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we are the raven and the ghost

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we are the raven and the ghost



he is eight years old
and dreams of a singing voice
settling him to sleep

They say the Bond between a human and their Dæmon is stronger than the powers holding nuclei together. It may not be actual science, a claim like that, but no one would ever dare dispute it. To do so would be Heresy – worse than lies.

He’s born on a silent night, and Valerie and Patrick Sheppard worry at first when he is so quiet, merely breathing; crying briefly before stilling into sleep.

Normally, a Damon begins to manifest right away; a shadow Emerging, growing exponentially brighter. Within an hour there should be an undetermined Shape resting on his chest.

Now, the hour turns into days and the days become weeks and there’s not even a flickering silhouette appearing. His parents’ concern turns frantic. There’s a rare condition, the doctors explain, where the Dæmon doesn’t Emerge for days, weeks, months. The slowest recorded Emergence is fifty-five days; the child in question had turned out fine and there’s nothing to worry about, they say, repeating: It’s going to be fine. It could be some fluke, odd but not harmful – surely not harmful – surely he cannot be in danger, their little child who sleeps so soundly;

He doesn’t seem to be in pain.

Fifty-five days come and go. His body grows as it should, and he sleeps and eats and cries as he should; but there is no sign of a Dæmon Emerging, and that Shouldn’t Be. His parents’ fear mutates to panic. What’s wrong with their child? Why is this happening? No one can answer them. This hasn’t happened before. Or, if it has, no one has spoken of it. Maybe, in darker times, such children would’ve been labelled Cursed, left out in the woods to wither – they can’t do that to their baby boy – their little child who sleeps so soundly.

When a hundred days have passed, they don’t call for any more doctors or other such proclaimed experts. They decide that maybe, maybe it’ll just take some more time A few more days – months – perhaps even a year. More. Time. They can wait. Because, surely, he can’t be in danger?

A year passes, and another, and time can’t be returned.

They don’t call the authorities. It won’t be an issue for years – a Dæmon’s Shape, and sometimes name, doesn’t Settle until adulthood, and that’s when they tend to be properly registered. It’s not law; it’s simply the norm. No one can force someone else to reveal their Shape – it’s like forcing someone to reveal their soul. For now, no one has to know. No one has to know.

No one has to know.

When John begins to notice that he isn’t quite like Other Children, he’s eight years old and he’s in the library watching Big Brother Dave playing with Nina happily, the squirrel dancing around the eleven-year-old’s feet. He’s wondered, before, briefly, why there are Dæmons curled around everyone else and not himself. It hasn’t really bothered him before, though. He has his Big Brother Dave and Nina, and Mother and Pete, and Father and Irene. He’s still small enough not to notice that he’s mostly kept indoors of the family country house, miles from the nearest neighbor; windows closed, doors locked, constantly guarded. He doesn’t notice the absence of guests or other family visiting every now and then or the rarity of outside contact. He doesn’t notice the absence of questions.

But he begins to notice the bewildered, stricken looks on his parents’ faces That hint in their eyes that might be pity or fear – he wonders what he’s done wrong, except he can’t recall: was is the cookies he plucked from the jar last week? or the accident with the ball because he didn’t mean for Big Brother to trip and be hurt, it was an accident and he’s apologized to him and Nina already, and –

Now Big Brother Dave and Nina are dancing, and he isn’t allowed to touch another’s Dæmon, John knows – but a surge of curiosity overwhelms his blood like someone’s replacing the reds with another poisonous liquid. What does it feel like? Can Dave feel Nina’s thoughts and she touch his? That’s what it says in the books – Telepathic Bond or some such, fancy words meaningless in their undefined grace – John would’ve liked to have that, especially at those times when he’s stumbled and hurt his knee or scraped up his hands all raw on the gravel or when Mother and Father are shedding angry tears behind their hands.

John knows that Father doesn’t want him to read Those Books at the top shelf yet but he’d peeked when Mother had left them on the coffee table. Those Books say that everyone’s got a Dæmon, and John had thought Father would be proud he could read freely fluently but he shouldn’t, according to Father, shouldn’t, and all questions had been briskly evaded.

What does it feel like to touch a Dæmon?

He doesn’t dare ask, in case they get angry, or upset. He doesn’t dare ask because he doesn’t want to see Mother looking at him like that, like she wants to weep, not again again like when she leaned over the cradle and sang softly and rocked him to sleep.

He’s eight years old and John wonders: is his Dæmon really, really tiny? Hidden away in a pocket. Though that’d be silly, he decides, he’d have found it by now if that’s the case.

(He double-checks all pockets anyway, just to make sure, turning every garment inside-out much to Mother’s dismay. Upturns the crevices in-between the wooden floorboards, old and creaking beneath his feet. Peers under the bed Where There Are No Monsters and Dave is silly insisting that there are.

There’s nothing there.)

Maybe his is a bird. Maybe it’s high up in the sky, flying high – high – high like the clouds. He likes the sky. An eagle? No, too pompous. That’s a word he learned from overhearing Father on the phone, and he looked it up in one of the Books. It means grand, important, self-righteously superior, and John doesn’t think it fits that much, except eagles fly fast and high and that’s pretty cool. Maybe a raven, wings black and glossy – he likes that color. He asks his mother; she’s always nice and calm except when Drinking From Bottles, and she answers some questions that Father doesn’t.

He asks: Do you think it’s a raven? and Mother smiles, though she has that look on her face like when she cries when she thinks no one sees.

The thought strikes him: it could be lost. Lost like in a maze in the fairytales, taken by the Goblin King. It could’ve gotten trapped somewhere, the bottom of a well, and can’t get out and that’s why he’s always so alone in his head when Big Brother can hear Nina singing for him. The thought causes a blaze of terror to tear through his bones, and when Father finds him in the Library white as a sheet, asking what’s wrong, John can’t answer.

What if his Dæmon is trapped in the clouds and can’t get back to him? Is that why he’s alone?

He needs to fly and find it. Yes. That’s what he must do, John decides, nine years old, like a mission: his Dæmon is obviously Lost Up There, so he needs to Fly and Find It.

“How do you fly?” he asks at dinner one night. “Can you learn to?”

“In an airplane, dummy,” Dave says, giving his brother a most condescending glare, mirrored by Nina Who Never Speaks to John herself. John has always had a sense that Nina thinks he’s weird. “Humans can’t fly on their own, stupid.”

“How do you learn that?”

Father looks at him, bemused, over the clinkering silverware. The tablecloth is white and pristine, and everything shiningly polished, and the Persian mat on the floor without stains, and Father’s in one of his business suits, imposingly. “You want to be a pilot, son?”

Yes. A pilot. Pilots get to Fly Up There. “Yeah. I want to be a pilot.”

Mother just chuckles, leaning closer to Father, murmuring fondly: “Next week he’ll say he wants to be a doctor.”

(But John doesn’t.)

Mother’s Dæmon is a shadowcat with scattered beige spots, and Pete is, like her, not that talkative Unless It’s Important. The first time John is allowed to talk with him, voice to voice – it’s one of the Rules: only speak to someone else’s Dæmon when spoken to, never without permission, never never never – he’s seven years old. He’s come down with this terrible head cold and he feels awful. Mother’s making him hot noodle soup, that sort he only likes when he’s got a fever and his throat burns coldly. Big Brother Dave isn’t being a meanie for once, and he and Nina don’t tease him for his weirdness for at least a week after, so John counts it as a win.

Pete and Mother have always been able to walk into two different rooms without feeling pain. That’s rare – most humans cannot survive being further than four or five feet apart from their Dæmon at any given time without collapsing. When asked about it, Mother says, a shrug of her shoulders: It’s just a bit of a fluke.

Like him being a Late Emerger. Mother calls him that – a Late Emerger, his Dæmon slow to develop but it’s on its way, of course it’s on its way. The thought refuses to touch her that it’s not on its way at all.

