There was no way we’d reach the next town before nightfall. Hunter was shuffling through the leaves, eyes half-closed, muttering curses to himself. We’d have to spend the night among the trees. Our music would have kept us safe, but I’d broken my strings in the last town and Hunter was too drunk to keep the rhythm on his drum.
Could be, there’d be no spirits in this forest. No one lived here, maybe no one had died here. Only, the dead have a habit of seeking out the living. While a lone little soul might give us nothing but a fright, too many or too strong and we’d be in danger of losing ourselves completely.
We walked on until I spied a tree with branches spread wide and a hollow space between them where we might lie unnoticed. There was daylight yet, but it would fade quickly under the trees. I gave Hunter a leg-up, and he rolled with a grunt into the space, his eyes already closing. His drum fell forgotten in the scrub at the base of the tree, and I reached deep into the bushes to retrieve it, thorns pricking my skin.
The forest was already quietening, sensing the coming of dusk. It was a bad sign. I arranged myself beside Hunter, nudging him onto his side so he wouldn’t snore. I took a blanket from my pack and tucked it round him. It would be up to me to keep watch tonight, and he would pay for it tomorrow. As long as we made it through.
Darkness fell thick around us, the smells of rich earth seeming to grow stronger with the loss of light. My body wanted to succumb to sleep, the night settling over my eyes and making them heavy, but I didn’t dare give in. I lay stomach-down on a branch and propped my head up, peering over the edge for any movement on the forest floor.
I could see nothing, but the darkness didn’t matter. Their faces would glow and shimmer if they came, and I would not miss them. We had sought them out before now, restless spirits whose relatives paid us to send them on their way with a song. A dangerous service, but one that got us through hard times.
My fingers twitched, missing their strings, but I pressed my palms against the rough wood and took a breath. I would have to sing tonight if spirits came. I would share my song with them and see them cross over. I would have to be loud, and vibrant, or they would think me fair game. I spotted one in the trunk of a tree on the other side of the path; a sad face, with sharp nose and downturned mouth, eyes rolling madly. I held very still, hoping it hadn’t seen me. When I blinked, it disappeared.
The face grew out of the wood beside me, that same sharp shimmering nose rising up out of the bark. The air was suddenly icy cold, sharp as I took a breath to sing. As soon as the eyes fixed on me I began a wordless, warbling song. The face faded, but another appeared in a nearby branch, a long face with quivering lips. I sent it on with the force of my voice, with a melody that rose and fell, thinking of tune after tune and throwing them out into the night.
Now I’d started, I couldn’t stop. The faces appeared all around, souls drawn by the presence of life only to be forced from this world into another. Like moths, they couldn’t help themselves. Faces came and went, scared and sorrowful and angry faces, and I could not fathom how so many found me. Surely my voice did not travel so far.
Perhaps these trees had seen some horror in the past, some forgotten massacre. Souls large and small appeared only to fade before my eyes. My voice grew hoarse and my vision swam, faces like stars gleaming bright before twinkling out.
My voice cracked, and broke. I breathed but no sound came. The faces were everywhere, and still new ones appeared. Some emerged through my own hands and from my coat. Small souls I had carried with me. I had not meant to, should have sent them on their way long ago, and now it was too late. I had no sound left. My numb fingers shook with cold and I knew I’d reached the end; the dead would fill my body, the stronger pushing the weaker out, until one claimed the prize. Someone else would walk in my feet come dawn.
Then it began; a soft, slow beat of the drum. Hunter’s fingers brushing the top, his eyes on me. The faces swarmed around us and he sent them on, but more appeared, so many I thought he wouldn’t have enough music in him for them all. His fingers drummed, faster and faster, pattering like rain on the skin. Faces wavered, flickered, and disappeared. Always more came, but he continued to play. His rhythm echoed in my heartbeat, and his eyes held mine, steadfast. After everything, he would not let me go.
I watched Hunter play his drum until the morning grew too bright for us to see spirits any more. His eyes were red, but I could tell he saw me clearly from the way he watched me rise and stretch. He knew my movements as I knew his, would have known if another wore my skin. Yet I did feel different, lighter. Though seeing those faces had left me raw, the pain was sharp and clean.
Birds chattered in the trees above us, claiming the new day with their song. Hunter took my hand. There was no need for words. I offered him a smile, and he nodded. Then we moved on.
Lisa Farrell lives and works in the UK.