The Ghost of You

by Toshiya Kamei

From CHM 34 April 2023

Sometimes sweet, sometimes melancholy, your voice still haunted me all the way to the edge of the realm. One moment, your soft cadence caressed me, and in another moment, your shrill pitch grated and irritated me. Even the vast expanse of desert that stretched before me failed to severe our ties.

A formless, ever-shifting path shimmered. It taunted me with mirages of water, triggering the memory of the pond where we swam in our undergarments as young girls. How was it possible you remained so vivid even during my waking hours? So vivid, if I reached out, I could almost touch you.

My skin baked in the merciless sun beaming down from a cloudless blue sky. With each breath inhaled, hot air scorched my throat and lungs. I pulled my caramel-colored rebozo down further, trying to shield myself from the stinging sunlight. In the distance, the bald mountains loomed like a gigantic wall. No matter how far I walked, the landscape stayed the same.

My feet ached, and each step felt heavier than the last. Sweat dried instantly, forming a salty crust on my skin. I grabbed the wineskin hanging from my shoulder, lifted it over my mouth, and shook out the last few drops, but they failed to quench my thirst. I clicked my tongue against my dry mouth.

The sweat ran into my eyes, forcing me to close them, and more memories flooded my mind. You sat beside me on a wooden bench facing a kiosk in the center of the leafy plaza. I brushed away a dead leaf clinging to the front of your skirt. A mariachi tipped her sombrero at us and strummed a sweet tune on her guitar. A soft breeze tickled my face, and the sweet scent of your perfume wafted toward me. Our eyes met, and your smile widened.

The tune slowed, ending on a mournful note. Everything around me disappeared, and I found myself transported to a gloomy room. Around me, somber women in black, seated head down, prayed over dark brown rosary beads. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks, and I clenched my fists until my nails bit into my palms.

As I stepped closer to an open casket, the dank odor of death assaulted my nose and made me gag. Inside, you lay lifeless with your arms folded across your chest. Hushed sobs filled the room. I bit my lip until I tasted blood.

I didn’t want any of this to happen. My love for you went deeper than any roots we had planted in our garden. Our marriage was arranged by our respective families like anyone else’s, yet no one could deny we loved each other.

Your death changed everything. It was customary for a widow to kill herself and join the deceased in the afterlife. I cursed you for condemning me to this miserable lot. Hatred sizzled in my gut. It was the only thing keeping myself from crumbling to the floor.

When I opened my eyes, the arid land that had tormented me was gone, replaced by a green forest. I blinked a few times, trying to adjust to my new, unfamiliar surroundings. The canopy of the trees above me provided shelter from heat. A musty, grass-scented gust blew, making the leaves rustle. A few feet away, I noticed a thin figure perched on a wooden bench in the shade of an old beech tree. The figure slowly took shape, gradually forming into a gray-haired woman. My knees trembled, and my heart raced. Was I dreaming? No, it couldn’t have been a dream. It was too real.

“Come, young lady,” the woman said, gesturing for me to sit next to her. I hesitated for a moment, but my body obeyed in spite of myself.

“Thank you,” I said, bowing slightly.

She handed me a glass of water. I grabbed it and drank it in one gulp. She smiled, narrowing her eyes.

“What’s your name?”

“Florentina,” I lied. No, it wasn’t a lie. After marriage, I took on a new name because our tradition forbade me to use my true name in someone else’s presence. My true name belonged to you, only to you. When you died, I buried it deep inside.

“I’m Ume. What brought you here?”

“My wife died a few weeks ago,” I began, but the words got stuck in my throat. “I lost her in child birth.” That was a half-truth. It was true that we were starting a family, but I was the one who miscarried.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m a widow myself. Where are you going?”

“I’m heading north to find a job as a servant.” Tears welled up in my eyes as unnamable anger rose within me. I picked up the edge of my rebozo and dabbed my eyes with it.

“Is that so? I live near here with my daughter. Why don’t you stay with us tonight? She’s your age, and we both enjoy company. Besides, there’s no inn around here.”

