The Ghosts of Havenholm (Part Seven)

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?”

The Ghosts of Havenholm (Part Six)

This is an ongoing series written and illustrated by JJ Lee. New to Havenholm? Start at the beginning!


The story so farOscar and his ghostly friends Tough Tom and Willa, find themselves trapped on the creepy wood hill of Havenholm. A river, created by the wizard Maurais, prevents them from crossing into the afterlife. Many years before, Willa’s parents had been sent to find Maurais and break his spell. Before they could, the wizard set fire to Havenholm, killing Willa and her parents. Now, she and Oscar dig through the ruins of her burnt-out home in search of the secret to defeat their enemy. Oscar discovers a rusted cash box. Monsters attack.


       

Chapter 8, Part 6

        They hurt her first.

        The animated bird-like tangles of twine, twigs, and black feathers beat their wings and took to the air. Some climbed high above the treetops then tucked and dove at Willa. Others darted straight at her.

        Willa, who could walk on air and pass through walls, felt each blow. They struck her head and face, her arms and stomach. They hit her and fell to the ground. Then, like marionettes pulled by invisible strings, they lurched back to life. They flung themselves again. Only at her.

 

She raised her left hand to protect her eyes but held on to Oscar with her right. He wanted to lash at them. He tried to wrench away and pulled, but Willa would not let go. The more the black missiles rained down, the tighter he felt her on hold him. The things with black feathers clawed at her hair. She pulled him through the woods toward the safety of the Great Tree. If only they could make it to the Tree. One of the black feathers crashed into her gut and she collapsed to the ground. They swarmed Willa like rabid vultures.

        Oscar screamed, “No!”

        Early on in their friendship, Simon (who was Oscar’s first and only real friend before he moved and met Willa) tried to roughhouse with Oscar. He punched Oscar in the shoulder. Oscar, as an only child and because of his heart condition, was warned by his parent never to engage in the ritual of cruel, companionable contact. He understood that this particular mix of pleasure and pain was one of the stages of developing boyhood bonding, but he couldn’t bring himself to punch back. His response was tentative, restrained. Oscar tapped on Simon’s shoulder as if he were a door he did not wish to open. Simon realized the futility, and never attempted to play rough with Oscar again.

        Outside of the time he kicked Willa in the face, Oscar never really let go and hit something well and hard. He just did not know how to fight but, indeed, he was fighting now. He freed his hand and wielded the rusty cash box as a weapon with left and right. His fingers crumbled the hard dirt that encrusted it. He began to bat away the creatures away from his friend. He stomped and bellowed and kicked. He crushed as many as he could until they retreated to branches beyond his reach.

   

 

Oscar knelt down beside Willa. Her arms covered her face. He said, “Are you, okay?”

        She did not answer. He watched her chest heave up and down, at first fast, but then it slowed and deepened. He expected her face to be covered with tears and snot. “Willa?”

        She unfolded and rose. He only saw rage. Her eyes looked past him and into the woods. She snarled through gritted teeth, “Maurais.”

        A tremor whipped through the flock of black feathers. She shouted out her tormentor’s name again. Fists balled, feet stamping, she yelled in all directions, at the birds, at the trees, the river, the world, “Maurais!”

        The echo of her voice faded. Oscar saw deep in the woods, moving from behind a trunk, a man in a long black coat, his hair white, his face narrow, his grin cold and mean. He tapped on Willa’s shoulder and pointed. “Willa?”

        The stranger looked left and right and then trudged towards them. Willa unleashed a wail no mortal could make, a piercing call that belonged to the dead and otherworldly lost. It was a sound that made children hide under their beds and parents bolt the front door. Her voice cut through the cold air and through Oscar’s dead heart, “Maurais.”

        The ground shook. The man’s leer was now replaced by a frown. Again, the hill rumbled.

        He turned to look behind. He staggered a few steps and then began to run toward the friends. He drew, from over his back, a long dark gleaming sword. Oscar said, ‘Willa, maybe we should go?”

        “No,” she replied. “We drew Maurais out and Tough Tom is coming.”

        Tough Tom, who looked like an eight-year-old, was the oldest ghost among them. Oscar believed Tough Tom was the most powerful being, living or dead, he had ever seen. Oscar thought of Tough Tom the way he had thought of the Hulk or Superman, except Tough Tom was real.

