Sister Kharon, A Short Story

Posting about Lockwood and Co. last week got me thinking about pieces I’ve written about the dead. I don’t often post stories on OfOtherWorlds that haven’t been published somewhere else first. However, here’s an exception, “Sister Kharon.”
This story is an example of exploring voice. Becca’s voice was the first thing to come. Once I found her voice, the story quickly followed. I have a thing for stories about the end of the world—this story is about both ghosts and the end of the world. Enjoy!

The dead never left, at least those from the old world. This is a problem for the town. They’re mostly a nuisance, and lots of people can’t even see them. But the dead are there—rushing about here and there, talking on cell phones that no longer get a signal, or looking lost and befuddled at being caught between what my father calls this life and the next.
My father is the town preacher. Most everything from the old world is gone. No airplanes, no cell phones, no Internet. All gone. Now, people live, like us, in little pockets, communities of a few hundred or so, and every community has its town council and its preacher.
As I said, my father is the preacher. He’s the one who has to explain why the dead don’t just leave, why they continue on this plain, as he says, all of them with unfinished business of one kind or another.
“It’s bad enough,” said Arty Kwan to my father in the church vestibule, “that they caused the end of the world, but they add insult to injury by hanging around. Can’t you do something, Raymond? It’s annoying as all hell, and it gets worse and worse all the time.”
Arty said this to my father at least once a month. He was one of the councillors, and he ran a feed shop and a big farm north of town. Like most people in town, Arty assumed anyone who died of the plague must have been responsible for causing it.
“That’s right,” chimed in Bert McFee, who ran the hardware store. “It’s a problem, Raymond. Can’t ya do somethin’? I had a whole crowd of them in my shop the other day. It bothers the customers.”
“I have some ideas, gentlemen,” said my father—his standard response. “Something will be done. Don’t worry.”
The morning service was over, and dad was in the queue shaking hands, nodding and smiling to all and sundry. But he had that pestered look that meant trouble was on its way, and I knew I would hear about it once the flock had cleared out. For now, he spoke encouraging words to his parishioners, telling them that the Lord didn’t want us dwelling on the past or the dead. We were the ones untouched by the plague—the Lord’s chosen. We had to concentrate on life: educating our children, bringing in the harvest, and serving the Lord. Those were the concerns of the faithful and the living.
***
“Becca, I’m going to need your help with something this afternoon.”
I was bent over the sink, still washing up from the post-service lunch. There were three of us working away, Mrs. McCreety scrubbing in the sink next to mine, and her Neace, Florence, drying, stacking, and putting away dishes.
I looked over my shoulder at dad. “We’ll finish up in half an hour,” I said.
“Good,” he said, nodding his head vigorously, the two wings of hair framing his bald patch bobbing in response. “Come to my office once you’re done here.”
“Work of a preacher’s daughter,” said Mrs. McCreety with a comfortable chuckle, as dad and his flying hair disappeared.
“No kidding,” I muttered, scrubbing ferociously at the pot submerged in the sink.
My back was aching, and my skin felt clammy from dishwater steam as I knocked on dad’s office door. I left Mrs. McCreety and Florence to finish up. I could hear voices coming from the vestibule, but the church was quiet with the departure of the faithful, returning to that quiescent hollowness that pervaded the place when it was just dad and me.
“Come in. Come in,” dad waved me into his office. He was brusque. I didn’t like it. He was only ever like this with a very few of his parishioners, those who were in his confidence—and me, of course. In private, he would complain, ask my advice, and even cry sometimes when the work of the church became too much. But he was only ever brusque with me when hatching one of his plans.
“I think I have a solution—at least I think I have an idea, something to try.”
“And what’s that?” I said, suspiciously.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry,” He said, waving a hand. “Sit down and hear me out.”
I sat, watching him balefully across the desk.
“You are one of the only people in town who is able to…communicate with the dead. Am I right?”
“Communicate is a little strong,” I said, cautiously. “They leave people alone if I tell them. They’ll generally move off if I ask them. I wouldn’t say that’s communicating.”
“Well, it’s close enough. I would like you to try something for me—for the town, really.”
