My artist friends often do “draw me in your style” pieces where they take a piece by an admired artist and reimagine it. I wrote Ash as essentially a piece of fanfiction for my friend Dash’s novel Birch and it actually ended up a nice little ghost story.
When the people said my sister had gone missing, they were simply being polite. They all knew where she was. When she did not come home before dark, when she did not come home in time to curl up in bed with me, our parents exchanged only grim glances. No one asked Where is Kulya? except me. When she did not come back in the morning, bitten by the cold, they all knew.
“She is in the field.” My mother answered as she served dinner, such as it was. “And that is the same as being gone,” she said as she tucked me into bed, such as it was. My sister was not the first girl that had gone to the field.
I listened very carefully for my mother’s breathing to go deep and slow. My father’s breath was always deep and slow; laborious as his struggle into and out of his old chair. I had to wait for it to begin its stop-start, loud-soft, strangled place. I crept out of bed, holding my clothes to dress outside. I tip-toed across the floor, picking my way among the rough floorboards, and tried not to look at my shadow slung long and wicked against the wall. Sometimes I think she will turn against me, that shadow.
I dressed clumsily in the night air, struggling into Kulya’s woollen dress over the top of mine, and then my coat, and then hers. Still, the air found its way in like a living thing and burned me. Squeezed me. Kulya could only be colder, so I walked. Feet already numb, I didn’t try to lift them high and risk a sprained ankle. I skimmed them over the ground, let my toes in their boots knock-knock the roots and rocks. The night was so clear and dark, the sky above me laced with silver and endless except where the black trees cut a sharp and jagged horizon. The clouds of the day had shed their tears and moved on, I kept mine inside.
I repeated to myself that there were no wolves here anymore. Father might grumble about wild dogs, but hadn’t he reassured us so many times they didn’t come near the home lights? I chanced a look back and was not comforted, the village night fires could not penetrate the trees this far. I was alone, and for the first time considered the possibility of losing myself. I caught myself once, thinking there was a white shape watching me. Not Kulya, but some other pale waif standing by. Just out of the corner of my eye. When I turned to look there was nothing there. The only one crazy enough to be out at this hour was me, and somewhere, my sister.
I could not find the field. As the night got blacker and colder, and I stumbled and gasped and rubbed my cheeks, and startled at every noise, suddenly the thought of Kulya being colder and lonelier only made me sadder instead of braver. I quailed, and groped my way home again.
“You can’t find the field,” mother snorted as she served breakfast, which was the same as dinner but worse after a night congealing in the pot. “The lost field cannot be found.” Father was already gone. Not to look for Kulya, but to work. It was what men did to take their minds off their grief. Mother would keep hers inside until later, when she could pour it down the well in a long wail like when grandmother died. My grief was a sneaking hungry thing, a rat in my mind. It wanted to go hunting again.
It took longer that night for my parents to fall asleep, they were sadder than I had given them credit for. I realised as I lay there, listening to the sounds my parents were making, that I had never really believed they had loved Kulya as much as I did.
When I was able to creep from my bed, I found my way through the door barred by a girl dressed in a white shift. There were bad marks on her, and she did not seem bothered by the cold, so she must have been dead.
“If you want your sister to come home, you need to bring back a pot of her ashes.”
I met her gaze as much as I dared, “There is plenty of her things already here for her to follow home.”
The ghost frowned, and reached out an icy hand to grasp me by the wrist. She made to pull me outside, and she was stronger than you would warrant for a ghost. “No,” I said, and she let go. She walked away, and the rat in my mind screamed to follow her into the forest.
The next morning, there was a little clay pot in front of our door. It was sealed with waxed cloth. My father inspected it eagerly, thinking maybe a neighbour had delivered him some samahon, but he recoiled at the contents and threw the little pot as far as he could. I said nothing of the uninvited guest of the night before. I said nothing the next day, when my mother found two little clay pots by the door. She looked at me anyway, a shrewd accusatory edge to her exhausted and tear stained eyes. I held my tongue. She made a little fire and burned the pots and mixed the ashes into the rubbish pit. The smell was eye watering. Stomach churning. For days, the smell of burned hair and flesh pervaded the house, and each morning brought more pots. The fine silvery marks of fingernails scratching at the door. Cracks in the window panes. Ashes creeping under the doors to gather in the corners of our home like dust.
After a week, the house was surrounded by starving girls. Hurt girls. I was angry. The first ghost I had seen was there, and she stood defiantly at the window each night, eyes burning at me. Would she bring back every girl but my sister to spite me? I had not believed that night that she really meant for me to find my sister, I thought she wanted me to become lost too. Now, I thought, as I stared back her, that what she really wanted was my ashes.
“Tell me about the field.” I asked my mother. We both had rags tied over our mouths. The air outside was thick with smoke, although the rubbish fire had been allowed to go out. The smoke let the girls stand outside, even during the day.
“There’s nothing to tell.” My mother replied obstinately. “The field is lost. Like Kulya. Like your grandmother. Gone.”
“Like it’s dead?” I asked.
“Yes.” My mother nodded, “Yes. It is dead. There is a man, a bad man, who owns all of the land around here. He is our lord, and we could not rightly refuse anything we grew or made here. But he doesn’t want anything we grow or make, except our daughters. It must make a man angry, to spend so much money on earth that is dead.”
“Father spreads ashes on the ground because he says it makes things grow.” I said, thoughtfully. My mother recoiled from me, appalled. How many girls would it take to bring the lost field back to life, I wondered.
“That field does not want for ashes,” my mother said softly, bitterly, when she thought I was not listening any more.
The girls pressed against the house at night, and made the walls creak and groan under the pressure. The windows broke and the cold became an oppressive weight on our backs. They tried to open the door, and hissed and snarled at each other. The first ghost, the girl in just her white shift, stood a little further back. She always stood where I would be able to see her. If she thought I would give up myself to save my parents, she would wait a long time. The only one I would give myself up for was Kulya. It made me feel bad, I was learning a lot of things about myself I could have happily never known. I was learning how cold and hungry I could be, what stench and pain I could endure, and still stare down the ghost of a murdered girl my own age every night. The rat in my mind clawed at my resolve, wanted to follow the ghost to my sister, but if my sister was truly gone then I was not going anywhere. I wanted my sister, but I also wanted to live.
“There used to be a church,” My father wheezed one night as my mother slept. I was not even pretending to be asleep. I stood by the window, viciously slapping each pale cold hand that reached through the broken glass panes. “There was a church until the massacre, and then it was just a field, covered in ashes. People tried to rebuild on it, to grow on it, to move on, but it was dead. Dead and hungry. When you burn wood, it becomes charcoal, and you use it to burn other wood faster. When you burn people–”
“I went looking for Kulya.” I admitted finally, able to say to this sad, sick man what I could not to my mother. “One of the ghosts followed me home.”
“I suppose it’s only a matter of time before she is out there too,” my father sounded resigned. “He thinks he owns the field, but it will work him like a pit pony to get what it wants.” He yawned; a glottal, fleshy sound. “It will force him to stay alive, and he thinks that is what he wants but he doesn’t know what waits when the flesh fails.”
“Your mother told you,” my father’s voice was drowsy in the dark.
Kulya stands at the door, and she jostles and shoves with the other girls. She tells me not to open the door even as she scratches and claws at the wood, and wrenches at the handle. She tells me she loves me through the broken window panes and not to look at her face, her poor body. What the man did to her before he gave her to the field forever. She tells me she wishes I’d had time to run away, that she will hold them back as long as she can if I want to try.
When I do, she is the first one that catches me.