        The hill trembled. The man lost his footing. He looked back one more time and got back up. The trees behind the man in the long black coat, quivered, cracked and fell. The black feathers, nearly forgotten, became agitated and began to knock against themselves and, as they did before, against trunks and branches. It was not Tough Tom. What came bashing through the woods was a giant mass of mud, ferns, rocks, vines, and roots, a shambling creature, lifeless like the black feathers but much larger, as big as a car or a small van. It took giant strides, thumping its way towards Willa and Oscar. It extended a coil of twisted roots and tried to ensnare both children. Willa dragged Oscar back. It lunged again. Oscar bashed it with the cash box.

        Willa said, “No.”

        She pushed Oscar in the direction of the Great Tree. “Bring it to Tough Tom.”

        “What about you?”

        “Just go.”

        “Where’s Tough Tom?”

        “I don’t know. Just go.” She gave Oscar a hard shove that hurt him, though not physically. “Run, stupid.”

        This time, it was Oscar who was determined not to lose his friend. He tried to clasp his hand over hers, but she slipped from him. As he was about to grab at her again, the heaving mass of mud splayed open to reveal an inside writhing with beetles, snails, millipedes, spiders, deer bones, and larvae. Oscar quailed, let go, and sprinted like a rabbit pursued by weasels. “Come on. Come on.”

        Willa did not follow. The black feathers, however, did. He cradled the box, shut his eyes, lowered his head, and plunged through the woods, hoping he was going the right way. Everything, the branches, the bramble, the creatures ripped and clawed at him. Still he ran. He broke into the clearing. He could see the Great Tree, home and safety. The black creatures honed in on his legs and feet. He tripped and cartwheeled. The box flew loose.

        Maurais’ flock swooped under him. The flying things swirled around and lugged Oscar high into the air, away from the ground, away from the Great Tree. They carried him to the north side of the hill, to Maurais’ house. The sick feelings of terror and shame gripped him. All he could think was he had abandoned Willa. He was a coward.

 

The Ghosts of Havenholm (Part Five)

This is an ongoing series written and illustrated by JJ Lee. New to Havenholm? Start at the beginning!


The story so far: Oscar is the spirit of a boy trapped on the hill of Havenholm, where a supernatural river surrounds him and his ghostly friends Willa and Tough Tom. Beneath its waves swims a monster created by a wizard named Maurais. Maurais is seemingly immortal and sustains himself by stealing the souls of deceased children. Willa believes they will find the means to break Maurais’ dark spell in the ruins of her burnt-out home.

PART 5, CHAPTER 7

Willa forged ahead with ease through the woods but when she turned she discovered Oscar had fallen far behind. She made her way back to him. “What’s the matter?”

“Just a second,” said Oscar. “I just need to catch my breath.”

“That would make sense if you actually still breathed.”

He made a wan smile and bent over. They were going back to the spot where Oscar first encountered Willa, where his then-mortal hand passed through her spectral one, where he ran, and where his heart stopped.

“Look, it’s okay. I died there too.”

“That house is your house?”

“Yes. I lived there.”

“How can you go back?”

“I didn’t. I never went to my place. Then you came and changed everything. I was there because of you.”

“But why?”

“Don’t you see? You make everything different. He needed my soul and he didn’t get it. He needed yours and he didn’t get it. We got you instead. We needed help and now you’re here.”

Oscar said, “You must think I’m chicken.”

Only when Willa set a hand on his shoulder did Oscar realize he was on his knees, half slumped in the snow. He picked himself up.

“Don’t tell Tough Tom, but the place still gives me the heebie jeebies.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“And, like, we’re the ghosts, right?”

“Oscar, you were meant to help us.”

“Dead or alive.”

“Tough Tom says it’s fate.”

As they set off again, Oscar intoned, “Luke, it is your destiny.”

“What?”

Empire Strikes Back.”

Oscar had watched Return of the Jedi that past summer and had filled Willa with the more-than-relevant details of 1980s childhood, with a particular emphasis on the great saga of his time.

“Right,” she said. “One of the Star movies.”

“The last I’ll ever see. When I think about it, I should be more afraid of you.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Murderer.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

“Sorry, my ass. With friends like you, who needs soul-sucking river monsters?”

It may have been at this particular moment, as they finally found their way through the wild brush and stepped onto the meadow, as he teased her and she laughed, that Oscar noticed Willa’s smile was quite pretty. It faded, however, like the sun behind a cloud, when they reached where Willa’s house once stood. Oscar stood in the centre of the ruins and slowly turned around to survey what remained, all the while avoiding casting his eyes toward the spot where he met his demise. “So, where do we start?”