“What,” I asked, again, this time not even trying to hide my suspicion.
“Well,” said dad, steepling his fingers under his chin (another sure sign he meant business). “Here’s my idea.”
***
The stupid thing was—everyone thought it worked. Of course, dad told them it did, and he let it about town how special I was for being able to do it. He’s good at his job—the preacher, the one people go to for advice and consolation. I had always been the preacher’s daughter, the one who supported my dad for all the years since the death of my mother, when I was just three, and both she and I were down with the plague.
Now, I am something different. The people in town try to pretend nothing has changed, and they act as though I’m still the freckled little kid they’ve always known. But it’s not the same, anymore.
If they see me out there, in town or on the road, my placards in hand, they don’t come near. I’m the girl who speaks to the dead, the one who has the power to send souls on their way.
I don’t exactly talk to them, but I get through to them. I have no idea why, but they don’t seem to listen to anyone else. Dad’s idea was to make signs that the dead could read signs that would encourage them to move on. I have a variety of signs I’ve created to get the dead along to the next life:
Don’t Linger! Move Along!
You Won’t Get into Heaven Hanging Around Here!
Heaven is your true destination!
I told dad straight away the signs wouldn’t work—and they don’t. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he knew that all along. He’s happier, anyway, as the problem of the dead has become less of a problem.
The dead are less often seen crowding into the town square, wandering in and out of stores, or, worst of all, drifting into the church during services. People in the town seem happier as well.
But they look at me differently, now. I see the sidelong glances, and I know they are whispering about me. One little brat, one of the McFee kids, even called me a witch.
“Don’t listen to such things,” said my father. He was trying to be encouraging. “You are doing the town a great service, Becca.”
And I supposed I was. But dad needed a solution to the problem, and I was it—his sacrificial goat, so to speak.
The old world destroyed itself with their antibiotics and penicillin. I’m one of the few who got the plague and survived, which was why, according to some, I had power over the dead. That was stupid, too. I didn’t have power over them. I just directed them, like a kind of spiritual traffic cop, or maybe like that character from the old Greek stories—I can’t remember his name—the one who ferried the souls of the dead across some underworld river.
What I did was nothing so grandiose. People would see me holding up my signs in front of the dead. And the dead, miraculously, would wander away and disappear. The signs were for show, of course. I told the dead firmly to move along—to get themselves out of this world and get on to the next.
“Time to move on. Nothing here for you anymore,” I would say, or something similar.
They would look at me, get a puzzled expression on their blurry faces, then seem to understand, and off they’d go. Just like that.
Whatever I am now, whatever I’ve become, the town wants less and less to do with me. But they are appreciative, I’ll give them that. My job is shooing the dead onto the next life.
***
And it’s not so bad, really. This little house I found outside of town suits me. I walk into town every day and do my job. I still carry dad’s placards, even if it’s only to maintain the unspoken lie that he and I have agreed on.
In the morning, when I come out onto the porch to watch the sunrise glinting off the useless telephone wires that still border the old highway, I will find gifts of bread, preserves, vegetables, and sometimes clothes left for me overnight. Dad visits me, but no one else—unless the dead are hanging around their house or store, and they want them driven off.
In many ways, I’m paying for the mistakes of the past, and the town now sees me as responsible for the way the past finds its way into the present. My life is dealing with the problem the old world created—the one nobody knows what to do with. But I can’t blame the people in town; I can’t blame the dead either. I could blame dad, but he was only doing his job.
Who knows how long I’ll have to do this. People say the population of the old world numbered in the billions, before the plague made its relentless way across the landscape, slurping up towns and cities like an insatiable monster. That number of people seems crazy to me. But if it’s true, then I’ll be doing this job a long time. The dead need to move on, and I’m the one to help them do it. Seems unfair, but dad always says that the Lord never meant life to be fair. And he’s right-just ask the dead.

© OfOtherWorlds, 2019

Summer Reading: The Definitive YA List

Summer is a time for reading—not to mention rereading. I’ve met readers who don’t reread books—they are of a different species than me. I love rereading my favourites.
In July I revisited the Lockwood and Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. These books—five in total—feature Lucy Carlyle, an agent with Lockwood and Co, who narrates her adventures in an alternative London, where the nightly appearance of ghosts and dangerous visitors has become the “Problem.” Only children and teens can see ghosts, so they are the ones to battle the Problem.
Jonathan Stroud has more skill as a writer than many current young adult writers, including such big names as J. K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and Sarah J. Maas. His prose is careful, Well-paced, and lively. The Lockwood books also scared the daylights out of me the first time I read them—and I don’t like reading scary books. I’ve read the series now four times.
If you are looking for a young adult read this summer, Book Riot has what seems the definitive list for summer, 2019. Check it out; you are bound to find something you will fall in love with. And if you are one of those who loves to revisit old friends, then enjoy your favourites, but check out the list, anyway. Happy reading!

A New Beginning, The Perilous Realm Online

In 2013, Thomas Wharton published The Tree of Story, the third book in his Perilous Realm series. This book brought the adventures of Will and Rowen to a close—or just about. In an interesting return to his series, Tom has decided to republish a new version of the trilogy on his website, ThomasWharton.ca.
The Perilous Realm Online begins with the retitled first book, The Endless Road, and Will, still the main character, finding himself alone in a mysterious wood.
Tom has dispensed with the prologue, which I always loved, and some of the back story of Will’s family. The book now launches right into a motorcycle crash and a boy fleeing into a forest. The tone is darker and the pace faster.
Tom will be publishing the series a chapter at a time, so be sure to follow along. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with this new Perilous Realm.

Waiting for A Wrinkle in Time

If you’re like me, you’re anticipating the filmic release of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time this March. I read this book as a kid—on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which, if you’re wondering, is a dinosaur from the analog era. Just so we’re clear, the analogue era is that point in human history before everything went digital.
I was an impressionable reader at fourteen. Everything I read blew my mind, and everything I read was going to change my life. Reading about Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their search for their father introduced me to a new kind of fantasy—fantasy that wasn’t Lord of the Rings and THAT crossed THE line into science fiction.
A Wrinkle in Time was the first book I read by Madeline L’Engle. I of course wanted more, but I quickly discovered she didn’t exclusively write fantasy. L’Engle is known for her Time series, which includes A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. But she wrote more than fifty books. If you want to read more about the series and the author, check out this fine 2004 piece by Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker.
As a teenager, I felt a little weird reading a fantasy/science fiction book that made reference to God. At that time, I hadn’t yet read any C. S. Lewis. At university, I studied A Wrinkle in Time with Jon Stott, my children’s literature mentor, who talked about the book in terms of what he called the Isis archetype—girl characters who had to confront, and often save their flawed fathers. That gave me something to think about, although I hadn’t yet become a flawed father myself.
Eventually, I read C. S. Lewis’ Space trilogy, which gave me another way of understanding L’Engle’s AWiT. Lewis’ series, especially the first book, draws on the tradition of H. G. Wells, the man who, I would argue, invented science fiction. Out of the Silent Planet (1938) is by far my favourite of the trilogy, with its depiction of deep heaven, the angel-like Oyarsa who govern each of the planets, and Earth, or Thulcandra, as the silent planet. All this, I think, looks forward to AWiT, the angel-like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Witch, and the dark thing, or shadow that envelops the Earth.
I always need to fit the books I’m reading into a larger literary picture. Call it an obsession. L’Engle may very well have been drawing on Lewis, but she gave us something new in 1962: a contemporary girl character who fights evil. Some aspects of the book now seem dated, But Meg Murry, with her stubbornness and belligerent attitude, remains a forerunner to the spunky girl characters of the twenty-first century.

