“Go home, Nuno. I’ll check everything, then close up and go home myself. We can deal with the decorations the day after tomorrow.”
The Head Librarian of the Esch-sur-Alzette Municipal Library, Martina (known to friends and colleagues as Marty), pushed her colleague towards the door.
“Are you sure?” asked Nuno. “It’s rather late.”
“Very sure. Off you go.”
Nuno shrugged, picked up his backpack and coat and, with a goodbye and goodnight wish, went outside.
The wind was picking up. Short-lived bursts of wind spun the fallen leaves in the library’s courtyard, scattering them everywhere. It had been a particularly cold day, even for the end of October, and the evening was shaping up as rather frosty.
As he walked towards the street, Nuno saw movement out of the corner of his eye and, lifting his head, noticed that the large “Halloween @ Escher Bibliothéik” banner they had tied to the banister of the library’s balcony was now partially untied and flapping madly in the wind.
He turned around and went back inside.
“Still here?” wondered Martina, raising an eyebrow.
“The banner is threatening to fly off, so I’ll just quickly hop upstairs and bring it in.”
“Great idea, thanks!”
As Nuno hurried up the staircase, jumping two steps at a time, Martina walked through the library on the ground floor, making sure everything was alright and there were no lit candles anywhere. Having an open fire in the library was prohibited of course, but somehow the youngest member of the team had missed that memo and by the time Martina had realised it, there had been about a dozen pumpkin-spice scented candles burning merrily throughout the library at the start of the event. She had quickly put all of them out, and made sure all team members were informed, yet again, of the dangers of fire in a place full of books. Not to mention the newly-installed fire alarm system, which could go off at any time and ruin the whole thing, just because of a handful of scented candles.
After a little while, Nuno came back and grabbed his backpack again.
“Hey Marty, it’s kind of chilly out there, there might be black ice soon, are you sure you don’t want me to drive you home?”
“Thanks, Nuno, but I’ll be fine.”
“As you wish. Have a good night!”
“You too! And watch out for the ghosts!”
“I know, tonight the veil between this world and the other is thinning, and the spirits are out and about, bla-bla”, laughed Nuno. “I’m not the one who’s going to walk past the cemetery tonight, so you’d better watch out yourself.”
He winked and went out.
She loved her colleagues and she loved her job. Being a librarian was everything she’d wished for, and every day spent in the library, among books and people passionate about books, helping them find what they were looking for, or perhaps their next favourite author, was true bliss. She couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
This Halloween event had started as a suggestion from her, and the whole team had taken it up with unbridled enthusiasm, coming up with many creative ideas, some crazier than others. They had advertised it across the city of Esch and in local schools, and the turnout had been impressive. Despite the cold day, people had still gathered, even outside, enjoying a cup of mulled wine or hot tea, and chatting up while kids and adults alike where going on a bookish treasure hunt inside, having their faces painted in scary ways or learning how to make various Halloween decorations. In the kids’ corner, the librarians took turns reading ghost stories to groups of wide-eyed children. Martina’s handmade ceramic decorations, looking like small stacks of books, had sold like hot cakes. It was her hobby and she was happy they had sold so well. All the proceeds would go to a charity, to help the refugees.
All in all, the Halloween event had been a success and everybody had had lots of fun. But it had also been a long, exhausting day for Martina and her team.
She yawned widely and, having established to her satisfaction that the library was fire-free, she put on her coat, picked up her handbag and walked out. She carefully locked the door, shivering in the cold wind. Thank goodness her coat had a hood. She pulled it up and took a last look at the library before leaving.
“Wait a second”, she murmured to herself. “What…?”
Through one of the windows on the second floor she could see a faint flicker. As if a candle was burning somewhere inside.
She sighed and cursed under her breath, then returned to the library and ran upstairs, without even bothering to turn on the lights. She knew her way around with her eyes closed.
That window where she had seen the flicker belonged to her office, but she was pretty sure there had been no lit candle there when she had left it. Perhaps Nuno had pulled a prank on her. It was unlike him to break the rules so blatantly, though.
Martina walked into her office and looked around. There didn’t seem to be any lit candle anywhere. The only light in the room was provided by the moon’s rays filtering through the window.
She suddenly spun around and looked towards the door. She was pretty sure she had heard whispered voices.
“Nuno? If this is one of your pranks, I am not amused!” she called out.
There were definitely whispers. This time they had an urgent edge.
