Redemption (a new short story)


“Daddy, tell me about Mommy.”

“Son, it’s late” Bernt said, trying to sound firm.

“Please?” Ben persisted.

“She liked Tuna Fish sandwiches. And old Star Trek episodes. When she laughed, she had dimples under both sides of her mouth….just like you.”

“And?”

“She would scream herself silly when the 49er’s played.” Bernt said.

Ben’s face asked for more without saying the words.

“And….she loved you very much. And….its time to go to sleep.”

“Daddy….”

“Son, I mean it.” He ruffled Ben’s black curls and kissed his forehead. “Time for prayers and then, sleep.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes son?”

“Where did Mommy go?”

Hours later, Bernt sat, empty beer cans beside him. He’d chugged them, not enjoyed them. He wasn’t the type to drink alone, but tonight, he had. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent time with his friends.

Everything was different.

His son was asleep now, cuddling a ragged bear he’d had since a baby. He looked so peaceful. Bernt envied his son that peace. He thought of his son’s last question. How could he answer it if he didn’t know himself?

Bernt checked all the locks, but his worry was not for outside intruders. He was a big, husky man, well over 6 feet, strong, and could protect himself, knew marital arts. They lived in an upscale neighborhood that rarely heard a police siren.

The fear definitely wasn’t from outside.

Bernt pulled out the couch-bed, lay down, and tried to sleep. As usual, he could not. The bed was comfortable, but he missed Kerry. Finally, he got up, and walked through the house.

He ended up where he always did, at the door of the master bedroom.

Would he see her tonight?

The door was kept closed. Always. The room was off limits to Ben. His curiosity had been met with such a firm discouragement from Bernt, that he knew not to push it. He didn’t ask why the room was forbidden. Not anymore.

Bernt opened, the door.

The room was always cold. Nothing helped. Even in mid-summer.

“Bernt?” The voice was Kerry’s. It was panicked, upset. He went to where he knew she would be.

The round, white, wooded mirror was tall. Nearly six feet tall. It was an oval shape and had been custom made three centuries before in Salem. By a settler known for his furniture making–Abraham Shelton. However, that was all that Bernt knew about him. Shelton and his family had lived near Salem during the witch trials of 1692.

Bernt and Kerry had bought the mirror, on a whim, when they were visiting Salem. They had stopped at a little curio shop next to a museum. Kerry had loved the mirror. Bernt had thought it was ridiculously over-priced. Kerry’s whim had won out. They’d lugged the mirror home in the back of their Range Rover.

Two years later, he still blamed himself. But how could he have known? How could anyone have known what would happen next?

“Bernt….”

Kerry was there.

In the mirror, Bernt could not see his reflection. Instead he saw the other place. It was a garden. Nearby, he heard children playing.

Always, Kerry was dressed in ancient clothes, pilgrim-like attire. Her black hair was severely restrained, but a few curls managed to get loose. She was so beautiful, the most beautiful woman he’d ever known. The only one that he ever wanted to marry.

How he longed to touch her…….

“Bernt, you must tell Ben.” The voice made him shiver. How could he tell their child what happened?

She stood there, sadness on her face. Waiting.

“What can I say, Kerry? That you walked through a looking glass? Not even a five year old would buy that.”

“He might surprise you.”

“Why can’t you come back?” His voice was a hoarse croak. “do you want to be there? Away from him? Away from me?”

A sound of whistling came from nearby. Kerry looked alarmed. “Tell him! Tell him to stay away from this room! Even if he hears someone call him, even if it is me!”

Then, Bernt was looking at his own reflection. Kerry was gone.

Morning greeted Bernt with a nasty hangover. He spoke sharply to Ben as he got him ready for kindergarten. However, Ben was a good-natured little boy who held no grudges.

I’ll tell him tonight, Bernt thought, watching his son get on the school bus. Their house-keeper, Valerie, would be there to greet Ben when he got out of school. She knew the rule about the master bedroom door, and knew that it had to be strictly enforced. In the time since Kerry had vanished, Valerie had been crucial to Bernt, a busy senior partner at a Boston law firm, being able to continue to work and take care of his son.

He thought of how quickly Ben son had gotten on the school bus. He had no worries, no fears. He’d just gone. Disappeared among his friends.

No, no….Bernt told himself. Not disappear. Bad choice of words. Not disappear. Never disappear.

Work helped. He had a challenging case that was dragging on. He was kept late, and didn’t get home until 6 p.m.

Ben had had dinner and was playing with toys in the den. Bernt went in, played with him, and then got him ready for bed. Again he could not sleep. Again, he was irresistibly drawn to the master bedroom. He went in.

The room had a salty smell, like the ocean. He sat there, and waited for Kerry to appear. She didn’t. Hours passed. Shedding angry tears, Bernt lay down in front of the mirror. Finally, he slept, curled into a fetal position.

The place of the salty smell was all around him. It was a river, with a brackish look to it. One of the many inlets, Bernt thought, close enough to the Atlantic to have a mix of salt and fresh water. He walked along its shore, feeling out of of place. Nearby was a crude cabin, smoke coming out of a chimney. Bernt was cold, and looked down at his clothing. They were the same ones he’d fallen asleep in. But not appropriate for this weather…wherever he was.

He saw two blond children chasing each other, unaware of him, running near a thriving garden. Nearby, a healthy-looking work-horse was tethered to a post next to a barn.

He heard steps behind him. He saw a tall, imposing man, pale, with gray-blonde hair. He was possibly in his sixties. He was strong though, able. He had a long beard and the same type of ancient-looking clothing that he’d seen Kerry wearing. He had clear green eyes, and pock marks on his cheeks. He was carrying a rifle.

“You’ve come a long way, Stranger.” The man’s voice was neither aggressive or friendly. Factual. “Who are you looking for?”

“My wife.” Bernt said.

And then, suddenly, Bernt was waking up in front of the mirror, staring hopelessly at himself within the looking glass.

The next day was Friday. As Bernt got out of his vehicle, he felt empty and sad. Ben would not be there. Valerie had taken him to spend the weekend with his best friend, Aaron Jones. Aaron was having his birthday on Friday night, and then the boys planned a sleepover on Saturday evening. Bernt dreaded going into a home that was only bearable when Ben was there.

Then, Ben came running out of the house, Valerie quickly on his heels. Bernt frowned as Ben rushed into his arms. “What’s going on, Valerie?” He asked their housekeeper. “Why isn’t Ben with Aaron?”

“Ben left his bear, Mr. Myerson. He insisted on coming back….I went up to get it, and…”

“Daddy! I saw Mommy! I saw her!!!”

Bernt’s heart stopped cold. Valerie flinched under his hard look. “I’m sorry, Sir. I thought he was right behind me, I swear.”

“It’s okay, Daddy!” Ben said, happily. “Valerie didn’t know. Mommy was calling me. So, I went in there!”

“Sir, I’m so sorry…” Valerie was saying.

Bernt waved her away. “Valerie, I’ll take care of it. You go on home. See you on Monday after his playgroup. I’ll take him to the sleepover, and then get a lock for the door. It won’t happen again.” Valerie nodded, and quickly left.

As she drove away, Bernt felt a tug on his hand. Ben’s eyes were huge. “Are you going to lock Mommy up in there?”

