I need for you to be real. I need for you to be who I think you are. If you’re not real, then today is the day I die.
Many generations ago, centuries past, the family from which I am descended were well known and well off. They were not royalty or nobility, but they kept company with such folks. The family was wealthy and had a trove of precious possessions that have since been sold, stolen, or lost. There is no rich side of the family now as far I am aware.
But after a single night of random online searches with some friends, and finding that the Lovelockes might have some interesting tidbits in their history, I became obsessed with my ancestry. I became obsessed enough to discover that the family’s most precious treasure was not a thing that it owned, but a person whose loyalty it had somehow earned.
I had never given any particular thought to my family’s ancestry for the better part of my life, mostly because I didn’t think there would be anything to find. Unlike some friends, who were first or second generation immigrants, still connected to another country and culture, whether they knew much about their heritage or not, I wasn’t even sure what, ethnically speaking, I was. I didn’t know, because when I was a kid and I asked my parents, they’d both give vague non-answers, because they themselves didn’t know.
My family didn’t seem to have mementos or a written history. But my parents sometimes dropped anecdotes about their childhoods, about their parents, and even grandparents. I was charmed by such stories, like when my mom recalled how much admiration, respect, and fear she had for her grandfather, my great-grandfather. She never used those words. It was just in the way she spoke of him. How he always kept his suits clean and crisp and had the same breakfast every morning, a hard-boiled egg, two pieces of toast, and a black coffee with no sugar. He would go for walks in the evening, allowing only one companion, his faithful dog, a retriever named Grace. Maybe it would have been a boring story to hear about anyone else’s great-grandfather, but he was my great-grandfather, and that made the difference. I wondered if I would feel more connected, more motivated to make something of myself, if I knew more about my family, objective facts from documentation, and stories from distant relatives, even stories of scandal, rumor, and gossip.
Over the next year, it became a personal project for me to research my family history, the history of the Lovelocke family. A lot of the records I found were subjective and unreliable, first-hand accounts from personal journals, logs, and letters. I did find more than I expected of lore, rumor, gossip, and opinions. I found stories to be proud of and delighted by, like the tale of a beautiful strong woman in a traveling circus at the turn of the century, and the wartime pilot who sacrificed his life to save fifteen of his comrades. I found stories to be ashamed of, stories I hoped weren’t true, like the murderer who poisoned seven people at a party.
The tale that intrigued me the most started sometime in the early fifteen century. The family wealth needed protecting and that meant protecting heirs and owners as well. The family hired many guards. The guards were of the highest quality, one was even rumored to be a nobleman who’d lost his fortune and titles and had become a wandering knight. There were a few stories about him. But the best guard the family hired was a man who was known only as Varik.
He was hired. So say the official accounts.
He was strong and quick and possessed of a valiant kind of grace. His weapons of choice were not sword or bow and arrow, but knives of many sizes that he kept upon his person. He even wore small ornate ones in his hair and was said to have given one as a gift to one of the girls of the family. She was ten years of age at the time and her mother accepted the gift on her behalf. Varik offered to teach the girl some skills of fighting when she was older. He was said to be charming, not salaciously so, but in a gentlemanly way. The girl’s mother almost relented, but she could not envision having a warrior for a daughter, and gave such a gracious refusal, that he was unoffended.
“You are all the protection she needs,” said the girl’s mother.
This was no ordinary girl, so far as Varik was concerned. The family did not know it, but the girl was one of three reasons he had chosen to protect them. The girl’s grandmother was the first.
Varik, as it would soon enough be discovered, was not like other men. Some said he was not a man at all. His people lived in the old country long before men and women came to settle there. His people possessed skills, powers, and talents that men and women did not. Some accounts claimed that Varik was an elf, or at least that his people were descended from elves.
According to such legends, Varik’s people had long ago made a pact with the first men and women to settle the lands. Men and women would till the soil, grow food, and provide it to Varik’s people, who in return would teach a select few men and women many useful things about building and forging, making and mending, traveling and trading, and measuring and musing. Those few would then teach their fellows and knowledge would spread throughout the land.