To soothe her, or trying to, John mentions that in his dreams he hears singing, peacefully, and that’s what a Bond with your Dæmon entails. Doesn’t it? Because Big Brother Dave has whispered (tauntingly, sticking out his tongue) that Nina sings him to sleep at night and John’s never going to hear it; John’s never going to know what it’s like. But John can hear Music, so his Dæmon clearly exists somewhere out there in the atmosphere. Mother, you don’t have to worry; I’ll find them.

Now Pete is sitting on the chair by the bedside, while Mother’s in the kitchen ladling soup into a bowl, and John feels rather terrible being sick all-over the sheets, and Pete asks about the Singing in his Dreams.

Is it Important? John evades answering, in the manner of a child: simply, sharply switching subjects. He looks at Pete, at those shrewd old eyes which are his mother’s, and asks: “Is Mother unhappy because of me?”

A Dæmon is the uttermost expression of your Soul, and the Soul cannot lie. But Dæmons can also think. They are not unmoving mirrors. They’re clever. “Not because of you,” Pete says, and his voice is gentle in the way of a warm hand on his shoulder, or a hug from Mother when he’s been pushed into the mud by Dave, or the way flowers bloom when winter thaws. “For you.”

John doesn’t quite understand, except a small part of him does. Everyone should have a Dæmon; it’s the Way Things Are, and he Isn’t Like That. Of course Mother is upset and unhappy. But he doesn’t want her to be. Can’t she see?

(He’s not in pain – their little child who sleeps so soundly.)

Maybe he chose this life without knowing.

Father and his Dæmon (Irene is dark and big, with threatening jaws and large sharp claws digging into the carpets, and John for some reason has his whole existence been a little scared of her, though Big Brother Dave claims he’s being ridiculous) very rarely smile or laugh. John doesn’t know when this began, or when it became his fault.

He only knows when he turns eleven years old, and Mother and Father have a big argument about him being home-schooled. They can’t keep up anymore. He reads too much, too fast, his mind swimming with facts and numbers and ideas. He’s read every book in the Library (even those at the Top Shelf He Isn’t Supposed to Reach), exhausted the possibilities. Dave, Nina clinging to his shoulders, has started calling him more than weird aloud – Dave doesn’t want to be called Big Brother anymore because he thinks it’s childish. He calls him a nerd and a Strangeling.

Strangeling. John looked that up in a dictionary when he was eight. It’s an old word and he was surprised Dave knows it because Dave rarely reads and it’s a Bad Word and it somehow scalds to hear. Strangeling. People with strange Dæmons, with a strange Bond to one, or no Bonds at all. Witches and evil folk, the villains in children’s stories, they’re always Strangelings – soullessly abnormal, dangerous, unnatural. The stuff of nightmares, wanting to burn the world around them into ashes. His parents don’t want him to read stories with Strangelings in them.

(Father doesn’t tell Dave off, though. He doesn’t stop using the word Strangeling for years and years, and John pretends that it’s all right.)

Your Dæmon is only slow to Emerge, Mother says, kindly, frustrated and unable to know what he feels. Don’t worry, Johnny, there’s nothing to worry about. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.

(In his dreams he is a raven – certain of nothing but the wind beneath him and the unending sky.)

He hears them arguing in the kitchen, four raised voices of various pitch: only close people, couples, parents, lovers, would have their Dæmons talking with others like this. Sometimes silently. John listens, for a moment, not sure who’s on his side or what his side even is. Because the doors have been closed for a long while, and he’s read a lot but wants to see the Outside for real, breathe it, touch it.

Public school sounds a little frightening, to be surrounded by Unknown Faces, but Dave goes to one so why shouldn’t he? He could make friends then. That sounds nice. Dave isn’t that nice all the time, and Father dismissed their butler Jason a month ago.

John had liked Jason, he was nice and always let him have an extra cookie after dinner, though Jason was a bit eccentric too and his Dæmon Tamlin looked at John like he’s missing a limb. John had never talked with Tamlin, of course; it’s one of those things You Don’t Do. The Rules (practiced in front of the mirror, carved into skin): Never talk with another person’s Dæmon without their express consent, never never never, and Never even after Death is it okay to touch a Dæmon other than your own with bare hands, and John will obey those Rules. There are others too, such as It’s Impolite to Stare, but those first two are the most important and they’re seared into mind and matter.