Still non-committal, I looked around and noticed a serpentine path leading off into the dark. The sound of tramping feet reached me, growing louder each second. Then a figure emerged from the gloom, rapidly growing larger. An enormous boar charged toward us. My knees almost buckled in fear. I wanted to flee, but my legs refused to move. I turned toward Ume and saw her smile. Just as I thought the beast would trample me to death, it screeched to a halt. The boar was close enough that its hard breath hit my face, and its earthy smell filled my nose. It lowered itself, and Ume climbed onto its back without hesitation.

“Come,” she said, reaching out to me. She took my hand and helped me up.

“Hang on tight,” she said, and I wrapped my arms around her waist. The boar dashed along the path, becoming wind. Fresh air caressed my face, and the green forest became a blur. Shortly after, we arrived at a thatch-roofed house.

“Here we are,” Ume said. The boar lowered itself again, allowing us to get down on the ground. She patted the beast before it walked away.

Smoke rose from the chimney, and I detected the faint aroma of cooking meat. My stomach let out a loud growl. I blushed and mumbled my apologies, but Ume didn’t seem to mind. She wore a calm smile.

“Come in,” Ume said, gesturing with her chin to the wooden door. When we stepped inside, I inhaled the scent of burning incense wafting in the air. She pressed her hand to the small of my back and ushered me along a corridor. We entered a dining room with an adjoining kitchen where a woman my age was chopping herbs on the cutting board. A younger version of her mother, she struck me as rather plain. She looked up at me with a smile.

“Welcome, Florentina,” she said, dropping the chopped herbs into a pot of boiling water. “I’m Sachi.”

My heart skipped a beat. How did she know my false name? Did she know my true name, too? I had no idea.

“Dinner will be ready soon,” Sachi continued. “You can sit wherever you like.”

I sat at the dining table facing the window. The silhouette of an oak tree loomed up in the darkness outside. The wind whistled and wailed, blending with your voice. Branches swayed and scratched against the glass, and I shivered.

After dinner, we retired to the living room, settling into armchairs in front of the cracking hearth. In the corner, a half-finished dress was draped on a dressmaking dummy. I walked up to the dress to see it up close. I wondered how long it had been left untouched. The dress was covered with dust, and I tried to blow it away.

“It’s for Sachi,” Ume said as I crouched before a sewing box lying on the floor. “I’ve been meaning to finish it, but my eyesight is getting worse. I should’ve taught her how to sew.”

“May I?” I turned and saw Ume nod. I took out a needle from the sewing box. I then bit my lip, squinted, and threaded my needle.

Ume let out an occasional “hmm” as I let my needle swim in and out of the cloth. Sachi parroted her mother. I felt their gazes on me, but I didn’t look up. Before long, the dress, embroidered with multiple colors, came into shape.

“I’m so impressed,” Ume said. “Where did you learn to sew well?”

“My mother-in-law taught me,” I said. “I wasn’t a natural sewer, but dressmaking is a tradition in my wife’s family.” I then felt a cold sensation on my neck. It was you. I fought off the urge to turn and look for your shadow.

“I see.”

“This is the least I can do to thank you for your hospitality.”

“Oh, don’t mention it.” Ume waved her hand. “You’re on your own. No family to rely on.”

I lowered my gaze, suddenly self-conscious.

“It was no coincidence that I met you today,” Ume continued. “Our gods told me you were coming.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Why don’t you stay with us? You seem like a nice girl. I’m quite fond of you.”

Nice girl? I was anything but. “I don’t want to impose on you,” I said, frowning a little.

“No. Not at all,” Sachi chimed in.

“I’ll tell you what.” Ume pointed her chin at her daughter. “I’ve been trying to find her a bride. I know this is so sudden, but will you think about it?” I shot a furtive glance at Sachi, but she was looking down. I couldn’t read her face. As per our custom, she, nor I, had any say in choosing a spouse.

I nodded to end the conversation. I was exhausted and was in no mood to talk.

“Mother, you mustn’t tire her out,” Sachi said. “She needs rest.” She stood. “Come with me, Florentina. I’ll show you the guest room.” She walked out of the room, and I followed.

“It was nice of you to come,” she said as she ushered me inside a bare room with a small bed.

“Look, you seem like a very nice girl, but I’m not—”

“You don’t have to say anything. I understand.”

I didn’t think Sachi understood, much less understood me, but I said nothing more. It felt pointless.

“No matter what you decide, I’m glad to meet you.”

