my own work, after all.

#

A peek at my pocket watch tells me the train is due soon. The wheat seems to know this; it bends under the wind, twin tracks visible if one knows where to look. The wheat remembers the train’s place, even when the train is elsewhere. Elsewhen.

My work now is simple. I fold the top hat into my pocket for later consideration and I pluck the sticks that lay strewn in the field where they have lain since dropped. Nineteen in all. There used to be so many more. I tie them into a bundle and hoist it onto my back. So light, when once the burden was so great. Tonight, I will burn the sticks into nothingness and release the people who brought them.

There is a flicker against the gold and gray horizon; a girl in a cream dress, violin near her chin. She is an impossible thing—she should not be here, for I burned her stick. But, then again, Bernard also lingers. Why?

The girl’s sweet music flows across the brightening grain and is then abruptly gone. The girl vanishes after an explosion of B flats, and I look down at my pocket watch. 1:10 p.m.

I step back from the bent wheat, awaiting the appearance of the train, the hard up rush of air when the rusted engine appears. The engine will smell of the places it has been—sometimes of curry, often of oil. Once, it smelled like cherry blossoms. The trees in this land do not bloom, nor do they sport leaves. Not any more.

The gears of my watch turn. Another full sweep of the second hand. And another. 1:12 p.m. and the train has not come. I close a hand into a fist around my watch and wait. I close my eyes and count and when I open my eyes, the field remains empty.

The wheat rises in the growing light; it has given up its wait.

#

Time is strange in this place; morning comes after noon, and evening can be found around any corner. I crouch in the wheat and await the train and it does not come. When I finally turn my back on the field, I hear a phantom whistle, but know it as only a cruel trick. I go to Grandmother’s china closet, which rises tall out of the wheat. I turn its sharp corner and step into pitch darkness.

The first time a boat did not come, there was nothing to be done. So it is with the train. Will it come tomorrow? I absently stroke my watch in my pocket; tomorrow will be here soon enough.

I lay the nineteen sticks in a row, balanced against the back of the china closet. Nineteen people yesterday. None today. There will be no sticks to gather in the morning. I set each stick against the back of the china closet and lift the lighter Bernard gifted me with. I flick the flame into life, but cannot bear to burn the sticks to ash as I must. What if they are the last?

I can hear Bernard in the darkness, speaking into his radio. His accent is not fully of one place. He lingers somewhere in between just as everything here does.

I snap the lighter shut. I close its warm shape into my palm.

I take the top hat out of my pocket. It is on Bernard’s table every morning. No matter where I leave it, no matter if even I burn it. It returns.

Some things come back. I lean against the china closet, refusing to look at the dark and empty field. What is the difference between hope and prayer? I do not know the answer as I bow my head low.

#

Overnight, the top hat vanishes. I wake to the scent of the sea and know that something is wrong. Something beyond the lack of train. I can feel it inside me, a darkness I don’t know how to court.

I rise from the wheat and eye the nineteen sticks still propped against the back of the china closet. I gather and tie them again, strapping them to my back. Bernard’s voice is low, but still present over the whispering wheat. His orders have not yet come in; he will not move on. “Damn hat,” he mutters and throws it across the wheat.

Over the scent of salt and water, I pick out something new, and turning to look, I see him standing there. A man, illuminated by the rising sun. The sun throws his shadow long and tall across the wheat. I straighten. His eyes meet mine. He looked the same way a thousand years ago, didn’t he? Standing in a forest with shafts of sunlight framing him.

The sun moves, the light shifts, and I see that he is not a man at all. He cannot be the one I remember. It is a wolf. He—for it seems male—stands on hind legs, paws held loosely together at his waist as one would hands.

“I forgot to tell you,” he says.

I watch him at the edge of the field, the pink and orange sunlight glinting on the sea to his back. Where has he come from? The train has not yet arrived. I have but nineteen sticks and all those people are accounted for.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I love you,” he says.

And when I blink, he vanishes, as though he was never there. But I smell him on the air and somehow, the scent is familiar.

I pace back towards Bernard and his companion. I pluck the top hat from the wheat and bring it with me. For the first time, I join them at the table. There are only two chairs, so I perch on the edge. Bernard doesn’t like this at all.

His face screws up into a frown and he’s about to object when his head snaps to the right. The radio crackles with static and his eyes brighten, and just when it seems he’ll get his orders and march away from this place, the radio erupts with a belch of gray smoke.

“Woman, you bring misery,” he says. “Then and now, wherever I see you—and I always see you.” He pats his jacket pocket, a small photograph hidden away there; it is a woman with a coil of long brown hair, and while mine is white, Bernard tells me this woman is me.

“You need to burn those sticks,” he says.

The weight of the sticks against my back is a comfort, the one thing I understand. “But what if they are the last?” I finally ask.

Bernard’s companion nods, opening his mouth to say, “Then it is even more important you carry it through.” He will never say another word here.

The companion withdraws a stick from beneath the table, and Bernard adds one as well. Did I not already burn these?

