The Wind of Lonely Places
The room was smaller than the shadowed view from the window had implied. The rafters had been left unceilinged, except for an area beneath the dormer where planks had been laid to create a railed loft; a ladder to one side led up to a gap in the rail. Beneath the loft, a section of the cabin had been partitioned from the main room with rough planking, light leaking from cracks between the boards. The fireplace was massive, though the hearth itself was relatively small, built from mortared field-stone. A fire was leaping busily among logs laid upon the black iron firedogs, sending waves of heat across the room. A sudden draft at Kelly's back reminded him to close the door. The cabin's furnishings were modest: a ladder-backed chair and writing table near a window, and a pair of cushioned chairs by the fireplace. Sounds of movement could be heard from behind the partition. Kelly hesitated, then moved across the room toward the fire, his ski boots drumming a slow double-beat, heel and toe, upon the floor. He slipped his day pack from his shoulders and swung it to the floor beside one of the chairs. The heat of the fire persuaded him to remove his jacket, revealing beneath it a red and black flannel shirt. He sat, sighing, and laboriously unlaced his ancient leather ski boots, pried them from his feet. He slouched into the chair, feet extended toward the flames, waiting, watching passively the rustling shadows sliding restlessly about the firelight. Kelly accepted a wine glass from a long-fingered hand, looked past a slender wrist, along a forearm etched sharply by the tendons under smooth skin, up into eyes like snowclouds, grey and shadowed. She stood beside his chair, a wine glass in her left hand, dressed in cut- off denims and a navy sweatshirt, the sleeves pushed back to her elbows. He nodded his thanks, sipped the pale liquid. A light, dry Riesling, he guessed, and quite familiar. Wine was a special hobby of his. "Excellent," he said. "It's really quite astonishing, the way you hold it all together. How do you do it?" She curled herself into the other chair, the fire's image swimming in her eyes, in her wine. "It's really not that difficult," she said, her voice soft. "You're doing most of it yourself." "I am?" She nodded, gestured vaguely with her glass. "This is a cabin I visited with my parents once, when I was a child. But I don't remember it very well. Most of the details are drawn from your memories of another place." Kelly's expression registered skepticism, then thoughtfulness and, finally, wonder as he looked about the room. He spoke slowly, with a pause between each sentence. "Franangar. Near the town of Cresta, in Switzerland. 1937. I think." He shook his head in amazement. "You learn something new every day, in this racket." "You've improved it," she said. "As I said, my memory is very rough." She sipped from her glass. "You did the wine, too." Kelly looked blank a moment, then grinned. "Of course!" he murmured. "Fable Valley, 1922. A fine year for wines, that was." He looked at her. "But I didn't imagine you," he said. "No," she said sadly. "I'm real." They sat for a time, sipping their wine, and later, while she toyed with her empty glass, she said, "You're taking this all very calmly. Are you some sort of medium, or spiritualist?" "No," said Kelly, looking at her intently. "So you realize that you are dead." "Yes. I know I'm dead." Kelly leaned over the arm of his chair and pulled a bota from his rucksack. He filled her glass, then his own. "What do you remember about it?" he asked, sipping the wine. She frowned slightly, and spoke in a halting voice. "I remember waiting in a cold place. This place. I remember the snow falling. My ankle hurt. I was very tired, but I knew I shouldn't sleep, because I would drift away, and I couldn't do that because I had to wait." She paused. "That's all," she said then. "I was in this place, after that. With that thing out there in the trees." She sipped her wine, and her eyebrows arched in surprise. "This is marvelous," she said. "What is it?" "I make it myself," said Kelly, "It's a special vintage, distilled from the wind of lonely places." "You would seem to be something of a poet," she said dryly. Kelly chuckled. "Just a romantic. I haven't the passion to be so self-involved. I must borrow another man's words:
