A Specter in Amber

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A young woman wearing late nineteenth-century dress sits just left of center before an alcove with three windows bearing ornate snowflake patterns on the top pane. She is looking down at a book in which she is writing. A candle burns at the bottom left. A ghostly hand presses against the bottom right pane.

I heard her climbing up to check on the source of the clatter, just as I had.  And when I heard Marta enter the room and scream, half of me wanted to turn around and comfort her.

The other half of me wanted to keep locking gazes with the specter that was floating outside the attic window.

Because I knew that if I looked away, I would never see that specter again.

In the end, I chose to serve my humanity.

I turned and caught Marta as she collapsed to the ground.  A sudden darkness fell upon the room, despite the lanterns.  One mine, and one Marta’s.  The specter’s glow had been so bright, as if the full moon had descended down just to peer in my window.

“Viola,” Marta breathed.

“I’m here.”  I helped her to her feet.  “Don’t worry,” I said.  “This particular haunting is done with.”

“Oh?”  Marta gulped and brought her hand to her chest.  “I’m glad to hear it. But I am sorry for you.”

I didn’t have the will to smile, even out of politeness.  I helped her downstairs, so we could make something hot and comforting.  It was not a chill night.  But we were both shivering.  It was an after effect.  It would pass.

As we left the attic room, I did not look back.

***

The next morning, I checked the attic and found nothing amiss except that my sister’s journal had fallen off the writing desk and lay open and face-down on the worn floorboards.

I picked it up, puzzled at my lack of emotion.  I hadn’t wept yet.  I’d slept through the night.  I had even jested with Marta about giving me notice if she had decided to leave.

But she had looked me directly in the eye and sworn that she would stick by me.  We were friends now, she said, and she wasn’t one to abandon her friends. 

The attic still felt cool and dry.  I glanced up at the ornate snowflower patterns that now adorned the windows.  They had worked.  The specter had not been able to get in.  But they must have let some kind of energy through, enough to knock the book over.

I flipped it over and read from my sister’s field journal.

When I stumbled upon a piece of amber, it’s golden molasses glow brightening as I held it up to the sunlight, I thought I had stumbled upon a potential scientific discovery. I could not have known that something even more profound than ancient life lay within that petrified sap.

~***~

“Petrified sap?” I asked.

It was five months prior, and I was sitting at dinner with my sister and my fellow boarder.

Miranda smiled.  “That’s what amber actually is.”  She looked about at the meager table that Marta and I had set out.

“We don’t have bread today, sorry,” I said.

But my sister did not care.  She went on and on about her so-called discovery.  She opened her unwieldy field journal and made me read her description.

Amber chunk.  Several present.  Largest one removed from site for further analysis.  Approximately ten centimeters by five centimeters; irregular shape.  Sketch below.

“You’re a fair artist, but your powers of description leave much to be desired, sister.”

“It’s observation, not poetry.”

“Thank goodness, you’re terrible at poetry.”

“I’m wonderful at it,” Marta said, ladling stew into our bowls.

“That’s good,” I said.  “Then you can serve as our evening entertainment.  I know I said I would take you to a play, but I didn’t realize how expensive it was to buy even the farthest seats.  I’m afraid we’ll have to do it next visit.  I’ll have enough saved up by then.”

Miranda waved a hand, and I knew what she would say next before she said it.

“I’ll pay for us—all of us.  Marta you come along too.”

“I couldn’t!”

I peered at my sister.  “Your funds are as modest as mine are, Miranda.  That’s your husband’s money.”

“And he asked me to make sure I spent some on you.  ‘Show that little sister of mine a wonderful time,’ he said.”

I sighed. “That’s kind of him.”

“It’s bribery.  But you might as well take advantage.  I saw you eyeing those new inks in the paper shop.” 

***

Miranda had left the amber at home, locked away in a trunk and in a locked room.  She was always careful, more careful and regimented than anyone I knew, when it came to handling an item that she thought might be dangerous, or itself endangered.

Aside from her constantly mentioning that she was eager to get back and study the few items she had gathered on her jaunt through the woods of what was now her home county, Miranda was a happy visitor, and a gracious one.  I did end up allowing her to buy me a set of inks.  And she even bought Marta a tin of tea.

I may be revising my memory, with details I now know to be true.  But I think that even then, even in those first days, I had noticed a change in my sister.  A glow she had not had before.  I attributed it to being happily occupied with her pursuits, or happily married, or living away from the city.  Or being with child (though I didn’t think I would notice before she did.)    

***

Then it came time for me to visit her.

Her letters had been full of excitement and energy. 

I was shocked when she shambled toward me upon my arrival, smiling a pale and gaunt smile.

“Have you been ill?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

She’d been bedridden for a fortnight.  Maybe a few days longer. 

“I would have come to care for you,” I accused.

Her husband interjected.  “She forbade me from summoning you.”

Later, when Miranda went to her rest early, I confronted her husband.  “I have no right to speak to you in this manner in your own home, but you should have summoned me.”

He stiffened, then signed. “You have every right.  And yes, I should have.”