The pact abided for many generations, but because Varik’s people were secretive, because they were rarely seen or spoken to, they became less and less spoken of. The rituals of leaving food and feast for the mysterious people stopped when a harsh winter and sparse spring left less food to share. The invisible folk, as they were called, seemed to understand. But then lean times became bountiful times, and still the people did not sacrifice their food, for they had become accustomed not to.
The invisible folk for their part, had become accustomed to being fed. Even during the lean times, there were some who remembered the rituals. But seeing that the pact was broken, the invisible folk abandoned the land and its new people to return to their own ways. A few, angered by what they considered a careless betrayal, lashed out at the people.
It was said the lash was felt as a plague that ravaged through the land, leaving few dead, but many suffering. Rather than fearfully return to the ritual of feeding the invisible folk, the people of the land sought ways to ward the invisible folk off, to protect themselves.
Thereafter the invisible folk remained true to their name. There were rare accounts of people catching a glimpse of one. Some people went back to the ways of leaving offerings of food. But as time wore on, and generation after generation came and went, the belief that such enchanted folk were real began to wane.
Into such a world came a little girl named Geneva. She loved strange stories and she loved all creatures that were not like herself, animals, plants, and the creatures and peoples she learned of in the stories she heard. She learned of the invisible folk, and one day, she began to leave them offerings in the forest behind her house. The offerings she left were precious too, butter and bread. She placed the offering on a plate and covered it with a latched dome, to keep the birds and other animals away. Day after day, she would find her offering uneaten. Still, she persisted. She swore to herself that she would do so, until her dying day, and that she would have her children do so, and their children. So strongly did she long to believe, to know, that there were other kinds of folk out there in the world.
One day, little Geneva went to fetch back the plate of butter and bread, expecting to find it uneaten. The plate was there, but the food was not. The plate was clean too. There was not a crumb of bread or smudge of butter to be found. She looked out into the forest. Geneva was young and full of hope. But she also knew that the food she’d left might have been eaten by a vagabond, or perhaps even a friend or acquaintance who might have found her out. She had only told her mother about the offerings.
She brought out another offering the next day, and the next. Each time, they were eaten. Each time, the plate was clean.
Geneva chose to believe that her offerings had at last been accepted by one of the folk from her stories. She did not know that the one who ate her offerings was a wounded and starving young Varik, who was at first too weak to return the favor he was granted. How he came to be in that state is strangely not written in any account. Then one day, Geneva found something on the plate. It was a scrap of paper and there were markings on it, but she did not know what they meant. She could neither read nor write.
But she soon learned. For Varik taught her. Without speaking to her, without making himself seen or known in his person, using only scraps of paper and letters scrawled in the earth, and a little girl’s cleverness, he taught her.
Geneva grew up to be a bright woman who married a bright man named Lovelocke and together they grew the fortune he had inherited from his father.
She was true to her oath, and though she moved from her childhood house, she never failed to leave offerings for her invisible friend, who followed her to her new home and spoke to her only once, to give her a great gift, his name.
Geneva had many sons and daughters, but only one abided by his mother’s edict to continue the ritual of offerings to the invisible Varik. This boy, Curtis, was quiet and thoughtful, and he loved the old stories as much as his mother did. He surpassed his mother in his studies, as did many of his siblings. But Curtis did not shirk the old ways, particularly if they did no harm, but brought joy to his mother. He did not truly believe his offerings were being accepted by an unseen being. But he faithfully did his duty, and passed it on to his two children, one of which was a bright and beautiful little girl named Emily.
Her family had hired many guards to protect themselves and all their treasures. There was a guard whose sole duty was to guard little Emily and her younger brothers. One day, the children were gathering mushrooms in the forest. One of Emily’s brothers had fallen behind, and the guard had gone to fetch him. Emily had grasped her other brother’s hand and run farther away, just to see what it would be like to be free for a moment, away from the burdens of the grown folk.
Suddenly a creature came upon them, a great wolf-like beast. It stood on two legs and uttered a growl. It loomed over the children and grabbed them. The children screamed, and Emily managed to squirm free. She dropped out of the creature’s grasp just as the guard came crashing toward them. He had a sword and pistol drawn, but seeing that the creature still had one of the children, he dropped his weapons and lunged at the beast.