Willa pointed at the foundations of the north wall, the one facing uphill. “This is where the kitchen was.”

She glided to a spot near the middle. “My parents kept a book in a box in the cupboards. I want you to dig around and find it.”

“Geez,” said Oscar. He was not one for doing chores. If he were watching TV or working on a model boat or plane at his desk and his mother called his name, he wouldn’t hear it. Of course, if she switched to calling his dad’s, well then, in a majestic feat of selective hearing, Oscar would rush to get to her before his dad did. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m the lookout.”

“For what?”

“I thought you said you wanted to help.”

Oscar could not dig with his hands. The ground, under the snow and bits of ice, was compact and hard. He found he could clasp a piece of wood and scrape at the rubble and debris: layers of soil, rocks, old roof tiles, and scorched and rotted bits of rafter. Soon the wood became inadequate to the task, but Oscar came upon a chrome table leg. He used it as a pick and crowbar. The work would have been back-breaking for the living, but for Oscar the problem was his mind going numb with concentration.

“If only I could do what you can do,” said Willa.

Oscar grunted, “It would speed things up, that’s for sure.”

The chrome leg slipped through his hands. Oscar stepped over the foundations into what was once the backyard and sat down on crumbling concrete steps. “Do you think I could do what you can do? Fly and appear and disappear?”

Willa kept her eyes on the woods and treetops as she answered. “Tough Tom says you can. I’ve tried, but he says I haven’t tried hard enough. He says there are different kinds of ghosts because there are different kinds of souls. How you become a ghost makes you a certain kind of ghost.”

“I see.” And Oscar did. He imagined Willa’s house bursting into flames. The smoke kills her and then the flames take her, turning her into smoke. What did death do to her soul? If Willa had her chance to deal with Maurais, what would she do to him? He thought of Maurais’ soul. He thought of Maurais haunting them. Oscar shivered. “At the end of Empire Strikes Back, Luke starts to be like his father.”

“You mean the old guy?”

“No, Darth Vader. The bad guy. He becomes like the guy he’s trying to beat.”

“Is this the one with the teddy bears?”

“They’re Ewoks, and that was Return of the Jedi.” He wanted to explain that Luke saved his enemy’s soul instead of destroying it, which he thought was kind of neat, but he knew Willa wouldn’t like to hear about it. Oscar sighed and stood. He glared at the table leg and tried to focus.

“Don’t move,” said Willa. As she started to fade, she pointed down the hill to the incongruous scene of a car driving on the wavy surface of the river that trapped them on Havenholm. Of course, Oscar knew from the driver’s perspective, that of the living, that the band of water was simply a road of gravel and dirt. “Have you seen it before?”

“I…don’t think so. No.”

The car was long and low, matte black. Long fins topped with chrome extended along the trunk. Though it was midday, the taillights smoldered like embers. The engine rumbled and the pulse air and its sound throbbed up the hill and through the veil between life and death, sending tremors through both Oscar and Willa. The car rolled slowly, as if its occupants were sight-seeing or going on a Sunday drive. It went around the bend towards Maurais’ side of the hill and disappeared from sight.

“Did you see who was driving?”

Oscar said, “No.”

“I think we should go back to the tree.”

“Do you think it was him?”

“I don’t know. We should go back now.”

Oscar took his makeshift tool and, in the way only a thirteen-year-old would, speared it through a layer of rotting floorboards. It struck something metallic and hollow.

Willa reappeared next to Oscar. “Dig. But hurry.”

He jabbed and scraped away until he uncovered a rusted cash box. Clumps of clay and stones clung to it like barnacles. “I can’t open it.”

Willa wasn’t listening. Her eyes were fixed on a nearby, leafless tree. On its branch perched a black bird. At least, that’s what Oscar thought it was until he noticed it had neither beak nor eyes. Its legs were made of dried twigs. It appeared to be a clump of black feathers that someone had twisted, tangled, and knotted with twine into the shape of flying creature. But it was no bird. It hopped along the branch until it reached the trunk and began to knock itself against the tree. It made the tock-tock of a woodpecker. From deep in the woods sounded a reply. Then another, then another, until a chorus rose, a hundred crazed cuckoo clocks, ticking and tocking from the walls of a madman’s workshop. Willa looked up to see a flock of black feathers swarming towards them. She grabbed Oscar’s hand and ran.

 

The Ghosts of Havenholm (Part Four)

This is a series written and illustrated by JJ Lee. 

