Sin was a summer ghost, born of a death sudden as lightning. They slipped on bare ghost soles down the long corridors of an old inn deep in the forest, drifted and danced in the abandoned heft and dust-limned dim of the inn’s pillared halls. With ghost vision, Sin could see the many lanterns, persimmon and gold, that once illuminated the inn’s woodwork and polished floors, and the travelers and locals seated over honey wine and food.
These spirits of the inn’s long memory flickering through the abandoned spaces annoyed Sin at first, speaking of a kind of life they had never known. At the same time, the gauzy manifestations engaged them, like dreams on the ever-waking air of their ghostlife. One evening, they tried an experiment, sitting in the memory flicker of a patron, a large, thick-bellied man. Sin moved with him while taking a bite and the flavor of onion pancakes burst crisp-savory-sweet through them. The honey wine startled them, sting and tang, but its soft echo settled like fragrance on skin.
After that, Sin spent evenings slipping from one memory guest to another, tasting dishes the inn had been known for, getting drunk on honey wine and making up the flickers’ silent conversations.
“Let us eat all the food.”
“Yes, we are so rich and can have all the food.”
“Ah,” finger to the side of their nose, “and we will not share with grubby orphan children because we are piiiiiigs.”
When the inn’s remembering faded each evening, night came large and rustling in the woods around it. In the darkness, the memory of lanterns lingered, the inn wearing festive shimmer.
One night, some uncounted run of mornings, noons, and nights into Sin’s ghostlife, as summer passed into autumn, a cat squeezed into the inn through a crack in the walls, wild-eyed and rattled. Sin heard barking and snuffling on the other side of the wall, and drifted through to see three dogs, large and excited. They saw Sin, bayed and barked, then ran off.
Back inside, the cat heaved breath, eyes wide and round under one of the tables.
Sin hovered nearby, settling to sit, though still a handspan above the dusty floor. The cat watched them. His eyes were gold and caught the shine of memory lanterns. But he was not a ghost; Sin could feel his warm, wild solidity, the rank odor of dirty, dog-slobbered fur going through them as strongly as the smell of a roasted potato from a street cart had when they were alive.
Eventually the cat began to clean himself, the sound of rough tongue rasped over disheveled fur slipping into the night. Sin sat, hovering, the cat washed his fur clean of dog and fear, and the night ticked over until the cat curled up to sleep, Sin keeping watch. When dreams twitched the cat’s grey paws and made his whiskers tremble, running from dogs in the endless of his inner landscape, Sin drifted closer and lowered one hand to, then through, tongue-washed fur, into heat and intent, hunger and fascination with the tiny motions of the world. “You’re safe, you’re safe here,” they said, incanting it so with all their ghostly will.
In the early, still-dark morning, the cat stretched with thorough languor and slinked off to investigate all the corners and corridors of the inn. There were voles to eat, grasses in the inner courtyard to chew, water in the broken cistern, where birds came down to drink. Sin drifted after and when, as day crept on and sun furled into dust-soft air, the cat curled up on the rocks of the broken cistern, Sin stayed in the courtyard, twirling and singing, following memory guests passing through or sitting with them in the open doors of their rooms.
The season turned, rains poured through the courtyard, leaves in shades of flame and plum fell from trees and patterned the broken stones, leaving shadows behind when winds blew them dervish. Sin called the cat Hui and Hui followed them as much as they followed him. Hui played with the trailing tatters of Sin’s ghostly clothes, rolled in the sun for them to stroke his fur, and butted his triangle head into their hand, seeming to like it when Sin’s touch sank through him and they mingled selves.
When the first frost etched the inner courtyard’s rocks and grasses and one twisty tree in tiny ice crystals, a gang of men came and forced the tall, broken doors of the inn. They set up camp in the main hall. The men’s rough, incarnate presence interrupted the inn’s remembering and left the evening empty of spirit patrons and lanterns. Sin hovered among the men unseen. Hui hid.
