It took me decades to realise that my childhood wasn’t normal.
My father knew how to raise the dead. With words, wards and symbols he could cause the soul of any deceased person to appear before him. Rising from his spell, he could command the spirit to answer any three questions that he put to them, truthfully and completely. Answering the questions of the bereaved was his trade and he was paid richly for his services. A ceremony could only be carried out once with each spirit, and could only be asked by the person who summoned them, so the three answers were all that the client would ever receive from the deceased in this life.
He never operated in front of a direct audience, instead summoning the spirit behind a curtain. It was certainly the more pleasant option for clients. Spirits are always recognisable, but something about them is wrong. It’s something in their eyes. They have no desire to hide the truth, and appear completely dispassionate towards the living. No matter how loving the relationship, they have no interest in their former loved on any more. Some spirits were even outright hostile to my father, but they were always carefully bound inside the summoning circle. They could not escape, and had to remain within it until they answered the three questions my father put to them. I would observe from the side of the room, to make sure that the client was paying attention, and that they did not approach the curtain. My mother waited outside the locked door, waiting to unlock it and usher out the client once it was all over.
Clients were always instructed to have three questions. It didn’t matter if only one was what they needed. A man once very rudely insisted that he only needed to know where his mother’s will was, and that he didn’t give a damn what else my father wanted to ask the old bitch. As I sat to observe that ceremony, I wondered why my father didn’t insist on getting two more questions. I soon found out.
My father began as usual, performing his motions and asking the question. From behind the curtain, the spirit gave the answer. I saw the client nod and begin to stand. However, before he could try leaving, my father asked the spirit to list every failing of her son. The list was long and scathing. Incensed as much by anger as heartbreak, the client finally stood up at the same time as my father asked the spirit if she would have chosen to keep her baby if she’d known the type of man he would become. I almost cried out to warn my father that the man was marching towards the curtain, but he saw me and put a hand up. As the man yanked the curtain to the side, he met the eyes of his mother, a pale and regal woman with the deepest frown lines I have ever seen. She considered her frozen son for the briefest moment, and gave a simple “no”, before fading away. There was no malice or passion to the answer, it was a statement of fact for the spirit. The man stood, shaking, torn between what options he had: to hit my father, fall to the ground, or begin swearing.
Behind him, a lock clicked and the door was opened by my mother. She always knew when it was time to give the client an exit. He took it, pushing rudely past my mother and into a world made darker for him.
During my childhood, I learned most of what was needed to carry out the ceremony. My father was not the best teacher, rushing me through the motions and easily angering when I did not grasp the full material from glimpses. The ability was in my blood, he’d say. It shouldn’t be this hard.
I heard my father screaming at my mother after these lessons. He would accuse her of sleeping around, saying that I was clearly not his. That’s why I couldn’t learn: because she gave birth to another man’s child and refused to give him another.
I renewed my efforts in my lessons, and eventually I was able to carry out a summoning. I was ten at the time. My first was the spirit of a man who had gone missing three years ago. The client was his widow, seeking closure.
I could hear her sniffling on the other side of the curtain, and my father sat in the chair on the side of the room, in my usual spot. I rubbed the correct blend of ingredients in a familiar pattern on the floor, tracing the summoning circle. In the middle was the man’s lighter, a familiar object to draw the spirit. I placed my hand above the circle, drawing the symbols on the air as I muttered the words to bring forward the spirit. Slowly standing up, and drawing the symbols up with me, the spirit rose from the floor. He was middle aged, with a thick moustache and a bald head. He looked much as he would have in life, although somehow paler, more transparent. And, of course, his eyes had no focus as he looked at me. He stood there silently, awaiting my questions. You never have to explain what is expected of them: they always seem to know. I licked my dry lips and with a shaky voice, I began.
“Where did you go on October 12?”
“I went to work, and then I went home. After dinner I went to the pub. After I left, I decided to drive the long way home. I made it as far as the mountain pass”
“How did you die?”
“I was drunk. I took the bend too fast and the car went over the side. I don’t remember there being railings where I went off-road to stop me, so I went straight over. I can’t remember the fall itself, but when I woke I was at the bottom, with the steering wheel crushing my ribs. It took about six minutes to die, choking on my blood. The alcohol didn’t help the pain at that point. I died in agony, knowing that it was my fault”
I look at my father. The last question was a usual one, and he insisted that it be worded precisely as the client phrased it.
“How is it where you are?”
“I am here with you and it is terrible. This place is boring and even the worst places I have been are immeasurably more interesting than here. Hell is painful, but the boredom of this place is worse.”
He smiled then, his work done, and disappeared. The widow left wordlessly. Some weeks later I read that the police had managed to find the car off the side of the mountain, in a place where the railing had been broken so long the crash was never noticed. While keeping tabs on my first client, I looked her up online over the years and found out that she renewed her faith, worked tirelessly for charities, and remarried a pillar of her community. She was doing everything right to never see her first husband again.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow