The Ghosts of the Eastern Mountain
A ghost story that isn't all what it seems.
“I didn’t know fireflies sounded like that.”
Jabez opened his eyes in annoyance, his brief moment of rest disturbed by his sister. He regretted showing her the way up onto the top of their family hut. Looking up at the stars late at night with the wooden roof under his back was a peaceful way to end a busy day. The last thing Jabez wanted was a long conversation.
“What else would they be, Maya?”
“Well, you know what Naaji says, right?” Maya continued to stare at the glow atop the eastern mountain. “Naaji says that they’re-”
“You mean Naaji, the homeless boy? I’m sure he knows exactly what they are.”
“Yes, Naaji, that’s him.” Jabez’s sarcasm was lost on Maya. “He says that they’re dead people. He says the reason they make that awful sound-”
“Oh come on, Maya. If you’re going to share silly stories, at least get them right.” Jabez couldn’t help but correct his sister. “He says they’re the ghosts of people who have passed on, not dead people. You make it sound like they’re zombies. Zombies don’t glow, but ghosts do. Or...they would if they were real.”
Maya turned to look at Jabez. “And the sound they make, then?”
Jabez turned his head away from his sister. “The ghosts are wailing, wanting to come back to their families here in the village.” Hearing a gasp from Maya, Jabez turned his head back around and looked at her in the eyes. He felt guilty now. “Listen, Maya. It’s all nonsense, okay? They’re just fireflies. Naaji doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s never left the village and he has no parents to talk any sense into him. He just shares silly stories for attention.”
Maya sighed as she crawled towards the corner of the roof. “Maybe you’re right. Sorry, Jabez. I’ll stop listening to Naaji. Anyway, I don’t like the sound they make. I think it’s time I went to bed.” She began climbing back down off the roof, awkwardly placing her feet one by one down the makeshift footholds that Jabez had shown her earlier that evening. “Good night.”
“Good night, Maya.” Jabez looked back up at the sky. He didn’t want to admit it, but the sound flowing down the mountain from the fireflies was eerie. They almost sounded like voices.
“Up now, Jabez!”
“Okay, father. I’m getting up.” Jabez reluctantly sat up in his bed, preparing himself for another day of hard work. After slowly dressing, he walked into the kitchen and smiled at the wonderful smell of breakfast stew.
“Right, Jabez. You’ll have to eat quickly. You’ve got a busy day ahead. I need you to pick up some more vegetables from Julian down at the corner of the village, the side closest to the northern wall. Just the usual order. He knows what I want.”
“Yes, father.” Jabez was hardly listening, his father’s words going in one ear and out the other. He was half asleep, while the other half was more attentive to the wonderful taste of breakfast stew.
“And don’t go any further than Julian’s place on that side of the village. We still don’t know anything about the land in the north. The northern wall isn’t just there for decoration.”
Jabez nodded slowly as he continued to eat.
“Then, you need to pick up some chopped wood from Sylvan on the other side of the village. I need you to start working on a ladder to put near the back corner of the hut. If you and Maya are going to sit up on top of the roof at night, at least make it safe to get up and down.”
Jabez’s eyes widened. His father wasn’t supposed to know about the time he spent on the roof. Jabez had only been up there a few times, only when he could hear his father snoring late at night. Bracing himself for a lecture, Jabez looked down at his bowl of breakfast stew, avoiding his father’s gaze.
“Listen, son. I don’t mind you being on the roof, okay?” Jabez’s father sat down on the other side of the table. “It’s better than being out in the village at night, getting into trouble. Just be careful, okay?”
“Yes, father. I will.” Jabez was relieved.
“And son? I heard you and Maya talking about Naaji last night, a story he told. Something about a ghost?”
“Father, I’ve told her not to listen to him anymore.”
“Good.” His father nodded as he stood up. “Now, finish breakfast and get moving. Vegetables and…”
“And wood for the ladder, I know.”
“And don’t go near the northern wall.”
Jabez winced, recognising the voice immediately. “Hi Naaji.” With a sack of potatoes slung over his left shoulder and a basket of assorted vegetables in his other hand, Jabez continued to quickly shuffle towards his family hut. Maybe if he kept moving through the busy crowd of people, Naaji would leave him alone. Jabez turned a corner into a narrow pathway between the tavern and a row of huts just off the main pathway.
“They’re trying to talk to us, Jabez. I can hear them. They’re saying our names.” Jabez stopped in his tracks and turned to look at Naaji, anger filling his chest. His sudden stop in the narrow pathway was causing a bottleneck for the busy crowd of people shuffling past in each direction.
“Move it!” A stranger bumped into Jabez’s right shoulder, almost making him drop the basket of vegetables.
