There is a haunted house. It is made of whalebone, of mammoth bones, of overhanging cliffs and caves. It has carvings on the bones, and deep in the caves there are aurochs painted on the walls, the small handprints of women. The house is inland. It is next to the ocean. It is on wide, grassy plains. It is made up of people like me, and people who are not like me, and people who have expectations placed upon them by me, and by others. Primitivism, adaptation, competence. The ghosts of beliefs that linger, that color the homes that we live in, the bare biologies of them.
There is a haunted house. Beside it are midden pits, and in the pits are bones and stone chips and shells. When the house is by the sea there are always shells, piles of them, the insides eaten out and the shells left to rub and scrape against each other in pits. Hold a shell up to my ear and I can hear the ocean, but the ocean is right there, not much farther than whalebone can be dragged, and I don’t need shells to hear it. If I did, there’d be enough for a thousand ears, a thousand years, so when the shells are held up to the ear there’s something else to hear instead. And if, afterwards, the people who sift, chalk-handed, through the shells go for a dinner of mussels, of oysters, of all the whorled and juicy whelks, then it’s nothing but repetition, the actions of the dead brought back, carried on, the bodies of the living a late echo through time, a shell echo.
There is a haunted house.
If the middens are graves, they are not the only ones. Different bodies are buried, and there are objects buried with them. Tools, clothes, the remembrance pollen of flowers, although it is possible that the pollen came from insect incursion and not any sort of planting. When the graves are dug back up, there are breaks in the bodies: shattered bones, missing teeth, and these are present whether the skulls are flattened at the front or not, whether the thighbones are shorter, thicker, whether the ribs are longer and less curved. The proof of DNA shows a Neanderthal presence in many of us, evidence of sex, of raising well. Love, perhaps, of the sort that gave burials and grave goods, the possibility of flowers. It’s hard to imagine (it’s all too easy): flowers on the graves, flowers for the living. Which well-loved family member might have brought them to the other?
(Perhaps it’s just jealousy speaking. No one’s bought me flowers in ages. I could buy them for myself, I expect, but it seems a more certain thing to wait for death. I’m sure some will turn up then. Generations expect it.)
The haunted body, the haunted house. European heritage on my part, so there’ll be, tucked away in there, evidence of ancestry. I hope so. I’d like to be part Neanderthal. To know that some part of an ancient race exists, still, that it lives on. Is that a haunting? Perhaps. We’re the subjects of past traumas, and extinction is a trauma, one that’s written on bones and the memory of shells. Curious to know what’s still in there, how much my own structure houses the remains of the living and the dead. There aren’t deer painted over my walls; I barely even use lipstick. But still, but still.
I wonder how much can be brought out. I can say that I’m housing a ghost, but that’s a metaphor only; spirit boards aren’t going to work here. They’re a relic of a different type of house, still haunted, but even there I think they draw something out that’s not actually present. No evil entity, no invitation to possession. Just the unearthing of what’s buried inside so, you know, it might work after all.
No sense trying to conjure up a past that’s already recognizable in mirrors. Those are the things I can do already: color a hand and imprint the shape on walls, toss empty shells into piles, build a place of paint and bones. So many thousand years, and there’s not a lot of difference. It’s the other I want, but I’ve not used a spirit board before and nothing happens at first. Well, why would it. It’s a literate communication, not meant for the remnants of an individual not bound to literacy. But that’s a presumption of objectivity again, a reaching out that’s predicated on the separate existence of the other. If I’m looking to shovel off what I already am, then literacy is no barrier.
Nothing, still. No Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation, though which would be which I don’t know. No sudden increase in body hair, as if a Neanderthal were a werewolf and not a person no more hirsute than I am. I wake up in the night and hear flutes playing, but I’ve never been musical and if the ability to play anything at all is embedded in the memory of DNA, it’s buried too deep for me to unearth it. I probably dreamed it anyway, and if I did there’s no reason to believe it came from the wrong side of the family, the haunted side.
The hunted side.
They made art, too, and I can’t do that either. Shells strung like macaroni, bird bone jewelry. The cat brings a dead bird in, and I bury it with chips of stone – not flint, I wouldn’t recognize flint if I fell over it, just gravel from the driveway – and dig it up again weeks later, scrape out those little honeycomb bones. They’re so light, so delicate, and it’s hard to string them together so that they don’t shatter and it doesn’t feel artistic, I must say, it just feels ghoulish. The cat’s more interested in the final product than I am. I wear them anyway, throw bones on the board, paint myself with ochre. It smells disgusting, an oily swamp aroma, so I wash it off again.
Sometimes, in the mirror, there’s a flash of brown in my eyes. I get some colored contacts, cover up the blue that I know perfectly well was a mutation come from early Homo sapiens. Not that I know what that relic Neanderthal DNA does, exactly, but it lost out on eye color. The Black Sea mutation, giving me the color of blue water. By the time it turned up, the Neanderthals were long dead, dead for tens of thousands of years, dead with their flints and their grave goods and their grave flowers, the bits of themselves they left alive in me.
I like the brown eyes. It takes me no time at all to get used to them. An early mother, resurfacing. The haunted body, reanimating.
I try the spirit board again, watch it through older eyes, ancient colors. Those eyes blink as I push around the planchette, and there’s nothing to indicate an upwelling of prose, the stirrings of subconscious identity come into story, but for a moment, for several moments intercut, it seems as if my hands are bigger. They’ve always been small, especially compared with my height, but these are bruiser hands, broken-fingered and then healed again, a sharp flare of stiffness, and then the flesh as it is always was. The board, I think, is a bust, but if there’s memory in fingers there can be memory in feet as well, so I dig out the ochre, slather it on soles and try not to think about carpets, which are old and eaten up with carpet beetles and due to be replaced anyway.
The carpet’s torn up in the hall, the lack of fibers making prints clearer (there are no aurochs here, no cave hyenas, the leavings of that other family, the one that has my first allegiance). One footprint looks as it always has. The other is longer in the heel, the bone not shaped for long-distance running. If anyone were to ask, I could have told them that anyway, the bone necklace sharp against my breast, because I’m not a runner and the prospect of marathons as a means of hunting down my dinner is a terrible one.
The paint stains the wood. I don’t know whether to cover it over or not, leave the carpet off and varnish the floors, but when I come back after bathing, the ochre scrubbed off my feet, the only prints left are right-footed, the ones that always were. The long heel bone has worn away: haunting never stays forever.
I take out one contact, pretend to be heterochromatic. One blue eye, for the mirror, and one brown, for the past. I eat shellfish for dinner, and listen for echoes.
A haunting may not stay forever, but I can invite it to.
There is a haunted house. It is whalebones and mammoth bones, the inside of painted caves. It is long ribs and long heels, it is blue eyes and small hands. It has a bed of rubbish.
It doesn’t come when called.
Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She has a PhD in science communication, and likes to mix up science and speculative fiction in both her academic and creative work. She’s sold close to 70 short stories, to markets including Clarkesworld, F&SF, and Strange Horizons. Her latest book, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, is a cli-fi novella published by Stelliform Press. She’s won five Sir Julius Vogel awards, attended Clarion West 2016, and was the 2020 writer in residence at Massey University.