004 – The Thanatourists (April’s Full Moon Story)

The Thanatourists
by David Davisson

Ghosts aren’t supposed to know other people’s names, but Ndidi knew mine. She said I “talked different” than the others, but she couldn’t explain how. After giving tours I would look for her on a little ledge overlooking a kelp forest not far from her shipwreck. She said it reminded her of sunset even though the sun didn’t sink this deep into the ocean. The company set up artificial lights so the tourists could see the wreck and the ghosts. Ndidi found a spot where the light source silhouetted the tall swaying cords of artificial kelp. It looked like a permanent underwater sunset wrapped in liquid sapphire.

I called her Dee-Dee, but that wasn’t really her name. I spent days trying to pronounce her name correctly, to learn how to speak with her with the translator off. Every time she’d laugh and say it again. It sounded to me like I was saying exactly the same thing, but she’d laugh and say it again.

I asked her about her life before she died and her life as a ghost. She asked me about the world since she died and wanted me to describe and explain everything. The first thing I had to explain was drones. She said at first it was weird to talk to a little metal animal, but not any weirder than being a ghost. The second thing I explained were ghosts.

She told me about her death.

“I knew it was almost time for me to die when my brother died. We were born together and I knew we would die together. We were chained at the ankle. After he died I lay living by his side. Every day my brother bled. In the night he scratched his arms and legs, any soft spot, to make himself bleed. He refused to eat and weakened. He died the night before the storm. A storm came up and our ship sank. The best part of drowning was that it ended the smell. I never got used to the sour smell of fear, the smell of sick and shit and the dead. The stench was beyond endurance. I remember every instant of drowning. At least I drowned and avoided the sharks. I don’t remember how I became a ghost. By the time I realized what I was I was a ghost for a long time.”

***

There’s always an instant of disorientation after removing the VR helmet, despite the protocols in place. It’s called the uncanny shift. You’re supposed to return to a virtual representation of your space before removing the helmet. Everything looks exactly the same, but somehow different. It only lingers a moment. I work out of my bedroom. You’re supposed to make your virtual world and your real world as much the same as possible, but mine never are. Everytime I remove my headgear dirty clothes manifest themselves, items shift instantaneously to different locations, vanish altogether or magically appear. What remains consistent are the paintings, drawings, and posters on my walls; the primitive landscapes and still lifes I managed to create while I was in high school. They’re not very good, but they still make me happy. And, a few 20th century tourism posters for places in Europe I got for Christmas one year. I’ve wanted to travel since I was a little kid.

I stretched and walked down the hall to the bathroom to pee, then went to check on my mother. Like everyday she sat on the small back porch staring out at the tiny overgrown garden.

“Hi, Mom.” I kissed her cheek. “What do you want for dinner?” She sat in her normal posture, a pale blue shawl she clutched tightly at the neck despite the warmth of the late spring evening.

She was lost deep in rumination and it took her a few moments while she underwent an uncanny shift of her own. I knew she was thinking about my brother. It’s all she did anymore. She managed a shrug which I chose to take as a good sign. Some days she couldn’t even manage that.

My brother started the garden in high school as a part of some school project. It started as a vegetable garden, mostly beans and okra, but eventually morphed into a flower garden. Dad and I were surprised he managed to successfully grow anything. My brother was impatient and irresponsible, but he was also a teenage boy. Mom wasn’t surprised. She believed he could do anything. She expected him to do everything. When he signed up for the military she thought he’d be a hero. Instead he died.

***

“We lived in a large village. One day an army of men, hundreds of men, rode into our village on horse and on foot, and burned our homes. We ran. My whole family ran. We escaped. Many of the men, and many of the women, fought against the invaders. They were captured or killed. The invaders had English guns and we did not. They burned our village to the ground and took the captives away to sell as slaves.”

“How did you get caught?” Ndidi was the only ghost I ever met who could hold a conversation. It was supposed to be impossible, but until a few years ago ghosts were impossible.

