“Is the ghol coming back tonight, Mama?” Violet asked anxiously.
Miranda continued pouring her daughter a drink. “Probably, Violet. But don’t worry: we still have lots of Papa’s poems left.”
Violet huddled around herself in her chair. There were dark shadows under her eyes, and her golden skin looked sallow. These last few months had been particularly hard on her. “I wish it would go away.”
“Me too, honey. But wishing won’t make it leave.”
“If Papa were here, he’d kill it!” Lily slashed with her spoon, eyes shining.
“Careful, Lily.” Miranda moved the jam out of her reach. “We can’t afford to waste any food. And you can’t kill a ghol. It’s already dead.”
Violet shivered at the thought, pushing food around her plate. “Where did it come from?”
That was the question that tormented Miranda, night after sleepless night. “I don’t know, honey. But as long as we have Papa’s poems, we’re safe.”
Neither girl said anything to this, and even Lily looked subdued at the inevitable conclusion: eventually the poems would run out. And then what would they do?
After supper, Miranda and the girls washed the dishes, hurrying as twilight welled up in the trees and spread across the harvested fields. Miranda rushed the girls through their chores, making them sing loud, cheerful songs and keeping them away from the windows.
She herself risked the twilight to lock the chickens safely away and ensure that the field ‘tons had stowed themselves in the barn. They had only three field automatons left. She looked them over carefully by the hard light of the alembic coils. She did all she could to keep them in good shape, but with no way to get more parts, their eventual deterioration was inevitable.
Just like us. She stifled the thought and hurried back indoors.
The girls ran to her; they must have been watching through the windows. “Are you all right, Mama?” Violet asked anxiously.
“I’m fine, Violet. Stop fussing. Now. Who wants a story before bed?”
Miranda tucked her girls up in the big bed she used to share with James, while outside the light died away.
When she had finished with stories and both girls were asleep, Miranda flicked the switch on Rover’s neck. The dog ‘ton’s eyes lit up. “Guard,” Miranda ordered, and the ‘ton began pacing back and forth, monitoring the room. If anything other than Miranda or the girls appeared in its sensors, it would set upon that creature immediately, be it a rat or a man. No doubt it would try to take down the ghol too, when the time came.
Miranda, meanwhile, went downstairs. By the door, she picked up an old, worn notebook left by the doorway for this purpose. There were many pages missing, ragged edges of paper stuck to the cracking spine.
Outside, darkness had fallen completely. The wind hissed through the trees, moaned across the fields. Miranda stood on the doorstep, a tall woman with hair and skin as dark as the night, her worn calico dress swaying in the breeze. Waiting.
Slowly, a white light grew in the woods: faint and faltering at first, darting behind trees. But it soon grew bolder. An eerie whine developed above the voice of the wind, and the ghol stepped out of the woods onto Miranda’s land.
It was in the vague shape of a man, tall and formless, with too-long legs and arms. Two eyes burned in a featureless face. It began to move: walking counter-clockwise around the house, each circuit bringing it closer. Miranda stayed stock-still, waiting for the completion of its third circle. All the while, the eerie howl grew louder.
She saw it approach from the right. Closer, the monster seemed even worse than before: there were spectral organs moving inside it, the flow of insubstantial blood. The soil crunched under its feet.
Miranda tore out one of the inky, ill-scratched poems her husband had written for her, tore it from the notebook and, crumpling it, tossed it into the wind. There was a flash of light—she heard, fleetingly, James’s voice—and the ghol gave a cry that made the hairs on her arms stand up.
Then it was gone, as though it had never been.
Sighing with relief, Miranda went back inside. She bolted the door and leaned against it. Safe—for another night.
Moving by feel in the dark house, she thumbed through the pages of the notebook. There were only twenty left.
The next day dawned, gray and gloomy. Miranda knelt by one of the field ‘tons, cleaning its cooling vents. Despite everything, she couldn’t help taking pleasure in mechanical craft, even something as basic as ‘ton maintenance. This had been her joy since she was a girl.
Nearby, Lily watched, fascinated by Miranda’s work, but Violet kept glancing out the barn door toward the fields and the trees beyond. “Is the ghol still there?” she asked.
Violet really was too thin, Miranda worried, squinting at her in the glowering light. “Yes, I’m afraid so,” she said. “It’s called rooting when ghols do that. It’s rooted itself in the woods that surround the farm.”
Violet hunched over, as she did so often these days, wrapping her arms around herself. “So we can’t get out.”
“No, honey. It would get us if we tried entering the woods, even by day. Like Charlotte.”
All three of them grew quiet, remembering Charlotte, their one servant. Charlotte, who had tried making a run for it when the haunting began. Miranda still woke up in a cold sweat sometimes, remembering her screams.
