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The night it all started was a dry one. The winds blew like a sigh from the south, carrying the dust past the windows stained with rain from past winters. It had to have been a dry night, because ghosts can't stand rain. They dissolve and dissipate into the fresh wet air. Not in dry air, though; they thrive in the dry air.
On this dry night, Rosnan lazed by the flickering fire, took sips from a cup of hot water, gazed into the black void outside the window; watching, wallowing, waiting for something to happen. But nothing ever did. He was in his thirty-fourth cycle in the world of the mortals – three quarters done with his journey – and already he tired of the never ending circles: day, night, summer, winter, back and forth and over again like the dog in the tales his mother used to tell him when he was little, that always forgot things and went around and around in in circles until it dropped dead. Rosnan was that dog, sniffing around the same trees and bushes and rocks, around and around, and it would never end until he left this world for the land of the gods. He recalled how, in the story, the dog whined about the weather, and whined about trees, and whined about the journey. He could almost hear the sad dog's whine now through the whistling wind, a string of twine between the mud huts.
Then, through the blurry window, Rosnan saw the muffled black shape of the dog stumbling closer. He took an absentminded sip of hot water, cupped his hand against the glass and squinted into the darkness.
The dog's bony shoulders were thrust up, mountains in an earthquake. Spit dangling from its saggy lips reflected the silvery moonlight like spider webs. As the drool fell, it left a zig-zag path behind the retched animal. Its glass eyes were speckled with the stars.
Rosnan's chair growled against the stone floor as he rose, put his cup by the window and nearly spilled the water. Tyuru held her skirt tossed a log into the dying fire and said, “Where are you going, Rosnan?”
“Draug is out again.”
Tyuru went to the window and peered out. “Why can't Gurth keep track of that dog of his? The stupid thing, always wandering away.”
Rosnan avoided looking her way. He opened the heavy door and stepped out into the night.
The shadows stood like dusky giants in the moonlight. The huts, in rows, loomed much taller than they did in the day. The black outline of the dog shivered in the darkness behind one hut, twenty steps away.
“Here, Draug,” Rosnan said softly. “Come here, dumb dog. You'll get lost.”
The figure shivered.
“It's not cold, Draug. What's wrong with you? Come over here.”
Draug had been deaf for three years, just like its master. Its limp ears had always hung loose against the sides of the droopy face, but now they hung loose and useless. Everyone still called the dog, though, when they wanted him to come. From denial, for Draug was a part of everyone's childhoods, or from forgetfulness, Rosnan was not sure, but even he clicked his tongue and beckoned with his finger and whispered, “Come on, Draug. Let's get you home.”
Just before Rosnan reached out to ensnare the old dog in his arms, he realized Draug's whining had stopped minutes ago. When he closed his arms around the dark figure, it escaped in a wisp of black dust, like ash, into the sky.
Rosnan hurried away, back the way he had come. The village was pitch black before him. The darkness enveloped him like a fog and smothered his calls. “Tyuru? Yanta? Sigil? Anyone?”
His feet moved faster. He held his outstretched arms before him. “This isn't funny,” he said. “Put the fire back on.”
Someone smashed into his shoulder, his cheekbone. It stung like a slap in the face. Rosnan swung his fist out, hitting the mud wall then losing his balance and falling back upon it. He leaned against the wall and held his breath, his eyes darting back and forth, straining in the dark. Nothing moved. Only the wind hissed on his bruised face, shoulder, rustling his clothes. He touched his face where he had run into the wall. He thought of the land of the gods, waiting for him to die so he could rest there for eternity. The wind continued to hiss. A cloud of dust wisped past, in a moment, like a blink, like a shout. And it was gone.
And the wind hissed like a ghost.
Rosnan fled to the communal hut and pushed open the heavy wooden door through which he had come so naïve, so unprepared, so long ago. Was it minutes already?
The door shut with a thick thud. Rosnan leaned over the crouched figure, tangled hair glistening in the pale light from the window.
“Why did the fire go out, Tyunu?” he said. “Where is everyone else?”
Tyunu did not look up at once. Something scraped, like claws against a stone floor.
She glared up from her crouch. “Oh, be quiet Rosnan,” she said. “Can't you see I'm trying to get the fire going again? Leave me alone.” She drew the flint like a knife again over the pile of wood in the fireplace, and again. The second time a spark appeared and then vanished like a dream. The third time another one leaped into existence and brought with it a string of sparks leaping after it onto the pile of wood. A flame flared on the sticks, throwing arrows of fire into the lit hearth.
“Give it a moment to grow.” Tyunu opened her palms to the tiny fire. “I thought I would never see this fire again.” Someone knelt next to Tyunu, opposite Rosnan across the fire. “Isn't that right, Sigil?” she said.
The wind hissed behind the door.
The fire was snuffed as if doused with water.
What Tyunu opened her mouth to say did not need to be said, and she realized that, and she closed her mouth. Besides the two of them, cold and tense and wary, the room was empty. The stone floor was suddenly like ice.
Tyunu gripped her skirt and rose to her bare feet. “I'm going to go check to see if Gurth is all right. You know how helpless he is without Draug.” Rosnan's knees were still pressed against the stone when the door closed behind her. The black dust of the shadow of the dog was still fresh in his memory as he dragged his finger through the ashes on the floor.
He was scared; he could admit that now. Scared of the dark figure next to Tyunu, the black dust of the dog, the hissing of the wind that was now so loud in his ears and outside the windows stained with the dried remains of rain. Scared, mostly, though, of what he did not know: what the shadow figures were, why they were here, and what they would do. In the ashes on the floor he saw nothing but the shallow indents where the shadow figure had knelt.
Was this what the realm of the gods was like, brimming with unknown creatures who disappeared in the wind like ashes? And was the land of mortals so bad, when it was not plagued by shadow figures—or at least, not usually?
Then suddenly Rosnan, with clenched fists and new strength in his heart, stood up and moved toward the door. Something stirred in the room, but Rosnan didn't allow more than a pause before he left the hut and made his way to the meeting hut a hundred and twenty-five steps away. The wind hissed like the rustling of trees. Rosnan walked, one foot in front of the other, over and over again, like the dog in the story. Or not like the dog, for Rosnan knew where he was going. He heard the voices already, of Yanta and Sigil and the others who were awake at this hour, the gravelly old man tone of Gurth, the annoyed grumble of Tyunu. He almost saw the fire in the big, tiled hearth of the meeting hut, piercing through the heavy darkness like an arrow, but he knew it was only his imagination; he still had a hundred steps to go.
He remembered his mother, sitting on her wooden stool, telling him that story, and to Rosnan as he sauntered through the sleeping village the dog seemed silly, going around in circles like that. The black dust floated past his knees, but no higher, and he kicked it away.
It finally departed when he reached the door. He did not even give it an acknowledging farewell wave when he opened the door and entered the fire-lit hut, filled with people who sat by the fire and talked in careless voices.
As he shut the door to the night, he left the ghosts far behind him on his long journey onward. The new rain began to fall.