Short Fiction - "The First Touch of Dawn: A Ghost Story"
This is an older story of mine which has a somewhat convoluted history of being moved from one place to another. Initially, I had even decided to use it as a part of an experiment in self-publishing—though, that whole plan never really went anywhere.
The story, itself, was a deliberate attempt to write what I considered to be a classic, more old-fashioned, sort of ghost story. The greatest challenge that I had to face, in the process of actually writing this story, was in keeping the narrator's voice consistent. I have very clear memories of constantly writing, and rewriting, particular lines until I has happy enough to move on.
Personally, I have always felt that the end result was worth all of that time and effort, though. Of all of the things that I have ever written, or tried to write, I would have to say that this story is high up there among the things that I am most proud of.
The First Touch of Dawn: A Ghost Story
In my little village by the sea, where I spent my childhood years, there was a tale that we often told. One that helped to pass the time during those long cold nights, as we gathered close to the fire. Our own little legend, if you will. Like so many others you can find, spread all across the world. You may have heard ones much like it before now.
As the tale goes, our little village by the sea was once the home of a lovely young maiden who fell in love with a man from far away. This man had come for reasons of his own—to settle in our village for a time, before he found himself called away once more. By war, perhaps? Or, work? Or, a family matter that called him home? The details have always tended to change with each telling of the tale—and, they have never been quite as important as its end. But, leave he did, with a promise that he would one day return for her.
The cliffs that overlook that little village of mine give one the most wonderful view of the sea, as it stretches off into the distance, as one stands to face the rising sun. It was their place—where they first met, and where they would so often meet. And, it was where she came to keep her morning vigil as she waited for her love to keep his promise and return.
Though, as the story goes, it was a promise that was never kept—as I am certain you have already guessed. Day after day, her love failed to make his return. And, as each day passed her by, her innocent patience gave way to doubt, and to a quiet desperation. Her trust and her devotion to this secret love of hers was twisted by the slow certainty of time's passage into something else—sadness, suspicion, or even anger. Or, shame. In time, she abandoned her morning vigil—though, as a full month passed, followed by another, the certainty of the new life growing within her became increasingly difficult to hide.
And, what became of this love of hers? Was he killed in some distant war, perhaps? Or, lost at sea? Did he ever truly intend to return? Were his sweet words only ever intended to draw an innocent young maiden to his bed? Once again, the details change with each telling, and they do not truly matter in the end.
Each version of this tale of ours moves inevitably to the same tragic conclusion. In the hour before dawn, on a cold winter's day, this lovely young maiden made one final ascent to watch for the rising sun—perhaps she intended to offer one final prayer for her love's return. Though, this time, she did not descend.
As the hours passed, her family grew concerned for their beloved daughter, and so set out in search. Though, they found no sign of her. Others of this little village of mine quickly turned out to lend their aid—for this young maiden had always been well liked. Again, though, they found no sign. As one day ended, and the next began, the search spread further out from our little village—and, concern became outright fear.
What had happened? Well, the whispers and speculation began almost instantly, as you might expect. In those first days, they were even tinged with a certain hope. Perhaps her love had come for her after all, they said. Perhaps they had left together. Though, if so, why were her own family also left unaware? Perhaps, instead, she had set out herself in search of him. Though, once again, it seemed an act of uncharacteristic cruelty from a loving daughter to a family who clearly returned her love.
As it happened, though, the people of my little village were not left to speculate for long. And, all their hopes were proven to be little more than wishful thinking. It was not long until the mystery was solved, and her body found. Broken by rocks, bloated by the cold waters of the sea—washed up upon the shore.
Here, hopeful speculation was to be abandoned in favour of simple fact. That this poor maiden's broken form was found upon the shore is more than idle gossip, and more than local legend. Her body was found late one afternoon by a pair of young boys, off in search of some manner of adventure—though, I am certain that they found more than they ever truly wished for. That the woman's stomach had begun to swell with the promise of new life, a life kept carefully concealed, was also a simple, tragic, fact. The official story, the one told whenever the details were asked for, is that she must have simply slipped and fallen. An accident, it was—tragic, but avoidable.
It is likely that this particular tale was told more as an act of kindness for the grieving family. The secret tale, the one spoken in hushed whispers and kept carefully from her family's ears, is that there was no accident. In a touch of poetic tragedy, she was described standing at the edge of the cliff—until her sorrow and her shame drove her to hurl herself onto the rocks below, just as she felt the first touch of dawn.
That would make a tragic enough end for any tale, I think—yet, for her, it was not to be. It was not long until a new tale came to replace the old. A tale of a ghostly maiden who could often be seen walking that same path she had so often walked in life. Of an apparition still keeping to her same predawn vigil—watching for the rising sun, until the first touch of dawn drove her away. For years, this tale lingered—and, the ghostly maiden became a part of our little village. Though, those that claimed to see her with their own eyes had always seemed few in number. The common wisdom had always been that it was simply best to leave her be. However, wisdom has seldom been for me, it seems.