“Look, guys, it’s been a long day and I’m tired”, said Martina. “Please stop this, it’s not funny.”
She walked towards the door and reached for the light switch.
Before she could turn on the light, though, she jumped all the way back, uttering a strangled scream. A face had appeared on the wall next to the light switch.
Actually, through the wall.
“Oh, I’m so sorry”, she heard a male voice from the direction of the light switch. “I didn’t mean to scare you, my sincerest apologies.”
Martina whimpered slightly and tried to walk backwards through the radiator under the window. That attempt obviously failed, and she found herself wedged between said radiator and four rather transparent persons who were now looking at her with expressions of worry, curiosity, and in one case, if she saw well through the terror haze in her mind, open contempt.
“Who-who are you?” stuttered Martina, trying hard to stay focused. “You are not supposed to be in the library after closing hours!” she shouted, rather loudly. And irrationally, added that small part of her brain which hadn’t shut down in dread, given that the intruders didn’t look very material.
“I’m calling the police!” she shouted again, fumbling in her coat pockets for her phone. As her fingers failed to encounter anything phone-shaped in there, she realised, with a jolt, that her phone was in her handbag. Which was downstairs.
The four transparent people were still standing in front of her, unfased.
“So, this is her”, said one of them, an older man with old-fashioned clothes, in a slightly incredulous tone.
“Yes. This is her”, snorted a tall, imposing middle-aged lady, also wearing rather old-fashioned clothes. She sounded very disparaging and Martina felt annoyed by her tone. Which was good, because annoyance and anger were slowly replacing dread and the desire to run away and hide. She also had the vague impression she knew this lady from somewhere. Her face looked familiar.
“Blimey, you weren’t joking”, replied the old man.
“I told you so”, said the lady.
“The world has really gone to the dogs.”
“So it has.”
“I’m rather glad I am dead, then.”
All through this exchange, the other two ghosts (for Martina was now convinced they were ghosts – what else could they have been?) hadn’t said a thing, but were eyeing her curiously. They were an elderly man and woman with gentle, smiling faces, both with an equally old-fashioned look. Although Martina was no expert in vintage fashion, she surmised they must have lived before the other two – the ones who were currently bad-mouthing her in that passive-aggressive manner.
“I don’t know, I rather like her tattoos”, said the nice elderly woman, turning towards her companion. “What do you say, Georges?”
“Indeed, my dear, they are real works of art”, replied the elderly man. “Of course in our days it would have been unthinkable, but times have changed…”
“And to be Head Librarian so young”, exclaimed the woman. “Such an achievement! Well done, my dear! You can be proud of yourself.”
Martina just stood there, confused, still leaning against the radiator, while the elderly lady and her companion beamed at her. She turned her gaze to the other two. They were still looking at her in a contemptuous way.
Martina gritted her teeth, straightened herself and turned towards the nice couple:
“Thank you so much for your kind words, Madam, Sir…”
The disdainful lady waved a dismissive hand:
“Let’s make without these useless pleasantries, shall we? We have a task for you.”
“A task…”. The lady turned towards the older man and rolled her eyes ever so slightly. “It means we want you to do something for us.”
“Yes, of course that’s what it means, but…”
“We don’t have much time, so I’ll explain it to you briefly. We are stuck here.”
The lady made a gesture towards the other three ghosts:
“Mr and Mrs Schmit here, Mr Pereira and myself”. She suddenly seemed to remember she hadn’t introduced herself, so she added: “I am Mrs Becker.”
Martina’s jaw dropped.
“That’s where I know you from!” she exclaimed.
“And where might that be?” asked Mrs Becker dryly.
“The book! About the library! You were Head Librarian here!”
“Yes, I was”, replied Mrs Becker, completely unmoved. “There is no need to get over-excited about it…”
“And you died here, too! There was that murder…” continued Martina, then quickly clamped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry. That was… I didn’t mean to be rude…”
“Rest assured, you didn’t ruin any expectations”, snorted Mrs Becker. “Now, that being dealt with, let’s get back to the matter at hand…”
“I am Martina, by the way.”
“Yes, yes, I know who you are”, sighed the former Head Librarian. “I have been watching you for a while.”
“There’s not much to do around here anyway”, said Mr Schmit quickly, with a half-apologetic smile.
“Not if you’re a ghost, that is”, added Mrs Schmit, squeezing his arm. “It can get rather boring after a while.”
