Song of the Departed by Kylie Burnham

It was not an unfamiliar experience.

Countless times, a chilling sensation drug Marion from the soothing embrace of slumber, and they awakened to a ghostly, faded world. They stood now in that mirror reality, in the woods behind their family home. The trees they’d explored as a child stretched skyward like desperate, reaching hands, the vivid browns of their trunks faded to a muted grey. Their roots twisted into the ground below, extending outward like tangled, blackish veins. The greyish quality of the world extended into the soft grass beneath Marion’s feet. With the air around them cold and still, the woods felt like an ancient, long dead being. And the blackened sky bore down upon them, as if anticipating the world’s revival and eagerly waiting to stamp it out.

This was all so familiar to Marion. So familiar, and yet… so very different.

This reality had always taken on a dream-like quality, as if a veil encompassed Marion’s consciousness. Their body would feel weightless, nearly numb, as though they were not fully present on that plane. This feeling would extend to their surroundings. They could see the world around them, but it seemed to lack presence. Often times, as they wandered this world, a fear lingered that, should they touch anything, it would all cease to be, wiped from time and space without a trace.

Now, though… now it felt real. Scarily so. Marion was hyperaware of their own existence. They felt the steadily growing pace of their heart as it pounded urgently in their chest and felt the rushing of their pulse beneath their skin. Every pass of warm breath from their lips fanned fog into their face, and they felt the wisps caress their lightly freckled cheeks. The cold air around them sank into their bones, undeterred by the brown, fur-lined leather jacket that clung loosely to their lithe frame. Marion was there, and so were the woods before them. If they reached out, Marion was certain they would feel rough bark grazing their palm and soft, slightly crinkly blades of grass beneath their fingers. The veil was gone.

Marion was also struck by how empty this world was. In the past, there had always been someone. Not always immediately, but eventually. They would appear to Marion, sometimes close by, sometimes in the distance. Sometimes not at all, though Marion could always feel them there: the departed. Interactions varied. Marion had spoken to many. Sometimes the departed had something to say, something they never could, and Marion would take in these words, holding them close to their heart. Other times there was no direction to the conversation. The departed simply wanted to speak and be heard, to interact with someone, anyone, to confirm that even though they were gone, they were still here. And Marion was their ear to listen, their shoulder to lean on until, at last, they were ready to move on. 

Marion had, on a few occasions, been met with hostility. It came both indirectly—in an overpowering negative energy that all but suffocated them, oozing into their very soul like a noxious oil—and directly—in slapping, punching, clawing, biting, screaming and crying until the air was ringing and their throats were raw. This was jarring at first, but Marion had learned to adapt. Learned to let the vibes wash over them, drench them completely, but then wash away. Learned to endure the blows, to dodge and block what they could and withstand the rest until, shaking and panting with exertion, the departed were spent. And then the hostility would fade, and so would they. And sometimes the departed wanted nothing more than another presence. Marion would stand before them or sit with them in silence until, with a sigh of what Marion had always imagined to be relief, the departed disappeared.

Marion saw nobody in this place. They felt no presence besides their own. And an unbearable loneliness ensnared their heart, bringing with it a suffocating fear as Marion realized that, for the first time, they were alone in this nightmare.

A nightmare that they should not have been having, for Marion was quite positive that they were not asleep.

They did not remember how they got here, but they remember where they were before. Just as the sun had reached its highest point, Marion’s mother had enlisted them to accompany Roselia, their elder sister of three years, into town to do some shopping. Though Marion had been sure to raise a fuss over the matter (purely to see the annoyance blazing in their sister’s icy blue eyes), they were actually excited to visit the town, eagerly throwing on a winter outfit and tousling their curly black locks until they were somewhat presentable. Then, linking arms with their sister (who was sure to feign inconvenience at the “childish” action), they had made the near hour-long trek from their family’s cottage into the town proper. The duo had split once there, each taking a portion of the shopping list and agreeing to meet back at the town entrance after a couple hours. 

This is where Marion had been, wandering the open-air market of the small town, basking in the mingling of rich, earthy scents with those of sweet fruits, herbs, and citrus. One moment found Marion pausing beside a cart laden with healing herbal blends, checking the folded paper in their hand to see what they next needed to purchase. The next found them in this muted world, where only the dreaming and dead should dwell.

Am I dead?

The thought had occurred to them, but… no. No, they couldn’t be. Their heart still beat. Their blood still flowed. They were still breathing. They didn’t feel dead. They couldn’t be dead. 

Marion sighed, only to stiffen as the sound carried throughout their surroundings. Maybe it was the fear and confusion fraying their nerves, but disturbing the odd peace of this world felt sacrilegious, to the point where they almost expected something to slink down from the inky sky and smite them where they stood.

  No sound, then, Marion decided, pursing their lips. Definitely no sound.

Their next decision was to move. It was apparent that so long as they remained where they stood, nothing would change. Glancing behind them, in the direction of where their house would be, Marion was met with a thick wall of fog mere inches from their face. Billowing clouds were packed tight together, concealing whatever was behind them in a silvery veil that stretched both upward and outward indefinitely. Cautiously, Marion blew a thin stream of air into the wall. Aside from the regular swirling of the vapors, there was no response. Labeling that route a lost cause, they turned to face the woods before them once more.

