The entire day had been grey. Liza had believed there would be no moon tonight, but just in time, just as the sun settled onto the horizon like a ripe cloudberry and she thought it would squish and spill flaming juice all along the hills and rooftops silhouetted black behind, the sky had decided to clear. So now the moon was full, only scattered wisps of cloud remaining to occasionally scud across its face and dim its light.
Night, of course, was when the graveyard was most active. (And the nature preserve, come to think of it. All those tapeta lucida gleaming between the tree trunks.) It was always the time when most conversation took place, when the shy or tired old ghosts could be persuaded to step out of their graves into the cold of the air, possibly to share a tale or two of their lives long, long ago.
This night, however, was special. Special in the mortal world as well - she had heard cars passing for the entire evening, carrying chattering families away, and groups of young adults walking with their heels clip-clopping like horses and their coats drawn tightly about them. For today was the first Saturday after the first full moon after the first day of spring, and that meant tomorrow, the world would be celebrating Easter. They would have candies and cakes and hams, make feasts and celebrations to the new spring and to their traditions.
Some of the other ghosts celebrated Easter too, up there in the true and holy graveyard. Singing their old songs, swapping stories of traditions across the centuries. Mocking each others’ light-heartedly, and reminiscing about friends and family with whom it had been shared.
But the unhallowed had their own traditions too, for this Saturday. That they too had built, out of whatever they remembered from their own lives, what the few of them had read about Easter and the others had remembered from the few rituals they had participated in in their lives. From whatever had not washed away into the marsh over the centuries.
When she stepped out from under the nettles the moon had lifted itself a few hands higher, and the world was streaked with jet-black and its pale light. Only the deep blue of the sky still held any colour.
She heard singing, distantly. The sound of organ and of trumpet, and of many congregations of people joining their voices in celebration, not quite in tune and not quite in unison but on a song where that didn’t seem to matter much. It would be nice, she thought, to go down to the town and see, and listen closer. But she had her own traditions, and they could not be laid aside for such fancy.
Always, from year to year, she half-forgot the way to the reunion tree, and had to tramp around for a bit between the tall trunks and decomposing leaves before she could find it again. Where forest faded to marshy grass the elder stood apart a few paces from any nearer trees, on a small rise; it was a small tree itself, to be honest, although well-formed and with sturdy branches. Leaf buds were only beginning to swell on the tips of its branches, and suckers (“adventitious”, she had heard a scientist call such growths once when she had been listening in to some survey he had been doing in the preserve’s forest) equally undeveloped in the cracks of its bark.
From the lowest branch dangled a single strand of twine, fraying at the end. She didn’t know what it was made of, but it must have been one of those new plastics they used everywhere now. The twine she had known would have rotted to pieces in as many years. And hammered into the bark, at around half the height of an adult man, surrounded by now with a red stain of rust, was a large iron nail.
Once, the Danse Macabre had fallen on the night of Easter. It had been special, that year; well, it was always special, but that year it had been especially special, with the mortal dancers dressed up in their best clothing, their fancy Easter hats and new shoes, soft lavenders and fresh greens under the moon.
Liza had danced the entire night away in that golden light, and only when she had run home to the graveyard, still singing the echoes of that music, only once she had reached again her little nettle-covered grave down in the late March muck had she noticed the blood on her wrists. The sun had only just been rising, bleaching the sky from navy to lavender to white, and so as Liza had stood there, startled, staring down at her hands, she had got to watch it change from black to red, a red richer than rubies, than garnet, than carnelian. (She didn’t know any other red gemstones.)
It hadn’t been hers. It had washed off easy, with the lick of a thumb and a minimum of rubbing, to leave behind her arms pale and unmarked beneath. And she had licked and rubbed and licked and wiped them on the nettle leaves, which would not prick a ghost, and tried to think back to who it was that she had danced with.
She had held the hands of young men and old, of wives and maidens and laughing children, and they had all been burning warm with the rush of blood beneath the skin, all living hands, and yet who had been living who had danced despite that blood draining, who would not, before the dance had started, have hurried home to tend their injuries?
But try as she might, she hadn’t been able to place any face. No name. Only a blaze of joy that had cut her right down to the quick, enough to convince her, for a moment, that the blood was hers and she had been returned, in that fire, for that moment, to life.
Liza Hempstock, the witch, knelt down at the foot of the tree and put her hand over the iron. Above her, the branches were still bare and black against the grey of the moonlit night. And slowly, in ones and twos, in dribs and drabs, the rest stepped out of the trees and marsh to gather around. Some knelt, as she had. Some remained standing. A few sat in the grass. She could not say how long the gathering took, whether fifteen minutes or hours for everyone to arrive, for time seemed suspended, on Saturday’s night, the gleaming disc of the moon hovering above like it would never set. But eventually, they did: all the vagabonds, the undesirables, all the cutpurses, thieves and murderers. The changelings and hustlers, adulterers, liars and livestock-rustlers. The insurrectionists. All the pagans, the destitute, the unnamed and unclaimed. All the traitors. All the suicides. All the heretics.
No-one remembered them. No-one wanted to. But they remembered themselves.
And the song still drifted faintly up from the town below, filtered as it was through wooden walls and the miles of air. - he and none other, born in -
The last unhallowed ghost to come was a young man, whose name or crime Liza did not know, who wended his way through the translucent crowd and settled down in the damp-straw grass, folding his legs neatly. Down in the town, the music ended in one last triumphant organ chord and then faded away. Within the churches and chapels the congregations would be beating their breasts. They would be bowing their heads at the intonation let us pray.
Have mercy, the ghosts of the Potter’s Field beseeched. Each prayer was its owner’s own, and none were synchronous, so as they were spoken they overlapped and merged, a swarm around the reunion tree lifting up to the sky.
Those who need it shall never ask. So we ask in their name. Grant peace, to those who have none. Let no-one be turned away, as we were turned away. For those who are not yet dead - those who are dead and unburied, or not buried right - the lost, the lonely, trapped by anger - fear - hate - for the criminals and vagabonds of this world, for the thieves and murderers. Traitors and suicides and heretics, have mercy. Let there be healing, before and after death. Don’t let it be the end. Don’t make it the end. Mercy - redemption - love -
For they were the dead of the Potter’s Field, and yet it was even for them that this night was open. There was no hope, in the unholy field, but on the Saturday night anything could happen, a night when tears were meant to be shed and boundaries meant to be overstepped and those two things were no longer antithetical but perfectly together, balanced and blended in the right measures.
Some wept, for the pain of their lives, and some for the pain of their deaths. Some spoke their prayers with their faces drawn and hands clenched in fury. Some spread their arms in ecstasy. Some laughed.
And above it all, there was the moon, trapped in the branches and yet undimmed, and everything - grass and branches, stone and ghost - turned, in its light, to liquid silver.