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Mistle Child

(Part of The Undertaken Trilogy)
By Ari Berk

Read an Excerpt

Mistle Child
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NIGHTMARE TIME.

From the ruined lighthouse clinging to the rocks stacked high above the sea, a gray ghost-light swept out over Lichport.

Every evening, for over a week, on the very edge of town, the miasmic beam shone down from that tower. Grim weather descended with that light: furious winds and buffeting rain. And when the storm rose into a gale and screamed from the cliffs and whipped the surf into flying sheets of foam, that’s when the bad dreams began. It was mostly in the Narrows, where folks lived closest to the lighthouse; they would wake, terrified, from awful dreams of drowning and shipwrecks and muted voices crying through slowly rising bubbles far beneath the surface of the sea. Even in the upper part of town, people were affected.

But not Silas Umber, the Undertaker of Lichport. He wasn’t sleeping anyway. Not since a few nights ago, when someone burned the name of the old Umber family estate into his front door. Silas had spent the rest of that night pulling books and records from the shelves of his study, anything he could find that would tell him more about the house called Arvale. He had a large pile of these on his desk, awaiting his attention. But the lighthouse would have to come first. People were talking. Letters requesting help had been coming in every day since it started. Nights were bad for the rest of the folk in Lichport, and Silas knew they expected him to end the trouble.

Mrs. Bowe, who lived in the house attached to his, woke screaming six days ago and hadn’t had a good night’s rest since. Silas’s mother called him two days before to say the dreams were so bad that she had resorted to only napping in a chair during daylight hours. Silas had spent several evenings at his mother’s house across town, playing cards with her from midnight until morning because he was worried she’d go back to drinking to calm her nerves. Things had eased a little between them. They were talking to each other now, not at each other. He knew his mother was proud of him in her way. She still had trouble saying it, Silas could tell, but things were better. She had come to his dad’s wake and had begun talking about Amos civilly. Silas had even invited his mother to move in with him once more. And although she declined, saying again the house on Temple Street was her place now, and the only way she was leaving was feet first, she took her son’s hand warmly and kissed his cheek for having asked.

But the nightmares were fraying the edges of everything.

Now Silas looked out from a high window in his house. In his hand, the death watch was silent, its ticking stilled by his thumb against the dial. Silas could see, clear with the ghost-sight the watch bestowed, the beams of sickly gray light turning out from the lighthouse and falling like a pall over land and sea.

At first, Silas thought the light might have been one of the occasional phantasmal glimmerings seen near the ocean. These were not uncommon, and while they might be related to sunken ships, or some poor soul lost beneath the waves, no ghost ever manifested, and the lights would usually vanish almost as soon as they appeared. But this was different, and people in town, his town, were suffering.

Enough, he said to himself. Enough.

He opened the enormous funereal ledger that contained everything his father and the other Undertakers of his family knew about ghost lore and death rites. Scrawled throughout the book and upon its margins were the notes, instructions, and gleanings of his ancestors, those previous Undertakers who, like him, sought to bring Peace to the unsettled dead.

The ghost of the lighthouse had been known to his father, but only through secondhand accounts. Silas had read an entry in his father’s handwriting that explained that the ghost of the lighthouse would never appear to him, though he had tried to speak to the spirit on more than one occasion. For several days, and as the nightmares continued to run like wild things through the town, Silas read and read, making an especial study of the lighthouse and its sad history. He devoured newspaper accounts, memoirs, notes, rumors: everything he could find in the ledger and in the large collection of books on local history that spilled from the shelves of his father’s home library.

When he had learned all he could on the subject of the lighthouse and its last occupant, Silas set out for the cliffs, a little before dark. In the months since his father’s death, he had diligently applied himself to Undertaking, reading widely, and practicing the arcane rites he’d read about in the ledger when and where he could. And while Silas wasn’t even sure if he’d be able to help, he was resolved to try. In his mind Silas carried a name, held it like a talisman with which he might be able to settle the dead within that spindle of brick perched upon the rocks. He prayed the name would be enough.

The sky was pouring down pitch as Silas walked quickly along the cliff toward the old lighthouse. He wore an oilskin cape over his father’s jacket and held a small lantern. As he approached the high tower, he reached into his jacket pocket and took hold of the death watch, that ancient timepiece that when stopped, compelled the dead to become visible to the living. Silas drew no comfort from how quickly the silver warmed in his hand. It was as if the death watch wanted to be held and used. It made Silas feel uneasy.

