by Russell Hemmell
I’d never liked daylight, streets full of people—and pubs, bars, and oddly defined meeting spaces even less. After many years of wondering about the reasons of my idiosyncrasy, I arrived at the inevitable conclusion: I dreaded the smell and sound of the living, their violent intrusion into your private sphere, their shameless prevarication in imposing their presence when the only thing you crave is blissful solitude.
Difficult for a human to avoid the ordeal though. I prayed to all divinities mankind has produced to be turned into an insect, a rat, or at least into a less conspicuous mammal. No such luck. My human awkward shape—spiderlike white legs and clumsy arms—didn’t go away no matter the spell I voiced.
So I adapted and chose a job that suits my neurosis. I worked on the streets, cleaning what rests of raucous parties and unbridled revelries. Socially authorised to live at night, I slept my day away, forgotten by the loudly mass.
An uneventful existence for a colourless individual, where days are all the same and equally (un)cherished. Until one night in the Scottish summer, collecting trash across old Edinburgh closes just near the dungeons, I saw something I was not supposed to see.
I saw her. Pale, gentle, with a dress in tatters.
I’ve escaped. She said. You won’t give me away, will you?
“No,” I said.
Her name was Ranya, a murderer, she confessed. She had broken free from the dungeons and she was going to stay in the close, hidden, until the angry mob stopped searching for her. It could take a long, long time, she announced.
“Who have you killed?”
You don’t want to know, she replied with a sad stare.
She turned her head away from me, and I left the close in silence.
I tried to steer clear of Ranya’s Close—so I rechristened that dark, smelly little alley—but I couldn’t. Something there attracted me inexorably, as if it was only there that life breathed for me in the city. One night, a few months later, I went to see her again.
Hello, visitor, she said, spotting me in the dark.
“Hi. I thought you had left by now.”
This is my new prison. If I indeed have to hide, I’d better be comfortable, yes?
“Yes—but why here?”
Because it’s here I was born once—in the age-darkened building that still towers above us now, she said, her pale green eyes wide open. It’s a kind of different prison, this one. It has no gates or bars to restrict movements and yet it’s a confined space. I can breathe open air, but the invisible line that crosses the entrance of the close is harder than concrete. I like it this way—it’s unblemished and luminous, always allowing for a view of the city.
The city of dark and light, that’s what we used to call it at that time. The city where anything is possible during the day, and everything is dangerous at night. I love my city. It’s just that I wouldn’t have lived here, if I were given a choice.
“Talking about choices…”
Will you be my friend, yes? Somebody friendlier than a jailer, but not substantially different in cases like this. She smiled for the first time. I’m a nice prisoner to have. I’m neat, gentle, even kind when the mood is good. And when I’m bad, I retreat behind the stones of this close, where only air is allowed and silence is sovereign. There I stay, until violence passes over like a hurricane on a deserted beach. No witnesses. No damages, except to dead things—like that monstrous entity of mine that doesn’t deserve the name of soul.
I shivered, and stepped back, involuntarily.
You do understand, don’t you?
So keep me company. Until I leave again—one day.
I nodded, while her hand, like a butterfly’s transparent wing, touched mine in a cold caress.
In my daymares I had often imagined how it could have been to make friends, kindred spirits I could talk to, sharing thoughts, feelings, or simply moments of silence. But for that I should’ve ventured out of my oyster—mixing up with people, bearing that physical proximity impossible to manage.
With Ranya, I didn’t need it any longer.
I was going to the close every night. To visit her and the people she had murdered centuries ago in her blind vengeance—against a community that failed her and her family and a government that crushed her delicate bones.
But there were no hard feelings among them, for ghosts, I discovered, are nicer in comparison to the living. Pale, gentle, discrete. Sticking to their familiar closes, to their forgotten crypts and any other space where the light of sun doesn’t penetrate, they appear only when somebody comes searching for them. Like me.
I will leave soon, she said again.
“I thought ghosts were perennial.”
Everything ends, Iain. Even ghosts. But you’re welcome to come here, staying with the others. Keep them company.
“I’m going to miss you.”
Something of me will always remain in this place—tied by invisible but unbreakable tendrils of fear and pain. Nothing else has survived.
Ranya let me touch her face sometimes, cold and weightless like a white shadow or the winter breeze. She talked to me about her sister dead of plague, about her trial as a witch, about the community she had slaughtered in revenge. But she remained silent about her tortures and the suffering that turned her into a monster.
Rage, pain, and agony were long gone. Condemned in life but forgiven in death by the same she had killed, Ranya shared the close with them, like a peaceful family finally reunited. It was power, Iain, that corrupted them and confused their minds. They aren’t but victims that deserve your compassion.
I know it now; there are no angry ghosts, only angry living.
Yet I discovered things about Ranya’s ordeal, scant details I picked up here and there—whispers, gossips, and solitary tears on her sister’s face. The little girl that still bore on her ghostly features the marks of the disease told me one night a story I’m not going to forget.
They came for her on All Souls’ Day, like monsters from children’s nightmares. The elders of the kirk they were, our highest authorities. I was dying of plague because it was God’s will, they said, and going against that will was blasphemy. Studying the human bodies is against the laws of the Church, Ranya, it is consorting with the Light Bearer, it is renouncing your immortal soul—those were the terrible words the head of the kirk threw at my sister. They searched and found her books, her anatomy treaties, and her medical instruments that she had used on me to incise my buboes.
They arrested her and put her on trial. They tortured her, by water and by wheel, by sleep deprivation and by iron pincers. She is a witch, they said, performing rites and summoning the Devil. She has to die, burnt at the stake. The community was called as witness, and the community bent to the elders’ will. It gave testimony against her, telling about Ranya’s herbal remedies, forgetting the times they had profited from her help. She was condemned but the day of her execution the riots broke out in Edinburgh, for one more war of religion. She escaped from the dungeons and came back to the close, to cry on my deathbed and bury my mortal spoils. Then she empoisoned the public wells on the Royal Mile, killing them by the thousand.
“How did she die?” I asked the girl.
Happy, like a sated guest after a plentiful banquet. Fighting against a power that prefers killing rather than saving its subjects, that fears science and relishes in obscurantism. She was one of the countless victims of the riots, but she went with a smile on her face.
I didn’t say anything, but when at the breaking of the dawn I came back home, I curled in bed and cried.
One night I didn’t find Ranya. She had been taken on by the northern winds, freed from the close’s invisible chains and the regrets of the ones that linger.
Cherished by the others still prisoners, longed for by all.
Edinburgh’s ghosts still wander through dungeons and closes, through castles of sand, in a city that never sleeps—remembering the golden moments of their mortal existence. Gentle and smiling, they come out at night and pale away at dawn in a minuet dance that knows no pauses.
Caught in time as entangled particles or gentle cats, they present themselves to the city of light and dark, to people that stumble at night. Like me who sees things I shouldn’t possibly see, meeting white glowing shadows.
And missing the ones that have left.
Russell Hemmell is a statistician and social scientist from the U.K. who is passionate about astrophysics and speculative fiction. Russell has had recent work appear in Gone Lawn, Not One of Us, SQ Mag, and others, and was a finalist in The Canopus 100 Year Starship Awards 2016–2017.