The wolf-beast fought the guard one-armed, refusing to drop the terrified little boy in its grasp. It raked the guard’s face, arms, and legs with its long sharp claws. It stabbed the guard, who tried to reach his weapons in desperation, but could not. The guard fell and when the creature stalked toward Emily, she thought all was lost.
But the wolf-beast stopped and uttered another howl that curdled the very blood in her veins. The creature turned. A dagger was lodged in its back, and there behind him was a man. The man was clad in fern-green garb and green boots. His long fair hair was tied behind his neck. In each of his green-gloved hands was a dagger. And in each of his gray-green eyes was a look of terrible wrath.
The creature advanced on the green man, still holding Emily’s brother in its grasp. The green man whipped his arms forward, releasing the daggers, and he brought them to his shoulders and pulled two more daggers from his garb. Those too he whipped toward the creature. Emily watched in horror, praying for one poor brother as she held the other.
The green man kept producing daggers and knives from his garb to throw at the creature, but it kept advancing. At last, it released the little boy and reached out its claws to rake at the green man. Man and beast collided. Emily crawled toward her newly freed brother and pulled him away from the battling foes.
She later remembered hearing her brother whisper in fear and confusion, “Why is the monster fighting the air?” For Emily did not know it then, but only she could see the green man.
The wolf-beast slashed at the green man with its claws. The green man slashed at the beast with his blades. Both were wounded and when the green man fell to his knees, fear crept into Emily’s heart. She was later asked why she did not flee and run back to where the rest of her family was picnicking, back to safety. But those who had never experienced such terror could not know how the body turns to jelly and to stone at the same time. She could not move. Her brothers could not move.
She watched as the green man sliced at the beast’s legs, and finally the wolf-beast fell.
Only then did her limbs unlock. Emily saw something glittering a few feet before her. The wolf-beast was not dead. It heaved forth labored breaths. But the green man was now standing looking down at the beast.
Emily knew that the glittering thing in the forest litter before her was one of the green man’s daggers. She reached for it and held it aloft just as the wolf-beast raised its head and looked at her. She saw then that it was no beast. It was a man’s face she saw, peeking out from under the head of a wolf. Emily had heard the accounts of a strange wolf-like creature stalking the lands to the east, attacking children. It was just a man. She understood, but the fear within her did not. She raised the dagger toward the creature. But his head dropped. It did not move again.
She looked up then, at the green man who had saved her and her brothers. He too looked at her and then at the dagger in her hand, his dagger. She had raised it aloft to defend herself, but now she raised it as an offering. She turned the blade toward herself and offered the hilt to the green man.
The green man took the blade from her and bowed. She was afraid he would leave or vanish. But he did not. As more guards, led by her father, burst into the clearing, they saw the children and were relieved. They saw the man in the wolf’s pelt and drew weapons on him.
They saw the green man too. For one of her brother’s suddenly proclaimed, “Where did he come from?”
Weapons were drawn on the green man as well, until Emily explained what had happened. Even though her brothers claimed not to have seen the green man until moments ago, their elder sister’s account sounded more likely being as the green man was there for all to see.
Geneva, Curtis, and now Emily had all shown themselves to be worthy. So the green man gave the gathered company his name.
“I am Varik, sire,” he said to the Lovelocke patriarch, “and I am at your service.”
Emily’s father responded that Varik had indeed already been of the greatest service. He offered any reward the green man could want in return for saving his children. Varik asked only to serve. He said he had need of work.
So he became a guardian of the Lovelockes. One of their best and most loyal protectors.
For three generations, he guarded the family. He did not seem to age, or at least did not show it, and it was an unspoken truth among the members of the family that their greatest guardian was something more than an extraordinary man.
But as skilled as Varik was, he was still mortal. He followed one of his young charges into battle, and he died, doing what he was sworn to do, protecting a Lovelocke. That should have been the end of the tale, a sad but valiant end. It might have been, if Varik was but a man. It might have been if he was only serving out of duty. But by that time, he had come to love the family he guarded so much that as he lay dying, he claimed to his young charge that he could continue protecting the family so long as his spirit remained in their memory.
