Fiction

Autumnal Ghosts

By: Vladimir Motchoulski 

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Edgar slowed his pace as the burial oak crawled into his field of vision from beyond the trail’s end. His son Nathan scurried at his side, riding on a meek ripple of strength that would soon fade away. The cascading breeze tossed the fallen leaves into a whimsical dance around them. Their jumbled earthen tones reminded Edgar of a funeral procession, a flurried gathering of heavy souls. Edgar had not wept for his son in weeks. He could no longer contest the burning seal of doom woven into his family’s blood line. His grief fell into a permeating numbness, bound to his bones by the inescapable gravity of Nathan’s imminent death.

Edgar glanced at his son’s sheepish face and smiled at its soft painless expression. A hollow stare of suffering would soon rip it away. The pain would have Nathan in its claws by sunset. It would force him back into the country house, back into his shoddy bed, and back under the grip of a fresh syringe. Nathan’s eyes told his father that he was not yet through fighting the disease. Edgar marveled at his son’s perseverance from behind his own veil of experience. Nathan’s body bent to the sickness like a straw of hay against an icy gale. Each night he collapsed and each morning he rose, weaker and thinner than he was the night before. Edgar would beg for suicide in Nathan’s place.

On hushed footsteps they entered the wide embrace of the oak’s shadow. Their awareness sank into its ethereal realm. Its rustic sprawling facade inhaled the remnants of the fading day’s warmth, hinting at the barren winters of its past. They approached the layered claws of roots and made their way in deliberate paces up to the tremendous base of the trunk. The wind shifted course and the tree waved a brisk greeting with its halo of outer leaves. Nathan tilted his waterlogged skull and stared up into the cascading branches that splintered away toward heaven’s edge.

“Is God real? Will He be there, when I go?” said Nathan. Edgar took a deep breath and looked at his son’s solemn countenance. Nathan’s glassy eyes hung like a fog below the pale hairless curvature of his brow. 

“Yes, God is real,” Edgar said. He clasped Nathan’s bony shoulder as he soaked in the lie. “God is both around us and within us. He was here before our planet came to be, and He will be there when everything is gone.”

“Good to know, dad. I get scared imagining what nothing will feel like. I hope God is kind.”

“God is beyond anything we know,” Edgar said. “What matters is that you are kind.”

The tree’s imposing aura unleashed a deluge of centuries within Edgar’s mind. He thought of the past and of his family’s poisoned blood. Through wealth and trouble, and through toil, feasts, and famine, the names engraved into the trunk fell together and coalesced into a single black diamond. Each of the named boys had died at the age of eleven. The whispers of their ghosts continued to creak and groan from within the tree’s granite bark, impervious to the world’s chokehold of indifference.

Nathan stared at the macabre shrine for his family’s unknowable souls. “Why are we here?” he said.

“I wanted to show you the others,” Edgar said as he stepped closer toward the engravings.

“What do you mean?”

“The others like you, the boys from our family who got sick when they were eleven years old.” Edgar softened his voice. “Think of them as autumnal ghosts. They blessed their loved ones with their summer light and then drifted off to be with God before the early frost came.” Edgar waved his palm over the engravings.

Were they lonely?” asked Nathan. 

“No,” Edgar said. “They were loved.” He spoke like a somber grandfather. “At first, I didn’t believe the rumors, and I stopped thinking about them for a while. Then you were born and I was overjoyed, but then…” Edgar sighed and cast his glance into the shadows. His mind froze. He remembered the morning of his wife’s suicide. “Then your mother got sick, so we moved here.”

“I didn’t know mom very well,” said Nathan.

“Neither did I,” said Edgar. “Her spirit was gone by the time you began your treatments. I doubt you remember much.”

“Needles,” said Nathan. “I remember all kinds of needles, and lots of drilling and white light.”

