From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Word Without Ghosts

Wendy was wrapped in an old green blanket. She smelled the musk of it, the smell of mold-eaten clothing hovering on the edge of her awareness. She was trapped in the blanket, suffocating in the blanket.

From outside of her cocoon she heard footsteps against metal, footsteps on broken leaves. Footsteps snapping a twig or two, then stillness and the sound of heavy breathing. A voice spoke. It reminded her of her brother’s voice.

“I’m not going to kill you.”

She struggled more, the blanket knotting against her limbs, wrapping and encasing her in its stench. She stopped for a moment, felt a warm hand against the outside of the blanket. “I brought you here to keep you safe.”

He breathed like her brother. Thick, heavy, asthmatic. A gasp always on the verge of drowning. The voice was his, and even that hand—it felt like his hand. The memories of his hand against her in the night. It felt like that. Not like a physical, real hand. But like the memory of a hand against her skin.

“Peter?” She was hesitant, unsure.

She did not want to believe it was him. Could not believe it was some ghost, some flesh-and-blood ghost that kidnapped her and brought her here. She wanted him to stay dead, to stay on the bottom of the river.

He was a fish now. Mother said so.

Her captor’s response was a song. Whisper sung, so she could barely make out the words. “Jack of diamonds, Jack of diamonds, I have known you from old. You have robbed me of my silver. You have robbed me of my gold.”

A voice beautiful, deep and growling. Not her brother’s voice in that song. It was a half-man voice, a half-bear voice. She struggled, trying to unwrap herself from the blanket. The sun filtered in through the green, tinting her world in emerald.

The harder she struggled, the more the blanket tangled around her. I am the fish now, she thought. I am the fish caught in a moldy green net.

* * *

He unwrapped Wendy from the blanket, dumping her on the ground. The steel floor hit her hard and cold. It was covered in gravel that dug against her skin, grating and scraping. She looked up as the figure of a small boy darted into the corner of the room, hidden by moving shadows.

Wendy looked around.

She was in an old train station. Where? She could not know. Maybe it was far away from her home? Maybe it was close by? She couldn’t tell. She had been asleep when he had stolen her.

She saw the rust of the room, the vines entangling against the architecture. She saw ripped and half eaten maps of train schedules pinned to random walls. Schedules of the past. Times and dates for ghost trains that would never arrive.

The figure in the corner rocked back and forth. She heard pebbles scatter beneath his body and the crinkling of dead leaves as he moved to and fro. He sang that song again.

Outside she heard the beating of wings against trees. A storm of birds, assailing the air. Beating at it with beaks and feathers.

“What’s that noise?”

His song stopped. He muttered something incoherent and stood up. His back uncoiled, drawing his body up tall and taller still. Much taller than she could have imagined. Was this still a little boy? Was this still a ghost child?

Wendy saw black fur rippling along his back. He stepped into the blue haze of the moonlight and she saw that this was no boy. This was a bear. A big black bear. With flashing eyes filled with lightning and rows of crooked teeth.

He stumbled past her and walked outside.

Birds screamed. The sounds of pounding flesh, of meat being ripped to shreds. And then the sounds stopped. The wings stopped beating and the shrill screams stuck silent in broken beaks.

When the bear came back in, his fur was thick with blood and random bits of feathers and beaks. Around his neck was a clutter of clavicles hooked together like a war prize.

“We will not eat these birds.” His voice sounded like a grave opening. “They are tainted. I will find you food tonight. No matter what you hear outside, do not leave this building. You are safe here. Outside, her children wait for you.”

Wendy nodded, brushing strands of her greasy blonde hair out of her eyes. She wasn’t sure if she believed him. She didn’t feel safe here. She felt haunted. Tainted by memories of the dead.

* * *

An hour later and more birds fluttered outside. She heard them, beating against the bones of the building. She saw them through the windows, multicolored wings and beaks like hands beating on the glass. Begging to be let in.

At first it was only a few. As minutes crept by more and more came, flocking around the building. Wendy sensed a hunger in the air. A devouring appetite.