“Are you alright?  Have you caught her illness too?”  I reached out a hand to grasp his elbow.  He had grown suddenly pale. 

“I am not ill,” he said.  “Just worried.”

“I’m glad she has you,” I said.

He gave a weak smile.

I replied with a grin.  “You’re rich enough to afford the best doctors.”

***

Before I left, Miranda had recovered completely.  Her cheeks regained their color—indeed, they seemed to have gained some color they didn’t have before.

“Are you using rouge?” I asked one day. 

Her eyes sparkled as she turned to me, catching the midday sunlight like two tiger’s eye stones. 

“No, why, am I turned red?” She put a hand to her cheek, then to her forehead.

As she did, her hair, which she wore loose over her shoulders, shifted with a watery grace.  Locks floated slowly and settled softly on her shoulders.  Miranda’s hair was thick and heavy.  I’d never seen it float.

And every time she moved, I smelled some flowery scent that I couldn’t quite place.  I almost asked my sister if she were wearing perfume.  But if she was, it was well and good for her.  It meant she was truly feeling better.

“Did you know that the stars are so far away that by the time a given star’s light reaches our eyes, that star could have been dead for eons?” Miranda asked at dinner.

“I did not.”

“A somewhat sad thought, isn’t it, darling?” her husband commented.

“If its light lives, then perhaps the star lives,” I said.  “Bits of it reaching every corner of the cosmos.”

Miranda beamed at me.

“But to what end?” I added.  “If I were a star, I’d like to stay intact.”

Miranda cocked her head.  “Why do you assume that the star is no longer intact?”

“Are you saying, dear, that the star in question has not died, but simply…stretched its form?”

Miranda tipped a nod to us.  “No longer sad, is it?”

I laughed.  “No, now it’s simply strange.” 

***

I would later remember that conversation.

I would later remember the sparkle in my sister’s eye, and how I thought it was the light of the candles.

But the candlelight was yellow.

And the light in Miranda’s eyes…was blue.

***

I went home, back to my studies and back to my labors.

I sent my letters to Miranda.  And she sent her letters to me.  And she seemed well.  Her letters came more frequently than mine soon enough.  She was eager to tell me about her discoveries.  She had found some fossils, nothing new, but she was happy that she had recognized them.  And she’d been praised for her careful treatment of them.  They were some kind of birds, but also lizards.  I wouldn’t have quite understood even if she were showing and explaining every little thing to me, as I stood in the “laboratory” she had established in a spare and remote section of her house.

Of the amber, she said little.  There didn’t seem to be anything of interest about it.

I did not know that anything was amiss, until I received a letter I wasn’t expecting.

From Miranda’s husband.

***

When I arrived, it was the just before dawn, and he was waiting by the front door.

No one else was about.

He approached me.  He was shivering.  And his face was raw and red. 

“I’m sorry, Viola,” he said, as he handed me a ring full of keys.  His next words to me were rushed and breathless.  “I summoned you.  I didn’t want to.  But you asked me to, and so I did.  She’s gone.  She’s there, but she’s gone.  We have lost her.  See her one last time, but do not stay.  I’m sorry.  I cannot go with you.  I have to leave.  I must leave now.”

He swept past me before I could reply, before my mind could understand the words that my ears had heard. 

All I could remember was “she’s gone.”

I let him go and ran into the house.  He hadn’t told me where she was, but I saw that he didn’t have to. 

There was some substance on the floor, something thick and sticky, like honey, or…sap.

But it had a slightly greenish hue.  I followed a trail of it upstairs to the attic, being careful after I slipped a few times in my rush to see if my sister was still alive.

I found her sitting at a writing desk, with her back turned to the door. 

“Miranda?” I called.

The trail of green sap ended and pooled where she sat, but Miranda herself was not stained by it.

“It’s something to do with the amber,” she said. Her voice vibrated with an unfamiliar resonance.

I stepped into the room.  “May I come in?”

“Of course.”

“What has to do with the amber?”

“The wondrous change in me that has so frightened my husband.  Has he left?”

“For the moment, yes.  I’m sorry I didn’t stop him.  I was more concerned about you.”

Miranda laughed.  Her laughter twinkled.  It shimmered.  But my older sister had a deep and rich laugh before.  A smooth and simple laugh.

“You have always been concerned about me.  And I have never quite appreciated that as much as I should.”  Miranda did not turn to face me.

I took another step toward her.  “He said you were gone.  I don’t understand what he could have meant.”

“He means that the person I was is gone.  That who I am now has changed.”

“Miranda, he was shaking and weeping.  He was terribly upset, so upset he couldn’t come up here with me.  What change would leave him so…affected?”

“Do you not think, sister, that he would behave the same if I were up here bearing his first child?”

I blinked, too dazed to reason, but trying to reason anyway.  “Well…I don’t know that he would.  You know him better than I do.”  I stepped near enough to lean to the side and try to see her face.  “Would you turn around?  I should like to see this change.  I’ll do my best not to run away.  But I can make you no promises.”

