This is an ongoing series written and illustrated by JJ Lee. New to Havenholm? Start at the beginning!
The story so far— When young Oscar encounters a redheaded apparition named Willa, he takes flight and has a horrible fall. Now a spirit himself, Oscar discovers he is trapped with a number of child ghosts on the shunned hill of Havenholm. A magic river surrounds the hill. In it swims a monster that prevents them from passing into the afterlife. Both the water and the monster are controlled by Maurais the evil wizard, who poses as a retired groundskeeper. Willa, who had died in a great fire, recruits Oscar in her struggle to break Maurais’s spell. In the ruins of her family’s home, the young ghosts discover a red steel box. Before they can open it, a swarm of flying monsters attack. Oscar is carried up and away by the black-feathered things.
Chapter 9, Part 7
With a marionette, you see the strings, the clever flicks of the wrist. A teddy bear? It drinks tea because a child wishes him to do so. So does the doll who walks. Little hands help it take each step. Even the ventriloquist’s dummy, though it speaks with an uncanny voice out of nowhere, cannot hide what makes its lips move.
Yet, you have experienced such moments—have you not?—when out of the corner of your eye, you watch a puppet move on its OWN. Then the blood runs cold, skin crawls, spines shiver. What makes it even more horrible is the entire lack of volition. It has no soul. It acts with a terrifying emptiness.
All this Oscar felt as the black-feathered things carried him aloft. They were not living creatures but only made to look so. They were winged tangles of feathers, branches, and dried moss, too, bound in twine and dark magic into the form of headless birds. Lifeless, and yet, they moved. Dead things, still up and up they flapped. Oscar barked in panic and revulsion, “Get off! Get off!”
He yanked out handfuls of their black feathers. They answered by digging their claws of gnarled root deeper into him. Still, he tore at them without care of plummeting down to the snow-covered ground. When Oscar ripped two claws from his shoulder, he sent the flying cluster off-kilter. They descended and threatened to crash until a fresh pair of black-feathered things swooped in as replacements and the whole flock continued carrying the boy over the crest of the hill.
They crossed from the south side of Havenholm to the north slope, a place Oscar had grown to fear as a place of shadow, of bitter trees, and of the absence of bird song and animal scurry. This side was enemy territory. And, indeed, the sky changed; but not how Oscar had expected. Wintry grey gave way to brilliant afternoon blue as if a curtain of gauze had been drawn back. It felt like he had crossed a threshold of seasons. On the south side was snow. On the north, snow melted. He craned his neck back. They were high over the treetops. He could not see Willa but he heard her call faintly from below, “We’re coming. Hang on.”
“Willa!” Oscar thrashed and shook three of the black-feathered things off his leg and booted another pair. He twisted hard. Like some ill-conceived aeronautical contraption, boy and monsters began to cartwheel out-of-control through the air. Oscar saw the blur of a bent weathervane and a crumbling chimney before they landed — hard. He bounced and tumbled. The black-feathered things caromed on the ground like marbles dropped from a bag.
“If you were alive, my boy, that would’ve really hurt.”
Oscar, lodged in a bush, looked up. What looked like an old man sat at a picnic table. He wore olive green pants and a plaid shirt. His skin was the colour of a fallen leaf. His eyes were pale. His hair silver and slicked back. His face appeared both young and ancient. Oscar noticed that any flicker of expression brought deep lines and crinkles to the man’s face which was often as he worked something in his mouth. Was it gum? Oscar decided he didn’t want to find out. He ran to the other side of the house and headed for the hilltop. His eyes set on the immense, unending crown of the Great Tree and made for it.
The yard was large and surrounded by a row of overgrown apple trees. Their limbs were interlocked like a line of surly boys playing Red Rover. A fawn would find it difficult to escape.
Then he spotted a gap. He tried to slip through the slender opening the way Willa had tried to teach him over the last few months. Willa would make a little skip and hop and turn her body sideways and the woods of Havenholm seemingly parted for her. She’d say, “Now you try.”
Oscar would do his best but each time he attempted to break through the branches they would thwack him, leaves would rattle, he would trip over brush.
“It’s like you’re not even a ghost,” she said one time. “If it wasn’t for the monster, you could probably walk home, say ‘Hi’ to your mum and dad and act like you never died.”
Mostly, Willa was a patient teacher but Oscar’s inability to completely fade or become noncorporeal puzzled all the other ghosts. Tough Tom had a theory about Oscar’s inability to adjust to their quasi-afterlife. The Little Boy with the oldest of souls once explained, “A ghost is about will and circumstance. When a person does not wish to die or feels that death came too soon or in the wrong manner, they hang around in the quiet eddies and between spaces of the living world. It is a ghost’s will that makes her moan echo across a lake and makes a curtain billow when the window is closed.”