I was a young man, at the time. Though, in truth, many still thought me barely more than a boy. Convinced that I understood the world, though I had seen little of it beyond our little village. I cannot tell you what possessed me to venture out one cold morning. To see her with my own eyes, perhaps—or, to prove that she had never been there at all. If you had asked me at the time, I doubt I could have told you which I would have preferred. Either way, though, venture out I did—and, that first touch of the chill wind as I stepped outside was almost enough to drive me back indoors!
I forced myself to press on, however. I followed the path as it led me from our village and up to the very edge of the cliffs, and there I stood—shivering, still, as I waited.
It was not long until I began to think myself a fool. There had been no sign of a ghostly apparition as I made my way along the path—and, as I stood there, there was no sign of any but myself. I was tired, and cold, and wished for nothing but the comfort of my own bed. I had already begun to console myself that, at least, no one else would ever know about my foolish endeavour. And so, I turned away from the cliffs, and set out along the path that would take me home. I had just set out along the path, though, when I saw something that gave me pause. It was movement in the distance—a figure making its way toward me. This figure resolved itself quickly into the image of a young woman. She was pale—unnaturally so, I thought. Her skin almost seeming pure white under the light of the moon. Her hair, black as it seemed to me, was left to fall as it may—gently framing what I thought to be quite a lovely face. As she drew closer still, I noticed that she seemed likely as tall as I. Her dress was typical of the women of our little village—made with care, though functional by design.
She looked exactly as the tales described her. So much so, in fact, that my first thought was a strange one. I imagined for a moment that I may have been the butt of some joke. That, perhaps, some friends had caught wind of my intention, and had managed to find themselves a young woman that looked the part—that they had sent her up after me to give me a fright. Yet, I knew that could not truly be the case. I had told no one of my plans, for one. And, also, there was something about her that struck me as odd. Something that tugged at my attention, though it took me a few moments to define what that may be. As she approached, it finally became clear to me that the wind, which tousled my hair, and tugged at my coat, seemed to touch her not at all.
She drew closer, her path taking her directly toward me. She seemed entirely unaware of my presence. Finally, I was forced to step aside, to make way for her, or else risk a collision. Though, it happened that I did not move far enough, or fast enough—my hand came to brush against her. Or, through her, rather! She had form, I could see that clearly—but, no substance. She looked every part the lovely young woman we had often spoken of in our stories, yet felt no more real to me than mist. A cold deeper than anything I had ever felt before ran up my arm. I pulled my hand away—my fingers, I remember, felt almost numb.
I did the only thing that seemed truly sensible to me at the time—I ran! I ran until my steps carried me back to my bed, and I hid there until the light of dawn shone clearly through the windows. And that, truly, should have been the end of it. Yet, over the course of the day, my fear gave way to a certain wonder. I had seen her, truly, with my own eyes! She did not seem a spirit likely to do me harm. If anything, she had simply seemed sad. And, alone. These are the thoughts that lingered in my mind all through that day. Until, by the time evening had approached, I had convinced myself that I wished to see her again. I took to my bed early.
The next morning, I rose before dawn once more, and made my ascent to those very same cliffs. This time, I must have arrived later than the day before—for, I saw her there already, standing at the very edge. Looking out over the sea, and toward where the sun was soon to rise. I came to a stop, then, and watched her from a distance—as I saw her there, I admit, I began to feel oddly like an intruder. I could not bring myself to move any closer. She did not move or speak, though, and gave no sign that suggested she was even aware of me. And, as the sun rose and its first rays finally came to touch her, she seemed to simply fade. It is a difficult thing to describe—but, I saw her there, seeming real and whole. Then, I saw her grow faint—insubstantial. It was as though I could see the light of the sun passing through her. Then, with the first touch of dawn, she was gone. So completely did she vanish that, for a moment, I had to wonder if she had ever truly been there at all. I doubted myself. I wondered, perhaps, if she had simply been some manner of hallucination, or perhaps a waking dream. Though, I brushed those thoughts aside. I knew that what I had seen was a simple truth. I resolved immediately to see her again, the next day.
The next day proved to be much the same. As did the one after. One day gave way to another – and, with each that passed, I found myself drawn to that same spot once more. Always, I kept my distance – at least, at first. As each day passed, I found myself drawn closer to her—until, finally, I found myself standing by her side. Yet, even then, she gave no reaction to my presence. Finally, for reasons that still elude me, I began to speak.
I spoke of trivial things in those first days. Of the occurrences of the day before—or, of rumour and idle gossip. But, in time, I began to speak more of myself. I told her of my hopes and dreams—which I will not repeat here. You need not know how far short I fell of reaching them. I told her, too, of every moment of pain and sadness to touch my, admittedly, short life—though, I am certain they must have paled in comparison to her own.
