From the editor:Karen and Patrick move across the world and into a new home, only to be haunted by the faint cries of a taiya, a spirit eaten by grief so old it no longer knows the cause of its own sorrow. They might be able to starve it into disappearing—if Karen can break the pull she feels toward it. Author Vanessa Fogg has published many pieces of beautiful, haunting short fiction as well as a novella, available now from Annorlunda Books.
From the author: A woman in a foreign country encounters a ghost. A quiet story about various kinds of darkness.
Surprisingly, Patrick doesn’t seem annoyed when he hears about the ghost. He’s washing dishes, his sleeves rolled up and a dishtowel draped over one shoulder. “A taiya you said?” He doesn’t look up from the suds. “Those things don’t cause any harm.”
Karen stands behind him, peering into the dusk that gathers outside the kitchen window. She can’t hear it anymore, the ghost. The taiya. So many different ghosts in this strange country, she can’t keep them straight.
“I went outside to try to find it,” she says. “It seemed to be in the cabbages. Then it was in that tree over there. Then it was gone.”
“That’s exactly what you shouldn’t do,” Patrick says, just a hint of sharpness in his tone. “You need to ignore them. That’s what everyone does. It’s only hanging out here because we’re new and it thinks we’ll give it attention.”
“Oh.” The neighbor woman had said something like that, too. Don’t listen, she had said kindly. You’ll get used to it and then you won’t hear it at all.
Patrick turns off the water. It’s only then that they hear it: a thin cry at the edge of the world. They stand still, and it rises in pitch, comes close, and moves away—like a train whistle speeding away from them in the night, racing across empty fields. The sadness is nothing human. The sound dies, then rises once more, just once. This time it catches in something like a sob.
Patrick winces. “Jesus.” He reaches back and takes Karen’s hand. “I’m sorry, I know this will be a pain. Maybe you can work for a few days out of the house? If it gets too loud? They say it usually gives up and quiets down after a week.”
Karen hardly has any real work to do, but she doesn’t mention this. “Sure,” she says instead. And silently she thinks to herself that it’s nothing, just a harmless local spirit, a story to tell later to her friends back home. Part of adjusting to life in a new country.
“They say you’re supposed to starve it,” Patrick says firmly. “Not give it any attention.”
“Taiya.” Karen’s tongue holds the word. “Doesn’t that mean ‘eater?’”
“No,” Patrick says. “It means ‘eaten.’”
It’s a month since they’ve moved to this place from America. A month since boarding the flight from O’Hare, leaving Chicago behind for the glamour of this Old World capital. They’re still congratulating themselves on the house—such a find! A charming brick house with a small side garden, located in a quiet, leafy neighborhood four blocks from the Metro. So the landlord never mentioned a ghost. It hasn’t bothered anyone in a long time, the home’s owner—with audible irritation—said when Patrick called.
There are still unpacked boxes stacked throughout the house. Karen goes through them methodically, slitting them open with a new box cutter. She listens to music on her iPhone as she works, so that she doesn’t hear the taiya. She takes care not to linger in the garden.
Patrick catches the Metro each day to an outlying suburb, where his company is headquartered. He used to be an engineer, and now he has a fancy new title. If pressed, Karen wouldn't be able to say precisely what he does, but she knows that he is busy and important and spends most of his days in meetings. She knows that this overseas assignment is a big step in his career. It’s only for a few years, and isn’t it an adventure? Isn’t it a wonderful opportunity? They’re pushing into their late-thirties, but really, they’re still young; there’s still time for everything, and this, right now, is the adventure of their lives.
So she resigned from her job and set up shop as a freelancer. When she thinks about it, she realizes that Patrick never understood her job, either. But who understands any field, other than the one they work in? Her old company promised her contracts, but they haven’t come through yet, so she has time to clean and arrange the house.