“Which is why we want out”, said Mr Pereira. “Especially Mrs Becker…”
“Yes, indeed”, nodded Mrs Schmit. “We are more or less mobile, the three of us, we don’t just haunt one place, but she’s been stuck in here, poor thing… for so many years! On account of being murdered, you know?”
Mrs Becker frowned. She obviously didn’t like the way the discussion was going.
“Things are what they are”, she said, a bit tetchily. “Let’s focus on what needs to be done. By midnight, if I may remind you.”
The other three ghosts nodded and turned towards Martina.
“There is a certain book which has very recently entered the library”, continued Mrs Becker. “We want you to get it for us.”
“Please”, added Mrs Schmit hurriedly, with a tiny smile.
“Alright”, said Martina. “No problem. I can look it up in the catalogue, just give me a minute to start up the computer.”
“That would be useless”, said Mr Pereira. “The book is not in the catalogue.”
“Impossible”, replied Martina. “All our books have been entered into the catalogue.”
“Not this one, my dear”, said Mrs Schmit. “Someone brought it in today.”
“We didn’t receive any new books today”, frowned Martina.
“Not officially”, chuckled Mr Schmit.
“What do you mean, ‘not officially’?!”
“Taking advantage of the rather chaotic situation you created today with this silly event of yours, someone came in with a book hidden under their coat and hid it behind the books in the art section at the very back of the library”, explained Mr Pereira.
“What?!” Martina couldn’t believe her ears. “Why would someone do that?”
“Well, considering the subject matter of the book, my guess is they wanted to get rid of it. It must have become too much to handle”, said Mrs Becker. “As luck may have it, we have been waiting for a book like that for a very long time.”
“Some of us longer than others”, added Mr Schmit with a wink.
“Would you please get it for us?” asked Mrs Schmit eagerly.
“Sure”, said Martina. “But… if you know where it is, why can’t you get it yourself?”
“Because, my dear”, sighed Mrs Schmit, moving towards the window, “we are immaterial”. She placed her hand against the window and Martina could see the moonlight pass right through it. “We unfortunately cannot handle material objects. Well, some of us can, it’s true, but only with tremendous effort and objects that are not as heavy as a big book.”
“I understand”, said Martina. “Shall I go get it for you now? You said it’s behind the books in the art section, right? Do you know which row?”
“I’ll come with you”, offered Mr Pereira. “I was the one who saw the deed, so to speak, so I know where it is.”
Martina nodded and, careful not to step through any of the ghosts, which she was sure would have been really rude, headed towards the door. Mr Pereira slid silently down through the floor.
“Do you mind if I turn on the lights?” she asked the remaining three ghosts. “It would be easier for me.”
“It would be nice to not have them on in here if possible”, said Mrs Becker. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see us much”.
“Sure. Um… I’ll get my phone then and use the flashlight app.”
And she went downstairs.
“The what?” asked Mrs Schmit.
“No idea, dear, but I am sure she knows what she’s doing”, said M Schmit.
“I’m sure she doesn’t”, snorted Mrs Becker.
Downstairs, Martina had recovered her phone from her handbag and was now going towards the back of the library, where the art section was.
“Here”, she heard Mr Pereira’s voice coming from somewhere within the shelves. “I am right next to it”, and his hand came out from one of the lower shelves and waved. He must have been lying on his side, thought Martina.
She crouched as low as she could and removed a few heavy books from that shelf, then directed her phone’s flashlight beam inside.
Sure enough, there was a big book sitting there, behind the others. It looked heavy and tattered, so Martina removed a few more books to make enough space to carefully pull it out.
She stared at the leather-bound volume in her hands and turned it over. No title. Nothing to indicate which one was the front cover and which one the back.
“Good, you have it”, she heard Mrs Becker’s voice behind her. “Now please bring it upstairs, quick. We have no time to lose.”
“What kind of book is this?” asked Martina, heading towards the staircase.
“I believe some would call it a ‘grimoire’”.
“Grimoire”. Mrs Becker let out an exasperated sigh. “Are you really that uncultured these days? A grimoire is…”
“I know what a grimoire is!”, snapped Martina.
“Then why… oh, never mind. Just bring it up quick. We’re waiting for you.” And Mrs Becker floated up and disappeared through the ceiling.
“Must be nice to be able to do that”, muttered Martina, climbing yet again the long flights of stairs to the second floor.
Back in her office, the ghosts watched her as she carefully set the grimoire on her desk, right under a moonbeam. She prepared to open it, but then she hesitated.