I gave her a non-committal nod.

“Good night. Sleep tight.” She planted a chaste peck on my cheek. “I’ll be in the next room, if you need anything,” she said before leaving me alone.

The bed squeaked as I climbed in. It kept squeaking beneath me as if deriding me. Hours ticked away. I stayed awake, staring at the ceiling, waiting for something, some sign.

The door opened and slammed shut, making me jump. Goosebumps covered my arms.

“What do you want?” I asked in a low voice. “I’m sorry I lost the baby, but it wasn’t my fault. Can’t you ever forgive me?” I was drowning in the bottomless depths of desperation.

No reply came.

An icy draft blew and lifted the curtains from the window. Just then, a lightning bolt lit the night, and the wind howled like a crazed hound. A gust of rain lashed against the house, rattling the window panes.

I felt something moving inside me, and a current of pain pierced through my lower abdomen, causing me to scream. I kept screaming, but the storm drowned out the noise I made.

My belly ripped open, blood splashed, and something crawled out. A foul stench rose up from my body, and I gaged. Another flash of lightning illuminated the room, and I saw a small creature between my legs. It was covered with bloody mucus. Our eyes met for a brief second, and a chill ran down my spine. It flashed a toothless sneer and leaped off the bed, and I froze in fear. It scurried away and disappeared as everything went dark.

In my delirium, I heard footsteps approaching and a small knock on my door. “Florentina?” It was Sachi, not you.

Through my blurred vision, I saw Sachi standing in the doorway with a lit candlestick in her hand.

“I thought I heard screaming. Are you—” A sudden sharp silence. Everything hurt. “Dear God!”

“Oh, I lost the baby,” I moaned, dazed. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” The candle flame flickered, illuminating the bloody mess I lay in. Red spots appeared before my eyes and spread rapidly over my entire view. I felt like your spirit possessed me. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, incoherent words poured out of my quivering lips. All I could see was blood.

“Florentina, what happened? Oh my God, what happened?” Through a haze, I heard Sachi shout. “Mother, she’s hurt!”

In the feeble candlelight, Sachi stripped my blood-soaked undergarments, placed her hands on my wound, and prayed. I sensed Ume’s presence for the first time as she joined Sachi in prayer. Their murmuring prayers hummed like a hive of bees.

My body arched and convulsed. Straddling me, Sachi held me down. She continued to hold me until I gradually calmed. She seemed anxious, but to my surprise, showed no signs of fear.

I felt faint, but the bleeding stopped. I struggled to sit up, but a firm hand on my shoulder pushed me back down. It was Ume. Sachi then cleaned my sullied body with the sheet and changed my clothes and bedding. I didn’t mind being looked after.

“Don’t worry. Go back to sleep now,” Sachi said, giving my hand a gentle squeeze.

“Thank you,” I said as relief and gratitude filled my heart. I cried until my throat burned. Ume nodded and slipped out of the room.

Like a mother soothing a fretful child, Sachi stroke my hair and hummed a sweet lullaby, lulling me to sleep.

When I woke in the morning, my wound had already healed. Only a trace of dried blood on the bedsheet and memories of a gnawing pain in my abdomen told me it wasn’t a dream. I touched my belly. The swelling was gone, but I missed it. I looked under the bed, but there was nothing there. I shook my head to shoo away my phantoms. I gathered my rebozo around my shoulders, went into the kitchen, and found Sachi in the dress I finished the night before.

“It suits you perfectly,” I said. And it was true. I’d previously thought she was on the plain side, but perhaps she deserved a second look. After all, romance was not part of this equation. Perhaps I’d grow to love her, as I did in my first marriage.

“Thank you.” Sachi blushed slightly.

“About last night,” I began, wondering where the creature had gone. I imagined it was still lurking somewhere close.

Sachi held up a hand. “Tea’s ready. Sit down so we can talk.” Her face looked weary, and I spotted dark circles under her eyes.

I nodded and took a seat. By the time she joined me with the steaming cups, tears brimmed in my eyes. “The pain, Sachi. So much pain, and that creature…” When I touched my stomach, I had to choke down the bile rising up in my throat. “It was terrible.” She leaned closer and placed her hands in mine, and her tender touch calmed me, pushing away my mushrooming fear.