Part One |  Part Two  |  Part Three

the-ghost-of-47

CHAPTER SIX

The story so far: When Oscar moves to a shunned neighbourhood with a dark history, he is sure his meagre social life will become completely dead. After a fatal tumble, he makes friends with the child ghosts of Havenholm. All of their souls are stranded on the hill because a soul-sucking monster swims the supernatural waters that surround Havenholm.

Oscar, being a ghost, did not need sleep. Sometimes, however, when he settled into a corner of the sunken library, he could fall into a nothingness without dreams. Time could slip by without his reckoning.

        “It’s just weird that the leaves were falling and now there’s snow,” he called out to the darkness of their stuffy refuge.

Willa stirred from her corner. “That’s ghost time.”

“It’s nearly Christmas, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “You can see it from the big tree. They’re stringing up lights on Main Street. You should take a look. It’s pretty.”

Oscar had avoided going up the tree since the day he became a ghost. The tree stood taller than any tree in the world of the living. It grew so high that no ghost had ever reached the top. From its high branches, you could see farther and further than normal. Oscar saw his body from the tree. His lifeless form lay in the tall grass across from his home.

        “I don’t know.”

        “You should go up. I see your mum and dad sometimes.”

        “Really?”

        “Yeah. Your dad goes to the college and your mum goes to the hospital.”

        “Is she sick?”

        “I don’t know. She goes every morning that I’ve seen.”

        Oscar’s  heart ached. He already felt terrible when he imagined how his death affected them, but the possibility of his mother dying plunged him into misery. Bleak thoughts washed over him like waves crashing over a boat in a storm. If his mother died, would he get to see her? Did he wish his mother dead? Would the monster get her? It wasn’t supposed too. It only wanted children. But what if its appetite changed? And even if her soul was allowed to go where it was meant to, where was that place?

        “I don’t want her to die.”

        “She looks more sad than sick. Don’t worry.”

        Willa rose and searched under the library’s desks, tables, lecterns, benches, and chairs until she found the twins, the ghosts of three-year-old Virginia and Andrew. They had stacked books into the shape of a canoe. They paddled with imaginary oars. “We are crossing the river.”

        “That’s very nice,” said Willa. “But try not to make a terrible mess. Tough Tom gets cross when he can’t find a book.”

        “We won’t,” they replied in unison.

        Oscar asked, “Where does Tough Tom go?”

        “He keeps watch.”

        “Over what? The monster?”

        “No. Not the river or the monster. He watches the man who lit the fires that killed Virginia, Andrew, and me. He watches the man who wants our souls. He watches Maurais.”

the-ghost-of-48

        The twins started to whimper but Willa seethed and ignored their distress. “He was here when my mum and dad worked here. He was the groundskeeper. And he was more than that. My parents worried that Maurais was around when Havenholm was a school for the deaf and blind. He was here when Tough Tom was a boy. He tended the gardens and paths in the woods from Tough Tom’s time until the day I died. But he also dug holes and tunnels into Havenholm looking for something.”

        “He killed your parents?”

        “Oscar, he killed everyone.”

        The twins huddled at the bottom of their boat of books, overcome with unwanted memories. Willa knelt down and hugged them. She whispered into their ears. Words Oscar could not catch. The twins calmed. Willa stood up. “If you’re ready to know more, we should talk outside.”

        Brilliant winter daylight streamed into the library when Oscar opened the door. Willa managed the crumbling stairs with ease. Oscar slipped and scrambled until he emerged among the giant roots of the great tree. Through its crown, Oscar saw a cold, clear blue sky. If he was alive, steam would have come from his breath. Willa pointed north to the other side of the hill. “Maurais lives over there. In a house. On our side.”

        “I thought all the buildings on our side of the road… river…whatever, are gone.”

        “They all are, except his. He used to creep out at night and roam the forest. At least that’s what my mum and dad believed. After the second fire when Tough Tom saved me and the twins, he wouldn’t let Maurais wander the hill anymore.”

        “Why doesn’t he just get him?” Oscar asked. Oscar knew, living or dead, the ancient ghost was the most powerful being he had ever seen. Tough Tom was like The Hulk or Superman trapped in an eight-year-old’s body.

        “Tough Tom chased Maurais from most of the hill but he can’t get into his house. Something keeps him out.”

        “Can’t he break the door, or a wall?”

        “Maurais is a wizard, I think. He uses magic to keep us out. The same magic that makes the road into a river and the monster.”

