Online Exclusive


Han? Ludmila makes the introductions. This is Eleanor.
        Eleanor is an old lady but not as old as Ludmila. She looks like she could be in her 70s. She's wearing a chunky necklace and a chunky bracelet, both made of the same red gem — garnet?
        Red is my color, she says, as if having read my mind.
        Eleanor is a spiritist, Ludmila says. It’s Ludmila’s plan we’re carrying out. Before my trip to Berlin to shepherd Laurence’s ashes — a portion of his ashes, since a few of his friends have decided to hold on to the rest here, in New York — Ludmila thought I should be blessed by her friend Eleanor’s occult reassurance. I’d expressed nervousness, since we didn’t have the proper papers and have decided to “smuggle” the Berlin share of the ashes in capsules, and labeling these capsules as motion sickness medication for myself. A risky endeavor, but maybe Eleanor could suss out and calm malign interferences before I submit myself to bag check at the airport in a few days?
        I know what you're thinking, Eleanor says. What is a spiritist? It is somebody who is sensitive to spirits. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a medium, although I don't really channel the dead, and also in the neighborhood of a seer, although I do not see these spirits, only sense them.
        I asked Eleanor to come today because she was the one who first suggested the transportation of Laurence's ashes back to a place of love. This is true: Laurence, despite being a pioneer of gay lit, had accustomed himself to lasting American indifference when he found, late in life and seemingly out of nowhere, a sudden readership in Berlin — a second boost in old age, but which did not prevent him from eventually taking his own life.
        Back to Berlin, Eleanor says.
        Have you been to Berlin? I ask Eleanor.
        Yes, Eleanor says, and I have the feeling that it's the short answer.
        Eleanor didn't really like Berlin, Ludmila says.
        No, I didn't, Eleanor says. I get the sense that it might be all short answers with Eleanor this afternoon.
        May I ask why? I venture.
        The Germans, Eleanor says. They are no good.
        Are you Jewish? I ask.
        Must one be a Jew to dislike Germans?
        So why did you go? Ludmila says.
        Oh, well, travel is supposed to broaden the horizons. In my case, I don't know if that was true. All travel did was to confirm for me that I should never leave New York City.
        Were you exposed to foreign spirits during your travels? Ludmila asks.
        Yes, but they were all speaking foreign tongues and I am useless with languages. They just sounded like a lot of strange species of animals. Not quite dogs, not quite cats. Maybe whales. Marine animals. A lot of keening. Sounds of sadness.
        Were German ghosts different in any way? I ask.
        They were the most insistent. Or maybe it was the quality of the language. At any rate, it is not me who is going to Berlin, it is Laurence, and he had different feelings about the place, and that is all that matters.
        He loved Berlin, Ludmila says.
        So you said, Eleanor says.
         I asked Eleanor here today so you would understand — I believe you already understand, but only in a shallow way — the importance of what you are about to undertake.
        I do not need to see or touch the ashes, Eleanor says. I only need to see you. To look into your eyes and to see that you have a clear soul — a soul for the task. And I don't need to look too long because I am already assured that you do have this soul to bring our friend Laurence back to a place of love.
        Our friend? I ask: Did you know Laurence as well?
        Only through Ludmila. But I feel as if I know him myself. Han. May I call you Han?
I nod.
        Han, there is no need to be afraid. You are on the path of the righteous. You are a writer? Ludmila tells me this. Just like Laurence.
        As a writer, you believe in symmetry, in architecture, that things have a pleasing design and this pleases the reader and he reads on to be part of this design?
        The design is clear, surely, in your bringing the ashes back to Berlin?
        I've read some of what Laurence has written about Berlin, I say to Ludmila and Eleanor. And yes, I've come to believe that he felt more alive in Berlin than in New York. I've come to understand that something about Berlin — its state of evolving ruin, I suppose, which mirrored his own life — was very compelling to him. And that his books had an audience there while he was losing his American readership was also a big part of his feelings.
        Yes. Ludmila nods.
        Give me your hand, Han.
        I give Eleanor my hand.