Before even reaching the door, before stopping the hand of the death watch, he could sense the past of the place weighing down on him, more and more with every step, pulling at his feet as though the earth itself were trying to hold him back. He picked up his pace and when he reached the door, he took out a large iron key lent to him by Mother Peale, who had taken it upon herself to keep an eye on the place many years ago. She had been only too happy to hear that Silas would try his hand at bringing Peace to that haunted tower.

“You take this key and do what you can, Silas Umber,” Mother Peale had said. “You know we’re all for you, no matter what happens. And remember, if you don’t come back, your funeral is paid for by the townsfolk, as is customary, so don’t you worry. It’s all taken care of should it come to that.” Mother Peale had smiled and winked at Silas then, to rouse his good humor. Silas had smiled back, but hadn’t found it terribly funny.

At first, the key wouldn’t turn in the lock. Silas twisted it back and forth, worried that it might break. Finally, the rust gave way and the lock turned, but when Silas pushed the door, it wouldn’t budge. He shoved it, then struck it with his fist as though the door might fly open by the sheer force of his rising aggravation. Finally, in anger, Silas threw his full weight at the door, hitting it hard with his shoulder, and the door relented. A damp, salty smell flowed out from the darkness beyond the doorway as he stumbled inside. He held up the lantern, its weak light barely making an entrance into the inky black of the room, and then closed the door behind him. He walked to the center of the room, set the lantern on a small uneven table, and took the death watch from his pocket. Opening the jaw of the small silver skull, he brought his thumb down hard on the dial. He could feel the watch’s little heartbeat slow and then stop. Silas closed his eyes, drew in a breath, and opened them again.

Where only a moment ago there had been an abandoned room with a few pieces of rotted and broken furniture, now a new scene glimmered before him. A wood-burning stove glowed on the far side of the room and a few toys lay scattered on the rug. In the middle of the room, a table was set with a cloth and candles. A hutch against the wall bore dishes and mugs. Here was a comfortable family home.

A sudden movement caught Silas’s eyes. A shadow was drawing away from the wall. Slowly it lengthened out across the floor, and began to rise and take shape. The shadow moved against the light to place itself in a chair across the room from Silas. There, now, smiling faintly, was a young man, perhaps in his twenties. His body gave off a gray ineffectual light, as though he were a candle seen on the screen in an early film.

“Good evening,” said Silas to the ghost, breathing slowly, steadying himself.

“Is it evening? I hadn’t noticed,” the ghost replied absently.

“Almost. I am looking for the keeper of this lighthouse. Is that you?”

The ghost looked away. “No. That is my father.”

“May I speak with him?”

“I am afraid not, sir. He’s not here at present.”

“May I ask where he is?” Silas inquired.

“My father’s not here. Just me now. The son.”

Silas was surprised. He knew that the lighthouse keeper’s son, who had died with his mother in a shipwreck, had been an infant. So who was this? Was there another son? Had the records he’d consulted been incomplete? There was something in the ghost’s voice—a knowing hesitancy—that made Silas uneasy.

“I need to speak with your father,” Silas said again, this time putting some iron into the words.

The ghost began to shake. He looked at Silas, then toward the window.

“I think I know you. . . . I’ve seen you, sitting out there, with a girl.” The ghost smiled wanly then. “You were with a strange girl. Her skin was like the moon—”

“I don’t remember,” Silas said. While he couldn’t recall the particulars, he knew the ghost was right. He’d been there with a girl. What was her name? No. He didn’t want to start on this topic. Not now. Memories of her . . . of the girl . . . made his heart ache, and he hadn’t come to the lighthouse to talk about his own losses. “But,” he said instead, “I am pleased to meet you. I am Silas Umber. I am the Undertaker. I am here to help you.”

“I am Daniel. Daniel Downing.” As the ghost spoke the name, he seemed to dim and lose the definition of his form. His edges blurred.

Now Silas was confused. Daniel had indeed been the lighthouse keeper’s son, the very son who had died out upon the reef with his mother when their ship struck the rocks. Thus far, Silas’s experience had been that ghosts appeared as they were at the time of their passing, or as they had been at some especial point during their life. Ghosts only had full knowledge of what they had been and what they had done during their lifetime. So how could a child appear as the man he had never become?

“Now, if you please. I would like to speak with your father.”

The ghost looked down at the floor and shook his head.

“He’s not here. I told you.”

“Are you sure?”

The ghost looked up, his eyes rheumy and unfocused. “It’s time to light the lamp,” he whispered.

“All right,” Silas said, trying to encourage him. “Let’s have some more light.”