When, that first night, one of the men hit another and the others laughed, Sin sank close enough to hover a hand through the man’s head, shuddered and recoiled at the sense of straining filthy water through teeth Sin no longer had. The man shook his head, blank and twitchy for a moment, then dug a finger in one ear to scratch, so vigorously he seemed to be trying to scratch inside his head.
Sin considered. Deep into the night, while the men snored and muttered in sleep, they hovered, ghostly legs crossed, watching. As night turned toward morning, the embers of the fire the men had broken furniture to make cracked and hissed as grey light slipped around the edges of things. Sin drifted up, away, and went to look for Hui.
Sin began by passing a hand through each of the men, rummaging in the thick, meaty insides of them to glean a fear here, a longing there. Most reacted as the first man had, with a twitch and attempts to scratch the inside their skulls; one sneezed violently and another got angry and hit the man closest to him. As the men bickered and abused one another, Sin stretched ghost muscles, tying the men’s’ fears and guilts into spectral swags and draping them through the air. The men walked through them, oblivious.
When the men cooked food over the fire, Sin sent grimacing caricatures of the men’s’ own faces up in the smoke. Only one of them noticed; when he pointed it out, the others laughed and made fun of him.
But several of the men had glimpsed Hui when the cat stalked the courtyard and drank at the cistern and the thoughts that passed through them set Sin’s determination.
That night, Sin crafted nightmares from dreams and waking terrors to walk the dark inn. One for each, so that sleeping or waking, horrors cozened them all. The things Sin found in the men’s minds might have softened them toward one and another of them, but Sin knew such men from their life, had learned to stay away from them—until they hadn’t. So Sin took an inchoate dream of buckets down a well and made buckets with multiple, screaming mouths and a well filled with gaunt, reaching hands; they stitched dark water, blood, and sweat into moaning veils and distortions of the air; kneaded visions of dumplings into pale monsters with pillowy bellies and steaming eyes. They blew ghost breath into the darkest lurking thoughts, into the ragged lace of despair, guilt, and terror.
As morning again greyed the dark, Sin settled to drift and watch the men. Waking, one man reached immediately for the cheap alcohol they drank. Another, hunched at the fire and awake most of the night, buried his face in his hands. Two of the men started a fight. The others, angry and fearful, sniped or brooded, violence simmering in more than one of them.
But they did not leave.
Outside, the first snow whited the forest and land around the inn; ice froze the courtyard cistern. Hui, rather than freeze, had crept into proximity of the fire, hiding under a tumble of broken furnishings.
Winter loomed a more certain threat than Sin’s conjurings.
Sin hovered cross-legged above the fire as the men drank, sniped, scratched, snorted, spit. Eventually, Sin touched bare ghost feet to worn wooden flooring to feel the inn’s being and padded off into its empty rooms and corridors to rifle through its memories.
Two days later, as the winter sun sank red into frost haze, Sin assembled the memories they’d mined from the inn’s long life—murders, suicides, rapes, and bad dreams left behind like maggot-blown wounds—fed their own will into each to make them visible, and strung them into a pageant. This parade they led down the corridors and into the main room, now smoky and fetid with the men’s’ habitation.
Disorder and wailing! Shrieking and cursing! But.
One of the men, leaning against a pillar, chin wet from the wine he was drinking, pointed at another of the men whose ragged pants were wet with his own urine, and laughed. The frightened man punched the laugher, who yelled and punched back; in several confusing moments a fight sprawled through the room gathering in other men as it tumbled into a free-for-all.
Sin’s ghastly procession drowned in the heave and roar of fists and yelling.
In the confusing press of fists and feet hitting flesh, spit flying, angry distorted faces, the smell of many bodies too close, of sweat and blood—something cracked open within Sin.
The memory of their death.
Contracting to a smallness, a burr, Sin hid with Hui, nestling into the cat’s fur. Woken, memory floated around them in shards. Men’s faces, distorted with ugly teasing and jeering; their voices, trash . . . dirty animal . . . worthless thing!
