by Sherry D. Ramsey
Kim brushed a hand across her sweating brow, dislodging a strand of hair that had stuck to her forehead as she ran. The trail through the woods stretched deserted before her, just the way she liked it, despite the occasional warnings of coyote sightings circulating through the community and over the radio. Running was her only real escape, and a coyote or two was not going to keep her from it.
Faithful Fergus, tail stretched out and mottled black-and-white ears perked high, always ran with her, although she wasn’t entirely sure whether the dog would be an asset or a liability if a coyote happened on the scene. She depended more on the smartphone strapped to her forearm, loaded with an app that emitted a strident cacophony of sound to scare them away if one threatened, and the can of pepper spray she clutched in one hand.
I’d love to use that pepper spray on Sid, but he'd kill me.
Kim quashed that thought with a shiver, reminding herself that he wasn't here, and couldn't read her mind if he was. Her husband had never actually hurt her, never raised a hand, but sometimes the words felt worse than a slap might have. In a small community like theirs, someone would be bound to notice a bruise, but no one could see the mental scars.
So every day, Kim ran.
The little town where Sid ran a corner store nestled close under the shadow of a mountain, and trails of all sorts crisscrossed the Cape Breton Highlands. Sometimes she and Fergus ran the "official" tourist trails; usually she preferred the lesser-known paths the locals guarded for themselves. These trails had grown from cow paths, dating back to early Scottish settlers who'd found their way here with their long-haired, long-horned Highland cattle. The farms had spread outward as the town centre grew, but the dirt hard-packed by generations of hooves remained to mark their old trails. It made an excellent running surface.
Kim emerged into a clearing, delighted to feel a hint of a breeze freshening against her perspiring skin. Fergus, loping easily at her heels, barked once. The breeze carried something else as well, brushing like a feather against her hearing. The distant sound of bagpipes.
“Easy, boy,” she breathed. “You might not like the sound, but they won’t hurt you.”
It wasn't completely unusual to hear bagpipes in Cape Breton—Celtic music and tradition had crossed the sea along with the farmers and their cattle. But they usually turned up at concerts and tourist information kiosks, or in parades, or sometimes, at a funeral. To hear the lilting hum borne on the breeze in the middle of the Highlands was definitely unusual. Kim slowed her pace to listen, and the sound strengthened and swelled. It seemed to be coming from the other side of the clearing, where the path ducked into denser woods again. Was someone walking toward her, playing? Fergus had his nose in the air, sniffing mightily.
The tune registered with her now; “Mist Covered Mountains of Home.” The slow air drove into her ears and her heart with a pang of remembrance. She'd played the piece many times herself, on the fiddle that now lay hidden away at the back of her closet. Sid disliked the sound of the instrument—even though Kim played it well—and forbade her to play or practice it, saying it gave him a headache. For a time she'd played it defiantly when he wasn't home, but when he'd threatened to smash it to pieces the next time he saw it, she'd squirreled it away. Now she hadn't touched it in three years, barely even thought of it any more.
Just another piece of her that Sid had slowly eroded.
Kim stopped and stood in place, waiting for the piper to appear. She didn't want to run into the woods and crash into him on the narrow path.
“Sit, Fergus,” she said absently, but the dog stood, still testing the air with his nose. He growled a little, low in his throat, but his hackles lay smooth and he didn’t seem agitated.
Although the sound continued to swell and grow around her, filling the clearing with its melancholy lament, no piper appeared. The sun, well into its evening descent, still bathed the clearing in warm spring light and darkened the shadows in the deep wood. A shimmer of movement wavered just past the tree line, but no one appeared.
Still holding the pepper spray, Kim stepped cautiously along the path, curious now to see who might have chosen this remote place to play the pipes. The song swirled and skirled around her, and she found herself humming along, mentally fingering it on the neck of the fiddle. The piper was excellent, playing the music as smoothly and beautifully as she’d ever heard.
She caught the shimmer again, and the piper stepped forward, into the clearing and the noonday sunlight. He might have been about Kim’s age—late twenties—but his full dark beard accentuated the puffing of his cheeks as he blew into the mouthpiece and made it more difficult to judge his age, as well. Dark hair curled long over his collar. Kim felt a spark of warm amusement to see that he wore the traditional highland Scottish dress—complete with tartan kilt and sporran—just to walk around and practice in the woods. She started to smile, but it froze midway through forming on her lips.
Behind the piper—through him—the path continued into the woods, losing itself in the tree trunks and low brush hemming its sides. The trees were real—but the man was ghostly. Transparent. This was no ordinary piper. Kim took a stumbling step backward, but the music buoyed her up like a steadying hand at her back and she regained her balance. Fergus growled again.