        I will not lie and say that I feel Laurence with us in this room, Eleanor says. But that does not mean he is not here. Perhaps, in death as in life, he is a sly presence. Observing but not wanting to be observed. With my hand on yours, I give you my strength to carry out this important mission of restoration.
        You understand that it's not all of his ashes I'm bringing back? We would like to keep some part of it to be with us, his friends, here.
        Ludmila has told me everything.
        And this is all right?
        We do our best with what we have been given. Just as in life, so with the afterlife. Eleanor takes her hands off mine. You will do this for Laurence, for Ludmila, for myself. You are our representative and you will do it with honor and an awareness of its place in the design of life and afterlife. Laurence will be so happy to be back in a place of love. Oh, I envy Laurence. She turns to Ludmila and smiles, an enormous thing with beautiful, even teeth. You will be a ... vessel. No. We do not want to use a word with such ... Catholic implications. Not that we are antagonists of Catholicism. Are you antagonistic to Catholicism? Eleanor asks.
        I'm lapsed.
        All right, to be honest, Eleanor says, it is best, given my ... discomfort with Catholicism, to choose another word. Not vessel. You are a ...
        Container? I say.
        Envelope, Eleanor says. You are an envelope for Laurence, for his spirit. You will be closed until you reach Berlin, when you will open yourself up and let Laurence out into a place he will recognize as a heaven on earth. You will keep this image in your head and when you do, you know no harm will come to you. Why? Because this image will keep you steady. Steady of heart and steadfast of purpose. What they would call, in the old days, a stalwart. This will be you.
        Amen, Ludmila says. I'm sorry. Was that wrong? Was that Catholic?
        Amen is fine. Now, Eleanor says, how about some tea?
        Ludmila brings a pot to the round table and pours Eleanor a cup, then myself. She rests the teapot on the table.
        Eleanor, can I ask you something? I say.
        Around me, are there spirits? Do you see spirits?
        Why do you want to know? Eleanor says.
        We all have spirits around us.
        Are these loved ones who have passed away?
        For some of us, yes. You are asking what are the spirits who surround you?
        Do I want to know? I say.
        Curious spirits, Eleanor says. I cannot discern that these spirits around you have a personal connection to you, by which I mean, I cannot discern the emotions common to relations and loved ones, like love or concern. These are spirits who you do not know. I don't know why they are gathered around you. Maybe they are just passing through and something about you has detained them for the hour, for the day. I'm guessing that if you asked me to sense what is around you tomorrow, I will get a very different feeling — different spirits emanating different colors and emotions. I think these are spirits who are curious about you and are sticking around, for the moment, to see how you will turn out.
        Benevolent or ... ?
        I do not get the sense that they are malign. As for benevolent, it would be closer to the truth to call them onlookers and not influencers or wishers, that is to say, spirits whose emotions are wishes for us, both bad wishes and good wishes. These spirits are lookers and not wishers. They have no wish for you. They are waiting to see what wish your life or, for the short-term spirits, your day will turn out to be. They are waiting to see what wish you have for yourself.
        So I am not ... I hesitate. I am not cursed?
        Are you afraid that you might be? Eleanor asks.
        I don't know.
        Cursed by what? Ludmila asks.
        By failure, I say. Like Laurence, my former writing teacher, who died of his own hand, I, too, have been struggling with my writing career. Part of why I volunteered to bring him back to Berlin is so that I might, by helping him reach a satisfying conclusion, earn a more positive resolution to my own story. Break two curses — Laurence’s and mine.
        As opposed to cursed by success? Eleanor asks. There is a wisp of a smile on her face, no teeth.
        As opposed to not cursed by failure, I say.
        I do not get a sense of a curse, Eleanor says.
        That is good, Ludmila says, as she regards me with, for the first time in our brief acquaintance — having met me only since Laurence’s memorial, two weeks ago — a look that speaks of momentary loss of faith. 

This story appears in our fall 2023 issue, Conjunctions:81, Numina: The Enchantment Issue.

Han Ong is the author of the novels Fixer Chao and The Disinherited (both FSG). His stories can be found in the New Yorker, Bomb, and Zoetrope: All-Story, among other publications, including multiple appearances in Conjunctions. He is a MacArthur and a Guggenheim Fellow.