“Then it’s for the best,” said Edgar. The wind shifted course and the tree obliged with a change in its motions. Somewhere beyond the rolling horizon lay a great lake that steered the ebbs and flows of the lonely farm’s weather. Edgar had never walked upon it shores. He bowed his head and glanced over the encroaching moss on the tree’s exposed roots. The cloudy green stains would die in the winter. New growth would return in the spring and by midsummer it would climb and replace the dead moss of yesteryear. Everywhere Edgar turned he saw the same cycle, the same pointless suicidal whirlpool that led nowhere. In his youth he would have thrown his arms up and screamed at the treacherous God who plotted all the world’s misdoings from somewhere beyond the edge of the sky. Now in his calmer age, he learned to wait in silence. During the night’s deepest hours he sometimes would awaken and whisper his burdens and sorrows to the placid country air, which had turned his home’s thin paneled walls into stone.

Edgar cleared his lungs and tightened his jacket. He stepped closer to Nathan, who had been studying the bottom section of the tree’s engravings. The coldest winter of Edgar’s life gathered beyond the farm’s darkening fields. Nathan’s spine hunched like a neglected hunting bow. He would not live to feel the first morning frost.

Ready to go home?” said Edgar. “Are you hungry?”

Nathan looked into his father’s eyes without speaking. His expression grew inquisitive. Edgar’s concealed grief had withheld much of the past from him. Nathan stepped out of his father’s view and walked around the tree. His strength had waned by the time he circled back to where he started. His twig-like legs trembled inside his loose gray pants.

We should start walking back,” Edgar said. “It’s almost time for your medicine. You should try to eat something.”

“Wait,” Nathan said. “So you say those relatives caused my sickness? How?” Nathan scowled. “I don’t know everything the doctors say but I know it’s not a curse and I don’t belong here with the others.” He began to cough.

“It’s okay, son, sit down on that grass for a minute, ” said Edgar. He forgot to bring the emergency dose of medicine. He braced for Nathan’s final collapse.

“But how can that be true?” Nathan said. His throat tightened. “Why did you and mom have me at all?” He kneeled over and his chest convulsed under tiny, jagged breaths. A tear slid from his face and fell into the dirt.

“I spent months doing research after you got sick,” said Edgar. “I tracked down my father’s ancestors, from centuries ago.”

Nathan broke out of his cough and sat down in a bright patch of untamed grass. His chest continued to heave but he remained upright. His eyes puddled over with thin chemical tears.

“I’m weak,” Nathan said. “If I were stronger I could get better and be here with you, on the farm, and help out, and be happy.” His voice slipped and he succumbed to a new coughing fit. Edgar considered running back to the house for the medicine, but he remained still.

Edgar watched on as his son suffered in the foreboding aura of the October sunset. The center of his chest turned to ice. Nathan’s jagged breaths pounded a cold finality through Edgar’s ears. The coughs blared like foghorns. The terminus of their shared life made its presence known. It hung in the air around them, as solid as a gravestone. The winds ceased their flow and the tree stood bleak and still as the sun’s bottom edge nudged into the curve of distant fields. Edgar prayed for his son to have a peaceful death.

“You’re not weak,” Edgar said. Nathan’s throat ceased its grinding convulsions. He caught enough of his breath to stand up. “I know you feel like you are.” Edgar buttoned Nathan’s jacket, which hung like a curtain over the bundled sticks of Nathan’s limbs. “We’re powerless against the tides of time. Your mother would have been so proud of you, so proud…” Edgar’s eyes sank into the shadows.

“I’m still glad I could live for a little bit,” said Nathan. His body stopped shaking but his breath gained a new timbre from a wheeze that had not been there before. Edgar cleared his throat to rattle the swelling of his own tears.

“Most of the boys remembered here had a phrase engraved near their name,” Edgar said. He glanced over the marks as his spirit buckled under the burden carried by the mothers and fathers of his family’s past. He imagined the young sons floating away into the chilly nothingness. Their eyes would have been dead and peaceful like Nathan’s. He imagined the mothers and fathers aging and dying cold and empty, unable to replace the autumnal warmth their sons took with them when they departed.

Edgar spat as he cried. His own blood mocked him. The very matter that kept him alive pulled his lone son into an early grave. “If you have anything you want engraved here, let me know. Take some time, think about it,” Edgar said. He spoke in his deepest and softest voice.

