Aelia was one such spirit, the remnant mind of a human being, left to wander invisibly through Rome. She was not a deliberate spirit, but one of the restless dead. She did not wish to prey on humans, and she wasn’t particularly malignant or malevolent. She was frightening to be sure when she was seen by other people, but that wasn’t really intentional on her part. She wasn’t a tortured wailing soul, nor was she a hideous and disfigured apparition. Overall she looked quite normal for a woman in her twenties, but people tended to be frightened by her tendency to simply appear and ability to phase through walls.
She was also very very old.
There were occasionally malicious ghosts in Rome, the remnants of those who had died bad deaths during the Days of Revelation. Aelia was honestly surprised there weren’t more of them. She had noticed, however, that they had a habit of disappearing soon after cropping up. The new Church in Rome seemed to have a number of very potent exorcists, so Aelia liked to stay well clear of them. She wasn’t a vengeful or haunting spirit, just a restless one after all. It was as if she was an insomniac who had gone for a late night walk to clear their head, but her slep had simply been longer than most. Recent construction had knocked about her gravesite and just like that she was back on her feet and walking around, a shade in the world of the living.
Aelia was a proper Roman woman, a fact of which she was very proud. She was Roman not in the modern municipal sense but in the more archaic Imperial sense. Aelia was not a modern ghost but an ancient one, in the days of the Roman Empire she would have been called one of the Lemures, an enduring shade returned from the realm of the dead.
Now she existed in a strange sort of equilibrium. The world felt young enough, rich in mysteries and able to support a wandering spirit like herself, yet everything about this new modern world she found herself in felt so very foreign. How could she haunt a world she didn’t recognize? Lights that burned in the night without fire or oil. Mere boxes of wood and ornate metal through which a disembodied voice could speak from miles away. Even such subtle oddities as the modern styles of hair and the fine fabrics of the day were strange and confusing to her. She preferred keeping to herself in the ruins, sitting among the crumbling remains of the city she had recognized.
She did make occasional attempts to adjust. Aelia had made a brief trip to the library to try and read, though that had only lasted a day before people were frightfully reporting it was haunted. Whispered remarks of “Pardon me” or “Could I read that when you’re done?” did not go as well when they were spoken from thin air, and while many believed that a ghost could only appear in darkness, Aelia had the unsettling habit of disappearing when the lights went out, and even when illuminated the modern electric (as they were apparently called) lights were not flattering to her figure, giving her a measure of transparency and casting her in a harsh light with hard and vivid shadows.
People had begun to report distinct sensations of being watched and footsteps moving quietly around after hours. The librarian who oversaw it had needed a week off to recover from a nervous breakdown incurred when Aelia tried to check out a book on Lemures, hoping to find a solution. The entire venture had been pointless, however, when she learned that the book was actually about
“Lemurs” and she was none too pleased to learn that she had been compared to some kind of African monkey.
She had been quick to make her escape when a young man with a bow had shown up to investigate the haunting (in her defense the haunting wasn’t deliberate, she merely had all the time in the world and nowhere else to go, so why bother leaving?). Still, it had left her once more without any real purpose, left to wander the street and occasional evade an exorcist and ghost-hunter that went after her. She considered seeking out Lupa Capitolina, someone more from her time, but the wolf was a guardian spirit, and Aelia doubted she would tolerate the presence of the roaming dead.
It had begun to rain as Aelia walked down a dark Roman road outside the city’s more habituated zone. She tended to keep to the outskirts, even if the prospect of the Cacodaemons scared her. She stepped soundlessly through the lit streetlamps, her body appearing and fading with the lights as the rain fell through her intangible body to wet the ground beneath her feet.
It was a sad kind of night, when she had been alive she would have taken shelter in the warmest room of the house, with a lit fire as she sat comfortably beside her husband. It was odd, she thought, how little of her past life she remembered beyond vague memories and notions. She had a home but could not recall the location, a husband whose face was a blur in her mind, children whose names escaped the tip of her tongue. It was perhaps a kindness she could not recall her old life and despair, at the very least it did not hurt to realize she’d forgotten. This was her existence now, and she found it an empty one.
Her eyes glanced up as she saw something pale amidst the dreary night sky and the yellow streetlights. A young woman, likely a bit younger than Aelia herself, stood at the nearest street corner. She was dressed quite finely (though Aelia still couldn’t understand these modern fashions), in a bright white dress of several layers beneath a shawl of similarly flawless white silk. Everything about the girl was fine and ornate, and she seemed to be going to or departing from a sort of fine party given her appearance, Though Aelia mostly noticed the fretful look on her face.
She let out a silent sigh, she wanted to help her, but she had learned by now that her presence only made things worse.
“Excuse me.” The girl said, looking squarely at Aelia “Can you help me, Miss?”
Aelia blinked in surprise, looking at herself and turning to make sure the girl hadn’t simply been speaking to someone through her. Seeing no one, she pointed at herself and asked. “Me?”