“Sorry!” Filled with frustration, Jabez held his right arm in front of him and pushed Naaji towards the side of the tavern, out the way of the foot traffic.
“Ow!” Naaji stumbled back. Jabez was using the basket of vegetables to help pin Naaji against the wall, preventing him from being able to move. None of the people busily moving along the path around them seemed to notice or care.
“Stop talking to my sister about the fireflies on the mountain. No more ghost stories. I don’t know if you’re bored or playing games or just….just weird, but stop it.”
Naaji stopped struggling to break free from Jabez, relaxing his body. He looked Jabez deep in the eyes, conveying sincerity. Jabez felt the anger in his body melt away and dropped the arm that had pinned Naaji against the tavern.
“I’m not playing games, Jabez. I’m trying to talk to you about something important. There’s not much time left.”
“Leave me alone. And don’t talk to Maya anymore.” Jabez walked away from Naaji, slipping into the moving crowd. Naaji looked dejected and had tears in his eyes. He stared at Jabez, watching him shuffle away until he was hidden within the crowd of people.
“But there’s not much time left.”
“I told you not to come up here.” Jabez looked over at the far side of the roof, but no one was there. He had told Maya not to climb up onto the roof until the ladder was built. Jabez had become a master at using the stones at the base of the hut and the wooden planks at the back corner to climb up onto the roof, but Maya had only climbed up once, the night before. He didn’t need Maya slipping and hurting herself while using the makeshift footholds on his conscience. Jabez’s father was already angry with him for not making the ladder that same afternoon, but Jabez was too tired. Perhaps he really was spending too much time on top of the family hut, instead of resting for the next day’s worth of work.
This time the voice seemed to come from the other direction. As he scanned the village to try and locate the speaker, Jabez’s eyes were inevitably drawn up towards the fireflies atop the eastern mountain. And just for a moment, as Jabez eyes moved up and down the faint glowing light, he thought he could see a human figure.
Jabez opened his mouth in shock, if only for a moment. He quickly chuckled to himself as he placed his hand on his chest and lay back, looking up at the sky. “I really must be tired,” Jabez assured himself. “Maya and Naaji’s ghost stories are starting to make me imagine things. I should probably get to bed.”
As if on cue, the sky opened up and rain began to fall. Lightning and thunder quickly enveloped the village as Jabez crawled towards the back corner of the roof.
“Okay, okay. I’m getting down.” Jabez spoke sarcastically up towards the sky as he felt his clothes becoming wetter by the moment. Carefully placing his feet one by one into the familiar makeshift footholds, Jabez began making his way back down the corner of the hut. But the rain had made the wooden planks slippery, and after making it halfway down, Jabez lost his footing and slipped. He felt his arms fly up and behind him, while his legs jolted up towards the sky. There was a moment of panic in his chest and then, suddenly, nothing. No feeling, no sound of rain, just blackness.
“No, Jabez! No!”
The sound of his father’s voice made Jabez open his eyes. And yet as his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw a frightening sight. Jabez’s own body lay on the ground in front of him, lifeless. His head was angled oddly against one of the stones at the base of the hut, blood pooled around it. Jabez’s father kneeled down to hold his son’s body, sobbing. The pile of wood Jabez had collected in the afternoon sat only a few feet away, as if mocking him. Maya was standing next to her father, her hand rubbing his back as she cried bitterly.
“You can’t say anything to them now, Jabez.” An unfamiliar but calming voice to the right of Jabez made him immediately turn his head.
“Who are you?” Jabez was stunned to see a beautiful woman standing next to him, seemingly from out of nowhere. A faint glow surrounded her. Looking down at his own body, Jabez realised he was also glowing in the same way.
The woman smiled at him in a caring way. “My name is Jonara. And I’m sorry, but it’s time for us to leave.”
“Leave? Where are we going?” Jabez felt the words come out of his mouth almost on instinct. He suddenly felt rude questioning the stranger in such a harsh tone.
“It’s not my place to say. But it’s time to leave, Jabez. This village is no longer your home.” Jonara turned away from Jabez and began slowly walking in the direction of the northern wall. Jabez felt himself following her, again by instinct. It was a strange feeling. He felt like he was effortlessly floating along the ground, yet looking down at his body, Jabez could see his feet walking out in front of him step by step. He continued to follow Jonara while looking back at his father and sister.
“They’ll be okay, Jabez.” Jonara didn’t even turn around to look at Jabez as she said the words, instead continuing to move towards the northern wall. “They will feel sadness, they will feel pain, but eventually they will be okay.”
After a few silent minutes of walking behind Jonara, Jabez grew accustomed to the feeling of floating along the ground.
“What happens now?” Jabez asked the question as the large, ominous wall was now just a few feet in front of them. A sudden nervousness filled Jabez's body. He had been warned by his father not to venture to close to the northern wall, or the land in the north behind it.
“I can’t answer that question. You will have to ask him.”
Jonara smiled again at Jabez. “The Great One.”
Jabez suddenly felt a rumble in the ground around his feet. Looking back up at the northern wall, Jabez was stunned to see the wall opening itself up, revealing a long dark hallway inside. It was unnatural to Jabez, the way the wall slowly and methodically pulled itself back to each side.
Jabez looked to Jonara sheepishly, waiting to follow her into the wall itself. Instead, Jonara gestured towards the wall, gently instructing Jabez to take the lead.
There was a faint glow at the other end of the hallway, torches lining the walls of what seemed to be a small room. Jabez slowly made his way towards the light and as he got closer, three figures appeared against the far wall. An older man sat in the middle on what appeared to be a chair made of gold. A warm smile on his face, he looked delighted to see Jabez. The two people seated either side of the man held a more conservative demeanor.
“Ah, Jabez! So good to see you!” The man on the golden chair shone of pure joy and peace. Jabez had never felt such sincerity conveyed from somebody as he did when hearing those words.
“You…are the Great One?” Jabez felt foolish asking the question. There was definitely something special about this man, but a Great One? The man wore no crown and the chair he sat on, whilst golden, was definitely not a throne. Such titles were usually reserved for kings. He seemed too…real, too personal. Jabez felt like he was having a conversation with an old friend, despite never meeting the man before.
The old man let out a deep, throaty laugh. “I told you he was a bold one!” The two people sitting either side of the man chuckled. “I’ve told you many stories about Jabez and his boldness never wavers.”
“You…tell stories about me? But I’ve never met you before.”
The man sighed. “Jabez, I know this is hard to understand, but I’m the King of Empyrean. You’ve always known Empyrean as ‘the land in the north’. I know everything about you. You’re special, Jabez.”
“You don’t look like a king.” Jabez immediately felt like his words sounded accusatory, despite only meaning to convey surprise. Yet the man seemed to understand. He stood up from his chair and walked towards Jabez with his arms stretched out towards him.
“I’ve never liked all the pomposity that comes with being a king.” Jabez felt compelled to walk towards him and accept his hug, immediately feeling peace as the man’s arms wrapped around him. After a few moments, the man pulled away from the hug, grabbed Jabez by the hands and looked him in the eyes. “What do you think of my son?”
Jabez looked around the room, not seeing anyone other than the two reserved people still on their chairs, or Jonara who was standing a few feet behind him.
“Your son? I don’t know him. Who is he?”
The man sighed again, letting go of Jabez’s hands and slowly walking back towards his golden chair. “That’s a shame, Jabez. I wish you’d gotten to know him better.”
“But I told you, I’ve never met your son.”
“Oh but you have, Jabez. Everyone has. His name is Naaji.”
Jabez felt his stomach drop. His last memory of Naaji was pinning him against the tavern wall in the village, warning him against telling Maya any more ghost stories. “That’s your son?” Jabez gulped audibly.
The man on the golden chair looked at each of the people seated beside him. “Of course, Naaji is not his only name.” He looked back at Jabez. “That’s the name your people have given him.”
“But he’s just a homeless boy. I mean…” Jabez paused, not wanting to insult the man. “I mean, he doesn’t seem to be from the land in the north. Or from, what did you call it?”
“Empyrean. Yes, I know.” The man leaned back in his chair. There was a love in his eyes, yet Jabez could sense a sadness in them too. “My son made the decision to live in your land. He wants to bring as many people as he can from there to live in Empyrean, but few will listen to him.” The man looked down, while the two people either side of him looked at each other and nodded sadly. “Only those who listen to Naaji can cross over into Empyrean.”
“I didn’t know.” The words came out of Jabez’s mouth so quietly, even he could barely hear them. The magnitude of the situation was becoming clearer to him.
“Jabez?” The man on the golden chair looked at him inquisitively.
Jabez forced himself to repeat the words, louder this time. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” Jabez felt his heartbeat quicken as he pleaded with the man. “He never told me who he was. Give me another chance. I’ll go back and I will listen to Naaji. Please! I want to live in Empyrean.” Jabez knew nothing about the land in the north, yet if this man in all his goodness was the king there, all Jabez knew was that that was where he wanted to be too.
“It’s too late, Jabez. There is no going back now. I can’t let you go to Empyrean, but Jonara will guide you to your new home. We call it Gora.”
