“The Ones Who Walk”
by Rebecca Schneider
A ghost? Yes, I’ve seen ghosts. But you don’t want an old woman’s tale. You will call it nonsense.
You want to hear it? Well, sit beside me, daughter of my daughter. Your little one is sleeping? Blessings upon her. May the earth keep her safe. It is a hard thing to be old and walk alone without children. Maybe when this one is older, she and I will walk together.
This thing happened when I was a young woman, a mother of three children, and your mother was the baby at my breast. It was the rainy season—a brief season that year, gone before the moon’s return. Like every year, the Raven People and the Armadillo People and the Lizard People gathered at the waters.
When we gathered, I was glad in my heart, because I would see my man. Ofor was his name. He had a soft voice and a gentle touch. He had given me all my children; he was the father of your mother.
Gatherings in those days were like gatherings now. You woke one morning and the air was cooler. Clouds were forming low in the sky. You started walking, and your pack and your child no longer felt heavy.
You walked five days or ten. One afternoon, it started to rain. Other walkers appeared like dreams on the horizon. It didn’t matter if they were your people—you called them sister, brother, you kissed them and held their little ones. Your own child fussed, jealous and frightened of the strangers.
You came to the waters. The gray pools, the birds drinking. The sound of so many voices making your heart pound like the gallop of a hunted thing, like dancing feet. Everyone holding one another, unwilling to let go.
That year, I arrived as the yellow earth was turning green. The birds danced around us, dark against the clouds. There were birds in those days you don’t see anymore. There were beautiful falcons and black vultures. I found my mother and sisters, my cousins and other kin, and we all hugged and laughed and exclaimed over our children. Though it had been a hard year, most of the little ones were still with us.
Ofor wasn’t anywhere. I asked everyone I saw if they’d met him. Some people don’t keep to their territories; they’d rather starve than go without seeing faces. Ofor wasn’t that way, but I asked his neighbors anyway. No one had seen him.
For days I waited. There were songs and dancing and games. I mended clothes and tools, snared birds and gathered the plants that grow in the rainy season. The young people went hunting and came back with game. Every night the child and I slept in a shelter of hides by a pool. We fell asleep to voices and lovemaking and the rain dancing on the shelter.
I only slept because the days were so long and there was so much to do. I only ate because the baby was hungry. A day in the rainy season is longer than ten days of walking, but I spent the long days thinking of Ofor. For eight years he’d been my man. For five years before that I’d loved him. I wanted to hold him, to hear his voice rough as fingers against my cheek. I wanted to be quiet with him, to feel the stillness I found in no other place. I wanted to cradle the child he walked with, our Little Frog, who was old enough to toddle along but not old enough for his true name.
My mother came to me. She cut my hair and gave me a necklace of fiber and feathers. In my lap she put my oldest child, Sinsha, who was six years old and old enough to know me, though she’d walked with Ofor, then my mother, beginning when Little Frog was born.
“If he’s gone, then he’s gone,” my mother said. “Our tears aren’t snares to pull him out of death’s gathering place. You have two children who need you.”
“He could be injured,” I said. “One of them could be ill.”
My mother sat with me, but her words were the wind for all I heard them. Ofor’s brother came to me and brought food but no comfort. My sisters came and rubbed my hands and feet with tallow. They said prayers for Ofor and the boy-child, but I wouldn’t let them say prayers for the dead.
Ten days after the start of the rainy season, I walked away. It was a dark night and the rain hid everything. In secret I’d filled my pack with food and my gourd with water. I’d made a new sling for the baby and a cape of tanned hide to wear.
I walked away, not because I wanted to die, but because I couldn’t stay still any longer. Because I believed I could save them. And because if I couldn’t—if Ofor and the boy were dead—I needed to see with my own eyes.
The Raven territories weren’t anywhere I’d walked as a child or woman, but Ofor had told me how to find his territory. Follow Scissortail Gulch north, walk for ten days through the hills, come to a long, narrow gorge that opens onto the plain. I knew how to read the land and felt sure I could find it.
Ofor’s territory was a good one. It had neither springs nor groundwater, but the gorge was a protected place where rainwater gathered. Ofor walked up and down the gorge, only venturing onto the plains when its abundance failed him. Someday, Ofor told me, when our children are grown, we will live together in that gorge.
I laughed at him for that. Two women in love can sometimes do that, but Ofor was a big man and a hearty eater. My mother taught me that there is no such thing as an abundant year. Good years may end badly, and lovers who walk together usually starve together.
I walked for ten days, and they were long days, because I was afraid. It felt wrong to walk during the rainy season. I walked through the heat of each day and sheltered in ravines when the afternoon storms came.
At the end of Scissortail Gulch were the hills, brown and angular as an old man’s face. The pass was narrow but easy to spot. I crossed rocky-bottomed streams that would dry up when the rains ended. The rocks were cool and slick beneath my feet. Mesquites and desert willows grew there. Someone had already gathered the mesquite pods, but I picked willow blossoms.
At last the hills opened and I saw the plain. Everything was yellow and green. Pools of water reflected the hazy sky. Ofor’s gorge lay to the east, nestled like a child in the arms of the hills. The gorge was long and steep with scrubby trees. It was hardly the paradise we’d imagined together.
I sat on a rock and nursed my daughter, looking across at the gorge. I didn’t want to go into that place. I wanted to be at the gathering with my mother’s arms around me. But I was also a mother, and a mother must have hope.
It didn’t rain that night. I slept in the pass, and in the morning I entered the gorge.
I walked up and down the gorge, looking for a place where a man and a boy might shelter. On a broad north-facing slope, someone had been gathering food. Trees were stripped bare of flowers, and bean plants were missing every pod. Greens had been picked too often, their stems notched and almost leafless. The heads of sunflowers had been harvested a month early.
Had wild people been here, eating all they saw with no care for the future? No—the stems of the greens told me someone had been harvesting these plants for months. Wild people didn’t stay in one place, and a walker would never gather food in this way.
I climbed farther up the slope and found them.
Ofor’s shelter had fallen down. A hide covered his face.
They had not been dead long. The stench of death hung in the air, but I saw no sign of scavengers. I didn’t understand. I had expected to find an old death.
I knelt and moved the hide.
Ofor’s face was peaceful. He held our son in his arms. But he and the boy no longer looked like themselves. They had become nightmares, hollowed out like discarded bones.
I had to back away quickly. I took the baby in my arms and went down from that place. I don’t remember the rest of that day or night.
In the cool gray of dawn, I came back to myself. I nursed the baby and ate a little myself. Then I put the baby on my back and considered whether I should go back up the slope. I didn’t know the Raven customs for honoring the dead. Would Ofor’s brother be angry at me for coming here without him?
As I stood in thought, someone took my hand.
I turned, startled, but no one was there. The hand I couldn’t see tightened around my fingers. I should be frightened, but fear had slipped away like a bird from a snare. Fingers were brushing my cheek and my throat. Someone’s breath was on my face, warm and sweet. I closed my eyes.
Lips pressed against mine, and my eyes opened again. When I pulled away, I could see her. She looked like no one I had seen before, skin the color of bleached bone, hair the orange of a desert poppy. She wore a short yellow garment. Everything about her was clean and fresh, as if she had been made by the year’s first rain.
When I looked at her, I felt like an empty gourd filled with borrowed desires. I felt crazy, like a woman walking alone with her first child in her belly. All I wanted made me dizzy and breathless—her touch, her bones a cage around me. I would be safe there.
My child shifted in the sling. The magic the woman was weaving fell apart like old fiber. Desire fled, and a great fear pressed on me.
“Get away from me!” I screamed. For I understood that this creature was the reason my man had stopped walking and starved to death.
To my surprise, the woman backed away. Now that I was free, I saw the light went through her. She was only a shadow.
“I’m sorry,” she said, voice sweet as agave nectar. “Please don’t leave.”
The magic she’d woven still had threads in me, because I didn’t leave. I crouched a few yards away from her, not meeting her eyes.
“You killed my man and my child. What are you?”
“I didn’t want to hurt them,” the woman said.
“I don’t care what you wanted.” I tried to sound like my mother, no path between my voice and my heart. “What are you? A demon?”
The woman came forward. When I didn’t move away, she sat across from me. If her pretty yellow garment had been real, she would have soiled it.
“I’m a woman like you,” she said. “I’ve been here a very long time. People come and go. They never stay. I couldn’t speak to people before Ofor came. He wanted to stay, I could tell. It took me a long time, but I learned to talk to him.”
“You bewitched him. He never wanted this.”
I saw tears in the ghost woman’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I thought they could stay with me.”
“They couldn’t stay. Didn’t you see they were starving?”
Her silence told me the truth. The ghost woman had wanted Ofor and Little Frog to be ghosts with her.
“You fool,” I said. “They’re walkers. They know the path to death’s gathering place, even if you couldn’t find it. And did you really think you could snare me? I’m a grieving woman.”
The ghost woman bowed her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be alone.”
That was all I could get from her. She was sorry. She was lonely. I walked away and looked across the gorge, as if the land would tell me what to do. My chest was tight with anger, that Ofor had fallen for a shadow’s tricks.