Each day she explores the city. In her purse she carries a glossy guide to the twelve major districts. She picks a neighborhood, studies the map, and takes the tram or Metro line. She loses herself in narrow cobblestoned alleys; sits in wine bars and trendy cafes; walks though open-air markets and points to fruit and pastries and eats delicious things she can’t name. The women of this country all look thin and beautiful; the men are all well-dressed. It’s late summer, the height of tourist season, and the streets and squares echo with a babel of languages: German, English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Russian. And the native tongue of this country, of course: rhythmically musical, a language of strong beats and soft consonants, like nothing she’s ever heard.
She stands in a plaza that looks out over a sparkling river. At her back are stone monuments to kings and queens; dominating them all is the sculpture of the country’s mythical founder: the king astride his beloved horse, a sword lifted high in one hand. She looks at the river before her; ferries are crossing to green hills on the other side. Barges make their way downstream, and a white cruise ship like a tiered wedding cake moves past.
It doesn’t seem real that she’s here. She’s fallen into a storybook world. The spires of a fairy-tale castle, glinting from a hill across the river, are proof of that. The whole city is a fairy tale, a fantasia of gothic and baroque palaces and churches and buildings that that look to her eyes like palaces. The sun is warm on her shoulders. The air is too bright. Nothing seems real, but she steadies herself and thinks, I’m here. I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
Patrick works late. “Sorry,” he mumbles as he walks in, hours after she’s put his dinner away. He did call ahead. He always calls ahead when he knows he’ll be late.
She heats up food, and he sinks into a kitchen chair with a comically exaggerated sigh. She sits across from him with a mug of tea. He eats hungrily, and it’s a few minutes before he notices the silence. He looks up, the question in his eyes. “No music?”
For the past few weeks it’s been her habit to leave on music or the television—a light soundtrack to fill the silences, drown out any remnants of the taiya’s voice. She and Patrick have even been falling asleep at night to a recording of white noise or rain sounds.
“No music,” Karen says firmly. “I sat outside and didn’t hear a thing all day.”
Patrick lets out another sigh, and this time it’s genuine—a small, inadvertent exhalation of relief. Karen’s surprised: she hadn’t guessed that he was so bothered. She looks more closely at him, at the weariness in his face, the shadows and slight puffiness under his eyes. He’s still handsome, but it occurs to her that he looks like his thirty-eight years.
“Good,” Patrick says. “I miss the silence.”
She laughs; she’s always been the one to crave silence, not him.
He smiles back at her and takes her hand. “A native ghost vanquished,” he says. “See, we’re fitting right in. And I promise I’ll get time off soon.”
Karen knows different ways to vanquish a ghost. In her curiosity, she’s spent hours researching local spirits online. These are some of the ghosts she’s learned of:
--The ghost of a drowned child.
Appears by rivers, lakes, ponds, swimming pools. Pale and silent, it may appear to gasp for air. Recommendation: Pour holy water into the haunted body of water, and reassure the ghost as best you can. An official exorcism may be required.
--The ghost of one killed by a bad pot of stew
Manifests with both visual and auditory details, usually complaining about its stomach. Recommendation: Cook and offer it a new pot of stew (check that the meat is good). Stealthily substitute a half cup of holy water for broth.
--The ghost of a woman killed by her lover
Manifests as a hot wind, a sensation of prickles on the skin, and the sound of a woman weeping. Recommendation: Offer it a glass of mint tea, a pillow of lavender to rest on, and soothing chants. You may need to ensure the death of its murderer.
---The ghost of one killed in war or by government troops
Once the most numerous of ghosts, particularly after the Second World War and the unrest that followed. National mass exorcisms and peace have greatly diminished their numbers. Recommendation: Offer a glass of water (plain, no ice, not necessarily holy or blessed), and contact the National Exorcism Office. Do not let yourself be drawn into a political discussion.
--The “eaten” ghost
Invisible. Origins unknown. Characterized by faint cries which grow louder upon continued listening. The name reflects the common belief that they are spirits eaten by grief, hollowed and ravaged until only a bodiless cry remains. It has been speculated that they may be derived from failed exorcisms, or are the last remnants of spirits who no longer know the cause of their sorrow.
