The Wraithwood Ritual by Paul Edward Costa

Underneath the midday sun, three children waited for the Preacher at the furthest limits of Secondary Source. Soon he would come dancing over the rolling horizon in his white hood and cloak, hunched over in his robes, his arms raised in the shape of a Y, his bent legs prancing nimbly beneath him. He would come holding an iron staff and wearing a rainbow mask.

These three youths were the oldest in Secondary Source, a city consisting only of children; and so this year, as the eldest, they would be next to leave the city forever, to experience the Primary Source.

Huddled in their brown robes, the wind whipping round them, the children still bore two things in common with every child of Secondary Source: firstly, they wore the thick goggles that the city mandated be worn at all times (these goggles received an image relayed to the wearer via mirrored reflection—this eyewear serving a vital function, as Secondary Source enforced a ban on direct visual experience of any kind); secondly, any two of these children only communicated with one another by using the third as a relay, having developed this habit due to the city’s similar ban on direct verbal communication.

“Sirius,” Noah said, “ask Levinson if The Preacher always comes at noon.”

“Levinson,” Sirus said, “Noah wants to know if The Preacher always comes at noon.”

“Sirius,” Levinson said, “tell Noah for the last time that he always comes at noon.”

“Noah,” Sirius said, “Levinson says for the last time that The Preacher always comes at noon.”

“Sirius,” Levinson said, “Noah says thank you.”

“Levinson,” Sirius said, “tell Noah I say he’s very welcome.”

“Noah,” Levinson said, “Sirius says you’re very welcome.”

Levinson and Sirius each took a knee to rest, and Noah shivered in his brown robe, looking grimly down into his goggles at the reflection of the hills ahead. His eyes traced their shape against the repeated, reflected sky.

“I say to no one in particular that I’m tired of living only for an absent future not yet arrived!” said Noah.

But the Preacher appeared on the horizon, as if on cue. True to the rumours and tales, he danced over the hills with his arms raised, he never looked in the direction in which he moved, instead looking up to the sun as he went. His destination seemed an unintended byproduct of his solemn worship. He shook, spun, and jumped along his way, his raised hands twisting and caressing an invisible ceiling, his rainbow mask pointing in various directions, suspiciously; his white robes billowing behind him like ghostly remnants of his completed movements. At last he arrived at Noah, Sirius and Levinson. His arms twisted together behind his back, he leaned in; seeming to stare, in his emotionless rainbow mask, directly through the children.

“Sirius, ask the Preacher if—” Noah began to say. The Preacher interrupted him.

“There is no need for such… indirect formalities… anymore!” he proclaimed. Levinson gasped. Noah and Sirius remained frozen. “Follow… me… the day, it grows… long towards the fall… of the light!” The Preacher spun into motion and began his sun dance again, spinning like an elusive concept over the dips and protuberances of the burnt hills around Secondary Source; his boots crunched on the scorched ground. The children followed the prancing Preacher in single file: three solemn figures, led marching away from their only home, by the jarring movements of a mythical man.

As they walked the bare hills, the ground began to bear small creosote bushes, and then Joshua trees which worshiped in the same pose as the Preacher; then, finally, scattered clusters of pines. The Preacher ceased his ritual dancing walk when he came upon the edge of a low cliff. He stepped out onto a precipitous outcropping. The children crept nervously thereto and over it, a steep slope of loose cascading stones slanted downward to thick pine forests. The afternoon sun continued its brilliant declension in the blue sky, but fewer clouds now obscured it. These figures appeared entirely black before the sun, and cast patches of giant shadow on the green canopy of the forest below. The Preacher bowed, and stretched one robed arm out towards the forests.

“Wraithwood,” he said.

Noah, Sirius and Levinson began to explore in their goggles the landscape before them. For their lack of peripheral vision they could not see the Preacher sneak up from behind and hastily remove the goggles from their faces. The children clasped their eyes and stumbled backwards.

“You… are far past the walls… of Secondary Source… you must… must open your eyes to experience… the Primary Source,” the Preacher said. Slowly the children pulled their hands from their faces and let them go slack at their sides as curiously they gazed upon this world; for the first time, directly. The Preacher walked out in front of them and began to pace back and forth, his arms once again crossed behind him. “You may… speak freely to one another… if you please.” The children looked on each other:

“Levinson, you look…” Noah trailed off and looked away, unsure of which words to use.

“Noah, you even sound…” Sirius began.

“Sirius, I need to tell you…” Levinson began to say.

