On her second day in the weeping maiden’s house, she finds the courage to look into the room of ghosts.
The rest of the house has not lived up to her editor’s expectations. It is prosaic, unremarkable considering the rumors; on their last call, she rattled out a list of details about the make, the history, the layout and decorations, the scratches marking out unknown heights on wooden posts.
But it was, as he put it, unhaunted. There could be no haunted house feature without a haunted house.
“Which means,” he pressed, “you have to find what haunts it. And where.”
She knows what is haunting the house. She knows where. It’s difficult not to, given the depth of her research. But he only knows the ghost by the house she haunts, and so she was handed a free day of sorts on her arrival, soured somewhat by the tang of procrastination.
The room of ghosts was not made for ghosts. Dust rises in soft clouds and raw, naked tile chills her bare feet as she wanders further into the shadowed hall. Dusk lingers in the courtyard, warming the thinnai, but there are no windows here except those that perch high up in the rafters, letting in an eerie fractal glow.
She holds her flashlight in front of her like a weapon, beams of harsh light bouncing against the walls and floor and illuminating the festival hall in shards.
Abandoned cover-up jobs streak the walls along unfamiliar pennants. Children’s toys and grit rattle across the ground as if in response to her entrance. She can just barely make out a design on the tiles, chipped petals undoubtedly intended to coalesce into some grand bloom.
This bothers her as it always has. The flower will not look perfect; it will look deformed. The skeletal garlands in the rafters will hang heavy with rubber balls lost forever in their tangles. The columns will stand only as specters. The room of ghosts was not made for ghosts, but it has always borne them a little too well.
Twilight comes and decays as she moves through the hall. Voices play in the back of her head. Her own, narrating pages of research plucked from video essays and articles on the village house. Her parents’, telling her to take the long way around and visit them once in a while. The new candy seller down the street, folding a toffee bar between her fingers and telling her not to open the doors after dusk.
“It’s a welcome,” he explains, his throaty cadence muffled to near nothing in her memory. “You leave the doors open, you’re asking for trouble. You’re asking for them to find you.”
She stops in the center of the hall, somewhere through her fifth circuit. The sun is gone.
“Okay,” she says, feeling like a massive idiot at the age of twenty-seven. “I’m here. Find me.”
And the light disappears, leaving her in darkness so absolute she cannot help but wonder if it is a condemnation.
“You forgot about the blackouts?”
She almost wishes she was getting yelled at. Instead, there’s only a hint of surprise.
“I can charge things once the power’s back,” she points out, cringing a little at the logic.
“Right,” her mother replies over the low hum of the ceiling fan. “And you can hope there aren’t any unexpected ones, or that they don’t go on too long, or that you aren’t using anything that drains your battery—”
She closes her eyes. Maybe she spoke too soon. “Where’s Dad?”
“At the store.”
“You haven’t told him?”
“You told me not to,” she says a little petulantly. “And besides, you know he hates that house. All those terrible rumors. He’d have you out within the day, no matter what your editor says. Why did you take this assignment, anyway?”
“No choice,” she lies. The window rattles and she swallows a shudder down and out of her voice when she adds, “I’ll talk to you later, Amma.”
She hangs up. Rises, slowly, leaving her phone on the methai, the futon creasing with the uneasy shape as her phone threatens to slide down to the floor.
But the window is clean, clear, and there is no one on the other side except a shade of her own reflection and the verdant fields beyond. She opens the shutters and the breeze sweeps in with the petrichor.
The rain beads on her cheeks and jaw in teardrops of loam and sweetness, and she thinks of the oncoming monsoons and the blackouts. She thinks of the darkness in the festival hall, when her flashlight died and the new moon night descended to grace the cracked-blossom tile in some form that laid indiscernible to her.
She thinks of ghosts.
She closes the shutters and goes to order more batteries.
This time, she goes down to the room of ghosts as one is supposed to, the way she used to, with a lit candle and a knit blanket to keep out the nascent rainstorm.