It seems like that’s the only way, they reasoned with themself, taking one uncertain step forward, then another. I know these woods like the back of my hand. I’ll be fine. Maybe there’s something here I need to find.

Marion cautiously descended into the woods. Their progress was slow, steady, and uneventful (a fact which they could neither label as good nor bad). As they traveled, dread bloomed in their stomach. It grew with every step, until every bone in Marion’s body was screaming “Something is wrong.”

Then the singing began.

It was soft at first, but immediately noticeable; a detached voice carried a single solemn note that pierced the still air. This note was followed by another, then another, until a haunting refrain reverberated throughout the entirety of the woods, building to a crescendo the further it progressed.

The song triggered something in Marion. It was as if their very being had been halved. A part of them—something deep within, something unknown and primal—cried out in terror. As the song drew near, this primeval side desperately begged to flee. Anxiety pumped adrenaline through Marion’s veins in response, until every inch of them quivered.  But there was another part, deeper still, that was drawn to the melancholic tune. When fear urged them to flee, it turned their limbs to lead, immobilizing them as they waited with bated breath for the anonymous songstress to appear. The song reached its peak; a high, wailing note filled the air, shaking the bare branches of the trees above before cutting off suddenly, leaving a painful ringing in its wake. As the ringing slowly faded, there was a beat of silence.

Then the entity emerged.

A thin figure slowly rose from among the trees: a skeletal figure that towered above the woods. Bleached bones stood in stark contrast against the muted world. A silky black shawl was hung over the skull, coming down to drape loosely over the shoulders. Like liquid smoke, it billowed behind the figure, caught in an invisible breeze. Large, clear crystals hung off the trim of the shawl, creating melodic tinkling as they bounced against bones. Thick black cords wrapped around the skeletal forearms, mimicking bracelets. They carried the same large crystals. Similar ornamentation donned the neck and chest region, weaved among the bones. A skirt of that silky, billowing fabric clung loosely to exposed hip bones, swirling about as it disappeared into the forest below. As the fabric moved, the shifting creases and folds produced gaunt silhouettes caught in the thralls of agony. As quickly as these forms emerged, they were swept away, replaced by equally tortured bodies. As Marion’s eyes skirted along the massive figure, they noticed thin rivulets of black liquid flowing along bones, leaving vein-like trails in their wake. It leaked from empty eye sockets, slid along the jaw, and ran from the ribs. As far as Marion could tell, there was no external source for this strange liquid. It was as if it came from within the skeleton itself.

The empty gaze of the entity was focused dead ahead, staring without seeing. It seemingly had not noticed Marion beneath it. As they watched, the massive jaw dropped, and a single note—loaded with the agony of infinite lifetimes—pierced the air. The note bore with it a terrible suffering. Unbearable pain encompassed Marion, like millions of needles striking every nerve in their body. In the same instant, devastation gripped their heart, as if all they’d ever known and loved had been destroyed before their eyes. Overwhelmed, Marion dropped to their knees. Tears flooded their eyes as their ears rang, and they brought quivering fingers to grasp at their hair as they choked on air, their throat contracting erratically. 

As they quivered on the forest floor, their nerves going haywire, Marion realized that silence had befallen their surroundings once more. They also became acutely aware of the long, dark shadow hanging over them. That primal instinct cried out again, ordering them not to look, not to move, not to breath. But it was silenced as a stronger presence compelled Marion to lift their gaze skyward. Slow and unsteady, like a puppet on strings being led by a novice puppeteer, Marion lifted their head.

The entity was bent at an angle, its empty gaze focused on the small human form beneath it. Once its gaze met their own, Marion couldn’t look away. Their tense limbs went lax, their pulse slowed, their breathing stopped. It was as if their body was no longer their own. Marion could only watch, eager and afraid, as that massive jaw opened.

Please, came the thought—a thought which Marion could not claim as their own. Tell me what you need to say.

“Kid, are you okay?”

The entity was gone. The woods were gone, replaced by a dirt road. A cold breeze ruffled Marion’s hair as warm sun caressed their cheek. They almost lost their balance, toppling to the side, but wrinkled hands caught and steadied them.

When did I stand back up?

“Whoa there, kiddo. Easy does it. Do you need to sit down?”

Marion was back in the market. Back in the market, with the sun where it had been before. They were in the market, standing beside the cart that sold herbal blends, with the elderly owner’s hands steadying them. It was as if they’d never moved.

I never moved.

“Kid, did you hear me? You were zoning out for a minute there. Do you have someone with you that I can bring you to?”

Marion focused their gaze on the elderly man. Looking at him provoked a sudden, irrational fear, and they felt sick. They could feel their heart beginning to speed up, feel their breaths becoming short, and they anxiously tore away from him, giving a curt, “No, I’m alright. I can find her myself.”

Ignoring the owner’s concerned gaze, Marion set off at a brisk pace, headed in the direction they knew Roselia had gone. They needed to get home. Whatever had just happened was bad. Marion was sure of this much, even if they weren’t sure why. If anyone would know what this meant, it would be their mother. She was no stranger to the mirrored realm, nor to the ethereal creatures that lurked beyond the land of the living. Marion knew their mother would be able to make sense of the mess. She had to. 

So they sought out their sister, ignoring the insistent buzzing at the base of their skull, the faint song still ringing in their ears, and the invisible shadow that now seemed to tower over the small town, waiting.

Waiting to say what it needed to say.

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