“Yes you” The girl nodded “I’m sorry, I hate to ask, but I’m…well I think I’m a bit lost.”
“Lost?” Aelia asked.
“Yes” the girl nodded “So…could I trouble you for directions?”
“Well…ummm…alright I suppose.” Aelia nodded “Though I don’t know the streets to well myself.”
“Thank you oh so much” The girl smiled in relief “I’ve been so troubled. Even if we can’t find a way, it is better to be lost with others than lost alone.”
“…I suppose it is.” Aelia was still off-guard and more than a little confused at the girl’s attitude, she seemed utterly ignorant of the fact that her companion was a ghost. Still, she had nothing better to do, and rather liked traveling with someone who didn’t shriek and flee in terror at the mere sight of her.
“So what’s your name, stranger?” The girl asked.
“You can call me Aelia” she said.
“Aelia? That’s an odd-name, not quite in fashion is it?”
“No I suppose not anymore” Aelia sighed “It’s an old name.”
“Well then it’s distinguished.” The girlsmiled “It’s good for someone not to be named in a fashion after all.”
“Well what’s your name?” Aelia asked.
“Bernadette” the girl said “And quite proud of it. It was my Grandmother’s name as well.”
“I was named for my Father, Aelius.” Aelia said.
“That is quite Latin-sounding.” Bernadette said.
“It is Latin.” Aelia nodded.
“How romantic” Bernadette giggled behind a hand at her pun. “So tell me, Miss Aelia, are you off to some manner of costume party?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that dress…pardon me, but it seems very strange…though I suppose strange is better than plain, everyone these days seems to be lacking even a modicum of refinement.”
Aelia looked down at her dress. Sure it wasn’t her best, and it wasn’t like she wanted to wear a burial dress around town, but it seemed hardly exotic or strange. “No, this is just what I wear.”
“Well, do as you please” Bernadette shrugged. “Rome seems to have become so strange lately.”
“Tell me about it.” Aelia sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “All these spirits running around…”
“Spirits? Come now, Miss Aelia, you seem the rational sort. Spectres and the like are just stories made to frighten children and scam the gullible.”
“I…what?” Aelia looked askance at her. Was this girl willfully ignorant or just blind.
“Miss Aelia you cannot tell me you believe in something as ludicrous as ghosts.”
“Ummm…” Aelia was at a loss for words, and for a moment she wondered whether or not she should be offended.
“What was it you find strange about the city?” Aelia asked, changing the subject.
“Well everyone is much ruder for one.” Bernadette’s face gained a peeved expression. “People just ignore me, never speaking when I say hello or good day. My father never would have stood for this kind of impertinence from the rabble.”
“Well…” Aelia tried not to smirk. Her family had never been too well off, she had been a farmer’s wife. This girl sounded like the upstart daughter of a Senator.
“And there are these bright lights everywhere!” She gestured to the streetlamps “They keep me up all night and make that horrible buzzing noise! There are no carriages to take me anywhere so I’m footsore all the time, and everyone is poorly dressed in inexplicable fashion. I mean have you seen how some women dress these days? Scandalous!”
“Well that we can agree on at least.” Aelia nodded. “Everyone is wearing pants now, what are we, barbarians?”
“Too right” Bernadette nodded. “You’re the right sort, Miss Aelia, even if you’re a little odd.”
“You know” Aelia said “You never told me where we were going anyway.”
“Oh back home to my father’s estate” Bernadette said “He’s in the northeast section”
Aelia paused midstep. “A-are you sure?” She asked hesitantly. That section of the city wasn’t entirely reclaimed.
“Of course I’m sure.” Bernadette said “Why?”
“I’ve heard that’s a umm…not a very good neighborhood.”
Bernadette scoffed. “It’s lovely, come right along and I’ll show you the error of your ways.”
Something was working in the back of Aelia’s mind, a realization that was slowly becoming a suspicion. Not everything about this girl was quite right. There was only one way to be sure.
“Yes, Miss Aelia?”
“What year is it?”
There was a brief silence, as the wind and the soft patter of rain filled the void between them.
“Well that’s a silly question” Bernadette said “The year is 1783 of course. I knew you seemed a bit of a scatterbrain but really you should know the year.”
“R-right…” Aelia said “Just got a little away from me.”
She wasn’t sure what to do. Looking at her now, Aelia could see all the signs. The girl truly was pale, from her milky white skin to her snow-like hair and silver eyes. Everything about her seemed ethereal and washed out, and now, when she focused, Aelia could see the raindrops passing through her harmlessly.
She couldn’t help but smile at her situation. It seemed Aelia had found some company in the least likely place.
“So tell me about this estate of yours” she smiled, and they began talking again.
There was never much good company for ghosts among the people of Rome. Since ancient times the living have feared the restless shades of the dead, they feared the Lemures and the larvae, the ghosts and the spirits, the phantoms and spooks, the Bloody Marys and Women in White. Perhaps then it was not so odd that two passing ghosts from distant times might find a little company and comfort in one another.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=21&sl=0