Horror

Penance

By L. D. Colter
Sep 24, 2017 · 820 words · 3 minutes


"Wake," my ghosts said. “Come.”

They spoke asynchronously, like a flock of noisy birds. Their voices pulled me from sleep and I opened my eyes to the throng of them at my bedside.

"Why?" I asked. The long, morose faces stared back at me, gray and insubstantial, and mute once again.

Hauling myself from the warmth of my bed, I stepped into the deer-skin slippers my late wife had given me and let the ghosts herd me from the bedroom. I cast a glance over the circumference of shadows that encircled me; it seemed an increasing number of new ones were arriving each day.

They took me to the left and through the drawing room. When we reached the front bay window of my London manor they stopped. Crossing the street was a lone gray shadow, as ethereal as the ones that surrounded me. My heart stumbled at seeing the trim figure, the funereal dress that I had picked out, the face I knew as well as my own.

A carriage clattered down the street, breaking the quiet of midnight. It drove through the body of my late wife. For an instant she was a puff of dark smoke, drifting up, before she re-formed into the ghost of my dear Eleanor. The driver rolled on through the night, oblivious.

Eleanor. My one goal in the madness that had become my life these past months. The only ghost I had intended to summon. The others had been caught up in a spell not meant for them, but they had woken me to see her. They must have sensed that Eleanor was special. The genesis of their binding.

She crossed the street with the same gliding stride they all possessed. Without seeming to ascend the front steps, she passed through the door in a swirl of gray and took shape again.

"Eleanor," I breathed. "My Eleanor. At last." I moved toward her, but the crowd of ghosts moved with me and she with them. She was in the outer ring, as emotionless and bound as the rest.

This couldn’t be. She should have been different; more aware. The back-alley witch who sold me the powder and taught me the words had promised me I could speak with her.  But, then, she had also promised a single ghost.

"Eleanor!" I shouted to her, though there was no need. The insubstantial crowd between maintained their usual silence. "Eleanor, please come to me. Try." I reached an arm out, imploring. It passed through the chest and shoulder of the elderly gentleman nearest me. Eleanor did not move. Her delicate mouth was drawn and her dark eyes seemed sad, though perhaps it was only that her features were elongated by the bonelessness of her frame. At her throat blotches stood out, like smudges of coal on the smoky grey of her skin.

If this was the best I could achieve, then so be it. The rest would hear my sins as well.

"Eleanor, my love. You can’t know the lengths I have gone to so I could say these words to you." I had intended to implore her from my knees, but she would have been obscured by the others. "I never meant to harm you. You must believe me. Please give me some sign that you forgive me." Her face remained impassive.

"My temper governs me, yet you were always an angel. I believe you now. I want you to know that. I have learned that Mr. Montgomery sent trinkets to many women without their encouragement, hoping to win patronage for his poetry."

Eleanor's face never changed. She said nothing.

It was not what I spent these long months hoping for, but at least I had said the words. Surely she had comprehended them and, if so, then she would forgive me, for that was always her nature. If she forgave me then all was well, my salvation would be assured once more. Sunday sermons of hell and brimstone would no longer disturb my sleep.

Confident I had done all I could to make amends and secure my eternity, I went to my desk drawer. Removing the packet containing the remainder of the saffron-colored powder, I poured the powder in a circle around my feet, anxious to at last dispel all my wretched ghosts. I tapped the rest into my palm and blew on it. The powder flew up and then drifted gently downward, like fireworks at the Regatta. I spoke the final words of the spell.

Nothing happened. My ghosts surrounded me still, Eleanor sad and silent among them. The powder was spent; the witch who had sold it to me long gone. I wondered if she was laughing at me at this very moment.

A puff of smoke appeared inside the door as a new ghost joined the rest. Outside, I watched as another crossed the street, making its way toward the house.

This story originally appeared in Pseudopod.