After I told her everything, my tears turned to tears of relief. Sachi pulled out her handkerchief and handed it to me. “You’ve blamed yourself long enough. Losing your baby wasn’t your fault.” I blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and smiled at Sachi.

By the time Ume joined us, the tears were half dried on my cheeks. I embraced Ume and Sachi. They took their turns to tend to my needs for the whole morning. I felt like I had two mothers.

Later that day, I saw Ume alone in her room and told her I’d accept her offer and marry her daughter. She jumped for joy, grabbed me, and showered me with kisses, telling me to call her Mother. Sachi joined us shortly later, and we embraced one another.

With Ume’s blessing, I moved into Sachi’s room. After what happened the night before, Sachi didn’t want me to sleep alone. Her room reeked of herbs and oils. When she saw me wrinkle my nose, she said they would protect me against evil spirits.

At first, it felt strange to share the bed with someone who wasn’t you. Still, I was relieved not to be alone. The bloody sight was still fresh in my mind. I kept looking over my shoulder, and as I wondered through the house, I strained my ears for any sound that might suggest the creature followed me.

A few days later, a small, intimate wedding took place. Many neighbors came to congratulate us, and to tell us how well we looked together.

I glanced around the room and saw a handful of women standing around talking to each other. One of them had a vague resemblance to you—or so I thought. She brushed stray strands of hair away from her cheek with one hand while balancing a baby on her hip with the other. I walked toward her, as if being pulled by invisible strings.

“Would you like to hold her?” she said, raising the baby up.

I held the baby with trembling hands. She gargled and smiled, moving her tiny hands. Fear struck my heart as your shrill laughter filled my ears. In vain, I scanned across the room in search of you. Again, I was the only one hearing your voice.

“I’m sorry. I’m not feeling well.” I handed the baby back to her mother, and I walked away, feeling ashamed as if I’d committed some faux pas.

“Are you all right?” Sachi asked when she found me alone, away from the guests.

I nodded, and she gently caressed my back.

Even after a few weeks, I felt your pull, stronger than ever. I could hardly escape your shadow. Your voice haunted me. The words you uttered ingrained themselves in my memory. But I wanted to live. Why should I let you drag me to death? The ghost of you wasn’t enough for me, and I desired another warm body.

Sachi made me feel safe. At night, her soft breathing soothed me into closing my eyes. I rolled over and wrapped my arms around her waist. Half-asleep, she let out a soft moan, and I snuggled closer and buried my face in her hair. I took a slow breath, and then another, before I fell asleep.

As my newfound bliss with Sachi continued over a few months, you slowly receded to the far corners of my mind.

One night, I woke to a faint crawling sensation all over my body. I sat up, lit a candle on the bedside table, and saw my skin slowly turn green. The candle flame flickered, making my monstrous silhouette dance on the wall. I rubbed my eyes because I could hardly believe what I was seeing. When I touched my forehead, I found a horn sprouting out of the center of my brow.

“What’s happening to me?” My voice was grave and hoarse as if belonging to some demonic creature. I covered my face with my hands and tried to figure out what to do.

Sachi stirred next to me, reaching out to embrace me. A sharp pain pierced my head, and I pushed her away.

“What’s wrong, honey?” Sachi mumbled, eyes still closed.

There was something different about her voice. It was then I realized it wasn’t Sachi. It was you. You smiled, but the smile was fleeting, replaced by a taunting frown.

Grimacing at the foul odor rising in the air, I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.

My jaws snapped open. Fangs pushed their way into my mouth, ripping through my gums, and the rusty taste of blood filled my mouth.

A silent scream ripped from my throat. A vein in your pale, enticing neck visibly throbbed. And all I could think of was sating my hunger.

“Florentina, it’s still so early. Go back to sleep.” Sachi’s voice jerked me back to the present. As she snuggled against me, I felt her soft curves under my hands, and then I felt the fangs shrink down into teeth. The now-familiar scent of herbs washed over me. Your voice ceased, and my true name teetered on the tip of my tongue for the space of one inhale before sleep overcame me.

End.

Thanks for reading! For even more cosmic horror and weird fiction, try our free monthly magazine. Tap here to learn more.

Toshiya Kamei writes short stories inspired by folklore, mythology, and fairy tales. Their fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge.

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