She tried her best to ignore it. Tried her best to go back to sleep. She curled up underneath the green blanket, a pile of leaves and stones and discarded bones as a makeshift pillow beneath her head.

The sound of the wings drowned out her thoughts. Forced her into an unthinking shell. She shivered and pulled the blanket around herself, trying to keep warm. She still wore her nightgown, half transparent and barely even something she could consider clothing.

She rocked back and forth. There had to be something to make the birds go away, to make the noises stop. They ate into her mind, pecking at her thoughts with carrion desire.

She remembered bits and pieces of the song her bear brother sang. Snatches of it floated around in her memories. Jack of diamonds, Jack of diamonds. She hummed it.

Her mind cleared. The noises became a whisper in the background. A sussurration of sounds barely audible on the edges of her mind.

There is magic in that music, Wendy thought.

Ghost magic.

* * *

Bear brother came back, small and human again, with a string of dead fish over his shoulder. They had been deboned already and cooked already. Just the smell of it reminded her of how hungry she was. Wendy could not remember the last time she ate.

As he entered the room his body shifted, flickering in the air. Static ran across him. White noise across his fragile face and hands. She tried to focus on this white noise, tried to see the rips and tears in his existence.

Inside of them she saw bits and pieces of memories, played back like a home movie. Grainy, out of focus. With the sounds of sentimental music in the background. These were her memories, wrapped up in the rends of his existence.

Memories of brother doing somersaults, of brother being taunted by bullies. Of brother reading to her at night. Strange books, bizarre fairy tales and folk lore. Wendy even remembered her brother singing in the class musical. He was a bear in that musical. A kind old bear who saved a princess from an evil dwarf.

The ghost of Peter threw a fish down on the ground in front of her. It hit the floor with a wet flop, bits of leaves and gravel sticking to it. His eyes had a cold mean look. A bear look that flashed with lightning. Some part of Wendy feared his gaze running over her body.

“Eat,” he said.

She nodded and picked up a fish, devouring it with her greedy hands.

* * *

Wendy waited for a daylight that never came. A daylight that would announce the end to all of this. A daylight where she could stumble away home, leaving the ghosts of bear brother and the birds behind her.

But it was always night. A never ending night. Every hour, every minute, night. Night haunted by moon and stars. Night haunted by mist. A night caught in the fingers of autumn trees, always dancing above their heads. Eternal night. Eternal autumn.

She felt trapped in the hours of dusk.

* * *

Another sleepless night haunted by the songs of birds. More fish to eat. Wendy wished for a nice sandwich —with baloney and cheese. Maybe a pickle on the side. And a drink—orange juice? No, no. Something special. Like a strawberry milkshake.

She wet her lips, thinking about it. When she bit into the fish she imagined the salty taste transformed. It tingled on her lips and turned into cheese and meat and bread. She licked her teeth hungrily and looked over at her captor.

Rugged now. Some parts of him still looked like a bear. Wide shoulders. Nose elongated. Bits of black fur underneath his hair. He smiled at her as he ate. Long sharp and crooked teeth, stained with fish blood.

“Peter?”

He looked down at the floor. Stared at the dust and broken leaves. Twigs lay scattered in a circle around him like bones. “I’m not your brother.”

She looked down at her fish. “Oh.”

She studied him for the first time. Really looked at him. Her brother was in there, somehow. A memory of him among the folds of reality. But behind those memories was another lonely little boy wrapped in a bear skin suit. Someone who was not her brother. Someone who was dirty and unkempt. And sure, some of his features looked like Peter’s, but not all. On his chest she saw a tattoo. A symbol. Like two arms grasped around each other.

“You can still call me Peter, if you want.”

She turned her eyes to his. Saw those bear eyes again, lit up in his skull. “What’s your name?”

Bear boy shrugged. “My name?”

Wendy found herself laughing. She covered her giggles with her hand, her fingers hiding the smirk on her lips. She saw that he was offended by her laughter, so she calmed down. “What do people call you?”

He stared at the ground, his eyes following the circle. “Peter is good enough.”

Wendy finished eating her fish in silence. That was not the answer she wanted, nor the answer she expected. She wanted to give him a new name. Give him something other than a ghost name or a fish name. A name that was proper for a big bear trapped in a little boy’s skin.

“How about Thorn?”

He smiled. She had never seen him smile before. Wendy blushed and looked down at the ground. “I mean, well, if you don’t like it. You could, I guess, use Peter if you want.”

The boy shook his head, bits of fur coming in thicker now with each shake. “No,” he said, “No. Thorn is good. I like it. It makes me feel strong. Thank you.”

She muttered a response under her breath. Outside the sound of wings filled the air, the cries of birds haunting the world around them. Thorn stood up, shaking off his boy skin and ready to go out and fight.

Thorn looked at her. “You stay here.”

Wendy reluctantly nodded.

* * *

A few hours after Thorn left, the sound of the wings lessened. And then a voice. Her mother’s voice. Sweet in each syllable, singing a lullaby in a language she could not understand. Wendy stood up, green blanket draped over her shoulders in a makeshift cape. Outside of the arched doorway to the forest she saw a lean and tall woman ensconced in miasma. The song she sang was loud, with an impressive series of whistles, trills and gurgles.

Was that her mother? Wendy was not sure. She looked like her mother. But taller. Her clothes were made from plain brown feathers. Her lips in the moonlight looked like a beak. Her eyes like small gray stones.

Wendy was transfixed. The moon crowned her mother’s head, setting her hair into waves around her face. The birds fluttered around her, dancing to the sounds of her song.

The song pulled at Wendy. Yanked her forward. The memory of the bear was gone, long hidden within the folds of her thoughts. She moved forward automatically, her feet pulling her closer and closer to that beautiful voice. Mother, mother, Wendy thought, you have come for me. Come to save me from the fish.

Wendy walked outside, the fall trees shaking their leaves around her, coating her with golds and reds. Her mother smiled at her, the birds and mist crawling forward to embrace Wendy. The song did not stop. Still the mother sang, sweetly and slowly.

Wendy saw a red feathered tail strike out from her mother’s back. On her mother’s chest she saw a tattoo. A symbol. It looked like a circle with a slash through the top, cutting it in half.

Wendy saw hands turn to wings, extended outward to either embrace her or fly away. She wanted to turn back. Wanted to move away from this apparition and return to the train station. She knew on some level that this was not her mother, could not be her mother.

But her loneliness pushed her forward.

The wings pulled her near and in. They felt like the memory of her mother’s arms. Her breath smelled like the memory of her mother’s breath, and her kisses tasted like the memory of her mother’s lips. She felt absorbed in memory. Even when the beak rose into the air as a golden flash of light, piercing the moon above them.

Wendy pushed back, pushed out of memory. The beak hung in the air, naked and sharp. The birds danced around them with bones in their mouths. “You are not her,” Wendy walked backwards, “You cannot be her.”

Trance now broken, the creature rushed forward and grabbed Wendy’s skin with harpy claws, digging the brass sculpted knuckles in deep. Wendy called out in pain as she was lifted up and into the air.

On the ground she saw her brother, her bear, running towards her. Running after her. He was covered in a net of dead fish and calling out her name. She could not look down, could not look at him. She looked up at the moon, and saw the face of her mother instead.

* * *

A graveyard house, filled with tombstones and rows and rows of books. Bookshelves carved into living trees, vines grasping along the knotted limbs as they reached up to the open skull of the graveyard house. Wendy was on the dirt and stone floor, surrounded by birds and headstones. A captive again.

Those bird eyes like stones. Grey. They stared at her. Flapping wings, beaks like daggers as they fluttered about, threatening to stab or blind her if she moved the wrong way even once. Wendy was only allowed to read. She could do nothing else.

Mother was out. Wendy was unsure of where, exactly, her mother had gone. Just out. Each time her mother went out she came back in covered in some sticky black tar, an orange mask over her face. Wendy asked her each time where she had gone. And each time she got the same response.

“Read.”

Always, always.

“Read.”

#

When the birds slept Wendy read the tombstones. They made for interesting material. Her favorite told the story of a girl who had caught on fire after finding out her husband had died at war. Such a romantic story. So much more interesting than the books she was required to read.

Wendy pulled down a tome from a shelf near her head, nudging a crow in the process. The bird stayed asleep, not even budging. She had run out of tombstones to read. And after reading her favorites four or five times in a row she found herself returning to the bookshelf yet again.

This book was a key. The other books were written in a language that looked like hieroglyphs. This book translated those symbols into English—in a way Wendy could understand it.

She opened the key and then pulled down another book. At first glance she translated the title into a book on fishing. The interior text seemed to be about something other than fishing—about attracting people by using their own image. A painting or a photograph. Buried underground and covered in broken glass and coffee grounds. It was so hard to tell what all of this meant, exactly.

The language itself was complex—each symbol had hidden meanings. Meaning within meanings. Concepts that nested into each other, playing off of each other. Changing their purpose in context. Changing their context with some bizarre special rules for the meaning of words according to the layout of the page.

After an hour of trying to read this book she went back to reading the tombstones. These were in English, and didn’t require any complicated thought. She could just sit back and enjoy the morbid history carved into stone.

* * *

After a month of reading the mother started tearing out pages and forcing Wendy to devour them. The pages tasted like fish. Like uncooked fish, raw and flapping around her lips and tongue. The words and symbols were sour and dark, and stuck to the roof of her mouth.

The mother wanted to turn her into a bird.

“This will do it,” she said, “When you have devoured every book here you will no longer be a ghost, or a fish. You will be a bird like me. A beautiful Wendy Bird, with fantastic plumage.”

After her mother left Wendy snuck past the sleeping birds and regurgitated the pages into a hole she dug. She did not want to be a Wendy Bird. The paper and the words tasted awful. She wanted to stay Wendy. Just Wendy. Even if she was a fish now. Even if she was a ghost now.

* * *

She wondered what Thorn was doing. She wondered if he missed her. If he had tried to come and save her. She felt connected to him, felt joined to him. It transcended the part of him that was Peter. It transcended the memories of her ghost brother.

She loved Thorn.

I will come back to you, she thought. I will come back to you, and we will flee to someplace safe. Far away from where the birds would ever find us. We could dig a hole deep underground, or find a nice and sprawling cave that is a maze of caverns beneath the earth. And we could fish there and stay there and be happy there.

No longer surrounded by tombstones.

No longer being force-fed the language of the dead.

* * *

From the mound of regurgitated pages Wendy saw a finger of vegetation poke out from the dirt. A leaf on the edge of it, solitary and green against the deep brown mud. She stuck her hands in that mud, felt the cool and gritty dirt squirm through her laced fingers.

She realized in that moment that she had become fluent in the symbolic language. That she had learned the language of the dead, memorized its ghostly tongue and complex meanings.

And she realized what the tattoos meant.

On the bird who kept her captive: a circle with a slash. Mother. The word — in the ghost tongue. On Thorn’s chest—the two arms grasping each other. The sign for brother. Each had other meanings wrapped up and caught in them—the words for bear and bird, the words for hunter and lover.

She realized the ghost tongue had absorbed her memories. Each symbol played on her own mind’s collection of meanings. The symbol for mother was not an empty word pointing to a hollow context. It was the memories of her mother, all wrapped up into that picture. That rune. That hieroglyph.

Things are going to change now, Wendy thought.

Now that I speak in the whispers of the dead.

* * *

While the birds slept and the mother left Wendy went through the books, cutting out specific words. She had a pile of these symbols, hidden in another hole carved into a tombstone on the ground. She had created the hole with a rock, wearing away at the stone in the hours she had to herself.

These words were words of cancellation. They were words that burned things into ash, that removed other words. These words spoke of absences, of holes where symbols should be.

