She looks like a girl, but I think it’s because she wants to look that way.
Maybe if she wanted to, she could look like something else. A tiger. Or a penguin.
… No, what am I saying? A ghost-penguin! Now that’d be ridiculous.
Though a lot more original, I guess. After all, why do ghosts always have to be little girls?
When people think of towns like My Little Wanderer, they imagine some dusty hamlet, a patch of dull green in the grey wilderness. Something small and lost. Now my memory of the place is vague. It’s like someone or something cast a shadow over my life, and I have to squint and stare hard to make out the details. But I remember this—My Little Wanderer might have been small, but it was never lost. It stood right at the heart of the treacherous Steppe, its feet firmly planted in the hard soil, and it seemed to say, “This is my place. This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Do I miss it? I guess you could say that. I’ve never liked the big city. If not for Nora, I would’ve probably left. I would’ve gone… anywhere. Turned into a restless spirit roaming the world. I am not afraid of heights or cold or wild animals. Perks of being a ghost. I can go anywhere!
But I won’t of course. I would never risk it. I’m afraid that if I wander off too far from Nora, I’d lose myself. Maybe she is the only thing that keeps me tied up to this world, and if we separate, who knows what will happen to me? I would never dare to put this theory to the test, because this ghost is apparently a coward, too.
I tell Jaro that I don’t dwell on the past, but the truth is, I’m terrified of losing it. I feel that I’m losing it already, bit by tiny bit. Every day a little more. So I summon up those memories, as much as I can, surreptitiously, furtively, feeling like a thief, tiptoeing through my own murky mind. I recite my memories like words of some song, because if I don’t, one day I might not be able to recall them at all.
There was a tree, Nora and I liked to play under it. There was a stone, huge and warm even at night. There was an oxbow on the river that ran past the town…
And of course there was that cave. The “Maw” we used to call it. That very cave, that saved my sister’s life. It was pretty deep, and all over its walls and the ceiling there were hundreds of images made by the native folk. Weird grotesque pictures of wild animals and monsters painted in black charcoal, with some red pigment splashed on top to indicate spilled blood. Hideous birds with red beaks stared viciously at the intruders. We never paid those pictures any heed. We thought, “Those natives, they are but savages. Why would their art be any different?”
Now our art was refined. Civilized. Paintings of pretty women and adorable children and brave men. Brightly colored vases and intricately carved wood. That is what real art should look like. So we thought. And in the end it was the Clan who opened our guts and painted streets with macabre patterns of our spilled blood.
The Steppe is no place for civilization. We tried to tame it, and failed miserably.
There were quite a few towns like My Little Wanderer at the beginning of the century. Now I think only a couple are left. Others were just abandoned. People talk about the Steppe as if it’s alive. They talk about strange creatures—the Fey—that roam it, wild things that prey on those who aren’t careful. Some believe those stories. Some don’t. But whether there are actually creatures there or not, the Steppe is a dangerous place and there is no point to argue with that.
* * *
Today, in a bout of sentimentality, Nora gave Jaro a necklace that our grandfather had made. It’s shaped like a long narrow claw and it’s made of some reddish metal. Copper or brass—I could never tell the difference.
Jaro put it around his neck. He can’t take his eyes off of it.
“Did grandfather make it?” Jaro asks.
“Oh no,” Nora is sitting in her chair by the window in a light morning dress. “He didn’t make it. It’s a talon. He killed a monster and took it as a souvenir.”
I’ve heard that tale. My grandfather often ventured into the Steppe. He was a hunter and an adventurer, and he was also one of those who founded My Little Wanderer and brought our family to the town. I don’t remember him well enough, but everyone in town believed him to be the bravest man in the whole world, and the story of him killing the Copper Claw became local folklore.
Jaro is fascinated by the claw, and that’s hardly surprising. It’s fascinating to look at—the elongated form, the shine of the metal that hasn’t been dulled by all the years.
“What did the creature look like?” Jaro asks.
“The creature didn’t look like anything,” I reply. “It never existed. This talon is fake. He probably ordered it from a blacksmith in the city.”
But Nora, who doesn’t hear me of course, answers.
“It looked like a wolf with a sharp copper muzzle. Each paw was this huge,” she says holding her hands to indicate the size of the creature’s paw. I almost laugh.
“This doesn’t look like a wolf claw,” Jaro muses.
“Well, Grandfather said it was a wolf,” Nora shrugs.
“Grandfather was a liar,” I say loudly right into her ear, but she doesn’t even blink. This has always fazed me a little. Aren’t we twins? Aren’t we supposed to have this unbreakable bond? At first, I wondered if Nora felt my pain as I was drawing my last breaths. I stopped wondering a long time ago. It’s quite pretty obvious that this idiot didn’t feel a thing.
* * *
The talon—or a claw?—fascinated me.
It became a talisman. A symbol.
And a dream.