Sin’s own voice as they curled tight around a stolen roasted potato gripped in one fist, leave me alone! Sin tasted the words, mixed with the dirt and blood of their last breaths. The potato went untasted. One of the kicks broke something in their throat and they drowned in blood.
When Sin woke in the heavy copper and green of summer, their memories were only echoes rung by the inn’s own flickering remembrances and then by Hui’s warmth and hunger.
Now, instants of life came to Sin from the other side of their death. Mornings waking in the woods with the hollow claw of hunger; drinking water from a stream before heading into the town to find some food; sparing a moment for wonder—a fox’s laugh, the dapple in the stream’s motion; later, in the dust and crowding of town, a delicate scent of perfume left in a passing woman’s wake. Crouched over a pail cleaning root vegetables for an ancient, stern-faced merchant, a small bowl of soup in payment, warm and soon eaten.
Then the merchant gone one day, shop closed up, empty. Hunger. Begging. Stealing. Running. Hiding.
One desperate afternoon, a stolen roasted potato, a gang of men.
Under the table, Sin unfurled a bit and rested beside and partly within Hui, knowledge blossoming, a red flower in their hands.
This gang of men.
As snow blew heavy through the forest, the men grumbled, sniped, and tried to catch Hui. Sin wove a rustling shadow of their own memories, a garment on wire bones, threaded with echo-scents of skin, sweat, blood, and hunger deep in its fiber and weave. Within the whispering folds, a mouth glistered with teeth of shattered pearl, the suck of shadow and bruise in the broken sheen of every one. From the memory of fracture in their throat, Sin formed a vibration, toll of a bell vast as the earth, too low, too deep and bone-aching to hear.
Perched on the broken slate of the inn’s slanted roof, Sin watched dim afternoon sink into clouded, moonless night. As the dark thickened, Sin descended through the roof wielding the vibration and wrapped in their rustling shadow robe, a floating, undulating darkness fissured with hunger. Sin elongated their ghost fingers into needles and polished a high note of ache and despair to sing above the inquietude of the unheard vibration.
Two of the men, drunk, sprawled on the ground. The other five sat about the fire. An almost homey atmosphere hung amid the piles of broken furniture, fumes of cheap liquor, heavy smoke, and unwashed men.
Sin let the vibration sink into the wood and stone of the inn. One man and then another twitched, shivered; one of the two drunken men moaned.
With the gleaming polished note, Sin whispered, “roast potatoes, savory roots, roast potatoes!” Belling the robe of shadow and jagged pearl-toothed maw, Sin moved in a slow, rising and falling curvet, sliding needled fingers into jaws, filling the men’s mouths with blood, saliva, and the copper-sharp spit of Sin’s own death.
“Leave.” Vibration and gleaming note, together, sonorous and shrill. “Leave.”
Sin swept the robe wide and in the pearl-toothed mouth took up one of the men—the man whose face was the last thing Sin saw while alive—and shook him in the air. Blood spattered down on the other men.
The mouth tossed aside its prey and that one, clutching at his chest, fled screaming, “Ai ai ai!” The rest followed, running and stumbling from the inn.
Fading through the walls in a final roil of dark thunder, Sin watched the men run until only footsteps remained in the snow, one set bloody, a trail disappearing into the woods. Shrugging off the robe, Sin widened, deepened, and swept it all around the inn. The mouth, with its glints of haunted pearl teeth, made a darkness deeper than the night, one that would not fade with morning. They shed the finger needles and set them like swords in the earth.
Barrier, ward, warning.
As morning leafed thin, burning gold along the dark horizon, Hui came to sit by the fire, which Sin fed now with memory wood, sparing the remaining furnishings of the inn. It burned as warm, but kinder; scent and translucent color rose into the air instead of smoke, sparks floating like lightning bugs, the embers drowsing eyes.
One memory flicker returned, and then another, lanterns lit and patrons gossiping over honey wine, Hui and Sin leaning one against the other.