Feeding Ghosts — Free Fiction
The long black wool frock coat made satisfying swirls around Abby’s booted ankles as she flicked blood into alley corners and smacked red-traced handprints on the lintels of downtown buildings. Marble. Concrete. Steel. It didn’t matter.
What mattered was the blood.
The sharp metal smell used to satisfy something deep inside Abby’s soul, though that had faded. And at least the weird floodlights and empty streets didn’t scare her anymore. They didn’t seem to bother the ghosts any, either.
The spookies used to stick to the shadows, but the blood drew them out, creeping from darkness, even under the yellow halogen lamps.
Abby used to only walk the shadows, too, staying pretty close to home within a decent radius of her Mission District flat, which was filled with black lace curtains and roommates that stayed out ’til all hours.
Over time she grew to like walking by herself at night. The more she did it, the more she learned the unfamiliar parts of the city, and the more the ghosts came out to play.
They crowded around her shoulders, pulling at her magenta hair, trying to whisper in her pale ears. Other times she actually saw them, but most often there was just a sort of pressure, a thickening of the air around her body, or a sudden coolness brushing her eyelashes.
Abby started out as an ordinary Witch. You know, she did banishings at moon dark and spells for prosperity come the full. Used to be she danced in circles with men and women around cauldron fires in suburban back yards across the waters of the bay. She even ran naked through the woods once.
Abby took classes, consulted psychics, gazed at candles, and finally found a coven of her own.
She thought she was pretty badass.
Then the visions began.
She woke up panting in icy sheets. Or out at the clubs, tracing hieroglyphs through the air on the strobing dance floor, she’d suddenly see the skull behind Jasmine’s shimmering black and red painted eyes, or a sharp-toothed creature crouched on Henri’s shoulder.
She started to avoid her friends sometimes, and when they would cajole her out, would drink more wine, to blur the edges of her Sight.
But she could still feel things. Abby stayed in her white room with its black curtains and dried dead roses, staring at candles some more, hoping to train her psychic shields up and the visions away.
The visions just got stronger. Pretty soon she was seeing the death of the old lady in the corner store, and the pregnancy of the teenager down the block.
She couldn’t tell her coven, though she should have. Surely she was going crazy, and who wanted to do magic with some off-the-rails Goth chick?
She tried to go to the Sabbats and the monthly Esbats, but stopped after catching sight of some luminous being haloing Deirdre’s head. It wasn’t the Witch’s aura, it was some thing.
Deirdre, being a good High Priestess, would call the day after Abby skipped ritual. For awhile. But when the calls remained unanswered, they stopped, too. Deirdre probably figured Abby had lost interest like the other spiritual dilettantes who thought the coven had a revolving door.
Then Abby started cutting again.
After Max moved away to grad school in Boston and Abby was too scared to follow. Commitment, you know? She just couldn’t see that future. You’d think not being able to see the future would be a relief, but by that point, that felt more scary than the visions did.
That was two years before. These days, Abby would probably find some blank psychic spaces restful, but wading through the visions to find some non-vision seems like too much effort.
Max’s last night in town, they both cried until snot ran down their faces. It was sometime after, trying to dance through the days around the hole Max left in Abby’s life, that she dug the Exacto knife out of the top left desk drawer.
Shortly after that, she figured out that cutting kept the worst of the visions at bay. And ghosts liked blood.
Abby figured it was the extra bit of life… helped them to cling more firmly to this plane. She sometimes imagined when the spirits encountered the trails of blood she left in her wake, they got scent from rolls baking, or flashes of a butterfly on lavender bushes, or the rise and fall of the blankets covering the man sleeping on the sidewalk. All the ordinary things the living take for granted.
So here she was, out walking, bottle of blood in the pocket of her black wool frock coat, leaving little splashes of her life on the city walls.
The night was cold. A car glided past, one of the few in the deserted downtown streets. Glancing at her watch Abby saw that it was four am already. There had been a vague awareness of an increase in cabs a couple of hours ago, which should have signaled to her that the bars were closing, but she had barely noticed, concentrating instead on the sound her boots made on the concrete, on the feel of the hungry spirits sliding around her every time she paused to make more offerings.
When she had started this business, she carried the razor blades with her, making small nicks on her wrists as she went. But the more ghosts there were to be fed, the less tenable that became.
