They say if the conditions are just right you can see him — trudging down the beach in that tattered old blue coat he’s so famous for. At least, that’s how the legend goes. He walks with a slight limp, an empty sheath banging against his leg, and a battered leather tricorn hat tipped over his eyes. He’ll pause at the edge of the cliff, waiting for the ship that will never come — the one that sank with him to his watery grave.
He’s known as le Corsaire Céruléen — the Pirate Lord of the High Seas; but here, in our little stretch of nowhere, he’s simply called Le Spectre: the Wraith. No one knows when he began to walk these shores. Legend claims he’ll appear by the light of the full moon, when fog slips in off the sea, and shadows loom as mysterious as the waters below. It’s said he wears a key around his neck — to what though, no one knows; many hope to find it, claiming it opens a priceless treasure chest or it’s the key to immortality, but somehow I doubt that. No one really knows; his story is lost to time — as obscure as the ocean floor.
I hike up the cliffs outside the village, above the famed haunting place of the Wraith, as often as I can. The winds, bringing the smell of the sea with them, whip up the towering cliffs. It’s a kind respite from the pungent air and the noise of the docks below. Up here the rest of the world fades away. The only sound is the movement of the grass waving in the breeze. When I lie down on my back, the path disappears and all I can see is the sky.
Today, the late afternoon air blankets the earth in silence, and the breeze keeps away any heat. There isn’t a cloud in the sky as the sun inches towards the horizon.
I reach into my jacket pocket and pull out the key I found nestled beneath the floorboards in Morgan’s room this morning. She loved the beaches, always combing for forgotten treasure. She hid things under the floorboards once she found them. I remember she hated it when I figured out her hiding place, but I never told on her for it. Until recently, I had forgotten it existed, but today I finally worked up the courage to walk into her room. The key was discarded under the floorboards with letters from a friend, a book she’d stolen from me years ago, and a journal of a sort I had never known she used.
The key is ornate and easily fits in my palm. The handle is slightly scuffed but is still quite pretty — an elaborate wreath of intertwined loops. If Morgan were here, we would turn it into an adventure and go around town testing the key in all the locks we could find, followed by Percy, excited to get in on the fun. But, this afternoon, my only diversion is enjoying the lasting silence. I shift in the grass. There’s no use thinking about the past now. This isn’t the place for regrets.
Percy comes bounding up the hill, startling me out of my stupor, as he rustles through the grass. He takes his role as a pesky younger brother very seriously. Recently, he’s become less irritating though, especially after what happened last year.
“Art, you should have been home fifteen minutes ago! Dad made me come all the way up here and get you, and I don’t know why you like it up here, it’s like climbing up a mountain. I can barely see over the grass. Where are you anyway? Dad said we need to go home for dinner now because I think we’re having soup or something. Mom’s making it.” He inhales, breathless. Percy likes to get everything out in one breath and as quickly as possible. Mostly, I think, so no one can interrupt him.
“Wow, it’s quiet here. That’s cool.” He’s looking around trying to figure out where I am, but only the top of his head sticks out above the grasses.
“I’m coming.” I stick the key in my pocket and stand up behind him. He jumps.
“Woah, that was epic! You came out of nowhere.” He giggles. I pick him up as he turns around, and swing him in a circle just like Morgan used to, keeping far away from the cliff’s edge. I used to think it was a bad idea. It made me nervous to watch her and Percy near the edge, but it’s a tradition now.
It’s not safe to be out after dark, especially on the cliffs; the fog sweeps in like a tide, making it almost impossible to see. Who knows what lurks in the dark beyond. But before the fog starts to form and as dusk settles around us, I pause and look up. The sky is turning an inky black, reflected in the turbulent ocean below.
Morgan knew the most about constellations; I remember she loved to make up stories for each one. Unlike me, she could recognize them almost instantly, but I try to point out the ones I remember for Percy — Ursa Major, the North Star, Leo (his favorite) — and the ones we made up — the key, the raven.
We used to sneak into Morgan’s room after our parents put us to bed and watch the night sky through the skylight. Percy, Morgan, and I, all snuggled under one blanket on Morgan’s twin bed. As the smallest, Percy almost always ended up in the middle, but the blanket was never big enough for the three of us. Morgan and I always ended up in a tug of war, which usually ended our stargazing with at least a stern warning from our parents.
Percy finally tugs on my arm as the fog begins to rise, veiling the stars. The mist from the sea envelops the town every night, turning the path into a treacherous slope. We start to pick our way down the trail.
“Art, tell me a story.” He looks up at me and grins hopefully.