Bernt knelt down on the driveway, and his son went into his arms.

“Daddy, did I do something bad?” Ben asked.

Bernt shook his head. “Not bad, son. Dangerous.”

“But she was calling me….I saw her!” Ben said.

“I know what you think you saw her, Son…but…”

“I DID see her!” Ben insisted stubbornly.

“No, you didn’t…that’s a funny mirror.”

“Mommy said you say that. She said the man she lives with wants me to come live with them. That he wants a little boy just like me. He walked up and told me how easy it would be to get to them. But then, Mommy looked scared and started crying.”

“Did she?” Bernt closed his eyes and tried to think. But how could he explain what he himself didn’t understand?

“I touched her, Daddy. I touched the mirror and my hand went through the glass. But then I got scared and pulled back.” Ben said.

“I’m glad you did. I wouldn’t want to lose you.” Bernt said.

“Why does she live in the mirror?”

Bernt knew that it was time.

“Mommy always loved that mirror. She kept it in that room since before you were born. Then, when you were about two, she started acting very sad. She started spending a lot of time in the bedroom, looking in the mirror. Then, one day, I came home, and I saw her walking into it. And then, she was gone.”

“How?” Ben asked, fearfully.

Bernt shook his head. “I don’t know. Things don’t usually work like that. Never, actually. Just in stories. She walked into that mirror and I can’t get her back. But I do know she doesn’t really want you to go where she is. If she called you, the man with her is making her do that. That’s why you can’t go near that mirror again. No matter what you hear coming from that room. Understand?”

“If you put a lock on, I can’t.” Ben said, earnestly.

“Right. But you know how to use a key. Don’t go looking for the key. Don’t go back in there.”

“Yes, Daddy…but…”

“What son?”

“Can’t we bring her back?”

“I don’t know son. But I can try.”

Ben went to his sleepover, and Bernt went to Lowes, and got the toughest dead-bolt he could find. He spent most of the early evening putting it on. His promise to his son haunted him. He’d only said he would try. But how to start?

Bernt called Aaron’s mother, Norma, and said he was going to Salem, on business, and might be late picking Ben up. Norma told him that Ben and Aaron were having a wonderful time, not to worry. Bernt hung up, grateful for good friends that didn’t ask questions, even if they still had them. The case had been filed away as cold. The police were stumped. And Bernt, holding the only clue that would have helped them, didn’t dare say. Most folks didn’t believe in mirrors that swallowed up people.

The traffic was light, and Bernt got to Salem within the hour. He checked in a local hotel, and tried to sleep. He managed a few hours. The next day, he woke, downed several cups of coffee and headed for the shop where he and Kerry had purchased the mirror. Once there, he found the shop had a new owner and didn’t have records from the past owner. He had just moved to Salem and wasn’t sure of the local folklore, other than the witch trials. Everyone knew about that. He was sorry he couldn’t be more helpful. Maybe the lady next door at the museum?

The museum was deserted except for Bernt and the curator. She was a lean, elderly woman with a white page-boy and bright blue eyes. She was dressed in a tasteful suit, complemented by pearls. She reminded him of his mother, Anna, who had been a geneaology researcher as a hobby. Suddenly, Bernt knew what to say.

“I’m doing some genealogy research, Ma’m…” He looked at her name-badge, “Mrs. Shelton. On a 5th great grandfather. Stoughton was the surname. He would have been alive in the Salem trial days. My mother started the research, but never found anything about him before she passed away.”

The curator looked a bit less friendly. “Call me Jean…..I am very familiar with that name. Could his first name have been William?”

“His name was in fact, William” Bernt said. “He was a judge during the witch trials. But we didn’t find out anything else before Mom died.”

The curator’s smile faded. “William Stoughton condemned several innocent people to death in 1692. It was mass hysteria. Nothing was ever proven. Children were left without parents. Lives were ruined. Worst of all, he never recanted. He went to his grave claiming he’d done the right thing.”

“Wow, that’s too bad,” Bernt said, marveling at the passion in the petite woman’s voice. “I’m interested in where he might have lived. Where he worked. Where the trials were held. Who the families were….There was a courtroom or church in the mirror…”

“Mirror?” Jean asked sharply. “Sir, I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“Oh nothing….we bought a mirror next door a few years ago. My wife and I. It was supposed have been crafted here by a Abraham Shelton. Do you know anything about his history?”

The look on Jean’s face struck him as profoundly cold. “Abraham Shelton was my 4th great-grandfather. His wife, Elizabeth was hung as a witch by your grandfather.”

Moments later, Bernt left the museum. Mrs. Shelton had given him instructions to the old courthouse where the trials had been held. He went there and walked around. As he got closer to the main chambers, the smell of flowers grew stronger. He went into the room, and looked around.

He saw a wall plaque and read it. ““Here, in 1692, were the trials presided over by William Stougton, Esq. and others which led to the subsequent deaths of 20 people.”

His head seemed to spin for a moment, the smell of the flowers unbearably stronger. Then he heard it…Kerry’s voice. “Bernt…help me….please!” As he stood there, colors, textures, time swirled around him. He saw a room of stern-faced people. A judge presiding over them. The man that Jean Shelton had showed him in a book at the museum a half hour before. William Stoughton, his 5th great grandfather.

A young woman stood before the judge. She was perhaps in her early thirties. Her two children were clutching to her skirts. The children were the ones he saw playing near the garden where he saw Kerry.

“No!” The young woman cried out, when the sentence was read.

She was to be hung. For witchcraft. “No! I am innocent!” But William Stoughton’s face was stone. “Take her to the jail, now. This sentence will be carried out tomorrow–at sunrise.”

“I’m innocent!” Elizabeth Shelton pleaded. Her children were openly wailing now, being pulled away by court officials, being thrust at a tall, powerfully built man in the courtroom….. The man in the dream.

“Stranger, you’ve come a long way.” He had said. to Bernt.

A long way, indeed.

The scene continued to unfold in front of Bernt. Elizabeth looked directly at Bernt as if able to see him. “Would you deprive a child of his mother?”

Before he could respond, the vision or whatever it was was gone, and a person was shaking him. “Are you well, Mr. Stoughton?” It was Jean, of the museum, looking concerned.

“Not Stoughton….that was my mother’s family..” Then, he blacked out.

Bernt awoke in the Emergency Room. It was early afternoon, Saturday when he was released. The doctors had found nothing, suggested that he was exhausted, and needed to take better care of himself.

He thought again of Jean Shelton. Bernt had, improbably, found a direct descendant of the woman his ancestor had condemned to death. Out of anyone in this town, maybe she would listen. Bernt returned to the museum, hoping she would hear him out.

The museum was open, but Jean was gathering her things to go. “I’m glad to see you’re well.” She said simply. “Can I help you? I was just closing up.”

“I wasn’t exactly honest with you, Jean. Earlier today. William Stoughton is my maternal grandfather, way back, but that’s not why I came to Salem. My wife….she’s missing. I wonder if you might know…why.”

Jean lifted a well-tweezed eyebrow. “Sir, I don’t know your wife.”

“No, but you do know about witchcraft…specifically here, in Salem. Or purported witchcraft.” He said, wondering if his words would land him back in the ER again, this time in an observation room.

