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Too Many Ghosts

He’d paid more attention to the knife, and the face he’d brought forth from the wood, than to his left hand trembling as it gripped the cottonwood branch. The blade went into the side of his thumb smoothly, and if it had been wood he would have immediately realized he’d chosen his materials poorly, because wood that soft wouldn’t hold the intricate detail he required. Hector watched as his blood filled the valleys of the bark, reddening the hollows of the unfinished face, an exaggerated expression of anger that dripped onto the porch’s worn boards.

He laid the knife and the branch down carefully on his small table of tools and materials. Then he said “dammit” once and evenly and attempted to close the wound with his other hand.

He wondered again if he might be too old, or at least too infirm, to carve anymore. But carving was all he’d ever wanted to do. It might be all he could do. He hadn’t the stamina to farm anymore, or the heart to sit in an office staring at a screen. If he still had a wife he might feel differently—there might be other things he could do in the world. But he no longer had a wife, so this was how he filled his time.

“Here, Dad.” Lucena dangled a roll of gauze and tape in front of him. She always kept some handy. “Can I help you?”

He grabbed the gauze, wrapping his thumb with swift turns of his other hand. “I’ll manage. Thanks.”

She went back into the kitchen, then called, “Are you sure you can handle the trick-or-treaters tonight? You could still come with us. We could put the candy bucket out with a sign telling the children to take no more than two.”

“Please tell me you’re joking.” He tied the ends of the gauze with a flutter of his fingers. His wife Nekana had called the maneuver his butterfly. She had loved his butterfly. “The candy wouldn’t last five minutes. Parents would be coming by tomorrow to complain about their children’s bellyaches.” His daughter always tried to lure him back into the church, but Hector would not be lured.

“Well, at least help the boys carve their pumpkin. They love seeing the things you come up with.”

He picked up the branch again, stared at it. The old man in the cottonwood stared back. Hector thought he recognized the face from when he was a boy. The eyes in the wood shifted, avoiding capture. Hector couldn’t be sure. “I don’t carve vegetables, mija.”

“A pumpkin is a fruit, papa.”

“I don’t carve those either.”

He heard her move back into the dining room. She fussed at the boys. Apparently they were still staring at the pumpkin, and had not even lifted their puny blades with the colorful plastic handles—very safe, but impossible to use with any skill. She did not understand. You could not carve the face until you first saw the face in your material. The boys had watched him do this hundreds of times, and now they were copying him, although they didn’t have his knowledge, and they were getting into trouble for it. They would be late for the church Halloween party, she told them.

His daughter took the boys to church every Halloween for the safe candy. Hector knew of no child who had ever been poisoned, or who had bitten into a razor blade or a pin. But his daughter always imagined the worst. Now she was angry. The boys would not get their Halloween. One of them began to cry; Hector didn’t know which one—they both sounded the same to him.

This was not his responsibility. He picked up the branch again. He looked for the old one’s eyes, but he still couldn’t find them. Perhaps the old man was sleeping. Or hiding. Hector put his knife point where the left ear should be, but he didn’t know how to carve it until he could see the eyes. A sharp pain in the web of his right hand. He turned the branch over quickly, and thought he saw tiny teeth receding into the carved mouth. There was a bite mark in his skin, or was it a splinter? He pushed his thumb into the mouth but the lips did not move. He sighed and continued to ponder what he had made.

The face in the wood looked disturbingly familiar—the invisible eyes, and the way the hair flowed with the grain—but he could not connect the visage with a name.

He would decide later if he would take this carving to the craft show the next day, or stick it with the others in the field. Both his mistakes and his finest works were out in the field.

The distant explosion was too far away to cause any vibration, but he dropped the branch anyway. A piece of beard snapped off, a corner of one ear. This one was for the field, then. Hector was okay with it—this one’s destination seemed inevitable.

Lucena appeared in the doorway again. “I thought they weren’t working today.”

“They work every day,” Hector replied. It’s a big mountain—they have lots to blow up.”

“These are holy days. They have no respect for the dead.”

“Perhaps the dead want the mountain gone as well. Once they open the road, the dead may find some more interesting place to go.”

“Papa! That’s blasphemous!”

“I don’t intend to be. I know nothing of what the dead want. I can only make guesses.”

She left again. He heard her fussing at his grandsons again, how she would cancel Halloween completely if they didn’t get a move on.