“Some adjustment time… is, admittedly… needed.” The Preacher stopped pacing and stood before the children, Wraithwood forest behind and beneath him. “To start… remove your robes.” With growing confidence and curiosity the children removed the brown robes of the kind which had swaddled them since birth, which fell to the dry, burnt ground so that the boys stood only in their trousers, their delicate milkwhite torsos exposed to all elements. The Preacher reached into the folds of his white cloak and produced three mechanical devices, he secured one to each child’s chest. These objects felt surprisingly light despite their cumbersomeness. From each device there stuck out various needles, gears, saws, small engines, iron jaws and nozzles.

“Preacher,” said Noah, “what are these?” The Preacher raised his arms.

“Shhh…” he said. “Trust… it begins… Secondary Source… is over… now.”

The three devices whirred on, the nozzles came alive and sprayed purple liquid anesthetic onto the skin of the boys' torsos at the same time as several syringes swung off the sides and pierced the children’s sides, which needles filled their internal nerves with further anesthetic. Noah, Sirius and Levinson swayed woozily on the cliff overlooking Wraithwood.

“Remain... standing.” The children blinked to stay conscious as they compensated for the awkward, cumbersome machines upon them. They stood still again.

Now each machine's circular saw spun into a precise and diamondsharp blur. The activated saws shot partway into the top part of the sternum of each, piercing the skin. Each blade rolled down the bone and pulled back to its resting position. Without pause, two sets of iron jaws sank into the vertical incisions; these jaws pulled apart each boy’s chest like a cupboard doors. Noah, Sirius and Levinson all looked down at their exposed inner organs and recoiled in horror, they inhaled deeply and almost screamed but they felt no pain at all. All stood still again.

“The Primary Source… it descends… upon you. Behold Wraithwood below. Behold its ghosts.” Small figures made of mist emerged from the pines, they rose through the branches, spun theatrically, reĆ«ntered the forest and repeated this display indefinitely. “Behold their dance directly… for the first time in your lives… and now… again for the first time… feel how it is to be open… Vulnerable… to the wind…without the protection of robes… or… the shield of flesh.” The panic of the children at this exposure subsided and they began to focus on the new feeling inside them: that of the wind blowing over Wraithwood up the steep precipice into their wide open chests, where it kissed their inner organs, tickled their lungs and caressed their hearts while filling their torsos with a small chill. “Like the elder children before you… here you will… wait. You will remain poised, still and motionless here… an embodiment of non-action… open to the world ahead… to Wraithwood. You will wait… and not pursue, not speak or expect… until a ghost from between the pines rises… flutters across the world between you… and then enters the open cavity of your chest… a spirit to complete your physical form… and only then will you have experienced Primary Source. Now… clear your thinking… without thoughts.”

The Preacher raised both arms: one empty, the other holding his iron staff, he brought them down and the staff struck the cliff’s edge, white chalky stones dislodged and fell rattling along the steep slope and rolled into the pine trees and the ghosts of Wraithwood continued their precise ritual movements, slowly ascending farther and farther above the canopy. The Preacher in his white robes and rainbow mask moved himself behind the children to unimpede their view of the woods below and beyond the cliff’s edge.

Noah, Sirius and Levinson watched the land, the trees, the ghosts, the shadows, the sun, and the eclipsed clouds. Each entertained brief hope that a ghost might choose and enter them quickly, for such a scenario was certainly possible, but they soon recognized with sober clarity that they would be here for a long time. They stood still, they remained vulnerable, when each had examined every contour of the landscape for the one-hundred and first time, their musings became stale and gray till their imaginations crumpled like disintegrating paint and finally they stood on the cliff edge with truly blank minds: vacuums now where thoughts once swirled.

As each waited for a ghost to choose, enter, and complete him, the Preacher preached, to keep their spirits up and focused, he preached the divinity of directness.

“You’ve been awake… but your lives until now… have been dreams. You’ve seen replicas of life… the world… through layers, layers, layers that separate… you… from seeing… the real. This is what it means… to leave… the second hand experiences of Secondary Source… a world filtered… and even human touch interrupted by the material of your robes. But now… see with new eyes… feel only with open core… this is… experience… of the Primary Source. You must remove… all filters… all armour… all that stands between you and the world… and wait… open… you do not see the Primary Source… you feel it… when it is ready for you. Too many conflicts… from misunderstandings…confused visions… Enough! More painful and sensitive this way... what comes is as it is… only.”