As the days passed, I must have told her of every moment of my life worthy of mention—along with just as many, if not more, that likely were not. And, through it all, this ghostly young woman uttered not a single word. Always, her face remained turned away from me, her gaze cast out toward the sea. Always, she would simply watch for the rising of the morning sun—and, with the first touch of its light, she would simply fade away.
As night gave way to each new dawn, I would always be left to stand alone—to wonder at what could serve to trap such a lovely young woman so. I had noticed elements of repetition in her movements—and, the more I studied her, the more perfect it seemed. Each morning, her movements were the same. So much so, in fact, that I became convinced that what I actually witnessed was a recreation of her final moments of life. To my mind, it could not be anything else.
It was an especially cold morning when I found that my one-sided conversation had finally run its course. I stood silent by her side, and shivered—my coat held tight about me, offering little protection against the cold wind. Though, as always, it seemed to touch her not at all. The silent moments slowly passed us by, and I could see the sky begin to lighten—it would not be long, I knew, until she was lost to me for another day. I suddenly felt moved to ask a simple question, one that I had not had the nerve to ask before. "Why?"
Truly, I had no reason to expect her to respond—I was prepared to accept her continued silence as my only answer. And, for a time, it seemed as though that was truly how it was to be.
And, yet—"I do not know." The words came softly. Her voice was faint, as though it must cross some vast distance to reach my ear—yet, as always, she stood by my side.
I turned to her, then—yet, her own gaze remained fixed on a distant point. I waited – and, for a time, it seemed as though she would have nothing more to say.
"It was a desperate act," she spoke once more. "The act of a sad and lonely girl, I fear. At the time, I saw no other way."
I stood beside her—silent and uncertain. I had grown so accustomed to her silence that the very idea that she would ever speak had begun to seem unreal. In truth, I felt nothing but a certain sadness. My own silence was not born of shock, but rather a simple certainty that there were no words I could provide that would offer any real comfort. I surely wished there were.
Though, it seemed as though no words were needed, in the end. The lovely apparition who had been my unwitting companion for these past days allowed herself only a moment of pause before she spoke once more. "It all seems so strange. How long have I stood here?"
"Years," I said.
She had turned to face me, now—and, I found myself reluctant to meet her gaze. I was not certain I would like what I saw there. "Yes," I said to her, "we have told stories about you since I was a child."
"Yes, I think I remember, now," she said. She fell silent once more.
I felt her eyes on me, yet was still unable to meet her gaze. I could only guess at what thoughts must have weighed on her in those moments. Whatever they were, I was certain that I would be of no use to her—and, that simple knowledge shamed me.
"I thank you for your company," she said at last. Her voice seemed closer now. "Though, I think it is well past time I took my leave. I am afraid you will not find me here again."
I must admit that I was stunned. After days of silence by my side, and however many years before that stood alone, her first words were to tell me that she intended to leave? And yet, I see the sense in it, now. Trapped for so long in that single moment, when all it had seemed to take was for a seemingly simple question to set her free—why would she wish to linger longer than she had already?
"Where will you go?" I asked. It was all I could think to ask.
"I do not know", she said once more, though she seemed oddly unbothered by the thought. "I would go back if I could. Unmake the decision that trapped me here. I would have learned to bear the shame."
The sky had continued to lighten with the approach of the morning sun. Soon, she would be gone once more—and this time, it seemed, I was not to see her again. I wished then, just as I do now, that I were wise enough to other some parting words. Yet, I remained silent and she spoke on.
"There is nothing here for me beyond this single moment. I can see that now. Whatever waits for me, I have no wish to tarry here another day."
I held out my hand to her, and she placed her hand in mine. There was no more substance to her form than there had been that first time I had touched her, yet it seemed a simple thing to mime the action together. She carried that same unnatural chill about her still, yet I made myself endure it. Her eyes met mine, for the first time, and she smiled—I had always found her to be quite lovely, yet never more than at that very moment. I bowed my head to her, and mimed raising her hand to my lips.
I must admit that there was some part of me that wished she would not leave—yet, I knew that instantly for the selfish desire it truly was. "Farewell," was all I said, instead.
"Farewell," was her response. And, at the first touch of dawn, she seemed to fade once more. Though, this time, her eyes held mine until the end, and that same smile curled her lips. Her eyes held mine, until she was no more to me than a memory.
A memory—and, one I still hold dear. As I stood alone, one final time, I knew that I would not see her there again. In the years since, I have lived my life to the best of my ability—falling short of my youthful aspirations, but still finding some measure of contentment. When my thoughts drift to her, as they tend to do when I find myself alone, they do so with a certain wistful fondness, content with the small role I had to play as her sad tale finally reached its proper end.
© 2019 Dallas Matier