They lived at the high end of the valley, before the gap. But the gap had been closed since Hector was little, the road there buried under landslide after landslide. Nothing could get through, and so people rarely came this way anymore, except the occasional salesman, and the children for their annual Halloween treats.

Once the mountain was removed from the road life would change, Hector was sure. But he could not imagine the details. He climbed slowly to his feet.

“Where is this pumpkin you want carved?” Hector stood in the doorway, his knife ready. Of course he could see the pumpkin—it sat in the middle of the dining table, lolling as if asleep. His twin grandsons stared up at him in amazement.

Hector stepped forward, reached in, and slipped his palm under the pumpkin, drawing it up and cradling it in the crook of his arm. As her face began to appear to him he began his cuts, highlighting and recessing planes and imagined bone and muscle, those wisps of hair, the stretch of the lips, the laughter gone except for some intangible amusement trapped in the corners. Her eyes opened and followed the graceful movements of his hand. There were folds of skin across her cheekbones, but they were tidy, and soft, and well-earned. He remembered every line, where they held fast, and where they moved. He hated the material—it was far too soft, and would not hold its shape, or its health, for long. It would sag, and it would rot, and it would run.

He held his work aloft, now fully realizing what he had made.

“Papa?” Lucena gasped.

“Lito? Is that gramma?” one of the boys asked. Hector didn’t know which one. He could tell them apart perhaps every other Tuesday.

“Your grandmother is dead,” he answered them, and carried her head from the room.

After his family left for the church Hector rushed to prepare for the trick-or-treaters. He was afraid he’d waited too long. The sun was setting, and he still needed to get some lights out so that the children could find their way through the field to the porch.

Another explosion, and this one accompanied by a rain of dust and pebbles from the sky that rattled the house’s rusted tin roof. This had to be the last one—soon there wouldn’t be enough light to continue. A dark cloud oddly streaked with red had settled over the mountain.

“There are too many ghosts here! The dead can’t find their way out!” It had been Hector’s father’s constant complaint. Some of the old timers believed the path to heaven lay through the gap—once the gap was closed the dead didn’t know which way to go. They were trapped, both the living and the dead together. But Hector always thought that what really haunted his father was that he’d made such a bad deal buying this place. The land was poor, and the slides had cut off not just the road, but their only source for water.

He ran two dusty strings of Christmas lights on either side of the porch steps and through the field, making the hollow outline of a path which he embellished here and there with luminaria. As the sun slipped behind the serrated mountain ridges the field became vague and ethereal with a random scattering of stunted, twisted cottonwoods protruding from the white sand, some branches like desperate arms reaching for the yellowed moon. Here and there he’d planted his carvings among them. As the tiny lights blinked indistinct faces and pale twisted bodies floated momentarily out of the bark.

The cottonwoods were rough and dark and yet perfect for the art he felt compelled to make. He used up the branches one at time, and when the trees finally fell completely he carved the roots. If he lived long enough he would have no more materials to work with.

Everything was so dry even the slightest breeze picked up dust and grit making it difficult to see. All along the horizon the shadows multiplied.

The wind came up with a sudden fierceness and Hector turned his face away. For a moment it felt as if all the ground would rise and fill the air. Hoping it would die down before any children arrived, he walked back into the house to prepare their treats, one hand over his mouth. Great stretches of landscape appeared to blow past him, and several of the old trees looked out of place, but this had become a frequent illusion during these late afternoon winds.

The stinging impact of wind-blown debris, the sense of mysterious movement around him, and the fact that he had to contend with all of this alone, angered him.

He split his store of candy into numerous small paper bags, a different prayer written on the back of each just as his wife used to do. Not that he believed in such things, but it would have pleased her to know he’d continued her tradition. He sat by the front window listening for the old pickups that would bring the children in their costumes, in their swollen heads and their strangely broken bodies, loaded pillowcases hung awkwardly between their legs as they struggled up his front steps. He would then take his wife’s old role, greeting them, feigning amazement at their homemade costumes, and always saying something nice to the little ones to comfort them on this scary night.

A scratch at the window startled him, a broken bit of branch clawing its way across the glass. Out in the field he could see the thinner cottonwood branches snapping, spinning into the wind like amputated fingers.

An explosion sounded somewhere nearby, so close he thought it was the house itself about to come down around him. Surely they weren’t working on the mountain this late? Then he saw the lightning flashes and realized it was thunder. He wondered whether it would keep the children away.

