All Stories, General Fiction

The First Symptom is Death (Part I) by Leila Allison


“Attribute neither the magnificent nor the malign to the mysterious mind of a magic god as an excuse to stop thinking about what has happened.”–Czsminoothe, circa 1800 b.c.e.


“You will remember everything.”–Eternity


It’s three o’clock in the morning, and a passing cloud is hooked by the lower horn of the crescent moon. As the body of cloud continues to move away, a stream of moonlit mist extends from the cloud to where it is caught on the moon. The moon unravels the cloud into a long silver thread, from which the timeless hand of Keeper weaves a dream.

Lewis Coughland’s ghost gathers-to  high in the great oak tree inside Charleston’s New Town Cemetery. It takes energy and will for Lewis to do this, but he feels that it is worth the effort because he has something to say. Another lost soul has snuck into the graveyard and currently lies bundled against the cold November night in a sleeping bag at the foot of the oak. Lewis doesn’t know anything about the shape in the sleeping bag other than he or she is a person; and the person is asleep, thus open to receive his tale.

Lewis comes down from the tree and “sits” beside the sleeping wanderer. And in a voice which can only be heard by the subconscious mind, he tells a strange story.

“Hello, my name is Lewis, and I’m the ‘graveyard ghost’ that some people have claimed to see lately. I hope that somebody out there will think of a better title for me; graveyard ghost is awfully generic. Maybe you recognize my face in your mind, for my life-path often led me to sleeping bags in public places.

“I died at the foot of this tree a few months back. Like you, I had snuck inside late at night. For the record, I died of a heroin overdose, but that’s neither here nor there. What was here and there was the sudden appearance of the Dow Lady, as I lay dying. Until the twenty-third of last month nearly everyone from around here had heard of the Dow Lady. Her Spirit  was said to walk the cemetery grounds for years and years. Only I remember her now. Still, no longer is isn’t the same as never was. The Dow Lady’s name was Emma Wick. Emma appeared, kissed me and said, ‘You will remember everything.’”

Lewis laughs then sighs. “I don’t know if you can be scared in your present state, but if you are frightened, don’t be. Nothing bad is going to happen to you, I’ve only come to tell my story. Hey, there’s even a chance that you might gain something from hearing me out–something more than just a strange dream.

Lewis notes the gray sleeping bag’s surface rippling in the stiff wind. It reminds him of the  dappled waters of Philo Bay, which in turn reminds him of a day of more than a hundred years back when he had entered Emma’s mind as she stood on the deck of a boat entering the bay.

“I loved Emma, but she’s gone, and she no longer remembers everything,” Lewis says softly. “I’d never believed in romantic love until I found her. I’d thought that that kind of love was the sentimentalization of lust, and that it wore off with the decline of sex. I was wrong.

“It turns out that I’m wrong about a lot of things. Which makes me human–sometimes more, often less–guess that goes for everybody.

“In reality, I am not dead. My body is for certain, but my mind lives on, as it will until I have been here a sum of days equal to the amount that my body had lived. This was true about Emma as well. Altogether, she lived a hundred-forty-eight years.I have no way of knowing if she’s all the way dead, nowadays.

“Keeper–not human, was responsible for Emma’s afterlife as well as mine. Emma died in the cemetery in 1943, and as I told you earlier, I did the same about four months ago. We are the only people to die here. By doing so we were absorbed by Keeper.

“I can’t tell you what Keeper is because I don’t know, nobody does–except for maybe the ancient Spirit of Czminoothe, but ‘Kee-Zee’s’ story will have to wait for a few moments.  I do know that Keeper is of the Earth, and that this tree, which really isn’t a tree, in the natural sense, is her surface familiar. Keeper goes to special pains to remind everyone that she isn’t god or some kind of magic being. Keeper actually has her limitations, but I know of none within her small sphere, which extends roughly an eighth of a mile from here at the foci. I admit that it’s sexist of me to call Keeper female without knowing one way or the other; it just seems to me that a guy wouldn’t have the balls to pull the shit she does. But that too is neither here nor there.

“Whatever Keeper may be, she is timeless and has been here ever since there has been this point in spacetime to be at. In her viewpoint, the founding of this cemetery in 1892 happened five seconds ago. But since New Town lies in her sphere, Keeper is somehow able to hold the entire life story of every person buried here her in her mind–the Legends. The Legends, however, aren’t ghosts, only their lives are present, not them. I think that this has everything to do with them dying elsewhere, the way normal people do.

“I dip the Legends. I become a Legend at sunrise and return to my own mind at sunset. Dipping is a subjective experience–only on one special occasion had I been self aware in a Legend. Imagine the possibilities, for instance I am a man who knows what it is to be a woman having sex with a man and then giving birth without anesthesia.