“What are you waiting for?” demanded Mrs Becker in an impatient voice. “Open the book and let’s get on with it.”
“It looks a bit… you know, strange?” said Martina. “I mean, I normally wouldn’t be afraid to open a book, ha ha, but up until now I was convinced ghosts didn’t exist, and yet here you are, so if this is a grimoire, so technically a book of spells, of magic, maybe opening it wouldn’t be a good idea?”
She looked at the ghosts.
They looked back at her.
“You did say that whoever brought it was trying to get rid of it because it had become too hard to handle”, insisted Martina, “so tell me honestly: is it safe to open or not?”
Mrs Becker pursed her lips.
“Probably not. But who cares? It must be done.”
“I care! I don’t want to be cursed or something!”
“I’m sure you won’t be cursed just because you open this book.”
“But if you get engrossed in it, in… let’s say, the craft it teaches, well, then… there’s a good chance you’d end up cursed at some point. So don’t, alright? Now open it, please.”
Martina bit her lower lip, but her curiosity was sometimes stronger than her survival instinct. She grabbed the cover with both hands and flipped it open, shutting her eyes tight at the same time.
She had no idea why she had done that.
“Are you alright, my dear?” she heard Mrs Schmit’s voice in her right ear. “Do you have something in your eye?”
“Um, no, I’m fine, thank you”, said Martina, opening her eyes and looking at the book. She was feeling a bit silly now. The cover had taken along with it a few pages when it had opened, so they were now looking at the beginning of the grimoire. There was text, which seemed handwritten (and wasn’t moving or spewing fire or anything), and there was a drawing too (also very quiet). However, she couldn’t make heads or tails of anything in there.
“It’s upside down, dear”, whispered Mrs Schmit, this time so close to Martina’s ear that she jumped.
“Please don’t do that”, said Martina. “It’s… rather spooky. Sorry.”
“Oh, I see. I’m sorry”, chuckled the ghost. “I’ll keep my distance.”
“For crying out loud”, sighed Mrs Becker. “Please stop the chit-chat and turn the book around. We’re wasting precious time.”
Martina turned the grimoire around and tried to read what was on the pages in front of her. It looked like it was in French, but a weird kind of French. The drawing was rather disturbing, there were horns and snakes and something that looked like a contorted body.
“Page 67, please”, whispered Mrs Becker, and when Martina turned to her she could see the ghost had her eyes closed, as if she was meditating or something.
“She’s looking into the book”, whispered Mrs Schmit again, this time at a decent distance from Martina’s ears. “She has this special gift, you see…”
Martina couldn’t really see, but she was prepared to believe anything by then, so she dutifully leafed through the grimoire until she found page 67.
Still pretty much unreadable, from her point of view.
This time, the illustration showed something like a ghost or spirit taking flight and a grotesque grinning figure with a twisted stick behind it.
“There we are”, said Mrs Becker in a strangely honeyed voice. “All you need to do is perform this little ritual here before midnight and we will all be gone.”
“A ritual?” asked Martina, hoping that she hadn’t heard well.
“Indeed. A ritual that would allow us to find our way to the great beyond, the afterlife, whatever you may call it. We want to move on.”
“I see. Alright. Um… what do I have to do? I don’t really understand anything that is written here.”
“That’s because it is a rather uneducated form of Old French”, said Mr Pereira. “The persons who wrote these grimoires would rarely belong to the upper classes of society. If you would allow me… Old French is my speciality. Or used to be, when I was alive.”
He bent over the book and started reading silently, moving his lips.
“Aha!” he exclaimed. “Please take a piece of paper and a pencil and write this down. I am going to dictate to you what you need for the ritual.”
Martina raised her eyebrows but obliged. She sat down at her desk, feeling slightly embarrassed that the four older people had to stand, irrespective of the fact that they couldn’t actually sit on a chair. And were in fact dead.
“Right”, began Mr Pereira. “Six black candles, frankincense, one human skull, a few drops of liver oil from a new-born calf, a bowl of corpse water…”
“Wait, wait, WAIT!” shouted Martina, horrified. “What the hell is that?!”
“The list of items needed for the ritual”, replied Mr Pereira unperturbed.
“A human skull?! Oil from a new-born calf?! Corpse water?! I don’t even want to know what that is!!”
“It’s not a big deal, in fact, it’s just the water used to bathe the deceased”, supplied Mr Pereira.
