As the last remnants of a colourless sunrise faded from the horizon they saw him, the man from the desert who had come in search of ghosts.
They rose up then, and before his shadow had even wrapped itself around the first of the granite stones, they were upon him. Holding out jars sealed with wax and bound with ribbons and brightly coloured braids. And he lifted each of the glass cages in turn, pressing it against the hollow leather of his skin until his body shook and beads of copper sweat dropped from the point of his chin. Under his hand the jars jumped and fractured in spider silk patterns, calling out a silence so loud that the people crouched low and wrapped their arms around their heads to be free of it.
When he finally spoke, his voice was as dark and deep as the myriad of caves that coiled beneath the small village, ‘You are bound to me,’ he said, ‘you creatures of fear and torment.’
And with his words came a great roar of fire, which snatched each tortured jar from his hands, flinging it across the earth in a primordial arc that boiled and scoured the crude glass back into the same pale sand that had delivered the ghost hunter.
When all the jars were returned to the earth, the man walked in the places they had been, and stooping low he collected up the braids and ribbons, tying them like trophies to the spaces of his dark coat with fingers that had once again blistered into pus.
And when he was done he raised his arms wide so that the people there could see the journey he had taken spelled out in ticker tape warnings.
‘It is late,’ the people cried, ‘do not walk out into the desert tonight.’ Because it was part of the agreement that they should ask him to stay with them.
The man tilted his head in appreciation, ‘I thank you,’ he said, ‘but still I must go.’ Because it was part of the agreement that he always declined.
‘No,’ they sang, ‘for the night is cold and cruel.’
‘This is no place for the likes of me,’ he said. Because it was part of the agreement that he would go back into the desert and nothing more would be heard of him until the year had turned full circle and the ghosts called him back to them.
‘Please stay,’ they cried, happy in the knowing that he would not, ‘please stay and take supper with us.’
The man narrowed his eyes, ‘I have told you that I cannot stay,’ he said, ‘and yet you persist in your asking, why is this?’
The people hesitated, glancing at each other for the unscripted answer, ‘Because it has always been this way,’ the eldest of them said.
‘And why is it that you dress your ghosts in such sweet colours?’ the man said, flicking his blistered fingers through the bright ribbons and braids.
‘Because it has always been this way,’ the eldest replied.
‘So it is that you speak the truth,’ he twisted his mouth into a smile, ‘and who would choose another path when the one you follow is lined with such sweet scented herbs?’
The villagers looked for a question in his words, but there was none to be found.
‘I will stay with you,’ he said then, ‘and each day I will take off 100 ribbons and return them to you until all are set free from me.’
‘No,’ the villagers cried out in horror, ‘please, there are too many, we would surely die.’
‘Then perhaps I will make it 200 each day,’ he smiled again, ‘for I would not wish you to die before all that you have given is returned.’
They knelt then, begging him for mercy, ‘Please do not condemn us to this fate, please, there must be another way.’
He took a long, deep breath, ‘We exist in terms of opposites,’ he said, as the evening mist curled around his feet, ‘rise up and think on this.’
But the people bowed lower, wringing their hands, ‘Tell us what to do,’ they wailed, ‘tell us how to appease you?’
‘Fill your fire pits with flowers,’ he said, ‘braid your houses and tie bright ribbons in the hair of your children.’
‘Yes!’ they cried, ‘This we will gladly do for you.’
‘Very well,’ he said, and with his words, the first howl sounded out across the desert, ‘but be warned that all things long to return to their home, and the ghosts of your lives grow restless for their hearth.’ He turned then and walked back the way he had come, and all the colours of his coat were stolen into grey by the night.
The morning sun came gently as the year began again. The villagers rose early and returned again to the great vats of dye and the mighty fires that seared the white sand back into glass. And they didn’t give another thought to the man who held all of their monsters inside his sliding flesh.
And on the wind, came a whisper of ice, ‘You are bound to me,’ it sighed, ‘you creatures of fear and torment.
Ghosts are made of nothing but past imaginings. But bindings, bindings are formed of spoons and needles and of silk ribbons and braids… and who among us would choose to turn away the Medicine Man?