Spirit Thread (October 2021)
By Nina Kiriki Hoffman
I was fourteen the first time I had to deal with a ghost.
My family was huge, and we all lived on a giant farm on the west side of the Cascade foothills in Oregon. We had a vineyard, and we raised chickens, cattle, goats, pigs, Christmas trees, and a lot of other things. Everybody who got to stay had regular chores, and then their special work, depending on what skills they had.
My special skill was weaving. I could take any fiber and make thread from it, and with the thread, make cloth. I didn't need a loom. My skill flowed out the ends of my fingers.
My Aunt Victoria had the same skill, so she was my teacher. I loved visiting her house. She'd woven tree mosses into loose blankets that covered the walls and kept the house warm in winter and cool in summer. Her chairs and couch had woven or felted cushions — pictures worked into them of animals and trees. She made all her carpets, too, and they were so soft on my bare feet, like walking on cotton candy, only not sticky. The studio where she worked and taught was full of a million colors and thicknesses of threads made from wool and flax and cotton and spider silk and sky and feelings.
She'd been teaching me to find new kinds of threads: in the stalks of dead thistles, in water weed, in the shed skins of snakes.
I got home from town school on a sunny fall afternoon where all the leaves stained-glassed the sky with fire colors, and the air was cold and full of autumn spices. I dumped my backpack at home, then raced to Aunt Victoria's house to find out what kind of lesson she'd teach me today.
A black ribbon hung from a tack in the center of her door.
I took a step back. Death sign.
The door opened and she looked out at me. Her silver-brown hair hung loose down around her shoulders. Her face was pale, and she had shadows under her eyes. She wore a dark gray dress I had never seen before. It had none of the usual fern-and-flower embroidery of most of her clothes. "Frances. Come in," she said, her voice lower than usual.
"Who died?" I whispered.
"Uncle Osborn," she said.
I pressed my hands over my heart. Uncle Osborn was the funnest uncle I had. He told a lot of stories about growing up with our strange grandparents, and the stories always made me laugh. His skill worked with metal and engines. He made all the cousins tiny metal toys that walked or hopped or slithered by themselves, and sometimes made animal noises. He had given me a brass metal cat with wire whiskers. It was just big enough to fill my hand, and it had a mechanical purr..
"How?" I said.
Aunt Victoria rubbed her eyes. "So stupid … He was on the roof fixing the rooster weather vane, and he slipped and fell."
I walked to her and put my arms around her and hung on tight. She hugged me back. Something in me loosened, and then I was crying.
She endured my tears for a little while, then tightened her arms and said, "That's enough, Frances. We have work to do."
She gripped my shoulders and gently pried me loose. "We have to unbind him," she said. "We have to set him free."
Uncle Osborn was in his own house. The living room there looked different than it usually did. It was supposed to have lots of chairs he had made out of pipes in fancy shapes, some with cushions Aunt Victoria and I had made, and tables with polished wooden tops from home trees.
All the furniture was gone from the living room except a gurney with Uncle Osborn's body on it and a chair where Aunt Cathy sat, gripping one of his hands. Aunt Cathy, Uncle Osborn's wife, was a doctor. She worked at the hospital down in the valley, but today she was home. The chair she sat in had a back formed of pipes bent into the shape of a fern. My chest tightened. Uncle Osborn could just touch a pipe and talk it into doing what he wanted. He could make your plumbing work or your car work, or your thresher. We had lost him, my favorite uncle, and we had lost his skills.
Aunt Victoria gripped my shoulder, then walked to Uncle Osborn and dragged me with her. I didn't want to look. I'd been to family funerals before, but I'd never had to look a dead person in the face.
He was wearing a blue shirt and overalls and work boots. His face looked like the face of a sleeping person. He had lost most of his hair except for gray wisps tucked behind his big ears, and his head was sun-bronzed. He looked okay, except the right half his head was dented.
Cold seeped into me and I hugged myself, but I could not stop trembling. I knew I would understand he was gone soon, and I didn't want to know yet.
I was sure Aunt Cathy had done everything she could to save him. I didn't think even a magic healer like Grandma Tanith could have saved Uncle Osborn.
Aunt Victoria gently tugged my arms down and took my hand. "This is not his home anymore," she said, laying her other hand on his chest. "We need to unweave him and let him go."
I looked up into her face. Her lashes flickered down. Two lines creased her forehead from top to bottom above her nose. She sighed, then opened her eyes again and focused on me.
"Can you see it?" she asked me. "Look hard."
I looked instead at Aunt Cathy. She sat in the fern chair with her shoulders slumped, one hand gripping Uncle Osborn's hand, the other on the arm of the chair. Her face was still, her gaze on the floor.
Aunt Victoria let go of my hand and nudged my head sideways so I was staring at Uncle Osborn and his poor smashed skull. "Look!" she whispered.
