Author note: written for the January 2012 writing challenge contest (WCC). There is a link to the contest in my profile.
The prompt was a photo of a woman walking down the street casually with some kind of ghosts stalking her. She was aware of the ghosts but untroubled by them.
When I first encountered them, it felt as if the world had flipped inside out, but I was the only one who knew. If you are curious about what I speak of, let me take you on a journey back in time.
Imagine this, 12 years old, fluttering about the garden in my yellow sundress, barefoot, chasing butterflies. After so much running that the blazing sun threatened to burst right through my porcelain skin, I took shelter under a weeping willow, drifting into the twilight reverie of almost-sleep.
Absorbed in a state where reality and fantasy are difficult to distinguish, I heard haunting pipe music emanating from a dark gully. No longer enthralled by the hunt for butterflies, I was entranced by the mellifluous sounds, and sought their secret source. Everywhere I went, it seemed I was nearing my goal, as the music grew louder and louder. Finally it occurred to me, it was everywhere I went. It didn't matter where I was, the music followed me like a stalking ghoul.
I ran back to the house, covered head to toe in autumn leaves and mud, panting and wheezing.
The music followed.
I ran to my parents' bedroom. The music followed.
'Dad...' I paused to try to find the words that would not make me sound crazy, 'Dad, can you hear pipe music?'
'Darling, what are you talking about? Is this some kind of game?' he replied, 'You will have to teach me the rules after I finish my cup of tea.' Nothing on earth could disturb my father in the middle of a cup of tea.
'Sure, it's a game,' I replied, hanging my head and backing away.
I retreated to my bedroom. The music followed.
You have to understand here, I don't just mean I had a song stuck in my head, an ear-worm if you will, this music felt as real as the ground I walked on. I could not tell the difference between this and the music coming from a radio. I wondered if it might all be a dream. A pinch would not convince me, so I slapped myself in the face repeatedly. No luck.
'Stop!' I screamed, 'Stop stop stop!' The music grew louder. I yelled even louder: 'No! Stop it! Why are you doing this to me?' I began to cry, and the tone of the music grew deeper and started to sound more like death metal than panpipes.
After some general hysterics, my mother entered the room and comforted me. I didn't explain why I was upset, how could I? She didn't need to know the reason, but knew what she had to do to make me feel better. She gave me a hug and told me a story about a time that she had been upset as a child. She had been lost in the woods for three days with nothing but a sandwich and water flask. Something inside her told her the way home, and she explained that the women in our family had always had good instincts, and that I should learn to trust mine. The music had softened and by now it was actually soothing.
The next time it happened was my sweet 16th birthday. I was a little nervous about a boy that I had a crush on. While blowing out the candles, I avoided looking his way, but instead heard a raucous chorus of my friends singing: 'Happy death day to you, happy death day to you, it won't be long no-ow, happy death day to you.' The only way I could tell they weren't really singing it, was that my friends' mouths were not moving. At least they wanted my death day to be happy - how kind.
When my friends had gone home, I finally fessed up to my parents. They sent me to a doctor who sent me to a psychiatrist who sent me to a neurologist. By the time I got there, I had been through several macabre versions of holiday songs: We Wish You a Merry Deathbed, Auld Lang Scythe, and The Homicidal Easter Bunny Is on Its Way.
The neurologist's office was pokey and old-looking. It must have been decorated in the 70s and had not changed a speck since then.
'So, Ms Ariel Forsyth, I hear you have been experiencing musical hallucinations, am I right?' the neurologist asked, peering enthusiastically through chunky spectacles.
'Have I?' I replied, 'That's what they were?'
'Musical hallucinations do not mean you have a psychosis. They often come on their own without any other symptoms. In fact, if I had to choose any neurological condition to have, from almost 30 years of experience, I would choose musical hallucinations, so perhaps I should congratulate you, you've won the jackpot. So, there's nothing we can really do about it, but at least you know you're probably not crazy,' he replied.