Ursula Le Guin, A Reader’s Tribute

Ursula Le Guin, a giant in science fiction and fantasy, died this week at the age of eighty-eight. I read the news this morning on Vox. Sorrow, fondness, and a deep nostalgia all came in a rush as I read the post, my coffee growing cold beside my keyboard.
As a thirteen-year-old, geeky kid who mostly felt like an alien, I was starving for books. Two years before, I lost my sight in a car accident, and since then, reading had become my life. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings created a space in my head I never knew existed; those books gave me a hunger for fantasy that was impossible to slake.
In those days, I read books on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. That thing weighed fifteen pounds and was bigger than a boot box. Many of my books came from The Materials Resource Centre in downtown Edmonton, which was then part of Alberta Education. Lesley Aiken ran the MRC, and we talked about books whenever I visited.
One day, Lesley gave me a copy of The Tombs of Atuan, the second book in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. She thought I would like it since I liked Tolkien. I was curious and excited, and was immediately transported by Earthsea and its archipelago.
Reading Le Guin for the first time opened my mind in new ways—yet again. As a teen, I found her worlds—especially the science fiction—more challenging, but I think I can say Le Guin helped me take my first steps towards becoming a feminist.
For me, Ged and his journey to Roke Island was the original story of the school for wizards, thirty years before the Boy Who Lived appeared on shelves. I read Le Guin through my twenties and thirties, including her books and essays as part of my PhD thesis. I even taught The Left Hand of Darkness to a first-year class at MacEwan. This last November, I decided to finish reading Le Guin’s Chronicles of the Western Shore, a series that includes Gifts, Voices, and Powers.
So you see, Le Guin is one of those authors who has literally been part of my whole reading life. If you haven’t read Le Guin, find one of her books or read some of her stories. She is, without a doubt, one of the giants of twentieth century science fiction and fantasy. She’ll be missed.

On Tolkien and Faerie

As J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit turns eighty this year, I’m going to be posting a number of pieces in celebration. Here is the second in the series.
I first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit at the age of eleven. Because I was a weird and obsessive kid, I read it over and over. In reading the book, I first learned how to read critically—for a twelve-year-old, at any rate. Here’s a passage I read over and over and never understood.
“Though their [the Wood Elves] magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West.”
(Tolkien, the Hobbit, “Flies and Spiders)
Two questions occurred to me, even then. What did Tolkien mean by Faerie? And why was it a place?
I went on to read Lord of the rings, but the questions only piled up. One thing was clear. Tolkien kept referring to places, people, and even gods that seemed part of a larger mythology—one that only Tolkien knew about. I felt a strange longing for these people and places only hinted at in these stories.
Years passed. I went to university and studied English, and I began to see how the books and authors I had read for years fit within a larger history of English literature. I never forgot Tolkien, but I reread the books less and less as I explored other authors. In part, I was looking to recreate the same overwhelming reading experience I had with Tolkien. I never found it—came close, had many and varied reading experiences, but never the same as reading Tolkien.
It’s important for you to understand my llife as a reader before the Internet came along and publishers began seeing the value in electronic texts. In those days, I read my books on tape—first on a giant reel-to-reel tape-recorder, then special cassette players that had a much higher capacity than regular players. I got my books in the mail, and I had to order them on the phone. I rarely had access to the books people were talking about—new books, anyway. I always had to wait to see if either the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) or RFB (Recordings for the Blind) was going to record the books I desperately wanted to read. This was another reason I read and reread the books I had. My mine of books was rich, but it was small. All the trouble with tapes that wouldn’t play, tape players that broke down, waiting and waiting for books—all this abruptly changed with the advent of digital recordings. Suddenly, I had a chance to explore Tolkien in a new way—one that I didn’t have before. Around this time, I also began teaching The Hobbit on a regular basis, which returned me to the old questions. And finally, I got some answers.
According to The Tolkien Gateway, the term Faerie only appears in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and not in LotR. Faerie is the land in the farthest West, the home of the Valar (the gods of Middle-Earth), and the place to which the elves return. In LotR and The Silmarillion, this place is Valinor. All this raises another question. Why did Tolkien use the term Faerie in The Hobbit?
The Hobbit was published in 1937. In 1938, Tolkien delivered the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This lecture, later published as “On Faerie Stories,” is the basis for Tolkien’s understanding of Faerie and fantasy. Faerie, according to Tolkien, is the realm that lies on the borders of human consciousness and human understanding. It is the perilous realm, the place that contains and embodies Story, and it is both wonderful and dangerous:
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”
(Tolkien, “On Faerie Stories”)
If you want to understand Tolkien, then read “On Faerie Stories.” It’s a difficult essay but worth reading. In this essay, Tolkien offers his understanding of Faerie and faerie stories, and he provides a foundational approach to fantasy for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
If you find the essay heavy-going, don’t be discouraged. I’ve read this essay a dozen times, and each time I discover something new. If you want to see Tolkien exploring the realm of Faerie in fiction, read Smith of Wootton Major—an odd little story, but full of the power of the otherworld. Always remember, if you venture into that world, you do so at your own risk; the realm of Faerie will leave its mark, and you won’t be the same ever again.