There is an indignity to the waiting. Not the rites of the summoning—these she finds doable, even necessary. But the waiting grates on her nerves. It nettles to be… ignored by a ghost. To have to seek its presence or its punishment. To not have it freely inflicted.
“Where have you gone?” she whispers, the words slipping out of her like a prayer, and in sudden defense, she raises the blanket, the candle. But there is no answer except that of the rain, whipping itself against the walls, thunderous as a hymn or a condemnation.
After a few hours, the rain passes. In the far distance, she hears the buzz of lanterns as the electricity returns. The candle she snuffs out and the blanket—
She crosses to one of the columns and arranges it as she’s seen it done, until finally there is a makeshift hammock of loosely woven cotton. It isn’t built to support her. It isn’t even built to support a child. But she backs out of the hall with her eyes on the swing, and figures it will hold.
The sun sinks away and her editor calls. She doesn’t need to check her watch to know it’s nine on the dot.
He releases a slow, long-suffering sigh as she finishes her report. “Is that really all you have?”
She twists the cord. “Everyone’s cleared out.”
“So there are no tenants. So it’s just you! It’s a haunted house, we didn’t expect it to be bustling in the first place. But what about the proprietor. The landlady?”
“She left,” she says. “Before I got here. Listen, maybe there’s nothing to this one.”
“Maybe you’re not looking hard enough. Maybe you’re not looking in the right places—”
“I write about resorts and rock formations. I write about tourist traps and overpriced coffee shops, I’m not—” she cuts herself off as a curse bubbles to life in the back of her throat. Softens her tone until it sounds suitably bored, lets a little of her own frustration bleed through. “I’m not a Ghostbuster, okay?”
He sighs. “One more week. If you find nothing by the end of the week, I’ll transfer you… To Sarah’s assignment! The art gallery. You love art galleries.”
Incidentally, she loves the city, but this is as good an escape as any. She hums in assent and, after a few more pleasantries, the call cuts.
One week, she thinks, leaning her head back. The little gold ridges of the headboard poke her shoulders and neck as they always do and she thinks again, for the first time in many years, of the ghost and the grave. Of the soil beneath the soft rush that stretches past the veranda, of hands brushing against corpse-flesh as they lower it down. She wonders whether the ghost feels her body anymore. If there’s even a body left to feel.
The air conditioner whirrs to a stop in the middle of the night, and, as if on cue, rain begins to build against the windows. A soft shower that crests and shatters on the walls, and even from the methai, she can imagine the warmth of the rain, humidity curling strands of hair into strange designs. She closes her eyes, feels it.
She jerks with the realization, and any hope of sleep deserts her in that moment of clear, sweet epiphany.
Memory craves sensation. And she was taught—diligently, back when that meant anything at all—that ghosts crave memory.
And, she thinks in the morning, drawing in a deep breath before flinging open the doors to the festival hall, at the very least, this will piss her off.
The rains have stretched past dawn and into the day, taking the blackout with them. But the sunlight suffices in place of her candle, and the room tugs its ill-fitting shadows close.
The blanket hangs untouched, knotted as she left it and drifting from a breeze that she can’t sense. Fear tactics, maybe.
She opens her notepad, and begins to read.
As the story goes, the sole tenant of the room of ghosts was forced to the altar and killed herself before she could be wed. The hall remains outfitted in its celebratory décor, rots in its abruptly forsaken congratulations on her nuptials, and she wanders through it alone.
As the story goes, the weeping maiden was a court dancer driven mad by the loss of her other half, her partner, her lover. The hall is not a wedding hall but the remnant of another era’s palace. The raised alcove at its head once held a throne and its cruel king, and she scratches her displeasure against the curved steps with whatever scraps she can take hold of.
As the story goes, the ghost was a spurned sweetheart already aging into an old maid, spun into death as she attempted to wrench her lover back to her side on a festival night.
As the story goes, she was—
“If you know all that,” the ghost says, “you don’t need me. Write your—your—”
“Haunted house feature,” she supplies. Her hands loosen and then tighten on the notepad. “For the travel magazine I work for.”
