The Counting Ghosts, by Bernie Jean Schiebeling

We aren’t sure how much we’ve lost.

We don’t know where our fingers end. The walls reach into empty space, crumbling with a gasp as they grasp at the fog. At the end of them, we feel (we might remember feeling?) our fingers slip into the still air until they might as well not exist at all.

We miss the feet padding, racing, marching until the dust shook in our dark corners. By tracing their steps on tiptoed ears, we heard we existed. We bathed in waves of sound, breathed in them. Each time they crashed over us, we could remember ourselves, our bodies.

Now no one moves, and no one breathes, and the white fog leaves us feeling as if we’ve come unmoored and soared into the sky. Is the forest still out there? Once, we could feel the pine needles shaken out of hair and stomped off of boots, the sharp scents rising into our musty air and swirling through the halls. We curled like the castle cats into the scent as it spiked in the sunlight, a few spirits without the spirit to do more than caress the frailties that, like us, existed only in a soft whisper or whimper. But we were content.

Now, we count our fingers when the mist seeps in. Onetwothreefourfivesixsev-

When the fog is gone, we may as well be gone. The noon sun evaporates the feeble half-forms we took as we drifted through it. We have the morning to count our fingers, if we’re lucky. We stopped counting our toes long ago. To know all of them truly exist is a dream worth sighing for, like ascending up and up and up to heaven with each whispered, whimpered number.

Up and up and up to heaven. A staircase winding up and up and up. We–I–once ascended a staircase, striding behind a fall of black hair, shifting skirts. The black hair a woman’s, the skirts crimson as a wound. My heart was quiet in my chest. I counted neither the beats behind my ribs nor the fall of my boots on the stones. Unworried and unsubtle, I spiraled up behind the woman while bands of evening light passed through the arrow-slits, and my master’s quiet steps kept pace close behind.

My only moment of disturbance: at the top of the staircase, the chamber that locked from the outside. The woman who disappeared within. The silver key my master pressed into my gloved palm. And the raindrop–no, the teardrop, the single teardrop—darkening the stone threshold. A collection of single things, counted once, and yet I—we—

We try to trace our (seven?) fingers along the walls, but we cannot feel them, only the queer absence that we cannot gather the emotion to recognize the queerness of. Like stretching out a hand at night and not seeing it, instead realizing that it could be anywhere. Like reaching for shafts of stained-glass light in the ruined hall and realizing that fingers are blind to the texture of color. Yet we keep reaching, trying to wrap the red rays around us like a thin leather cord, a gown’s silk ribbons, a lover’s loose hair.

We have moments of success, of having. When flocks of birds shoot over us like brilliant comets, a few of us gravitate into the open sky. Our fingers focus near the birds. In the thunderclap of wings, we see ourselves, and we lunge. One greedy stab, and we drag the struggling creatures down with us. They convulse, tossing the air, and we curl up next to these fallen stars as they slowly grow dimmer and fade entirely, leaving us in stillness and darkness once more.

Then it is only us and the tower.

We know that there is something in the tower, up the stairs that we cannot navigate because no one has walked them in years (years?). Time and memory hide the staircase from us, but sometimes we feel rustling, like the sound of clouds moving across the sky. We gather, peering up as the reverberations flutter out across the air. The tower beats and pulses bright in our vision.

We wait and wonder for the thing inside—is it breathing? Can it walk? Can it count its toes? Does it know how red feels smoothed across a cheek?

We may know this, or I do. I do, because I once touched her cheek, or she touched mine. Where the blush ended, where the fingerprints began, I no longer know. Did she strike me, or did I caress her? Not knowing was the start of ghostliness, though I still breathed without numbering my breaths.

I remember this. I know that I do. Her crimson dress gone to rags, the witch-light fierce in her eyes, the leather cord binding the key caught among her skeletal fingers. Her hissing rage, rot-filled sorceress breath. Her speech crackling across the interior of my head, swelling and storming even as I threw her back from me into the darkness of the chamber, even as the silver key slid into the lock. Click-clunk. Screams through the door, a plea, or a curse, and I backed away from her fury. I should have counted my steps, I should have, because there was no stair beneath my foot, and lightning blinded through the arrow-slits as I fell, turning—

When there are thunderstorms, the roars of sound paint our surroundings in brilliant white. Every last crack in the stones lights up, and we are tingling, electric with excitement. No longer a scattered handful of souls, but hundreds, joyous and leaping. We forget to count as the tidal waves of noise sweep across us, as the lightning cauterizes the air around us. For a few moments, we can see the forest, we can smell our forest in the rain with all its mushroom decay and myrrh-like sap and new green things crushed underfoot. Sometimes, we can almost remember the forest, and sometimes, I remember to look down.