Recommendation: Ignore them. Let them starve.
Autumn. The leaves turn gold and then brown, and then lie sodden in the streets. Wind sweeps in, and the skies are gray and the tourist crowds gone. Only a few stubborn souls still sit at the cafes’ outdoor terraces, shivering and sipping black coffee.
Karen is inside, in the glow of a British-style pub. English voices chatter around her. She’s at an expat meet-up where she recognizes many but scarcely knows anyone. Patrick was supposed to join her, but got roped into a last-minute client event at work. Never mind; the beer is good and the snacks are salty and crisp. She finds herself at a table of youngsters she’s met before: recent college grads teaching English while they decide what to do with their lives. They’ve brought a friend with them, a young man with curly brown hair and eyes like a doe. A native, but no, not really, he protests upon introduction. He went to America with his family at the age of nine, and has only just returned to his homeland. He feels American now, and his facility in his native tongue is, he proclaims in that same native tongue, “shit.” The table laughs as he goes on to explain various local curse words and phrases. He’s charming, a slightly manic glint in his eyes.
He’s playing to the crowd. She laughs at his jokes along with everyone else. She feels her heart flutter slightly as his gaze brushes hers. He’s more than ten years younger than she.
The conversation turns to ghosts, and the table is eagerly retelling old legends and rumors of sightings. A girl from New Zealand swears that a friend of a friend saw a phi krasue in Thailand.
It’s not as dramatic, but Karen finds herself saying that there was a taiya in her garden when she first moved in.
There’s an attentive silence. It’s not much of a story. She shrugs and gives a self-deprecating smile. She and her husband drowned its faint cries with noise; spent little time at home, ignored it. Standard protocol. They haven’t heard it in months. She finds herself unable to describe the sounds it made.
“There was a taiya at my grandmother’s house,” the boy with doe eyes says.
Everyone looks at him. He’s solemn, the laughter gone from his face. “I heard it once when I visited,” he says. “They say it had almost died, but my grandmother started feeding it by listening too much. My mother was so worried.” He shakes his head. “We had to go fetch Grandmother back to our house. The neighbors were complaining.”
“What happened to the taiya?” someone says.
“Don’t know. Starved back into silence, I assume. I was six.”
“What happens if it’s not starved?” Karen leans forward. “What happens if you keep listening?” She knows what Wikipedia says, but she wants to hear it said aloud.
“You know.” He flashes his smile again. “It will just get louder and louder. Unbearable. You’ll have to move away for a bit, or call an official exorcist. That’s expensive.”
“Are they trying to tell us why they’re sad, why they’re there? Don’t some of them still remember who they are?” Karen had read that someplace online. She senses that this Americanized boy may be more forthcoming than the other locals she’s spoken with. Her neighbors didn’t want to say much, beyond instructions; her language tutor was the same.
The boy shrugs. “Even if we could understand, even if they could tell us, it wouldn’t do any good. They’re not like other ghosts. You can’t do anything for them.” He sips his beer. “You just have to ignore them.” He holds her eyes as he says this. His lashes are long; he’s so beautiful. She knows already that she’ll never see him again. “You have to keep ignoring them,” he says, just for her. “Don’t forget.”
She puts herself on a schedule. She goes to language lessons four days a week, where she sits in a non-descript classroom and tries her best to understand case, word order, and modal particles. She walks to the market. She pushes herself to attend various expat meet-ups, though she finds little in common with the people there. Her old company finally comes through with some freelance projects, and she throws herself upon them like a starving animal.
It rains. It rains and rains, and the steady beat of water is the only sound she hears out her window.
Patrick’s company throws a party. It coincides with some traditional autumn celebration. The sky clears for it, and it’s a beautiful night. The party is held in an Art Deco-styled loft that overlooks the church steeples and spires of downtown. Garlands of chrysanthemums adorn all the tables. Red candles glow. Karen is wearing her favorite red dress. Waiters pass with plates of sweet pickled things, sausages and flatbreads and deviled eggs.