“Yes.” The ghost sounds tired. Rain streaks her against the side of the columns on the far side of the room. “That. Write that and leave. Leave and write it, if you like.”
“But it’s not the truth,” she says. “It’s not the right story.”
The ghost drifts out of the shadows and takes them with her. One lingers, tugs the corner of her mouth up.
“No one wants an honest ghost story,” the lady of the festival hall tells her. “And, in any case, I don’t have one to give you.”
“You like hearing them.”
“I hate hearing them—”
“You like—” her voice rushes and trips over itself as a child’s might and she cuts herself off with that same puerile imprecision. Pages of careful print press against her eyelids. As if aware of its superfluousness, the notepad slips out of her hands and thuds soundlessly to the tile below.
Carefully, she says, “I need something to write about.”
“For your feature.” The curve of a spectral jaw juts into the light and then retreats. “For your editor.” The ghost smirks at her expression. It doesn’t catch the light. “Sound carries, Aarathi.”
“You mean that the walls listen.”
The smirk disappears. “Not like they have anything else to do.”
The ghost turns herself towards the high windows. The rain is beginning to pass; it’s still too far for her to hear it slow with any accuracy, but she can feel it. In her teeth, in her bones. The house eases its rattle, and the hall settles into silence.
“The swing,” the ghost says abruptly. She almost doesn’t hear it—her voice is fading, somehow, softening. Sinking, as if beneath some strange unturned soil. “It was nice. I liked it.”
Propped against a chair outside of the hall, her phone chirps. Resurrected, it seems, by the returning current. The flashlight function pours down carved teak legs, through the empty doors and stains the tile bouquets in its pale autopsy glow. She cracks one corner in her haste to shut it off.
As the story goes, she is sick with the rain, or the rain is sick with her.
It is a disease of tears, of grief. Hysteric, howling.
The village marks its doors and takes the long way around as the season grows strange with dampness; it is an anomaly for them to fear rain as they do in a land that craves it as much as it does. They fear it as they might a god, absent of the accompanying adoration.
But the rain swallows their prayers nonetheless.
Mosquitoes gnaw her awake. She hardly recognizes the sensation at first; in the lush, overfull dark, her mind drifts to stranger, more familiar demons before she finally bends at the waist and slaps at her legs and arms sightlessly.
But the sting lingers, follows her out into the cool, crisp night. She rubs at her legs and hops around last week’s fading kolam and the shoe rack and the anthills until she touches down on the rain-soft soil that borders the soft rush where marsh snakes thrive.
The korai fields sway soundlessly to some song she has never learned, and when the ghost slips from their grasp instead of drifting out of the half-cracked window that keeps the festival hall perpetually monsoon-soaked and covered in detritus, she cannot find it in herself to be surprised. The ghost has always liked to dance.
“Why rain?” she asks, and after her recent lapses in eloquence she’s relieved to find that the familiarity of the words delivers them smoothly.
The ghost’s voice, however, is clipped. “I don’t know.”
“Why the blackouts?”
“Why the festival hall?” the ghost returns. “Ask me about the garlands. Ask me about the rain. Ask me about the scratches you made and the chips some fool ground into the tile. Ask me. Ask yourself. Make something up, write it down, leave.”
“Do you want to?” she asks. The ghost cocks her head and a tuft of korai slides through her ear. “Leave, I mean. Pass on.”
She doesn’t answer. For a moment, they bask in the familiarity of the moment, a memory rehearsed and played out to perfection. It is pleasant to be who she remembers herself to be. The ghost is not afforded that relief.
She answers as she always has. You like dances, you like learning the steps, I do, too. “I want to know why I can’t.”
“You want to know who you are.”
“You want to know who I am,” she corrects. “I want to know why knowing who I am isn’t enough.”