Just as she called Percy her petit lion, and Morgan her corbeau — her raven — Grand-mère called me her conteur — a collector of tales — the only one of the three of us who would sit still while she told her stories. I remember them all — tales of the dead told on the longest night of the year, folktales passed down through generations warning of greed and jealousy, even childhood stories reminding all to beware the woods at night.
“I think you’re missing something in that sentence, Percy …”
“Whaddya mean? Oh right… Can you please, please, please tell me a story?”
I smile as I reach into my pocket, playing with the cold metal key inside.
“This is the story of Le Spectre.” Percy looks up at me and grins. I haven’t felt like telling stories for so long, but I think back, and slowly I begin: “long before he was remembered as le Corsaire Céruléen, the Lord of the Sea went by a different name: Kay. Now Kay was not from here. He was born in a country that doesn’t exist, in a city which has been lost to time and memory. He was– ”
“Wait, his name was K? Like the letter?”
“Perce, if you interrupt me again, I won’t finish the story. His name was Kay, spelled K-A-Y.”
I swear we’ve made it to the edge of the town, but I can’t see the lights; it’s too foggy. Thankfully, Percy recognizes where we are as we reach the outskirts of the village. He has a tradition of tagging the old copper beech at the edge of Mr. Marchand’s property. I remember he and Morgan used to race to it as soon as it came into view at the bottom of the rocky path; she always let Percy win until he gloated too much or suspected she was losing intentionally. Percy places his palm regretfully on the beech tree as we walk by.
I give him a small smile. “Come on bud, let’s get home,” I murmur. Suddenly, I don’t feel like telling stories anymore. It feels wrong to break the dampening silence surrounding us and fill it with thoughts of before. But Percy isn’t paying attention anymore.
“Look, Arthur! There’s something glowing over there. Woah, what do you think it is? What if it’s a spirit! I really want to find one.” He points off into the fields leading back towards the cliffs. There is something glowing there in the fog — a small ball of swirling effervescent energy, like blue fire — bobbing above the grass. Percy starts to walk towards it, but I grab the back of his shirt.
“Hold on a sec there, Perce. Remember how you said we were supposed to be home soon.”
“Oh come on Art. You know Mom and Dad won’t notice. They’re probably still fighting over what to make for dinner or something. Also, what if it’s the Wraith? No one’s seen him in forever. Plus all the ghosts I’ve seen are boring. They just stand in one place and complain about the ‘injustices’ they faced or whatever. Don’t you want to know what it is?” He’s attempting to give me his best puppy-dog eyes.
“Not all ghosts are friendly, you know.” I know there is no way to stop him once he gets his mind set, but I still warn him. “They’re the manifestations of final thoughts, doomed to wander the earth, reliving their past, unable to move on. Some come back vengeful.” Of course, he’s not even listening anymore.
“Okay, okay now come on let’s go! We’ll lose it!” He drags me forward making me lose my balance for a second. I sigh and start running after him; he’s getting pretty fast. Percy gets about an arm’s length away before the light disappears and some appear further on.
Percy gasps, “I don’t think that’s a ghost. What are they?” He slows down slightly as the fog thickens. The cliffs above us blend into the darkening sky.
“I think they’re will o’ the wisps.” I pause as we near the rocks that mark the edge of the beach; the cliffs loom above us. Will o’ the wisps are the things of folklore. I’ve only heard legends. They’re spirits of the crossroads, beings who lead travelers towards their destiny, or their doom; though sometimes those two things are one and the same. Many say they are the memories of souls, fragments of thought that never truly crossed to the other side, just out of reach of those who hope to remember.
We clamber up a small rise and reach the rocks marking the edge of the beach. The last will o’ the wisp disappears. The thrum of the ocean is deafening, but it’s still too foggy to make out anything. The spray from the waves is icy, and I stick my hands into my pockets to keep warm. My fingers brush against the metal key and I jerk back from the cold; I’d almost forgotten about it from this morning, but it’s still resting in my pocket.
“Percy, look!” I raise my voice to be heard over the crashing waves and point at a tall misty figure down by the water. The shape is blurred, but I can make out what seems to be a person in a large coat and a tricorn hat; the figure stands eerily still, their coat and hat unaffected by the wind and spray coming off the water, as they face the horizon. I catch up to Percy as he slows down to pick his way over the wet rocks.
“I think it’s him. Le Spectre! Maybe we’ll figure out what really happened to him. Then we can tell everyone in the village!”
