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The Sound of His Voice Like the Colour of Salt

The ghost boy was the colour of bone, of gossamer spider web, of salt trails of dried tears. He still had his shape, his outline. No one had said his name in thirty years, even though he’d scarred the house with it, carved onto a tree in the garden, scratched into the paint under the outdoor kitchen. Scars unseen, name unspoken. The house had stood for close to a century, waking to kiss the sea breeze decades before, still standing when the red dirt roads had hardened to dark tarmac and the state had stolen the sea from it.

The house called the dead unto itself, and so the boy persisted, him and the others, outnumbering the living. Walls skinned with the colour of the ocean meeting the sky, a driveway of parched and cracked stone, girded with the garishness of bougainvillea and the shyness of orchids. The newest owners had furnished the house with a television screen the same size as a car door, computers in every room, tiny bulbs the size of candles with the glare of lighthouses; ripped out the old worm-eaten flooring in favour of inky Burmese teak. Now, you can do that, strip a house down to the bone, flay the walls from it and pull tiles like teeth. But the marrow of the house remained, so the living never stayed and the dead never left.

On the thirtieth anniversary of his death, a new ghost came to the house.

The ghost boy first consulted with the lady of the house, as was custom. Bibik Neo was a colourful woman in life, and so she was in death. According to her wishes (and such was her power that no one countermanded them), she was interred in the peony pink of a finest nyonya kebaya, slick across waist and hips, flowers twining round the waist, climbing to the collar and back down long sleeves.

“Bibik,” said the ghost boy, head bowed.

The dowager approved his salutation with the slightest of nods, inviting him closer with a crooked finger weighed with a heavy band of jade. Her throne room was the kitchen, the heart of a home, and that was where the lady of the house spent her afterlife. She watched over the servant girls cooking in the black and white and sepia days, she watched over the domestic help in the high definition days.

“Rendang cannot come out of a bag, you see, boy? No pounding of the rempah, no slow heat of charcoal,” she sighed. The ghost boy, who had never cooked in his life, save the time his brain baked in his skull from the fever, said nothing, only looking at Bibik Neo for permission to continue. The lady of the house had a face that was immaculately powdered, ground talc filling up furrows like so much grout; eyebrows delicately tattooed; lips rouged blood red. Her tongue hung low, down to her collarbone, as it was rumoured in life, so it was in death.

Bibik Neo sucked at her teeth. “Speak boy, and then leave me be.”

“There is a new one in the house, I’ve seen her. A girl that tastes of static and smells like fresh plastic.”

“There is nothing new in this house, boy. No ghosts come and go without my say-so. This is my place.” She leaned over the bubbling pot, waving steam to her face to check the cooking. Force of habit; her hand did not disturb the steam and ghosts could not smell. Unsatisfied, Bibik Neo called forth the flames from the cooker, singing the hands of the helper, who knocked the entire scalding pot to the floor in her haste to evade the fire. The lady of the house smiled; a mirthless press of the lips.

Seeing that he was no longer welcome, the ghost boy took his leave, wondering it if were possible for a ghost to be haunted.

Perhaps age would reveal something to the ghost boy that power did not; so he sought out Ye Ye, the oldest ghost in the house; in appearance, if not in haunting years. Ye Ye loved the sitting room, a slow room for a slow unlife. He’d lost definition around the edges, reduced to a little more than a smudge. Ye Ye, of all the ghosts, was the most fortunate. Fortunate that his mind had passed before his body, that he did not remember the tears of his family, the slow ossification of their hearts against the terror of a mind becoming unstuck in memories. When his body eventually, stubbornly, gave up life by the fingernails, he reappeared amongst wailing kin who hid their smiles and sighs of relief at his passing from the stern funerary portrait at the foot of his coffin. It would have been hell if he had anything other than a mind like moth-ravaged curtain.

“Did you see the new girl, Ye Ye?” asked the ghost boy.

