“Do you know any ghost stories, my dear girl?”
Lyn floated, uncertain, as though she’d become part of the matrix of dust and light suspended above the three of them.
“Pardon?” she said, her voice far away and the tea mug heavy in her hands.
“Oh, stop it, Ladon, you’ll frighten her!”
Her world came back into focus, like a flash of lightning had startled her out of a dream.
Ladon and Opal. Of course she’d known their names. Everyone did. And Opal, with her round face and the animal brightness glittering in her small eyes, talked to her venerable husband like there was nothing she’d like better than for him to be frightening. For this visitor to be frightened.
Lyn resolved to betray as little of her unease as possible. She took another obedient sip from her cup and then set it down on the table.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Autricht,” she said, putting the syllables of his name out on the air carefully, as though she had to remind them that she knew who they were. Or remind herself. “I’m not sure what you’re asking me. I’m a little old for that kind of thing, now, and Marm June—’
He chuckled a low, hoarse sound that reminded Lyn of the creaking of great, ancient trees. “One thing you would come to realize about aging is that the older you get, the more of your stories are ghost stories. Juna knows.”
Juna. That name unsettled her. She glanced to Opal, as though she might try again to intervene, but received no consolation.
“Oh.” She looked down, unable to hold Ladon’s steady, hungry gaze. “Is there… something I’m meant to know, then?”
He gave a sharper bark of a laugh and rapped his bony knuckle on the table so hard she winced in sympathy. “There is so much you are meant to know. That’s one point on which your Marm,” the word twisted awkwardly out of his mouth, distorted, “and I disagree, which is why we find ourselves here today.
Lyn felt chastened, like she’d shirked a lesson, though she couldn’t think what about.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’ve… always done what she asked…”
“Yes,” he sneered.
A waver of protectiveness pulsed within her. Marn June was a good woman. A hard woman, maybe, and not exactly a mother to her, but she ensured that Lyn was warm, fed, well, and capable. Whether or not the Autricht couple had ‘made a place for her’ in the village, Lyn had learned everything she knew from Marm June.
Ladon reached out to pat Lyn’s hand and she jerked away from him before she could stop the rudeness of the gesture.
“Now, my dear, I don’t mean any ill will toward dear old Juna, only that your education has been lacking.”
Lyn was sure he didn’t mean her letters and sums, or the slow increase in the gravity of her responsibilities at the bakery. She didn’t like this feeling that the conversation was rolling along without her as she tried to find his meaning and choose her words with care.
After a moment of staring hard at her, a small smile hooked into the corner of his mouth, Ladon swept upward with improbable momentum. He took a few thumping steps toward a narrow door at the back of the parlour, then stopped, swaying.
“Get up, girl,” he snarled.
Lyn scrambled to her feet and followed him. They came out onto a narrow path cut through the overgrowth of a kitchen garden long gone to seed. Ladon took a gnarled stick from beside the sloping back stair and limped along, trailing Lyn behind for the track was too narrow for her to walk alongside.
“Do you know that I have not always been in this place?” he said, his voice taking on a cavernous, unnatural resonance.
“Indeed. Of course.” He sighed in disappointment. “Well, it’s true. I lived a lifetime in that place. Or, for you, several lifetimes. But after a while, everyone longs for… change.”
She watched his stooped shoulders, his knuckles jutting against his thin skin like the white burls of a dead tree. Marm June favored a litany of reasons why she should not long for change. The village and the land provided for them and they—Lyn most of all—should be grateful.
As they neared the back of the garden, the sound of running water brushed her ear. An uneasy, restless sound, maybe calling up the memory of being abandoned here, cold and starving, from its burial place in her subconscious.
“Here we are,” Ladon said, lurching around a hook in the path. He set himself down like an awkward bundle of sticks on a small bench pressed back into the weeds. Under his sharp glare, Lyn took a seat beside him, closer than she liked because of the size of the bench.
Ladon’s bristling eyebrows came together, his eyes going soft and rheumy like he’d forgotten where they were or why.
Before them, a little brook cut through the tangle of brittle saplings. On the other side, Lyn realized that what she’d first taken for a collection of dead wood bleached white by harsh winters and the bare sunlight was actually a large skeleton. Cow? Horse? The ivory mass of its skull was half sunk in the mud beneath the far bank, and its leg bones were scattered all akimbo, but the knotted spine and cavernous space framed by its ribs were still ghoulishly complete. Sitting there across from this portrait of death, she couldn’t help but imagine its flesh and viscera rotting into the water that then went on to sink into the earth, pour into the river, fill their wells. She supposed that a great many dead things must find themselves in rivers and streams, but sitting here a stone’s throw from the results set a cold feeling among her guts.
“”Yes,” he said hazily. “There’s so much you should have known, by this point. Such a pity. Such a waste.”
Lyn cleared her throat to remind him that she was still there. “About what, sir?”
His eyes snapped down to her, beast bright. “The ending of things,” he growled.
“Like that,” she said, still looking at the remains across the creek.
Ladon scrutinized her in the corner of her eye, then gave up when she wouldn’t turn to him, and followed her gaze to the dead animal.
“Yes. Poor, stupid beast. Bent to drink and the bank caved in. Its neck snapped.” The way he enunciated the consonants in those final words reminded her of an animal snapping its teeth.
“I know things die, Mr. Autricht.”
“You believe that. But you have no idea where they go.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“Oh, my dear, of course because Opal and I were never blessed with a little child of our own,” he said, his voice adopting a saccharine drawl. “So when a poor unfortunate washed up on our proverbial doorstep, we knew we must intercede. Before she could be taken back to the city and lost forever.”
She frowned. She’d meant here, to this bench, to the muddy stream, but this was maybe the first time she’d heard anything about where she’d come from.
“Back… to the city? Do I come from the city?”
“You don’t come from here,” he said with a baiting grin.
Lyn took it, even though she could see the hook glittering through. “Is that where my mother lived? Did you know her?”
“Your mother died.” he said, holding her eyes and still smiling his awful smile. “In the river.” He lifted one hand off his cane and sept it toward the stream, and the bones. “She meant to take you with her, but you climbed out, by some small mercy. A miracle.”