Nathan returned to his seat on the bright scrap of grass. Edgar took several paces away from the burial oak. He inhaled the morbid essence of his family’s tranquil land as he watched his dying son sit entwined with the lifeless meadow. Nathan kept his back as straight as he could. He watched the faint motion of the tree’s sparse leaves as they wasted their final drop of life trying to hold on. Time’s reaper would not heed Nathan’s bravery. Edgar’s gut seized with the sudden urge to tear down the tree, yet he knew he never would. He could boil out his own blood and drown Nathan in the finest medicine, but it would not matter. The immutable mechanism behind their parting lives would clamor on like a stone bull.

“I’ve got something, dad,” Nathan said. Nathan stood up and came forward to touch the tree.

“Already? What is it?”

“Behold the shadows, for there is light,” said Nathan. His voice sank with his eyes.

“That’s beautiful,” said Edgar. He crouched next to Nathan and hugged his frail torso.

In silence they watched the fields swallow the final rays of the setting sun. A line of birds bound for warmer lands shimmered beneath a lonely cloud as it hung in the still air. Life withdrew into the fringes of the land.

They began their walk back to the country house. Nathan’s feeble legs struggled as his shoes kicked up trails of dust along the flat path. Edgar walked close behind, close enough to catch Nathan, though his instinct told him not to.

They stopped to rest with the country house in their sight. A faint band of violet light lingered on the horizon. Edgar felt the Earth had stopped its turn, if only for a heartbeat.

What will you do after I’m gone?” Nathan said.

“I’ll remember you,” said Edgar. “You’re the bravest person I’ll ever know.” Edgar turned away from his son to hide the shame that swelled in his eyes. He loved his son enough to wish him dead that moment. “Then I’ll keep going,” Edgar said, speaking to the horizon. “I’ll keep going and then some day you’ll be all better and I’ll see you again.”

A divine spark flashed beneath Nathan’s step. The heels of his old sneakers shed their dust as he thumped ahead with staccato bursts across the uneven wooden planks that bridged the farm’s dying stream. Nathan climbed the porch steps without Edgar’s help. He sat down in the large soiled armchair in the corner of the living room and turned on the bulbous television. Edgar stuck a fresh needle in Nathan’s left arm and taped the small dispenser pouch below the crook of his elbow. He covered Nathan with a thin blanket and walked into the kitchen. He turned on the stove. Nathan shut his eyes.

Nathan did not raise his head when Edgar returned with a steaming bowl of thick, unnamable stew. Edgar placed the stew on the coffee table and reached for his son’s neck to check for a pulse. The vein whispered like a lonely cricket on a cold, somniferous dawn. Edgar swallowed a few spoonfuls of the stew and then put it away. He muted the television and walked upstairs to his bedroom. He shut the door.

Nathan passed during the witching hour without a hint or a whimper. Edgar did not look at his son’s body upon awakening. When the early morning came, a silent ambulance carried the Nathan away from the farm. Edgar signed the driver’s papers and returned to the house. He opened the dirty curtains to let in the unwelcome early morning light. Edgar screamed. He limped from corner to corner, from room to room, and screamed until his tongue tasted blood. The decaying house answered with stonewall silence. Outside the house nothing stirred.

Edgar down the gulp of whiskey that clung to the bottom of his last bottle. He watered the living room plants and gathered Nathan’s old clothes and bedding. He stuffed the decrepit fabrics into a large cotton sack and carried it to the center of the backyard fire pit. He fetched a tin canister of ignition fluid from beneath the deck’s stairs and sprayed a stream over the cloth bundle. He threw a lit match onto Nathan’s dry, grainy blankets at the base of the pile. The flame burst forth with great force, then faded into a simmer.  

Edgar returned to the house and gathered his wallet and car keys. He produced a hefty pile of unpaid medical bills from a drawer in the narrow hallway and walked out of the front door. On his way to his car Edgar threw the envelopes on top of Nathan’s smoldering belongings. He sprayed the remaining the ignition fluid into the flame wisps and turned his back to them, walking away from the resurrected pyre.

Edgar drove his worn out sedan down the gray country road as his life dissolved into the monotone horizon behind him. In his soul there were no shadows, and so there was no light. The boy, the wife, and the autumnal ghosts tugged at his memory, hoping to extract some closing grace from his self-reflection. He offered them none. He narrowed his eyes at the rising sun, pulled down the visor, and kept going.

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Categories: Fiction

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