“Kerry, my wife, went missing…two years ago. Missing…but we still hear from her. I saw her…walk into a mirror. Since that time, I’ve seen her image in the mirror. She talks to me. She was in that courtroom one time. Another time, on some type of farm. Some older man’s farm.”

Jean’s listened placidly, seeming unsurprised by anything Bernt was saying. It gave him hope. He continued on.

“Was there any history of the trial victims putting curses on the judge after he condemned them? I know this sounds crazy. It sounds crazy to me! I’m a lawyer, and I was trained in strict logic. Even so, I know there are things that happen that no one can explain. I never believed in anything like this…until it started happening….I, my boy, we need her back. When I passed out, I thought I heard Kerry calling me….”

Jean’s face was as calm as if Bernt had asked her where to find a good pumpkin patch locally.

“Wait” She said, and turned and walked out of the room. She was gone for a few minutes. She returned with a weathered book. It was a history of the trial. In it, as Bernt turned pages, were pictures of people involved. Of Judge Stoughton, of others….of…

It couldn’t be.

“What is it, Mr. Myerson?”

“That woman in the drawing. It is impossible.”

Jean peered at the drawing, making no comment. “That is the wife of my 4th great grandfather, Abraham. He married her after Elizabeth Shelton, his wife, and the mother of his children was hanged.”

“No,” Bernt said firmly, shutting the book clothed. “It isn’t. That’s my wife. That’s Kerry.”

Moments later, they were in Bernt’s Range Rover, just out of Salem’s city limits. They turned on an old, poorly maintained dirt road. Finally, Jean told him to stop. “We have to walk from here.”

“This is the place?” He asked. Jean nodded. “The family’s farm. They lost it after your, ah, his second wife died, in childbirth. My great grandfather, Abraham Shelton couldn’t maintain his work as a carpenter and as a farmer without a wife. He was shunned by his neighbors because of the trials. The children had to go to her sister. One of them died soon after. The other one…was my ancestor, named Elizabeth after her mother. Abraham died of grief.”

They found the remains of the old cabin within a minute. Jean went to a small, rotting gate, and Bernt saw a neatly maintained cemetery. “This is where both wives are buried” Jean said simply. “On either side of Abraham.”

Bernt again felt that other-worldly quality seeming to envelop. The graveyard swam around him. He saw a room around him, chilly, a man, the man from his dream completing work on an object. Bernt looked closer. It was the mirror.

As Abraham Shelton put his tools away, he returned to the mirror. He pulled out a tattered book, carefully opening it to a section mid way through. Abraham Shelton began an incantation. The words seemed foul, angry, bitter. Before, Bernt couldn’t touch anything. This time, however, he could and did. He rushed at Abraham, and knocked the book out of his hands.

“You have got to stop!” He shouted.

Abraham looked at him, his eyes full of bottomless bitterness.

Bernt felt like shaking him. “Must we both lose our wives?”

“It’s a bitter consequence….” Abraham said, his voice hard…”however…”

“However, nothing! We knew nothing about you! It was just a mirror my wife loved! I loved her, so I bought it! We had no idea of your grudge! Kerry is innocent! She isn’t even related to the judge! Your children need a mother, but damn it, so does my son! All I can tell you is we’re sorry. I know saying that doesn’t change anything, but I can’t unring the bell. I’m not my grandfather!”

“Talk to your grandfather.” Abraham said shortly. “Elizabeth is to be hanged tomorrow.” Bernt considered it only a moment, then nodded.

It was insane, Bernt thought, as the burly farmer and he took the work horse, attached to the cart into a town that had long since vanished. To the door of a finely made home. Past a servant who tried to stop them. And then, they were looking at the judge who was sitting at his fireplace, reading his bible.

Judge Stoughton got to his feet, indignant. “Abraham, what is this about?” Then, he looked at Bernt. “You look familiar to me. Who are you?”

Bernt looked at his ancestor, and let out a harsh laugh. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Tell me, anyway.”

“I’m your grandson. From a long time from now. My mother was your 5th great-granddaughter. Abraham cursed a mirror that my wife, Kerry and I bought. It took her into your world after Elizabeth Shelton was..hanged. My wife will be brought here to replace Abraham’s lost wife…and she will die here if you hang Elizabeth tomorrow! You not only kill Abraham’s wife, but you will kill my wife…the mother of my son..your grandson! These things you are so frightened of, magic, spells…they are real. But there is also mercy. Can you show mercy on his family? For my sake?”

“Listen to how the lad speaks” Abraham pleaded, “Look at how he is clothed! He is not from anywhere near here….He’s right…I put a curse on the mirror….to avenge myself on you, your family, William Stoughton! This is how it came out.”

The judge never took his eyes off Bernt. “I see the likeness of my wife in you, Lad. You have her eyes. Her mouth. I believe you.” He turned to Abraham, peremptorily, “Take the curse off my grandson. Give him back his wife.”

“Will you give me back my wife?” Abraham asked cooly. “A grace for a grace? Mercy for mercy?”

A long minute passed. “Done.” Judge Stoughton said, sternly. “But then, you get out of this community. You and your spells! That is why these trials are happening! To rid the community of wicked black magic!”

“Release her now! We will go tonight. Me, Elizabeth and the children. I’ll burn the mirror. You’ll never see us again. You can do that. Give the order!”

Judge Stoughton inclined his head once, and then, reached for his cloak.

Bernt woke, his head pounding, the room at first unfamiliar. He turned on the light.

He was in the motel room. However, he was not alone. There was someone in the king-sized bed with him, covers over their head.

His heart pounding, Bernt pulled the cover back. Hair…blacker than black, almost blue. Even in sleep, you could see the dimples under her lips. She was asleep. Kerry was home.

“Kerry?” He asked.

She opened sleepy eyes to him. “I was sleeping so good. Now, you wake me up. What’s going on?”

He wrapped his arms around her. “You get dressed. We’re going home. Ben will want to see you!”

“Oh, can’t we finish the weekend, Bernt? Ben is safe as houses at the sleepover. We’ve got to let him go sometime.”

“It’s not that….” Bernt said, confused. Kerry acted as if she’d never been away from Ben. Had she not missed him?

Kerry sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes. “Are you still disappointed about not finding that mirror? Darling, it was just a drawing in a book about Salem history. It probably never existed.”

Bernt looked at her with fresh amazement. She really didn’t know or remember.

Kerry smiled, lay back down. “I had this dream,” She said, “It was so detailed! You know, I almost believe that I could churn butter and tend garden. That was what that dream was about. I was working so hard, taking care of two children that I didn’t even know. There was a man there….”

“Abraham.”

She sat up, shocked. “How could you know? It was my dream, not yours. His name was Abraham.”

“Just a dream, darling. Go back to sleep…..”

He waited until her breathing became the slow, regular breaths of a sleeper. He leaned over her face, and kissed her cheek tenderly. “Welcome home,” He said softly, long restrained tears beginning to run down his cheeks.

Kerry loved the rest of their time in Salem. At her insistence, they stopped back at the antique shop and looked around, seeing nothing they liked. Then, Kerry went to the museum next door. “We didn’t have time, yesterday,” Kerry said, smiling in the pouting way she had when she wanted to do something that Bernt wasn’t likely to want to do. But this day, this time, Bernt was willing to indulge her anything. Anything. She was home.