There was a spell or a binding ritual that could be done that would bind Varik’s spirit to the Lovelocke family, so that they could serve as a physical anchor. One member of the family would be chosen to be this anchor by Varik himself. He would mark that one. The family would know for the mark would be made naturally, but would not be a natural shape. The first anchor was the young warrior with whom Varik had ridden into battle.
The records I could find turned vague after this account. There were some faded drawings of what the binding mark looked like. It could appear anywhere on the body, but usually on the upper body. There was one account of the mark appearing on the bottom of the foot. Records were also vague about how Varik’s spirit continued to protect the family. I surmised he might have had ghost-like powers through his link to the family and could move objects or haunt their enemies. But some accounts seemed to suggest that he could possess the marked person, his physical anchor, in times of need, imbuing that person with skills and strength he or she would not normally have. The same skills and strength that Varik had when he still lived.
The first time it was done, there was little choice, before Varik’s spirit moved on. But for future bindings, the family performed the ritual with each child—male or female—who reached the age of five years. That was enough time for Varik to know who among the children would make the best anchor and companion for him for the next several decades. As time passed and new generations of Lovelockes replaced the old, many old customs and rituals were lost as they stopped being practiced and taught. One of those customs was the binding ritual.
Some families among the extended Lovelocke line stopped performing the ritual. Others continued, so Varik had fewer and fewer to choose from. Then came a day when none among the family performed the ritual, or Varik himself chose not to bond, or forgot how.
Varik did not pass on into the next world. He was once the family’s guardian, but he became their ghost, our ghost. Without binding to one of the family, he could not protect the family, he could only haunt. So there were accounts of a mysterious ghost bound to the family. But such accounts claimed the ghost was a long-dead and angry ancestor, or someone who had been wronged, or one of the many Lovelockes who had died at home. I was certain it was Varik. He had sworn an oath to guard the family until his end or theirs. Though he had met his earthly end, he had found a way for his spirit to stay on. They had forgotten him. Perhaps he too had forgotten. Perhaps he had forgotten how to move on and he needed help, because all the time they had been depending on him, he too depended on the family to which he was linked. Now, he was stuck.
I thought I knew where he was stuck too.
Based on what I learned of the behavior of lost and wandering spirits, and assuming Varik’s instincts kicked in, I believed that Varik’s spirit might have returned to the old country. A lost spirit often returned to the last place that spirit could remember from life, like an ancestral home, and resided there, sometimes as a ghost, sometimes as a spirit slumbering.
I had found out where this place was. I made preparations for travel.
There was one very important reason why I was so driven to believe in Varik, find him, and free him. It was a selfish reason. Most everyone I know wants to be special. Or at least feel special. Accomplishments are a way to attain that feeling. But sometimes that feeling can be attained by things that are out of our control. Some people have extraordinarily beautiful eyes. Some people are born with perfect pitch. Some can roll their tongues or bend their limbs in weird ways. Sometimes the special is something big, sometimes it’s something small. Sometimes it is invisible.
I wondered why it was that Varik was so keen on helping and watching over and protecting this family. The kindness shown to him might have been enough. And love that grew over time. Part of me wanted to believe that was all, because that would make this story more beautiful. But part of me wanted to believe details I heard, passed down through oral tradition only, that told a slightly different story.
Geneva’s mother had been married before. Her husband went on a sea voyage and was lost. The wreckage of the ship that bore him and almost a hundred other men was found with no survivors. Geneva was still in her mother’s belly when this happened. Not too long after she was born, her mother married another man. This man was kind and gentle and raised Geneva as his own.
Varik was one of the invisible folk. He could survive in conditions no ordinary man could bear. He was near death, but he found shelter, and he slept, he slept as bears sleep, close to death, needing no food or drink, and he slept for years. When he woke, he was still wounded, still weak. He made his way back to his home, only to find much was changed. His wife had married another, and his child had grown into a sweet little girl. A little girl who was wont to leave offerings of butter and bread for the invisible folk.
This story fit so many of the other details, a wounded Varik, his particular interest in Geneva and her descendants. I found no proof. But if it was true, then I might have the blood of an elf-like race running through me.