I soon forget all about the claw, but Jaro doesn’t. From that day on he becomes somewhat captivated by the Steppe and spends hours searching the library archives, looking for… well, anything really. Anything that has anything to do with the Steppe. At first, he’s disappointed. There isn’t a lot of information—nothing that he finds interesting. There are some articles on the Clan and the atrocities they’ve committed. There are some naturalists’ ravings about the unique wildlife. There’s a documented account of some drunk idiot’s encounter with a Belter and some runaway teenage boys blabbering some nonsense about the Tickler Seductresses… but other than that, nothing.
“Ha!” Jaro nearly trips in a hurry to share his news with me. The Attic is suddenly too small to contain all his excitement.
“What’s that about?” I ask.
“I found it!” he proclaims, and you might think that he’d discovered a new continent, for all the pride and joy shining in his eyes.
“I found it!” he repeats hopping onto his bed. He looks so sickeningly cheerful I want to smack him. Jaro’s moods are awfully contagious. When he’s excited, somehow I become excited, too. Naturally, I don’t like to show it, so I try to look twice as sulky as ever.
“So what is it that you found?’ I ask patiently.
He reaches into his pocket and fishes out an old piece of paper, yellow with time, evidently ripped out of a newspaper.
“It’s an article about your grandfather. Look!”
I look at the paper, horrified.
“You tore it out?!”
I don’t know why it scandalizes me so much. After all, why do I even care, right? When you’re a ghost compelled to haunt your very much alive twin sister, a mutilated newspaper doesn’t seem like such a big deal in perspective. But there is something about ripped paper that really upsets me. My father used to be exceptionally gentle with all the printed material. But I try not to think of that. I tear my eyes away from the uneven border and look at the page instead.
The headline says “The Nightmare of the Steppe” and below there is a rather poorly drawn picture of four men with bows and spears lunging at a monster that looks… well, pretty much like a wolf, only slightly bigger.
The text itself is so small and Jaro’s hand trembles with excitement so I can’t read it.
“Will you hold it still, please?”
“Never mind,” he snatches it away, “I can just tell you the gist. Basically it’s about my great-grandfather’s encounter with this wolf-monster. It says here that my great-grandfather and three of his friends were explorers, who sought to solve the mysteries of the Steppe. They went looking for all those creatures the Steppe-folk like to scare people with. They especially wanted to learn about this Copper Claw, a monster no one lived to tell about...”
“So they found it, and killed it, and chopped its paw off and made a necklace. I know. So what?”
“Don’t you think it’s exciting? The Steppe is the only place on earth that still has magic.”
I stare at him, blankly. It’s not a word you hear every day. Magic!
“Peculiar wildlife is not magic.”
“It’s not just wildlife. There are creatures there. Magical creatures. Fey. Everyone knows that.”
“Most of those stories are just a bunch of old wives’ tales.”
“Most, but not all of them.”
“I don’t know if the Steppe has magic or not, but I’ll tell you this—I lived my whole life there and I never saw anything even remotely close to a Fey.”
“You wouldn’t know a Fey if it came up to you and smacked you on the forehead,” he mumbles. “You and Mom, you two are a lot more alike than you think.”
He folds the article and tucks it into his pocket, then gets up and leaves without another glance in my direction. And suddenly I feel awful. I feel that somehow I’ve disappointed him.
Why do human interactions have to be so complicated, even when you’re no longer human?
* * *
Jaro comes around rather quickly. He always does. He isn’t like me. He would never sulk for days. The next morning he’s a little ray of sunshine yet again. But that sinking feeling inside of me doesn’t go away. It’s made a cozy den for itself right in the pit of my stomach and it doesn’t seem to plan on leaving anytime soon.
We’re different, Jaro and I. We have different relationships with the past. Once, when Jaro was about ten, we went to the museum.
Locked in glass cases there were geodes cut in two to reveal their shiny quartz centers, like pieces of exotic fruits. There were lizards turned into stone by some mysterious magic of nature. There were taxedermised animals—their forms made to look lifelike, scowling, alert, lazy, playful… those ones gave me the creeps.
Jaro took me to a chamber on the second floor, titled “Archeology.” There were no dead animals there, but instead, it was full of something that was even worse—things that should be lost, buried somewhere beneath the ground. I’ve heard that in the past people were buried with all their belongings. Now that was the right thing to do. Some things should just go away and be forgotten. Left in peace.
I could almost feel all those people’s presence. It pressed upon my eyelids. Things have memories. They keep a part of their owners—the memory of their touch, their smell. All of it lingers like fingerprints, mixed in the paint, in the fibers of the wood. I hate vases most of all. It’s like the voices of the people past are trapped inside and they call for you, and you get this urge to draw nearer, to listen closer, to hear whatever they have to say. Their stories frighten me. To my ears, they are like sobs and painful whimpers and sighs.
Jaro doesn’t understand this language, but in his own way he listens too and he hears something completely different—not suffering, but something exciting. Something that makes him stop and peer at every object in wonder and trace the patterns with his fingers. He doesn’t see the world like other people do. Maybe that’s why he is able to see me.
And maybe that’s why he comes up with this ridiculous plan of his.