You want to know who I am. She cannot deny it—the curiosity. The stories, the notes, the pitch she sought out on the monthly assignments, printed out a copy of, deliberated over for two nights and three days while she subtly shunted her colleagues onto all other available assignments. The nausea, the excitement, the terror, the memory of blood and rainwater reappearing in her mouth and mind with every 9 P.M. phone call. She never wanted to return to this house. It is all that she has wanted for nine years.
And she looks at the ghost, more light than shadow in the night, in this form she has stolen from the crescent moon and the soft rush that rises up high. She looks at her ghost, absent of iris, absent of tongue, and memory scalds her with its sweetness.
She has wanted this and she has feared this and she has hated this, with all that she is and all that she once was. Love makes a ghost of her.
“You’re writing one of your stories,” her ghost says, a little sardonic, a little disapproving. Her mouth is quirked without shadow. “I can see it in your eyes.”
The mosquito bites sting in the chilled air. She presses the backs of her hands to her face to compose herself.
“Let me help you,” she says after the despair passes.
This does not impress her ghost. “I thought I was meant to be helping you. With your… article. Not that I plan to, but.” A tenebrous shoulder rises in a shrug, dissipates before it can complete the action.
“I have one week,” she explains, weaving together her argument as she makes it. “If I don’t find proof of your… existence, if I don’t find anything to write about in that week—I can leave. I’m allowed to.”
“Let me help you pass on,” she repeats, toneless. Like this, she is not—the way that she is. Not desperate, not fascinated with the unsolvable, the strange, the lovely, the dead. Like this, she is alive and content with her aliveness. She schools herself into someone she should’ve become in these long years, someone her father wouldn’t fear for if he knew she was still skulking around this old house. Someone her ghost would not despise.
And even when her ghost sighs acquiescence to this plan, she cannot be sure that she has succeeded. The ghost is desperate, too.
The summer she fell in love with a ghost was also the summer she died.
Her father was tragically preoccupied with the latter, but she was never able to let go of the former. Figures, her colleague says when she delivers the memory as a story, a rumor, a sensationalized tall tale, at the bonfire closing out their wilderness retreat seven years later. Ghosts aren’t really known for leaving, are they?
And perhaps that was the heart of it, even then. She liked the permanence of it, the desire implicit in subsumption. She liked the dark, the rotted garlands, the grooves worn between tile flowers and grout by bodies lifted in dance, the music of the storm and the scream it delivered itself as.
She liked the stories, and she liked that they were all wrong. She liked that they lived in her anyway, jostled beside one another to make room for the next, and the next, waiting in eternal anticipation for the real one, the true one, the shape that her ghost would take as she slipped into place.
She wanted to be haunted, very badly. She wanted it as only an eighteen-year-old wants such things, swollen with the desire to crack the world down its axis and remake it so that everything returned the same, everything returned as mundane as it always was, and only she was granted her little slice of impossibility.
The summer she falls in love with a ghost is the summer she tries to become one.
“Unresolved desires,” she tells her ghost. The lady of the festival hall is brushing out her hair with her fingers, almost unnecessarily, the strands of dark hair streaming into the shadows, fading, and then returning. Gold twinkles on her knuckles and then forgets itself. “That’s what keeps ghosts from moving on. Usually. Something they don’t know and need to know, something they never did or said, some misunderstanding they took with them to the grave.”
“And you want to know—what happened. Who I was, why I am.” The ghost snorts. “For context, I’m sure.”
You die for a ghost once, she thinks sourly. “You don’t have to tell me. Just… give me a sense of who you were alive, the things you wanted. The things you might have lost.”
At this her ghost pauses, not-eyes shimmering with something unfamiliar. The dusk passes into true night before she speaks. “I know myself alive like you know your stories. I don’t understand… her. I don’t understand—what she wanted.” Bitterness seeps into the trickle of her voice. “Perhaps if she was a shade less greedy I’d have passed on already.”
Her ghost’s gaze flicks to her own, as if catching her staring is some clandestine act, some old, broken habit that threatens to drown them both on the eve of its return. She holds herself still and pretends she is a version of herself with the self-discipline to break the habit in the first place.
