Part of a shaman's work is to tell how things are with the world of the Unseen. Spooky? Maybe. But sometimes being the Voice of a ghost is pure job satisfaction.
The sun was high and hot when our little company found an ideal location: a little village cemetery set on a hill above a full, slow stream. In the center of the cemetery there was a tall monument commemorating a battle that occurred some seventy years ago, with names carved in the polished granite, and a wide stone-paved circle around it. We dropped our packs on the edge of the stone circle, and started to make camp among the headstones nearby.
Both Dan Ur-Jennan and I are shamans of the Ur-clans, and able to speak with the shades of the dead who linger. I put my staff into the ground and waited only a few moments before I was approached by a ghost. He seemed to radiate a chilly sense of authority, as though he was the boss ghost of the place. Well, small towns are often like that, somebody always wants to run the place. Why not after death as well?
"What seek ye, Wanderers?" said the spirit, who was dressed in a jacket, waistcoat, and frilly shirt, with pants tucked into riding boots and a pair of gloves in one hand. "Have ye come to disturb the precious sleep of the dead?"
"Lighten up," I said to him. "I know more dead people than you do, and the last thing they're interested in is sleep. We're looking for shelter under the magic of the graveyard, so that a wicked magician won't find us. Will you help or do we move to a different part of the burial ground?"
"Stay," he said, "I haven't talked to a living being in about twenty years. But I insist on orderliness. No spirit orgies or mob scenes, mind you -- I don't want any blasted psychics showing up and trying to make us into some bourgeoisie freak show."
"Agreed," I said. "And your name is ... ?"
"Niles Cooper, and yours?"
The ghost bowed deeply. "I have heard of the clans of Ur, but have never before been graced with a visit."
We began taking turns at the creek, one at a time, to wash the stink of days of travel off ourselves. Danner had gone first, and came back wrapped in a blanket. She laid her scrubbed clothing out on the grass of the graves to dry, and tossed the cake of hard soap to Narsai, who handed it to his brother and slapped him soundly. "Scrub with mud first, Odiferous Sibling, and then make use of the soap."
"Yes, Brother," said Guillaume meekly.
"You're too hard on him," Danner said to Narsai.
"He is a baboon," said Narsai, and pulled an apple from his pack and began to eat it.
Cloudraft the Wizard stopped gazing at Danner's casually draped form and looked toward the little village. "Oh, dear, it looks like we're about to get visitors. I was hoping for a quick nap before we were noticed."
"Aser, how are we for herbals?" asked Danner, rising to her feet and tying the blanket above her one shoulder a little more securely. She wrapped her belt with its dagger around her waist to keep the blanket from gaping.
"Not bad, considering how light we're traveling. When we passed through the clan lands everyone was cramming our packs with pouches of processed medicinals." A lot of these little mountain villages don't have a healer or shaman in residence, and when one passes by, the residents are likely to crowd him or her for help.
Three men were approaching, one with his hand on a sword at his waist. The ghost behind me said proudly, "That's my great-grandson's great-grandson, Hatch, and although the family are no longer coopers by trade, they are good folk and I am glad to call them kin."
"Hail, Hatch!" I called to the man with the sword, which was rusted in spots on the hilt, and the leather that wrapped that handle was frayed in places.
"How do you know my name?" the bearded man asked in consternation.
"Your great-grandfather's great-grandfather's ghost here told me," I said. "Don't be afraid. We," I gestured toward Danner, "are shamans of Ur. We can hear the voices of spirits, and have medicines to cure some ills. We will help you as we can."
Wide-eyed, one of the men who had accompanied Hatch Cooper turned and headed back to tell the rest of the village.
"Hail," said Hatch feebly, after introductions. "Pardon, shaman, but you have the ugliest dogs I've ever seen. What breed are they, and can you keep them away from the dogs in our village?"
"They're not dogs, they're baboons," I said. "Try not to insult them, as they are very learned and will probably be writing a memoir of their visit here."
Guillaume had just returned from the creek. Narsai gave him a sniff and then pretended his younger brother was invisible, and turned his back. Guillaume looked at the cake of soap in his front paw, and then winged it, overhand, to hit his older brother on the back of the head with it. Narsai exploded into chase and the two baboons galloped full speed back down the hill to tumble, tussling, into the water of the creek.
"I once saw a two-headed gerbil at the Desmesne Faire," said Hatch, "but never nothing like them."
The young man at his side stepped forward. "Can I talk to me dad?" asked the fellow, his eyes suddenly filling with tears.
"I can interpret for you if he is still here," I said and we walked to his father's grave.
Death is such a gulf, such a giant rift in our lives. Those of us who are left in the physical world can feel as though we've failed in keeping our loved ones with us; very often we feel left behind or abandoned when our friends and antecedents die. Sometimes people think of something they wished they'd said when their friend or relative was alive, or wonder what the honored dead would make of our actions today. From the point of view of the living, the grave is silent, the dead gone beyond reach of our senses.
That's why it's so important to speak and love and touch people while they're still alive, to take time to find out how they're doing, tell them that you're glad you know them. Make cookies for someone. Pick a little bouquet for your friend. Say "Good morning" to people you meet. Acknowledge the Life in them. You never know when it will be your last chance.
The headstone was neatly carved, and carried the name Johann Finch. As I put my staff in the earth, his son said, "Can you tell him that we miss him still?"
"You can tell him that yourself. He is here, and says 'Hello, Max, it's good to see you.'"
"He recognized me, after all these years! I was just a little boy when he died," said Max Finch. "How do I talk to him? Do I just talk to you? Can you see him? How's he look?"
"He looks like a man glad to see his son. Here, Max, sit down, close your eyes, and pretend that your father is sitting there back to back with you. He says 'What's new with you, Son?'"
"Dad, I finished my apprenticeship with the blacksmith, and now I can be paid for the wheel rims and tool-heads I make -- I want to buy a couple goats for my sisters next spring so they can make cheese and then they won't have to hire out as servants, and they'll each have a dowry and be able to get decent husbands and the girls and I are thinking we'll try to buy the field in back of the house and with them and their husbands we ought to be able to do pretty well ... " he chattered on and on, with his father's ghost interjecting words of encouragement now and then.
There were more people coming from the village. "Max," I said, "soon I'll have to help translate for the others."
Max looked stricken. "I just wish I could talk to him more."
"You can," I told him. "You can talk to him any time. You don't need a shaman for that."
"But I won't be able to hear him talk back."
"You're not hearing him now. I'm just telling you what he says. Right now he's saying that he loves you very much and that he's so proud of how well you've done. He says, 'Be of a good and honest heart, and bear your burdens peacefully.'"
"I'll try, Dad," said Max, his eyes brimming again.
I put my hand on Max's shoulder. "When you visit your father here and talk to him, now you know he'll be listening, and your heart will tell you what he'd likely say back to you."
Max thoughtfully furrowed his brows. "I bet right now he's wondering where Mum is."
"You're exactly right, Max," I answered him, and turned to await the older woman who had hoisted the hems of her skirts and was beginning to run toward us, laughing and crying at the same time.