“We returned to our village to rebuild it. We thought the traders were done, that they had moved on. They returned, and that time I didn’t escape. My brother and I climbed a tree, but they saw us and sent a man up the tree to push us out. While we waited I watched them kill the children who weren’t old enough to be enslaved. They lay in the road like dead dogs.”

***

At first it seemed like Mom would pull through. All sorts of people came to visit and to express their condolences. People from organizations like Lost Heroes Organization, and Our Fallen Heroes, and Proud Warriors. My brother’s combat insurance paid for a therapist to come visit with us, but only covered three visits. Two months after Quinn’s death we were forgotten. Mom never really followed up on anything like she probably should have, and I didn’t bother because I found the attention weird and creepy. Instead we fell into our routines. Mom would sit and watch the garden and I wandered randomly through shipwrecks until I finally got a part-time job as a shipwreck tour guide. She was depressed after Dad died, too, so I thought she would eventually come around, but I don’t know anymore if she will. I think we’ve entered the new normal.

I don’t really understand the science. The best I can explain it is that ghosts are a sort of temporal residue. Every instant is packed with potentiality. A few years ago someone discovered how to reveal that potentiality and voila we could see ghosts. Not every person who lived leaves behind a ghost. Or, if they do, our technology is not good enough to detect the ghost of everything. The best we can do is make visible the ‘strong ghosts’, which are usually those who died young or violently. Not just people, animals too. But, it’s expensive to expose the ghosts, so most are still hidden. The whole ghost industry is mostly dominated by thanatourism outfits like the one I work for.

I guide a tour drone and take people piloting the tour company drones through various shipwrecks where the ghosts have been illuminated. The biggest attraction is the Titanic, but that’s too commercial for me. I prefer to work the slave ships, which aren’t as popular, but we get enough tourists so that I can get some reputation credit and a little bit of income.

***

She was standing in front of me when I removed the helmet. I was startled to see the room one way, and then an instant later to see her appear in front of me like an apparition.

“He’s a ghost.”

“Hi mom. You’re up. It’s good to see you up. Who’s a ghost?” I put my helmet away and stretched. I always lost track of my body while I was in VR. I really needed to pee. Without waiting for her to respond I walked to the bathroom.

“Quinn. Quinn’s a ghost. I remembered what you told me about ghosts. That it’s usually people who died young, and who died violently. Quinn’s a ghost. We can bring him home.”

“It doesn’t work like that, Mom. I have to pee.” She followed me closely, but I firmly closed the door between us. As quietly as I could I locked the door. I could hear her speaking on the other side of the door, but with the fan on I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I had to answer questions about ghosts all the time on tour. Most people didn’t know how they worked, but almost every tour had someone who wanted to know if the technology could be used to bring back a loved one. I didn’t grow up with pets, and I was a little surprised how many people wanted to bring back a beloved animal companion instead of a person.

***

“Wait, this isn’t your ship?”

Ndidi hesitated. I could tell she didn’t want to answer the question.

“I won’t tell anyone. I didn’t know it was possible. I thought ghosts had to stay close to where they died. I thought that was physics.”

Ndidi laughed. I loved to hear her laugh. “Even though I am a ghost I do not know what it means to be a ghost. But, yes, I have noticed I am different. I can move where they cannot move. I can speak where they cannot speak.”

“How far have you traveled?”

“I do not know how to measure the distance I’ve traveled. There is no sun down here, and I cannot remove myself from the water. There are still some places I cannot travel. I don’t know why. But, I traveled for a long time. A long, long time before the weird fish like you came and started building lights and scaffolds and underwater forests and bring other strange looking fish.”

“Wow. Like I said, I won’t tell anyone, but there are probably people who would really like to know that. You could be famous.”

“I’d rather be dead.” She spoke quietly, mournfully.

***

“Below us is the 50-ton sloop Mercy which sank while carrying its human cargo from Africa to Jamaica in 1767.” The drones in the touring party began to spread out to examine the wrecked ship. It didn’t matter how far they moved away from me, they could all hear me through their VR ear buds. “The ship sank in a storm, probably a hurricane, in the late summer. Thanks to ghost technology we’ve been able to identify everyone on board. You can find out more about each ghost by reading the manifest you’ll find in the folder to your right.” I traveled my own path through the wreck, about a half-dozen drones followed me, uncertain where to look, or where to travel. I tried to highlight what I thought were the most interesting parts of the ship, lingering over the various spaces so the tourists could bring up the overlays to get a sense of how tightly people were packed into the hold. As I discussed life aboard the slave ship the overlay changed. When I discussed the violence of flogging, the tourists saw an animation of a man being flogged. When we went into the hold, they saw a full hold of soon-to-be slaves chained to each other. When I discussed the dance the slaves were compelled to perform for exercise, the animation showed that.

“And, here are those who lost their lives.” I turned on the ghost machine, making the invisible visible. “Not all drowned during the storm. Many survived and were consumed by sharks. Sharks followed the slaver ship across the Atlantic because they were often a source of food. Not only from the captives who managed to escape and throw themselves overboard, or those who died on ship and were thrown overboard, but captains would often feed sharks to keep them close by as a deterrent to those who were contemplating escape.” An animation of four large, menacing sharks swam above the shipwreck.

The ghosts were always there, but the tech allowed us to see them. Despite the conspiracy theories, the ghosts were real. The tourists were allowed to visit with them and speak to them. Ghost talk was limited. They often knew their names and could speak a little to how they died, or their last memory, or an important memory from their past, but those few details exhausted their ability and they began to repeat themselves. As I waited for the tourists to get their fill of the interactive portion of the tour, I saw the captain. The captain and his crew always sat separate from the rest of the ghosts. Even in death the slaves and slavers didn’t mingle.

***

I admit feeling relieved when I read Mom’s note. I also felt deeply apprehensive. I both feared and desired catastrophe. I was afraid for her. She couldn’t take care of herself within the domestic setting of her home, how would she able to take care of herself in a war zone? I also kind of wished she’d get herself killed. I know that sounds really horrible, but it would take care of so many problems, and I was burnt out beyond caring about her and her grief.

I spent the rest of the night in a frantic state of anxiety, trying to reach her cell phone. I wrote her a short email, then I started looking up how she’d probably travel halfway across the world to find Quinn’s death spot. Her note didn’t say much, only that she had found a way to manifest his ghost and she was going to find him.

***

“I am lucky you speak my language. I meet so many, but I can speak with so few.”

I explained software translators to Ndidi, and how I couldn’t really speak her language.

“I wish I had ghost technology I could carry with me. Then I could speak to all the ghosts.”

We sat in silence watching the kelp sway in the artificial blue sunset. I told Ndidi about my Mom and her advice was that I had to let her lead her own life. I could not live my life and my mother’s life as well. I felt validated to hear someone say what I was thinking, even if it was a hundreds years dead ghost girl.

“I wanted to say goodbye to you before I left.”

“You’re leaving? Where are you going?”

“You are the only friend I’ve had for hundreds of years, but I must continue my search for others like me.”

“Do you think you will find anyone?”

“Yes. I think the ghosts are changing. It is subtle and slow, but I think they are remembering more and able to speak more about their lives. I think they can move farther and farther away from their place of death.”

“You think they are becoming more like you?”

She laughed. I loved to hear Ndidi laugh. “No one will ever be like me, but yes, I think I am only the first of what ghosts will be.

We could not embrace and she could not see my emotion. “Goodbye, Ndidi. I hope I see you again.” I went back to my room and sat for a long time not doing anything.

***

When I saw the official looking letter from the American embassy I knew it was bad news. My mother died of a stroke while walking through the war zone. I hope she died near Quinn’s death spot. I miss him. It’s not that I didn’t grieve for him, I just became overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of my mother’s grief. If she died near him, maybe they’ll find each other and he won’t have to be alone. I keep thinking about how the captain and his sailors sat isolated among all those ghosts. I imagine my brother alone, isolated among all those who died in the war zone. The enemy. At least he’ll have Mom so he won’t be so lonely.

THE END
Tampa
April, 2017