“Time to burn us too, lass. Sicily won’t come for me now.” He runs a hand across the top of the radio, stirring soot and dust. I see where these things have settled into the lines of his skin and I wonder if this is what holds Bernard together.

I reach across the table and take the two sticks in hand. I add them to my bundle, a solid twenty-one now, but still don’t want to burn them. A rustling in the wheat behind me causes me to turn. It is the girl with the violin. It is not a bow she drags across the strings, but a stick. She hands it to me.

In the wheat all around us I see the other nineteen; figures trapped between this world and that. Grandmother bid me to do the work. What if it is the last? What if the train will never come again?

“They come for the burning,” the wolf whispers, though I do not see him. “Finish your work.”

I clutch the girl’s stick—twenty-two—and do not move.

#

I refuse to burn them. I walk through the ghostly forms that come and go from the field, and memorize their faces. More than one of them looks like Grandmother from a certain angle.

“Misery,” Bernard whispers to me, an almost angry edge to his voice. “They don’t belong here, woman.”

I know he’s right—this field was never meant to be their final destination. But aren’t they happy here, between the grain and the sky? With the salt sea at their feet? Grapes for dinner and dreams made of dragonfly wings? I have lived with such for so long, how could they not wish it?

I keep the sticks and reject turning them to ash. If they are the last people I will ever know, I cannot release them.

The train returns that evening—though not under its own power. The wolf pulls the train into the field, a heavily rusted chain attached to the cow catcher. The wheat does not bend to welcome the train; it breaks and splinters.

The wolf collapses to the ground, dropping the chain; the entire world seems to shift under its weight. The girl and her violin flee into the night behind Grandmother’s china closet.

Steam curls from the train. It brings the new scents of sulfur and deepest dirt. There is no conductor—there never is. Where the conductor would sit is occupied by one figure alone, a man who seems too young for this place—but in my time I have seen even the smallest child here. Everyone comes when they must, no matter their age.

He pokes his head out of the train and focuses on me. “Have you found my hat then?”

I unroll the tattered top hat from my pocket. “This hat?”

He grins and dragonflies escape from his longcoat as he steps down. Their golden wings beat down the scent of sulfur as they flutter up and up and up. “I say, that hat. May I?” He extends a hand to me. In the hand, he holds a stick.

We exchange hat for stick. He balances the hat on his head, a perfect fit.

“Good day, miss,” he says and wanders off into the wheat, not fully visible, but neither fully gone.

The wolf looks up at me, wheat crackling around him. “If it is the end, you must accept it. And if not the end, you must take what few do come in their own time.”

I watch the wheat begin to burn under the heat of the train; sulfur coats each strand, spreading from the train and outward. How soon before it devours my field? Would I give up these souls to save it? There’s no questioning that. I nod at the wolf and head toward Grandmother’s china closet.

#

I settle the sticks into the car frame that rusts in the wheat some distance from the train. Twenty-three sticks this time. Some are long and some are short. Each is a life that has come to this place. Each is a life that I have been charged to pass along. These lives do not stay in this place for long; everyone comes and everyone goes. Everyone except me.

Grandmother told me this when I was a child. We never really leave this place, she said, but these other souls must pass on. They come to us with an offering; we take this and turn it to ash; we scatter them into the far away, where they shall become the wind that carries another, the dragonfly that perches, the smallest grain of wheat that waits for sunlight and rain.

This time, I place the lighter against the sticks and allow them to burn. They caught beautiful fire and the car turned so hot I could not touch it for long, but still I touched it and did not burn. The wolf crouched beside me, watching.

Bernard cried out, “The call! I’ve got the call!” a moment before he turned to spark and blew into the night sky; his companion followed, and so too the girl with her violin. The man in his top hat, the woman who awaited her sailor.

When the wolf hands me his stick, I close my hands around the long length of wood and look at him, his eyes golden in the firelight. A thousand years ago, before there was a Bernard, before Grandmother called me to the far away, there was him, by my side. We hunted the sunlit woods and ate birds crisped over open fires.

“You are never alone here,” he says as I slip his stick into the fire.

I nod and watch him fade into the stars as his stick burns. As the fire dwindles, it grows ever quiet around me. A dragonfly alights on my shoulder; I hear its wings for a moment and then nothing.

I watch the fire until it becomes ash, then rise and walk to the train. The sulfur evaporates from the wheat as I pass; the wheat is crushed, but even now I see it stirring back to life. I touch the side of the train, metallic and warm. Humming.

“I expect you back at one-ten,” I say and it flickers away. I hear its whistle like a “yes” in the air around me. I look toward the sea as the first stars begin to prick the sky and my breath catches at a shadow upon the water.

It is the coming of a boat.


E. Catherine Tobler was born on the other side of the International Dateline, which either gives her an extra day in her life or an extraordinary affinity when it comes to inter-dimensional gateways. Her fiction can be found in Clarkesworld Magazine, LCRW, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her debut novel arrives this summer from Masque Books.

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    […] it’s fresh in my mind (having read it just today), and because it’s lovely – Grandmother of Ghosts. Once you’re done there, go and seek out her other short stories (they’re seriously all […]

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