It’s not like waking up. It’s like the beginning of a moving picture: the slat-slat-slat of the projector like a heartbeat, the grey flashes of light, the jerk into being when the whole world appears on the screen. The suddenly-there of it. You’re somewhere else, and then with hitching and stumbling and blinking slashes of light, you’re there. Again.
It feels like an again, at least. But there’s something off, something out of place, and you can tell right from that first moment in the churchyard.
For one thing, it's dark. A person isn’t meant to be in the churchyard at dark, are they? That doesn’t seem right. Your gaze flits from the slate walls of the church to the cold and bitterly frozen ground to the streets surrounding you, empty as a dream. From gravestone to gravestone to gravestone, slate and marble and cheap quarry rock. There's a tiny bit of wind making tree branches nearby rattle, though you don't feel shivery, yourself.
And then fear seeps and coils through you like flame, because something is very very wrong. Something is wrong with you: you aren't the way you ought to be, and you know it right down to the tiniest bit of yourself. Your pulse isn’t pounding, and your heart isn’t tripping, and your breath—well, your breath isn’t coming at all. You can't feel the wind. You can't feel the cold. You can't feel your body. The flame blazes through you, over you, racing and consuming every rational thought and hope in its path. You would gasp, but you can’t, and the terror of that sinks you down to the earth like a child.
Dread makes you open a mouth that isn’t there wide to scream and wail, and no sound can be heard but the faint whistling of that wind you can’t feel. You cry and beg and yell—please, God! Please, anyone! What's happening to me?—and none of it, not one word of it, can be heard, no matter how long you stay in the churchyard. (Till slivers of dawn begin creeping fingers over the gravestones. Till someone comes to sweep the church steps, looks right through you, shudders, and leaves.) No words and no breath and no heartbeat. Only a shadow of a shadow—that is what you are, now.
You cannot remember your name. You cannot remember who you were—because it is were, isn’t it? You are dead. You know that much—you cannot remember anything about yourself except the moments surrounding your death. The sluggish fade of consciousness under the thudding pain that juddered and throbbed and pounded through your whole body, not just the cracked point of your head; the Mother Mary staring lifelessly at you from the floor, a chip in her sorrowful face; the delicate hand, wrapped around a rosary, that descended from above to retrieve her; the black habit and the cruel eyes and the terrible, terrible twist of smile. All overlaid with the smell of sawdust.
You check the stones of the recent graves, but none of the names seem familiar. Were you a man? A woman? A carpenter? A novice or a nun yourself? You have no idea. It all feels musty and faraway and sour-tinged. All tainted by its end, which is all you now are.
That is nearly the worst part: your memory is fragments of dust buried under fear and the lingering smell of blood.
Almost. But not quite.
You flicker in and out of the world again and again. Slat-slat-slat and darkness and light, round and round. Churchyard and elsewhere, morning and night and twilight in between. But no matter how many times you return to the graveyard in those first few—days? Weeks?—you cannot leave this plane of existence. You press and press and press at the bounds of reality, scream and cry and beg like that very first day over and over again, but it makes no difference. You remain trapped and tethered to this earth.
You would not have wanted to be dead, you think—you are certain, rather, because you still do not. You wish more than anything that you could rise up in the morning and greet the man who sweeps the church steps, the children who play on Sunday morning in the bare dirt of the green, even just the birds that live in the chestnut tree nearby. You wish you could feel the breath in your lungs and the stone beneath your fingertips. But if you are already dead—if you are stuck in this place with no one who can hear you and no one who can see you, so lonely and so tired—you would rather be gone on, at peace, where you are meant to be.
That—that is the worst part. You are a mote of dust with nothing and nothing and you cannot see any way out.
You had always heard it was anger that kept spirits from Heaven, but later, when you puzzle at it, you know that for you it must fear. Fear that what happened to you will happen to someone else: that another will have to endure the terror, the grave-waking, the lack-of-heart that still pulses like a broken bell in you.
But it is a while before you really understand this. First there are long stretches of time as a nothing and longer stretches of time on the plane learning what the bounds of your current form are. You can go beyond the churchyard, it turns out, with much straining and thought in one direction. At first it is only just outside the fence, and it exhausts you so much that you think you are a nothing for many days or weeks afterwards, because there is a rice-scattering of snow on the ground when you return. (But then time is so slippery like this... ) You have nothing else to do, though, so you practice and practice, and like strengthening a muscle, eventually you are able to go all through the town and even outside its bounds, up into the rocky hills. The snow comes and goes, the grass flickers into lushness for one moment, then turns solidly to bits of green and rain on the ground. You watch it all.
