(For an earlier version of this chapter, see here)
I took a deep breath, the air biting cold, and started to sing the Requiem, my voice soft and low in the night. 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 fat flakes swirling around me against an inky dark sky.
“Why are you doing this to me?” my mother had once cried to me, down the phone. “A ghost hunter, of all things. You might as well be cleaning toilets for a living! I don’t know why you have to lead this secret little life that you keep from me. You must have known that the media would find out, what a good story it makes. I might be the diva of my generation, they’re saying, but look at the child I’ve produced. The complete failure of my motherhood!”
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 I was wearing only silk and lace. Not this blinding, thick wet snow that kept on coming, burying me nearly to my knees. Not this bitter wind that howled and screamed around my ears, battered me and threatened to flatten me with its raw, unappeasable rage. Not this sulphurous night, clotted with snowflakes, grey and white against the darkness.
“Are you trying to humiliate me?” my mother’s memory sobbed in my mind. “What have I ever done to you?”
The storm raged around me, a roaring cacophony of noise, as the ghouls and banshees that were being spontaneously created by the wild magic surging around me, howled and shrieked and the magic itself pressed on my ears with a low, throbbing bass, a steady, threatening rhythm. I tried to banish the haunting memory of my mother’s misery as I sang and, with just my voice, tried to control the storm’s wild magic and banish the ghosts that it created.
“A ghost hunter, of all things!” Mother’s memory wailed.
This world is full of ghosts, memories tenaciously hanging on to some semblance of life, like a fragment of cloth torn on a nail and left behind. There are so many ghosts who are unwilling to let go, unwilling for the insignificance of their lives to be the only significance that they will ever have had, unwilling to be lost forever, for even that fragment, that left-over scrap, to be gone into oblivion. We are surrounded by so many lives re-lived and stories retold, traumas never forgotten and injuries never forgiven, but we travel through our own lives so caught up in our own stories, that we pay scant attention to the ghosts around us. They are just another commuter, caught up in the swollen tides of rush hour, or a homeless man, sheltering in a shop doorway. They’re just blurred shapes in the driving rain, or an inkier darkness in the black night. They’re shadows on a clouded day, or a face at the window of a crumbling cottage that no longer exists. They’re photocopies of photos, pinned to noticeboards, or a sepia-toned photo of a woman in an old-fashioned dress. They are the banshee wail of an ambulance that never arrives, or the shrieking brakes of a car that will never stop. We remain oblivious to these other tiny sparks of brief lives lived, or yet to be lived, mingling with the sparks of our own lives, like fireflies glittering in this dark, infinite universe.
“A ghost hunter!” my mother said, disgustedly.
Magic crackled through the icy air, green and gold. The falling snow, cold and seductive, had its own dangers, but it was nothing compared to that accompanying surge of magic in the air. Wild magic - spontaneous, transformative, destructive - the stuff of life and vitality, the stuff of nightmares, bringing chaos wherever it touched. On a night like tonight, the ghosts that were created would not be so elusive, so easy to ignore as the common ghosts. This was a night for rare and powerful hauntings, for ghouls and restligeists, banshees and vampires, for revenants, dopplegangers and poltergeists. For ghosts that were both more and less than memories. For ghosts who possessed a life of their own, and a hunger not easy to sate.
Somewhere out there, there were mages far more powerful and skilled than me, dragon masters singing in concert, wrestling the raw magic to prevent its transformative powers from ravaging Boston and its surrounding cities. Their dragons dancing through the air, those mages would steer the storm down the Charles River and safely, one hoped, out to the Atlantic Ocean. They would be heroes, fighting impossible magics and creating dazzling new fantasies, saving the city. My role was far more humble than theirs.
I am, to my mother’s disgust, despair and utter humiliation, a ghost hunter.
The storm was stirring up the cemetery, making the permitted ghosts that lived there restless and raising new ones, storm-wild, confused and raging, hungry and needy. The magic sang out around me, disharmonious, the sound of an orchestra gone mad, urgent and spiralling, shrieking and calling, imperiously, to the magic in me, my lifeblood, urging me to join it in the glory of the storm’s fury.