If it was true, then I was obligated to serve the sleeping spirit of my family’s guardian, just as he had once served my ancestors. We owed him one.
I would help him move on. I’d been warned against it. Tampering with the spirit world and the otherworldly was not for us mortals to do, so I was told by a spiritualist. And tampering with a race of beings that my family records warned were dangerous when offended was not for us mortals to do.
I alternated between trying to convince myself it was all just family lore and not real, and trying to convince myself I should not do what I was planning on doing. I was the person who wouldn’t allow people to use a Ouija board in my presence. Yet I was planning on waking up a spirit that’s been sleeping for hundreds of years and teaching him how to move on to the next level. I had read legends of the invisible folk and how dangerous they could be, and how powerful they were. If they were angered or irritated, they might lay someone flat with the flu. They might even strike someone dead.
Varik’s spirit would at least be irritated, I imagined, if not outright angered that the family had not shown the same loyalty to him as he has shown to them. That they had shirked their part of the bargain. He might take it out on me, or worse other members of my family, or the family that was now living on the grounds. His oath might not protect us if it was voided by our neglect.
But I knew what I could do if Varik were to turn dangerous, provided I had the time. I could do the binding ritual and bind him to me. He could always refuse, but after centuries of being anchorless, I had a strong hope that his spirit would not be able to resist such an offer. Once bound, I could calm him, or at least command him not to hurt anyone.
I didn’t realize at the time how stupid my plan was, and how I really would have been better off writing a book about all the fascinating legends and stories I’d discovered.
I usually fell asleep on long plane rides, but for this journey I was up the whole time, reviewing my notes, flipping through photographs, etchings, drawings, and paintings.
The ancestral home itself was long gone. It lay on grounds that were now owned by others. The house had been torn down nearly a hundred years ago, but the foundation was still there. I’d received permission from the owners to visit the grounds. I told them about my family and the legends about their otherworldly guardian. I told them all of the truth except for the fact that I wanted to awaken Varik’s spirit.
I had the plans of the house that once stood on what was now an empty clearing overgrown with grass and relentless but beautiful weeds. I knew there was one place where Varik’s spirit might be resting if it was still there, if it had ever been there. Spirits, I was told, could attach to anything or anyone, but a resting spirit needed an enclosed space. The house may have been gone, but the basement should still be intact underground. It had been blocked off. But I had gotten the landowners’ permission and even their help to unblock and explore the basement. They seemed nice people. I got the feeling they thought I was hunting for old family heirlooms, but they seemed ready to hand me whatever treasures I found in that house. One of the owner’s sons even came out to meet me and give me a tour of their own house before taking me out to what was once my family’s house.
Even in the midday light it felt gloomy as I stepped onto the foundation. Sad. Maybe I was imagining things, but I thought I felt something and I thought I saw something, not with my eyes, but in my mind, a flash of an image. The image of an unfamiliar face.
The owner’s son stayed above ground and told me to holler if I needed anything as I descended into the basement. The air was so thick with dust I started coughing and had to put my shirt sleeve against my nose to breath.
I wanted to be the first one to walk down there, but the owners had insisted on making sure the basement was safe. They’d had workers come and shore up the walls and hang up lanterns.
I didn’t get to see much though. I didn’t get to say anything. I heard a succession of violent cracks and suddenly the ceiling was collapsing right on top of me.
I would have scrambled to hide under a table or even a chair, but everything happened so fast. I just stumbled away from falling debris. I tripped over my feet and fell. I had enough time to flip myself over before a slab of stone crashed down onto my right leg. I was stunned that I didn’t feel any pain. The entire room was shaking, crumbling around me. I looked up and saw what would be my death.
It was going to fall on me. A giant slab of stone, hovering above me, held back by broken wooden beams that were creaking and snapping under the strain.
I suddenly remembered why I was there in the first place. I remembered Varik. I was going to free him, to save him. But now…
I need for you to be real, I thought. I need for you to be who I think you are. If you’re not real, then today is the day I die.
…now I was the one who needed saving.