Hector had found his wife in that small church down in the mouth of the valley over fifty years ago, courted her for less than two months, eventually bringing her here where they raised a child and built a life. Then he’d had to watch her shrink and twist like the cottonwoods hopeless for water. Still, she’d dragged him stubbornly back to that church for every ceremony and obligation. But no more.

The wind had died down a bit, but out in the field sand was still stirring, a languid scribbling movement that spread upward and into the dark. It snowed rarely here, but when it did it was like this: the air full of a fine white powder that coated the black trees, flipping the world temporarily into its negative.

Hector could see dark masses within the spectral white, individual outlines moving toward his house. The dark twists and verticals of trunks began to peek through, shapes stumbling awkwardly through those damaged trees. He started to get up, wondering if he had a good place to hide, when a dozen or more children suddenly appeared, in drooping costumes and masks turned sideways across dusty faces, dragging their sagging treat bags between the rows of lights, and up his splintered steps.

Hector got up early the next morning to clean up the field. Lucena and the boys weren’t up yet—they’d gotten home late from the church because of the storm. The boys had been subdued—Lucena said the storm had scared them, although they’d refused to admit it.

He gathered up several armfuls of broken cottonwood branches, stacking them for later use. Surprisingly, all his carvings appeared to be more or less intact after the storm, although some leaned precariously over, and others had hairline cracks giving new emphasis to either age or suffering.

He pulled one of these out of the ground and cradled it in his arms. The face in the wood looked gray, asleep, and had he really carved the hair that way? He searched for some fissure in the scalp but couldn’t find one. The hair looked misshapen, pulled. The face appeared to open its eyes, and look at Hector, but the sun was rising higher behind him, pushing the shadows. He jammed the carving back into the ground and turned away.

Once back inside the house he began choosing the carvings he would take to the show. He could hear Lucena talking to the boys in the next room. “Mother Lupita, she would go begging in the street to collect money for her hospital, but asking no more than was necessary. You see, she never felt above doing whatever the poor have to do. That is why they made her a saint. And you boys—you complain about the breakfast I cook? Think about it!”

His daughter was in a righteous mood. He hurried to get out of there before she saw him, but almost immediately she burst through the door. “I can’t believe you’re not going with us today. It’s a day of obligation, Papa! What kind of Catholic are you?”

He didn’t look at her, but focused on selecting pieces. He always brought too many old men, when it was the lovely ladies with the roses in their hair who sold the best. “A poor one, certainly. With two hungry grandsons to feed, and I am happy to do so, make no mistake. Why do we need to pray for the saints anyway? We’re the ones who need the prayers.”

“Papa! That’s blasphemy! Mama would be so ashamed!”

“You have no idea what your mother would say. You weren’t there to see her suffer. She just wanted an end to her agony, and what comfort did the priest have to offer her? ‘You must bear it,’ that’s what he said. Oh, and ‘your reward is coming. You must be brave,’ he told her, as if she weren’t already the bravest person I ever knew.”

“I know she was brave, Papa. I know she wanted to die, but only God decides when.”

Hector stared at her. “She didn’t want to die,” he said. “She just didn’t want to live in such pain, and in the end she cursed me and she cursed herself and she cursed God for that. And that is why I am not going with you today.”

She was crying. “I will pray for Mama tomorrow,” she said. “When it is All Souls’. I will pray that God lets her out of purgatory.”

Unable to look his daughter in the eyes anymore, Hector turned his back and began getting the rest of his carvings together. He could tell how wary of him they were, how fearful that he might chip the important details. But he grabbed them anyway, clutching them too firmly. He grabbed them and took them out to his truck and threw them in. He was aware of Lucena standing there behind him the whole time, but he did not turn around. He had been too harsh with her, he knew, but it was too late now.

The craft fair had a fall theme. Of course there were the usual Halloween items—ghosts and witches and pumpkins and the like—discounted heavily because it was the day after.

When business was slow the sellers walked around, checking out the competition, catching up with old friends. Hector never engaged in that—he had no money to spend, and even less curiosity, and all his old friends were dead.

