Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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In A Time Past

by J. E. Deegan


Each year as spring arrives in Haileyville, Kansas, some citizens would say there is nothing particularly strange about the misty filaments often seen swirling around timeworn wooden markers in a small cemetery near a once-great house some four miles northeast of town. They would say that drifting pockets of mist and fog routinely appear once winter turns to spring. They would say that the filaments are merely wisps of vapor pulled from the earth as the temperature shifts from warm to cool or cool to warm. They would also say it's just a helpful westerly breeze that carries these wisps into a field bordering a nearby creek, and that the muffled sounds one might hear are caused by that same wind swirling through the buffalo grass and the leaves of the cottonwoods and oaks.

That's what some would say.

####

Dawn, March, 21 2009.

Like a feather lifted by a gently swirling breeze, Cleo felt herself drifting leisurely upward from her confining quarters. She waited patiently, for she had learned that reaching full consciousness took a bit of time. When her senses fully coalesced, she again found herself in the small graveyard some hundred yards from the great house. Her first glance was toward a marker with the name JOE carved into it. She smiled and squeezed the leather pouch locked in her hands.

The sun had just begun to brighten the eastern horizon as her eyes swept side-to-side and fixed for a moment upon a marble headstone perched upon the graveyard's highest point. Nothing, she knew, but earth lay beneath that headstone. Her thoughts then turned to the warped and weathered wooden markers that reached from the earth like crooked fingers. Beneath them were friends with whom she had lived for a time... friends who had become family. She looked fondly at the markers and again recalled the summer day in 1888 when she arrived at the orphanage.

####

Barely eight-years old, she stood in the dust, her eyes drawn back and forth between the wagon rumbling down the narrow two-track road and the orphanage atop a hill a few hundred yards ahead. A cheap black purse hung from her shoulder; both hands clutched the frayed handle of the shoddy cardboard suitcase she held across her knees. The suitcase contained a change of underwear and a dress much like the drab one she was wearing. The purse held a quarter and a small piece of wood she had carved into a figure that roughly resembled the dog she always longed for but never had. She named him Joe and prayed every night that she would find him one day.

Dan Ellison, the man hidden in the dust his wagon stirred up, had gruffly told her: "We're done with you. You can't be tended to by decent folk." He then added a simple instruction: "Just walk up the hill to the house." The man wasn't her father. He was no relation at all, and Cleo considered him a sour, sullen man whose moods always slanted toward anger. He and his wife Ruth had taken her in after her birth mother left her in the town church of Clevenger with only a purse and a battered suitcase. Instead of taking Cleo to the orphanage near Haileyville, the preacher artfully presented her to the Ellisons as a companion who would help their eight-year-old daughter Rebecca combat the loneliness that filled the vast expanse of prairie surrounding their home. After some deliberation, the Ellisons reluctantly agreed.

Her four months with them were rife with accusations from Rebecca that Cleo was repeatedly assaulting her, breaking her belongings, and constantly making her young life miserable. The reverse in fact was true, but denying Rebecca's lies further fueled Dan Ellison's smoldering rage. Cleo remained silent during her beatings.

The end came when Rebecca broke her ankle while attempting to push Cleo off the porch of the Ellison's small farmhouse. Aware of Rebecca's intent, Cleo adroitly stepped aside. Rebecca plunged to the ground and landed awkwardly on her left foot. Her frantic cries brought her parents racing from the house; her pointed finger became judge and jury. Cleo received a severe whipping, and two days later she stood staring back and forth between the orphanage and the dust cloud created by Dan Ellison's wagon.

She sighed deeply and began her walk up the hill.

Halfway to the house she saw a women step onto the porch and wipe her hands on her apron. The woman put a hand above her eyes, stared across the yard for a moment then hurried down the steps and onto the road.

Cleo warily watched her approach. Plump, with a round rosy face, graying hair brushed back into a bun, and wide shoulders more suited for a man, the way she lumbered down the road created a sense of uncertainty in Cleo that quickly magnified when the woman abruptly stopped. Her eyes widened and her face quickly paled. She gasped and threw her hand to her chest.

She, Cleo thought, was going to turn her away.