Bernt wasn’t surprised at all when Jean greeted them, even though it was a Sunday. “I saw you two looking around…I’m just here for a quick errand, but I have a few minutes.” Jean said.

Bernt hesitated, but Kerry enthusiastically agreed. She seemed to want to look at everything. The kitchen utensils, the farm implements, the clothing, all of it. She had always been a fan of history, but never this much. “What is it?” Bernt asked finally, not wanting to take his eyes off her in case she would be another dream, another vision, another…whatever.

“It looks so familiar to me,” Kerry said. “I need to stop drinking wine before bed. That crazy dream.”

Jean came up to them, smiling, wearing the same outfit that she’d worn the day before. She did not seem to recognize Bernt. “Any questions I can help you with? If they’re quick, of course…I have church in a half hour.”

“No, we should be going,” Bernt said, heading towards the door. “Our son is probably wondering what happened to us.”

“He’s at his first sleepover,” Kerry said. “He was so excited about it. He just chattered like a little squirrel when he told me…”

Bernt could be forgiven for feeling a bit of a chill.

“Oh, this book!” Kerry exclaimed. Bernt saw that it was book he’d seen the day before. The history of the witch trials. Kerry was looking through it excitedly. “It looks fascinating! Is it for sale? Could I buy it?” She asked with the exuberance of a child.

Jean looked at it, then back at her carefully. ‘For you, my dear, its free. Call it a souvenir of your trip.” She looked over Kerry’s shoulder at Bernt, and very briefly smiled.

On the trip home, Kerry was absorbed in the old book, treating it as carefully as if it were holy. The pages were stuck together in some places, but she managed to get them apart.

“Bernt!” She said, suddenly, a mile from their house. Her voice was so urgent that Bernt slammed on the brakes. He was still not used to having her back. He still thought he’d look over and see the seat empty.

“This is a story about the Stoughton family! Your family!” Kerry exclaimed, “Remember your Mother’s research that she never finished?”

“I remember.” Bernt said, simply.

“Look at this!” Kerry exclaimed, “Judge William Stoughton! He was the main judge. He was the only one who wouldn’t admit that the Salem trials were a mistake. But, here….its says that he pardoned a woman, Elizabeth Shelton, the night before she was to be hung for witchcraft. Instead, he made the family leave town, permanently. He pardoned her because she had two young children. Here’s a drawing of her at her trial. You can’t tell much about her in this picture, but it must have been an incredible story. Maybe your ancestor wasn’t such a bad guy. He spared her at the very last minute. Isn’t that amazing?”

“Amazing, darling.” Bernt said, meaning it with his whole heart

Advertisements

For Want of a Nail (new fiction)


For Want of a Nail

by Laura Kathryn Rogers

When Dehdra per Thomas was sentenced to life exile at Bartholomew Island, some whispered the sentence was too harsh.

However, the comments remained whispers.

Soft ones at that. If Dehdra, daughter of the late head counsel, Wilhelm, and wife of Thomas, current head counsel (who had pronounced the sentence) could be exiled, then who was safe?

Some of the whispering, however, came from concern for the communities future well being. Since the catastrophe and subsequent restructuring, their community had none of the medical arts that the ancients had taken for granted. Some of the ancients’ books remained, but few understood them.

What they did have was Dehdra, who was the last known Healer in a long line of female healers. No matter how sick the patient, her touch could revive them. What’s more, afterward, the formerly afflicted never contracted the same illness again.

Since the time of the restructuring, everyone knew that healers came from one family, and the gift was passed mother to daughter. What would they do without her?

However, it was also known that Thomas, Head Council, greatly desired Gwenelyn, a beautiful young outsider, who had come to the community some six months before.

The girl had requested permission to live among them, and had, some said, insinuated herself into the life of the council, particularly where Thomas, Head Council was likely to be. She was given full status within the community much sooner than the usual 7 years of probation. Soon, she was one of Dehdra’s personal assistants, privy to all that went on in the head council’s mansion.

Perhaps her very outsider status had appealed to Thomas, Head Council, as much as her youth and beauty. Thomas, 14 years before, had been an outsider when he first came to the community. However, he’d been brought in by Wilhelm and treated as if he were a son.

After his marriage to Wilhelm’s only child, Dehdra, and Wilhelm’s subsequent sudden, tragic death, he easily defeated any contenders for head council by fear and intimidation.

Since the death of her father, Dehdra had been withdrawn. The couple had not appeared often in public together. And then, Gwenelyn came to the community. It was clear that Thomas wanted to free himself in order to wed Gwenellyn. No one could believe that Dehdra had committed any crime worthy of exile. However, no one dared to oppose Thomas.

Timidly, the council members asked him who would heal their sick. Only Dehdra was known to have the gift. Thomas dismissed their concerns impatiently, as he did with anything he didn’t want to consider. It was superstition that only one family had the gift, he stated. The art could be taught to other women. Gwynelyn for example, was an intelligent woman, willing to learn. She would be appointed healer once Dehdra was exiled.

Thomas, Head Counsel, had mandated all citizens witness Dehdra’s exile. There was to be no mercy given. Not even to a wife, and mother of his son, Robert, heir presumptive to be Head Council of the community.

The choice of Barthlomew Island as the place of exile was considered to be a political one. There was no question that the current Head Council wielded supreme authority, and that he was feared, with good reason. However, even a man such as he had common sense. Memories were long and those memories were fond of the former Head Council, Wilhelm. He had been beloved, and not merely feared.

The island was a fairly large place as islands go and had a mix of exiles and willing residents. It was totally self-sustaining with its own governing body. The body was answerable to Head Council, of course, but Thomas, Head Council rarely wielded his authority there. It was 20 miles out, and there was rarely a reason to communicate with them.

Out of all the choices, this was an almost palatable place in which to be exiled. A farming/merchant society to be sure, but most of the people lived comfortably, although they worked hard. It was much better than other choices. Much better.

Dehdra, who as daughter of a Head Council, had never worked, would now have to learn. She would not be treated differently on the island. Exile was not meant to be pleasant.

The day of the exile, all the community gathered at the harbor. Dehdra, wearing an emerald wrap to keep out the sea wind, stood, prepared to step on the boat. At the end of the wharf, High Council Thomas stood, Gwynelyn close to him, a mocking look on her beautiful features. He was surrounded by the rest of the uneasy council. All witnesses to her disgrace.

“Let all here witness” came the strong, clear voice of Thomas, Head Council, “The exile, Dehdra per Thomas is to be exiled for life to Barthlomew Island. For the crime of high treason. She will no longer be known as Dehdra per Thomas, or as my wife. She will revert to her maiden name of Dehdra per Wilhelm.”

Dehdra stood, nearly six foot tall, and in regal beauty, her fire-red hair blowing in the wind. That autumn day, year 386 P.C.(post castastrophe), she seemed like an beautiful, defiant goddess to the assembled people, who were more than a bit in awe of her.

The assembled crowed also pitied her that she would be separated from her only son, Robert, by mandate of his father, Thomas,Head Council. The child stood, small and slender, unable to take his eyes off his mother. He could not go to her, however, not even for one last embrace. He was too terrified of his father, who held his hand tightly.

“Does the exile, by her rights, wish to say anything?” Head Council Thomas asked, though a trifle unwillingly. He knew how unpopular his decision had been, and did this only to prevent further unrest.