“I understand, I used to be rather squeamish when I was alive too, but it’s amazing how one’s perspective changes when one dies”, shrugged Mr Pereira. “Not a big deal at all, believe me.”
“Well, I am still very much alive, and no way in hell am I going to do a ritual with this kind of things”, shouted Martina. “I wouldn’t even know where to find them!”
“Language, dear”, murmured Mrs Becker, while Mr and Mrs Schmit huddled together, looking a bit worried.
“A farm, a graveyard, a funeral home”, said Mr Pereira, perusing the list of items. “Not very difficult. Although this one may be a bit tricky, but perhaps it can be replaced with something else. Hmm.”
“What is it?” asked Mrs Becker.
“A hanged man’s finger”.
Martina’s jaw dropped. She stood up.
“Listen, guys, with all due respect, no”, she said, stressing every word as if she were delivering a public speech, “I am more than willing to help you, but not like this, no way! Not in a million years!”
Mrs Becker drew herself to her full height (and she was quite a tall, impressive woman) and floated right in front of Martina:
“You may want to reconsider, my dear”, she growled, her eyes now strangely red, like two burning flames. “A million years is nothing for us, indeed your entire lifetime is nothing for us and we can make it pretty miserable, if I may be so blunt. I have been very well-behaved so far, keeping to myself in the attic, but if we were all to start haunting the library, at all hours, I imagine people would be rather unhappy. Plus, as Mrs Schmit has already mentioned, my three friends are mobile, so they could certainly visit you at home as well. Perhaps pay some visits to your relatives, hmm? Or your friends?”
“We’ll… we’ll call a priest to exorcise you!” said Martina.
Mrs Becker threw her head back and uttered a formidable laughter. It was loud and not human at all, deep and shrieking at the same time. That’s how banshees must sound, thought Martina, dropping back into the chair. She was shaking slightly.
“How entertaining you are, my dear”, said Mrs Becker, returning to her normal voice. “We are not demons or evil spirits, we can’t be exorcised. We are just some unfortunate ghosts trapped in this plane of existence, who want to find their way to the ‘other world’. No evil intentions at all. We actually want to go away. But a priest won’t do. We need a psychopomp.”
“A what, now?” gaped Martina.
“A psych…”, began Mrs Becker, then stopped and crossed her arms. “Oh, you’re just going to tell me that you knew what a psychopomp was all along and you only said ‘what’ for dramatic effect or something like that, aren’t you?”
“Um, no”, said Martina, feeling like a little girl in front of Mrs Becker’s bellicose stance. “I actually don’t know what a psycho-whatever is. I just hope it’s not related to a psychopath… Is it?”
Mrs Becker sighed.
“No, it’s not. A psychopomp is a guide for the souls to the underworld, the afterlife, the great beyond, and so on.”
“I hope you do. This ritual summons one, so it can guide us on our way. However, it must be performed now, on this evening, before midnight.”
“I can’t, I’m sorry. Not with those… things. I wouldn’t have time to go get them anyway. I’m sorry, I’d love to help you, but…”
“There might be a way”, interfered Mr Pereira, interposing himself between Martina and Mrs Becker’s threatening frown. “We could replace some of the items with similar ones. They need to perform the same function, but need not be so…”
“Disgusting?” grimaced Martina.
“Hard to get, was what I was going to say”, smiled Mr Pereira. “For example, the hanged man’s finger is, to all intents and purposes, basically a bone.”
“Are you sure it would work, though?” asked Mrs Becker.
“Hm. ’Pretty sure’ is not enough”, frowned Mrs Becker.
“If it doesn’t work, we can try again next year”, suggested Mr Pereira. “One year is plenty of time to source all the necessary materials. I’m sure Martina here now understands that it is to everyone’s interest to help us leave this plane of existence. Don’t you, Martina?”
“Maybe”, she frowned.
“Good, then it’s settled. Let’s try the ‘less disgusting’ version tonight, shall we?” smiled Mr Pereira.
Mrs Becker snorted, but didn’t say anything.
Mr and Mrs Schmit, who had watched the proceedings so far with widened eyes, nodded their heads in unison.
“Splendid”, said Mr Pereira, rubbing his hands and going back to the grimoire. “Let’s begin. I assume the six black candles wouldn’t be much of a problem, would they, Martina? After all, you had a Halloween party here today, there must be some black candles around.”
Martina stared hard at him.
