by Mari Ness
We have come to an agreement, his ghost wife and I. She may have him—and , I suppose, he her— one night of the moon: the new moon, when all is dark and the stars are cold. Thirteen nights a year.
The rest of the year, he is mine.
When I told my sister of this, she was doubtful. Even now, she still seeks for a word of comfort, a bright light in these shadows, as a sister might. “I suppose,” she says, sipping her tea, “at least it is a good thing that she is dead.”
I am not so sure of that. A living rival would alter, change, grow old as I do, be someone I might speak with, fight with, even befriend, perhaps. My sister gasps at this, but I know of certain . . . arrangements . . . that have been made in the city to the benefit of multiple partners. It may not be my first choice, but something, I think, I could live with. She would be something . . . tangible.
This . . .
. . . is less so. My fingers ache. I wrap them around my cup of tea, seeking comfort in its dimming warmth.
It is always the same, these thirteen nights. We eat our supper, a splendid feast of delicate foods and meats, a delightful change from our usual plain fish and rice and vegetables. I watch him and his emotionless face, always wondering if this will be the night he refuses, the night he agrees to stay with me, and wonder what she will do if he does.
He does not. He finishes the meal—by now dry, tasteless, heavy in my stomach—and stands. He gathers his robe about him, and slides open the screens to the garden.
I should not watch this next part. I know this. I should go to my own rooms, where a stack of books lies temptingly near a pillow, or accept any of the dozen invitations that have come my way for the evening: to concerts, dances, parades, star-gazing excursions upon the lake. Or simply down a bottle of wine and curl up in thick silk quilts for the night, letting my aching head in the morning prevent me from thinking of any of this.
But I do none of these wise things. Instead, I watch.
She waits for him beneath the pine trees, slender and elegant, a white fan held in front of her face. I do not know if this is a custom of the dead, or merely her way to guide him to her in the dimness. When he reaches her, she drops the fan, and they embrace. They do not speak, not just then, and I watch. In the starlight, she is beautiful. I tell myself she would be less so, in the sunlight.
I should not watch this next part either, but I do: the way they gently remove their clothes, both the real and the unreal, and sink beneath the pine trees together, save on the occasions when he holds her roughly against the trees. Roughly enough, that is, to scar the skin of mortal women. Not roughly enough to pain a ghost.
I watch until my eyes are blinded. By tears, perhaps, or clouds.
This was your agreement, I tell myself—and indeed it was, however cold it feels on these nights without sun or moon.
I am not always awake when he returns, staggering, his clothes covered in pine needles and dirt, to sleep the day away.
We do not speak of this, afterwards, although I admit I am curious to know what she might have said. Does she speak, I wonder, of the afterlife, of the ghost lives she has seen? She has traveled, I know, Beyond. She told me when we made our agreement, and I could feel the truth of that in her shade.
She would tell me nothing of it.
But she might tell our husband. She did not, I understand, tell him much of anything in life. But death, she told me, brings changes. And so why would she not tell him this?
Or perhaps she whispers other things: of things they once shared, of things they can share once he is (and perhaps I am) dead. I do not know. I can only see his pain, the pain that lingers until the moon is full, its light allowing us to forget.
We chatter of ordinary things, extraordinary things. But never of her. In the full moon, he comes to me, eager for me, my touch, my body—never of hers, that night. The moon wanes, and I see it growing upon his face, the dread, the desire. Whatever she gives him on those nights, it is something that makes his lips wet with wanting.
I do not tell him—have never told him—why I agreed to share him, why I force him to endure this every moon. My fists clench as I look at my daughters. They will be safe. They will be safe, and I will endure. It is only thirteen nights of the year.
Mari Ness as occasionally heard a ghost or two walking about, but hasn’t yet entered into an agreement with one. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications, including Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons, and Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. For more complete listing of her work, check her blog at marikness.wordpress.com. You can also follow her on Twitter as @mari_ness, or read her weekly blog about classic works of children’s fantasy over at Tor.com. She lives in central Florida.