"'The wind of lonely place is her wine. "'Still she eludes us, hidden, husht, and fleet, "'A star withdrawn, a music in the gloom. "'Beauty and death, her speechless lips assign, "'Where silence is, and where the surf-loud feet "'Of armies wander on the sands of doom.'"She looked down into her glass, her face hidden in her hair. "That is...unusual. Disturbing, even." "George Sterling," said Kelly. "He is not greatly regarded in these decadent times." He sipped. "Do you remember why you were waiting?" "I...I was told." "You were told to wait here? Who told you?" "I don't remember." "Were you here with..." Kelly started, but she interrupted him. "I don't want to talk about it." "That's all right. What would you like to talk about instead?" "You." "Me?" "You. Where are you from? I don't know your accent." Kelly shrugged. "My father was born in Ireland, and traveled abroad. The formal term was 'transportation'. It was a way of removing undesirable elements from society, which evidently described my father." "I thought they stopped transporting felons a long time ago." "Well, I'm a bit older than I look. In any event, my father didn't care for the place he was transported to, so he re-transported himself to New Zealand, where he married a Maori girl, and raised me and my two sisters. That's where I learned to ski, and a ski-bum is what I've been most of my life since." "When you're not skiing with ghosts." Kelly leaned over and refilled her glass. "I thought you didn't want to talk about it." She tossed her head to move her hair away from her face, and stared into the fire. "I changed my mind." "All right.." "This place seems comfortable enough, and I suppose I should feel grateful to exist at all, but I find I'm not enjoying the afterlife very much." "Why not?" She closed her eyes, and tears leaked out beneath the lashes. "Because..." Her voice caught, and she began to sob. Kelly rose and pulled her into his arms, where she wept against his chest. "There, there," he whispered soothingly, "hush now, girl." "You should hate me," she said, her voice muffled. "There now, girl. It's not your fault." "It is," she cried fiercely, her fists twisted into the fabric of his shirt. "I wanted to live! When I felt the world fading away from me, I would lure them down across the pale border, where the thing could reach them. They would scream as it fed; their pain would follow me, and when at last it was over, I'd feel strong again, for a little while. And now I've killed you as well!" "No Kate. You haven't killed me at all." She stiffened against him, jerking her head back. "How do you know my name?" she demanded. "It took a little research," Kelly told her. "Not much. Few people die, or even disappear, unremarked these days." She pulled away from him, and Kelly let her go. "Why are you here?" "Too many have died on this mountain Kate. It has to end." "You have come to kill me!" "I could never harm you, Kate. I can't harm anyone, really." She backed away from him, stumbled, and caught at the edge of the chair. "I...I feel strange." "It's the wine," said Kelly, leaning forward to lend support. "Come over here and sit." He guided her to a soft fur rug that had suddenly appeared before the fireplace, and helped her to sit. He lowered himself to the rug behind her, placing her between his legs, supporting her with his chest and his arms. "I feel so light," she said in a wondering voice. "Wine has never made me feel this way." "It is a special wine. It loosens your ties to the world." She wept strengthlessly, leaning heavily against his chest. "Why have you done this to me?" "Try to understand what I must tell you, Kate. There are many parts that make a person. When you die, these parts separate. Your body decays, but your spirit goes elsewhere - to a place beyond my knowledge. The will, that which held your spirit within your body, wanders lost for a time, and finally fades. It has many different names in many different lands and times: the ancient Egyptians called it the ba- soul. The Navajos call it the chindi. I call it the enemy. Without your body and spirit, it becomes malevolent and murderous, although it can do little harm by itself. "Sometimes a person dies in such despair, or rage, or heartbreak, that the bond between the enemy and the spirit continues unnaturally. The enemy is nearly always able to dominate the spirit. You never felt yourself fading, Kate. You felt your enemy fading. You felt its hollow joy as it fed, rending another's spirit and devouring its will, for the enemy is a cannibal. You do not need the enemy, Kate - it needs you, uses you, and keeps you in this place between the worlds. Believe it, Kate!" "I'm frightened. Stay with me, please." "It's all right. I'm here." "I don't want to go." "You must," Kelly said gently, firmly. "I feel strange...so light...like I'm floating away," she said, her voice distant. "The wind of lonely places is bearing you to another world." "Will I see you in that other world someday?" "I...hope so. I don't know." "Hold me please, until I have to go." "I will." And the wind howled round the cabin, and the fire began to die.