“This is a library, Mr Pereira.”, she pointed out. “There should be NO candles at all. Of any colour. At any time. However…”, she sighed, “one of my younger colleagues did bring some pumpkin-spice scented candles today, against my specific recommendations. And I believe there are more than six. Would those do? They are still here. They’re orange, though.”
“I’m sure the colour orange has some pleasant magical properties”, shrugged Mr Pereira. “They’ll do. Write that down, please.”
Martina did so, and then continued to note down the ingredients as Mr Pereira read from the book:
“The human skull… hmm, I see this one is needed in order to put one of the black candles in. Would you happen to have something similar around here?”
“Ooh, I know!” piped up Mrs Schmit. “There’s that lovely carved pumpkin they have in the window downstairs!”
“Great idea, Mrs Schmit”, said Mr Pereira. “It will do wonderfully, as it is meant to represent a head”, he winked. “The liver oil from a new-born calf… I assume we can use any kind of oil, even vegetable one.”
Mrs Becker snorted.
“I would imagine that these animal-based ingredients were not put in there just for amusement”, she said. “They must serve a purpose to attract the right kind of spirit.”
“Well, then, perhaps a vegetable-based ritual would attract a… vegetarian kind of spirit, sort of?”, asked Mr Schmit, with a little chuckle. “I’m sure he or she can guide us just as well.”
Mrs Becker sighed and gave up.
“Fine. Do whatever you want. I’m willing to bet we’ll still be here at dawn tomorrow…”
Mr Pereira smacked his lips and continued:
“So, vegetable oil. Do we have any around, Martina?”
“Yes, there is some olive oil in the kitchen corner.”
They continued like that for a few minutes, replacing corpse water with mineral water, grave dirt with normal earth from the flower beds in the library’s courtyard, the frankincense with a couple of sandalwood incense sticks (from the desk of the same colleague who had brought the candles), the hanged man’s finger with a chicken bone from that day’s lunch (Martina would have to fish it out of the garbage bin, but that was a minor nuisance compared to sourcing the real ingredient), dead man’s hair, blackthorn and mugwort with a herb mix called “Herbes de Provence”, and an acorn with a garlic clove. Salt was salt, at least, and a knife from the kitchen would serve as the ‘ceremonial knife’.
The blood sacrifice was a bit tricky to replace, though.
They debated about it for a while, Martina bluntly refusing to cut even a little bit one of her fingers. In the end, Mr Pereira had accepted her offer of a blood orange, which she had remembered was sitting on Nuno’s desk.
When the list was finished, Mrs Becker instructed Martina to take the grimoire upstairs, to the attic, and bring all the ingredients there.
“Why there?” asked Martina, quite unhappy that she had to go up and down lots of stairs again.
“There’s not enough space in your office”, said Mrs Becker. “Plus, I imagine you don’t want dirt and wax all over those nice wooden floors you have in the reading rooms, do you?”
“No, I don’t”, muttered Martina, grudgingly admitting the attic was the best option. “You’ll have to be a bit patient, though, I need to go out and dig some earth from the flower beds, and I also need to go down to the basement to turn off the fire alarm system.”
“Why do you need to do that?” asked Mrs Schmit.
“There’s one of those thingies up in the attic as well”, said Mr Schmit. “One of those smoke detectors. We’re going to have a bit of smoke there, with all the incense and herbs burning…”
“Right, right…”, nodded Mrs Schmit. “Off you go, then, dear. See you in the attic!”
And the couple floated up through the ceiling. Mrs Becker followed them, while Mr Pereira offered to join Martina while she went around the library (and a bit outside), turning off the fire alarm, gathering ‘ingredients’, carrying them all up in the attic, alongside with the heavy grimoire.
When all was set, with the grimoire propped on a music stand which Mr Schmit had discovered somewhere in the attic, Martina lined up all the items on the floor and stood up, waiting for instructions.
“Right”, said Mr Pereira, “First of all, I think you should prepare your protective amulet.”
“My what? That wasn’t on the list”, frowned Martina.
“Yes, it was. In bits. Do you have the cloth bag?”
Martina held up a small tote bag that she carried around in her purse, in case of unexpected purchases.
“Good. Put in it the hanged… um, the chicken bone, the… garlic clove, and sprinkle in some of those herbs. Not all, mind you, we still need some for later!”
Martina grimaced, but did as instructed.
“Right. Put a bit of oil in the bowl of corpse… um, mineral water.”
Martina did so.
“Now take off your clothes, sprinkle yourself with the water and put the amulet bag around your neck.”