        Oscar remembered the last day he played with Simon. They brought balls of mud, bricks, and rocks to the overpass in his old neighbourhood and dropped them onto passing cars. “If I could throw like Tough Tom, I’d pick up a boulder and chuck it at his house and squish him.”

        Willa barked a harsh guffaw. “We tried that. It bounced off. Anyhow, I want him to come up to the hill.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

Willa gave him a look that sent shivers down his spine. He knew what she wanted. Tough Tom said it plain and simple the first day they met: “vengeance.” Willa’s only wish.

“I don’t understand why you wanted me. That night I saw you in the tall grass, you kept pointing at a spot. What did you want?”

“There hadn’t been a child on Havenholm in years. When I saw you, I thought you could help. I can barely do anything.”

Willa swiped at a low branch hanging from the great tree. It hardly moved. A few snowflakes fell. “I’m not like Tough Tom. I can open a door or blow some curtains if I try hard enough, but I can’t dig. And Tough Tom has to keep an eye on Maurais. I thought you could help me, but then you fell.”

She cast her eyes downward. “I’m sorry about that.”

Since that day, Oscar had time to think about the circumstances of his demise. Willa had frightened him, but she also saved him from the river. If he felt anger, it was at the water and the soul-sucker and being trapped on Havenholm. From being kept from speaking to his mother and father one final time, letting them know it would be okay (even if it was a lie) before passing into the land of the dead. Whatever lay across the water, wherever, and whatever Death was, it called to him. So, yes…anger, now that Oscar thought about it.

When Tough Tom explained that Willa sought vengeance on Maurais, he shuddered. The emotions seemed reasonable on one level.  Oscar understood a child could have terrible tantrums (he had a few of his own), but vengeance seemed too deep for someone as young as Willa. Then again, Willa was older than Oscar’s parents, wasn’t she? Time was different on Havenholm. Oscar felt hundreds of years old. Maybe it had to do with staying beyond your time, and having no choice.

In the ghost stories Oscar had heard, the phantoms were always frustrated and hateful. Oscar felt frustrated and hateful. Maybe he could not heave rocks like Tough Tom. Maybe he could not flit through the underbrush and trees like Willa. But he could do something. Oscar swatted a branch. It whipped back and forth. A clump of snow and ice fell to the ground.

With his face set with a grim expression beyond his years, Oscar declared, “I can help.”

The Ghosts of Havenholm (Part Three)

Part One
Part Two

CHAPTER 5

When Oscar was little, the idea of death scared him. He thought about it as a form of terrible sleep, a sinking feeling into blackness. In bed he could imagine his ribs, lungs, heart, and then the rest of his body, dropping through the mattress, now body bending at the waist, arrowing downwards in an inexorable plunge. He had never thought of where the vortex would take him, or if it was supposed to end. Death was a dreaded feeling, not a place.

On a few dark nights he would wonder about hell, but he reasoned if there was a hell, then there was a heaven. And it seemed a bit selfish to worry about whether you personally ended up in one place or another. Knowing there was a paradise was consolation enough, wasn’t it? But the groping blackness? That made him pester his parents before bedtime.

“So, Grandma and Grandpa are asleep?”

“Yes, sweetie.”

“But they won’t wake up?”

“No.”

“And where did they go?”

“Some people say nowhere.”

Havenholm was, apparently, Nowhere. It made Oscar laugh out loud. His voice carried over the water and echoed against the shore on the other side of the river and the hard slate autumn sky. Across the water, he could see his house. Though it was early morning, he saw a dim orange glow through a small window. He believed it was the small reading nook of the first landing that his mother had claimed as her own when they first moved in. The lights went out late and came on early. His mother must have been writing, but she also was not sleeping much. Nearly everyday since—let’s face it—Oscar died, he watched his mother and father leave the house and not return until evening. Oscar’s father must have been teaching since the semester had started, but where was his mother going?

Eight weeks before, his family had pulled up to the house in a truck and began to unpack. He had hardly settled in when he saw the girl with the red hair and yellow dress lurking in the tall grass on the hill that rose on the other side of the street. At her beckoning, he crept out into the moonlight. He crossed the ring road and climbed the sloping meadow. He reached out to her and his hands passed through her. He ran. He fell. She woke him up and asked to play with him and, as if in a trance, he did. He spent the summer morning and afternoon climbing trees with the perfect stranger. Oscar had begun to believe had made a new friend and that relocating to Havenholm would not be so horrible, except as the day waned he discovered he was no longer among the living, and this particular day of fun was his initiation into the afterlife.