The right of exiles went back centuries, to the restructuring, the time of restoring order, post the last great war, or catastrophe, for which their calendars now measured time.

One of Dehdra’s ancestors, the great Victor of Bethany, had been part of the first council, created to bring starving and war-dazed people together to create a society.

Dehdra surprised them all. She gave her son, a long, tender look. The boy smiled back, and then gave his father a nervous glance. The smile quickly evaporated.

“Anything to say?” Thomas, Head Council asked, arching an eyebrow in a mocking fashion. He knows he has won, Dehdra thought, bitterly. He knows the people will follow him out of fear, even if the leadership is wicked.

“I say one thing to you, husband.” She said, again putting the onlookers in mind of an offended and regal presence.

“We are no longer man and wife. It has been pronounced.” Head Council Thomas, said, evenly, the mocking look still on his face.

“I say one thing, then, Head Council Thomas.” She said, refusing to allow him to intimidate her as he had so often during their marriage.

“Say it, then, and begone.”

She looked out at the quiet faces of her people and then back at her former husband. “Pride fills more graves than arrows. And a liar receives a liars reward.”

Her gaze, at Thomas, Head Counsel, was harsh and unrelenting. He was the first to drop his eyes. For a moment, a nameless horror danced upon his face, or perhaps…guilt? It was quickly gone, and the mocking look returned.

“The exile has made her final comments. Let it be known that she is not only to be exiled, but is to be shunned. If the council hears of any untoward communication with the exile, they shall be forthwith exiled to Trolley Island, without supplies, for life.”

A loud whispering arose, one of fear and wonder. Trolley Island was so named because of an ancient wreck of what had been known as a trolley car. Bombing had somehow blown part of a trolley to this place, some 20 miles from the continent. Three centuries later, it was only rusted remains next to an old fishing shack, and mostly a rock terrain. Impossible to grow food on. The exile there would surely die, and by slow starvation.

As if in an act of one last defiance, Dehdra turned her eyes on her son. “Does this include my son, Robert?” She looked back at Head Council Thomas, her eyes full of battle.

“It especially includes Robert. You are, from this moment, no longer his mother. The boy will obey.” Thomas, Head Council, said. This time Robert didn’t look at her, and it nearly broke her heart.

“Robert….remember.” She said, her voice carrying over the crowd. “This is your testimony.”

“Take the exile away!” Thomas, Head Counsel, said, his voice building to a terrifying roar. “Away!!!”

Dehdra, still regal, stepped on the boat, not allowing the guards to assist her. She made a point of keeping her back to the guards, staring down the assembly as the boat began to be rowed towards Bartholmew Island, even as the waves caused the vessel to rock. She was the last sight that the assembly saw, as the boat disappeared from sight.

Dehdra, not wishing to endanger her guards on the trip over, spoke to no one. She considered the events that had brought her to this place, divorced from her husband, stripped of power, estranged from her only child. Exiled.

She was a woman of many secrets. She knew it to be a source of power. If Thomas, Head Council, had known everything, he would have had her killed, not simply exiled. As he had killed her father, Wilhelm. As he had disposed of anyone who had gotten in his way in his climb to power.

In the years that he had been Head Council, Thomas had shown an unswerving practicality when it came to disposing of those who he viewed to be his enemies, even if they actually were not. He’d come to the community as an outsider, offending most with his behavior, courting the daughter of the Head Council, then winning her, marrying her. Yet, he had conquered them all.

Dehdra had been shocked when she realized the truth about her father’s death, seeming to be an accident, during an embassy mission to the settlement that had been built on the ruins of the ancient city of Atlanta.

They’d stopped to hunt the evenings meal, he and Thomas, and in the process, an arrow had found its way to her father’s heart.

No one could really prove it. But Dehdra knew. She’d seen Thomas’s ruthless ambition and his skill at making others do as he wished. Dehdra knew.

She could no longer love him after that. Her skin crawled at the sound of his casual lies about the accident, unaware that she didn’t believe him.

When he saw that she no longer desired him, he’d stopped being kind to her. Stopped approaching her. Started making plans to rid himself of her as well.

As Bartholomew Island came into sight, Dehdre wondered if Thomas had already married Gwynelyn. As Head Council, he could pronounce himself married if he chose. He was the only person with such power.

He had done away with any semblance of religion. The priests had been the first exiles of his reign. With the people assembled, as his witnesses, it would be easy to marry Gwenelyn.

As unpopular as her exile had been, a quickly pronounced marriage would be an expedient action for Thomas. A way to pacify the people. However, Dehdre knew that given the fear the people had for Thomas, that she would never be told. Exile and shunning would be complete.

She stepped off onto the Island, onto the white sand, and looked around, glad to be disappointed. She’d never been to Barthomew Island, and it was thankfully not the place she’d heard. It was quaint, with thatched cottages, and wooden buildings, not the brick and stone of the walled community where she’d been born and raised.

It reminded her of stories her father Wilhem had told her, about how the world had been before the catastrophe. Stories handed down over generations. How once, there were more than just distant communities over a largely empty continent. The land had been beautiful, and pristine, not bearing scars of the great war that had killed nearly everyone.

She had loved these stories, and had longed to see this former world, a place that had once been, but no longer was.

This island had no bomb-craters that she could see. There were lots of trees, seemingly undamaged by centuries of radiation. People walked about the wharf and seemed industrious and content. She saw no fear on their faces, as she would have at home.

Perhaps there could be a life for her here, after all.

Russ Trammell, head of the island government was waiting on the beach to greet her. He was about her height, with a pleasant, weathered-looking face. A man of possibly 50. He looked like what he was. A man who worked for his living, hard work that had strengthened him and made him realistic about life.

Russ had been an outsider, from the Atlanta community who had come to the island as a teenager, and never left. Dehdre had heard Thomas talk admiringly of him. “I could use ten men like him on the council.” Thomas would say.

Dehdre knew better. Thomas, not a man able to survive except by his wits and cunning, would have quickly grown to hate Russ. He would have found a reason to get rid of him.

As Dehdre put her hand in Russ’s extended hand in greeting, she knew this. This was a man who knew how to be a man. He would be fair and just. And, better, he would not be intimidated by Thomas. Nor would he be likely to follow any instructions that Thomas sent to make her life as an exile unpleasant.

“We did some work on your home, but there is more to do. It is livable, and will eventually be pretty comfortable…not what you’re used to, Ma’m, I’m sure, but perhaps you can help with the work on it…” Russ’s voice trailed off, and Dehdra decided that she liked this man very much. Yes, he would definitely be fair to her.

“I’m grateful for whatever you did for me. Most grateful.” She said gently, reaching for the few items Thomas had allowed her to bring. A few changes of clothes. A drawing of her father and of her son. She also had her memories. They weren’t the same as daily contact, but they would have to do.

The house Russ brought her to was small, but it was, as he said, comfortable. It was stone and wood, not of a thatch roof. It sat, isolated from the main grouping of Bartholomew’s meeting places and places of business.

Less than 6 yards from it, was a shining lake that fed off a fresh water creek, which in turn ran out to the bay between the continent and the island. There was a pier, and a small shed, which she found held fishing equipment. In the house, she saw, to her gratitude, that the community ad stocked her small pantry with food and supplies.