The words she had gathered so far were close—words that could work in a pinch when she was threatened. Nothing too solid, nothing too strong. But still, something that just might work. The best word—the most perfect word was the symbol of the void. The symbol of nonbeing. She had not found that word yet. Even the book of keys knew nothing of a void word.

But she felt that word existed. Knew it in the corner of her memories. It was a word that unspoke things. An empty, eating word that consumed all other symbols. It was at the core of the ghost tongue, the root word of all words. She just needed to find it. To find it and cut it out of the page, holding it in her hands. Ready to wield it and speak, erasing that symbol of mother from the bird that kept her prisoner.

* * *

That night Wendy dreamt of the void. When she awoke she remembered something she had long since forgotten. What it had been like in the womb. And then—a sign. The sign for void in the ghost tongue. A chaos of circles, eating each other. A word that cannot be spoken. Only eaten.

* * *

Mother slept on the floor, her children lying on her in a coat of living feathers. Wendy sat on the ground cross legged, pounding rock against rock, making a sharp and crude instrument. When she could prick her finger on it she wrote a symbol across the blade in her own blood. The symbol for tearing, for ripping apart. This was also the symbol of scream, of pain, of familial love.

With eyes of the moon guiding her she crept across the floor, dust and rocks spreading across her bare stomach. She was nude. A ritual like this demanded nudity. In her mouth hummed the word for void, ready to be spoken.

Her mother stirred. A rustle of feathers and a snoring. Wendy stopped, holding her tongue in her mouth, the sharpened stone in her hand, waiting for the right moment. In her left hand was a scattering of stolen words, cut from the pages of the book. These were for each of her children—banishing them to far away places like the land of vines and the dreaming house.

Mother rolled over, her face pointing towards Wendy in a violent triangle of features. Eyes opened, gray stones staring at Wendy’s naked form, taking in the sharpened rock and the danger that lurked in the air. Instinctively Wendy sang.

Jack of diamonds, Jack of diamonds, I have known you from old. You have robbed me of my silver. You have robbed me of my gold.

Mother’s eyes closed. The birds settled down, their feathers moving in little sleepy bursts. A wing lifted here or there, a body trying to fly in the land of dreams.

Wendy ran. Her toes pricked from the sharp rocks beneath her feet. Careful, careful. She didn’t want to step on a twig, breaking it and waking them again. She only had one chance to do this, if she was caught— that would be it. No more Wendy bird, no more fish girl, no more ghost.

She stood over top of mother now. Looking down. She saw her mother’s face—a beak and then lips. Feathers then eyes and a nose. Human and avian all at the same time. She searched for who this woman was—who existed underneath the memories of her mother. She saw nothing. A face hungry and ready for the void.

With careful fingers Wendy brushed feathers away from the mother’s chest. The rune. Biting her tongue she raised the sharpened stone. From her lips she whispered the word for void, her breath like a grave opening. Mother’s eyes opened. She had coffins for eyes. Wings began to stir.

Wendy pushed the stone against chest, circles of chaos, circles eating each other. She carved the symbol for void over the word for mother. Ghosts spoke through her, their tongues covered in graveyard dirt.

The mother screamed, her voice ash. Mother moved, her limbs dirt. She sunk down down down, down into the ground.

Graveyard hands rose up from under the soil—all those tombstone people reaching out from the end of time and pulling the mother in, pulling the mother down with them.

Feathers beat at Wendy’s face. Beaks tore at her skin. Scars would rise from these wounds, leaving raised paths across the map of her face. She did not scream. Instead, she released her fist and all the words broke free, flying and landing on each bird. On each of mother’s children.

Away they went.

Banished into shadow.

* * *

Human feet are slower than bird wings. They must toil over rock and soil, they must struggle with hills and cliffs, must banish the underbrush with sharpened stone. Through this land she walked, her human legs carrying her as far as they could, regretting their need when she could have had wings. Bright, wonderful feathered wings.

Wendy was clothed only in a green blanket she wore like a cloak over her shoulders. It no longer smelled like mold. It smelled like bear skin, like Thorn skin. Like Peter did, long ago. When he was still alive.