Oscar recalled how his mother found his body in the tall grass near the foundations of the burnt-out cottage. She screamed and bolted back to their home. Oscar ran after her, wanting to comfort her and be comforted by her. But as he approached the road, it shimmered and transformed into a river, separating him and the hill from his parents and house on the other side.

Oscar attempted to wade across, but the girl, Willa, tackled him. They were the same age—or at least they were when they met their ends—but she was bigger and stronger. She clawed at his legs. He tried to kick her. He caught her in the jaw and the sick sound broke through the blur of frantic struggle and he stopped.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t.”

Until that moment, he had felt bafflement, fear, panic, but only when he struck her did he want to cry. It was the feeling of shame. Not since he was toddler had he struck anyone.

“I just… just want to go home.”

“Don’t. You can’t.”

 

creature-in-river

Willa lifted herself up from the muddy bank with one hand and pointed with the other to something moving between the waves. A long, slick, scaly back undulated at the surface. A giant yellow eye popped up and stared with hunger at the two children. Willa scrambled up the bank. She turned to make sure that Oscar followed. He did not. Mouth agape, he stood stunned. A great tentacle lashed out of the river and wrapped around Oscar’s leg. Oscar snapped back to his senses. He tried to grab at grass stalks and crumbling earth. Willa flung herself at him, to anchor and tug him to safety. The creature was too strong. Willa gnashed her teeth and braced her legs.

“No, not again,” she yelled. “Tough Tom. Tough Tom. Tough Tom.”

It sounded more like an incantation than a plea for help. Either way, it was answered. Heavy footfalls thudded down the hill—seemed to. Branches snapped. Tough Tom trampled toward them. Oscar, despite being an increasingly stretched rope in a tug of war between Willa and the monster, was amazed by what came. It was a younger boy. Eight years old, perhaps. He was stocky and thick-limbed, like a small weightlifter in britches, suspenders, and a woolen cap—like the one Oliver Twist wore in the movies. Without hesitation, the boy grabbed Oscar and Willa by their wrists, tore them from the tentacle, and flung the pair up the bank. Oscar’s face was in the dirt and his blood (he knew it was the blood of the dead) pounded in his head, but he could hear the stream of inventive but antiquated curses emitting from the small boy’s mouth. Schoolyard swears Oscar had at times used himself, but never with such intricacy or length, gilded with old-fashioned gems like “cussed,” “golderned,” and “tarnation”. As Oscar, raised his eyes to take in the sight, Tough Tom—Oscar could only presume it was him that Willa called—picked a stone as large as his head and threw it easily, as if it were a tennis ball. The creature in the water dodged the missile without much much concern, gave Oscar one last ravenous look with its giant unblinking eye, and dove down into the deep.

Dazed, barely standing, and unable to speak, Oscar let his rescuers guide him up the hill and along the deer trail. Willa and Tough Tom muttered to each other. She pointed at her chin where Oscar’s sneakers met her face. The smaller boy tsked the way a parent would. They arrived at the great tree. Oscar prepared himself to ascend the soaring oak, but instead of climbing, they circled around it. Among its thick roots, Oscar found another burned-out ruin. There was a dip in the ground, and he thought they were leading him to a cave or a dugout but there was a door. Inside, he found a dim room with shelves that covered the walls. They were laden with books. On the floor in a corner, building a fort out of old tomes, were a twin boy and girl. They were about three. They darted into their refuge and Oscar could only see their eyes through a slit window they had made.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“This is home,” said Willa.

“No. Is this heaven or hell?”

“Well, gee, neither. It’s Havenholm.”

“But it’s not. There used to be a road, not a river. And this tree, there was no tree like this before.”

Tough Tom interrupted with a cough. He cleared his throat and said, “If one reads Dante’s Divina Commedia—in English that’s Divine Comedy—one will find in the second cantica the Mount of Purgatory. Naturally, the reader may note Havenholm’s similarity to Purgatorio, but in fact, this hill or island, as it is indeed surrounded by water, is a nexus between the natural and spiritual worlds presently manipulated by mystical energies.”

The stout boy crossed his arms in satisfaction.

Oscar turned to Willa. “This must be hell.”

“Sorry. Tough Tom has read a lot, and likes to show it.”

Tough Tom sniffed, “Would it be better if we mooned over Howdy Doody and Leave It To Beaver?”

“Quiet, Tom. Oscar, I died a long time ago. I used to live in a house like yours on the hill. My mum and my dad worked at Havenholm. It was a school for deaf and blind kids but there were other kids too, kids who didn’t have parents. There was a big fire.”