“You’re right, sister.  If I were up here bearing his child, that is a change he would have welcomed, celebrated. I suppose that will never be now.”

I felt a fright enter my heart.

“I could have refused this change, Viola,” she said.  “And do you know that it was not him that I thought of when I considered staying as I was, remaining human, only human.  It was not him, or mother, or father.  It was you I thought of.  Yes, I have known it all along.  If I had a child…but I don’t have a child.  And so it is you, little sister.  I love you most of all.  And I will miss you most of all.”

I reached out to her, my eyes filling with tears.  My fingers felt a prickling heat, a chilling cold, a force like rubber, pushing back. 

I could not touch her.

“Miranda, please.  Turn to me.”

“No, I would hurt you if I did.  Now, listen.  I have left you everything I have.  Indeed, this house is now yours.  He gave it to me, and I’m certain he doesn’t want it back—he has others.  He gave it to me, and now I give it to you.  I give you my field journal,” she said, laying her hand on the closed book on the writing table.  “Read it.  I’ve filled its pages with things you need to know.  You may pass it on if you wish, but not until you read it.”

“Yes, of course, I’ll read it, but—“

“Promise me, Viola.  Say an oath, on my life.”

I hesitated.

“I’ll turn around if you do, but you must look only at my eyes. Will you heed?”

“I will.”

“On my life.”

“On your life, I promise to read your journal.”

She turned quickly toward me, and we locked gazes.

***   

I couldn’t remember when she left.  And it was not until I felt the ache in my feet and the stiffness of my muscles that I realized I’d been standing for much longer than a few moments.

The attic was bright with sunlight.  Dawn had come and passed into full morning.

Of course I searched for Miranda.

And of course I tried to find her husband as well, my brother-in-law.

And of course as I searched and searched, I feared that I would never find either of them.

I thought there would be scandal and investigation.

But Miranda had made arrangements.  Everyone else thought she and her husband had moved away to a faraway land.  Correspondence would be difficult, though she would try when she could. 

Over the next few months, I was not surprised when told that someone had received a letter from Miranda every now and then.

For I was keeping my promise to her.  I was reading through her journal.  Her observations.  Her plan.  The knowledge that she had gathered.  She wrote that the pages were insufficient to contain all that she wished she could pass on to me.  And most of what she wrote, though it was in a language I understood, was constructed so strangely that it was gibberish to me. If it was a code, it was one I had not yet managed to crack.

What she did not write about was what had happened to her.  Where she had gone.

What she had become.

That I would have to put together from the clues she left behind.  The amber.  Her story of the stars.

Her glowing form and her bright manner. 

Marta accepted my invitation to come and live with me, reluctantly so at first, for she feared she was taking advantage of my grief.  I told her that I would not begrudge her for doing so.  I wished for someone to enjoy the house. I think at first, perhaps still, she took pity on me.

She has listened with patience and empathy as I’ve tried to reason out what must have happened to my sister.

“She said that insects could be trapped in sap as it seeped from a tree,” I said, “and then as the sap petrified and became amber, they would be preserved.  And I wonder, if natural things like insects could be preserved…”

“Then perhaps things unnatural could be preserved as well?”

“Exactly.”

“And your sister, she came across something unnatural in the amber?”

“Perhaps, or perhaps it was something natural, but extraordinary, or…grand compared to human life and scale.”  I sighed.  “Like a star.”

“A star?”

“Well, the essence of one?”

“The ghost of star?”  Marta clutched the neck of her dress.  She had encountered a ghost once before in her youth, and was loathe to ever do so again.

“I wish she had never found that piece of amber,” I said quietly, and something in my tone moved Marta to rise from her chair and come to me.

She stood behind me and wrapped her arms around my shoulders.

~***~

That was a few days prior.  And last night, the “ghost” of my sister visited me, for what I feared was the last time.  Somehow, she had told me so when we locked gazes.  Perhaps her soul had spoken to my soul.

I set her field journal aside, and sat down on the stool before the writing desk.  I pulled my own journal toward me.

I had found no logical, reasonable, or natural explanation for what happened to my sister.  And though I read her journal from cover to cover, I found no enlightenment within its pages either.  The only words that made sense were the ones revealing her plans and the ones instructing me how to ward the house against the dangerous energies that were released by the amber.

Where was I to turn now? To myth? To legend? To the fearful parts of my mind that dwell and cower in shadow?  I didn’t destroy the amber. It was my instinct to do so, but what if something still dwelt in the amber?  And what if destroying it would release whatever was within it, to infect all of humanity as it had infected my sister?  Miranda thought it was wondrous, so wondrous that she gave up everything, abandoned all of us who loved her. The sister I knew would not have done so without good reason—but the last time I saw her, she was no longer the sister I knew.

I dipped my pen in ink—one of the inks that my sister had bought me.  I began to write.

Perhaps I can warn you, guide you, not to stay away from that which is unknown, nor to embrace it.  But to keep your distance as you watch, observe, study, and be ready.  Be ready to realize that you and your human self, both fragile and powerful at the same time, may be the least of the powers in our cosmos after all.

Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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