Grandmother died when I was seven and aliens raided the village. Their long guns fired out of nowhere, shattering walls and smashing bodies. Father threw me to the floor, shielding me, and I didn’t see Grandmother die, didn’t realize Mother was missing until the raid was over. Father got up and looked outside the house, cautiously; there were shouts of dismay and distress everywhere, and my ears were still ringing from the gunfire. The whole world seemed wreathed in smoke, blurred. My eyes stung.
Father gathered up a handful of dirt and brought it to his face, muttering over it, then he cast it down. The smoke oriented, shifted toward him, settled like grey wings. When he walked out, it went with him.
There were more screams. I crawled to the door and peered out, but couldn’t see anything.
After a while, Father came back. His hands were red, gloved in blood, but empty. He squatted by me, glancing inside to where Grandmother still lay with her ribs splayed out, eyes and mouth open in a final shout, and he sighed.
“They took your mother,” he said, stroking my hair. The blood stiffened it, dripping slowly down the back of my head.
“Why?” I asked. I was at that age full of questions. Why was the sky blue? Why was Vilacem under attack? What did the aliens want?
Father didn’t elaborate. His hand on my head had congealed.
• • • •
After we had lit funeral pyres for everyone and watched them burn down, Father took me through the forest to the hill where the ghost tree grows. After midnight, after he had sacrificed a black rooster and danced the funeral dances and the forbidden dances, he planted Grandmother’s finger-bone in the cleft of the rocks and the ghost tree unfurled like a flag. That was the first time I saw it.
It didn’t glow in the dark like I had imagined; it was just there, slow and dark and gnarled, in the way that it had not been there before. Instead of leaves it rustled the ghost bones of seven generations. The long continuity of the dead, Father called it, whose thread now ran through my grandmother and some day to the two of us.
“I don’t see her,” I said, looking up at the bone leaves indistinct in the dark. But Father said he could.
“Today I complete my initiation, and you begin yours,” Father said. “You’ll see it clearly, when it’s your turn.”
Then he spoke to them until dawn, the old ghosts of our family. Mother should have been there because by that time she was surely dead, but without a bone from her she was lost to the tree, and without the tree she was lost to the clan of our dead. Father spoke of this, among other things, that night. I couldn’t hear any responses so I only hoped that maybe Grandmother would know what to say to him.
• • • •
Father and Mother never got along. Grandmother used to find it amusing how they fought like cats in a sack, but it only made me feel unbalanced because Father and I never argued, especially after Mother was gone. We were polite and respectful to each other, and I wondered if Mother would have argued with me more if she had been there. Would she have opposed me joining the army?
Father died in the same old war that had killed my mother and his mother and everybody else in our family, only twenty years after that night on the hill where the ghost tree grew.
I only heard about it a day or two later, but the night he died I dreamed of smoke like grey wings and the rustle of bones. Even after I woke, the susurrus continued in my ears like whispering, and my vision contracted, darkness edging around me like I was drowning in smoke. It was difficult to breathe. When someone finally came to tell me that Father was dead, it felt like old news.
It was a long gun that killed him, they told me, a long shot from a great distance. An alien ambush. I didn’t mention what I’d dreamed. I’d learned reticence from Father, the way he would not speak of important things, the way he would sometimes not speak at all. His lips would part and then tighten again, biting down on the unspoken, the muscle working in his jaw, his beard bristling as he ground his teeth. Silence didn’t come naturally to him, but he had taught himself of its necessity. Not every clan had ghost trees. Not every family had hungry ghosts ready to go to war again, or living wielders willing to carry them, and those that did never lacked someone who would betray them.
When the aliens first came, Father once told me, we had welcomed them until we learned they gave their dead to rot in earth and kept hungry gods, not ghosts. They had wanted new worlds, endless new earth for land to bury their dead in. That was when our ancestors began to starve their ghosts, to make their edges sharp. When Grandmother was a young girl, nearly every family in Vilacem had a ghost tree. But the aliens targeted those who kept the old ways, gave rewards to anyone who could identify them. In the Occupied Zones, they exorcised every hill and crossroads, forbade even the most trivial dances, declared roosters a protected species. They destroyed our crematoria and built graveyards.
