For a short time I was reveling in the relative success of my critically acclaimed work of autofiction. Then I took in an advance screening of the cinematic adaptation of my critically acclaimed work of autofiction and visibly shuddered at the alterations made to the source material; in other words, to my life. By which I mean that the book's conclusion, rife with epiphanies, had been replaced with one in which the character representing the protagonist of the aforementioned work of autofiction, which is to say me, was devoured by wolves in the woods as the mournful strains of The Commodores’ “Easy” played.
For months afterwards, I received texts and emails and concerned calls from friends and family. “Are you alive?” they asked. “Did wolves really eat you?” To each I sent a selfie in which I was holding a piece of paper on which I had written the words PROOF OF LIFE and the relevant date.
Not long after that, I decided to go full hermit, and moved to a small town half an hour from the closest highway that was known for being the site of a minor Revolutionary War battle, and also for reports of ghosts in the early 20th century. There was nominally a mayor but no one knew exactly who the mayor was. The townspeople kept to themselves, and the ghosts were similarly schtum. With the royalties from the movie in which I'd been eaten by wolves, I bought a small cabin with a large freezer and moved in just before winter. Shortly before Christmas came the first blizzard. I built a fire, thawed a steak, and savored the quiet.
It was a few minutes after midnight on Christmas morning when the knock came on the door. Initially I believed it to be the wind, or a stray branch, or something similarly normal. No, no; the steadiness and the acoustics confirmed it as a knock. I knew of no one who'd be out in this weather. Still, I opened the door. Standing there in the newly-fallen snow was a spectral boy's choir, already several lines into “Ding Dong Merrily On High.” It was never my holiday favorite, and while this version was sung beautifully, it didn't really change my overall feelings on the song.
So this was what was meant by ghosts, I realized. The faces of the singers wavered in and out of transparency, and they each hovered a few feet above the ground. I wondered if the rest of the town was confronting similar apparitions: phantasms caroling, their voices filling the air and yet also part of it.
They finished their rendition of the song, and then silence filled the grove. I stood there before the door, suddenly feeling the late December chill more acutely than I had before. The ghostly singers remained suspended in midair. While before their eyes had been uplifted towards the heavens as they sung, now all of them were looking at me. I stared back at them in silence, though being flesh and blood, my silence seemed underwhelming in the face of their more presence.
Finally one cleared his throat. “It is customary, after such a performance, for some acknowledgement from our intended audience,” he said.
I leaned forward. “Excuse me?”
The leader of the spectral boychoir glared at me with contempt. “Applause,” he said. “It's been a while since this cabin last had human habitation. We've come each year, and yours are the first ears who might appreciate what we've done.”
“Ah,” I said. I paused and did my best to approximate enthusiastic applause. It was difficult, and I worried that my solitude might make it seem more ironic than anything else. Still, the spectral boychoir seemed forthcoming. Perhaps they'd recognize that this was the best I could manage.
“Excellent,” said the lead singer. “We have so many more songs to sing before the break of dawn. We've been practicing for many, many years. It's all we do here, you know. All we do.” The others echoed him in those final words.
It was in that way that I spent the wee hours of Christmas Day. I stood on the porch and listened to the spectral boychoir sing what seemed like every possible song remotely associated with the holiday. As the morning light increased they shifted away from English into French, then Latin, then languages not even I could place. I applauded dutifully after each one, half out of respect and half from fear. I had no desire to number dozens of angry ghosts among my enemies, after all.
As the sun broke on the horizon, the spectral boychoir began to fade even more. “Thank you,” said the lead singer, and vanished into the morning air, taking his fellows with him.
I opened the door to step back into the cabin and thought about all that I'd heard that night. And then I remembered something that the head of the boychoir had said, about my being the first human inhabitant of the cabin in years. That raised some questions, didn't it?
I stepped inside and paused. Their forms were dormant, ensconced in slumber on the sofa and the rug and, further away, in the hallway. Still, I recognized the wolves for what they were, and wondered if I could get through the next few minutes without making a sound.