But the ghost woman was right. Ofor had always wanted to stay.
I looked back at her. She sat on the ground, head bowed like a dejected child. I wondered if I’d looked like that after finding Ofor.
“Stand up,” I said. “Tell me who you are. Who are your people? How did you die?”
The ghost woman stood, crossing her arms, not meeting my eyes. “I don’t remember who I am. I died in the gorge. I was hiking, and there was a flash flood.”
No walker would enter a gorge at the height of the rainy season. It was obvious that the ghost woman had no wisdom. “What happened then? Did you try to walk to death?”
“This is death,” the ghost woman said.
I could not believe anyone could be so foolish. “You are dead, but this is not death! Death is another place. Death is where Ofor and Little Frog have gone.”
The ghost woman’s eyes were blank like an animal’s. “I don’t know. I can’t leave the gorge.”
“You haven’t tried to leave. You’d rather cling to life and living people.”
“No!” I heard something human in her voice. “I’ve tried. Something keeps me here. It’s not my fault.”
She turned away, tears slipping from her closed eyelids. She was as beautiful as a wilted flower. I hated her.
“Don’t you cry!” I shouted. “You murderer, how dare you cry!”
I screamed at her with all my breath. I said terrible things that I have never said before or since. I told her I wished that she had died in her mother’s blood. I told her that if she were my sister and wild people came, I would give her to them. The baby started crying, but I didn’t care. I was full of venom. I wished I could give her a second death.
She only folded her arms tighter. Even as I screamed, I understood that I could not hurt her more than death had hurt her.
When my words ran out, I was winded but still furious, like a hunter who has lost the prey. The baby was wailing. I unfastened the sling and took her in my arms.
By the time the child was quiet, the liquid anger had cooled in me. “Don’t look so mournful,” I said. “What I’ve said is what you deserve.”
The ghost woman made no sign she had heard me.
I settled the baby into her sling and tied her in front of me, then retrieved my pack and fastened it behind me. Still I did not leave.
We are walkers. Land is our mother and father; it sires the living and cradles the dead. This land would pass to Ofor’s brother, and from him to his children or mine. But with the ghost woman in her power, it was polluted. No one would walk in this place.
I tried to remember if I had ever learned a song or story that told how to get rid of a ghost. I couldn’t think of any, and Lizard tricks might not work in Raven territory.
I had to try. I was a walker, and I had a duty. I wasn’t like the ghost woman, nothing but a weeping shadow.
“I’m leaving now, ghost,” I called. “I want you to look at me.”
The ghost woman let her hands fall from her face but did not look up.
“Did you die alone? You weren’t walking with anyone?”
“I died alone.” Her voice was no longer sweet. It rattled like dry leaves in the wind.
“Then it’s no wonder you couldn’t find the way. Walkers have wisdom, and we always find the right path. Even wild people find death, because they have each other. You had no one. Listen to me. The rainy season is ending. I’m returning to my territory. I will never return to this place.”
“Others will come.”
“Perhaps. But you’ll never again catch the soul of a walker. You must choose another path. I want you to do as I tell you.
“When I walk out of the gorge, walk after me.”
She was shaking her head before I was done speaking. “I can’t leave.”
“You can’t leave when you’re alone. But I’m a walker. I can find any path. With me as your companion, perhaps you’ll find death.”
The ghost woman blinked slowly, pale eyelashes bright with tears. “Why would you help me?”
“I’m not helping you,” I snarled. “I want you gone, that’s all. Now follow, or stay until your soul withers away. It’s your choice.”
And with that I began to walk. I came out of the gorge and entered the pass. It was a hot, still morning. Whenever I left the shadows, the baby started to fuss.
I shielded my eyes and looked behind me. The ghost woman was a glimmer against the brown rock. She was following me.
We walked for twenty days. The moon grew full and retreated. The rain ended and the pools and streams dried up. Dust stung my eyes, and my mouth was dry.
I walked paths I had never walked before, crossing Raven land back to my own territory. I saw no other walkers. Once I saw wild people across the plain, a man and two women, skinny as wild dogs. I hid in a thicket and nursed the baby to keep her quiet. When I looked again, they were gone.
The ghost woman trailed behind me like a scavenger. She did not speak, and some days I thought she must be a dream woven by grief. Ofor and Little Frog had died, and I had made up a ghost story to explain why.
But when I lay down to sleep, the ghost woman drew closer. Sometimes she was only a few yards away, sitting on a rock or the ground. Stars shone through her, and I knew I had not dreamed her.
Those were long, difficult days. I woke and slept, walked and gathered, ate and drank and nursed the child. I did these things out of duty. Ofor was dead and the sweetness was gone from life. Yet I kept living, because I had a task to do, and because the baby at my breast demanded it.
One evening, as I searched the broken landscape for a place to shelter, light flashed in the west. I shaded my eyes and turned toward sunset, but the light wasn’t the sun. A mountain of shining water had appeared before me.
It was like nothing I had seen before—not a landscape the earth had made, but a glittering mass that dazzled and confused my eyes. I saw angles precise as grains of sand and pillars taller and broader than any tree. All of it was translucent like the ghost woman.
We had come to death’s gathering place.
I recited a prayer my mother had taught me, a ward against death. Then, looking back to be sure the ghost woman was with me, I walked into the light.
Before his death, my grandfather had told me stories of the world as it was before people walked. They were an old man’s stories, fanciful and hard to believe. Now I seemed to have entered one of them.
I walked among the pillars. They were decorated with squares of light that shone like eyes. Before me stretched a path, a shimmering black ribbon.
There were people everywhere, people together: talking, holding hands, standing in groups beneath the pillars, walking up and down the path. Translucent like the ghost woman, they had none of her eerie desperation. They were colorful as flowers and delicate as birds, their hair like sunlight.
The ghost woman stood beside me. “I remember now,” she said. “I had a daughter. She was with my mother the day I came out here. She was six years old.” She hugged herself as if cold. “Violet. My daughter’s name was Violet.”
My own daughter, Sinsha, was six. She walked for miles each day. I understood the ghost woman now, understood why she had not known the path to death. She was one of the people from my grandfather’s stories, and she had lived her whole life in a shining place like this one, people all around her, her family beside her: a life lived standing still.
“Go to your daughter and mother,” I said flatly. “They’re waiting for you.”
“Thank you.” The ghost woman’s voice had gentled. “I don’t know your name.”
I turned away. “I’m the woman whose life you’ve poisoned. Just go.”
“But won’t you come with me? Your family is here.”
My breath caught. Somewhere in this bright land, my sweet Ofor was waiting for me, Little Frog in his arms.
I looked at the pillared dwellings, the gathered souls with their joined hands. I had never wanted so much so badly. My lover. My child. An end to my journey.
My gaze rose to the sky. Above the city of death, the evening sky was alive: red and purple in the west, the color of ashes in the east. I wondered what death would look like once the sun had set. Perhaps all this beauty was nothing but reflection, like light dancing on the surface of a creek.
My body pulsed with each beat of my heart. My child slept in her sling, chest rising and falling, rising and falling. Somewhere under this sky, my mother and Sinsha were bedding down for the evening.
“Go,” I told the ghost woman. “I will keep walking.”
The ghost woman gave me a strange look. I think it was pity. Then she walked away, disappearing through one of the arches. I cannot say if she found her family. I never saw her again.
I began walking back the way I had come. The light faded, and soon I moved through the living twilight.
The evening was growing cold. I halted and thought about the long road ahead of me.
One rainy season, years ago, I told this story to your mother. She was eleven, old enough to walk alone for the first time. As a mother, it hurt me to part from her, but I trusted she would survive. She was strong and clever and careful.
Your mother did not believe the story, and she did not understand it. She thought it was a story to frighten her before she went off on her own.
You don’t believe either, do you? Even now you’re smiling at the foolishness of an old woman. Perhaps you think I lost my reason all those years ago in the wilderness, grieving my man and my son.
No matter. Whether or not you believe, I want to be sure you understand the lesson. Every story has a lesson and a truth.
I count it a blessing to have walked with death. Now I grow old, and I am glad to know the way to death’s gathering place. Someday I will go there, and I will find myself among shining pillars, and faces, and voices. I will pass into the city and find peace.
That day is still some years off, and I am in no hurry. I am not like Ofor. I am not like the ghost woman. I will never stop walking as long as I have strength.
For I have learned why we walk. Our people choose to walk, daughter of my daughter. We could live like wild people, half in death. Instead we make our own path.
We walk because it is good to walk. We people who walk look forward. We learn the changes of the season and observe the changes of the years. We watch the land and live carefully. We trust that our feet will carry us to the next gathering, the gray pools, the embrace of our lover, the warmth of a little one in our arms.
Love does not stand still. Love goes forward.
That is what I learned when I walked with death.
Rebecca Schneider is a librarian and writer in Richmond, VA. She spends her days listening to podcasts, attempting to identify trees, and writing three novels at once. Her fiction has appeared in Giganotosaurus, and her opinions appear sporadically on Twitter as @rebeccacider.