And the more she let the ghosts gather, the less Abby needed to score her own flesh at home. It was weird. Somehow, being around the dead made her feel like she was more alive.
She pulled the small jar out of her pocket. The dark liquid in it was thick and viscous, perfect for the task. Friends of hers who liked to play at being vampires had shown her how to drain specific amounts of blood from her arm using a needle and some sterile plastic tubing.
They thought she would join them in their play, getting drunk on the smell of blood and having slow sex on red stained sheets. Abby never did. Never told them why she wanted their technology either.
Never told them she never wanted to have sex with anyone again. The rush of connection that happened when two bodies were sweating together, touching… that only made the visions worse.
At least the needles had enabled her to stop the cutting. Abby had grown tired of never rolling up her sleeves at the art shop, where she carefully cut matte boards and slid posters into gilded frames.
The sharp prick of a needle at her elbow or between her toes was pain enough, giving satisfaction to the flesh that needed to feel, however temporarily. And the ghosts gave her so much more.
They whispered around her, tugged at her magenta hair, flocked around her on the dance floor those nights she let herself be around other living people. On those nights, she drank burgundy wine, to remind her of the blood.
Lately, though, the spirits were growing more demanding. They used to be satisfied with an offering once a week or so. Now they hounded her every night. She had fainted at work the other day, explaining to her boss that she had donated blood the day before. He propped her up in a chair and bustled about getting orange juice from the fridge in back.
The ghosts made her feel strong at first, but now she wasn’t sure she could trust them. It was definitely getting draining, and there was a constant, gnawing need at the back of her head now. A tapping at the base of her skull, and humming in her ears.
Abby was afraid she had crossed some hideous line, never to return. Come daylight, her hand would hover over the phone, ready to call her old priestess Deirdre, to beg for help. But something stayed her hand, freezing her fingers in the very act of pressing in the numbers.
Leaving downtown behind her, Abby walked back toward home, scattering blood from the little jar. The sky was changing color, the big silver watch watch on her skinny white wrist showed that it was coming on six am.
Abby passed a Dumpster smelling of rotting oranges and coffee grounds. Turning the corner, she saw a shuttered cafe. A box of French baguettes rested against the door, freshly delivered, still smelling of yeast.
A dim figure in the street up ahead moved carefully, rhythmically, on one small patch of sidewalk. Sweeping. That was what it was doing. As Abby drew closer, it resolved into a woman who stood straight and smiled at her. She had short gray hair and a big blue sweater on over some weird black robes.
“Good morning. Have you come for meditation?” Abby saw that there was a small Buddhist temple with three bright red doors covered in fliers and signs. The woman must be some sort of monk.
“Um. Good morning. I was just heading home after a walk.”
“You wake early,” the woman smiled. “Or perhaps you go to sleep late. Either way, you are welcome to come in for a cup of tea. People should be arriving soon to sit.”
The ghosts crowded around Abby. She rubbed at the tingling on her face. Great, she was probably leaving streaks of blood on her face.
“Perhaps some other time. Thank you.”
The woman bowed. As Abby walked on, she heard the soft scritch of the broom resume.
She needed to get home.
The scritching stopped and the woman’s voice called out from behind her, “The more you feed them, the harder it is for them to get away.”
Abby stopped in her tracks, fine hairs standing up on the back of her neck.
“What did you say?” She started walking back.
The woman’s face was still open, friendly even. Abby could smell incense coming from the crack between the two red doors.
“The ghosts. The more you offer them blood, the more tethered they are to earth.” She looked at Abby kindly. “And that’s not so good for them. Or you. They need to be able to move on, and you, frankly, need your body back.”
“How do you know all this? Are you some sort of Buddhist Witch?”
The woman laughed, a sharp bark, too loud for early morning.
“There are some things that are only secrets to the people who don’t want to know. Me, I know ghosts. My father was a spooky old guy. He helped a lot of people.”
“I like the ghosts,” Abby said. “At least I used to. I didn’t think I was hurting anything…”
“Good morning, Roshi.”
It was just a man approaching, work jacket zipped up to dark skin of his throat, green knit cap pulled down around his ears. He opened one of the red doors.
He nodded a greeting at Abby, then turned to the woman again.
“Do you want me to get the space ready?” he asked.
“Yes, please Issan. I’ll be inside soon.”
Then his first words sunk in. Shit. The woman was a Roshi?