“If it wasn’t for the war,” she said at last, “we might get help. But, as it is…” She shook her head. “We just have to hope and pray.”
“And use Papa’s poems,” Lily supplied helpfully around the thumb in her mouth.
“Yes.” Miranda tousled her hair. “And use Papa’s poems.”
“How many are left?” Violet asked, eyes sharp and suspicious.
“Never mind.” Miranda found she couldn’t meet her daughter’s gaze.
The old Violet would have pursued this line of inquiry, peppering Miranda with questions and demanding more satisfactory answers. This new Violet fell silent, watching Miranda work.
“Why do the poems work on the ghol?” she asked at last.
“I don’t really know, honey.” Miranda sat back and sighed. “Ghols are the spirits of people who died violently; people who died yearning for something.”
Lily’s eyes were wide. “So, if I die wanting chocolate cake, I’ll turn into a ghol?”
“No!” Despite everything, a smile tugged at Miranda’s lips at the thought. A ghol wanting chocolate cake! “No, the person has to die really wanting something. Yearning for it with all their heart and soul. And then a ghol is formed from that energy,that desire,and it travels to where it thinks it can get what it wants.”
“And this ghol wants…poems?” Violet’s brow wrinkled.
Miranda shook her head. “We already ruled that out, remember? When we tried throwing it pages from our poetry book.” She suppressed a shudder, remembering the horror as the crumpled paper fell to the ground and the ghol kept advancing. “No, it’s something deeper that the ghol wants. Something in Papa’s poetry. As long as we keep giving it Papa’s poems, we’ll be all right.”
“And if we stop?” It was Lily who asked, eyes huge.
“Then the ghol attacks us and we die,” Violet said, unexpectedly flat and matter-of-fact.
“Violet!” Miranda scolded as Lily’s eyes filled with tears.
Violet gave her one of those looks that had been surprising her lately: so bitter, so resigned. So old. “What? It’s true. We’re going to die. We can’t get rid of the ghol.”
“We will if we can figure out how to poison the ghol.” Miranda took the trembling Lily into her arms. “We have to find out what it wants and then give it the inverse of that.”
In Miranda’s embrace, Lily frowned. “You mean, the opposite of what it wants?”
“No.” If that were the case, Miranda reflected, she could have poisoned the ghol long ago with a crumpled page from the dust-dry 1859 Premium Farmer’s Almanac. “You have to feed it what it craves, only—twisted around. Turned inside out. So what’s nourishment becomes poison.”
“But we don’t know what it wants.” Lily’s eyes were wells of fear and dread.
Miranda let out her breath. “That’s the problem, honey. But I’m thinking about it.”
A dismal silence fell.
“Why don’t you two go play?” Miranda said at last. “I can finish up.” She paused. “But stay where I can see you, all right?”
They went off reluctantly, casting unhappy glances behind. Watching them go, Miranda felt a great weight of fear descend on her. Those girls were all she had in the world. What was she going to do when…?
Tears sprang in Miranda’s eyes. Oh, James, I wish you were here. But he wasn’t, of course: James had rushed off with the bravest of them, the moment the war began.
Wiping her eyes angrily, Miranda tried to pull herself together. The ghol, as she’d told Violet, was driven by irrational longing—but longing for what? It had to be something related to poetry, as James’s poems constituted the nourishment that kept it at bay.
Shivering, she remembered the first night: the ghol, howling louder and louder, circling closer and closer, both the girls screaming while she threw random objects at it. Candles, iron pans, even a carved wooden box—a ghol could fixate on any human object. It was only when the ghol was mere yards away that, in a frenzy of terror and desperation, she’d snatched up James’s notebook and ripped a page out of it, crumpling it and throwing it into the air. And, to her astonishment and relief, the ghol had consumed it and vanished.
But it was only James’s poetry. She’d tried the same with printed poems from old newspapers, and pages from the family’s one book of poetry, but they didn’t have any effect. No, it was only James’s thin little notebook that stood between Miranda’s family and death.
At the noonday dinner therefore, while the girls ate (or, rather, while Lily ate and Violet pushed her food around), Miranda retired into the kitchen to look over James’s notebook yet again.
She’d torn so many pages out of it, but what remained confirmed her memories: James hunched over his notebook every night, frowning as he scribbled and crossed out lines. A sad smile crossed Miranda’s face at the memory: he only ever read her a poem when it was, as he said, completely finished. And always, always, the poem had been short and sweet and filled with love for her. Even the ones that hadn’t been any good had been so.
So the ghol wanted…love poetry? No—otherwise, the printed sentimental poems would have worked. The ghol wanted James’s poetry. But why? What significance could a poor farmer’s scribbles have for an undead monster?
Tears stung her eyes; away from her children’s gaze, she allowed them to come, bowing her head over silent sobs. I wish James were here. How she wished—everything would be better, if James were here. No war, no ghol. Oh, James.