Jabez winced. Gora? That doesn’t sound nearly as friendly as Empyrean does. Jabez felt a familiar rumble in the ground as a bright light shone from behind him. The doors in the northern wall had opened once again.
“Ah, another one arrives!” The two people either side of the man smiled broadly as they shuffled in their seat, eager to see who was now stepping inside. “Unfortunately Jabez, it is time for you to go. I have an appointment with another. Jonara, please take Jabez to Gora.”
“Yes, Great One.” Jonara began walking towards the right side of the room, opening a wooden door. Light began to pour into the room through the doorway, making Jabez squint. “This way, Jabez.”
“How much longer?” Jabez felt his legs going numb. The spiraling staircase, while beautifully crafted and stunning to look at, was now getting on Jabez’s nerves. He had been following Jonara step by step up the staircase for what felt like hours. Jabez's body now felt like it was doing anything but floating.
“Just a few more steps, Jabez.” The air was cold. The wind blowing around them seemed to get more furious the further up the staircase they ventured. After a short while, Jonara stopped moving, awaiting Jabez at the top of the staircase. Making his way around the final spiral, Jabez looked towards Jonara. She was standing in front of another wooden door. There was a small wooden sign just in front of the door. A few words were haphazardly carved into it: ‘Welcome to Gora’.
“This is it?” Jabez felt both relieved and nervous. There were finally no more stairs to climb, but what could possibly be behind this door up high in the air?
“This is it. It’s time for me to say goodbye.” Jonara gave Jabez a warm hug. He felt compassion and sadness in her disposition. Jonara quickly nodded at Jabez before making her way effortlessly back down the staircase. Jabez watched her leave until she was out of sight and then turned back towards the sign. ‘Welcome to Gora’.
“If I’m not in the land of the north,” Jabez said to himself, “where am I?” He stepped past the sign and stood in front of the door, pressing his ear towards it. There were no sounds or indication of movement.
Jabez sighed, accepting his fate and slowing pushing down on the wooden handle. At that moment a strong gush of wind pushed against the door, swinging it wide open. A loud piercing grumble jumped towards Jabez as he fell onto his back. He held his arms in front of his face, trying in vain to defend himself from the loud grumble. Jabez’s heartbeat quickened and he lowered his arms. As his ears started to adjust themselves to the sound, one thing became clear to Jabez. This was not one loud grumble, it was instead a group of sounds. A chorus of frustrated cries and howling.
It was voices.
Jabez stood up and defiantly walked through the door. He stopped shortly after, taking in the scene before him.
There were thousands of them. Thousands of people, all yelling out and screaming, all within a long thin stretch at the top of a mountain. These people had the same faint glow that Jabez had recognized in Jonara and himself earlier, but more compelling was the desperation in their voices as they yelled and screamed out into the air.
Jabez walked slowly towards those closest to him, wanting to talk, to try and ask questions or even provide some sort of comfort, but Jabez could not find the words to say. His mind was still not ready to accept the reality of the situation and he could not make his mouth say the words. It made little difference, as the people he approached would not look at him or acknowledge his existence.
As he continued to walk through the crowd of people, Jabez realized they were all looking down towards the bottom of the mountain. Looking down himself now, Jabez gasped when he saw what they were all focused on.
It was his village. Jabez recognized the hut where he had collected the vegetables from Julian. He followed the familiar path that he had taken the day before, along to where he had confronted Naaji in the narrow path beside the tavern, and then finally through to his own family hut.
Atop the hut, Jabez saw his sister, Maya. Jabez suddenly felt compelled to call out to her.
“Maya! Maya! Careful on the roof! Be careful using the footholds.”
“Don’t worry, child.” An older woman to Jabez’s left placed her hand on his back to try and comfort him. “Your father has built the ladder for her.”
“How do you know this?” Finally, someone on the mountain top was willing to speak to him.
“I’ve been here a while, child. All we can do is watch, pray and call out to our families. I don’t think they can hear us, though.” Jabez turned back to look at Maya. She was sitting crossed legged on the roof, staring at the glow on the mountain with tears in her eyes. “She’s still mourning your death, but I have high hopes for her. She seems more open to listening to Naaji now.”
As the people around Jabez continue to yell down the mountain, the words they were saying began to ring in Jabez’s ears.
“Naaji is the one!”
“Listen to Naaji!”
“He has the answer! Listen to him!”
Jabez again felt compelled to call out to Maya, wanting to convey the same message. “Listen to Naaji! Forget what I said, Maya. Listen to him!”
Jabez sighed with a heavy heart. He knew that she would probably never hear him, yet he felt the need to continue to try anyway. He needed her to listen.
Turning again to look at the desperate people around him, Jabez realized that he was one of them now.
A ghost of the eastern mountain.