“Then we’ll make a list,” she explains when she finally trusts herself to speak. “A bucket list of things she would’ve wanted to do, and because we don’t know what she would’ve wanted, it’ll be a bucket list of everything.”
A little plaintively, she says, “I don’t know what a bucket list is.”
Nine summers ago she laid on the chipped tile and whispered the plot to a B movie about a summer road trip held on the cusp of apocalypse into the rafters. She remembers it; her ghost remembers it. But she doesn’t dare call her bluff.
Nine summers ago, she slipped her shoes out from underneath the methai and climbed out of the window in her grandparents’ house, terrifying a stray cat and a gecko on the wall outside. She took the long way around, even though there was no need in the new moon night, and used the tip of a dried up ballpoint pen to crack and then jimmy the half-rotted shutter of the window into the room of ghosts. She tumbled into the festival hall, scratching the altar with the tip of the pen, and found a ghost waiting on the other side.
Nine summers ago, she found herself in a liminal space and fancied it a grave. She met a ghost and asked to be haunted. The ghost, poor thing, had forgotten that teaching a life how to live haunted was to kill them herself.
But this is not a summer of graves.
This is not a summer of hauntings or of hell, of monsoons or new moon nights or chipped flowers that—in the right light—might reflect dead flowers that hang high above. This is not a summer of stories nor of impossibility.
This is a summer of want. Of absence eased away, of hopes crossed off a list. This is a summer of bodies pressed close, of dances both familiar and unfamiliar, of singing contests, of swimming, of screaming, of terrible poetry recitals, of stray cats, of toffee bars made intangible and fresh juice drunk without a tongue.
She teaches her ghost all that she has learned herself and then stretches for more. This is not a summer; it is a week. It is a morning, it is a moment, a smile dappled in sunlight when it has only ever known the moon, the diluted ray, the candle. It is a list, smeared with ink. It comes to an end, as all summers and weeks and mornings and moments and smiles and lists do.
She’s breathless even to her own ears, hands braced against shoulders that don’t hold form as they should. They’re in the fields, korai climbing up, up, brushing their skin, their necks, their cheeks. Dawn is breaking, and with it comes the promise of new rain, new blackouts, new days.
How many centuries does novelty last? she thinks.
“Why rain?” she whispers, and in another world it is a confession, an oath, a prayer swallowed by the storm. In another world they are granted this. “Why do you love the rain?”
Her ghost’s irises flicker back into existence. Dark brown, a brown so dark it’s nearly black, brown as loam after the rains, brown as the grave before it knows it’s a grave.
For a moment, she lets herself imagine.
“I don’t,” her ghost says. Her cheeks are dry; the dawn will not arrive in time. “I never did. I hated it.”
She stands in the korai grass with her overnight bag and her ghost and calls her editor on a phone inching towards death.
“I was having dinner,” he says irritably. “It is after working hours here. We have a schedule! And it’s not as if you’re making progress on the haunted house—” he cuts himself off. The silence rolls between them. “Wait. Have you?”
Smoke finally reaches the soft rush. Oddly, it does not smell of rotted blossoms. It does not smell of dust, of candle wax, of lost rubber balls, or of cotton pennants. She cannot say that it smells of anything they left behind in the festival hall that night apart from the gasoline.
But when she turns to look at the ghost beside her, she is smiling at the sight of the flames, nostrils flared for the gasoline’s sweetness, brown eyes shining out hungrily as she watches the thin peals of ash and darkness rise into the slowly lightening sky. She is smiling, straining, fading, growing into herself and away from the rush and the dawn and her.
She is dying, disappearing, for the last time.
“Aarathi?” he asks.
She turns back to the burning hall. Her ghost never much liked being gawked at. She didn’t like being feared, or prayed to, or fictionalized. She’s learned, in these few days, all those things that she didn’t like.
“There’s nothing here,” she says, and rocks back on her heels. “Not if you want a story.”
As the story goes, her ghost was once in love.
But the stories were always wrong.
Illustration by Amber Lee
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