The house itself was four small rooms. The kitchen, which also functioned as the front room, the bedroom she was to use, a small room that seemed to be something of a study, and the bathing area.

She saw a small outhouse in the back, and wondered if losing an in-house bathroom would be, to Thomas, a way to punish her. If so, it wasn’t. It would be different. The whole life would be different. But she would learn. She would adapt. She would miss her son. She would learn to cook, to clean this home, to do whatever the small community expected of her. She would survive.

The first night was difficult. After discussing the rules of the community, and making some pleasant small talk over a supper Russ had brought for her, he’d left her alone to rest. The next morning, Dehdra knew she would be expected to be up at daybreak, along with the community’s other women, assembled at town to find out what work was needed to be done in the community. The only way the community had been able to be self-sustaining was by adopting this sort of arrangement. Everyone worked except the very young and very old.

The weeks passed, and slowly Dehdra adjusted. It was surprisingly easy to learn to work alongside other women used to a life of this. Her healing gift was rarely needed by the hardy bunch of islanders, but always appreciated when used.

At first, some of the women were skeptical. How could a Head Council’s wife, or former wife fit into their community? Would she not be spoiled, expected to be treated differently? Yet, as time passed, one by one, she won even the hold-outs in the community. Even those who weren’t sure that they liked her had to admit that they respected her.

Dehdra learned to cook, make her own clothing, keep her home, fish and even hunt for her food. She found that she enjoyed these activities.

The simplicity of her life helped dull the ache in her heart from missing Robert. She wondered about him every day. She prayed for him. This had been one thing that Thomas had pretty much stamped out in his time as Head Council. People had once assembled to worship. However, here, on the island, people who chose to, worshiped freely. Dehdra was glad to again openly exercise the faith her father, Wilhelm had taught her.

Before she gave much thought to it, five years had passed in exile. In the midst of the time, Russ Trammell had asked her to marry him and she’d accepted. He’d come to live in the cottage by the lake and their life was a happy one.

Two days before her 40th birthday, she had given him a son, who they called Wilhem after her father. He was, at the fifth year of the exile, three years old, red haired like her, but with his father’s green eyes. He was a happy child, as Robert had once been happy, content to obey his parents and help them as much as he could.

The year of the plague started without incident.

The island learned of it from those who came to trade from the mainland. A mysterious illness, heralded by deep thirst, high fever, uncontrollable coughing, and purple bruising all over the body. The illness had possibly come from a sick outsider who’d been permitted within the community gates. One contracted, the disease was invariably fatal. The healthier the person, the longer and more horribly it took the person to die.

Apparently, one of messengers was a carrier. Soon, the island began to have cases of the illness. Fearing for her husband and her son, and thinking of the son she’d been forced to leave on the mainland, Dehdra went to every home that requested her.

And, to everyone’s amazement, her hands, when laid on the forehead and chest of the sick person, did heal. Almost immediately. And after, the person was immune. The plague died out as quickly as it had arrived on the island.

However, it was known that the plague was continuing unabated on the mainland. Devastating the population. Dehdra had been grateful to hear that her eldest, Robert, had not contracted the illness. But she wondered how long he would remain well.

During this time, Dehdra was approaching the end of another pregnancy. She was grateful at the end of the outbreak to be able to go home, and tend to her small family. However, Russ, her husband, didn’t feel that it was enough. He said so.

Dehdra was sewing new clothes for the expected baby at fireside in their home. Russ put his hand tenderly on her shoulder, his face humble and earnest. “I think, we should offer your services….to the council. To the mainland.” He said, gently.

The sharp look she gave Russ briefly disheartened him. She shook her head. “He….would not accept. He thinks the art can be taught.”

Russ thought about her words for a moment, staring at the fire. “Yes, he thought that. He thought he could teach the art to Gwynelyn. But it has to be clear to him now that she does not have the gift. I didn’t want to tell you…..word came today that Robert is now ill with plague.”

Her stricken look tore at him. “Then, we must offer! Can the word be sent tonight?”

Russ personally carried the message to the gates of the community at wharf side. In the wake of the illness, walls had been built where they hadn’t existed before. There was no access to the community that was not guarded by armed soldiers.

The soldiers, who did not know Russ Trammell, took the message to Thomas. Then just as quickly came back. “Head Council does not need the Exile’s services. She is not permitted back on this land under pain of immediate death.”

Dehdra wept bitterly when Russ brought the news. Two days later, a messenger came, risking his life to do so, to tell her that Robert had died.

Several days later, Russ brought up the topic again. Dehdra’s eyes closed in grief over her lost son. “If he wouldn’t help Robert, why would he help anyone else?”

“It is said that Gwynelyn has the illness now, and both their sons have died with it. She is close to giving birth to another child. It could be any day.”

As he said this, Dehdra felt the baby inside her own womb give her a vigourous kick. She felt compassion for this woman who had charmed, wooed and won away her husband. “Let the message be sent.” She said.

The curt refusal returned to the island within the day. “We have the answer to the malady. Gwynelyn is only mildly afficted with it. She will soon be well.” The words were written in Thomas’s own hand, on parchment, and sealed with the Head Council’s mark and wax.

A week passed, and several people came to the island, seeking refuge. All were ill. Dehdra laid her hands on them, and they were made well. They chose to not return, saying that the council no longer met, the streets were in disorder, and no one knew if the Head Council was alive or not.

Again, a message to offer Dehdra’s help was sent. Again, came the refusal, this time with implied threat. “The exile should be ashamed of using this clamity for even a momentary respite. Further communications will be seen as evidence of more treason on her part, as an attempt to play on the sympathies of my people.”

“Does he really think you’re doing that?” Russ asked Dehdra, incredulously.

“He has a darkened heart. It colors all he sees.” Dehdra said. “My father befriended him, as an outsider. Most outsiders are barely tolerated, rarely make the seven years that it takes to join the community. They are driven away. But Father saw something in him…..I’m not sure what. Thomas repaid Father by killing him. It didn’t make sense. By that time, he had me for his wife, Robert as his heir. He eventually would have been Head Council without doing murder. But, he couldn’t wait.”

“I never asked you what your crime was. What did you do that could be worthy of a lifetime exile? You’ve been my wife 6 years. I see nothing in you that could be criminal. What did he see as treason?”

Dehdra turned sad eyes to Russ. “I stopped loving him. That was the one thing that he couldn’t forgive.”

The question of trying one more time to contact the mainland was put off by practical reasons. Although she was only 8 months pregnant, Dehdra went into labor, delivering twin girls, very small, but both healthy.

The community was overjoyed. Dehdra had given them the next generation of healers. There was such rejoicing that for a time, no one thought of the plight of the mainland, quiet now. No traders. No news. Silent, as if no one remained there.

When the twins, named Gabriella and Sophia, were four weeks old, Russ brought up the subject to Dehdra once more of the mainland. “We must go. Not ask. Just go. To be sure. Tonight.”

In the two hours it took to cross the mainland, they considered going back half a dozen times. Yet, when they arrived, there were no guards…living anyway. No one at all.

Bodies, covered with evidence of plague, lay strewn everywhere. As they reached the main gates of the Head Council’s mansion, where Dehdra had been born, married, and lived, the sight that greeted them stopped them short.