Oscar saw Willa’s lips begin to tremble. Tough Tom put a paternal hand on her shoulder. She continued, “My mum and dad saw a bright light on the hill. They called for me to come. I ran to them. There were other kids, some of them students, others like me, and they went to the light. But they had to cross the water. Back then I didn’t know where it came from. And the monster you saw caught them and swallowed them. Just the kids.”

“No grown-ups?”

She shook her head. “I would have been taken too, but something stopped me.”

“What?” asked Oscar.

“I dunno,” whispered Willa.

“Anger,” said Tough Tom. “Vengeance.”

Willa looked away. Oscar toed at the floor and shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his housecoat. He nodded toward the twins in the fort.

“What happened to them?”

“They were the only two I could save. Until you.”

Oscar thanked Willa at the time. Since then, however, he kept returning to the river and struggled with the urge to dive in. The light went out in his mother’s study window. He saw his mother and dad step off the porch and into the family car. The car seemed to roll upon the surface of the river and then turned left, heading to town.

He wished he could be with them. But if he crossed, where would he end up? Surely, not among the living. In the weeks following his fatal collapse, Oscar’s curiosity led him to read the book Tough Tom had mentioned. It was a really long poem and some of it he didn’t understand. Three lines, though, stayed with him: Tell us how is it that thou makest thyself/A wall unto the sun, as if thou hadst not/Entered as yet into the net of death.

Oscar had one answer, “I’m a ghost.”

Oscar scanned the river, picked up a rock, and flung it as hard as he could. It fell short.

The Ghosts of Havenholm (Part Two)

ghost of havenholm title naturalThis is a serialized work of fiction, written and illustrated by JJ Lee. You can find the first part here. These originally appeared in our print editions in June and August. 

CHAPTER THREE

“I wasn’t sure if you were dead or alive.”

Oscar struggled through the haze. He focused and saw bits of yellow flecked in grey-green eyes. The girl with the red hair leaned over him, so close one of her braids fell down and brushed against his nose and lips. He swatted at the tail.

The girl stepped back and repeated herself.

“I wasn’t sure if you were dead or alive.”

Oscar was sprawled on his back in the tall grass. Morning had come. He must have been lying there for hours. He tried to sit up. His vision blurred. Instead of seeing two of his feet in white sneakers, he saw four. A wave of nausea swelled inside him.

“It’s better if you don’t look down or back.”

The girl offered a hand.

He did not take it but staggered to his feet on his own.

“What’s your name?” said the girl.

He remembered seeing her the night before from his bedroom window. She had beckoned. He had snuck out and crossed the meadow to her. He remembered the blue light of the moon and how he thought he saw her floating above the grass. He ran, afraid, and stumbled and fell head over heels. Now, here she was standing in front of him in broad daylight still wearing the yellow dress. He noticed how crumpled and ragged it looked. Soot covered her from forehead to ankle. Her hair was haphazardly braided, more like two tangled clumps that fell roughly to the sides of her head. She looked like she lived outside. He had thought the girl was a ghost. Now he thought she needed a bath. He imagined how much Simon would have laughed at him. He felt horrible.

“What’s your name?” Again, she repeated herself.

“Oscar.”

“I’m Willa.”

He shook her extended hand. Despite the morning summer heat, her fingers felt icy. Her touch made the hairs on the back of Oscar’s neck prickle. He wanted to get away from her. Oscar glanced down the hill. He thought of going home. Willa must have read his mind.

“You don’t want to go back home now. Trust me.”

He let go of her and put his hands into the pockets of his housecoat. He realized how odd he too must have appeared in his pyjamas, outside, in broad daylight, not that this girl would even notice.

Yes, Oscar did want to go home. He started to retreat from her but Willa thrust her arm into the loop of his and gave a gentle tug.

“I want to show you a tree.”

oscar and willa

CHAPTER FOUR

What Willa said to Oscar, as far as he was concerned, did not make all that much sense. When do perfect strangers want to show you a tree? Why would they? And who would follow them? Not any person with any good sense. However, her words sent Oscar’s brain reeling. It did what his mother called the ‘Oscar Effect.’ It was when his mind thought more things than he could actually handle. His mind rushed with the thought of going home, the thought he hadn’t had breakfast. But he did not feel hungry. He should change what he was wearing. But who would be there to see him in this lonely, near-abandoned neighbourhood? The girl was a weirdo. But she smelled like fresh-cut grass and he kind of liked that. Oscar thought of his mother and his father. He thought of Simon. He thought of trees. He loved trees…but should he? He thought of everything and like a bunch of clowns trying to fit through a door, his jumbled thoughts prevented him from making up his mind. Willa tugged his arm one more time and he let her decide for him. He relented and walked with her.

