“Just one more, Elsie,” she said as she lowered the ghost. He flapped on the end of her hook – all grimace and shoulders. I shook my head so hard my plaits thwumped my cheeks. “Why, when I was half your age and thrice as skinny, I could’ve gobbled twenty of him before the blackbirds shook the sun awake with their nattering.” She pushed him towards me. The hook shone in his throat. He gulped at the air. “Go on. Start with the feet.” But I looked at his big toe sticking through his sock. “Now don’t be a nillynampy. That’s just a bit of ghost grime and it never hurt nobody. Though, between you and me this mister hadn’t had a wash since before the hills were young. Too bad he left it so late.” And Granny laughed until her belly trembled. She never told me how many ghosts she’d eaten. When I was very little, I’d put my hand on her gut, felt them moving and counted until I ran out of numbers. And Granny had said “keep on going until you get to those numbers right at the top, the ones you can’t even glimpse, and you still won’t be close.”
“Do I have to?” I picked up the tub of ferret grease.
“Only if you want to leave the dinner table and rush about outside in the goose winds getting your knees green. Hurry up, my arms are aching.” She gave the ghost a shake. His mouth gulped faster. I unscrewed the lid, stuck my fingers in the tub. “That’s it. Helps the ghosts go down swift as a buttered falcon dropping from a singing tower. You don’t want to get one stuck in your throat – it’ll tickle something awful.” I pushed lumps of ferret grease around my teeth. The taste shuddered through me. “You won’t even think of the ghost with that slime all stinking up your gob. Now – open wide.” And I did. And I shut my eyes. And I felt feet flapping down my throat, then knees, then elbows, then a chin. “All done.” I opened my eyes. “Wasn’t so bad was it?” She lobbed an embroidered napkin across the table. I rubbed the ferret grease off my teeth. The ghost writhed in my stomach.
“He’s still moving,” I said.
“Of course, he is. Ghosts go on fifty midsummers of forevers. And they don’t go slumbering or slooming like us folks. Why, all the ghosts I swallowed when I was knee high to a grasshopper, well, they’re still churning about in my belly, faster than a Can-can in a whirlpool. Now – go and play.”
I ran from the dinner table. I sat at my window, five stairfulls higher than the rolling green, and I tucked my head on my knees and watched the hook men. They strolled over the swaying fields, kneel deep in wheat, back from the villages that squatted in the corners of my window. Ghosts flapped on the ends of their hooks. I listened as they traipsed up the stairs. Granny’s voice drifted up to me.
“Bet they were tricksy to catch. Ghosts are always trying to get out the windows, out into the big blue. Go right through it, they will, given half the chance, and into the other side. Must be some kind of peace out there waiting for them.” She laughed. I listened to the sounds of swallowing. I hugged my knees tighter, sank into my smell of grass grazes and wool. I watched Granny’s men walking back over the fields. The sun lit their hooks.
And I remembered running after the hook men, my feet tumbles, the wheat scratching me. I’d followed them past the corner villages, past the hills that smell of fog, to a weeping cottage. They’d put a hook in my hands. The ghost was smaller than me. Her face shone with snot. Her hair tied in green ribbons. They’d helped me put the hook through her throat. And I’d strode ahead of them through the fields, lifted her high over the wheat.
There were two hundred silences, one after the other. The sun curled into the earth and the stars bittered and I didn’t hear Granny call me to dinner. The dark thickened in the house. I walked in it like a ladybird in butter. I went to the dining room. Granny sat in her chair, her belly heaving. I shuffled into the seat next to her. I tucked into her silence. Her hands were cold. I looked up. Her ghost was at the window. She fluttered at the glass. Her mouth gulped moonlight. I lifted the hook from the table. It was heavy in my hands. I put it through Granny’s throat and pulled her down. I opened my mouth wide.