20 January 2020
It had taken me two weeks to find the key to the cipher. In one of the books I was studying, I found a letter that seemed at first to be nonsense, accompanied by a two of hearts. But something about it looked familiar, and I checked back in some of the other books where I thought I had seen something like it and where I had seen other cards marked, and started to piece together a code based on playing cards that I then used to decrypt the note. The note turned out to be a short letter written by Joanna, which explored the mortality of gods.
I had known, from some other scattered notes and statements by Dad, that she had taken an interest in learning how to kill spirits, especially very powerful ones, when Aaboukingon returned to the river. I had gathered from her own demeanor in telling me about that time that she was afraid, and ultimately was looking for a way to defend herself if the river gods turned against her for some reason. I never fully understood why she thought that was a possibility, but it did seem to be the reason this library exists today, so I’ll take her paranoia over any strain of sanity.
The letter didn’t offer much of anything new, really. She hadn’t found a way to kill a god, but felt that she was getting close, that there was something right at the very core of their being that could be exploited just right, if she could only find what that was. If she ever did, it’s in a note or a book I haven’t found yet.
But there was something interesting in the letter. She mentions two mysterious beings, her description vague and barely recognizable. I only suspected she was talking about King and Queen because I had personally met them and could see where she would get the terms she was using. She believed they would be the key, somehow the power they held could undo anything. This, it seems, was the power she was now searching for. She wanted to understand these two, to take hold of whatever they had that she didn’t, and use it as a weapon. I have no idea if that’s even possible, but more importantly, when did she meet them? I know they were there when my great-grandparents lost their home, but I had just learned she was unconscious the entire time they were involved. There are no other records that I’ve found that mention them. She didn’t say anything about them when she was haunting me. Was this letter written at the very end of her life, did she only see them when it was too late? If not, why did she keep it a secret?
Whatever encounter, or series of encounters, she had with them left her with a certain distrust. She describes their power as useful—though she never describes what she saw that made her think she knew what their power was—but described them more directly as questionable entities with unknowable motives and a possibility of being too much spirit to fully understand why a human would want to stand up to a god to begin with. She did not think she could call on them to defend her if it came to that; only that she could do it herself with access to their arsenal.
I set the letter down and read over the translation a couple more times to get it into my head, then took it and the document where I’d worked out the key upstairs and burned them. The original, with its card, was returned to its book and restored to the shelf. I made a mental note of where that book was, in case I ever needed that information, but honestly I can’t see what I would need with it. Killing a god is a fool’s errand, really, and I can’t imagine what it would even take for me to want to try.
More importantly, now I had some questions for King and Queen next time they decided to show up. There must be some reason they’re paying attention to my family. There must be some reason they slipped out of the memory of their involvement with Aaboukingon to talk to me last month. I need those answers so I know what to do with this information. Why didn’t Joanna trust them? What did she know that I don’t? Was she right?
I know Jackie’s been working on the mystery of these two. I’ll have to ask her for some input, and decide whether or not she needs to know about my great-grandmother’s opinion of them.
I couldn’t believe it. Of all the places to stumble upon on my very first case as some kind of professional paranormal investigator, it had to be the house where Joanna and Aaboukingon lived. Well, not the exact house. That specific house didn’t really survive this next few moments.
“We need to follow them,” I said, as the spectral man lifted his wife into his arms and made for the door.
“Why?” Alice asked, but she didn’t hesitate to move as soon as I started walking.
“Because the house where this happened burned down.”
“It’s not going to burn my house down, is it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. But it definitely won’t if we get outside.” We went through the front door and down the stairs from the porch while the echoes we followed stayed at the level of the floor, finally reaching their own front door and doing the same.
“Why would that matter? What did you do?”
“I…well, I changed the rules a bit.”
“Look, it’s not easy to explain, but…just follow them, I think if we let the memory play out it’ll be easier to make it stop repeating.” The man stopped and fell to his knees, crying out to Joanna, until two ravens—one who looked normal, if a bit large, and the other glowing faintly blue—flew down and began talking to him, though for some reason I couldn’t quite make out their voices or words. Alice’s jaw fell open as they talked, and then the ravens were flying again and the man followed and we followed him. We made our way back to a creek in the trees behind Alice’s house, where Aaboukingon called the water up and onto Joanna and healed her wounds. The ravens, at this point, seemed to be looking right at us, and I found myself for the first time in a very long time deeply disturbed by the notion that what we were seeing might be able to see us. Having healed Joanna, Aaboukingon collapsed. Joanna screamed, grabbed him, and started to drag him away before the vision suddenly ended. Alice had her hands wrapped around my arm and was pressing in close to me, and we stood there in silence for a few minutes.