It was Gwynelln, dead of plague. Someone had trussed her up at the main gate of the mansion. Across her chest was pinned the legend: “Traitor.” Not too far away was Thomas. Dead not from the plague, but from an arrow to his chest.

“Who?” Russ asked, his voice a hush.

“It could have been anyone.” Dehdra said, looking at her former husband’s corpse. “It looks like the way the ancients said things were. After their catastrophe. Total unrest. Everyone killing, burning. The plague did that here. In the end, no one was safe. Not even Thomas.”

She went up to his body, looked at something in his stiffening hands. Hair…a large snatch of it, of a golden-copper color. She looked back at Gwynelyn. Her hair. Had she sent the arrow to its final home?

“For want of a nail.” She said softly.

“What?” Russ asked, not understanding.

“A rhyme of the ancients. The loss of a nail was so small, no one missed it. But it led to the loss of a horse shoe, the of a horse, then of a rider….finally, of a kingdom…all for the want of a nail.”

“Who was the nail, here? Dehdra?” Russ asked. “You?”

Dehdra considered her husband’s earnest question. “No, no…not me. Thomas gave up so much out of pride. Me. His children. The health of his people. Finally, even Gwynelyn. He justified all of it, and lied to himself that it had to be this way. He was capable of anything to keep up the lie….even the death of the whole community. No…the nail was humility. Integrity. That was what led to his downfall.”

They walked back to their waiting boat, after finding no living person in the community. Dehdra looked back once, on the way back to the island, which had been meant to become her prison, but had instead, become her home.

As she did, she wept for all that pride and lies had lost.

 

Ghosts Do Not Lie (poem)


Ghosts do not lie quietly,
How they rattle their chains!
Chains made on earth and long after
Waiting for no one
Unable to purge their
Everlasting angst

Grief does not walk away quickly
As if it has never been
How it lives with one every day
Until the very walls are covered with it
The walls of one’s soul.

Fear does not fade when light comes
It only backs off for the moment
‘What if’s’ define the moment
Pondering and guilt dot the page

Love does not forget where it has been
On that long, distant road
How it lingers, long after
Everything else had been forgotten

Memories do not cease
When it is too late for grace
When all one has left is the wondering
If it could have somehow been changed

Ghosts do not lie
Neither, do they forget.

Johnny Came Home


“Johnny’s coming home to me…….”

In the end, the decision had been a practical one. When Johnny Walters didn’t want to married to Eleanor anymore, he divorced her.

When he didn’t want to pay alimony and her shrink’s bills anymore, he simply killed her.

The problem was, she kept coming back.

“Johnny’s coming back to me…….”

Ah, here it was again. Eleanor’s dismal calling card. That goofy Irish love song that she played and sang far too often during their dismal married years. A song about a sailor so fair that the very soul of the sea fell in love with him. Lured him to a watery death so as to possess him forever.

In their good days, he’d thought the song cute. He’d lamented that he’d not heard any love songs with his first name in them. But then, Eleanor had found this one. Yes, at first, it had been cute, flirty, fun. Then, as Eleanor became tiresome, so had the song. Then, as she became hated, so had he begun to hate the song.

Perhaps that was why she never stopped singing it to him………

Tonight, the last thing he wanted was another vile visit from his former, now dead wife. He had other plans, important plans. Tonight, he had planned to turn his mistress, Anne Roseby, into his fiance. A table was laid at his beach-side home with the finest tableware. He had a perfect meal cooked and waiting to be served by caterers. Her favorite music to be played over hidden speakers on the patio where the meal would be served. The mood would be perfect. Unless this unwelcome visitor arrived……

Anne was so unlike Eleanor. She was 14 years younger, a divine, ethereal beauty who knew her place. No histrionics or neediness. No clingy jealousy. None of what Eleanor had been. She was a breath of fresh air.

However, to be fair, Eleanor hadn’t been like that at first.

For some reason, all the women in Johnny’s life eventually seemed to go mad. One by one, despite his heartfelt struggles to help them with their issues. He hoped that this time, he had found the right woman. He’d dated her the last year he was married to Eleanor, and throughout their contentious divorce. He’d lived with her the year after Eleanor’s death.

Eleanor had never saw fit to haunt Anne, only him. However, Johnny thought Anne would be able to handle it, if Eleanor tried. She would see it as one more pathetic attempt to manipulate, and laugh at the specter. Yes, maybe Anne would be the right one after all.

“You’re such a good boy, John. None of these women deserve you. Why can’t you find a good one? Settle down?” The voice, in memory, was that of his mother, long gone and missed these last 9 years. She hadn’t approved of Eleanor, nor of any of his previous three wives, or a long chain of girlfriends. She never felt they were worthy of her only child.

She had died in a boating accident about the time that problems began to show themselves in his marriage to Eleanor. That day, they’d all been together, spending the day at the beach house. Elizabeth, his mother, seeming nervous and unhappy.

Finally, he had taken her aside and said, “Mom–what’s going on? You act like you’re at a funeral!” He’d learned to be direct with her, almost parental. In the years since his booze-hound father had left them, he’d had to step up and help out. Sometimes he felt like a father, son and a husband to Elizabeth. But he didn’t mind.

And she’d always seemed so grateful.

“Johnny’s coming back to me…….”
Closer now, in the next room, maybe.

“Why don’t you just get it over with?” He yelled into the stillness. He was alone in the house. Anne was driving down from Tallahassee, where she worked as a paralegal at a law firm. She would not be there for another hour. It was time, he knew, to have it out with Eleanor, for once and for all.

It was always the same, whether she came by dream or visitation. He would hear the song and then, there she suddenly was. Eerie light all about her. Paleness that was strangely becoming. Every hair in place….at first.

Then, all of the beauty would melt in front of him, and she would become the ragged mess that she’d been when her body washed up on shore some three days after he reported her lost in the tragic boating accident. Seaweed in her hair, eye sockets hollow, her eyes eaten away by fish. The smell of salt and decay everywhere……a grim skeleton standing in front of him….

“Johnny……” He heard her sing out.

Eleanor had always had a flair for the dramatic. So her way of haunting him shouldn’t have surprised him. She often knocked at the door with ghostly raps, the sound carrying through the house, making it impossible to ignore. He’d come to the door, and there she would be, her skeletal smile greeting him, bony arms reaching out for him, dripping, dead, but there.

Only tonight, she wasn’t. Just the song. The song sang over and over by Eleanor until Johnny thought that he would tear out his hair. Anne would be arriving shortly. Couldn’t Eleanor have her fun and let them alone? He’d even act frightened if she liked, if she’d just go away.

It was such a burden. The worst one yet. Worse than the burden of his mother, and then, of his wives. Worse than how hard he had to work to make all the earlier women go away quietly.

Only Eleanor would not go away. Even in death, she wouldn’t, Johnny thought, resentfully. What was wrong with her?

He remembered that day, the day of the boating accident that claimed his mother. He’d asked her what was wrong. She’d wept and told him that she thought his latest marriage, to Eleanor, was a huge mistake. When Johnny tried to defend Eleanor, Elizabeth had broken down and wept. “I think she’ll be trouble for you, son. I just know it! I don’t think she’ll make you happy! I want you to be happy!” She had not settled down until Johnny had agreed to take her sailing, leaving his new bride, Eleanor, alone and confused at the family house.

He’d had a lot to drink that day, and later, when questioned, he wasn’t sure. One minute his mother had been in the sailboat, helping him steer. The next minute she’d been gone. Had she jumped? Was it a suicide? Surely not, Johnny’s mother had every reason to want to live. The death had been ruled accidental, and since her body was never found, no one knew for sure.

If only he’d been so lucky with Eleanor.

He’d gone home, and Eleanor had tried to nurture him, help him over his grief. And slowly, as time passed, he found that she was as tiresome as the others had been. Stifling to him. His mother had been right. Eleanor couldn’t make him happy. She just couldn’t. And she, like the others, would have to go. When he suggested divorce, in their 5th year of marriage, Eleanor hung onto him by attempting suicide. When she tried it again when he filed the papers in their 8th year, he almost let her complete it before calling 911. At the last moment, he’d relented. Divorced her anyway.

She’d not gone quietly, like the other ex-wives, content with fat alimony checks and homes bought for them in distant places. She’d kept begging him to take her back. Demanding for him to do so. One night, during an angry phone exchange, she compared him to a modern-day Henry VIII, a heartless womanizer and user of women, with no hope of change. This actually managed to wound him, because he knew himself to be a caring and sensitive man. That night, he’d made his decision about what he had to do.

His mother had helped him. That night, in a dream, she’d come to him, covered in seaweed and smelling of salt. “Maybe you should take her sailing” She said, meaningfully. “The same way you took me…..sailing.

He’d woke up, his heart in his throat. He’d been drinking the night his mother drowned. He loved her. He cared for her as if she were the child and he, the parent. Surely he didn’t push her overboard? He just couldn’t remember…….

The better part of a fifth of vodka quieted these questions. His fear went away. He’d made his plans.

And then, he’d done it.

Johnny had made an effort, after their last angry phone call to court her, to appear to have forgiven all, to want her back. He’d suggested a romantic dinner aboard his sailboat, named the Elizabeth, after his sainted mother. He’d overcome Eleanor’s objections, and she never came back alive from that boating trip.

But, now, she wouldn’t stay dead.

“Johnny”

Damn it all, he thought, stepping out on the beach…Eleanor seemed nearby. Where was she?

Her ghostly apparitions had been horrifying at first, then just alarming, finally boring. His blood pressure didn’t even go up. Last time, he’d cocked an eyebrow at her change from wifely angel to sea-raggled murder victim. “Is this the best you can do?” He mocked.

She’d smiled wanly, if a corpse could do so…and evaporated. He’d gone back to bed and slept soundly.

Tonight, though, she had yet to re-appear…where was she? Damn it all, she was being just as tiresome in death as she had been in life……

He went to the end of the pier where the boat he’d murdered her on was tied. “Why don’t you take her sailing?” He heard Elizabeth, across time, ask once more.

Indeed. Perhaps…it was time.

He stepped in the boat, and took it out. On pretty much the same route as he had the night he and Eleanor had gone out. It occurred to him that this was the first time he’d used the boat since she’d died. Neighbors thought that it had been too traumatizing for him to use the boat, to remember. It hadn’t been really. He’d just been otherwise occupied with Anne, who hated sailing.

He thought about the night he killed Eleanor. He’d planned to simply have her overdose. But the storm had come up and it fit perfectly into his plans. He’d turned and saw her, terrified, fumbling for a rope to try to help him get the sails straight. She looked up and him, and he’d been horror-stricken.

It hadn’t been Eleanor’s face looking at him. It was his mother, Elizabeth. Alive again, eyes accusing. And he remembered back to night his mother died. He had pushed her. He had wanted her to stop talking to him. To leave him alone.

Elizabeth had been shocked because he’d never laid hands on her. She seemed to go down in the water that day without a struggle. But now, Elizabeth was there, in the place of his ex-wife’s body. She would never leave him in peace…unless…..

That night, Johnny had found his fingers around the throat of the woman who had his wife’s body, but his mother’s face. He’d felt her fingers clawing his arms, but weakening as he cut off her air supply. Then, just as he thought he’d won, Eleanor (?) gained new strength. She’d fought with the strength of two women. She’d almost gotten away. Then it was over.

He’d won. But then, Johnny thought, he always won.

And it was Eleanor who was lying dead on the sailboat. Eleanor who he’d tossed overboard. Eleanor, who when she washed up later, was too picked over by sea creatures for authorities to see that she’d been nearly strangled before she drowned.

However, no one considered it any more than a tragedy. Johnny and his family had been peaceful occupants of the coastal area for years. It was tragic that his ex-wife had died in the same manner that his mother had done, but no one asked questions. Even about why his ex-wife was in the boat with him.

“Johnny…..”

His memories were swept away by the siren-song seeming very close and loud now. Johnny turned in the sailboat and saw that his house was just a light point on the beach now. How had he gotten so far out? And the water seemed to be getting rough. He shook his head, and laughed bitterly. If Eleanor needed to haunt so much let her. He was foolish to go out this far, chasing a singing spirit. He would turn about and go home. Not give Eleanor one more moment of attention, attention that she seemed to crave even in the after-life.

“Johnny, you’ve come home to me……”

Then, he saw her, just in front of the sailboat. This time, however, Eleanor looked different. Not like herself at all. Oh, it was Eleanor, all right. But she had a different quality. An innocence, combined with something else…. A contentment somehow….that bordered on smugness. It infuriated him. His decision to go home was forgotten.

Johnny stepped off the boat, not even thinking, reaching for her, to shake her, to tell her that this had to stop. She had to stop. Yes, he’d killed her. Yes, he’d even gotten away with it. But her haunting had to stop. He had moved on. He wanted to be with Anne. She, Eleanor, needed to move on as well. And after tonight, he would simply ignore her if she’d tried to sing to him or haunt him again. He knew this would hurt her worst of all.

He felt Eleanor’s arms go around him, as his feet touched the water and sunk in. Too late, he remembered that he wasn’t an expert swimmer, and he had forgotten his life-preserver that he always wore, in his hurry to confront Eleanor.

In the last few seconds before the water closed over his head, his horrified eyes locked to the now empty eye-sockets of his former wife, he wanted to scream, but found that he could not.

“They say I washed up on the shore, Johnny,” The seaweed-covered skeleton said to him, clutching him even tighter. “But, I never left. And now, I’ll never leave you again.”

Two months later, Johnny Walters washed up onshore, near his home. Strangely enough, he wasn’t alone. The coroner noted that he seemed to be in the skeletal embrace of another corpse. The arms looked tightly about him. Later investigation determined the remains that seemed to be embracing him were that of his mother, Elizabeth, long-lost at sea.

The day of the gruesome discovery, footprints in the sand of something…not animal, not quite human, went from where the bodies washed ashore all the way to the front door of Johnny’s house. Seaweed and pools of salt water were in regular puddles all the way to his door, which was ajar.

Anne, who had taken to spending nights at the beach house while the search for Johnny continued, woke to find a trail of seaweed and salty water that came right up to her side of their bed, as if someone had come up and watched her sleep.

On the bedside table, encased in seaweed, was a jewelry box with an engagement ring inside.

Screaming uncontrollably, she’d had to be sedated, and never, after that day, chose to spend another night there.

No one could explain it. However, if asked, perhaps, Eleanor might have.

Johnny had come home. To stay.