She carried the books with her as she walked over roots and crawled through boughs. When she was hungry she pulled out a page, carefully, and ate it. It no longer tasted like fish. Now it tasted like sunlight, singing on her tongue. She savored each word in her mouth, loving the taste and texture.

She was no longer afraid of becoming a Wendy Bird. The words had been eaten by her memories, swallowed and submerged into her skin and bone. She commanded them now. They could not transform her. But she could transform them.

It was a long journey back to the train station. Longer still without a map. She went only by her instinct, her mind unraveling the world she flew above and placing it flat and square on the ground.

After all of the waiting, the sun came and did not go away. Night was banished forever, thrown into the void at the same hour as the harpy mother. She was free now. Free from the symbols that had chained her.

* * *

The train station was covered in a giant, meandering briar patch. Thorns embraced thorns, running rampant over the place she had once known as her home. She felt a trembling at the sight—her fingers working nervous knots into her hand. She walked up to the entrance and saw that they had traveled deep into the ruins itself, eating the stone arches and devouring the old half eaten maps.

The sun above warmed her back as Wendy laid her hands against the thorns. Prickles raised blood on her palm, smearing red against her life line. She pulled out her sharpened stone, and began to cut. The thorns screamed as the makeshift knife bit into it.

She cleared a path for herself. And after a minute or two of cutting and walking she found a furry skin stuck to the thorns, covered in bits of blood and meat. The inside of it was hollow, she realized, no bones no body inside. Her brother bear might still be alive, boy-shaped and inside of the ruins.

Wendy carefully took of her green blanket, tossing it to the ground. She then pulled the skin and shook it free, slinging it over her back and shoulders. She wore his fur now, blood against it making it slick and warm against her nude flesh. It clung to her, and she felt the prickers pulling on it as she walked further into the ruins.

Blood dripped down and into her eyes. It coated her face in deep red rivers. She pushed onward, cutting and moving the branches out of her way. She did not stop to eat. Did not stop to drink. Her mouth craved water, her stomach craved words.

Still, still she moved on.

* * *

His body. It lay beautiful under the light, wrapped in a blanket of thorns and golden sun. He was naked, yes, and laying on a bed of fish bones. She rushed to him, cut him free from the bramble cocoon, and held him to her chest. His tattoo was gone, the word for brother leaving an empty hole in his chest.

His eyes opened, fluttering. Butterflies reflected in the pupils. “Who are you?”

Bear skin crawled across her, changing her. Making her different. She growled her name, Wendy. He only shook his head at her, looking at her with sad eyes. “Wendy is dead,” he said.

She looked down. On her chest was a tattoo. The symbol in a ghost language. Right between her newly budding breasts. It was the symbol for goddess, for sister, for mother for lover. For all things that hid in the shadows of the world, giving birth to the dreams of the forest.

She looked down at him. Blood dripped onto his face. His own blood. She picked him up, his eyes staring into her eyes. He looked for something inside of her—looked for someone he thought lost so long ago. He no longer looked like Peter to her. No longer looked like a bear or a ghost. Only Thorn. Stirring beneath her fragile hands.

“Not Wendy.” He looked for her name on the scarred map of her face, “Wednesday? Are you Wednesday?”

She laughed.

Wednesday. Wednesday. Wednesday.

It was a word without ghosts.


Paul Jessup has been published in many magazines, including Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Apex Digest, Fantasy Magazine, Farrago’s Wainscoat, Post Scripts, Electric Velocipede, Psuedopod, Flashing Swords, Nanobison, Journals of Experimental Fiction, Jacob’s Ladder and the Harrow. He is also the recipient of the 2000 Kent State University Virginia Perryman Award. In 2009 he has two books coming out: a collection, Glass Coffin Girls (PS Publishing) and a surrealistic space opera novella (Apex Publishing). He currently is a content writer for http://whatitcosts.com and editor for Behind the Wainscot. He also works as a book reviewer and slush reader for Apex Digest.

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