by Lyndsey Croal
The gate to the cemetery at the end of my road was locked after dark, but I knew the way in. Hidden behind overgrown bramble bushes was a crumbling gap in the wall, just small enough to crawl through. I collected some brambles on the way in, ate a few and pocketed the rest. The bitterness of them matched the cold tang in the air. I wiped the juice on my coat, streaks of dark red stark against my waterproof grey.
I didn’t need a torch here, because the light was already waiting. It hovered a few feet away, a ball of silvery white under the root-rotted branches of a skeletal tree.
Meet me under the dead elm tree, where the earth is ash and the spirits run free.
In the soft light of the ghostly wisp, the tree appeared to be dancing. Branches like gnarled limbs moved from side to side, willing me forwards. Willing me to follow the wisp. I skipped towards it, but it danced away, bobbing between shrubbery, along an overgrown path, leading me in twists and turns until we reached the steps in the centre. There, it settled, bobbing like a floating lantern. Above, a magpie, disturbed by my arrival, cawed then took flight with a flutter of wings. I said hello and saluted it, like Mum always taught me, to chase the bad omen away.
I turned to the wisp, which was waiting patiently. It seemed calm today, its light soft. Cautiously, I approached it. “Hi,” I said, reaching into my pockets and holding out the brambles, half squashed in my pocket. “I brought you a gift.” The wisp drifted over, its shape stretching and morphing. Then a transparent hand reached out. I watched, eyes wide, as it tickled my palm. An ice-coldness grasped my arm, and the wisp flashed dark red, matching the streak on my coat. My breath caught, but I kept my hand deathly still.
Bring me gifts, a trinket or treasure, help make me whole, and I’ll give you forever.
Afterwards, the ghostly hand retracted, and the brambles had turned to ash. I let the dust sprinkle to the ground like sand from an hourglass.
“I brought sandwiches too.” I sat on the step and split the bread in half, a triangle for me, a triangle for the wisp. “Peanut butter, hope that’s okay.”
The wisp floated over to me again, and it moved across the sandwich. After a moment, the bread turned to dust just like the brambles, but this time the wisp flashed orange and expanded a little. There was even a flicker, almost like a smile. We had milk and cookies for dessert.
The wisp didn’t speak, because it didn’t have a mouth – not yet at least, but then it didn’t have a hand three days ago either – yet something about it made me feel at ease, like I could tell it everything. I’d speak stories and secrets into the quiet night and the wisp would listen. I didn’t have many friends at school. Mostly people ignored me, like I was invisible. Soon, I’d probably just be the weird kid that hung around the cursed cemetery, appeasing and befriending spirits, or whatever this wisp was. But I liked it here. With the wisp, that I think, liked me too.
“Mum’s making apple pie tomorrow,” I told the wisp as I was leaving. “I’ll bring you a piece.”
There was a gust in the air, and I swear on the wind I heard a single word, quiet and lilting. “Delicious.”
Every night, I snuck out the house, each time bringing offerings more and more extravagant. Biscuits, cheese, birthday cake, marshmallows, chocolate-dipped strawberries. Mum found my stash of food one afternoon, hidden under my bed in preparation for the night ahead.
“It’s for my friend that lives down the road,” I told her, in a half lie, when she asked me about it.
Her eyebrows arched. “We’re the last house on this road?”
“Well,” I began carefully. “My friend is there, and gets hungry. I just want to help.”
Understanding stretched across her face. “Oh. Do you think I might get to meet this friend?”
I shook my head. “They don’t like to be around other people.”
“No, of course they don’t,” she said, her smile vague, and I wondered if she knew about the wisp. But how could she? I was the only one that visited the wisp. It was my secret. “Does this friend go to your school?”
I bit down on my lip. “No. It’s too crowded there.”
“You know you can tell me if anything is wrong, at school? I know kids can be cruel, and if you need a friend to speak to, I’m here.” She squeezed my shoulders, kissed me lightly on the forehead, and I realised that she didn’t think my friend from down the road was real. That I’d made it up. Maybe it was better for her to think that, and when the time came, when it had grown enough, I could introduce her to the wisp. But not yet. Telling her now would mean telling her that I snuck out at night, and I’d be grounded for weeks if she found out.
“I’m fine, Mum,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”
Over the weeks, with my nightly offerings, the wisp grew and grew. Limbs became more permanent, solid, and soon it had morphed into a human-like shape.
When my hunger grows, my form will wither, but as I grow full, I’ll go hither and thither.
“Do you like it here?” I asked as we wandered between gravestones, the wisp walking on almost-legs.
No reply, but another breeze tickled my cheek, tinged with the scent of gorse and fresh earth. The wisp still had no mouth, just a formless head, and indents where I imagined eyes might be.
