GH Sunday: Day 01 Scene 01
Max Beaumont (f) & Wooster
I took a deep breath, the air biting cold. Wooster leapt through the snow at my side, chasing down elusive ghosts that were hard to see in the white-out conditions, fake ghosts being created by the flat flakes swirling around me against an inky dark sky.
It was impossible to create sigils in this filthy stuff, they flickered out them moment that I drew them in the snow at my feet, filled in immediately by yet more falling snow. I would have to resort to the exhausting work of sung chants, if I was to have any hope of keeping the cemetery’s ghosts safely contained inside its brick walls during the storm.
Magic crackled through the icy air, green and gold. The falling snow, cold and seductive, presented enough danger, but it was nothing compared to the dangerous surge in the levels of magic in the air that accompanied any storm. Elsewhere in the city other mages were fighting the storm with their own spells, trying to contain the raw, unspelled magic, trying to tame it, to prevent it from ravaging the city with its wild, destructive powers of transformation. But I was new to Cambridge, a foreigner with no connections and most junior of all the local Storm Defence Agency. I’d been assigned to Mount Auburn cemetery, a solitary post, not to protect the dead, but to prevent the dead from rising again under the spontaneous power of wild magic.
It was bitter work and not just because of the cold. I was not educated to be a ghost hunter and though I understand to need to protect the living from the dead, who will protect the dead from the living? They are just us, after all, fragments of lives as ordinary as our own, clinging to the world, unwilling to fall into oblivion. Surely it’s only human to want to be remembered, surely we should remember our ghosts, not dismiss them with a few sharp spells of exorcism and forget that lives other than our own were ever lived?
But, on the other hand, I’ve seen the damage a haunting can do; lives destroyed, hollowed out or plagued by madness as a result of a ghost, malicious or no. Some ghosts must be exorcised, of course. And during a storm, of course, any storm, when the magic levels surge and the hauntings are far stronger, the ghosts pose a far greater threat. But most of all, this was the work I was paid to do and I was no longer rich. I needed the money.
I lifted my voice into a sung chant, as loud and clear as I’d been taught, though the storm snatched the sound away, the snow softly muffling my words. I sketched sigils in the air, on the fly, creating green and gold sparks as the magic drew nearer to my voice and my symbols, so that it was a little like writing my name in the air with a sparkler on Bonfire Night. The sigils were of necessity ephemeral, the spells coming and going, lightning quick.
But they were enough. Wooster frolicked through the storm, unerring in his instincts as he drove the ghosts that had been disturbed by the storm towards me. My spells flashed out with my voice, my fingers busy sketching sigils so familiar I barely had to watch them form. The ghosts were exorcised one by one; the woman with tearful eyes in a dark skirt and bustle, another in an old-fashioned lace cap, with a sour twist to her mouth. There was a soldier in the uniform of a Yankee, who cursed me as I dispersed him, a dark-suited man in a bowler hat, a ragged child in a white dress, young enough that I couldn’t tell if they were a boy or a girl, who looked so pleadingly at me, so that I almost faltered in my chanting. But then she - he? - was gone and I was back in the rhythm of my work once more. I cast my spells, sang my chants and the ghosts flickered out of existence before my eyes - or else were hidden by the storm, it was hard to tell. As each ghost was chased my way by an ever enthusiastic Wooster, his tail wagging hard, they disappeared under my chanting and were replaced by yet another ghost. And another. And another. Tears temporarily warmed my cheeks and my voice was hoarse with emotion, but still I carried on with my castings.
Wooster was unflagging in his enthusiasm. Chasing ghosts is playtime for him and he showed no signs of feeling the cold, no doubt because he was running around like a lunatic. I, however, had to stand still, my feet gradually growing frozen and numb inside my boots, despite my thick socks, my fingers, necessarily bare in order to feel the magic I was commanding, increasingly numb. My sigils were growing larger, clumsier. Only muscle memory was allowing me to form them at all. You didn’t get weather like this in England, not this savage cold that bit through my thick ski coat and thermal underwear as though they were made of silk and lace. Not this blinding, thick wet snow that just kept on coming, for hour after hour, burying me nearly to my knees. Not this bitter wind that howled and screamed around my ears, lifted the flaps of my hat, trickled down my neck, battered at me and threatened to flatten me with its ferocity.