“Mama!” Lily called. “Mama, are you going to eat anything?”
Miranda slid the book into her apron pocket. So light, so thin now. “Yes, honey. I’m coming.”
The girls watched as she slid into her place and began to eat her meager corn porridge. “What were you doing in the kitchen, Mama?” Violet asked.
Lily looked under the table at Miranda’s lap, lifting up the cloth. “You’ve got Papa’s notebook.”
“Lily! Don’t peek under the table like that.” Miranda bit her lip: of all the absurd things to scold Lily about, at such a time…
In the old days, before the war, before James left, the girls might have erupted into a barrage of questions: Why can’t I look under the table? Why’s it so rude? Why do you have Papa’s notebook? Why were you in the kitchen? Instead, a long silence elapsed, with both children staring at her with wide, reflective eyes. Miranda felt a jab of murderous rage: not at them, but at the circumstances that had crushed her girls’ childhood and turned them into these silent, wary creatures.
When Violet at last broke the quiet, it was with a most unexpected question. “Mama,” she said, “can you tell us how you met Papa?”
“I’ve never told you that before?” The girls shook their heads. Miranda sat back, marshaling her memories. “Well, it was when I was a girl in Charlesburg. I worked with my father in our automaton shop. I did repairs, maintenance; even built my own machines sometimes.” She smiled in memory. “One day, a hot summer’s day it was, when I was alone in the workshop—this young man came in with a field ‘ton that needed repairs. Handsomest man I’d ever seen.”
“That was Papa?” Lily asked.
“That was James.” Miranda smiled. “We got to talking. He’d just bought forty acres and was setting up his own farm, he said. Such a big, white smile: I fell in love with him for that alone. By the time I was done repairing his ‘ton, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.”
“So then you married and moved here?” Violet seemed strangely solemn, more like a lawyer requesting more information during a court case than a little girl eagerly asking for stories of her parents’ love.
“Yep. We had you girls, and we were happy.” Miranda had the strangest feeling as she said this: like she was telling a lie. But it hadn’t been a lie. They had been happy, until the war.
The girls kept gazing at her with those odd, silent expressions. “That’s a nice story, Mama,” Violet said at last, still in that strange tone.
“Yes.” Miranda finished off her porridge and stood up. “And you’ll be seeing your Papa soon; he can tell it to you himself! Now, time to wash up.”
Again, twilight pooling from the trees. Again, the light in the woods. And again, the ghol.
The page tore easily in Miranda’s hand. The light flashed: again James’s voice sounded, garbled and unintelligible. The ghol disappeared, leaving Miranda with an ache in her heart. Part of her, a small, shameful part—almost looked forward to the ghol’s attacks every evening. At least then she could hear James’s voice again, even if it was only briefly, and never clearly.
Sighing, she turned back inside, leaving the notebook downstairs. Rover’s lights blinked green, recognizing her, as she entered the bedroom. She lay down beside the girls, but didn’t sleep. She stared sightlessly into the dark.
Beside her, Violet shifted. “Mama?”
“Violet. You should be asleep.” Belying her own words, Miranda took her daughter into her arms, taking comfort from her warmth, her little-girl scent.
“I couldn’t sleep.” Violet paused. “You drove off the ghol again, Mama?”
“Yes.” Miranda gave her a comforting squeeze. “It’s gone.”
“But, it’ll be back.” It was a thin little whisper in the dark. “Again and again. Until all the pages are gone. And then we’ll be dead.”
“Honey…please don’t worry. We’ll figure something out. And maybe your Papa will be back by then.”
A long silence filled the room.
“Papa’s not coming back, Mama.” Violet’s voice was flat and steady: the voice of a far older woman. “He’s not ever coming back. And you know it.”
Her words hit Miranda like blows. They ripped open the door she’d closed in her mind, the door she’d closed and resolutely forgotten was even there, ripped open that door and let the knowledge flow into her brain, icy and unrelenting. He’s not ever coming back.
“No.” It was a tiny whisper in the dark: Miranda sounded so much younger than her daughter. “You’re right. He’s…not.”
Then the tears came. Lily held her in the darkness as Miranda cried. Then she fell asleep in Miranda’s arms.
Miranda herself stayed awake. He’s never coming back. He’s never coming back. The words rang a horrid tempo in her mind. He’s never coming back. Violet was right: Miranda had known, for a long time, that James—the loving father and husband, the human man—that James was never coming home.
But perhaps another part of him had.
And then Miranda knew what she had to do.
Slipping quietly out of bed, Miranda went downstairs to sit at the table by the light of the alembic lamp, James’s notebook before her.