I blinked and rubbed my cheeks with my fingertips. I didn't know about unweaving a dead person. But if Aunt Victoria and I were here, it must have something to do with our special skill, and I had always thought my special skill was in my fingertips. Maybe I could rub it into my head.
Aunt Victoria stood behind me and gripped my head in her hands. She aimed my gaze at Uncle Osborn's head. "Stop fidgeting and pay attention. Look hard!"
I bit my lip and stared at my uncle, ignoring the heat in my eyes, the tears that chilled on my cheeks. I blinked again. There was something around him, a light — soft, green, silver, blue, gray, pulsing, pulling closer to his skin and then rising up.
"This is our thread," Aunt Victoria whispered. She held her open hand above the light and patted it. "He doesn't know yet he can fly. We can teach him."
"If he's still here," I said, "can't he stay?"
"No. Without breathing, without all the machinery inside working, his body will decay. It is not a good home for him any longer."
"But — ” I glanced at Aunt Cathy.
"Cathy," said Aunt Victoria. "Are you ready to let Osborn go?"
"No," she said. Her grip tightened on Uncle Osborn's hand, and then her hand opened and she let go. "I guess — I guess." She turned her head away and covered her face with her hands.
I wanted to go and hug her, but Victoria shook my shoulder. "Help me," she said.
I held my hands out, palms up.
She held both hands over Uncle Osborn and sang the song of summoning. I hesitated, then moved my hands there, too. She had taught me this song when I was nine, my very first lesson in weaving. Before you could weave, you had to spin. We started with fresh-shorn and carded wool from home sheep. We sang the summoning song and the wool came to our fingers and let us roll it into yarn. My first yarn was bumpy, thin in places and too thick in others, but with practice I could pull yarn as fine as Aunt Victoria's.
I had never worked with spirit thread before. I concentrated hard. I didn't want to make bad thread from my favorite uncle's spirit stuff.
It stroked across my fingers in pulses of ice and heat, and I spun and sang, spun and sang, feeling prickles of my uncle's warmth and laughter, sparks of his anger, the smooth mercury of his skill. The thread of him formed a loose skein around my forearms.
Aunt Victoria moved slowly around to the other side of Uncle Osborn, still singing, pulling thread, until we stood across from each other, drawing off his aura, connected across his body by shining thread we drew up out of his essence.
The spinning went on a long time. At last, she sang the final words of the song. The last of my uncle's spirit slipped free of his body and flowed across my fingers into my skein.
The sky had fallen dark out the windows. Aunt Cathy had left the room. Someone had lit three candles in glass lanterns and set them on the windowsill. Uncle Osborn's spirit threads glowed around my arms and Aunt Victoria's, one thread between us.
I noticed how tired and hungry I was. That would have to wait.
"Now we weave," said Aunt Victoria. "Weave him into his new form and let him choose his new direction."
"I don't know how," I whispered. I didn't have any voice left.
"This is the blessed part of our work," she said. "We don't have to choose a shape for Osborn. He will direct us to make what he wants. Reach toward me, my love, and let the weaving skill come from you."
I stretched my hands out toward her, and she reached toward me, and then a flow came from somewhere so deep inside me I had not known it was there. It was an upwelling of determination to create something from something else, to encourage small parts to make a larger whole. I sent all my will into the spirit thread wrapped around my arms, nudging it toward the thread Victoria held, until our yarn meshed and ordered itself into something.
A human shape spun up from our outstretched arms, glowing green and silver and gold and blue, threaded through with a red reach like tree branches supporting a host of pointed leaves. I worked my fingers, weaving, feeling remnants of my uncle pass across my fingertips and rise up into this shape. Memories and feelings and love rose up.
And finally all the thread I had spun was gone, and this glowing shape floated between us. It didn't look like Uncle Osborn; it had a head, a torso, arms and legs, but its edges weren't stable; it had no face, and it was made of glow.
Aunt Victoria lowered her arms. All of her sagged. I let my arms drop and staggered.
Someone wrapped their arms around me from behind. I smelled the woodsmoke and sweat scent of my father. He lifted me into his arms. "I have you," he said gently. Aunt Victoria's husband hugged her from behind, too.
Uncle Osborn's spirit whirled, stretched out his arms to each of us, then rose up and vanished through the ceiling. I wasn't sure where he was bound. Usually family spirits found places they had loved in life and haunted them to help descendants carry on the work of the farm. Sometimes, though, they went elsewhere, and nobody knew where.
I leaned my head on my father's shoulder and he carried me away. "Mama's made soup for you," he said.
"What time is it?"
I closed my eyes, feeling like a little kid again, safe in my father's arms, and feeling like a grownup because I had done my first adult job.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman (website / Facebook) has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel “The Thread that Binds the Bones” won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.
Nina does production work for the “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”. She teaches writing classes through Wordcrafters in Eugene and Fairfield County Writers' Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.