“What do you mean ‘no’? That’s what the ritual says you have to do.”
“I am not taking my clothes off, and that’s it!”
Mr Pereira sighed.
“Maybe take off only some of them? For example, you could keep your underwear.”
“That doesn’t make it much better”, snorted Martina, her arms crossed. “Why do I have to get naked anyway?”
Mr Pereira spread his arms, exasperated.
“I don’t know, but it says in here you have to, so…”
“Maybe it’s because witches are supposed to be naked on the Sabbath?” suggested Mrs Schmit in her sweet voice. “And Halloween is one of the Sabbaths, right?”
They all stared at her.
“Mrs Schmit, you are a genius”, said Martina. “If I’m supposed to look like a witch, then perhaps I can dress like a witch, not undress. Hang on.”
She ran downstairs and reappeared a few minutes later wrapped in a black cloak and wearing a black pointy witch’s hat.
“Ta-daaa!” she exclaimed, with a flourish.
“I think that might just work”, said Mr Pereira.
Mrs Becker rolled her eyes.
“Not that I hold much hope for what has now become a ridiculous charade, but time is ticking”, she remarked.
“Alright, let’s keep going then” said Mr Pereira.
He guided Martina through the ritual – the drawing of the circle, the lighting of the candles, the offerings and so on.
When everything was done and a faint smell of burnt herbs mixed with pumpkin spice hang in the air, Mr Pereira nodded his head and said:
“And now, the incantation. As it has already been ascertained that you are unfamiliar with this form of French, to put it mildly, I will read it.”
He coughed a bit, then took a dramatic stance, as if he were performing on a stage, and began reading the incantation.
It sounded quaint and somehow beautiful to Martina’s ears, although she couldn’t make much of the words and was also pretty sure they didn’t tell a nice story.
Mr Pereira raised his voice and she assumed he must be getting to the climax of the incantation. Perhaps the psycho-whatever, the spirit guide, would manifest itself soon…
The air suddenly grew chilly and Martina started shivering. She pulled the witchy cloak tight around herself. She could see her breath in the air and the candles were flickering more wildly now, all their flames bending in the same direction, as if a draught was passing through the room. Yet there was no current of air, just the sensation of utter cold, bordering on frost.
A dim rectangle of white light, as tall and as wide as a door, appeared not far from the circle, where the candle flames seemed to be pointing. It now looked as if their light was ‘sucked’ by that door-shaped light. The ‘door’ flickered from time to time, like a spent neon light.
Martina gaped and stared.
“The passage…”, breathed Mrs Schmit, grabbing her husband’s arm. He smiled and patted her hand.
Mr Pereira finished the incantation with a booming vocal flourish and turned to look at the passage.
“There should be a guide, too”, he remarked. “The incantation was specifically meant to call forth a psychopomp.”
“I think we can go through the passage ourselves, no need for a guide for that”, said Mrs Becker dryly, advancing towards the rectangle of light.
“But what about after that? After we are through the passage? What if there’s a maze or something else, and we get lost?” asked Mr Schmit.
“Perhaps the guide is waiting for us on the other side”, said Mrs Becker.
“Um, I think your guide is here now…”, pointed Martina, who had been staring at the passage while the ghosts were arguing.
A shimmering figure of white light was now standing next to the passage. Although basically humanoid, its shape looked very undefined and it kept moving and changing. At one moment it would sprout wings, at another horns, its width and height varied, and it definitely had no face or any features at all.
It extended an inviting arm (or undefined limb) towards the ghosts.
“There we are, finally”, said Mr Pereira. “This is the moment we have been waiting for all these years.”
“I am a bit scared”, admitted Mrs Schmit, still holding on to her husband’s arm.
“Nonsense”, snorted Mrs Becker. “You can’t be scared. You have no glands to prompt a fear response anymore.”
“Well, then it’s just a memory of being scared”, mumbled Mrs Schmit.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going”, announced Mr Pereira. He turned towards Martina. “Thank you for all your help, young lady. May your life be long and happy. And remember not to have too many regrets about your earthly life. Otherwise you might end up stuck here like we were. Well, except for Mrs Becker, she didn’t really have a choice. Goodbye.”
And, with those words, he turned and walked resolutely through the passage.
Nothing else happened for a few seconds. The guide was still standing next to the passage, arm extended, its shape pulsating like a high-speed amoeba.
“You go next”, said Mrs Becker to Mr and Mrs Schmit.