You can listen to the conversations, and follow people through their days. You pick up on the gossip: the people who want to get electric lights in their home, now that they're more readily available to everyone; the baker who has gotten married to a lady the county over, and how they have gone to Brighton; the young woman who wants to be a barrister (good for her, something in you whispers fiercely) and never takes her nose out of a book. You learn this town--again, if you ever knew it, you suppose.
The practice alleviates the desperately upsetting boredom that drags through most of your days, at least. Beneath it, the roiling, writhing dark morass of yearning and grief still tangles and strangles through you, but you can distract yourself, for a little while.
You try so many times, though, to communicate with someone--anyone. Anyone. You push towards them and think so hard of rigidity and solidity (though those feelings seem to be getting more and more distant every day) and blaze words at them as strongly as you can. Help me! Please help me! Please, please. But the best that you can get is a shiver down the spine and averted eyes and whispered stories among the living of a malicious spirit lingering in the town.
Yes, I am here! Yes, please, help me! And yet nothing beyond those tiny dagger-flicks of notice, which do you no good.
It sets a bitterness rising through you, but there is nothing you can do, so you drift. You drift and drift and drift, and it seems harder every day to remember anything but what you have now.
Until you overhear someone mentioning that the manor house has changed ownership and--
a path through a manicured lawn, a building by the smell of horses, hands curled over pencils and spreading out paper and over it all a fine layer of sawdust and whip-strong varnish
--it comes to you in a flash that you died somewhere on the manor grounds. You remember it.
Hope springs up furiously in you, bubbling brightly. The manor house is on a lone hill farther away, which you haven't tried to visit yet, but now you stretch and strain in that direction until suddenly you are there. You have a new possibility, and you will stop at nothing until you have exhausted every corner of it.
This is when you begin to understand that it is fear that keeps you here. This cannot happen to anyone else.
You will make sure of it; you feel it like a firebrand in every bit of yourself. And for the first time since you died, you have--truly--a direction.
The new owner of the manor is a man with a strong, young face, bright eyes behind glasses, and thick black hair tempered by two shock of white at his cheeks. You cannot quite pick out his age because of the hair; you would guess him in his twenties if not for that. Time has gone queer and thin and bulging in your afterlife, in any case, so what would you know?
He has with him a party of friends, a strange group of people who ring with odd energies that both attract and repel you. Three women and two other men, black hair and blonde and brunette, and all with bright, intelligent eyes that have flickers of shadows in them. You want to be near them, very near them, though something about them also makes you itch in a way you haven't since your death, so you keep having to dance back to the graveyard for brief rests.
You lurk in their dining room that evening and learn their names and talents. They all seem to believe in the otherworldly: Madame Wang speaks with the I Ching; Ardhashir with his talisman; Jessalyn with her tarot cards; Alma with her pendulum; Alphonse with his numbers; and Conrad with his crystal ball. You quiver with a hope that you dare not cling to too tightly, but it buzzes and squirms and flares up in you. This is more than you had dared to think you might find here. Maybe—perhaps—they might be able to help you. Maybe they will try to speak to you?
You follow them throughout the evening, praying. You flit and learn about them until it feels like in another life you could have been friends. The coldness of that thought seeps around you, and you see Ardhashir shiver with it and Madame Wang frown, troubled. The hope beats back the coldness, then, and you curl close to try and hear about whether they might reach out to you, since you have been unable yourself to make contact with anyone.
When everyone else has gone to bed, Conrad and Alphonse stay in the drawing room, Scotch and pipes out. They have known each other a long time, you can see. Talk turns to shared memories, which you greedily inhale, and then to the war. To death.
“It has been four years since the Armistice, and still so many nights I dream of those damned battles,” Conrad murmurs. His eyes close tightly. Under his white-knuckled fingers, his pipe creaks until he carefully, purposefully, uncurls his hand and sets it down. “Your brother was a brilliant man, Alphonse," he goes on. "He didn’t deserve to be swallowed by that senseless war. No one did.”
Alphonse is quiet for a long moment, watching him and then the fire. “At first, I hoped his spirit might speak to me through the numbers,” he admits. His hair looks silver in the firelight when he bows his head. “What is the point of having a gift if it cannot connect you to the ones you love? But he never has. At least, not that I have been able to ascertain. These days, however... I am glad he does not speak to me. I pray that it means he has gone beyond Earth to his final rest. These spirits who are kept here—it is torture.”
