She squeaked when Larn squeezed her hand.
“Sorry,” he whispered. “I’ve heard so many tales about the ghosts. I’m scared but curious, too.”
“We’ve got to get back to the village.” Yinette cinched the half-full sack of pobo roots. Had she been digging roots and not doting on Larn her family might have had a decent supper tonight, if they survived.
A whistle shrieked short notes, calling all villagers home.
“Race you,” Larn said.
He let her win, as usual, but the gate to the village was locked. Larn yelled and pounded on the wooden barricade.
Yinette trembled. Being seen by the ghosts was enough to be taken. She looked for somewhere to hide.
The terrified guard opened the postern. After a hug and whisper of good-luck from Larn, Yinette hurried through streets empty of people. The door to the house was locked. She knocked and shouted seven times before her father unbolted the door.
“Hurry!” Father dragged Yinette across the threshold.
Father locked the door behind Yinette and ushered her into the bedroom where Mother cowered under a quilt. They moved to a corner and hid under the spread, being sure that they were completely covered.
Yinette felt relatively safe until Father’s stench forced her to lift a corner of the quilt.
“What are you doing?” Mother demanded.
“Breathing. I’m sorry, Father, but you worked in the tannery today and I can’t breathe your stink.”
“I’ll take off my clothes. That might help,” Father said.
Although Yinette did not want to cower under a quilt with her naked father, she held firmly to her end of the quilt to keep herself covered while Father struggled with his clothes.
“Reminds me of how we weathered our first Ghost Night, before Yinette was born,” Father whispered.
Yinette heard a thump on flesh and guessed it had been Mother’s elbow to Father’s ribs.
“What are you so grumpy about?” Father said. “It’s likely when her seed was planted.”
“Don’t even think that. You know what they say about Ghost Night babies,” Mother whispered.
“That’s what the old, dry widows say. The fathers say it’s the best reason for Ghost Night.”
“I’m right here,” Yinette said.
“Of course you are,” Mother said.
If Mother’s tone had been meant to end the conversation, Father did not heed. “Soon, Yinette, you’ll be under your own quilt with Larn, and you’ll see how hard it is to listen to dried up crones who haven’t--”
Yinette heard a thump on flesh.
It was quiet, finally. Yinette listened for any sound from outside her house but heard only the low-pitched wind that foretold the Ghost Militia.
“How will we know when they’ve gone?” Yinette asked. “Last Ghost Night I was eight. I don’t remember much.”
“That’s the trick,” Father said. “The family that has someone taken gives the all-clear, that is if everyone followed the group rule. There was a time when I was a child when old Hal got taken and no one knew because he lived alone and we all stayed hidden until morning, and even then some were afraid to come out until we figured out that it was old Hal.”
“I can’t wait all night. You still reek,” Yinette said.
“Price we pay for food and roof over our heads.”
Someone’s stomach growled.
“Mother, did you grab some vittles?” Father asked.
No one spoke.
“I heard. No. I got scared and forgot.”
Yinette lifted her sack. “I have my pobo roots.”
“They’re slightly poisonous until boiled,” Mother said.
Father’s stomach rumbled again. “Feels like I haven’t eaten in a week.”
“You want to go out and get taken by the Ghost Militia?” Mother asked.
While her parents argued, then made up, Yinette breathed through her mouth to escape the pungent odor of tannins. To distract herself, she thought of Larn and the little house they would soon share. When she started thinking about how Larn might distract her, she opened her eyes. She did not want to become aroused while hiding under a quilt with her mother and mostly naked, stinky father.
An ethereal light came and went through the lifted corner of the quilt. Yinette wanted to look, to actually see this legend that she hid from, but the wagtongues all warned that seeing the Ghost Militia risked being taken to join the ghosts.
“I think they’re here, right now,” Yinette whispered.
No one answered. Yinette listened and heard the deep slow breathing of her father and the short, deeply paused breathing of her mother. They were asleep.
Yinette closed her eyes but still saw light moving through her eyelids. For a bunch of soldiers who had gotten drunk and slept through a battle, the ghosts were very luminous. Yinette wondered if that old legend hid a lie, like maybe the ghosts were actually faeries, or neighboring villagers with torches. She opened her eyes and saw that the light was even brighter and rarely faded completely away. Something was happening in her village and she would see what it was. Larn would be amazed at her audacity!
Slowly, quietly, she eased away from her mother, then out from under the quilt. Flashes of light illuminated the front room of the house. Yinette crept to the side of the bedroom door and looked out. Along the edges of the drawn curtains, pale, greenish light flared, chasing shadows around the kitchen. Tiptoeing, Yinette moved to the closest window and peered through the gap between the sill and the curtain. As narrow as her littlest finger, the crack hid details, revealing only that independently moving, glowing objects roamed the street.
With a trembling finger Yinette pulled the curtain back so she could see more. Her heart seemed to stop beating. Glowing ghosts walked the street in a parade. Shaped like men and women and dressed in the clothes of villagers--some in blacksmith aprons or sun dresses and one completely naked--the ghosts marched in ordered rows.
Soldier ghosts--dressed in uniforms with swords on their hips or spears in their hands--dashed from house to house, peering in windows and doors.
At the back of the parade marched a glaring woman ghost dressed in a long robe.
Yinette gasped, drawing in a breath and escaping a trance. She let the curtain close some, but still open enough to see through.
A last soldier ghost moved past, then turned around and rushed toward Yinette’s window. She let go of the curtain and stumbled backward, striking the wall with her back. Yinette fell to the floor, grasping her stomach in pain, fearing that she was dying and joining the Militia.
“Yinette, where are you?” Mother called from the safety of the quilt. “Are you taken? Oh my sweet girl.”
Yinette’s breath returned. The pain receded. She had only knocked out her breath. “I’m here, Mother.”
“Why are you out of the quilt? You could get taken.”
Yinette used the wall to rise to her feet, then walked back to the quilt. “You can come out now. The ghosts are past.”
“We haven’t heard the all clear,” Father said.
“It should be coming soon. I saw the last ghost go by.”
“Get under this quilt this moment!” Mother said.
Although Yinette felt beyond such suddenly inconsequential rules like “listen to your mother,’ she crawled under the quilt to join her frightened parents. After her parents finished interrupting each other to chastise her, Yinette explained what she had seen and done.
“What I don’t understand, though,” she said, “is who the woman is? Did she let this evil out, or in?”
“Was,” Father replied. “And yes, she let it out. Legend holds that a witch cursed the drunkard soldiers that failed to protect the town, and the price was a life. It ended up being the witch’s life. Details are a little vague on whether that was her plan or not and whether she really intended to make the Ghost Militia, but it did.”
“Her death wasn’t enough, though,” Mother said. “Her death sated the Ghost Militia for a score of years, then the ghosts came and took a villager. Now they come every six to eight years or so and take another life. No one knows how to stop it.”
“If we all hide so well the ghosts can’t find us it would starve the Ghost Militia,” Yinette said.
“That is one theory,” Father said. “No one knows how to do that, though.”
“My mother swore by the warding pattern in the quilt,” Mother said.
“And that might work, if everyone hid behind one, and did not lift up a corner for fresh air--” Father began.
“--or went traipsing about looking out windows,” Mother ended. “You saw the ghosts. You’ve opened up yourself to be taken. My dear child, you likely will get taken next Ghost Night.”
Yinette shivered. “I closed the curtain before the ghost got to me. I’m safe, right?”
“I’m sure you are,” Father said.
Yinette heard the doubt in his voice.
“Let’s get some sleep,” Mother said.
When her parents were asleep, Yinette slipped off to her own bed in the corner of the kitchen. Thoughts of always wearing the quilt pattern on her dresses, or covering the whole house or village with a giant quilt did not reassure her of surviving the next Ghost Night.
She lay awake until almost dawn.
Wailing awakened Yinette--her mother wailing. Yinette jumped off her bed.
“I’m here, Mother. I’m not taken.”
The wailing came from outside the house. Yinette rushed out to find her mother arm-and-arm with Larn’s mother, both women crying and moaning.
Yinette pried the women apart. “I’m here, Mother. I’m not taken.”
“Larn. Larn was taken,” her mother moaned.
Yinette’s knees gave out and she crumpled to the ground.
Yinette awakened in her own bed. Her fiancée was dead. She feared that Larn been taken because she had looked out the window and been spotted by a ghost. She should have been taken. Unanswered questions chased her back to unconsciousness and nightmares of ghosts.
By staring at her folded hands, examining the minute creases and cracks and the slightly red welt she received from sabergrass, Yinette endured the funeral, including the extra prayers for those taken by the Ghost Militia. At the end of the ceremony she let her mother lead her away. She glanced at Larn’s parents. His mother looked like Yinette felt--devastated. Larn’s father looked circumspect.
Days blended together then started to differentiate. One day Yinette felt a smile crack her face when seeing a toddler learning to walk. Several days later she laughed when that same toddler took several steps. Yinette knew she would survive Larn’s passing and threw herself into the woman’s world of work and gossip. She soon heard her name mentioned as having captured the eye of this young man or another. She politely declined any offers of a walk along the creek or private wagon rides.
On Larn’s birthday, Yinette went to dinner at Larn’s parent’s house. Larn’s mother was weepy, but his father had a neutral expression on his face.
Yinette’s anger boiled over. “How can you do that? Feel nothing. Larn was your son and will never give you grandchildren. How can you be so emotionless?”
Larn’s mother burst into tears and fled to the bedroom.
Larn’s father put down his silverware. “The ghost army takes and ghost army gives. You must decide for yourself if the scale is even or a debt is owed.”
“Give? What have they given us?”
“They are sworn to protect us.”
“Have they? All I know is that they take.”
Larn’s father shrugged, then returned to eating.
Yinette slapped her silverware on the table, then stomped from the house, vowing to find a way to end the ghost army forever.