“Okay,” she finally said, between deep breaths. “Now. I think you owe me one hell of an explanation.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. Let me just clean this up first.” She exhaled hard and finally let go of me, adjusted her shawl, and then stood bolt upright.
“I will be in the house. Where it’s warm.” With that, she was gone, and I began trying to reverse what I had done to make the echoes more visible. As I did so, I realized the ravens were still there.
“Do you need help?” the blue one asked.
“You don’t happen to be that King and Queen, do you?”
“We are.” I groaned and paced around in a circle.
“What’s your deal, exactly?”
“It’s not time to answer that question.”
“Fine. Then what are you offering?”
“You’re trying to stop this echo from repeating, yes?” I nodded. “Then we can help you do that.”
“Yeah? How’re you gonna do that?” The blue raven flew closer, suddenly becoming the woman from the beach and floating just above the snow in front of me. She reached out and touched my forehead.
“Let me show you. I cannot affect an Anchor without permission.”
“Oh, the great and mighty King and Queen, don’t have purview over me?”
“It is complicated. Just, let me in.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and tried to drop my guard as much as I could. Finally, there was just new information, suddenly there, in my head. I knew exactly how to make the echoes stop. I snapped my eyes open, and both of them were gone. I reached my hand out, closed my fist, focused on the echo, and felt something in reality pop. I went into the house, to where the scene had begun, and did the same thing. On my way by I saw Alice sitting on the couch with a new coffee and a blanket, so when I was done ensuring there would be no more noises anywhere in the house, I returned to the loveseat. There was a hot tea on the coffee table in front of me.
“Thanks,” I said, softly, testing it. She had already sweetened it.
“Tell me what you did,” she said, coldly. I cleared my throat.
“Um, okay. So it goes like this.” I explained that I’m an Anchor, and everything I now knew that meant. I didn’t mean to go into too much detail, but I just kind of started talking and then couldn’t stop. She listened, attentively, almost never stopping to ask any questions. Just taking it all in. I told her how I had recently learned that I may be able to alter the rules of an area in the metaphysical realm, and how what I had done here was try to enforce a new set of rules that amplified the echo and made it visible so we could both find out what was happening, and how I had finished up by adjusting the rules again so the echo was gone, or at least, pushed deep enough that even if it did happen again no one on this side of the hedge would know it. “I’m still kind of learning what I did just here,” I confessed.
“So was there really any danger of my house burning down?”
“I don’t think so. The bullet didn’t affect us.”
“Oh shit! The bullet! You didn’t think to warn me we might get shot?”
“I…well, I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that was the scene until it was kind of too late.”
“So. Tell me about these two. The man and the woman. And the ravens! I want to know about the ravens.”
“You and me both,” I grumbled, raising my mug for a sip. “Do you mind if I smoke?” She pulled a clean ashtray out of a cabinet under the tv and handed it to me. For guests, she explained. So I told her everything. I told her everything I knew about Aaboukingon and Joanna, and what had happened here, and who those men were. I told her about Joanna coming to me as a ghost, when I was a child, and telling me all these stories, and how they had a son together, and that was my grandpa, and she didn’t trust him one bit, and how my dad had been in some kind of battle with him that I only recently realized he had been training me to pick up. I just poured everything out. I cried, when we got to the bit about my dad’s recent death, and how that was when I found his books and pieced some of this together. I told her about meeting the ravens in Erie, and what had happened just then outside her house. We talked for hours, she had so many questions and I didn’t realize how badly I’d needed to talk about some of this stuff. She heated up some food for us both, and we talked well into the night, and by then it was getting so late and I was so tired that she insisted I sleep there on the couch instead of driving the two hours back or, God forbid, being stopped by the cops again after dark.
When I woke in the morning, there was an envelope on the coffee table addressed to me. I opened it to find a check and a note. The check was for well more than I would have thought to ask for. The note informed me that she had something important to handle that morning, and explained that we hadn’t come to an agreement on price so she just made her best guess. I grabbed my coat and hat, locked the door behind me, and went home.
29 october 2004
"So, what do we know about this ghost?" I asked, putting a cigarette to my mouth and offering her one. We were on the fire escape before Jackie had to leave for work, and I knew she was planning to pick up a new pack on her way.
"Why do you ask?" I flicked at my lighter until she reached over with hers and lit my cigarette.
"Thanks. I like to look into these things, I guess."
"If you're stuck with it anyway?" I shrugged.
"Pretty much. It's that or be afraid of it all, or be crazy, you know?"
"Who says you're not crazy?" she asked with a chuckle. I smiled and nudged her with my elbow.
"Okay, maybe they're more like venn diagrams; but you're in here with me, Sabrina."
"Oh! Oh I see how it is. Okay." I laughed and leaned forward onto the railing.
"You haven't answered my question, though. What do we know about this ghost?"
"Well, 'we' know basically nothing. I know...a little bit. But not enough."
"I gather you don't want to tell me about it."
"Look, the thing is, it took a lot of effort to get what little I have. She isn't trusting. I don't want to sabotage that work by bringing in someone she hasn't invited."
"They're all like that," I muttered, before standing up fully and looking to her. "How many ghosts have you dealt with so far?"
"She'll be my second, actually. I don't generally try to mess with that...particular brand of magic. Why, how about you?"
"I don't bother counting. But they're everywhere. And there's something about being a ghost, for a long time, that changes them. They're all obsessive about something, I don't know if that's due to being a ghost or why they become ghosts or what, but it's been true of all of them."
"Even your grandmother?"
"Great-grandmother. And yeah. She was bitter, old enough that she was starting to seem less like a ghost and more like a spirit of bitterness. That seems to be what happens, they latch onto something about their deaths, or their lives leading up to it, and that becomes what they are. And when you spend decades, centuries, fully wrapped up in just one obsession, it warps you. Makes you something...else."
"What was she bitter about?"
"Who knows?" I offered, waving my hand dismissively. "Certainly not her. She only remembered parts of the story, or at least only told me a few parts, and they seemed exaggerated by her own anger and distance from them. Most of what I know for certain are from notes she scribbled in books we have at home, or records my dad managed to gather. The only thing one can really be certain a ghost will remember clearly is their death, and she never bothered telling me about that."
"She said nothing about it?"
"Nothing specific." She stared off into the alley thoughtfully for a moment, before checking her watch.
"Oh! My bus will be here soon!" And with that the cigarettes were in the alley and she was gone. On my way inside, I stopped at the door of the bathroom, glancing in. Satisfied the ghost wasn't there at the moment, I continued on to the living room.
29 october 2004
At the diner, after everyone else went back to start their day, Jackie and I were finishing our breakfasts and she began telling me about her mentor. It seems she has a spiritual guide, who calls her into an astral form and teaches her magic. Last night, she went, and when she came back she needed help getting back into her body, and decided to hop into my dreams.
"I don't remember any of that happening," I said, cutting up the last of my my french toast.
"You wouldn't. I couldn't get anywhere near you!" She was basically just down to coffee, which the waitress showed up to refill. She thanked her and then, lowering her voice and leaning in, she continued. "John, trying to access your mind was like hitting a brick wall. I've never seen anything like it. I couldn't get within a couple feet of you."
"Huh. Spirits seem able to touch me just fine."
"They're not there by magic. I was. I was just, like, a magical version of myself."
"Ha! A magical girl. We're in an anime."
"I'm serious, John! It freaked me out, okay? I just..." She sat for a moment, staring into her mug. "I just need to know why you do it. What about magic makes you destroy it." I set my fork down and tapped her hand. She looked back up at me.
"Hey. Sorry, look, I don't have control of that, not really. I mean, I can choose to do an exorcism or to damage a magical effect that I can see, but once stuff gets too close, that's just what happens."
"Magic is important to me, and while you're here, you know, we're going to be in close proximity, and I--I dunno."
"You need to know if you can trust me." She nodded and I sighed. "I don't think there's anything I can say that would handle that, but for what it's worth, I won't do anything against you, okay? Just let me know if you need to do something and I'll give you the space to do it. I have no desire to harm you or do some...control tactic." That bit must have come out sharper than I intended, because her eyes hardened as she stared at me.
"What was that supposed to mean?"
"Sorry, probably not the best time. I just-"
"No. Tell me." I took a deep breath and sat up.
"I don't trust anyone that controls your ability to access your own body as some power trip. You do what you want, learn from who you want to, I have no place to say anything about it, I just. There's always a cost when you make deals with spirits. Be sure you know it, really know it. Be careful, please."
"What do you know about making deals with spirits?" I sat for a moment, fiddling with my fork, before I took a bite of my french toast, pulling out my necklace while I chewed. I set the small vial of sand and its chain on the table, turned so she could see the faded note that said 'Abe.'
"The first ghost I had any real conversation with was my great-grandmother. She told me where to find this. It's a reminder that nothing the spirits give is free, and they cannot be expected to play by our rules." She slowly reached over, and when I removed my hand, she picked the vial up and looked it over.
"What is this? What happened?"
"That," I said, turning back to my breakfast, "is a very long story."
The blog of John Matteson.