By Father’s day, he was the last to keep the old ways in our village. Except me, of course. Father had taught me, slowly over the two decades of my initiation and mostly in a silence that prevented me from telling him what I thought. I was polite and respectful, and I had learned what he wanted to teach, so what did it matter what I thought?
When he died, we had been long assigned to different regiments and I had not seen him in some time. But it was a rare quiet season on the eastern front and I was given furlough for funerary rites, though I had to beg for a little extra time because I knew I’d need to find him first.
Vilacem was a quasi-independent territory, bounded by the sea to the south, by the highlands of Candea to the north and long-standing Occupied Zones to both west and east. It was a large area by my measure, though it must have been no territory at all from the perspective of the aliens. They had come an unimaginably long way for this. I didn’t understand why they fought so hard. Their gods were creatures of pain and self-abuse, people said, and so hungry, so desirous of leaving all worlds covered in the dead.
It took me two whole days to find the camp of the regiment Father had belonged to and to find someone who would show me the recovered bodies from their last engagement. I’d sent word with a courier as soon as I got the news, so they had kept his body for me without sending him on to the mass pyres that burned the unclaimed war dead. They had washed and wrapped him, but the stench was fierce. The disorientation that had come on me when I heard of his death still lay on me like a cloak. I spoke little and moved slowly.
It was late evening before I finished building the pyre. The makeshift charnel ground was some distance from the camp and at first I thought I was alone. But when I’d lit the pyre, in the light of the flames I realized I was not alone. The glimmering shape at the corner of my vision wasn’t because my eyes were tired or tearing up from the smoke of the fire; it was a familiar silhouette, standing in shadow.
“Hello, Mother,” I said.
She made no response to that, but drew a little closer to the fire. If I looked directly at her she would grow still and become difficult to see, but if I kept my eyes on the fire she moved in my peripheral vision, growing closer and closer.
“Aren’t you going to take a bone for the tree?” Mother asked. Her voice was soft, nearly indistinguishable from the crackle of the flame and the whispering in my ears. My vision had contracted to a circle of flame. I didn’t answer her.
She reached into the flame—her arm seemed impossibly long for a moment—and I didn’t hear the sound of bone breaking, didn’t see flesh sloughing off in the fire, but she handed me a fragment of the skull. It was just big enough to fit in my hand, dull yellow and gently curved. It must have come from his left temple, judging from its size and shape. It was jagged-edged, and burning hot from the fire, too hot to hold. I held it anyway.
“There are other death traditions than the ones you know,” Mother said. “The oldest way is to leave the dead to the sky. To decompose in the open, to be eaten by scavengers. Burning is a refusal to rot; to bury is to deny that rot is real. They both have power because they exert will over the truth.”
“Is that what happened to you?” I asked. I was afraid to look at her, knowing that her face would be a skull, a half-rotted horror. But then I glanced involuntarily, and it wasn’t. She just looked older than I remembered. Her hair was grey and her face was deeply lined, as if she had spent all the intervening years wearing this expression of worry and fear.
“The ghost tree isn’t for me,” Mother said. “Your father and I never agreed about that. It’s not right to put blood on the hands of our dead.”
“Then why did you give me this?” I said. The skull fragment felt as if it was still glowing from the fire. My palm was blistered.
Mother didn’t answer. When I looked up again she was gone, but I supposed I knew the answer to my question anyway. It wasn’t about me. It was for Father, what he would have wanted.
• • • •
At first I didn’t do anything with the skull fragment. I returned to my regiment, which was one of the first to be equipped with long guns of our own. Reverse-engineered from the alien design, it was a necessary shift in strategies. Long overdue in my opinion. The alien ships had been coming for generations, disgorging more and more invaders, and the useless hunger of our old ghosts was not enough to fight them. Guns were better.