He dreams sometimes that the Rules apply the other way around to him too, that there’s a notion someone would care Not to Stare, that people would Stop Saying Names. John doesn’t have a Dæmon of his own, Rules to apply to or abide by.

What’s it like to touch?

Nina’s fur looks soft, a little rough at the edges. She doesn’t like him staring too much and John tries again to stop himself. It’s difficult.

He doesn’t ask. Dave doesn’t – wouldn’t – can’t ever let him know.

When the other kids ask what his is like, he lies. He says: She’s really tiny and shy. He’s not certain his Dæmon is a she or shy. He would like to be able to say: She flies among the clouds. But he’s read in the Books that no Dæmon has wings. They don’t fly. Why would they fly, when they need to be close to their human on the ground? It wouldn’t make sense.

They poke at him the first week, thinking that She’s this little bug crawled into his pockets. John doesn’t dispute it. A bug or wingless moth wouldn’t be too bad, he thinks. Or, oh, one of those funny larvae that turn into butterflies, sparkling with color and life as they unfold from their pale shell – he likes that thought; he’d have liked Her to be a butterfly. Except they’ve got wings and it is an Impossibility (his mother getting so upset at the suggestion of the raven).

So She’s got to be a bug. Maybe one of those with delicate green shells and eyes like tiny midnight stones, crawling across the pavement slowly. He’s picked them up in the garden just to feel them in his palm.

“Yeah,” he says next morning to his classmates, and he turns their jokes into the beginning of the Lie. “She’s a pretty little bug, here in my pocket. She’s still Shy, that’s why no one can look at her.”

And soon enough that becomes Her name.

After that they cease prodding albeit some of the boys still think he’s weird. Odd. Strange. Not because She’s Shy, but because he’s read too much and he’s cleverer than them and, apparently, They Don’t Like That. They don’t like it that he talks about the Books he’s read or that he smiles when facing all the numbers – everyone else seems to hate math. Mr Cleaves, their teacher, gives him extra homework. John isn’t certain if that’s good or bad.

John has learned from Dave that when someone kicks him, he’s got to kick back harder. He gets into trouble for that but doesn’t regret it. Returning home that day, he asks Dave if he could show him any tricks other than kicking, but Dave is uninterested, telling him to go away and bother someone else and if someone’s bullying him, why doesn’t he just run away from them?

(John learns to run. Really, really fast.)

Puberty is a horror. Voice breaking and pimples overtaking his body and all these emotional outbreaks. And he’s got no Dæmon to talk to, to share secrets and suffering.

He’s old enough to understand now. That he’s a Strangeling. Dave knows, of course, and his parents – how could they not? They don’t tell anyone. He can sense from his mother’s latent, horribly hopeful expression that she still waits for an Emergence. Crossing off days in the calendar, wishing, wishing for a final miracle –

John doesn’t think it’s ever going to happen.

Not that he feels that empty, one half missing the presence of the other. There is no giant black hole carved into his chest or belly. He can’t put himself in the same category as those heartless villains that Strangelings are supposed to be; he doesn’t want to burn the world. He feels hatred and joy and what could even be love and his body physically aches sometimes, sometimes, so deeply and without issue. Maybe too much, too sharply.

(At night there is no silence: at night in his dreams he can hear singing. He writes it off as an illusion and doesn’t linger on it if he can.)

His first crush is slow and painful and terrible, and Ross – they play for the same team – teases him mercilessly for it. All the same. According to everything he’s heard, he experiences teenagehood like anybody else: all jumbled together emotions, ragged happenstances passing by too fast, awkward meetings in hallways. He has too much to worry about all the time.

When Mother and Father start to fall out, it’s merely another thorn and he hopes they’ll pull it out quickly, not draw out the pain needlessly. They do, eventually; papers being arranged and they’re just about to sign them. And that afternoon, in the autumn rain, the car hurtles down the road too fast and the lorry driver is drunk, and there’s a scream lasting half an eternity.

(John doesn’t see his mother’s face again, and soon forgets what Pete’s voice sounded like.)