Alvarez, a potter, had been studying one of Hector’s “old men,” Gray Beard, when he said, “Your talent grows every year, Hector. That’s how I know you’re a true artist. You never slack off. You always raise the bar, improve your craft.” Hector grunted, not that he didn’t appreciate compliments. He just didn’t know what to do with them. “Take this one. Excelente! He’s the old priest, the one who died ten years ago, right? You’ve captured him so well, that cast of the eye, that crook in the mouth, the untidy beard.”

Hector stared at the carving. “The resemblance is coincidental,” he stated flatly, and folded his arms. He did not do portraits. But he hesitated. The likeness was uncanny.

“Oh, I see. But this one? This is that butcher Emilio? He died last year? I still haven’t found a roast as good as what he had in his shop.”

Hector nodded uncommittedly, but stared at the hook nose, the broad cheeks wrapping around the branch. He had never liked Emilio, never patronized his shop. So why would be memorialize him? But the resemblance was undeniable.

“And Mother Adoncia? It was so sad when she died earlier this year.” Alvarez held the thick branch in his hands, rocking back and forth on his feet. Hector had forgotten all about the old nun. But yes, this was certainly her.

An elderly woman stopped at Alvarez’s table and he scurried off with a dramatic wave. Multiple bracelets dangled from his wrist. Hector was surprised to see that he liked the effect.

He glanced at his display. The embedded faces turned toward him, or peeked out of branch forks, crooks, knots, obscuring turns. They blinked, licked lips with tongue-like wooden chips, as if wanting to address him, or waiting for him to address them.

He thought he recognized a few more of the carvings. Oliver Sanchez. A man he’d seen hitch-hiking. Madonna Pena. He believed he might have heard about her death a few months ago. A number of them had died this past year, but he wasn’t sure of the details. He should have paid more attention, and then he might have a better understanding of what was happening here. Or at least he might have a clue. All perfect likenesses. All unintended.

The ragged fellow with the floppy cap—he’d once been a neighbor, and then he’d lost his ranch. Hector never knew whatever happened to the man. Had he passed away too?

“Do you have something with a Halloween theme?”

The woman’s head looked so small with the scarf wrapped around it Hector thought at first she was one of his. Then she held up a twenty dollar bill. “Hello, customer here. I have pesos, dinero, whatever you people call it. Anything Halloween related? I’m a collector.”

Hector glanced around at his pieces. They were still moving, misbehaving. “I don’t believe so,” he said softly.

“Why not? It’s the season. Days of the Dead, anything like that?”

“No. Just these faces. Old, dead faces.”

“No? Why not?”

“Not my genre.” He wished she would go away, but he didn’t know how to make that happen.

She stared at him sourly. “Are you insulting me?”

“No ma’am—I just don’t draw my inspirations from those subjects.”

“I see.” She looked around and fixed on Gray Beard. “How did you get the wood there so gray? Is that a stain?”

Hector had no idea, now that he considered it. He didn’t use stains. “It’s just the color.”

She touched it. He watched as she ran one finger across the successive grooves of the beard. “This looks like you have some talent.” Hector tried to smile. “The sticker says forty-five dollars. Will you take thirty?”

Hector watched the old priest’s face nestled comfortably in the wood. Suddenly the eyes began blinking, the lips moving. The lady was staring at Hector, waiting for his answer, so she didn’t notice.

“I apologize,” he said. “I made a mistake. That one is supposed to be a sample of my work. It isn’t for sale.”

The woman leaned in. “I’ll give you fifty for it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Dammit, I’ll give you seventy-five. I’m not leaving this table empty-handed.”

“I’m really sorry. It was not my intention to put a sticker on it.”

The woman slammed the carving down on Hector’s table. She picked up the nun. “This one then. Forty dollars it says.” She shook the carving over his head. The nun gasped and began to cry ever so faintly. The determined woman didn’t appear to notice, but Hector heard the nun all too clearly.

“I’m, I’m sorry, madam. I’m feeling ill. The heat, you know? I’m not thinking clearly. I need to close up early. I’m, I’m very sick.”

She picked up Hector’s former neighbor, the butcher, and another. The last one wouldn’t let go of the carving lying next to it, and the woman had to shake it again and again until one of the thin branch fingers snapped. There was a collective outcry that made heads turn all around the room, but the woman didn’t take her eyes off Hector. “Two hundred for the lot!” she shouted.

“No, no,” Hector said, waving his trembling hands. To his alarm he noticed he had his carving knife in his left.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”

“I’m, I’m stuck here . . . ” He tried to drop the knife, but his hand wouldn’t let it go. When she saw it, she began to scream.