Every mage is taught to find the melody in the chaos, the rhythm in the violence. That is how we protect ourselves, our own magic calling back to the wildness, but with clarity, harmony. I had started low and soft, singing quietly as the wind buffeted me and the snow blinded me and the cold savaged me. Now, as the wild music of the wild magic started to respond to my own personal magic, my spell, I started to sing more loudly, letting my voice ring out into the air, commanding harmony.
“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,” I sang, “et lux perpetua luceat eis.”
Wooster chased the wild ghosts through the snow, corralling them towards me, while I stood in position by the cemetery’s large iron gates, catching them as they came at me. Men and women of all ages, children too. Some just swirling shapes of mist in the snow, others a breath of icy wind. Invisible ghosts, howling obscenities at me. Dark-eyed ghosts, pleading for mercy. Fanged ghosts snarling at the bitterness of their fate, or beautiful, otherworldly beings, smiling, oblivious to me, caught up in their own memories.
The snow muffled my voice and the sharp cold hurt my throat and the wind snatched away the Requiem’s words as I sang them, but still I worked hard, as the ghosts came at me, fluttering through the snow, Wooster barking joyfully at their heels. I raised my voice again until it rang strongly through the snow, a warrior’s chant, an enforceable command. And as I sang, I sketched the Requiem in the air with my fingers, drawing the night’s magic to the words, like moths to a flame. The magic responded to my melody and my sketching fingers, swirling around me, green and gold lightning, raw, untamed energy. The orchestra became sane, the melody started to dominate the cacophony, the Kyrie singing out again and again. I exorcised them all.
It was bitter work and not just from the cold. Though I understand the need to protect the living from the dead, most hauntings are harmless, and who will protect the dead from the living? They are just us, after all, or fragments of us, specks of dust as ordinary as our own, clinging to the world, terrified of the vast, cruel universe we inhabit, not wanting to fall into that dark oblivion. My hobby is to record them, as best I can, to photograph or video them when they are visible, and write notes about them, when they are not. To preserve something of them, even as I banish them, because I am a ghost hunter, after all, and it is my job to lay ghosts to rest, or to raise them, at the command of others. I banish them with my song-spells and then we forget about them and the lives, so many lives lived and forgotten, that they represent. My camera stood on its tripod beside me, recording them as best it could on its automatic settings. I was too busy for photography now.
A woman wearing a dark skirt and bustle came running towards me, her hands covering her face as she wept softly. I sang to her, and she was gone. Another, older woman in an old-fashioned lace cap and woollen shawl, screamed as she fled whatever demons still haunted her, looking over her shoulder as she ran, not seeing me as my song sent her to oblivion. There was a soldier in a civil war uniform, who cursed me as I sang, scattering his magic to the storm. There was a dark-suited man in a fedora, with a sour twist to his mouth. A ragged child in a white dress, young enough that I couldn’t tell what sex they were, so young I almost faltered in my singing. And then they were gone. There was a roaring in the air, the storm gathering strength around me, a return to that wild cacophony, the air singing wildly, manically, the hysteria of a banshee’s singing. Shadows chased each other across the snow and I sang as strongly as I could, holding onto the words of the Requiem, the simple melody, too simple for one voice, but that was all I had. Footprints appeared in the snow, a whole crowd of them racing towards me, the prints quickly obliviated by the falling snow. I hoped my camera would be able to capture them, in the dark and wildness of the swirling night.
Wooster was unflagging in his enthusiasm. Chasing ghosts is playtime for him and he showed no signs of feeling the cold, perhaps, in part, 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 sketched the air, causing magic to swirl in glowing patterns amongst the snowflakes, like sparklers on Bonfire Night, growing clumsy with cold inside my thick winter gloves. I was tiring fast from standing in the cold wind for so long, from wrestling the magic with my voice and fingers. My throat was sore, my voice growing hoarse and my tears were frozen on my cheeks.