Ye Ye shook his head and gibbered, moving the rocking chair so hard that it raised clouds of sparkling dust. Undeterred, the ghost boy tried again.

“You never move, she must have passed by.”

The old man seemed to draw himself together, become more distinct, but lost the battle with himself. He held his bony knees to his chest and sank through the hardwood floor, down amongst the concrete pillars that held the home above the ground and snakes, deep to the foundations amongst the bones of those the builders mixed in mortar to bless the building.

All ghosts knew three things: that they were dead, that they were tragic and that they were alone. There were other ghosts, of course, but ghosts don’t count for company, ghosts don’t count for family.

The ghost boy roamed the rooms, his naked feet leaving cold patches on the hardwood. New owners couldn’t tell whether the chill was from the ghost boy or the air conditioners that belched frigid air. They couldn’t hear him pacing, couldn’t hear the creaks of wood above the violence of television, mouse and keyboard.

He saw the new girl again; if only for a heartbeat (although, truly neither seconds nor heartbeats mattered to him). She smiled at him in the subliminal frames between the change of channels on a screen, laughed through the crackle of static on the speakerphone. But never face to face.

Rusty fences marked the end of his world. Not the end of the world, just his. None of the ghosts could go beyond the gate or the fences that bound the house. They were creatures of place after all. But places were impermanent, the ghost boy knew this as sure as he remembered singing the colour of salt to the sea that retreated from his prison, the government replacing the ochre sands with harsh grey concrete, the sea birds with massive four legged beasts of steel, arranging the twenty-foot and forty-foot containers and piling them up like firewood.

The sisters patrolled the gardens in their starched and stiff secondary school uniforms. Death had stretched them out, like pastry rolled too thin. Their faces, sallow in life, were now eternally the off-yellow of over-steamed chicken with a smattering of teenage acne to scar them forever. A semi-trailer had borne down on them at sixty kilometres an hour, pulping a hundred bones between them and giving them the limp and sinuous motion of sea snakes. They were forever hiding, in the tall grass, behind the trees, behind your right shoulder; with their unhinged jaws and their fingers as long as their forearms, always taptaptapping like the impatient legs of spiders.

He found one of them back where the high tide line had been fifty years prior; now heavy eighteen wheelers fed the port with trailers only metres from the fence. Her fingers rattled the metal links. Tap tap tap. Death had come because they were too slow, too still; as a result they were always moving, wriggling and fidgeting.

“There’s another ghost in the house.”

“Too many to count,” whispered the second one from behind him. He turned, and there she was, sitting down, tap tap tap on the dry grass. Always one sister out of sight, in your blind spot, lurking at your ear. It was their way, clever girls. Lithe fingers the shape and length of overgrown okra tapped their way up his ghost leg, and if the boy could feel anything, he imagined they’d feel like slugs inching their way up his calf. They moved the same way.

“New ghost. Girl. About this tall?” He held up a hand to his eye, snapping it back before the sister could gnaw at it. Punishment was at the whim of the lady, and even the sisters submitted to her authority, but the house was far away, as the sisters liked it to be.

“Not in the garden,” said one.

“Not in the driveway,” said the other, starting to circle him.

“Not under the house,” said the first, from behind him.

“Not in the rafters,” said the second, tap tap tapping his shoulder.

“Ask the mirrors,” they said.

At that he ran, back to the blessed safety of the house, chased by the hoarse laughter of the sisters, and above that, something higher and cleaner, in the vibrations that only dogs could hear, the giggle of someone else.

The mirror ghost lived in the micron between glass and silver, in the aqueous humor of the eye, in the space of a blink. His place was the bathroom, the vanity and the ornate carved antique piece by the main door to reflect bad luck. His name, if said three times, or five, or seven, called him out, whereupon he would chase the unfortunate with his mosaic body of broken glass, his shattered bottle smile and his shards fingers. But like all the other inhabitants of the house by the sea, his name had been forgotten.