Percy sounds exactly like Morgan — curious about everything but still ready to show off whenever he gets the chance. She could be such a know-it-all, smugly answering any question at school as quickly as possible. I will always be “Morgan’s sister” to all the teachers.
“She was going places” is the consolation people gave us. A reminder of what Morgan could have been before she got sick — before the “complications”.
Gods, I miss her. Everyone does. The three of us spent our time exploring the village and wilderness beyond, playing pranks on the villagers, including the ghosts. Three was the magic number for playing games and making up stories.
It’s been a year to the day. A year since everything went wrong. Since we were a real family. The house feels empty now, echoing with forgotten memories. It’s just the two of us who have to stick together: me and Percy.
I take a deep breath and smile at the little boy grinning up at me. “Well then, what are we waiting for?” I grab his hand, making sure he doesn’t slip on the rocks as we scramble towards the soft beach sands. I reach out behind me instinctively, almost expecting another to grab my other hand to drag Percy and I down towards the water.
As we near the figure, I feel a chill coming from my pocket. The key is freezing to the touch; I can barely hold it in my hands. Percy looks over as I pull it out of my pocket.
“Is that the key you found in Morgan’s room? It looks like it’s glowing. Woah do you think it’s Kay’s key, from the legend? I bet it opens a giant treasure chest!”
At the name, the ghost turns around, and there is no doubt that he is the Wraith. His long blue coat ripples in the wind and his dark skin blends in with the night sky. He doesn’t say a word — I don’t even know if he can — but his face is twisted in longing and grief. He’s younger than I thought he would be, probably only in his twenties. I look down at the key in my hand. It’s glowing, bright enough that I can make out two worn letters engraved on it: K. D.
“That’s you isn’t it?” I look up at the ghost. “Kay D.” The ghost only bends down, pointing at a metal box in the sand that’s almost hidden behind a rock. It looks like it washed up recently. The box has been pulverized by the waves, but I can still make out the same ornate letters on the front.
Percy, who’d gone silent, tugs on my sleeve. “Come on,” he almost whispers, “you need to open it. That must be what he’s here for — why he hasn’t crossed over yet.”
I walk cautiously towards Le Spectre and bend down. The box is small enough to fit in a pocket; it probably held important documents or pictures, but now it’s covered in barnacles. I insert the key and slowly twist it. Years of rust seem to crumble away as the lid pops open.
There are only two things inside: a necklace and a letter. I pick up the necklace first. It’s not jeweled; rather, it’s made of braided pieces of rope and carved beads. As I stand up, I notice Le Spectre touch his neck. The pirate is looking up towards the village behind us, toying with a similar necklace, a small smile on his face, almost as if he doesn’t notice us anymore.
I hand the necklace to Percy for him to look at and try to unfold the letter. Water must have seeped into the box years ago, so almost all the writing is blurred and the paper flakes apart at the touch.
“What does it say, Art?” Percy hops a little, trying to see, so I lower my hands.
“I can only make out the beginning. I think it starts with … something Tristan, something … I’m something … forgive me fo… Oh, and there’s more on the other side too. It looks like it says, with you … Love … K? I can’t really make out the rest of the name.”
“He must have been trying to get to the village to give that letter to whoever Tristan was! But he never made it,” Percy declares excitedly.
“And he’s been trying to get there ever since” I murmur, looking at the figure in front of us. The waves crash violently on the beach behind him. The Wraith suddenly looks at the box in my hands and reaches towards it. His hand goes straight through. His smile vanishes and sorrow takes its place once more.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers in a thick accent, to no one in particular. I step back and grab Percy’s hand at the words. Most ghosts can’t speak, let alone make a sound. The Wraith looks up at the movement like he’s noticing us for the first time.
“He was my better half,” he murmurs sadly as if it explains everything. He stares intently, almost like he’s inspecting us, and gives us a mournful smile. “She loves you both, your raven. Do not forget that.” He seems to be staring directly at me.
Percy and I look at each other. “Morgan?” Percy questions excitedly.
“But life goes on… life still goes on,” he ignores us.
The Wraith suddenly looks up, smiles at both of us, a look of surprise and relief on his face, and tips his hat slightly. He glances one more time towards the village behind us. Then, he turns and makes his way down the beach, followed by a luminescent trail. “Wait!” I call out. But he doesn’t stop, walking over the waves, fading the farther he gets from shore.
A galleon, a ghost ship, appears through the fog, floating offshore. Le Spectre strides towards it. He’s almost reached the ship when he turns, his light reflecting off the inky waters, and I swear I hear him over the roar of the waves say, “Le conteur, remember.”