“Shall we, my dear?” asked Mr Schmit. His wife nodded slightly and, after thanking Martina profusely, the couple stepped through the passage, hand in hand.
Mrs Becker stood there for a few moments, unmoving, then walked towards the passage.
Just before she went through, though, she turned towards Martina and said:
“Thank you, Marty. You’re really… alright.”
Then she turned and walked through the rectangle of light.
The guide lowered its arm and followed her. The door shape flickered once more, then disappeared, as it had never been.
The air was now warm again and the candles burned at a vertical angle.
Martina closed her eyes and just stayed there for a minute or two, letting everything that had happened over the past few hours wash over her. A couple of tears trickled down her cheeks. She wasn’t sure what they were for, but she welcomed the relief they brought.
With a sigh, she pulled herself up and started cleaning up the place. She felt dead tired. She felt as if her energy had been drained up.
She wondered whether that was what had actually happened.
Despite feeling exhausted, she put out the candles, swiped the floor and put everything back where it belonged downstairs. It would be weird if one of her colleagues found a magical circle in the attic. They rarely came up there, but who knew? One of them might get the idea to go to the attic and chill for a while with a mug of coffee or tea and a book. Martina used to do that from time to time herself, during breaks.
She went to the basement, reactivated the fire alarm, then went back to the ground floor and stared at the black grimoire next to her handbag. What was she going to do with it? This was not a book to leave around in a public library. She decided to take it home and ask a friend of hers who worked at the National Library. Perhaps they could find it a safe place.
Once outside, she stood for a while in the cold, harsh wind and took a long look at the building. All windows were dark. No light flickering anywhere.
She was surprised by the feeling of sadness that overcame her. Somehow she now wished the ritual hadn’t worked and the ghosts were still around. She could have talked to them, asked them questions. They must have had so many interesting stories to tell.
A sad little smile fluttered on her lips and she sighed.
It was time to go home.
The cemetery was rather busy. It was still early in the morning, but families were already showing up with Toussaint flower arrangements, talking among themselves while they made their way among the old trees, beautiful tombstones and funerary statues.
Martina’s family was from a village not far from Esch-sur-Alzette, so she didn’t usually go to the Esch cemetery on All Souls’ Day. None of her relatives were buried there.
This time, though, she had someone to visit there as well.
She looked at the simple white tombstone in front of her. A weeping angel stood next to it, one hand on the top of the tombstone and one hand extended as if asking for something.
Beloved wife, mother and librarian
May she rest in peace
Martina placed a small ceramic stack of books in the angel’s extended hand.
“I hope you found your peace on the other side, Mrs Becker”, she murmured.
“Marty?! Hey! What are you doing here?” She suddenly heard Nuno’s voice from a few tombstones away.
“Oh, hey Nuno”, she said, feeling slightly flustered, as if she were caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to. “Um, just visiting a friend.”
“Who was she?” asked Nuno, already by her side.
“Just someone I knew.”
“Someone you knew?” asked Nuno, looking again at the tombstone and raising an eyebrow. “She died before you were born, Marty. How could you have known her? Was she a ghost perhaps?” he chuckled.
“That’s exactly what she was. She was one of the Head Librarians of Escher Bibliothéik, do you know?”
“Oh, was she? Go figure.”
“You should read that book we published on the history of the library. I think I am going to make it mandatory reading for every librarian from now on.”
Nuno rolled his eyes, still smiling.
“Marty, sometimes you’re really…”, he started.
“Nuno Miguel Fernandes de Souza Almeida, where in darnation are you?!”, shouted a woman in Portuguese. “May God forgive me for cussing in a cemetery… Get here right now, do you hear me?!”
“Sorry”, smiled Nuno, looking a bit embarrassed. “That was my grandma, she’s calling me. I gotta go. See you tomorrow!” And he ran towards his grandma’s voice, who continued to shout instructions to various members of the family.
“See you tomorrow”, smiled Martina.
She threw a last look at Mrs Becker’s tombstone, and headed for the caretaker’s office. She had a couple of questions to ask.
Inside her coat pocket, her fingers were caressing three small ceramic stacks of books.
All characters and events depicted in this story are fictitious.
The author wishes to thank Tamara Sondag, Head Librarian of Escher Bibliothéik, for her invaluable help with the library-related bits and other details of the story.
Many thanks also go to Paul Townend, who read the whole thing and offered some suggestions on the author’s English.
Photos are from Unsplash and Pixabay.