The letter begins with a greeting, swiftly moves through to condolences: deepest, sincerest, most regretful. The wife, now a widow, is given a box, small. All that is left of her husband, all that could be saved. The locals, the animals, the environment; expeditions are a gruesome business at times. It is his, it is him, it is identifiable by the wedding ring he wore.
The widow takes the box home. She knew, her heart did, when he left, that he would not come back. She’s felt his ghost these past many weeks, haunting the house not yet in mourning. There are seeds in the cellar, overwintering. Spring will come soon. The box is curled in her hands like a chick in an egg, fist inside it clenched. She marks out a spot in the frozen fields under the next new moon as she recites the letter. She makes a promise, to make it not so.
The children, now orphans, are not given to know they’re orphans. She’s swallowed her grief, let it grow inside her like a new sibling for them. She’s made a promise, to make it not so. The ghost grows restless like a babe quickening in the womb, strains at the walls of the house, presses against the widow’s skin. It meets its opposite in the sorrow within her, establishes an uneasy truce, reaches a fragile equilibrium.
Spring comes, not fast enough. She plants the box, cracking hinges and unturning key in lock, soaking it in the hole she digs with water fresh-drawn from the well. Earth covers it by the shovelful, thudding on the wood, echoing into the hollow, sounding the wedding ring like a bell with bone for a clapper. She tills the soil, plants the seeds, waits.
Wheat and barley grow, shooting up fast to bear up under the weight of her promise. A knotted oak grows where she planted the box, thick and crooked. It leans against wind she can feel but which stirs no dust, bows under a weight she knows but can’t measure. The ghost climbs it, crawls into it like a grub, gestates in a gall.
On the last new moon she sees the branch snap under the weight of the gall, the weight of the ghost, the weight of the man. It hangs from green wood like a rope, drips sap like blood. She cuts the gall down, cuts it open, pries her husband out of it, leaves the lone broken-necked branch to twist. He stirs to life as she washes the thin sap from his skin, and the tree shrivels and blackens. He follows her out of the fields, past the pens, into the house. The wedding ring burns on his hand. The children greet their father.
The widow and her husband tend the fields, see to the harvest, raise the children. The widow recites the letter to the new moon once a year, makes her promise, renews her vows. The letter sits next to her heart, paper taking on the feel of skin, ink running like blood. The husband follows, always, makes a path of her footsteps. Where she walks, there is one set of prints. When people speak to him, he looks to her, repeats what she says with a clear firm voice. He caught some fever on the voyage, people say, whisper, pity.
When a stranger comes back to the town, to the village, to the farm, his face is ravaged, worn, wrinkled. He is missing one hand. He is late, late, far too late. The widow is not a widow after all, it seems. The stranger denounces his wife for taking up with another man. He falls mute when he sees his own ghost standing behind his wife, a man more himself than he is now. The people denounce his wife for her promise made beneath the new moon. The widow falls mute when she sees the gallows standing ready, the letter’s words beating in her heart instead of her mouth.
It’s done in haste, and regretted slowly, slowly, surely. The stranger’s children are almost grown now, the mother who nursed them hanged, the father who raised them vanished with their mother’s last breath. The stranger’s strength is spent, his skin is like paper, his blood like dust. The voyage ended in catastrophe, a blood-red ribbon unspooling over years and years and years, running past him now into the future.
The stranger’s children will not acknowledge him, claim him, have him. He lingers in his house like a ghost, its occupants deaf to his words, blind to his presence. He caught some fever on the voyage, people say, whisper, pity. Finally he gathers his things and makes to leave. On the road, in the darkness, alone, he hears footsteps. Behind him, in the distance, barely visible in the night, is the widow’s husband.
The stranger runs, and the widow’s husband keeps pace. The stranger stops, and the widow’s husband stands still. Dawn comes, and the stranger retraces his steps. There is only ever one set of tracks. When the stranger goes to the gallows, the widow is there, but she is deaf to his words, blind to his presence, heart hard as frozen earth. She walks into the field, recites the letter, makes a promise to make it not so. It is too late for regret, too late for reunion, too late, too late, forever now too late.
The stranger runs.
When night falls, the widow’s husband keeps pace. When the stranger falters, the widow’s husband falters. When the stranger fades, the widow’s husband fades.
There is only ever one set of tracks. The voyage ends in catastrophe. The letter moves swiftly through the condolences: deepest, sincerest, most regretful.
Under the new moon, the widow marks out a spot in the frozen fields. Under the new moon, she makes a promise, to make it not so. Under the new moon, a knotted oak grows green again.
T.R. North was born and raised in Florida, which has been scientifically demonstrated to ruin a person for any other state. Other works of short fiction can be found in Metaphorosis, PseudoPod, and the chapbook Of Witches and Wolves from Sword & Kettle Press. Follow @northonthegulf on Twitter for news.