The Sky is Full of Ghosts
by Miles Coombe, 3.24am January 10th 2021
First impressions are that this place is like someone’s faded memory of a town. I park my car and walk past an empty hotel, with its sagging porch and rotting shutters. I get a bad taste in my mouth as I pass by - ash and lead and something like paint stripper. It’s particularly hot today and the sun baked, cruel emptiness of the sky is almost mercilessly mocking. I stare at the switchgrass growing through the decaying wooden steps, withering in the sun, anything to distract me from my thoughts. For some reason my mind is full of memories of my childhood and bunches of sticks held together with old twine - just like the bird traps that I saw on the edge of the woods as I drove in here. I think they are trapdoors to something else. Something beautiful or something wicked I could not say.
It’s so quiet here and it takes me a while to realise that this is because there seems to be no birdsong, in fact very little noise at all, apart from the occasional bark of what might be a fox. At least I hope it’s a fox. Also the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anyone around - I’ve seen the shadows of some children playing at the far end of one of the streets but that is about all. This unearthly quiet feels very unnatural in the bright sunlight and I realise I am just standing in the middle of the road, staring up at the empty sky. The sun briefly swallows my fingertips as I reach towards it. I try and breathe normally again. This place has an eternal feeling about it - like this is what it had looked like when the old gods first touched the void, when the earth was raised out of the darkness with their songs. The woods nearby are shaking in the dry dusty wind - but their whispering goes unanswered, as few people speak the language of the trees anymore.
Time jumps forward somehow and I am now down by the river, and behind me, the abandoned train tracks thread themselves bleakly through the dusty sidings between the edge of the forest and the water - scraping through the tall witch grass, ragged robin and dandelions gone to seed, past piles of rusty metal, rotting barrels and the occasional scattered bones of small animals, long since bleached white under the incandescent sun. I come across a sort of shrine - a collection of small skulls, flat stones and twigs, laid in an intricate pattern around the base of a small tree. Some antlers are nailed to the trunk of the tree at head height and the tree has been painted black, or maybe it’s some sort of tar – either way the tree is dying. It seems significant in some way that I can’t put my finger on. I feel like I am in that space between dreams and waking where you aren’t quite human yet, where there are no endings or beginnings. The light behind my eyelids is deep red, and silent. My mind is flat and still. The air tastes like the sun has gone quiet. I can feel the wilderness pressing in around me, it’s a sense of depth and age and vastness all at once. I fall to my knees, whispering my prayers to the church of the deep woods - an offering to elder gods that time forgot - old magic seeping through the cracks of desperate wishes made by an unwanted child. My hands brush the dust from my hair as the wind picks up, the last rays of light drift through the trees. Summer is almost over.
The vivid sunset frames my shadow as I turn and walk away - the colours wrap around me like silk and I don’t know what’s wrong beyond a sort of nameless unease that carves a channel down the front of my stomach. As I walk back towards the town, the dusk light starts playing tricks with my eyes and I start to see things - tiny flaws in the thread of reality - strange shadows that look wrong somehow, lights that don’t seem to come from anywhere – jittery feelings that race up my spine and make me shake with the kind of terror only the unknown can bring. Lonely spirits growing bold at the edges of the forest, like unstitched wounds in time. I stagger suddenly under the scent of burning animal flesh and ancient rusted machinery. It is the smell of other worlds, not as clean as ours, burning in the night. Apparently, portals to other worlds have changed in appearance across the centuries, and suddenly I feel like I am falling and breathing is hard in the rancid air. I can hear the overhead high voltage electricity cables murmuring in the gloom, and I latch onto that sound, praying that I can follow their static moaning back into town. I cling to their humming aura like a sort of protection, like they are marking out consecrated ground – until at last,
my wishes are granted and the trees thin out and suddenly the street lights are piercing the gloom.
My shirt hangs loosely off my shoulders and smells slightly sour, like stale sweat, the weak flickering of the sodium lights making my skin look jaundiced. I feel fuzzy, overheated, anxious, like something’s not quite right. Fever dreams, I think to myself. I have to admit, although I walked through the town earlier I cannot seem to remember much about it and I definitely cannot remember where I parked the car. I feel strange and vacant somehow and suddenly everything is beautiful in a profound way - the way a forest fire is beautiful - the rising moon, the last light of the dying sun falling through the trees, the sound of a bell tolling through the calm air, the sound of his laughter echoing through the rot of my memories, the blood that has dripped from my nose and spattered down the front of my shirt, its dense wild scent cloying and sweet in the still air. I remember his wide eyes staring back at me with huge pupils. The salty taste of his skin reminded me of something I could not put my finger on, like listening to a stranger sing your favourite song. It feels like I am in another place in time and I am struggling to breathe again. He slaps my face and I inhale sharply, my vision sharpening. “You taste like me,” he breathes in my ear, sounding surprised. With the world starting to bleed all over itself, it was hard to tell if he was crying, or if I was crying, or if it was all just a trick of the light. The clattering scream of the fox is getting closer and I’m feeling light and sparkly like champagne frothing in a glass, the edges of my vision blurring into obscurity. We are the gatekeepers of all the fragile things I think to myself as I stroke his hair and tell him the stories of my youth - tales of red winged blackbirds that steal children, bowls of milk turning to cherry syrup blood overnight, drowned souls coming back to life by the sticky mudflats of the river. I feel sharp smoke searing my lungs - the scent of it recalls wildfire and funeral pyres - it seems to go hand in hand with loneliness. I’m not quite sure what is happening or where I am anymore. I imagine holding all of these lost moments in one cupped hand. I think they are rough rather than smooth. They would break if I dropped them. The noise of the fox is right behind me now.
I held his small broken body close to my chest and swayed in time to a lullaby I had heard someone singing whilst cradling a dead child, or was I the one singing? I walked into the forest with the body and returned alone. The sky is full of ghosts, I thought, just before I pass out.