“In there,” Lewis says as he makes a sweeping gesture at the surrounding tombstones, “are experiences large and small. Oh, there are a few big ticket items, such as committing murder and being the victim, and one of the Legends had pitched major league baseball–through him I recently threw a shutout in Yankee Stadium, in 1933. I struck Babe Ruth out, twice–which was an awesome thing to feel. But mostly, Keeper is interested in the subtle, quiet joys and despairs. I’m learning to walk the world in more than just the other guy’s shoes.”

Lewis stops speaking. The person in the bag has shifted in his or her sleep. A complicated expression enters his face, one which he could never had projected in life because he had lacked the necessary ingredients. There’s a combination of pain and satisfaction in his eyes; and something expansive that may, in time, grow into wisdom.

“Emma and I had thought that Keeper used us like human Rosetta stones, by which Keeper gained insight into human beings. I now know that we were wrong. What I now think had happened to Emma, and is now happening to me, is a self improvement program–if you will forgive a snarky analogy. You see, the Emma I knew had been dipping the Legends for almost seventy-five years when I joined her. She was wise and kind and generous and the finest human being I will ever know. And she loved me. Me. But when Keeper had me dip her Legend on the day she went away, I first became a vengeful and bitter woman endlessly in sorrow due to the death of her six-year-old daughter, Mary. Emma blamed her alcoholic husband, Robert,  for Mary’s death because he had insisted on dragging his wife and child away from England and into the American frontier. She-slash-I murdered and got away with killing Robert after he had suffered an accident the year following Mary’s death.

“Then Keeper sent me to Emma four years before Mary’s death; there I found a nascent version of the Emma I knew, one who already had serious doubts about her marriage, one who had arrived just one step away from leaving Robert and then return to London with Mary. Which she didn’t do her first time around, but easily could have because she came from a family that had money and disdain for her husband.

“At Emma’s critical moment of decision I twinned in her mind and gave her a nudge in the right direction. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much; but it changed the world, and in time only I will remember everything the way it had been.”  

Lewis affects a whispering, just-between-you-and-me-and-the-lamppost tone, “And remember everything, I do. Sometimes I wish I could remember how to forget.”

Lewis “rises” to his feet and lays a hand on the oak. “What are you and why?” he asks, fully knowing that he won’t receive an answer. He turns to the sleeping person in the bag. “All my life I wanted to belong to something bigger than myself. My parents died in a wreck when I was twelve; I had no other kin except my crazy-ass, Percodan-addicted, Grandma Louise. Still, that’s another thing that’s neither here nor there. I finally belong to something, but it has come at  a high cost.

“When I dipped Emma she was about two months shy of the sum of days with Keeper equal to the total she had lived. There are roughly twenty-five hundred persons buried here, but Emma hadn’t dipped them all, maybe two-thirds. Yet within those sixteen-hundred or so Legends she had been, she acquired thousands of years of memories. This exposure also brought out the best in her the way living just one life can never do. You see, I’ve only had the time to be a few dozen people, but I literally remember vast stretches of their lives without having to experience it directly, still Keeper knows that memory is faulty and that there is no substitute for experience. It may be that I’m already a better person–though the bar for that wasn’t set all that high.

“Emma was literally sent to bed by Keeper on the day I became her. Ghosts never sleep, but we sometimes dream. Keeper scattered her mind and spread it among the Legends, to sleep and dream.”

Lewis smiles. Like his earlier expression, it’s a complicated smile, composed of joy and infinite heartache. And this too is a smile that he would have never been able to create in life, for the things that had gone into it came only after his death.

“Heard the cliche ‘time mends a broken heart,’ haven’t you? Nobody ever says how much time it takes because they don’t know. I have a rare insight, here. I know precisely when my heart will heal: it will get better after I have been here for as long as I had lived. Been this way only since July, so I have a way to go. But that too is neither here nor there.”

Lewis tilts his head as though he has heard a voice. This time a generic, ironic smile blooms in his face.

He gently “pats” the surface of the sleeping bag. “You are going to get a great gift. Keeper never speaks in words, and on the rare occasion she does lower herself to communicate with one of us peons, she does so in images. From the gist of her images, she seems to think that I’ve gotten a bit windy, and that I am avoiding telling the truth about what happened on the last day of the old world, which was also the first day of the new. Remembering everything is sometimes a blessing and just as often it’s like a disease whose first symptom is death. Since you will still be alive when you wake up, you won’t remember everything. Having a body prevents total recall. It seems that Keeper is either bored with, or has pity for me, and she has decided to show you what happened here on Emma’s day of days.”


Leila Allison

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3 thoughts on “The First Symptom is Death (Part I) by Leila Allison”

  1. I think I would like to meet a grave yard ghost who is as friendly and informative as Lewis, lots on the local gossip for hundreds of years. I seemed to be pulled into a world of recurring themes of addiction and loneliness which are haunting for both the living and the dead.

    Liked by 1 person

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