Ross asks, now and again, if his Dæmon has Settled yet. The other boy’s Dæmon is a rather large dog with glimmering eyes, not having changed Shape for over fifteen months so Ross reckons that this’ll be it. It fits. Ross is a very loyal person, with a bigger bark than bite.

At the question, each time, John shrugs (helplessly). And Ross smirks: Still Shy, huh?

The ever-ongoing joke has turned into a dull standard phrase that is losing its shine. He can’t remember the exact moments when he started referring to his Not-There Dæmon as Shy. Like a proper name. No, you can’t see or hear them ‘cause they’re really Shy, okay?

He’s already decided (long ago) that he’s aiming for the Air Force to be a pilot. To fly. To maybe find his true Dæmon one day Up There, somewhere, a childish dream. Not that anyone has to know. He’s not eight years old anymore.

He can’t ask his mother if she thinks his Dæmon is a raven.

Applying to the Academy is tough but oh so worth it, and John is glad to sacrifice sweat and blood and tears to get there. He gets a chance to shine, however briefly. He finds a sense of community unlooked lacking in anyplace he’s been before, slotting into place with the other cadets with surprising ease.

In some branches of the military some Dæmons are put into similarly rigorous training regimes as their human counterparts, depending on their Shape and Size. John hears from a cadet that there’s this girl with a mountain lion which could rip your throat out in three seconds flat – rumor has it there was a fight between hers and another’s Dæmon just recently, and the other got badly injured, rushed to the ER. John isn’t sure what’s true and how much is embellishment.

True, Dæmons can touch each other, if they want to, if they need to. They can harm each other. Fight. It’s not like humans touching another’s Dæmon without permission.

To touch another’s Dæmon is sacrilege. It is a form of rape, and, they’re all told the first week at the Academy, it’s something that unfortunately they could encounter in a near future. Because they’re not going to be civilian pilots. They’re training to be soldiers, not tourists, and war is ugly. Not a fair playground.

And John, fleetingly, feels relief. He needn’t worry about that.

Dæmons need to be proven on paper, certified, regular procedures. They fixed up his birth certificate long ago: once he’d decided on a name when he was twelve, make-believe like the fairies and the mushroom rings. The people fixing the paperwork won’t know that. No photographic IDs required. Not yet Settled on a single Shape, there’s just a name there: Shy – Undetermined. When signing up, John is asked to add the Current Shape, another little lie of a thousand and he breathes them now, because lies are easier than silence: silence leads to Questions. He has to write something. He refuses to feel shame, even if he knows that more than some of the cadets will find it hilarious and they’ll snicker and gawk: Seriously, Sheppard, it’s a bug? an insect? unfolding in his pocket slowly. Tiny and ridiculous, and useless in a fight for sure.

But soon enough the laughter dies, and people start forgetting. They always forget and move on, busy enough with themselves and their own affairs. There are other things to worry about than the laughable size of a guy’s unseen Dæmon, shy and tucked away.

The alternative is so much worse.

Shoot a person and they may survive. Shoot their Dæmon and they’ll probably swiftly die.

It’s a drill with one of their weapons instructors, Sergeant Mills, and she’s got a battle-hardened face and the hint of a scar curving down her throat from an accident with a knife someplace she never elaborates on. She says it only once. They’ll all remember it:

A big Dæmon can make a good weapon, but also a good target. They need to be swift to evade bullets.

Pilots can’t have too big Dæmons because then they can’t fit into the same craft, together, always together. There are tight restrictions. John passes the tests without issue – Lyle, too, and Dex and Mitch, and the four of them fall into a close fold fairly quickly. (Lyle teases him about Shy sometimes. Makes these passing comments, albeit he’s not as big a dick about it as he could be if he wanted to. In turn, John makes sure to make appropriate jabs regarding his Laila. They work on the same wavelength like that.)

Sergeant Mills tells them that if you have an enemy and their Dæmon coming at you and there is no choice but to retaliate, and the Dæmon is the easiest target, you don’t hesitate. You don’t ever hesitate.