'Gee, thanks,' I responded, disappointed.
Years passed, and I grew accustomed to my little ghoul-like troubadours. Safe in the knowledge that I 'probably wasn't crazy', I walked the streets with a smile on my face, pleased to have a secret, free, weightless portable music device. If I got stuck in a boring meeting at work, I might just get lucky and drown it out with some African drums. I had very little control over when they would come, what music would play, and at what volume, but I grew to learn that they often reflected my emotions.
Then one day, I got so caught up in a song that I lost my way and found myself walking down an unfamiliar alleyway. I passed a shop that, were it not for the sign out the front, one might have believed was selling cobwebs, from the sheer numbers of them in there. The sign read: Frederik Toftegaard - holistic practitioner specialising in obstreperous daemons, skulduggerous trolls, and musical-ghouls.
I rapped on the door sheepishly. The door creaked open and I jumped back in fright.
A voice bellowed from within: 'Hello little one, don't be afraid. Let me guess, musical-ghoul? You have a smile on your face, it's got to be that, there is no way you would be smiling with a skulduggerous troll on your hands, those little suckers are nasty.'
'That's... that's right,' I replied, increasing in volume as my confidence grew.
'Well come in then, don't be shy, you're in the right hands,' he replied.
He took me into the back room where there was a doctor's treatment bed and all kinds of surgical equipment from a bygone era. Graspers and cutters, scopes and probes, irrigators and suction tubes, devices for trepanation and bloodletting, acupuncture needles and bottles filled with different coloured liquids and solids.
'I will need to look into your ear, can you lie on your side?' Frederik asked.
He looked into my ear with some kind of ancient scope, and plucked out a speck with tweezers. It was shining a gold colour and seemed to be emitting some kind of hum. He placed it on a slide and looked at it through a microscope.
'Hmm, it looks interesting, but I can't quite make it out. I am curious about this hum, I am going to need to have a listen to this baby,' he said.
He placed the speck on a piece of sticky tape which he attached to a microphone connected to a computer. He opened some software which graphed the sounds the speck was emitting as a scatter plot.
As the first few dots appeared, Frederik looked confused. They appeared random and meaningless. Eventually he could make out the words: 'Fx Mod WX 2.3.' Unsure what this meant, he googled the words and followed the links to download a patch from a suspicious looking site in the Ukraine.
After restarting the software, it quickly became clear that the dots formed a face, the face of some kind of garden sprite.
'At first I suspected fairies, you know I once found fairy dung in a child's ear, it wreaked all kinds of havoc. That shit is nasty. But I think this is another kind of sprite altogether, in fact, in all of my 30 years of experience, I have never seen such a thing!' Frederick exclaimed with a big smile on his face.
'If you haven't seen this before, then why does your sign say musical-ghouls?' I questioned him.
'Musical-ghouls are a whole' nother beast. They are your common or garden variety musical sprite, but this little baby is something different altogether, a rare find I assume, but I won't be sure until I find out what it is,' Fredrik replied.
We both turned to the screen again and realised we should have done so much sooner. The graph was now forming words, English words! So simple. It said: 'Hello humans, my name is Min, short for Minstrel Sprite. We are a rare breed, but easy to find, just look for the people who smile in boring meetings.'
Frederik looked up Minstrel Sprite in his supernatural beings database.
'"Minstrel Sprite: mostly friendly, highly empathic, in tune with host's emotions, uses nano-soundwave initiator technology. Willing in removal procedure but harmless if left intact."So now that I know what this is, I can remove it for you. You can be free from all that cacophony for good. The operation will cost you though. I don't accept cash, only pieces of my clients with potent magical capacity: hair, fingernails, and snot balls,' Frederik said.
'Snot balls?' I asked.
'Sure, snot balls are filled with the detritus of the war between the immune system and pathogens, they hold great power,' he explained.
'Well, as much as I could afford the bill, I think I would rather it stayed as it is. Min, please come with me through my life,' I answered.
The music followed.