The wine is golden, and very good.
She’s chatting with another expat woman, a tired looking mother of twins. Around them, guests laugh and speak in a sibilant language she still can’t understand. She and Patrick had a fight before coming here; she can’t remember now what it was about. Something stupid, of course. He’s been working so hard; they barely see one another.
Patrick has drifted away from her now; he’s standing in a cluster of his colleagues at the far side of the long room. She watches the back of his head, his broad shoulders.
The expat mother is talking about the local schools, about the application process for getting her twins into a prestigious international program. Patrick’s boss’s wife comes over and joins the conversation. Karen has another glass of wine.
She’s not used to drinking this much. She feels as though she’s floating.
No, not floating. Falling.
Later that night, Patrick peels off her red dress before she has a chance to wash up. He’s murmuring something, and then his mouth on hers is hard. Does he know? Does he know that she’s falling, that there’s darkness outside the window and darkness within, and a nearly voiceless thing screaming outside in the bushes? What does he know? All the lights in the room are blurring. He’s solid and warm. Her fingers curl and dig into his arms and she holds on; he’s real.
She’s never told him of the darkness.
Of course, he knows that she has her depressive moments; who doesn’t get a little down at times? He recognizes that she’s moodier in the winter. Snappish. He even bought her a special bright lamp to deal with the SAD. They’d accidentally left it behind in America, of course.
He knows that she sometimes has mood swings, but she’s never told him the truth. She’s never told him about the cold black water. That’s what it is: a huge black lake inside her, and she’s spent her life skating on its thin, frozen surface. She skates well; she can spin and jump and pirouette like a champ; she can work and function and live like anyone else. But she’s always known of the darkness beneath. She knows that the ice is thin. She knows that a single misstep could send her plunging downward, forever.
Does Patrick have any black pools within him? He doesn’t seem to. She’s probed, delicately, and he seems just as he is, responsible and solid all the way through.
She tries. She tries hard.
She leaves the house every day. She gets dressed and she brushes her hair. She goes to her language class. She meets the deadlines for her freelance projects. In the past, she’s always held off her dark moods with exercise. Gyms are an unknown concept in this country, but when the weather clears she dons a tracksuit and runs in the park like the American expat she is.
She meets with people; there’s a regular group that she sees at the pub. She even has lunch with the expat mother from Patrick’s work party. She does laundry and shopping, and dinner is ready when Patrick walks in at the end of the day.
She’s okay. It’s exhausting to be okay.
She’s sitting in the bathtub, and she can feel the black water rising within her, seeping up through the frozen surface. She can feel the hair-thin cracks in the ice. She’s been in the tub for over an hour. Bach is playing on the wireless sound system that Patrick so lovingly installed. She’s begun listening to music constantly again, keeping the television or radio or a playlist on; somewhere along the way, she’s become frightened of silence, frightened of what she might hear in it.
But she shouldn’t have put this particular playlist on. It’s the Bach solo cello suites, and the Sarabande from the fifth suite is coming up. She can’t bear that movement now, the sorrow of it. But she can’t get up from the tub, she can’t move. She’s too tired. And the movement has already started, the single cello is playing. It’s the sound of the last voice on Earth, a voice crying to itself in the wilderness. It’s a voice singing to its own self in grief, over and over, for there is no one else to tell.
Karen is crying. She can’t stop crying. This is how the taiya feels, she thinks to herself. She will never get away from this music, she will never get away from the taiya’s cry.
“Are you okay?” Patrick says. He looks at her over his forkful of food. For once, he’s come home at a decent time. He seems to have finally noticed how little she’s touched her plate, how silent she’s been.
“It’s nothing,” Karen says. “I’m just tired.”