I was growing tired. Tired just from standing in the cold wind for so long, tired from all the magic I’d exercised, the raw stuff summoned from the air by my fingertips, wrestled under my control by my voice. Tired from the bitter weariness I felt at so high-handedly dismissing all these ghosts. My throat was sore, my voice was hoarse, my tears were frozen on my cheeks. A ghost appeared, with Wooster at his heels, dressed in a top-hat and full white tie and tails.
“Good grief,” he told me, indignantly. “What in all blazes?” and he was gone, dismissed by the sparkling green letters in the air, the spell carried to him by my voice.
A jack russell terrier was bounding about Wooster, barking at him in that annoying yap that little dogs have. Wooster ignored him, nose buried in the snow as he hunted through the storm for yet more ghosts. The terrier was near translucent, barely visible in the storm, a ghost that had very little hold on the living world. I exorcised him with barely a pang of conscience and returned my attention to Wooster, who was bringing to me a woman in a woollen shawl, who was scolding me in a thick dialect I could not understand, though her tone was unmistakeable. Wearily, I dismissed her with yet another exorcism spell and I was beginning to feel as though I could sketch those sigils, over and over, sing that chant, over and over, even in my sleep. Muscle memory indeed, with my fingers numb and my voice hoarse, I had to do the best I could, barely awake myself, aware that I was swaying on my feet.
But still the snow fell and the wind blew. The cemetery’s walls were well protected by the daiman that I had recharged only that morning, in preparation for this, my first New England winter storm. The new graves were similarly well protected, their relatives happy to pay the money to keep the daiman there fresh and vigorous. No one wants their mother or grandmother or auntie’s ghost suddenly turning up one morning at breakfast because you didn’t pay to have the grave protected.
The old graves were less well protected, of course. As relatives themselves died, or moved away, there always came that time when there was no one to pay for the grave’s daiman to be recharged and, anyway, older ghosts are rare and unlikely to rise, if they’ve never risen before. Unless, of course, there’s a storm.
The gate was their only way out of the cemetery, the walls’ daiman would otherwise keep them in. But the gate was the weak spot, less well defended so that the living could pass through unharmed. This was my post and I would not abandon it until the storm was gone.
I was feeling weak and dizzy, my head full of pressure, as though my skull was too small for the fluid inside, an ocean battering at the bone, wanting to burst free. My fingers were trembling as I sketched my sigils and I realised I was shivering. Wooster rounded up a child’s ghost, a neglected-looking girl of perhaps seven years old, skinny, with dark circles under her eyes. She was dressed in a stiff, dirty dress and had dirty, bare feet that trod the snow, oblivious to the cold.
I raised my hands once more to cast the exorcism spell, when a grey shape came bounding through the swirling flakes, causing the child’s ghost to give a small scream and run away. The grey shape was a wolf, his eyes burning green with magic in the swirling white-and-dark. Wooster gave a series of rapid barks that ended in a howl and set off in pursuit. I couldn’t leave my post, there were more ghosts headed my way, towards their only exit, and I had to guard the city against them. I fought exhaustion, tried to clear my swimming brain, cast the exorcism spell again and again. Thank god I was so familiar with it I could cast it in my sleep, for I was practically dead on my feet by now and the snow was starting to look soft and comfortable, a sweet bed for my aching head.
I shook my head and grit my teeth so hard my jaw hurt. I was a mage, not some feeble cadjin, to be overcome by something so banal as hypothermia. I would stay warm, I would cast my spells, I would outlast this storm.
© Essie Gilbey, 2014