After that particular session, Lyle says, in the lockers: “Must be lucky for you, Shep. Shy’s easy to hide from the enemy.” And he glances down at Laila resting contently by his feet, face warm with such open love and care laid bare that it hurts to look at him.

He’s right. Lyle’s Dæmon makes a much easier target than any insect.

John averts his eyes.

They say that when your Dæmon dies, those few seconds before the rest of you does, there is only Pure Pain. Like ripping something out, slitting out your liver barehanded, tearing out your heart from the cavity of your chest still beating. It’s not meant to happen. Usually the human and the Dæmon die the exact same millisecond, together – but sometimes, sometimes either one lingers like a ghost, refusing to accept the truth, to let go. Ghosting, they call it. It’s the thing of horror stories and tragic movies that would leave even the most cold-hearted mean bastards trembling and cold, and it’s Not Meant to Be.

The first time John sees it happen he’s in Afghanistan, second tour there, the Apache’s down and the rotors uselessly churning in the sand, and Captain Lyle Holland is dying.

The guy had said he was actually – momentarily – envious that John had such a small Dæmon that he could constantly carry around in his palm or his pocket. He wouldn’t need to worry about being separated as easily, forcibly or otherwise, about being cut off from each other. John had wanted to laugh at the irony but couldn’t. He doesn’t laugh.

Lyle is spitting blood, his leg in shreds and pulse staggering. The chopper’s down.

“Hey, hey, stay with me, Holland,” John urges him to stay awake. Tries. Tried to see to the wound earlier but it’s beyond his skills as a field medic and the meagre supplies he’s got at hand – “I didn’t come all this way just to leave you here, you hear me?! Lyle,” he barks, like an order. Like he’s the angry drill Sergeant or Commander of the base.

Curled up on the man’s chest, Leila is sobbing. The Dæmon is pale and writhing in pain and they’re both dying, and no one can do anything to stop it. For a split second – as if he’s eight years old again, sitting in the Library watching Big Brother Dave and Nina dance – John wants to reach out a hand. Touch. Put a hand on that shuddering body and whisper hey it’s going to be okay I’m going to get you both out of here it’ll be fine.

He can’t.

“Lyle, stay awake, damn it –”

The hot sun tightens on his back and Lyle, coughs, stiffens, eyes wide. Terror. He cries out for his Dæmon as if he can’t feel her anymore, and John is holding his breath without realizing. He can’t look away, can barely move, heartrate breaking through the roof, adrenaline making him clearheadedly dizzy and blood heavy –

The Dæmon shudders and stills. There’s a shout, raw and the most horrible sound John’s heard issuing from Lyle’s throat:

no! no no no no no

“Hey, shh, shh, it’s going to be okay,” John lies. Lyle’s gaze is wild. And John remembers the Books he read as a kid, naïve and fearful and unknowing of the hugeness of the world:

The Dæmon is the other half of you, your Soul, and without your Soul you are Nothing.

In the years they’ve known each other, he has never seen Lyle like this. He’s not weeping, not on the outside; he’s too tired and in too much shock for that. He’s so – empty. There’s nothing in his eyes but the searing endless pain.

The screams will linger in John’s heart forever.

“Hang on, buddy,” he says, gripping a grimily beaten bloodied hand. Or his hand is the bloodied one. Can’t tell. “Hang on …” Help isn’t on the way. Not in time for a rescue for the both of them. There’s nothing to be done. “Shh.” He’s not the first person John has seen die, but it’s the first one like this.

(Dex and Mitch were already dead when he found them, the wrecks of their bodies, their Dæmons turned to dust without anybody to give comfort.)

“Please –” a choke: end it. end it. end it.

Seconds now, just seconds left. John holds his hands. Waiting. Please, he hears Lyle whisper again before the man’s blue lips cease to move, and breath leaves his lungs. He doesn’t draw another.

He survived a full Ghost minute without his Dæmon.

(John has survived for thirty-two years now. Is it his time soon? Will he one day collapse and bleed out, waning like wind and tide, whisper please please end it – feeling like an empty shadow?

Is that what he’s meant to feel?)