She didn't. Her sky-blue eyes suddenly turned bright and kind, and her lips parted for a wide, white smile. Her first words were: "Welcome, young lady. My name is Kelsey McGeagh, but the children call me Miss Kelsey. And you are?"

She was welcomed just as warmly by the other children who called the orphanage home.

####

Cleo turned and stared fondly at the great house, which had been standing on its broad, flat hill for over 140 years. However, anyone else looking upon it would consider "standing" a greatly exaggerated description. What remained of the house had steadily deteriorated into a brooding, crumbling ruin - its thick brick walls pitted and scarred, its elegant wrap-around porch a deadfall of rotted timber, and its formerly grand pointed-arch windows so many huge, open mouths.

But as always, the house Cleo looked upon appeared in all its grandiose glory. Seeing it revived the story Miss Kelsey had told her about the house and the man who built it.

####

Justin West arrived in Haileyville in the fall of 1866 and rented a small house on the outskirts of town. Why an obviously educated, well-off man like West would choose to live in this small simple farming community became the subject of continuous gossip among the town's citizens. They learned nothing from West, who rarely spoke with anyone. But his reason became clear when it was learned that he quietly had been purchasing acres of cheap Kansas prairie to the south of town. The following year he made a fortune by selling his holdings to the railroad as it snaked westward.

Following his windfall, West, for a reason no one could fathom, remained in Haileyville and began construction of a huge house on a low hill a few miles northeast of town. When finished in the fall of 1870, the grossly elaborate Gothic structure soared three stories high and featured a huge wrap-around porch, six-foot-high pointed-arch windows, and a steeply pitched roof broken by a series of cross gables.

He lived alone and was seen but a few times a year when he came to town to purchase provisions at DiGuilio's General Store. Men would tip their hats and nod, but he spoke to no one.

As a neighborly gesture, Hunter Selby, marshal at the time, and his wife Olivia would occasionally swing by the great house while on a Sunday afternoon buggy ride. But each time they approached, West would open the front door, stare at them a moment, then slam the door shut.

The door was wide open when the Selbys rode up in June of 1879. Curious, the marshal entered the house and conducted a search that revealed nothing but two sets of barely visible footprints in the patina of dust coating the floor. They began in a second-story bedroom and ended at the kitchen door.

West's baffling disappearance created little concern in Haileyville. Most people considered him weirdly eccentric and his house an ostentatious blemish upon the pristine prairie surrounding Haileyville. When neither a will nor living kin could be found, the county confiscated the house and converted it into an orphanage that opened its doors in the fall of 1881.

To honor Justin West for the contribution he didn't know he had made, a marble headstone was placed on a small knoll within sight of the house. The inscription chiseled into it read:

JUSTIN WEST
Alive 18?? To 1879
Presumed Dead After That

####

Cleo dropped to her knees beside Joe's marker and drew her hand across the name. "Time to wake up, Joe," she whispered while opening the leather pouch. She took a pinch of grainy green powder and carefully sprinkled it in front of the marker. As it sank into the soil, the powder began to glow brightly. Within a few moments, a wispy tendril of shimmering mist seeped from the ground and swayed in front of her. She smiled and extended her hands, and the glistening plume entered the corral of her arms. There it materialized into Joe, a medium-sized dog of many breeds. His cinnamon-colored coat was warm to her touch. His snout was long and rounded and moist, and his eyes shined with the love an unyielding bond creates.

"Joe... it's always so good to see you."

Joe's reply was a broad swish of his tongue across Cleo's cheek.

She sat on the ground and pulled Joe's head into her lap. Then, as she always did when they were reunited, she recalled the day they found each other.

####

Soon after arriving at the orphanage, Cleo and a boy named Xavier were assigned the task of pulling a cart laden with trash to a large pit not far from the house. There, the two noticed a scraggly-looking dog moving uneasily back and forth at the far edge. Cleo's eyes widened. "Joe," she whispered as she squeezed the carving she always carried in a pocket.

Perplexed, Xavier asked, "What? Who's Joe?"

Cleo pointed.

"Joe!" Xavier chuckled. "Are you kidding? That's just a mangy old mutt, Cleo. Probably wild... and rabid to boot. Ain't seen that one around before, but strays like him come to the pit to root around for something to eat." He hurriedly emptied the cart and turned to begin the trek back to the house. "Come on, Cleo. Best not mess with him. Animals like that can be dangerous."

Seemingly mesmerized, Cleo didn't speak nor move.

"Okay, stay if you want," Xavier said somewhat testily, "but I'm leaving."

Cleo slowly moved closer to the pit. The dog watched her suspiciously, backed up a few steps, then turned and began to lope away.

"Joe! Don't go!" she cried. "It's me...Cleo!" She extended the wooden carving toward him.

The dog slowed to a stop and turned to face her.

Still holding her carving extended, Cleo began a deliberate walk toward the far side of the pit. The dog responded by tentatively moving toward her.

What happened next can only be explained in a realm beyond human understanding. Each began running toward the other, and the smile that lit Cleo's face would have made angels envious. She wrapped her arms around Joe and pressed her cheek against his neck. The muscles beneath his rough, matted coat quivered in her arms, and he snorted a soft hush as though calling her name.

"I knew I'd find you one day," she said through her tears. "I knew I would."

She left him long enough to run to the house for soap, a sturdy brush, and scraps of food. She knew he'd be waiting when she returned. They spent the afternoon at the creek, where Cleo thoroughly scrubbed, brushed and groomed Joe. With dusk approaching, the two walked back to the house. She had already determined that they would sneak off that very night if Miss Kelsey refused to let her keep Joe.

Miss Kelsey had every intention of doing just that, for the pittance she received from the county barely provided sufficient food for the human mouths in the house. As Cleo and Joe entered the kitchen, the words quickly filled her mouth. But she never spoke them.

"Miss Kelsey," Cleo said evenly. "This is Joe."

With an insight that few have, Miss Kelsey sensed the bond that existed between this girl and her dog. "Of course he can stay," she said before the question was asked. "You and your Joe belong together."

####

Cleo chuckled and affectionately rubbed Joe's ears. "You were such a mess that day at the pit, Joe. The state you were in, Miss Kelsey never would have let me keep you. And I hope you know how hard it was to get all those burrs and knots out of your coat. It took forever to scrub you clean." She smiled and turned Joe's face to hers. "We had so many good times back then, didn't we?"

Cleo's expression grew slowly reflective. "But we had some problems to deal with, too." She pulled Joe to her chest as memory took her back to a damp April day in 1891.

####

The sound of an approaching wagon drew Cleo from the book she was reading to a window in the parlor. She parted the curtains and watched as Marshal Selby's buckboard approached. A young girl bundled in a heavy coat and muffler sat next to the marshal. Cleo squinted through the window then recoiled in shock. The girl was Rebecca Ellison.

Though stunned, she watched Miss Kelsey walk across the porch then gasp and put her hand over her chest. It was a gesture Cleo remembered well.

The marshal spoke loudly enough for Cleo to learn that Rebecca had survived a twister that had killed her parents and ripped their farmhouse to shreds. He added that Rebecca had an aunt and uncle near Mader Creek who wanted nothing to do with her. The orphanage was the only option left.

Miss Kelsey nodded, thanked the marshal then helped her newest charge to the ground. As Rebecca walked toward the porch, Cleo noticed that she favored her left leg.

Joe, at Cleo's side, his snout upon the windowsill, growled.

Rebecca entered the house and stood rigidly in the foyer. She glanced around and grinned menacingly when she discovered Cleo staring at her from the parlor. "I was hoping you'd still be here," she sneered.

Joe bared his teeth and snarled, but Cleo's grip on the back of his neck kept him from springing forward. Alarmed, Rebecca fell back and braced herself against the wall. Her eyes narrowed and she seemed about to speak again when Miss Kelsey appeared. Rebecca pointed a quivering finger toward Joe. "That dog!" she cried. "He tried to bite me!"

Miss Kelsey grabbed her shoulders and roughly turned her toward the kitchen. "Shut your mouth, child," she sternly said. "Just move along."

Fear of Joe kept Rebecca away from Cleo but didn't discourage her from taunting the other children. But she was dealing with youngsters who had endured many of life's hardships - they knew how to take care of themselves and each other. It took but a few days for a noticeably bruised Rebecca to abandon her belligerent ways. Still, the other children avoided her; she would have to earn their trust. But in the months that followed, she gave no indication that she wanted to.

Miss Kelsey didn't interfere with Rebecca's difficult adjustment to life at the orphanage. She knew something about her that no one else knew...something she would soon share with Cleo.

One evening Cleo was finishing her chores in the kitchen when a pretty blonde-haired girl named Katherine approached and told her that Miss Kelsey wanted to see her upstairs. Cleo quickly finished her work then mounted the stairs. She peeked around the open door of Miss Kelsey's room and saw her in the rocker placed in front of a window so she could watch the children play in the yard after dinner.

"Come in, Cleo," she quietly said. "Close the door then sit here." She motioned toward a straight-back chair next to the rocker.

Cleo entered with Joe at her side and did as she was asked. She had grown very fond of this gentle woman who had always treated her kindly and hadn't objected to Joe.

"I want to talk with you about you," Miss Kelsey said calmly, "and about Rebecca."

Cleo's eyes widened.

"You will soon understand, child." Miss Kelsey said, patting Cleo's hand.

"When you arrived nearly three years ago, you chose not to talk about what brought you here. In that regard, you are like many of the other children. Pain and fear are difficult to discuss when one is young, and I understand that. But there are few secrets in small towns like Clevenger and Haileyville, Cleo. Word eventually reached Marshal Selby about how poorly Rebecca and her parents treated you. He shared that bitter story with me when he brought Rebecca here. Do you remember that day?"

Cleo nodded, but remained confused.

"Listen carefully to me, child, for what I am about to tell you will sound very strange and hard to believe. But you must trust me."

Cleo nodded again

"The ancient lore of my people includes tales of spirit beings that inhabit the souls of certain people. These spirits are said to possess powers that allow them to influence the thoughts and actions of their human hosts. Most of them are rowdy but harmless. They content themselves with persuading their hosts to behave like mischievous children who like to taunt and tease other people. And there are kind and friendly spirits as well. They use their powers to help their hosts do good deeds for mankind. Sadly, there are too few of this kind."

Miss Kelsey paused. Her expression turned grim. "But there are wicked spirits, too, Cleo, whose sole purpose is to make their hosts maim or destroy everything good and decent they encounter. These spirits are sly and cunning and often veil their wickedness beneath a veneer of innocence and physical beauty."

Her voice trembling slightly, Cleo asked, "Do you have one of those spirits in you?"

Miss Kelsey smiled softly. "No, child. But you do...and so does Rebecca."

Cleo stiffened in her chair. "How do you know that?"

"I have a gift that allows me to see more of people than just their flesh. Some cultures call this gift clairvoyance...others a sixth sense. We Irish call it the perception. And I have seen that the spirit you have is good...the kind and friendly sort."

Joe, sitting at Cleo's side, sprang to his feet and thrust his nose into her lap.

Miss Kelsey smiled. "It is said that certain animals have the perception, too. I think your Joe knows that the spirit in you is good. Perhaps that is why he is so devoted to you."

Cleo rubbed Joe's head. "How do you know mine is good?"

"People with spirit beings have an aura around them, a type of radiance that surrounds them like a shell. If the aura is yellow, the spirit within is the mischievous sort. If it is black, the spirit is cruel and destructive. But if the aura is white, the spirit is friendly and helpful. The day you and I first met on the road I saw a white aura around you."

"Is that why you stopped so suddenly and turned pale?" Cleo asked.

"You remember that, do you?"

Cleo nodded. "And I remember that you reacted the same way when you met Rebecca. I was watching through the parlor window."

Miss Kelsey eyes flickered briefly with surprise. "You are indeed an observant girl, Cleo. Yes, Rebecca too has an aura around her. But it is black."

Cleo's mouth fell slightly open; her eyes drifted off for a moment. When she spoke, it was as though she were speaking to herself. "Then an evil spirit is making Rebecca behave the way she does." Her eyes shot back to Miss Kelsey. "Can it be driven out of her?"

A shadow of uncertainty tightened Miss Kelsey's face. "Some believe that a supreme act of kindness or sacrifice might expel an evil spirit from its host... perhaps even replace it with a friendly one. But if possible, such an act can be performed only by someone who is kind and forgiving... by someone within a white aura." Miss Kelsey's expression turned grim. "So some believe, Cleo. But the truth is this: no one knows for certain."

"What about me, Miss Kelsey? Can I do something to help Rebecca?"

Miss Kelsey took Cleo's hand and looked lovingly into her eyes. "I don't know, child. But should fate present the chance, I believe you will know."

####

Cleo breathed deeply. "We learned a lot from Miss Kelsey that night, Joe, even though much of it seemed frightening at the time." She shook her head and added with a rush, "But that time is far behind us now, and since then things have worked out just fine, haven't they?" She vigorously rubbed Joe's head.

Joe jumped to his feet, his legs dancing and his tail swishing rapidly back and forth.

Cleo smiled. "I see you're in a hurry to finish what we have to do. Come on then. Let's go."

They walked to the third marker, the one that carried the name Rebecca Ellison. As happened every year, seeing it conveyed Cleo deep into the past...to a night in mid-March of 1892.

####

Cleo leaned against Joe, her arm across his back, her head resting on his shoulder. They had been sitting on the steps of the front porch for nearly an hour, hoping to escape the heat of an uncommonly warm night. The house was dark; everyone else had somehow found relief in sleep. Outside, the air hung still and heavy and the trees dotting the weed-choked yard stooped wearily, their leaves motionless as though painted on the limbs.

"This is very odd, isn't it, Joe? We're not supposed to have weather like this in March... especially a drought as bad as this one. Everything is bone-dry. I'll bet there's not a leaf or a blade of grass within miles that hasn't withered up."

She wiped her brow with a sleeve of her nightgown then stiffened with surprise when a bright streak of lightning lit up the sky to the west. Within seconds, deep rolling thunder rumbled across the night. Cleo smiled. "That's a big storm, Joe, and it's moving our way pretty fast. It should cool things off, huh?"

The sequence of light and sound kept repeating itself as the storm moved ever closer. Within minutes, the first wave arrived. A powerful rush of cool wind swept across the yard, bending the trees and sawing their leaves angrily against each other. Next a vanguard of rain arrived, thin silver missiles that punctured the dry earth like darts. The wind grew stronger; it tore through the rain, shredding it and blindly scrambling it in all directions.

Cleo jumped to her feet. "Come on, Joe. This is a bad one. We'd better get inside."

They were moving toward the door when a great bolt of lightning squarely hit a huge dead oak that stood adjacent to the porch, exploding it into flame and hurling huge fiery splinters onto the roof and porch and through the thick glass of the windows on the side of the house.

The oiled wooden floors greedily welcomed the flames, which quickly turned the interior of the house into a roaring inferno. Cleo's eyes widened with horror. She stood frozen, unable to move. Joe's jaws locked on her arm and tugged until she regained her senses. Following Joe, she stumbled to the edge of the porch then stopped. "Joe!" she screamed. "We've got to go back and help the others get out!"

Joe at her heels, she raced into the house and up the stairs. She paused on the second-floor landing and glanced at Miss Kelsey's closed door. But the terrified screams echoing from the third floor propelled her to the next set of stairs. Flames grabbed at her arms and chewed at the walls and the steps, forcing her to hopscotch her way upward. Her eyes burned; thick smoke pungent with oil dug into her nose and throat.

On the third floor she found the younger children huddled together in a pocket of space as yet untouched by fire. "Where are the others?" she screamed. Gripped by fear, they could only shake their heads. She herded them into her arms and quickly pushed them to the stairs where Joe waited. She took his head in her hands.

"You have to get them out, Joe."

Joe whined and tried to pull away. Cleo pulled his eyes into hers and kissed his nose. "Joe, please," she whispered. "You have to. They can't make it alone."

Joe turned, looked back a second, then carefully began to make his way past the flames consuming the steps.

"Follow Joe," Cleo yelled. "Stay together and don't stop until you reach the field! Go!"

Six were left, the older kids whose rooms were furthest from the stairs. Cleo pulled the collar of her nightgown over her mouth and nose and began working her way down the hallway. Three doors were opened; two were closed. She looked quickly past each open door and found the rooms empty. She muscled the fourth door open and saw the missing children cowering in a corner. Flames rippled angrily around them; smoke rolled crazily about the room. One by one she roughly pulled them to their feet. "Come with me!" she shouted. "There's still time to get out." She counted heads and studied faces as she shoved them toward the door.

"Rebecca," she yelled. "Where's Rebecca?"

"We haven't seen her!" one answered hoarsely. "Maybe still in her room!"

Cleo froze for a moment as Miss Kelsey's words flashed through her mind: "A supreme act of kindness or sacrifice...should fate present the chance...you will know."

A calm, unfaltering understanding quickly spread within Cleo and overwhelmed what remained of fear and doubt. There were no options to consider...no choices to evaluate...nothing to weigh or contemplate. She knew what to do.

Just then Joe's bark sounded in the stairwell. He was coming back. Cleo gave Peyton, the girl in the lead, a firm push in the back. "Go to Joe," she said as calmly as she could. "He'll get you out." She cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted. "Joe! There are others coming toward you! You have to get them out!" She watched Joe slip through the flames and dance nervously on the landing. She knew he wanted her to come too.

"Just one more, Joe. I'll get her. You take care of these, okay?"

She turned and dashed toward the final door. The hallway had become a deadly mixture of heat and fire and billowing smoke that seared painfully into her lungs. Ignoring it, she rammed a shoulder into the door and watched it splinter open in a shower of sparks. The room was ablaze and choked with smoke.

On the floor below, though nearly blind and breathless from the intense heat and smoke, Miss Kelsey began to struggle up the stairs. She had barely started when she encountered Joe and saw the group of children descending behind him. "Thank God," she whispered as she turned and hurried to the ground floor and deep into the yard where the smaller children stood huddled and shivering in the rain. She pulled them against her and watched against a curtain of flame as Joe led the second group though the doorway and down the porch steps. She quickly counted them and realized with horror that Cleo and Rebecca were not among them. Screaming their names, she hurried awkwardly toward the porch. As she passed Joe, he grabbed her forearm in his jaws. That stopped her, but she struggled a moment before he released her. He then dashed up the steps and into the hellish inferno. Miss Kelsey returned to the children and gathered as many of them to her as she could.

"Rebecca!" Cleo yelled. But the word came out rough and muted. She squinted through the roiling smoke and flames and spied a smoldering blanket crumpled on the floor. She staggered to it and threw it aside. Rebecca, crunched in a ball, was there, her eyes barely open, her face crisscrossed with fiery welts, her blonde hair singed and smoking.

"Rebecca! You've got to get up. There isn't much time."

Cleo dropped to a knee and wrapped her arms around Rebecca's chest. She pulled with all her strength and nearly got her upright. Rebecca's eyes drifted open and she tried to rise. But the inferno surrounding the girls was too strong. They collapsed side by side to the floor. Their eyes met and Rebecca smiled. "You came back for me," she murmured. "Why?"

The answer gathered on Cleo's tongue but stalled there as she watched Rebecca suddenly become encased in a nearly transparent, undulating dark shell. It wavered unsteadily a moment then vanished. Within seconds, a shimmering shell of purest white replaced it. Cleo smiled and reached through the radiant light to brush her fingers across Rebecca's cheek.

They embraced as the ceiling gave way and tumbled upon them.

The next day a group of shocked Haileyville citizens recovered Cleo and Rebecca's remains from a third-floor bedroom. Joe too was found, in the hallway just outside the doorway. He had almost made it back to Cleo.

A simple service was held before the bodies were interred beneath simple wooden markers near the small knoll that held Justin West's marble headstone. Over the next few days, the people erected a simple iron fence around the headstone and the fresh mounds of earth.

After all, it now was a graveyard.

####

Smiling, Cleo stood before Rebecca's marker. "It's time to wake her up, Joe. You ready?"

Joe barked approvingly as Cleo opened the leather pouch and looked upon its contents. As always, the pouch was full. "Think of how many times we've done this, Joe, yet the powder always renews itself, just as Miss Kelsey said it would."

Joe tapped his feet on the ground and issued a series of short grunts.

Cleo turned to him and smiled. "That means you want to hear the story Miss Kelsey told me the morning she came to the graveyard, right?"

Joe briskly wagged his tail.

She sat beside him and rubbed his head. "I thought so. You always do, you know. "

####

On the morning of March 21, two days following the funeral, Kelsey McGeagh borrowed the marshal's buckboard and drove to the orphanage. Seeing the once-great house flooded her eyes with tears, thus she spent but a moment looking at it before entering the graveyard. She went to the three wooden markers, loosened the rawhide drawstring of a small leather pouch and poured a small amount of a grainy green powder into her hand. She then sprinkled the powder on Cleo's grave. The powder glowed brilliantly as it sank into the ground. Moments later a glistening white mist floated upward from the earth and swayed before her.

"Miss Kelsey!" said a voice within the mist. "Where am I?"

"You are standing on your grave, Cleo, safe within your aura. That's all I can see of you."

"But I can see you, Miss Kelsey. How can that be? How did I get here?"

"Just believe that things are as they should be, child."

"You mean that I'm dead, don't you?"

Miss Kelsey shrugged. "In one sense, yes, Cleo. But in another, no. You now live in the spirit world."

"I...I don't understand, Miss Kelsey. How did that happen?"

"You will soon know, child. But first...do you remember what happened to you?"

"I remember a terrible storm... the house on fire... and Rebecca." A sharp gasp came from within the mist. "The other children! What happened to them?"

Miss Kelsey smiled. "Because of you and Joe, they are alive and safe. All but Rebecca and Joe. They died in the fire with you and are buried to either side of you."

"Then you can bring them back, too?" Cleo eagerly asked.

"No, child, I cannot. The living can employ the power this pouch holds only once. But those like you -- those of the spirit world - have no such limitation." She opened her hands and revealed the pouch. "This will awaken Rebecca and Joe. All you need do is spread the substance within on their graves. They will rise from the earth as a mist and quickly become visible to you. But only to you. Those of this world would only see a mist."

"What is in the pouch, Miss Kelsey?"

"A substance that renews life. Not life as you once knew it, but life as you now know it. A life like that of the earth itself, which lives and dies each year. The earth flourishes during summer, dies with autumn, and is reborn each spring. So shall it be for you, Cleo, and for Rebecca and Joe when you renew them. Each year you will awaken the first day of spring and rise from the earth. You will be strong and healthy, and you will remain so through the months of summer. But when autumn arrives, you must return to the earth, just as nature's bounty does. There you will sleep until spring awakens you again. All you must do is swallow a pinch of the powder as you reenter the earth each autumn. That will ensure that you will awaken when you should. Do you understand?"

####

Cleo sighed and ran her fingers through Joe's smooth coat. "I understood what Miss Kelsey said, Joe, and I was especially happy to know that I could be with you and Rebecca again. But I still had questions. I wanted to know where she got the powder, but when I asked her, she only said that it had been in her family for generations. She wouldn't say more about that. Then I asked her how the powder could possess such strange and wonderful powers, and she told me the story of Mulmarth, a great Celtic king who ruled a kingdom in an ancient time."

Joe began to squirm, a signal that he wanted her to continue. Cleo rubbed his neck and shoulders. "All right, Joe, this is the story of Mulmarth."

Joe barked his approval and lay on the ground, his head upon his paws.

####

Long ago a great king named Mulmarth reigned over a kingdom of the Celts called Laighn. Mulmarth was noble and kind, and his people prospered under his rule. Every spring the fields grew lush with crops and the woods were thick with game. The streams flowed fresh and clean and teemed with fish.

But there came a spring when a terrible drought descended upon the kingdom. The crops withered and died in the fields, the birds and animals abandoned the woods, and the streams became dry, dusty ruts. Soon the people of Laighn were withering and dying, too. Desperate to save them, Mulmarth prayed for help to the deuos, the sacred spirits of the Laighn people. The spirits answered in a dream, telling Mulmarth that the drought would end only if he sacrificed himself to the Earth Goddess Htur. His blood, the spirits said, must be offered to the earth in order for life to return to the fields and streams. If he refused, his people would perish.

That very night Mulmarth cut many wounds into his body then walked through his kingdom while his blood trickled to the ground and was consumed by the thirsty earth. The next morning his people awoke to find their fields rich with healthy crops. Water again flowed merrily in the streams, and the calls of birds and animals once more filled the woods. The people joyously searched for their king and found him dead in a field flourishing with grain. What remained of his blood had dried into a green powder around him, a sign that the deuos had accepted his sacrifice.

When the people buried Mulmarth, they honored him by spreading his powdered blood upon his grave. They watched in amazement as a sparkling white mist rose from the earth and drifted toward the sky. Their king, they believed, had been reborn as a sacred spirit, and he was ascending to join the deuos.

Thereafter, each year when spring arrived, the people of Laighn sowed their fields with Mulmarth's blood to ensure they would have healthy crops and a plentiful harvest. And despite spreading it across the entire kingdom, their leather pouches never emptied. The powder constantly renewed itself, just as it did the earth."

####

Cleo pushed herself to her feet. "So you see, Joe, we couldn't be renewed each spring had the great king Mulmarth not sacrificed himself to save his people all those many years ago. But since I recite the story every year, you already know that, don't you? " She laughed lightly, but her expression grew pensive. "Still, it is comforting that we never tire of it, isn't it?"

Joe briskly wagged his tail, stepped to Rebecca's marker, and turned back to Cleo.

"You're right, Joe. Rebecca has waited long enough. Let's awaken her."

She loosened the drawstring of the leather pouch, poured some powder into her hand and sprinkled it on Rebecca's grave. As always, the powder glowed a brilliant green as it sank beneath the soil. Cleo and Joe watched anxiously as a sparkling white mist rose from the earth and quickly materialized into Rebecca.

The girls smiled brightly and tightly embraced each other. Even after all these years, their joy in seeing one another hadn't waned. Rebecca then knelt and hugged Joe, who obviously relished the attention. "Oh, it's so good to be with my friends again."

"One more stop and everything will be in place," said Cleo. "Come on."

They moved quickly to a fourth wooden marker, just a bit removed from theirs. Rebecca and Joe stood beside Cleo as she spread the grainy green powder on the mound of earth in front of the marker. The girls smiled and danced joyfully as Miss Kelsey materialized within a shimmering white mist. She opened her arms for the girls, who eagerly rushed to her. Cleo looked loving into her eyes and whispered, "Thank you, Miss Kelsey, for wanting to be buried with us. We wouldn't be a family without you, you know."

"You say that every year, Cleo. And every year I love hearing it. Yes, we are a family...all four of us." Miss Kelsey smiled, wiped a joyful tear from her eye, then playfully rubbed Joe's head. "Now, let's get started, shall we? Spring is here again, the sun is high and warm, and we have months ahead of us to enjoy."

Cleo and Rebecca joined hands and raced toward the field of buffalo grass and the creek beyond where they loved to play. Joe was close behind them. Miss Kelsey headed that way too. But she took a more leisurely pace.

####

Each year as spring arrives in Haileyville, Kansas, some citizens would say there is nothing particularly strange about the misty filaments often seen swirling around timeworn wooden markers in a small cemetery near a once-great house some four miles northeast of town. They would say that drifting pockets of mist and fog routinely appear once winter turns to spring. They would say that the filaments are merely wisps of vapor pulled from the earth as the temperature shifts from warm to cool or cool to warm. They would also say it's just a helpful westerly breeze that carries these wisps into a field bordering a nearby creek, and that the muffled sounds one might hear are caused by that same wind swirling through the buffalo grass and the leaves of the cottonwoods and oaks.

That's what some would say.

Others would say that the misty plumes are the spirits of those who lived and died in the house in a time past. They would say that these spirits rise from their graves every spring and weave their way to the field and the creek where they romp and frolic until the chill of autumn arrives. And they would say that the spirits then scurry back to the cemetery and into their graves where they will rest until spring returns.

THE END


© 2009 J. E. Deegan

Bio: Mr. Deegan's work has appeared in various online and print magazines and anthologies, including Aphelion (most recently the werewolf tale Six to Go, in the April 2005 edition). He has two short story collections in print, Limboland (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and When I Was A Little Guy (children's stories), both available through Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

E-mail: J. E. Deegan

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