The ghost boy rapped on the mirror and considered the view of the bathroom, as he had no reflection of his own, having forgotten the look of his own face. The mirror cracked and the other ghost stepped through. More of a child’s story, the mirror ghost was, always preening spending his life looking into mirrors, he now spent his time looking out of them. He was a good listener though; or appeared to be, always taking after the body language of the speaker by force of habit. A sigh like the tinkle of fractured glassware escape the mirror ghost’s lips.

“Ah boy, always so curious, macam monyet.” Like a monkey. The mirror ghost had a deep baritone that rattled glassware and pipes alike.

“The sisters said I should ask you,” said the boy.

“Oh ho! Knowledge is a strange thing, only dangerous in small amounts. There is no new ghost in the house, ah boy.”

The ghost boy turned to leave, for there was no ghost in the house that saw more than the mirror ghost, because the spaces behind mirrors were all but one space, and the mirror ghost inhabited them all simultaneously.

“But she’s not really in the house is she?” asked the mirror ghost.

In the walls, flashes of light in glass cables winked at the ghost boy.

The ghost boy glared at the solid black rectangle of a computer screen; back in his day televisions had been larger than fishtanks with lushly curvaceous screens. “I know you’re in there,” he said. Ghosts found it no less ridiculous to talk to themselves in an empty room and the ghost boy could not even blush to show his embarrassment.

The new girl was a palimpsest of a ghost; an afterimage of smiles, grimaces, frowns, tears; blinking one into another, a channel surfing kind of spirit. When she laid a flicker of a hand on him, it was the first thing he’d felt in decades. Warm.

“You’re a ghost,” she said, and her voice was the hum of static, the wail of a dial up connection.

“So are you,” said the ghost boy.

“I suppose I am.”

“Where’s your haunt? Why don’t you have a place?”

The new ghost stepped back through the computer screen, her voice continuing through the speakers. “I suppose there’s a bit of me still here in this refurbished hard drive; a cache. I’m also a server farm somewhere in California, but it’s boring and loud there. I’m in a phone on a bulk export to Indonesia to be sold secondhand and everywhere in between.”

The ghost boy had never heard of a server farm and he wondered what they grew there that was so loud. Pigs maybe. One thing ghosts don’t do well is learn anything new. The silence between them grew wider than the years between their deaths, and the ghost boy felt alone, tragic and dead again.

“It’s Amber, thanks for asking,” she said.

“What is?”

“My name, silly. What’s yours?”

To this the ghost boy had no answer, it was a wound afresh whenever he discovered his lack of a name, or that none of the other ghosts had names. The sisters, the mirror ghost. Even Ye Ye wasn’t a name at all.

“I don’t have one.”

“Everybody has a name.”

“Ghosts in this house don’t.”

“Why’re you stuck here?” the new girl asked from the screen, twirling her neon hair with an immaterial finger. Not just with the standard translucency of a spirit, the new girl moved fluidly through looks as quickly as she changed expressions. The ghost boy was reminded of a kaleidoscope he once had, all moving, shifting colours. So it was with the girl.

“I’m anchored here,” said the boy. “It’s where I died.”

The flickering girl bit her lip for a moment, cycling through a scowl and a grin before she looked back up. “My profiles are my bones; my comment history, my flesh. Both entombed forever in silicon. My place is the internet, and there’s more ghosts there than anywhere else in the world.”

The words made little sense to the ghost boy, who listened only for the pleasure of hearing Amber speak. “What’s an internet?” he managed. Amber didn’t answer, only pushing a hand out of the screen, palm open in welcome.

The ghost boy and his new friend found Bibik Neo supervising the destruction of the mirrors; standing, arms folded, behind one of the helpers in the house while the latter punched at the glass with bare knuckles already lacerated to flapping meat. The dusky skinned lady had tears streaming down her face, hapless under Bibik Neo’s will.

“Bibik,” said the boy, head bowed, but eyes looking towards the lady of the house.

“There you are, and you have a friend,” said Bibik Neo, and her voice was dark thunder, so much so that even the fluorescent lights pulsated in fear.

“This is Amber, Bibik. I’m leaving the house.” Amber gave a wave that died halfway, the greeting stillborn in her awkwardness.

“You’ve saved me the trouble then, I was going to deal with you two after I’d seen to the mirror ghost. Silly children and your silly games. Nothing changes in this house.”

“My farewell is a courtesy, Bibik Neo. I don’t need your permission,” the ghost boy said, words a little braver than he felt. But he had tasted freedom from the house; and freedom is most addictive in small, stolen doses.

Bibik Neo drew herself up, looming far larger than the five feet she had been in life. “You’re part of the house, boy. You died here, in my place, you gave me your name.” The outburst drew Ye Ye from the floor. A muffled tapping told the ghost boy that the sisters were near. Them and other ghosts besides, murmuring at the spectacle.

The lady of the house plucked at the cloth buttons on her kebaya, peeling off the silk that covered her, as tight as skin. When she lifted it away from her torso, the smooth material uncovered bleached ribs, the light from behind her visible through the back of her blouse. Bibik Neo was hollow. At this, the assorted ghosts fell silent, and only the forgotten helper was left to sob over the ruins of her fingers. The ghost boy became aware of a light scratching, as if of many chitinous legs across hard ground. Bibik Neo’s bones weren’t bare, they were covered with dense writing, the words themselves moving endlessly over the ivory surfaces like so many insects.

“I have your name, boy,” said the matriarch. “I have all your names.” This to the assembled ghosts. “A man only dies when his name is said for the last time. None of you die without my permission.”

The ghost boy knew then that Bibik Neo, the terror of the house in life and in death, whose only power was in the veneration and fear of others, was perhaps the loneliest ghost of all, and he felt something a little like pity for her. Beside him, his new friend, an internet ghost, an echo of a person in a shifting landscape that had no borders. But he knew that the fight was his and his alone. And one more secret to Bibik Neo’s power besides. He took Amber’s hand, turned and walked.

Immediately he felt the pull of the house, Bibik Neo working her magic on him through his name. A terrible gravity it was, the attraction of tragedy to tragedy, of the hurt to the hurtful; forever in the prisons of their own devising. The ghost boy had ruminated long and hard on the nature of his haunting; his body long turned to ash, his grave unswept. Yet misery of a life ended too soon paled next to an eternity wasted. At the end, when family had passed on, when names were lost and tragedies worn down finer than dust, all ghosts haunted were themselves.

“My name was given to me, it only has as much power over me as I give. You have only as much power over me as I give.” He felt the bonds of the lady of the house give, stretching like dough, tearing. Or perhaps it was him that was now free, a bubble of sea foam, no longer prisoner to the depths, about to join the breeze.

Bibik Neo gave out a cry and the ghost boy heard the rush as she chased him, fearing that he would soon feel her hard little hands around his wrist, or his neck. Running away would give the victory to the lady, and the ghost boy was determined to leave on his terms. The clutch never came and when he craned his neck for one last look at the old house, he saw Bibik Neo fighting off a hand made of broken glass, holding onto her bony ankle. The other ghosts, sensing weakness, were beginning to stir.

The ghost boy didn’t wait to see the end, he still didn’t have his name and he doubted that he would ever get it back. Amber had gone ahead, already through the screen to a space between spaces. And so he followed to a place where a ghost didn’t need a name, or could swap names easier than changing clothes; leaving behind nothing save his cold footprints and the fading echo of a voice the colour of salt.

About the Author

L Chan hails from Singapore. He spends most of his time wrangling a team of two dogs, Mr Luka and Mr Telly. His work has appeared in places like Clarkesworld, Translunar Travellers Lounge, Podcastle, The Dark, and he was a finalist for the 2020 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. He tweets occasionally @lchanwrites.