“You’re the teacher?” Abby’s throat tightening with embarrassment.
The woman shrugged. “Sometimes I teach, sometimes I learn.
“And sometimes you sweep the dirty Mission sidewalks.”
The woman laughed again. Abby liked the sound of it. It warmed her up inside. This woman didn’t scare her, for some reason. She felt like she could talk to her. Abby’s High Priestess always felt a little distant. And this woman saw something right away. Something the Witches didn’t seem to.
“It keeps me from getting a big head. Every Roshi needs to clean.” She looked at Abby again. “You can call me Jane. And I do wish you would join us. We need someone like you.”
“I don’t get it.”
Jane sighed at that. She was shorter than Abby, but seemed taller somehow. So all this laughing and sighing seemed weird. She clearly had power. Abby could see that. The same kind of power Deirdre had, and a few of the other Witches Abby knew. So why wasn’t Abby afraid?
Maybe because she felt seen. For the first time in a long while.
“You not only see things other people ignore, you have compassion for them.”
“But you said it wasn’t good for the ghosts…this feeding them thing.” The mostly empty bottle of blood felt heavy in the pocket of Abby’s black wool coat all of a sudden, and she was conscious that her fingertips were red with dried blood.
She hoped she didn’t stink.
“Sometimes compassion is misplaced. Wrong even. We need to train it, like everything else. But it is easier to start with misplaced compassion than with no compassion at all.”
Abby rubbed her hands over her face, dried blood crumbling, leaving traceries on her skin. Just great. She must look like a nut, blood streaks and magenta hair. But she didn’t seem to be freaking this Roshi out at all.
“It isn’t just ghosts. I see other things, too.”
People were coming toward the red doors in a steady stream now, bowing at Roshi Jane, and quietly entering the temple. The teacher gave each of them a nod, but her attention remained on Abby, rooting her boots to the sidewalk.
Jane looked at her watch. “Meditation starts in five minutes. You are welcome to join us.”
She bowed at Abby then, and moved toward the red doors, like Abby hadn’t just confessed to seeing a bunch of weird shit.
Abby reached out and grabbed her sleeve. “Wait!” The woman paused, staring at Abby with sharp brown eyes.
Abby realized she was clutching the woman’s wrist through her soft navy sweater.
“I’m sorry. But you said your dad knew things. And clearly you know something too. Can you teach me? You know, train my…whatever?”
Abby couldn’t quite bring herself to say “train my compassion.” Sounded too much like a hippie.
Roshi Jane smiled again. Abby wondered if that was her usual state. Smiling. It was a little weird, quite frankly.
“I can certainly try.”
Jane bowed at Abby then, who bowed awkwardly back.
Then Roshi Jane continued, “But you have to come inside first, and you should probably wash your face and hands,” she laughed. “Then sit with us. You might like it. And then we’ll see if we can help you. And those ghosts of yours.”
For the first time since stopping to talk to the woman, fear stabbed at Abby’s gut. She took a step back, fingernails pressed into her palms.
And realized the ghosts weren’t there. Except one. A woman in a long, old fashioned dress appeared at Abby’s side. The first ghost she’d seen that clearly in a long while.
Just like the Roshi, the woman nodded at Abby, and smiled.
The other ghosts must have slipped away once they figured out she wasn’t doling out more blood. Or something. Who knew why ghosts did what they did?
Maybe the woman in a navy sweater with her broom, standing in front of the red doors with their tattered signs advertising meditation sessions and classes. Maybe she knew.
Hell, maybe even High Priestess Deirdre knew, and had just been waiting for Abby to ask her.
How many years was Abby going to wander the streets of San Francisco, feeding her own blood to a bunch of disembodied spirits? Fainting at work from blood loss? Or avoiding visions that scared the crap out of her?
She didn’t know that, either.
But it’d be nice to have more choices. So yeah. Okay. What did she have to lose, really?
“Okay,” Abby said out loud. “I’ll come inside.”
Roshi Jane opened the red door.
Abby paused, hand on the brass handle of the red door, and looked over her shoulder.
The ghost on the sidewalk, barely visible in the growing morning light, raised a bare hand and waved.
Abby exhaled, stepped across the threshold, into the scent of Japanese incense and the sound of bells, and went to wash her hands.
Copyright, T. Thorn Coyle, October 2016
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