The word rings a truth like a bell in you. Yes, torture. Your memories fractured and no visible way out: torture. You feel a pang of gratitude that he has recognized it.
“It is,” Conrad agrees. He looks at Alphonse, his eyes tracing the pained expression. An echo of it passes over his own face, and when he speaks again, his voice is rough. “What we do to let them free—it matters.”
“It does.” Alphonse shakes his head and raises it. He glances back at Conrad, then reaches over to clasp his forearm. “The spirit we have heard tell of in this town will reach out to us tomorrow during our seances, I hope. Then we will be able to help them go on where they are meant to be.”
They will help me, you think, faintly. They will help me. They will not give up. My murderer will be caught.
Energy fizzles through you like fireworks. The both of them look up, but you’re already flitting out of the room. If they are to help you—if they will fight for you—you must try to help them in any way you can. No matter that your attempts have gotten you nothing but trouble in the past: these people are different, and you are determined.
You go from bed to bed, reaching out as best you can without a body, stretching to where it feels like you ought to. They shiver in their sleep, and you whisper the memories of your death over and over again, pushing, hoping, aching. You try to speak aloud even though you know you cannot, pressing images into your mind. When Alphonse and Conrad go to sleep, you go to them as well. Throughout the night, you cycle between them, until you feel fog-faint and bone-brittle and as tired as you have ever been. But full. Full of hope. It’s worth it.
In the morning, they gather for breakfast, slowly, their faces pensive. You hang in the dining room, near-to forced flickering back to your graveyard: waiting, praying they will have heard you in the night. And your breath would catch, if you still had breath to catch, when Alphonse clears his throat quietly and asks, “Did anyone else have strange dreams last night?”
A stinging stab of wanting goes through you. Please, please...
Alma closes her eyes, her forehead furrowed. “I dreamed I was in a strange land of fog, drifting through it like a wisp of nothing. I traveled between huge towers, the architecture—what is it you say here? Gothic? And cold, so, so cold. Down to my bones and then some. Pillars of candles were looming up before me, lit green with moonlight, and gargoyles hunched on every free space. They looked... merciless, not friendly, in the way gargoyles sometimes do, do you know? Then I entered one of the towers and found it full of fog inside, as well. A massive organ took up one wall and its high, belling notes made me shiver, because they sounded like… like someone crying. I couldn’t stand it, suddenly. Fear was like a living thing in me. I ran forward past the organ and through a series of dark hallways until I found myself in a back garden, where I all at once wished I had never run from the building, because ahead of me on the path was a figure all in a robe of black, with a leashed snake and all bones themselves, holding a bright red apple. Something about it... ”
“I dreamed of the same thing,” Jessalyn says, hushed. "God Almighty, that person struck me to the core. Like Death, they were. So dark."
“I dreamed the same thing,” murmurs Madame Wang. Her eyes are deep with sympathetic pain, and somehow you know--with a flish of warmth--that it is for you. Sympathy, feeling, for you. They will help me.
Ardhashir breathes out slowly. “Have we all been visited by the same vision in the night?” he asks. A glance between the six of them shows it to be true. “Well then. The spirit felt urgency, enough to reach out to us in the night rather than wait to speak to us through our chosen means today. I say that we hurry, my friends. This is a matter of great importance.”
You flicker out, then--you have tried to hold your place here for too long, you know. But as you slip out of the plane once more, a sense of relief so powerful it feels like a hundred electric lights brightens within you.
Your last thought is, They will not give up.
The next time you see them, they are arrayed around the table with heaps of newspapers and photographs, making notes and talking with great purpose. It has been some hours--or days, or weeks, maybe? The sky is dark, and you came straight here from the graveyard when you jumped back to this plane. The piles of paper are deep, and the faces of your new saviors are deep, too, with concentration.
You realize they are using your vision to try and suss out the person who murdered you. You drift over to Alphonse and Jessalyn, two blonde heads bent double. Alphonse has an album of some kind between his hands, and Conrad takes notes beside him. Alphonse is speaking aloud to himself as he goes down the list. You shift closer.