She can’t tell him because there’s nothing to tell. There is nothing wrong with her life. Her life is perfect. Perfect. She has a roof over her head and food to eat; she has money and freedom and a husband who loves her. She has a family that cares for her, back in Chicago. She thinks of the beggar she passed in a doorway last week. An old woman sitting on the cold stone, huddled in gray rags. She didn’t look at the woman’s face. On her way to her language class, she passes a townhouse marked with old bullet holes. She knows of this country’s history of revolution and war. She looks at the headlines of the international news, and she knows that there are people who would literally kill for her modern, privileged life.
She tells Patrick that it’s just the seasonal blues. She doesn’t speak of the black lake inside her. She can’t. How would she even bring it up?
The taiya is a ghost without a reason, without identity or purpose. The ghost of a ghost. No one knows why it cries. No one knows where it came from, or why it haunts the place it does.
“You’ve been listening,” Patrick says. His voice is accusing. She blinks in confusion; she’s sitting blankly on the couch in the middle of the day, and she didn’t hear him come home.
“I heard it last night,” he continues. “I heard it just now, when I was walking in. I –He breaks off. Takes a deep breath. “Karen, what are you doing? What’s wrong?”
She says nothing. He kneels before her. “Is there something wrong?” There’s helplessness in his voice. “Can you tell me?”
She still doesn’t answer. He reaches for her hesitantly, as though he expects her to resist. Instead, she unfolds against him. He holds her in his arms. “I know, I know,” he croons, his voice hurried and soft. “It’s the weather, it’s almost winter; you get like this. It’s that damn taiya, it would drive anyone mad. We’ll be home for Christmas soon, we’ll get away. Let’s get away this weekend, tonight. We can’t stay here now anyway, not with the taiya back. We’ll go wherever you want. You’ll like that, right? Wherever. . .”
She nods against his shoulder.
They go that day to a farmhouse inn in the countryside south of the city. The vineyards have been picked bare; the hills are gold and brown. The little town feels empty, and the sky overhead is huge. Karen feels soothed by the silence. She and Patrick walk along the river hand-in-hand, and the only sound is the wind.
But two weeks later, Patrick is yelling in their bedroom and throwing clothes again into a suitcase. “Fuck,” he says. “We can’t stay here any longer, not with that thing screeching outside.” He doesn’t even fold his dress shirts neatly, as he always does. He throws Karen’s things in the suitcase as well. “If this were the States, we could sue the landlord. How could he not tell us? How did it get this bad?”
He looks around. “Karen?”
But she’s downstairs, moving through the dark rooms toward the side door. The moon is bright, lighting up the small garden, but of course there’s nothing to see.
It had worked, for a short time. It had worked—avoiding the house, drowning out sorrow and thought with rock ‘n roll and pop music and Bach and the BBC. It had worked to distract herself, to shut her ears. To run away. But the sound outside is now louder than the TV or radio or their own raised voices. Louder than her memory of a quiet weekend with her husband.
The neighbors all must hear, of course. The spirit is loud enough to wake the whole neighborhood.
She steps out the door and into the night. The noise is sourceless now. It’s everywhere. It’s sobbing and keening and a low, sad moan. It’s the bare edge of the wind and the scream of a dying bird. The long, slow glide of a cello chord at the end of the world. It’s nothing human and everything terribly, devastatingly human.
Did that boy’s grandmother ever stop listening? Karen wonders. Did she ever get away?
“Karen?” Patrick has come down the stairs. He stands in the doorway, looking out at his wife. There’s fear in his voice.
The taiya is trying to speak, but it has no words. Its calls ring, frustrated, against the night air. It’s all but eaten away.
It might grow in power; its voice might rise louder and louder. But still, no one can understand it. It speaks no language that can be grasped. It can’t say what it is.
Karen turns as Patrick’s hands grab her. He’s holding her, trying to pull her into the house. “Karen, Karen,” he says, her name a flowing river from his lips. She can speak. She’s not a taiya. She’s human. Maybe someone in the world would understand.
She holds Patrick and rises on her toes, and puts her lips to his ear. She will try to tell him. She opens her mouth to explain.
This story originally appeared in The Future Fire.