She wrote on Violet’s slate, chalking words, brushing them away, replacing them with others. She cleaned the entire slate more than once, starting again. She wrote, and she scratched, and she revised, by the yellow light in the darkness.
Then, as dawn began to break, lightening the trees and spreading gray light across the fields, she dipped her pen in ink and copied what was on the slate onto the back of an advertisement for mechanical parts. Considering how long it had taken her to write, the final composition was very short.
She tucked the advertisement into the notebook; she placed the book high out of reach. Then, staggering slightly and blinking back sleep, she began the morning’s chores.
Violet and Lily came downstairs at the sound of breakfast preparations, yawning and bleary-eyed. “Did you stay up all night, Mama?” Violet asked.
“Yes. I’ll have to take a nap later; can you do some of the chores for me?”
Violet nodded, wide-eyed and wondering. “Thank you.”
The girls stood and stared at her a moment. “Why were you up all night, Mama?” Lily asked eventually. Her eyes lit a little, with excitement and fear. “Oh—was it the ghol?”
“Yes,” said Miranda, trying not to feel her heart break. “Yes, it was the ghol.”
The day was short. The shadows lengthened across the fields, made dark pools for the ‘tons and equipment to lurk in. Miranda slept through most of it, waking only when it was time to make supper.
She was composed. She scraped back her hair, clad herself in her finest dress, dark blue with lace cuffs. The girls watched as she brought down the notebook from the high shelf.
“Tonight,” she said, “you go straight to bed. You close the curtains and you don’t look out, no matter what. You understand me?”
“Yes, Mama,” said Violet. “We’ll go to bed.”
“No looking outside.” Miranda broke her own orders, glancing out the window. The sun was sinking behind the trees, leaving a sickly wash of yellow in the sky. The ground and trees were gray, the shadows black. Miranda’s jaw set. One way or another, tonight would be the end.
She turned back and took the girls into her arms. They huddled close, like frightened kittens. “I love you both very much,” she whispered fiercely. “You know that, right?”
“Yes, Mama,” Lily said.
“We love you, too,” added Violet.
Miranda gave them one last squeeze before releasing them. “I will always do what’s best for you,” she promised. “Now: eat your supper. And then straight to bed.”
Night fell, a blank expanse of blackness. Almost as dark as the night itself, Miranda stood in the doorway, waiting. A cold wind blew, swaying her skirts.
The light grew in the woods, a putrid luminescence. It flickered; it darted from tree to tree. And then it stepped out.
The eerie howl started up. The ghol began its walk. Counter-clockwise, around the house, spiraling nearer and nearer. Closer, closer: she could see its organs, its phantom blood. The ectoplasm of a creature so full of selfish yearning that it refused to die, choosing instead this hopeless starvation, this chimera of life. The ground crunched: it was on its third circuit.
And, for the first time, Miranda said its name. “James.”
It stopped, its light pulsing. It swayed, staring at her with those awful eyes. She smiled grimly. “Yes, James. It’s me.”
It started toward her, arms lifting, and, for an awful moment, Miranda wanted to rush into those arms. To feel James’s embrace once more, though it would be the death of her.
Instead, she lifted the notebook and withdrew a page. “I have something for you.”
The ghol moved faster, its high-pitched whine louder.
Miranda crumpled the paper and threw it into the air.
Light flashed. Miranda heard her own voice sound, garbled and nonsensical. Then the ghol screamed.
It was an ear-ripping ululation of pure rage and anguish. Its light blazed, brighter and brighter, pulsing faster and faster. Its eyes flared, so brilliant Miranda had to look away. Then there came one final burst of light, so blinding that all shadows were banished, and she ducked behind the doorframe.
The light vanished, taking with it the agonized screaming, leaving only one last lingering echo. “Miranda…”
Straightening, Miranda looked out cautiously. The light had dazzled her, so the darkness seemed even more impenetrable than before. As she waited, there came no sign of the ghol. No sickly white light, no burning eyes. No James.
Miranda abruptly collapsed. Tears burned in her eyes, and she let them fall. She sat on her doorstep, sobbing into her skirt for the man who had loved her enough to come back from the grave for her. Whose mad, passionate yearning had turned him into a monster. Whose love, twisted into mindless evil, would have killed her and her children.
Eventually, she stood up, wiping her eyes on her sleeve, for she had much to do tomorrow, and would need her sleep. Now that they could leave the farm, she thought, they could buy supplies enough to get through the winter; and then she could decide what to do next, when spring came and misted the trees with green new leaves. The world was open to them, for the ghol had been destroyed by the poem she’d agonized over and rewritten a dozen times, brushing Violet’s slate again and again, until it was condensed to its purest form, each word true and honest, right down to the last line: I don’t love you anymore.
Miranda shut and bolted the door, letting the empty night settle, peaceful and starry, over the fields, the woods and the snug little house.