"The man who delivers the mail, no--that vision did not seem to indicate anything like that. Perhaps the housekeeper, or the governess? They dressed all in black, and could be foreboding... Caroline Beam and Alice Waterstone, those were the names... "
Conrad obediently scritches this down, but Jessalyn is shaking her head. "No, it was churchy, I'm telling you. Organs, gargoyles, Death and a snake and an apple? That's a church. It's gotta be someone connected to the church."
"Hmm," Alphonse murmurs thoughtfully. He flips through the album, and stops at a page you can't see from this angle. "Sister Margaret, perhaps? The mistress's religious guide. She had come to manor house several times. The only nun who was known to visit here... ”
Sister Margaret, Sister Margaret, Sister Margaret. The name sends shivers like nails on glass through you, and you cannot help but press and sliver out your fear, it is so, so powerful and undeniable. Jessalyn’s head springs up, her eyes wide.
“Sister Margaret,” she says. “Yeah, that—that got a reaction. You felt that, right?”
Her fellow mediums nod, and you could melt with relief. If you had a body, you’d go boneless. They will help. They will help. They will not give up.
Sister Margaret. You cannot remember why she was in the place with the sawdust and paper, or wanted to kill you, but you remember her, now that they have said her name. Sister Margaret, with the face like a scythe and the eyes as sharp as bits of glass and the most cruel, self-righteous smile you had ever seen carved on her face. You remember goosebumps going up your arms as she walked past you, mouthing her rosary, and the dread that curled in your stomach whenever you saw her. Sister Margaret, who killed you. Grief and sadness war in you. Sister Margaret, the brutal thief.
“It must be her,” Madame Wang says. She sighs. “Now things become difficult, I fear... ”
“We need to find the murder weapon,” Conrad says pensively. “They’ll never arrest her without proof.” He closes his eyes, pinching between his forehead, but before you can feel more than one swoop of dread, he says, “Spirit—if you can speak to us again, tonight, can you tell us where you were murdered, and how? We want to help you. We deeply want to.”
You firm with resolve. You have your goal. That night you will visit again.
“I dreamed of saws and tools,” Madame Wang whispers the next morning, her eyes distant. “And a long wooden bridge, with a wheel in the center, and two figures facing off with spears on horses against a deep green sky. White and black figures. Wood and metal and gears... ”
“The workshop, perhaps?” Conrad suggests. He has the map out, and knows the manor best. His finger dips to touch a spot, and you try to communicate positive certainty at him. His shoulders jitter, and then he says again, more firmly, "The workshop. Yes."
“I dreamed of a statue in a pond, a plinth, a robed figure,” Ardhashir says, rubbing at his forehead with a thumb. “ And a single woman on a misty bridge. That does not seem to fit... ”
“Maybe the weapon?" Alphonse says. “Stone can be strong... let us look at the workshop, Conrad, and see if we can find anything.”
You buzz and ring and ache with hope. You wait for them as long as you can before you have to blink out again. They haven't returned by that time, but you hope--oh, you hope not too long--
The next time you see them, they have called you to them, somehow. You barely have time to be confused before Conrad is speaking.
“Amelia Yates?” he calls, hopefully. He hesitates, then goes on, “Amelia Yates, the architect, often called by her middle name, Tabitha? Is it you who cannot move beyond, here?”
And an explosion of light bursts in you.
Tabitha. Tabitha. Tabitha, that is your name. Tabitha, Tabitha! You feel you could come apart from joy, spread into all your little tiny atoms. It comes rushing back into your head like lines drawn in graphite and you would laugh if you could. With joy. You are a flame and a curl of wind and bright, lovely rain, all at once, with the happiness.
“I think it is her,” Alma whispers. That felt—”
“Yeah,” Jessalyn mutters.
“Miss Yates,” says Ardhashir. “We have found your killer. Sister Margaret struck you over the head with a statuette in the workshop; we have found your evidence and called the police. She has been taken into custody, and given her confession. You have succeeded, my friend.”
Happiness and freedom billow up in you. It is quick, so quick, but you can already feel yourself fading—it truly was the last thing tethering you here, then? It must have been. The pieces of you quiet and shimmer and calm. Because if no one else will experience this... you can be free. You can leave.
You swirl with delight. The mediums are smiling and laughing, feeling your lightness too. You send them the love and gratitude you have, though you’re fading fast, called towards light and rest.
I was a person, once, but I’m not anymore, you think, sighing a breeze through the hall. You hope they can tell that it is peaceful.
And then, not like a film but like falling asleep, you leave.