When she was sure that he would follow Willa dropped her arm and led Oscar along what may have been an old deer path. It wound up the hill, through the grass, into the woods. It did not take long for the brush to thicken and the trail to fade. Willa slipped through the branches and leaves without a problem. She seemed to glide through it all like a doe. Every stick and nettle seemed to catch on Oscar. He more or less crashed through.

At the point where the bramble grew so thick and Oscar, tired of being stung and slapped, was about to turn back, he plunged through a final green curtain and emerged in a sizable meadow drenched in soft golden sunlight. At its centre rose a massive oak tree. It possessed a great trunk that split into two giant masts that soared upwards.

Before Oscar had become sick, before he had met Simon (who early in their friendship had told Oscar that tree climbing “was for babies”), Oscar was an expert tree climber. His father was not the sporty type and playing catch was out of the question. Instead, they had taken up tree climbing as their mutual hobby, their father-son activity. As a result, it was with the eye of a connaisseur that Oscar admired the dual spiral of branches that rose into the sky like a pair of staircases.

Willa said, “C’mon.”

He needed no further urging. Oscar raced up the tree. It was easy, practically effortless. Still, Willa was faster. She flew, barely touching a branch before she flitted up to the next one. They climbed and climbed. Oscar puzzled over how the tree did not thin out as they went higher. It was if he were ascending a castle tower. How tall was this tree? Oscar guessed they were six floors up when Willa stopped.

“Isn’t it incredible?”

“Yes, but have you ever reached the top?”

Willa shook her head. “No, it just goes on.”

“What do you mean?”

Willa moved out onto a branch and sat down.  “Just try. I’ll be here when you get back. Then I’ll show you the view.”

“I’ll see it when I get to the top.”

“No, you won’t,” said Willa.

Oscar climbed. She was an odd girl. He wondered if she lived in the tree. It was big enough. He looked down every so often to gauge his progress. Eventually, he lost sight of the ground. Then it was Willa who was falling out of sight. By the time Oscar stopped ascending, she was a mere yellow dot half lost in the confusing weave of spoking branches, leaves, and shadows. He climbed ten more feet and lost sight of her. He lost his nerve and started down.

“Now you understand?” she said.

“The tree doesn’t look so tall from the ground.”

“Nothing is quite what it seems.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing. Let me show you the view.”

Willa started to work her way out along the branch. So great was its girth, they could stride along it as if they were walking a pirate’s plank.

When the limb started to bend, she said, “Grab the branch above you and pull it down, if you can.”

“Like this?”

“Excellent. Yes, as much as you can.”

oscar looks over havenholm

All the way up Oscar had seen bits and pieces of what lay below but when their heads popped out of the crown, through the awning of leaves, Oscar gasped. A great vista lay before him. He could now see how the meadow sat near the top of Havenholm. He saw other patches of grass throughout the woods and the ruins of houses. Then he saw the road that ringed the hill and the three occupied houses on the other side.

“That one’s my house.”

“I know.”

Oscar watched his mother come out of the house, cross the road, and begin searching through the tall grass. He could see her so clearly, freakishly so. A few strands of her hair slipped out of the kerchief she used to wrap her head when she was, as she would say, “a hot mess.” Her face held a grave look. She called for him.

“Oscar. Oscar?”

Each time she said his name, an edge of alarm grew wider in her voice. Oscar wanted to scramble down and run to her. He thought how nice it would be to have Saturday morning pancakes or read the funnies out loud to his father. He thought how she still read to him at bedtime even though he was perfectly able to read quite lengthy novels all on his own and how he still loved it when she did. He watched his mother’s hand rise to her mouth. She ran to the spot where he fell the night before. She went down to her knees and started sobbing. She screamed out, “Louis.”

Louis was his father’s name. She said it again and again, louder and louder, until her voice grew hoarse. She stood up and sprinted to the house.

“It’s Oscar. He isn’t moving. Call an ambulance.”

In the tall grass, where he had fallen the night before, Oscar saw, half-hidden behind the bent and broken stalks, a pair of feet in white sneakers.

Willa sighed.

“I told you not to look down.”