But the ghost looked frightened and only repeated, “Time to light the lamp.” The ghost began to open and close his hands as though he were giving some kind of frantic semaphore to the floorboards. “It’s getting dark.”

“It is. Night is coming.”

“Oh, God,” said the ghost.

“You don’t want to light the lamp? May I help?”

“I do. I must. It’s just that . . . the light affects me badly . . . my head.”

“Let’s climb up together. I will help you.”

“All right,” said the ghost passively. The color of his form deepened and darkened, becoming more present, the buttons on his clothes coming into focus, and he added, “If you like, I can show you the spot where my father jumped.”

“Thank you,” replied Silas, his nerves prickling at the ghost’s mention of the suicide. “That will be fine.”

They climbed the steep stairs of the lighthouse together. When they reached the uppermost chamber, the great lamp of the tower burst into spectral flame and began to turn, casting its grim light over the sea and land and the tower itself. As the beam passed through the ghost, Silas could see another aspect, another face, hiding just below the glimmering ashen surface of the ghost’s skin. It was older, but not vastly different from the one Silas had seen only a moment ago. When the beam swung away, the older face vanished, and the young man was there again.

“Let me show you where he jumped, Silas Umber. Just here. You see, the rail is not so high. Just here, the waters below are churning and churning. They never stop. How restless the sea is . . . that’s where you’ll find him. Down there.”

Silas tried to turn away from the rail, tried to focus on something, anything other than the dizzying descent and the noise of the waters crashing on the rocks. He looked at the lamp room and found it changed. The piercing light now seemed to pass through the solid walls of the building. And just as the death watch had altered the appearance of the room below, now the beam illuminated a space different from the one Silas had first seen; the room appeared in the full flush of its heyday long ago, long before the lighthouse was abandoned. This spectral effect was taxing on Silas’s eyes and the repeating flash of past, present, past, present made him dizzy and disoriented. He knew the spectral effect was a warning, but Silas could not yet perceive which way lay hidden rocks and which way the safe harbor. To steady himself, he ran his own name through his mind: I am Silas Umber, Silas Umber, Silas Umber. As he did, he remembered what it was he came to do, and his face flushed with resolve. By speaking his name, by saying the word “Umber,” he could sense his father’s steadying presence. Silas stood up straight and pushed back his shoulders, feeling, in his blood, that a part of his father was always with him.

The ghost stood at the rail, looking out at the sea.

Silas stepped close to the ghost and said, “I believe I know who you are. You are J—” But before Silas could continue, the ghost began crying out in a rapid circle of words.

“Gone . . . all gone. I have nothing now. No one. All my fault. Now all is lost. All is lost. All is lost. . . .” And like the rising of a sudden gust, the ghost lifted quickly into the air above the railing, his eyes darkening, their sockets becoming black and empty.

Over and over and over like a prayer, Silas called out the ghost’s true name. “Joseph Downing! Wait! Joseph Downing, be still!

The ghost stood upon the cold air, holding himself in the posture of an angry child, fists thrust up over his ears.

“No!” cried the ghost. “My father is below! I am his son. This is my home.”

Standing his ground, Silas shouted back. “You are Joseph Downing! Hear these, my words! You are Joseph Downing, the keeper of this light—”

The ghost fell upon Silas, trying to push him from the tower, his blurring form buffeting Silas with a freezing blast of air. The great wind took Silas off guard, raised him up off his feet, and made him lose his balance. He fell forward, nearly over the rail. Looking down, Silas wove his arms through the railing and held it fast. Silas looked up. The ghost was hanging in the air before him out beyond the protective rail. And all the while, the dark light continued to go around, washing the world in successive veils of its dismal nightmare-light.

When the lamp beam poured over Silas, his own name began to unravel. In that light, he heard only the call of the waiting rocks below and the deadly churning of waters. His arms loosened on the rails. He stood at the edge of the tower as the ghost swayed back and forth against the backdrop of the black sky, crying with a throat of storm, crying shards of a lie, a tale grown twisted and false.

“My father is lost. He is lost down there!” The ghost turned in the air, thrusting a finger toward the rocks and sea. “Even now. Lost among the waters. Dark places. Below the kelp. Cold. Cold. Cold. My father is—”

But Silas cut him off. “Joseph Downing, enough!” he said.

“I am Daniel Downing,” the ghost moaned piteously, desperately, hiding in the name. “I am the son—”

“Enough! Here is your story and your name!”

And while the ghost continued to sob, Silas told the ghost its own sad tale.