“Good lord,” my mother’s voice said inside my head, scornfully. “I once took to the stage to sing an experimental piece by Rachmaninov that lasted over five hours, during which time I controlled the entire spell purely by my voice. It was considered a masterpiece. The standing ovation itself went on for over an hour.”
And yet, after only a couple of hours of battling this blizzard, with no audience but the ghosts and Wooster, who is no appreciator of music, my voice was starting to fail me.
“Lacrimosa dies illa, qua resurget ex favilla,” I sang. I exorcised a middle-aged woman in a hideous, expensive-looking pink and green floral dress, a young blonde woman dressed in the sharp tailoring of the 1940s, a hippy in a flowing dress, her hair bedecked with flowers. I exorcised a ghoul, long-limbed and worm-white, barely visible in the snow, and a banshee, her grey hair writhing around her head like Medusa’s snakes, as she screamed. A man appeared, Wooster snapping at his heels, dressed in a top-hat and full white tie and tails. My camera flashed as it took his photograph.
“Good grief,” he said in a Cary Grant accent. “What in hell?” and he was gone, dismissed as I sang, “Dona eis requiem.”
A Jack Russell terrier bounded after Wooster, yapping at him eagerly, nearly translucent, barely visible. Before I could exorcise him, a gust of magic took him, sent him yelping into the night air, dispersing him into the storm in a burst of green and gold sparks. A skeleton was approaching me, dressed in a bright red dress, scolding me in a thick dialect I couldn’t understand. Wearily, I continued to sing “ne cadant in obscurum,” and the skeleton disappeared.
I’d spent the morning preparing the cemetery before the storm came, renewing the daiman that scored the red brick walls, granite headstones and iron gates, making sure they were fully charged with the magic that would keep the dead in their graves. But still, the dead came; angels, demons, shadows and monsters, and a ghostly mist that glowed blue and silver around my knees, drifting up my body, making me sleepy.
“Agnus Dei,” I sang, “dona eis requiem sempiternam,” and the ectoplasm was gone.
My skull felt too small, an ocean inside battering at the bone carapace, wanting to break free. Wooster rounded up another child’s ghost, a dark and pretty girl, perhaps seven years old, barefoot and skinny in a stiff, dirty dress. A grey shape came bounding through the swirling flakes, causing the child’s ghost to scream and run away from me, breaking free from Wooster and my Requiem. I could not follow her. The grey shape was a wolf, eyes burning green and gold in the night’s swirling white and black. He gave chase after the child with a howl and Wooster howled after him, a higher, slighter sound, before setting off in pursuit.
And still I could not follow. The cemetery walls were high and strong, thickly scored with daiman to keep the living out and the undead in. You could toss a corpse over the wall, but a zombie couldn’t climb it. The gates, of course, were another matter. There had to be some way for the living to get in to pay their respects to the dead, after all and they were the weakest part in the cemetery. So it was here that the ghosts fled to, seeking to escape their own deaths, and it was here that I had to stay, to sing the Requiem, over and over again, or the city would be even more overrun with ghosts than it already was.
I stood my ground and wondered where the hell Wooster was, hoping he would manage to herd the wolf back to me. Ambivalent though I often was about exorcisms, that was one phantom I was certain it was right to banish. No one wanted a bloody ghost wolf stalking the city’s streets. My voice was cracking, the snow was starting to look soft and comfortable, a sweet bed for my aching head, but I shook myself and patted myself firmly in the face with a thickly gloved fist. I was a mage, not cadjin, to be overcome by something so banal as hypothermia. I would stay warm, I would sing my Requiem, “quia pius es,” and I would outlast this storm.
“Really,” my mother had stormed at me, after a long lecture about the humiliation that my ‘lifestyle choices”, as she termed them, were bringing her. “I don’t suppose you’re even particularly good at it, are you?”
But there, she was wrong.
© S.E. Gilbey, 2014