“What—” Kim gasped, but no sentence followed it. Her brain denied what her eyes and ears were telling her. She pulled her gaze from the apparition, looking down at the pepper spray in her hand. It was real, solid. She reached a hand down and touched the dog’s head, his silky hair warm and reassuring under her fingers. She wasn’t dreaming. This was real.
The piper continued his slow pace until he stood in front of her, still playing, crimson tassels swinging from the bagpipes’ cords. His eyes were the same deep brown as her own, and she was startled by the thought that he looked a little like pictures she’d seen of her father when he was young. But her father had never been a piper. The music continued, reverberating through the clearing, enveloping them in a world that shut out everything else. Kim couldn’t move, couldn’t think, could only stand and listen.
Suddenly the song ended, and the piper let the mouthpiece fall from his lips. The sound died away with a sad murmur as the instrument’s bag deflated. The piper studied Kim for a long moment, his brown eyes locked on hers.
“Ye’ve lost your music,” he said finally, his voice as warm and breathy as the wind. “Best find it, lass, before ye lose your soul.”
And then he was gone, disappearing into nothingness as thoroughly as the sound of his pipes had faded when he stopped playing.
Kim stood for a long moment, staring dumbly at the empty space where the piper had been. Then she gasped breath back into her lungs, whispered, “Fergus! Come!” and turned and ran.
Of course, Kim said nothing to Sid about her strange encounter on the trail. Fortunately, it was poker night, so she quietly brought beer and served nachos to Sid and his friends while they drank and talked and laughed among themselves. And while she did all that, she rolled the apparition's words around in her mind.
Was she in danger of losing her soul? Not in a religious sense—Kim didn’t buy into all of that, but in a personal sense? Sid had demanded that she give up her job as a medical secretary to come and help in the store—it meant less money coming into the household, but Kim knew he wanted to be able to keep an eye on her more of the time. They didn’t have children because Sid didn’t want them. The only thing she’d been able to really hold on to was Fergus, and that was only because Sid saw the animal’s value as a guard dog. Standing in her kitchen, staring out at the yellow rectangle of light spilling from her window onto the darkened backyard, Kim knew the ghostly piper was right. She didn’t have much left that was hers and hers alone.
She went to bed early and pretended to be asleep when Sid came up. He was half drunk anyway and his snores quickly filled the room, but Kim lay awake a long time asking herself the same question.
Why didn’t she leave?
By the time dawn had begun to spread golden-pink tendrils across the sky, the only answer she had for herself was that she didn’t know how. But she’d made a decision about something she would do tomorrow. She glanced out the window at the lightening sky. Not tomorrow—today.
She’d see if she could find her music.
As usual, Kim left the store around three in the afternoon. Her daily routine was to run then, and be home in time to have supper ready by the time Sid had closed up the store. Today, though, she paused long enough to dig her fiddle out of the back of the closet and sling its case over her back with a makeshift strap. She called to Fergus and set out running, the instrument bouncing with a comforting weight between her shoulder blades. Would anyone notice her before she reached the trail head and wonder why she would go running with a fiddle case on her back?
She decided she didn’t care.
Kim took the same trail as yesterday, and found it just as deserted. As she ran, her brain repeated, This is crazy. This is nuts. You’re going to play the fiddle in the woods because you think a ghost told you to? But she ignored the voice. It was the same voice, she realized, that kept telling her Sid wasn’t so bad, her life wasn’t so bad, and it would get better in time. She glanced down at Fergus, running easily beside her.
“You saw him too, didn’t you, boy? You know I’m not crazy.”
Fergus looked up at the sound of her voice, eyes bright, but he didn’t say anything. Kim felt slightly grateful for that. A ghost was quite enough to deal with.
When they reached the piper’s clearing, Kim stopped and wiped her brow, then stood with her hands on her hips as she caught her breath. A breeze rippled the leaves on the trees again today, but it carried no strains of bagpipe music. Kim felt the clutch of unreasonable disappointment in her chest. She’d thought, for some reason, that he’d be here. Waiting for her.
Fergus growled suddenly, and Kim turned with a smile, expecting to see the ghostly figure of the piper behind her. Instead, three coyotes approached on silent feet, heads set low and yellow eyes locked on her.
And with the distraction of the fiddle, Kim had brought neither her phone nor the pepper spray.
“Easy, Fergus,” she whispered to the dog. She didn’t want him attacking one of the wild creatures—they’d tear him to shreds in front of her eyes. He stood his ground, but the continuous growl issuing from deep in his throat rumbled like an oncoming train. She drew herself up, making herself appear as large as she could to the animals, and slowly eased the fiddle case around so she could open it, making no sudden moves and not taking her eyes off them. She eased the instrument out, taking the bow in one shaky hand and tucking the fiddle under her chin. She hadn’t played in years. She had no idea what to play. She knew she needed sound, loud noise to chase the coyotes off, but the only song she could call to mind was the soft Gaelic air the piper had played yesterday.
Better than nothing, she thought, and put the bow to the strings.
At the first note, the coyotes startled, but held their ground. Kim played hesitantly, willing the skill and energy to return to hands that had lain still for too long. The hesitant, halting notes spilled out of the fiddle, swirling around Kim and Fergus, but she knew even as she played that it was too soft, too melancholy, not the loud cacophony needed to discourage the coyotes and drive them away. Fergus’s growl laid a low bass note like a bagpipe's drone alongside her music, but the coyotes didn’t seem afraid. One took a single step closer, fur bristling, yellow eyes keen. Kim’s heart throbbed in her chest. It wasn’t working.
But then, with sudden clarity, another piece of music, one she'd played at countless community dances, exploded in her brain. “Bronni's Blue Brozzie.” The jig flowed down her arms and into her fingers like a physical thing. She made the transition expertly, one song transforming into the next in the smooth flow of a Celtic medley, pace and timing changing as the new piece took hold. Loud, fast, and joyous, the notes resonated through the smooth, polished wood, shattering the tense quiet of the clearing. Kim whooped as her bow danced over the strings, wringing sound and life from the instrument.
Seconds later, she heard the pipes drone to life, joining and overpowering the dog’s growl.
She spared a glace to the side and saw the piper—her piper—playing gustily along with her. He caught her eye and winked as his fingers plied the chanter. Their music roiled and eddied around them in wind-tossed waves, almost rippling the dry grasses of the clearing.
For the first time, the lead coyote looked uncertain and took a nervous step back. The piper took his lips from the mouthpiece long enough to whisper, “Mach à Seo!”
Kim didn’t know much Gaelic, but she caught the meaning. Onward. Let’s go. Together, brandishing their music like weapons, they took a step toward the coyotes. Then another, and another, footfalls precise and attuned as a highland regiment on the march.
The coyotes crouched, nervous at their approach, claws stuttering on the hard-packed trail. Then as one, they turned bushy tails and ran.
Kim watched them disappear into the undergrowth hemming the trail. She turned to the piper with a smile. Her bow jigged across the strings, one foot involuntarily taking up the measure as she pounded her heel on the hard-packed earth. They hadn’t reached the end of the song yet, and she couldn’t bear to stop. Her soul flew on the music, dipping down on the low notes and soaring on the high ones. Foot pounding, fingers dancing, bow and soul singing, she played out the tune and eagerly followed the piper when he launched into a reel. Music flooded back into her brain as if a cork had been pulled. Time seemed to stop. There was only the sun and the sound and a contented dog at her feet. And the ghostly piper, driving the tune and buoying her up.
Finally he let the mouthpiece fall and drew a deep breath. Kim played a triumphant trill and lifted the bow from the fiddle strings, exhausted but achingly sad that the moment was over. Some part of her had hoped it would never end.
The piper smiled and put a ghostly hand on her shoulder. It felt as light as the touch of a hummingbird’s wing, but it was there.
“Aye, lass,” the piper said. “Ye’ll do. Ye’ll do just fine.”
And he was gone.
Kim looked once more at the note she’d left on the kitchen table. She’d already stowed a quickly packed suitcase in the back of her little green hatchback, and Fergus, tongue lolling happily, waited for her by the door. She’d stop at the town’s single ATM and take some cash to see her through the next little while.
The note said everything it needed to, she thought. Sid: I’m done. A lawyer will be in touch.
The fiddle case was light and reassuring in her hand as she locked the door behind them for the last time. Fergus bounded to the car, excited to be going for a drive.
“I think we’ll do, boy,” she said to him, scruffing the fur on his head before he clambered into the back seat. “We’ll do just fine.”
Sherry D. Ramsey is a bestselling author, editor, publisher, creativity addict, and self-confessed Internet geek. Her debut novel, One's Aspect to the Sun, was the Alberta Publishers Association Book of the Year. Sherry is a member of the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia Writer’s Council, and a past Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer of SF Canada, Canada’s national association for Speculative Fiction Professionals. She lives in Nova Scotia with her husband, children, and dogs, where she consumes far more coffee and chocolate than is likely good for her.