“Their ship was coming back to Lichport, returning from up the coast, where they’d been visiting family. Your wife. Your child. They were coming home. All day you’d been waiting, but how were you to know the ship had been delayed? Only two days, due to bad weather. But when the ship did not come in, you waited. All night you waited up on this tower, straining to see through the night. Hoping to see the silhouette of their ship against the moonlit sea. But the ship did not come. The next day, twilight found you still up on the tower, sitting, watching. And as the day ebbed, so did you, and for only an instant, you told yourself, ‘I’ll close my eyes.’ ”

The ghost stood frozen on the air, his eyes wide and fixed on Silas. He muttered, “I did not sleep. Only rested. I did not sleep. . . .”

“Nor has anyone in this town slept. We have all kept vigil with you. But Joseph, that night, you did sleep, and evening stole in and the lantern had not been lit, and so when their ship approached, there was no candle to guide it home. The ship struck the reef and all aboard were lost to the sea. Your wife. Your child. Both lost. On this very night, long, long ago.”

The ghost wavered and began to dissolve, falling away into his own misery and shame, but Silas spoke again. “Wait, Joseph Downing, one moment more.”

The edges of the ghost’s form sharpened and took hold of the air again.

“Now, Joseph Downing, tell me what happened next. Speak.”

Slowly, the ghost began to move his mouth, then the words came.

“A boy from town told me what had happened. Everyone knew there had been no light. My son and wife were gone, gone below, and . . . ” The ghost’s voice began to waver.

“Go on, Joseph. It’s all right now. There is nothing left to lose but your own good self. Speak your name and tell me what happened.”

“I am . . . I am Joseph Downing. Yes. That is my name. And when I learned what had become of them, I tried to put myself low, to be with them in the sea. I jumped from the lighthouse! But, oh, I fell upon the rocks, there! Oh, God . . . even in death I was denied them. . . .” The ghost pointed to where Silas was now standing. Silas looked toward the railing, but when he looked back, the ghost was standing by the lamp room and had started walking toward him.

“Wait! Joseph! Abide!”

The ghost’s eyes had become flat, black stones. He walked past Silas and through the railing and fell like a thing of substance down into darkness.

Silas stood by the rail, looking down, unsure of what had happened. Was it over? The ghost had said his own name. Had it been enough? He must not assume. He straightened his back and called out over the water. It felt unfinished. Should he summon the ghost back, compel him to return? But Silas thought about the ghost and his family, his wife and child, lost in the waters. Perhaps there was something he could do for them all.

“Who will come for this weary soul?” Silas intoned. “Who shall abide with Joseph Downing and keep him?” Silas closed his eyes. With his words, Silas sent his mind’s eye out into the sea, searching along the bottom for the bones of those who had been lost so long ago. And as he’d learned from his father’s writings, he imagined his words stirring the remains, sinking into them and waking, gently waking, those who had waited to find the Peace their awful deaths had kept from them. Mother and child, Silas said to himself. Come, now, for here is restoration. Mother and child, bring peace to this lost soul. Mother and child, carry him to peace. . . .

Silas closed his eyes and tried to feel the words flowing out across the sea, though a small voice in the back of his mind held back and whispered to him, It is wrong to summon the dead.

But he pushed back against his fear and silenced it, and out beyond the reef, two small lights appeared, growing larger and brighter as they came over the water, drawing close to the rocks below the lighthouse. As he looked down over the thin rail, Silas could see the form of a woman holding a child and standing above the waves. Below the surface of the sea, another light stirred and slowly rose to join the woman and child. As he emerged from the water, the ghost of the lighthouse keeper stood beside his family. From the high tower, Silas shouted down, “Peace be with you and Peace be upon you all, until—” But the ghosts had already vanished. The grim, gray candle of the lighthouse lantern was extinguished, and darkness descended upon the waters. Silas was hopeful, but unsure. He might have given them the waters of Lethe that would bring forgetting and dissolution to the dead. That would have been best in this case, he couldn’t help thinking. At least they were all together now. But where? At the bottom of the sea? Wasn’t that still lost? He wished his father were there to ask. There were complexities to the Undertaking that were still unclear to him. But, the spectral beam cast by the lighthouse lamp had gone out, and the ghosts were together. It would have to be enough.

Silas came down from the tower and left the lighthouse, locking the door behind him. Worried that the ghost might return, he put his open palm upon the door and said resolutely, “This place is Peace-bound. May no malediction come to be set upon these stones. May no malicious spirit nor wandering ghost harbor or be bound here from this day forward until the breaking of the world.” And a shudder passed through Silas, through the bricks and mortar of the lighthouse, flowing through the rocks of the cliff and down into the sea, and it was done.

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