The room had stopped shaking, but those beams were giving way, one after the other. I thought I heard a voice calling out. From above. It must have been the owner’s son. I opened my mouth to yell back out to him. But I didn’t have the energy to make a sound. I was trapped. I needed to get out. The man crying out to me from all the stone and wood that had fallen on top of me could not help me.
I couldn’t think clearly through my panic. I was starting to feel pain, first from the cuts. My cheek felt sore and when I went to wipe it with my left hand, I felt a spike of pain in my wrist. My neck felt as if it were burning. I had to ignore it all. I had to roll away from that giant slab first and find some stable place to lie still until help arrived.
I pushed at the slab that had fallen on my leg, a leg I was sure I would lose if I survived. It must have been literally flattened under that slab of stone. I didn’t want to see what was under there. I closed my eyes and pushed with my hands. A twinge of pain went down my left arm. I tried to ignore it. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to move the stone. But I kept pushing.
The cracking and snapping of the beams overhead finally snapped and cracked my final nerve.
Despair filled me. Then anger and defiance. I think I screamed and pushed again, still with my eyes closed. I felt something sliding. I felt my arms and shoulders pulsing with what I could only imagine was adrenaline. I tried to open my eyes, but my face was covered in sweat or blood or both and I couldn’t see. I rolled to the side and I rolled again. I felt a rush of air close by and a thud that vibrated painfully through my skin and bones.
I remembered everything as soon as I opened my eyes and saw that I was in a hospital room. I called myself a stupid idiot a dozen times and gave thanks for still being alive to all the deities I could name. Before trying to move anything that might be broken or torn, I looked down at myself. My entire right leg was in a cast and suspended in slings. My lower left arm was encased in a cast as well. I felt no pain, but I was hooked up to a drip, so they must have been giving me medications. I felt something at my neck when I turned my head. I reached up with my right hand and felt a bandage.
A nurse came in to check on me. He told me my family was on their way. I asked him for a mirror. When he went to get it, the landowner’s son knocked on the door and asked to enter. He looked stricken. He had scratches all over his face. He had been trying to reach me when the ceiling caved in on me. I joked that he didn’t have to worry about my suing his family. I had signed a disclaimer. He saw that I was tired. He promised to visit again and take full responsibility for what had happened. There were people investigating the area and he would keep me updated. He left.
The nurse walked in with the mirror and warned me not to be shocked by how my face looked, that I would heal up all right and the scars would be minimal. I nodded and after he left, I held the mirror up to my neck. I felt something pulsing under the bandage. Pulsing, but not with pain.
I peeled off the bandage. There was no wound underneath. There was a mark. It did not look like a natural mark. It looked like a tattoo of a dark green leaf.
I saw my eyes widen in the mirror.
The binding. I glanced around the room, expecting to see a man clad in green.
The binding had happened. Somehow, it had happened even though I never did the ritual. I was marked.
But what was I bound to? A friendly spirit who would remember his love for my family? Or a once-benevolent ghost who had turned bitter and vengeful? Did he rescue me in that basement? Did he give me the strength to lift that stone off myself? Or was he the one who put me in danger in the first place?
He would protect me. That was the oath he was bound by. I kept trying to tell myself that. Unless something had changed, I had nothing to fear from him. I felt nauseated. I took a deep breath and felt the tears well up in my eyes. I blinked them away.
“I wanted to free you, not own you,” I said to myself, staring at my battered and weary face in the mirror. But then I saw a glint of something just beyond the mirror, on my bedsheet. I hadn’t seen it before. I put the mirror down and reached for the object, wondering if the nurse or the landowner’s son had dropped something. My breath caught when I saw what it was. I lifted the silvery dagger and brought it closer to my face. People were passing by the door and the windows to my room. I slipped the dagger under my pillow. I would take a closer look later. I pictured a little girl handing a dagger back to a man clad in green.
I let the tears fall now. I don’t know how the dagger got there, but it was Varik’s dagger. And there was only one thing he used his daggers for.
When the dinner tray came, I saved the roll and the butter. I wrapped them carefully in a napkin, said a few words I had learned in my research, and hid them in a drawer of the table by my bedside. I trusted they would be recognized for what I meant them to be. An offering.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel