Cold wind blow through her bones in a still house, and drawing an iron heaviness about her limbs. Some might have gone to the doctor with such symptoms, but not her. She knew what caused them. Had fought against the knowledge for years. Denied it with all her soul. But now … the time for running was over. They were coming. Ghosts. All her adult days, she had believed that she could outrun them, had thought she had succeeded over the years, and now, faced with her end, she finally acknowledged the truth. There were some things that you can't run away from.
Inside her sleeping house, a sentry bell tolled, echoing in the ghastly silence. As the last of the chime died away, her ears were filled with the dismal footsteps of her ghosts. The sounds of a clinking chain accompanied this grisly invisible procession. Electric fear and dread griped her heart in terrible time with the ever nearing hordes. And try as she might, her mind could not shake an image of long ago of a soul weeping pitifully at the side of a familiar grave. What horror she had felt then! What understanding she felt now. She and that soul had become kindred spirits. Both had hoarded hidden shames, and both had allowed time to run out without changing it.
But for all her inward turmoil, outwardly she appeared unfazed. The only sound anyone else would hear was the soft turning of pages. It was a strange way to meet them, to be sure. Far too normal an occupation for a woman hounded by ghosts.
She was sitting in her late husband's chair; A Christmas Carol lain across her lap though it was nowhere near Christmas. It really was no special day in particular. Just an end of things, that's all. Just a lifelong delusion ripped away, she knew. Happens every day; as common and significant as death. So she just sat there, giving all the appearance of simply reading. Her grandma glasses perched as always upon her nose, and her eyes gently scanning the well-known words, as though ignoring the ghosts would force them away.
[right]"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"
…"Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!" *[/right]
"You knew. You knew what he did. He told you. Why didn't you protect me, Mommy?" It was a little girl's voice, accusing in its innocence and filled with tears. A voice she had heard every night for years in her dreams, but forgot in the morning, "I used to cry in the bathroom after visiting Grandfather. Didn't you hear me? Didn't you see my tears? And you did nothing to help me. You blamed a child for your father's sins, and you never let her forget it. A daughter that you should have loved. But didn't. " The woman did not even look up though, inside, she shuddered.
"You never told me. He abused my daughter, and you never told me." A second voice joined the first, a man's voice, as familiar as a lover, as a husband, and he sounded so dejected…, "You didn't let me help her. How could you protect him in the face of what he did?" She wasn't reading at all now, but she still didn't look up.
"My children will never know you. You weren't at my wedding. You weren't at their births." A third voice now, a young woman's, as sad and piercing as the others, "I tried everything to fix the breach. And you promised to do your part time and again. Why didn't you keep your promises?"
And so it went. Thousands of voices all speaking together, all distinctly clear, pounding their complaints against her soul. A cacophony of pain and loss, of missed opportunies and even more misguided hopes, of sadness and guilt that spanned generations, times, families… "Why did you abandon us?" "I needed you, and you weren't there." "I am lost to you." "I called out to you, and you just walked away." "Why didn't you love me?" "I didn't even get to know you." On and on, they talked, and with each new voice, the weight on her wrists and hands grew heavier and heavier until she could no longer hold up her book. Yet still, she would not left her eyes. Would not look into the eyes of her ghosts. Then, she felt herself begin to be pulled backward.
It was slow at first. Just a gentle tug, a careful inch, at a time; nothing so she'd notice outright. But the steadier the pull, the harder she felt it. On reflex more than choice, she looked up, and saw, to her horror, a heavy chain shackled to her wrists with iron bands. It coiled tightly around her ankles, and continued on behind her. Interspaced between the common links were the strangest of connecters: iron bricks and empty picture frames, steel paint tubes and books, metal wallets and money boxes, all those things that pushed out more important connections. And each of these connecters was held in a pair of ghostly hands.
Terror shot through her, and she swung her head wildly. For the first time, she saw what was waiting behind her. The wall of her living room was gone, and in its place was blackness. The Mouth of the Corridor of Death. The true ending of all earthly stories. In the midst of the darkness swirled those ghostly hands increasingly pulling her into it. Panic gave her sudden strength. She stood up, intending to run, but instead, only succeeded in falling to the floor. Tears of fear poured from her eyes as inch by inch was lost under her clawing fingers. This wasn't how it was supposed to end. She felt her panic die into hopelessness. How did one fight against such steady hands, such black inevitability? Who has forever won against Death?
Her feet were in. She noticed the coldness of it first. Why is death always cold? Now her thighs. What had she done to deserve this? Who doesn't die without regret? Her waist. The image of the man crying at the side of a grave again filled her mind, and she wondered if he too went out like this, clawing the floor and desperate as a frightened animal. Her chest. Her ears again filled with the voices of her ghosts. And above all, she heard the voice of her daughter, "Why didn't you protect me, Mommy?" And she understood. Her neck.
Slowly, she looked into the eyes of her ghosts, and for the first time, saw the overwhelming number of them. They seemed to full the world. And in this last moment, she finally allowed herself to feel all the shame and guilt of her life-choices. All the lives she made less rich somehow by her actions. She now understood that she would never have a right to any of it. It was all lost. With her eyes fixed on her ghosts, she uttered her final words with more heartfelt sorrow than she had ever felt in her entire life. "I'm sorry." And then, she was gone.
The family found her body the next morning. She still sat upon her late husband's chair; A Christmas Carol on her lap. A reading lamp was on. Her head lolled upon her breast, and the expression frozen in her eyes spoke chillingly of guilt. Tears clung desperately at their corners. The book was in her hands and clutched with Death's own strength. The family paled alarmingly as they read the opened warning:
"Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed," cried the phantom, "not to know, that ages of incessant labour, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!" *
The words pierced their souls, and they stepped away in shock and disbelief. A few looked on in obvious discomfort that had nothing to do with the dead body. As they gazed on her remains, a shudder passed through them for, in the light, her wrists strangely glittered like iron shackles.
*passages from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol
© 2012 Copyright held by the author.