Alongside skulls of half-monstrous swans, knife-beaked crows, and smashed songbirds, human skulls stare wonderingly up into the storm. Their scattered and broken remains, bathed in light from the downpour, form a vast, uncertain script that would only make sense if we—if I—

With violence done, we have violence begun, said the last one to leave, says what is scratched above the archway. Every so often I trace the lines of each letter with my almost-fingers. I remember them reading it after they carved it. The air was thick with new souls. The tower still shone with sound above us, a second untouchable moon. The bodies still lay where they fell. The daggers still dripped red. And the key—the key dangled from my master’s hand. Not mine. When had I lost it? I passed through the silver like light through an arrow-slit. Like a plea for mercy through an unwary heart. How could I lose the key, and when?

When another bone-breaking thunderstrike crashes into us, we forget everything but the ecstasy of almost living. We forget everything, and I choose to forget the tower that shakes amidst the storm. I could go to the door in those moments. I could find my way. I don’t.

I have done something horrible, I think, and I am waiting for the next horrible thing. I have done something horrible, and unearthing it will destroy me. Do the others attempt to exhume their gasping memories from where we buried them alive, or do they just wait for the final flickers of in memoriam to pass into oblivion?

We can never wait forever, not when someone new comes to stir us with their living breath, with iron shovels that ring against the buried crypts, with sacks that itch the air with the roughness of burlap. They search for the things that glint in the darkness and catch an eye like a fluttering curtain. They take what passes for treasure among the living, and we are left with the smell of new dust brought on their bodies as if stars have been strewn on the floor.

Once, those were riches enough. We did not always pull birds from the sky, after all.

It has been years, but it happens again. Someone walks beneath the arch, and the carvings glow soft in our vision, but she does not look up. Her eyes are already caught on a rumor of what lies in the tower. This one has the smell of milk and forests. This one has a tarnished key around her neck. We race around her, the new hounds to replace those of our own age. She does not flinch, but her footsteps shudder up our backs as we find we can see again and count the stones. We rub our faces on the floors and walls, but mostly we cluster around the woman with the heavy footsteps, feeling her warmth like castle cats in the sunlight. Songbird skulls crunch, delicious and dry, beneath her boots, but she does not turn back or hesitate. In the ruined hall, sun through the shattered glass paints red on her cheeks, and we shiver. Were we more (less?) human, we would want her to leave.

She mounts the stairs with taps of her feet that stab into the stone and fill in the landscape with a sigh of relief. There is a staircase winding up and up and up. We can see it again. This much is true, and we cling to her for it, hoping that she will stay and knowing that she will not. None of them stay, and so our paths remain dark as hands at night.

There is a staircase winding up and down, and we grasp at her with our ten—(ten!)—fingered hands. We can sense all of the staircase, the moss and lichens like tapestries from when we drew breath for laughter, the arrow-slits fallen to pieces like the crow-picked mouths of our once-bodies. We almost feel our feet vicariously through the girl, who is something, who is everything to us. She shivers slightly at the breeze of our cold caresses.

The rustling at the top of the staircase is a dream almost connected to consciousness by her footsteps. For a moment, I think I know something new, an eye at a keyhole, fingers, lips, but the woman keeps climbing, climbing, climbing, and the stone has a heartbeat from her feet, and we convulse in the glowing veins that splinter through the mortar and shimmer through the rock. It reminds us of red, and red, and red. We slice through the air around her, almost breathing as she breathes. She pauses, and we writhe. We want her heartbeat illuminating a patch of ground, her warmth like our warmth, her soul like our souls. We claw at her, indenting the edges of her clothing. It’s not enough.

Once, we were (we do not remember being) humans.

She holds her breath. We warp ourselves to be closer to her heartbeat, our desire whittling and sharpening us. She takes off the cord and key. We shudder at the rasp of metal against cloth, our minds fleeing from thoughts of once, we were. She reaches toward the murmuring door of the tower, and we dart through her chest, our frosted breaths spiraling into fractals of slivered knives. She touches the door, and we are enveloped in life, in the red thud of her heart.

Inside the tower, someone says a name or a question, but we cannot understand.

The woman falls backward with a cry loud enough to reveal our entire home for a lightning’s instant, a single moment of clarity where a staircase winds down and down and down and a key tumbles down and down and down and the words on the arch burn bright enough to knock me back into being.

The others gather around the ebbing red flow like torn and hungry sparrows, but I stare towards the fading image of the tower and wonder about the things I do not know are lost.


Bernie Jean Schiebeling is a third-year graduate student in the University of Kansas’ MFA program. She writes slipstream and other weird fiction about family histories, cycles of trauma, and brief moments of comfort. This is her first publication.

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