There were rumours of a new alliance between neighbouring Candea and a new, different alien empire, a rival to our old enemies; rumours that the alien homeworld was wracked with civil war or fallen to revolution and that their ships had stopped coming; theories that the aliens were over-committed to too many wars on too many worlds. We couldn’t know if any of these were true. Whichever the case, the tide of the war seemed to have turned, and for the first time that I could remember, there was something like hope, though I couldn’t have said what it was that we hoped for.
Perhaps these were just excuses, soldiers’ rumours and wishful thinking. The war was fought in great oceanic currents in which my life was the smallest drop. The idea of understanding it, at least, was one illusion I did not allow myself.
We liberated the eastern Occupied Zone in a joint campaign with the Candean military and air support from my father’s old regiment, a grey thunderhead that swirled in out of nowhere to obscure a clear blue sky. Lightning took down the alien sentry watchtowers, and we started firing from our position halfway up the hill on their border, which was a vast graveyard that encircled their entire territory. That was their way; it was both a symbol of their expansion and a defensive boundary, an interdiction wall of the dead. The sky above it remained clear and blue; the grey thunderhead rolled back like water encountering a dam. But it posed no barrier to ground troops with long guns.
The fighting was long and arduous, and in the end aliens bled red just like people.
• • • •
The people who lived in the Occupied Zone were not as happy to be liberated as I expected. Most of them had been born into the Occupation, as had their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. They were half-alien in their blood, their speech, and their manner. They had changed their names and broken the continuity of the dead. They had come to worship those hungry alien gods. They had learned to bury their dead. To them, we had just exchanged one set of rulers for another—the alien emperor on his distant throne, the ruler of Candea in the mountains, the Vilacem council of chieftains, it made little difference to them.
After the battle was over and wounds were tended to, I walked the encircling graveyard while the unending susurrus in my ears intensified to the point of pain. I had learned enough of the alien script that I could read the grave markers, and I looked there for Mother’s name, walking up and down the rows. I ignored the pain for as long as I could, but I had to give up long before I could look at even a tenth of all the grave markers. The whispering in my ears had grown to a roar, and I collapsed to my knees in the grass, head ringing, focused on a single green blade until my vision cleared enough for me to stagger out of the graveyard. If Mother lay here, then I would never know.
• • • •
When I got my next furlough I took the piece of bone from my father’s skull and went home to the forest, to the hill where the ghost tree grows. I sacrificed a black rooster that looked thinner than the ones in Father’s day, and I danced the forbidden dances, and when midnight passed I buried the bone shard in the cleft of the rocks and the ghost tree grew.
It was larger and wilder than it had seemed to me as a boy. I had expected it to seem smaller.
I didn’t see Father in the bone leaves. I saw no one. Perhaps Father had lied to me about what I should see. Perhaps I’d broken the thread by not having brought a child of my own to initiate. I had not completed my own initiation, either. I was the frayed end of an old rope.
I had no intention of having children. The war was not over. This understanding separated me from my fellow soldiers, made it impossible for me to celebrate victories or mourn losses the same way they did. The world could not turn back to whatever it had been before the aliens came. That was lost; this was not an interruption of history, but history itself, and the war wasn’t about territory or gods or ghosts. The war was just life. I could not refuse it because no matter what I did, the great currents of the world moved me like a leaf on the water. But I could try to refuse anyway —
I would have tried to say this to Father and the others if they had come to me, but they didn’t. I half expected Mother to make another appearance, but that didn’t happen either. It was a long time before I made peace with the idea that I would never see her again, that I would never know for sure what happened. The true knowledge of events, like peace, was a story for children.
That night I waited in silence till dawn came and the ghost tree faded, then I spat in the cleft of the rocks and went back to my regiment.
• • • •
I did get shot with a long gun myself, twice, but survived both times. The first was a graze that I recovered from; the second shattered the bone in my thigh, and they sent me home to limp out my days.
I never used my old ghosts in battle, for all their hungry whispers in my ear. I couldn’t bear the thought of sending Father to war again.
When I die, I have asked for neither grave nor the fire. When the time is right, I will lose myself in the forest, find the hill where the ghost tree grows. I will rot on the surface of the world that we fought for, under the open scavenger sky. I will give myself the gift of a death without power, and so complete my initiation.