I opened my eyes and the past faded. I took a long breath and let it out. Back to the present. Back to work.
I lifted myself up from the antique porcelain embalmer’s slab that held me. I was in the basement workroom of a house I knew well, although I hadn’t been there in many years. Not that it had changed, not in an age. The scuffed and comfortably worn cabinetry looked to be from the 1930s. The walls were papered in faded scenes from the Gay Nineties, including a bespectacled man with perfect posture riding a penny-farthing. The high-wheeled bicycle fad had actually died earlier, around 1880, but the nostalgia of the next generation lumped everything from that time together into a stiff-collared Frankenstein of uprightness. Next to the porcelain slab, a neatly folded pile of clothes waited for me on a stool: high-waisted mom jeans, brown-and-gold argyle socks, a 1990s Disney princesses T-shirt, and a red sweater. Resting on top was a handwritten note:
Welcome back! Wasn’t sure when you would rise. Wake us at any hour. -A
Padded house slippers sat by the stairs like a loyal dog. After dressing, I stepped into them and listened. The house above was dark and quiet. But then, I was fairly certain it was the middle of the night. I had died sometime after three in the morning on Sunday, which meant it was within a few hours of that, either way, on the following Tuesday. I walked up the steps, two of which creaked softly, and stepped through the door, which had been left open. Beyond it was the ground-floor hallway of Harrowood House, a curiosity in dark-stained oak.
Except for the addition of quite a few potted plants, hanging and resting atop metal stands, it looked exactly as I remembered. Sepia-hued photos lining the staircase recounted the history of the house and its occupants. The Hywrod family, as they were then known, came from Wales, where they had lived since Celtic times. They moved to America when it was still a colony of the English and occupied a vacant farmhouse near the Chesapeake near the town of St. Michaels, whose peculiar church had been consecrated half a century earlier, in 1677, by the first wave of English settlers. Death stalked the colonies in those days, and within a few vibrant generations, the Harrowoods, as they became, secured a reputation and a small fortune, both of which had since faded. When the old stone farmhouse burned some years later, it only seemed appropriate to replace it with something grander.
The house whose steps I ascended was a beautiful early-nineteenth century Queen Anne, which, rather confusingly, is an architectural style once popular in America having nothing to do with the English monarch of the same name. Harrowood House had all the typical characteristics—an asymmetric facade, lots of Dutch gabling, a high spire, a wrap-around porch, even a hexagonal gazebo—but it seemed to have been put together incorrectly. The gazebo jutted from a second-floor corner and could only be reached by passing through a large stone fireplace that was never used. The bathroom adjoining a pair of second-floor bedrooms was so narrow, it was nearly impossible to stand in front of the pedestal sink. A daybed nestled in the noisiest corner of the house was embraced by a pair of baby grand staircases that connected the living room with the bedrooms above.
The manor had been well maintained over its long life but was nevertheless showing signs of age. Curls of wallpaper winked from corners. Obsolete black wires for phone and electricity ran along the baseboards and door frames, irredeemably packed with dust. The hardwood slats of the floor groaned under foot, as if long-weary of being tread. An antique Chinese cabinet greeted me from the hall at the top of the stairs. To my left were the paired guest rooms. To my right, the family room—modest by today’s standards but considered quite large at the time it was built. The upright piano that rested against the opposite wall divided the space into dining at one end and reclining at the other. The tall bay windows, which dominated the asymmetric facade from the front, were drawn with unusually long lace curtains that lifted your eyes to the ceiling. It was much higher than the hall from which I entered, which gave the room the sense of being larger on the inside than it was from without.
The antique wood dining table, which sat eight comfortably, ran in front of a large fireplace, tall enough to stoop under, with a heavy stone mantle covered in framed pictures. I could see through it to the adjoining kitchen, where pots hung from every open space and herbs choked the windows. The lamp in the hall was then the only source of light, and it cast a yellow beam around my shadow in a slant across the table’s scuffed surface. In the back corner, behind and around the stairs I had ascended, was a square landing from which rose the steps to the third floor. Those steps did not, as in most houses, follow the slope of the lower set but instead set off in their own direction, as if the floors of the house had been fit together incorrectly.
I walked to the fireplace mantle and lifted a black and white photo of a small crowd standing in a field. The men leaned on shovels. Not a single one of them was smiling. A grove of trees was visible to one side, as was the back of a horse-drawn wagon. On the ground behind behind them was a massive closed coffin, approximately eight meters long and two meters high—meaning not a single head rose above it. The neatly printed caption read: THE LAST NEPHILIM BURIED IN NORTH AMERICA (NOV. 1886). Just behind was a sterling silver frame holding a lock of hair in front of a photo of a single infant in a crib. The baby had a white knit cap on its head. Most of its body was covered in swaddling, but a single tiny hand was exposed. The child’s face was serene but its eyes were entirely black. Next to it was a picture that looked like it dated to the 1940s, or so I gathered from the dress. Three people, a man and what looked to be his wife and daughter, stood together in a high vaulted room before a leafless tree whose branches were capped in unlit candles. Dried wax ran down the limbs and dribbled from the ends of the twigs in long tails to the floor. A handwritten note at the top said “with Mom & Dad at the Istanbul watchtower.” I strolled further down and saw a photo of two men standing before a door built into the trunk of a giant redwood. The door was open. I saw a color photo of a family trip to Disneyland during the US Bicentennial, July 1976. In a tall gilded frame behind it, a pair of clean-shaven white men in broad-shouldered suits stood on either side of a shirtless native adorned with feathers. They had their arms around each other. All three were smiling. The frame was quite ornate and had a small engraved plate at the bottom that said: CELEBRATING THE END OF THE WAR WITH JOHN TENFEATHERS.
But it was the small, three-inch photo near the front that took my breath, for I was in it. It dated from the early days of the fotomat. Somehow the gaudy hues were still sharp. I wore my hair like Jackie Kennedy. I was beaming, as was the young woman next to me. We were both in one-piece bathing suits, our heads pressed together and our hands clasped. We looked so happy. The caption said “Amalfi 1964.” I took it from the mantle and ran a thumb over the warm faces, making sure they wouldn’t smudge, as memories do. I became aware then that I was being watched. A little girl stood by the bay windows. Her face was in shadow. She wore a simple homespun dress with no shoes. Her arms were at her side. Her skin was brown. She didn’t speak. She didn’t have to. I knew immediately she was a ghost.
Seeing them is always an electric experience. There is nothing as eerie. Despite common misconceptions, most appear completely normal at first—no missing limbs or floating heads or dripping slime—and yet, somehow you can always tell. Some distant, ancient reveille screams across the eons of our evolution, emerging as a strum of the archaic antenna in our brain stems, and the little hairs on our necks stand like soldiers, and our hearts skip.
When I was perhaps ten or eleven, a messenger with a great red plume visited our house, which was always a cause for great excitement. News didn’t come by wire or even printed page then. Whatever we knew of the outside world had to by delivered by the mouth or hand of a man on horseback. I remember running from my nursemaid and sitting atop the grand staircase in our home as my father’s valet handed him the wax-sealed parcel. I was disappointed at the contents. It seemed the occasion was nothing more than the death of a famous jurist, a legal adviser at court, whereupon my father said a few kind words and returned to his work. Later, at dinner, he announced he would make a journey of eleven days to attend the dead man’s funeral, which struck me as terribly odd. I had only ever heard my father speak ill of the man. In fact, I didn’t even know what a jurist was and only recognized the name because of the curses that always accompanied it out the door of my father’s private study. It seemed this man, Olyenkov, was callous and cruel, the worst kind of absolutist authoritarian, which angered my father, who was committed to the belief that the responsibilities of high position came in excess of its rights. And yet, here he was making token statements of mourning and uttering kinder words in death than he ever had in life.
As it happened, that was around the time I first read the play Antigone. Stretched across the Persian carpet in my father’s library, I didn’t understand why the titular heroine would defy the king and risk death simply to give her brother a proper burial, to sprinkle his body with dust and to speak a few of the old rites, just as I didn’t understand why my father spoke so kindly of a man he despised and made a difficult journey of several weeks, there and back, to do no more than nod solemnly over a corpse. I was too young to realize why all cultures, current and past, have prohibitions against speaking ill of the dead, and why even the Neanderthals buried their kin with ritual and ceremony: The dead can stir. It’s best not to give them reason to. It’s best to forgive and to speak kindly so that they might hear and be at peace. It’s best to gather with others to do the same so that the departed are assured of their place in our memory and let go of the world. There are very few horrors in this world as genuinely hellish as a haunting, and they are so very difficult to end.
The little girl didn’t move, and neither did I. The pendulum clock on the wall ticked off the seconds without care. It seemed as though she was aware that a stranger had entered the house, but not through the front door—that I had been dead, but that I wasn’t anymore. And she had come to see. My heartbeat began throbbing loudly in my chest, and I realized I’d been holding my breath. When I couldn’t bear it any longer, I let the air from my lungs with as weak a sigh as I could effect before drawing in slowly. Sometimes the signs of life anger them—breath, warmth, laughter. The dead don’t usually know they are. They know only that something is wrong. I inhaled at a whisper, gripping the picture frame with two hands, not daring to move a single muscle. If she came for me, as she seemed wont to, there would be little I could do.
When finally I blinked, dry-eyed, she was gone. But I caught a second person in the mirror above the mantle. Anya. She was by the Chinese cabinet above the stairs, still wearing the dress we buried her in. But when I turned from the reflection, she was gone as well.
from the conclusion of my epic urban fantasy FEAST OF SHADOWS.