“I don’t moan,” said Willa.
“Well, she is indeed capable of a lot of racket and, then, she moves like the wind,” Tough Tom continued. “A ghost stays on this earthly plane because he wants to, or is compelled to. If he can rattle chains, that too is because he wants to or is made to. A ghost is a manifestation of the emotion that gathers around a person when they die. A ghost is a creature of desire. The question, then, is: what do you desire, Oscar?”
Tough Tom’s question made Oscar blush. It may have been only four months since he first saw Willa from his bedroom window. She floated over the meadow in the moonlight and drew him into this strange world between life and death. But their time together felt longer. Long enough to have words he wished he could say. Long enough to wonder if Willa felt the same. Long enough that when Oscar leapt at the wall of overgrown apple trees in the strange old man’s garden, he did so to escape. He made the leap with his soul filled with want, the decisive kind of want; the kind that makes you offer your hand to a date to hold for the first time; the kind that made you call that person on the phone to ask them out in the first place. Oscar may have been in the air for a second, maybe only a half-second, but in that moment, he saw the sheen of Willa’s hair, the translucence of her pale skin, the changing colour of her eyes.
He could feel the despair he felt when she would retreat from this limbo into a limbo of her own making. Her apparition would fade before his eyes and he would be lost, sitting in the sunken library, buried between the roots of the Great Tree, and waiting for her to come back. He would think of the things he would talk to her about and remember the things about her life she had told him. He would imagine how she was when she was alive; her sitting in front of the TV in one of her many yellow dresses eating a bowl of cereal, watching Howdy Doody. He would recall how she cried when he told her Elvis was dead. He would turn over in his mind her look of puzzlement when he said, “John Lennon is dead, too.”
Willa had replied, “Who’s John Lennon?”
Then, as the weeks and months passed, Oscar realized even when she faded from his vision she was still there with him. It wasn’t as if he could hear her breathing or sense the beating of her heart – they were dead, after all – but he could sense the pulse of her life force. It could fill a room or simply brush the hairs on his arm. She could be like the whisper of a breath or the long cool breeze from an open window. Despite the good company of Tough Tom and the mute twins, it was Willa’s presence that made Oscar’s existence on Havenholm bearable.
All of these clamouring thoughts and feelings went into his leap. He threw himself into the tangle and the tangle threw him back.
He tried again with both hands thrust forward hoping to swim through. He felt a wall that he could not see and could not pass. He crawled low along the ground and climbed high up branches. He probed the entire encircling hedgerow. It was no use. There was no way out. In plain sight of the man at the picnic table, Oscar scraped and kicked at the invisible force that imprisoned him until he wilted.
“You can blame—what do you kids call him?— Terrible Tom for that.”
“Tough Tom.” Oscar’s voice had been reduced to a whimper.
“Yes, ‘Tough’, that’s what you children always called him. Well, if Tough Tom would only stop tossing those boulders at me, I would not need any of this.”
The man waved his arms. Oscar looked about. The bush that he had first landed on bloomed with heavy white roses. The black-feathered things, now returned back to lifelessness, lay strewn about a freshly mowed lawn. The house was old and worn. Wind and rain had stripped it of paint long ago. It had a tall shingled tower topped by a weathervane on one end and a massive, leaning brick chimney on the other. A big hole gaped in the roof.
The man followed Oscar’s eyes. “The home has seen better days but you have to choose: it’s either house or garden. You can live forever and still never get all you need to done. At least it’s always summer here. Now, come here, boy, and take a seat.”
The man reached over to the other side of the picnic table and tapped it as if he were urging Oscar to play a game of cards or Scrabble with him.
“What do you want?”
“What I want hardly matters. I’m, you could say, a man of duty. I serve,” said the man. “And I’ll tell you what I am required to do if you would only stop running around like a chicken. I’m not going to hurt you. In fact, I will help you. All of this, you see, is just a misunderstanding.”
Oscar, not knowing what to say, blurted out, “You’re Maurais.”
“Maurais? Where did you hear that? I haven’t heard that name in years.”
The man’s face scrunched into an expression of pure anger. A web of lines and wrinkles creased his face. Oscar was sure he was about to erupt, with screams, yells, a stream of curses, clearly something horrible. Instead the man spat. A clump of something damp and fibrous flew out of his mouth. He lifted from the table an unmistakable package, a yellow and blue package of David & Son sunflower seeds. “Would you like some?”