Hector woke at dawn, but remained in bed. Both hands trembled; they had not stopped since yesterday. His eyes burned with a soft fire, and things floated in his vision.

“Papa, are you okay?” Lucena’s head was in the door. In the darkness she looked like a figure he’d never completed.

“I’m just a little under the weather, mija. Go on, go to the church. Pray for your mother—help her find her way to Heaven.”

“I will, Papa. I was thinking I would take the boys to visit her grave afterwards. I thought I could bring one of your carvings and lay it by the headstone. She would have liked that very much. It would be a nice gesture.”

Hector began to sweat. He hoped she didn’t notice. She would think he was running a fever and insist on staying home.

“It would have to be something really special, and I wouldn’t be able to choose right now. I wouldn’t know . . . ” He stopped. He’d almost said which one was safe.

“It’s okay, Papa. We can do it later. There’s no rush. Momma isn’t going anywhere.” She put her hand up to her lips. “I’m—I’m so sorry. That sounded terrible.”

“Always the comico, my daughter,” Hector replied.

She laughed. “Okay, Papa. We’ll be back in a few hours.”

Hector heard the front door. And then he heard it again, and the quick clip-clop of shoes on the floor. One of his grandsons—he had no idea which one—stuck his face around the corner. “Are you sick, Grandpa?” He was very somber, his lower lip protruding like a large, shiny blister.

“I’m afraid so . . . um . . . ”

“Xenon,” he said, and smiled. “I have a freckle below my right eye. That’s how you tell us apart.”

“Why, thank you, Xenon. That’s very kind of you to tell me.”

Xenon looked serious again. “Are you going to die, Grandpa?”

Hector considered the question. “I’m afraid we’re all going to die, child. None of us know exactly when. We live with the knowledge, or we pretend ignorance.”

Xenon nodded. “I will pray for you today, in the church, and at my abuela’s grave. I will pray that you find your way to Heaven.” He left before Hector could thank him.

Hector forced himself out of bed a few minutes later. He dressed himself, although the trembling in his hands made for a poor job. His shoelaces became a mess of hard knots—no more lovely butterflies it seemed.

He stumbled out to the front of the house and collapsed into his old rocker at the edge of the field. It hadn’t been used in years—he only kept it because it belonged to his father. But it had been left outside for so long–the slats were splintered and padded only with dust. It snapped and creaked beneath him as if it were disintegrating, but it held.

The explosions began a few minutes later. There were several of them, each one louder than the one before, and the rumble of hundreds of tons of rock giving way. There were lightning strikes as well—unusual for so early in the day. He wondered if the explosions might be causing the lightning, if maybe the noise and vibration might even bring about a storm. But maybe it was the other way around, the explosions the result of the lightning strikes, and with all that dynamite. More explosions, and a rain of dirt from the sky. Somewhere behind him he could feel the ground heave.

Another explosion, the loudest yet, loud enough—he thought—to wake the dead. That’s when he saw all their heads come up—their profiles rising out of his carvings, out of the crooks and warps in the cottonwood branches, and stepping out of the shadows, and walking out of the horizon where they’d been hiding, all those who had died over the decades and unable to move on because the way had been blocked. Too many of them, he thought. Too many ghosts to count.

It seemed he had been there all day. He had sat all day in this rocker without knowing. He’d watched the changes in the sky as that ball of white heat lowered over the ridges and became orange and then he was done.

The wind the dead made was but a whisper at first, issuing softly out of the broken down branches and sticks, the twisted hearts of the cottonwoods, shadows inside shadows, but it soon became a roar as they all exited past him, and the sun began its descent behind the mountain, and the entire horizon line burned with its fire.

The first forms that flew by him were long, and wooden, and almost expressionless, and then they became more expansive as the realization hit, and then they were practically screaming in pain or joy, when that one so familiar clutched his trembling hands and ripped him out of his chair.

About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem’s last novel, Blood Kin (Solaris, 2014), won the Bram Stoker Award. His next novel, UBO (Solaris, January 2017), is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. He is also a past winner of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards. A handbook on writing, Yours To Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, written with his late wife Melanie, will appear early in 2017 from Apex Books. In the Fall of 2018 Colorado-based HEX Publications will bring out his young adult Halloween novel, The Mask Shop of Doctor Blaack (note that Blaack is not a typo).