Noah marked that the ghosts swirling ritually over the pines of Wraithwood sometimes stopped and hovered, on their stomachs, just above the canopy, their arms outstretched, closing their eyes; and their translucent-white faces took on expressions of peaceful detachment. They seemed to remain hovering above strange rustlings in the trees, but after a certain length of time, each eventually reopened his spectral eyes, let his haunted face fall into expressionless acceptance, and began his precisely floating dance again.

Noah, Sirius and Levinson began to feel the chill within them more strongly. Night descended and retreated two more times. Sunset approached on the third day of the boys’ wait.

They still stood on the cliff’s edge with the soft, pink contents of their torsos exposed to the Wraithwood pine forest below. Their shadows grew long now on the plains behind them. The ghosts remained absorbed in their coƶrdinated movements and moments of silent reflection; they’d flown farther and farther above the forests, but they gave no indication of moving beyond that region. By then, each of the boys thought something a little different. Levinson looked at the sun setting a third time blood orange on the horizon, he saw this vision through the white bodies of the ghosts, he believed he saw the structures of a golden city in the distance that enthralled him and enchanted him into believing that certainly a ghost would soon enter him and complete him enough to enter that magical fathomless city… Sirius began to accept the ghosts’ obliviousness of him, he began instead to believe with religious solemnity that his purpose instead was to stand as a sentinel over Wraithwood... Noah scowled from his still waiting position. He resented the absurdity of waiting his whole life for this moment of passage, only to be rewarded with a gift of further waiting. Each boy stared ahead with such intensity that he began to see past the landscape, and into his own thoughts, cut off from the physical world and unaware of it. With this focus he managed to stand and wait on that cliff for three days without moving, sitting, drinking, eating or relieving himself.

Sunset bloomed and turned the pine trees to an array of autumn colours, the ghosts still danced above Wraithwood, still no closer to the cliff on which the children. In this last illumination of warm colours on the horizon, the Preacher regained the boys' line of sight, walked out in front of them, between then and the cliff’s edge, and so startling was his reappearance that, to Noah, Sirius and Levinson, he appeared as a colossus crossing the horizon. He leaned on his staff, his white robes billowed round his rainbow mask which remained eerily still.

“It… is done… complete. You’ve waited… long enough now.” The ghosts swirling above Wraithwood forest became still. They began to descend back into the pines and out of sight. The boys' eyes changed, they blinked as in the first stage of waking, no longer focused on the distance. “You see now… the distant places… far off in the future… are nothing… only you are here now… but please… look at yourselves and within.” Noah, Sirius and Levinson looked down at themselves, at their trousers and cut open chests, they saw their bodies now in the white, ethereal form of the ghosts. Suddenly the boys felt light as air, the metal contraptions fell off their now massless bodies, and the Preacher shocked them by flinging away his robes, staff and rainbow mask in one swift motion, revealing a thin ghost made only of milky fog. His smoky form wore only a loincloth, and thick bracelets on his wrists. He had no hair. He spoke.

“The ghosts never were… to enter and complete you… that tale only a myth to inspire you to remain vulnerable… so long… until your synchronization with the next stage of existence was completed… and brought you to ghostly form. See yourselves new… now truly experiencing the Primary Source… one step past this world… now that you’ve emptied your minds… united your internal essence with your external form… and have remained in that state long enough… to be absorbed by twilight.” The Preacher stretched his arms out towards the boys: “Welcome… please come now… with me into Wraithwood… to the other former elder children… also ghosts… already joined with the primary reality… one step past the world.”

The new ghostly forms of Noah, Sirius and Levinson looked round them in quiet awe and dawning acceptance. The Preacher’s primitive spiritual figure turned and began to walk easily down the steep slope of the cliff and the boys followed him. As they walked their figures grew in height until they stood as tall as the Preacher. He approached the edge of the cliff and walked past it without hesitation, three boys in ethereal form following towards Wraithwood forest, descending to its waiting ghosts and its thick lush pines, all of them walking underneath the slowly dying embers of a sunset that resembled a receding supernova.

Paul Edward Costa has previously had published poetry, fiction and non-fiction in MacMedia, the Flying Walrus, Timber Journal, Yesteryear Fiction, Entropy, Thrice Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, the J.J. Outre Review and in Diaspora Dialogues' webzine Shorthand. He also has work forthcoming in the Eunoia Review. His areas of interest are illusion and reality, minimalism, surrealism, the grotesque and the absurd. At York University Paul earned a Specialized Honors BA in History and a BA in Education. He currently teaches English at North Park Secondary School in Brampton, Canada with the Peel District School Board.