The baby in Yinette’s belly kicked, making her gasp. “Stay away from that mud puddle,” she said to Jon, her firstborn.
The sly child looked over Yinette’s head, then stepped forward into the puddle.
“Your father’s going to redden your backside, young--”
Shrill whistles shrieked short notes.
“Damn you, Ghost Militia,” Yinette cursed. “In the house, Jon.”
Yinette glared at the distant village gate. She had hoped to thwart the ghosts, or starve them, or do something, but she got a family instead. She could not fight the ghosts and keep her family safe.
Hort jogged up from the tannery. “Why aren’t you already under the quilt?” he asked.
“We’re going,” Yinette said. “You know my feelings about the Ghost Militia.”
“For the love of our children get inside,” Hort said.
“I’m going,” Yinette said.
“Bring your bow,” a man yelled.
Hort pushed Yinette into the house. He grabbed his musket and gear. He paused at the door. “Hide in the bedroom. Do not leave the quilt. Do not look out the windows.”
Hort firmly closed the door when he left. Yinette automatically slid the bolt to lock the door, although she wanted to see what the men were doing. Were they using muskets to fight ghosts? Had her ranting about fighting the Ghost Militia moved the men folk to action?
Jon pulled on Yinette’s skirt. She followed him to the bed. Questions still racing though her mind, she climbed under the quilt. She whispered words to comfort to Jon.
The clash of metal on metal startled Yinette and set Jon to crying. She covered his ears with her hands and squeezed him closer. The sound of battle grew louder, which meant closer. Yinette longed to see what was happening, but she stayed in bed, comforting Jon.
The first bang on the door nearly startled Yinette out of bed. She folded down the top of the quilt to see the door, which rattled on its hinges under repeated blows. Something was wrong. Hort knew that he had to shout to be let in, so that she could recognize his voice. She hoped that he had not received a cut to the throat. A board of the door cracked under the pounding.
Wind howled in the chimney, blowing smoke out of the fireplace, and bringing with it the scent of the grave. Yinette was dumbfounded. Ghosts could not batter down a door.
The cracked board broke. A dirty arm reached in and scrabbled around for the bolt.
Yinette sat up in bed. She looked for a weapon and saw only pillows and the footstool Hort used to strap on and remove his massive boots. She was leaning over to grab the stool, Jon clinging to her crying, when a bewiskered highwayman thrust open the door and stepped into the house.
“Aren’t you a pretty one,” he said.
Screaming came from outside--men screaming.
The highwayman looked out the door, then turned back to Yinette, a leer wrinkling his face.
Yinette stood up, turning enough so that the man would see that she was very pregnant. She hoped that would save her.
The highway man grinned wider as he stepped forward.
Outside of the open door a man fell, screaming. He wriggled about then stilled.
The highwayman turned, his scimitar raised over his head.
Ghosts swarmed into the kitchen. They spun around the highwayman, seemingly stinging him like a swarm of bees. The highwayman screamed, writhed, then fell to the ground, still. A ghost arose from the corpse and was pinioned by two of the Ghost Militia, who wrestled their struggling prisoner out the door. The last member of the Ghost Militia looked back as it exited the house.
Yinette gasped. The ghost looked like Larn.
A gust of wind that smelled of coffin mold and chilled like the depths of a grave rustled Yinette’s bonnet. It had been over sixty years since she last smelled that distinct wind. She smiled as she slowly stood up, minimizing the pain of arthritis and a crooked back. A whistle began blowing, three shorts blasts then a pause, then three blasts ....
“Get in the house, darlings,” Yinette said.
“It’s not the rebels, is it?” Jon the Third asked.
Yinette ushered her great-grandchildren into the kitchen. Their father rushed through to the bedroom and under the quilt. Yinette settled the children around their father and mother, except for Jon the Third, who was thirteen.
“Time for you so see this,” she said.
“But I’ll be marked and taken by the ghosts,” Jon said.
“If that’s so, then why haven’t I been taken, huh?”
Jon did not answer the question. Fidgeting, he frequently touched his pale face.
Yinette squeezed his hand. “Just sit and be quiet. When the times comes look out the crack in the curtain. It’s worth it.”
Jon fidgeted, but Yinette held his hand and kept him in place. When the first ghost passed, the young man stared with wide eyes.
When the parade arrived, Yinette was not surprised to see that there were nearly twice as many ghosts, many dressed as highwaymen.
“But Grandmother,” Jon said. “Those ghosts are going to kill someone in our village, tonight, right? That’s evil.”
Yinette squeezed her great-grandson’s hand. “The ghost army takes and the ghost army gives. You must decide for yourself if the scale is even or a debt is owed.”
She limped to the door.
“What are you doing?” Jon the Third asked, looking as pale as the ghosts outside.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a parade.” Smiling, her arthritis forgotten, Yinette walked out into Ghost Night.
© March, 2014 Caw Miller
Caw Miller is a writer and designer for the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks. He has published poems and a story in the Bram Stoker Award nominated Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations. Mr. Miller is online at www.cawmiller.com.