“I think it’s peaceful,” I said. “Not like school, and other places. Do you have a name?” As I walked, I read engraved names out loud, imagining one of them could be my wisp friend. Magda, or Fred, or Gwyneth, or Juniper – June for short. I liked that. The wisp seemed like it could be a June.
“Can I call you June?”
No reply, but the wisp stretched out a long hand. Cold fingers intertwined with mine. Almost like the real thing.
“June,” I repeated, squeezing the hand lightly. “See you tomorrow.”
As I headed home, a whisper whistled through the air. “June. Tomorrow. Hungry.”
The next night, I returned with a picnic basket filled with treats, a flask of hot chocolate and a tartan blanket to sit on. It was Mum’s suggestion, said that maybe if I put it together, she could come and join us on an afternoon adventure to meet June – by then I’d told her the wisp’s name, because she wouldn’t stop asking questions about my friend. But I didn’t want Mum to join us yet, so I made it up on my own so I could bring it with me to the cemetery, where June and I could enjoy it instead.
The cemetery was bathed in moonlight when I crawled through the wall-gap. But something was off. No wisp of light greeted me by the dead elm tree. Instead, a girl stood under it, hair stretching to her waist, wearing a white dress too light for the season, silvery eyes aglow. Dark red smudges wrapped around her lips and fingertips – the last of the year’s brambles. The girl had no shoes, and her feet were pockmarked with dirt, though she didn’t show any sign of being cold. My stomach twisted. I didn’t like seeing anyone else in the cemetery at night. No one else was supposed to know my secret. And maybe she’d scared June away.
“Why are you here? What did you do to June?”
She looked at me, tilted her head, and smiled. “Don’t you recognise me?”
The words sent a chill travelling down my spine, her voice familiar. “You’re…June?”
She laughed, and her voice pierced the silent night with a shrill force. If it was June, then she was different. “Thank you for your offerings,” she said. “But I’m still hungry. And I’ve been here for far too long.”
I stepped back, but it was too late. June was running towards me, hands held out like claws. And then she was singing and chanting, her words strange. Disjointed.
“And here I’ll roam, until comes another, to take my place, and I’ll take the other.”
Darkness enveloped me. For a long time, I couldn’t see or speak, or move. When the darkness finally dissolved, I was cloaked instead in an ethereal light. I was in the cemetery, and a girl was standing before me – no, not a girl, it was me. Dressed in waterproof grey, a red stain on her coat. She – I – was staring up at me, head tilted.
“What’s going on?” I asked, but my words sounded distant and vague.
“I’m sorry. This was the only way,” the girl said, in my voice.
“Thank you for taking my place,” she said. “In exchange I’ve given you forever.” With a rictus grin, she picked up the picnic basket, broke a biscuit in half and left it on the roots of the dead elm tree. “To keep you going, until you find another.” Then, she took a final look at me, and basket in hand, snuck off towards the bramble bush, disappearing into the night.
I tried to follow, but every time I approached the walls, I found myself back at the tree, feeling stretched and tired. And so very hungry. I turned and looked back at the biscuit. I tried to reach out a hand, but I no longer had one. Instead, I floated over it. It was bitter and stale, but it was something. My body stretched and the biscuit turned to ash.
As I roamed the cemetery, my memories drifted away like wisps in the wind.
I float between the tombstones, day and night, waiting and watching for visitors, but they never see me. Never hear me. Sometimes I follow them, call out, but no one listens, or they choose not to hear.
The other day, a girl came with her mum for a picnic, sitting together on a tartan blanket. I floated by the steps and watched them, smiling, laughing, feeling like they were something from a dream. At one point, the girl stopped and looked straight at me, as if she could see me. But then a magpie fluttered behind and flew into the trees above.
“Don’t forget to say hello to Mr Magpie, and give him a salute,” the woman said. “To chase the omens away.”
The girl smiled and saluted to the place where the bird had been. “Hello,” she said. “We’ve met before.”
Together they ate peanut butter sandwiches and apple pie. That night, I swept up the crumbs they’d left behind.
This afternoon I saw a boy. Young, quiet, hair dark as the earth. He was walking his dog under the old elm tree, and when it stopped to sniff the dark roots, he sat down at the base.
Meet me under the dead elm tree, where the earth is ash and the spirits run free.
He took an apple from his pocket, chewed at the edges, and dropped most of it with the core on the ground. I drifted over to him, reached a ghostly hand out over the leftover core and turned it to dust. He stared at me wide-eyed. He could see me. Finally, a friend.
“Bring me gifts, a trinket or treasure, help make me whole, and I’ll give you forever,” I whispered, my voice carrying on the wind.
He smiled and his eyes filled with wonder, and I knew he’d return.
So, now I’m waiting under the dead elm tree, the ash, the earth, the spirits, and me.
And it’s the perfect night for a picnic.