We sit vigil by the fresh grave, waiting for my brother’s ghost for three nights and three days. The days are warm, but still short, and the nights are cold and long. Spots of snow still cling where the shade protects them.
When my brother finally appears, his eyes are empty, and he doesn’t respond to our voices.
“His spirit will heal,” my mother says. “It will just take time.”
Jehim, my intended, squeezes my hand. The rest of my family, living and dead, nod and mutter agreement. My brother has all the time in the world, now that he is a ghost.
My scrapes and bruises from the fight have healed, but the sick, angry feeling in my stomach has only grown with the passing days. I want vengeance. I want to crush the men who killed my brother. I want to hurt them so badly that it takes their ghosts centuries to recover.
“I am going to go to the spirit cave tomorrow,” I announce. Something that I can’t recognize flickers across my brother’s face. I storm away before anyone can object, and I feign sleep when my mother follows me home.
I rise at dawn, hoping to leave quickly and avoid talking about my decision. But my mother is already hovering over the breakfast fire, her hands fluttering like trapped birds. My father’s ghost stands behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. She hands me a bun filled with spiced rabbit, and says, “We love you. Please don’t do this, Narhana.”
I kiss her on the cheek, and I eat the bun as I take the path into the mountains.
The day is fine and clear, the air soft and filled with gentle sounds–birdsong, the breeze through the grass, the slow burble of the river. The rest of our family ghosts line the path that leads to the road. I ignore their frowns, but I walk quickly, not enjoying the intensity of their gaze.
I turn west when I reach the road, and I follow my shadow up into the mountains.
The sun is almost directly overhead when I reach the sacred spring. A ghost, one so old that her edges blur, regards me from the edge of the spring. “What brings you here, child?” she asks, her voice as gentle as the breeze through fresh spring leaves.
“I seek the spirit cave.” My voice is steady as I give the ritual response.
The ghost nods once and steps aside. “Once you are purified, you may walk the path to the cave of spirits. You must leave all of your possessions, though you are permitted to carry a stone to weight your steps.”
I strip and fold my clothing into a careful pile, then I heft a large, rounded stone to keep from floating across the pool. It takes both hands to hold it.
The steps that lead down to the water are cold and smooth beneath my bare feet. The water is glacier-cold, but I refuse to hesitate as I walk forward, one step at a time.
I almost cry out when the water hits my belly. My toes ache, and I can hardly feel the step beneath them. The water reaches my shoulders, then my chin. I take a deep breath and keep my eyes open as I continue forward.
The water stings, and the world swims around me. The cold seeps through my skin, settles into my bones, and I ache with it.
I’m grateful for the stone’s weight as I step down to the bottom, then start to climb up the steps on the other side.
My head breaks the surface, and I take a sobbing breath.
My grandmother’s ghost sits on a rock beside the spring. I am not surprised to see her. It’s only sensible that she is my family’s chosen representative. Their last hope of talking me out of my decision.
I reach the top of the steps, and drop my stone from shaking hands. I shudder from the cold and think longingly of the spring sunshine. But I stop before my grandmother, arms pulled tight to my body, naked and shivering.
“I understand why you want this,” my grandmother says. “But I also understand the cost.” Unshed tears glimmer in her eyes, and guilt twists in my belly. “Have you truly thought about what you will lose?”
“I choose to focus on what I’ll gain,” I say, tucking my freezing hands into my arm pits.
She nods. “You will have power. You will be able to avenge your brother.” Her hands tense into fists, then relax. “You would be able to protect our family.”
“If you understand, then why are you here to stop me?”
“Because I don’t think you’ve considered the costs.”
I shrug. “My spirit will be consumed, and when I die, I will vanish instead of becoming a ghost.” Ghosts are trapped to watch the world change around them, while they are frozen forever. I do not long to become one.
“But think of your life before then. Do you think Jehim will still want to marry you if you are sprit bound? Will he want to have children with you, knowing that you won’t be able to watch your grandchildren together after death? Knowing that eventually, you will vanish forever and he’ll be left alone?”
Jehim is a constant in my life. Like my parents. Or my brother. Our future has always seem set, immutable.
To lose him, too. It is unthinkable.
My grandmother sees my hesitation. “Your brother will recover. He isn’t gone.”
But his future is. There will be no wife for him. No children. Maybe Jehim will leave me. Maybe he won’t. I can’t control his actions. But I can control my own.
“My decision stands.”
My grandmother inclines her head. “Very well.” Her fingertips, feather light and ice cold, brush against my cheek. “Then you will need the key.”
“It is hidden in the pool.”
I am still cold, still shivering. My body still aches. I look back, at the water’s still surface. I don’t see a key. Still, I wade back in, one slow step at a time.
I pause on the third step. I can’t feel my feet at all, and I’ve stopped shivering.
The first ghost said nothing about a key.
Because there is no key. Only death in this pool, and then an eternity as a ghost. With enough time to forgive my grandmother for her lie.
I turn back toward the spirit cave and storm past my grandmother, too angry to look at her. She calls out to me, but I will no longer listen to her words.
The path is steep and rocky and my numb feet are clumsy. I stumble, right myself, stumble again. Blood drips from my elbow, my palm, my knees.
But I keep climbing, focusing on each step as it comes. Warmth gradually spreads through my muscles, but nothing touches the cold anger in my heart.
I am inside the spirit cave before I even notice it. The rocky ground gives way to sand, and I sag to the floor.
A tiger, his stripes night-dark against fur the color of moonlight, walks out of the shadows. His tail lashes back and forth as he approaches.
I am too tired to speak. I simply crawl forward and rest my forehead against his. His fur is warm, and when he flops onto his side, I curl up against him.
He has consumed a thousand thousand spirits, stripping out what they were in life and adding their strength to his own.
I offer him mine, and he takes it. Our spirits combine as his warmth seeps into my chilled body.
His strength is mine now, till my body fails. Till I die and become one more bit of power at his disposal.
He licks my wounds, his tongue dry and raspy and painful, but my wounds heal. I am no longer cold.
I do not know how long I stay curled against him, but eventually I roll to my feet.
I fashion myself clothing, weaving shadows and rocks into a dress that matches the color of his stripes.
I press my forehead to his again, then on impulse kiss his wet nose.
Even with my new power, I can’t destroy my grandmother’s ghost. But I could do her harm that would take lifetimes to recover. I can rip the men who killed my brother into a million tiny pieces with a thought. Instead, I continue up the mountain, past the spirit cave, to the icy peak. The cold can no longer touch me, and I sit and stare at the stars till the sun rises.
It is the first day of my new life.
My grandmother’s ghost appears beside me. “I didn’t want to lose you. Now, when you die, you’ll be gone.”
“No,” I say. “Now, when I die, I’ll become part of something greater than myself. And I think that is better.”
Soon, I will decide what to do to the men who killed my brother. But for now, I take my grandmother’s hand, because I can. And I forgive her, because I can do that, too. “Come on, let’s go home.”