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A night of miracles

Editor’s note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: On his quest to help Scrooge, Marley is shown a vision of the first Christmas, when a fast-aging ghost child lights up the night with a fiery beacon.

The spirit child grows again, his hair twisting into a bed of moss-like curls, his height surpassing that of men. A handsome beard sprouts from his face as he concentrates on the fiery pillar springing from his hands.

Then I see the ghosts.

They’ve appeared in droves and drifted to this mountaintop like a herd of bright blue clouds. They stare at the fire, mouths slackened, dead eyes wide and seemingly alive.

More join the crowds. More still. The line seems endless. Hundreds of awed spirits pack the mountaintop, hypnotized by the mast of fire.

The spirit brings his fiery hands down. The flames disappear. Calm winds replace the fire's snarl. Gathered spirits blink their eyes and assess their surroundings, murmuring to each other and wondering where they are. And why.

“In answer to your question,” the tall spirit says, his commanding voice echoing across the mountain range into the darkness. “I have brought you here to tell you something I believe most of you will be pleased to hear. This is a different kind of night. Something has happened that has shaken the very fabric that holds this universe together. It affects us all, the living and the dead. It surpasses explanation.”

He pauses. One might hear a chorus of thudding hearts if the audience’s physical bodies were not decaying underground.

“On this day, once a year from here until eternity, you will be able to step through the veil that separates our realms. You will be able to speak words of comfort to those you love. They will not see you unless you will it. You may wait until they sleep, communicate with them as they dream. Whatever you decide, I have opened the door for you.

He grins.

“Tonight is a night of comfort, spirits, a night when the wall stacked between our world and the world of the living crumbles.”

The spirits glance around nervously, uncertain of this sudden prophet that’s drawn them here. But I can see something else in their eyes. They want to believe him, want to embrace the idea that, in an instant, everything’s changed, that a barrier has dissolved.

They start to drift away, one at a time, off the mountain. Now part of the living realm, for one night.

Most of the spirits do not reveal themselves, waiting, instead, until their loved ones are asleep. The humans are most receptive when they dream. Brains quiet. Hearts open. Many spirits take advantage, engaging in long conversations in dark bed chambers across the world. It is a strange sight indeed, to see the sleeping and the dead conversing so. When the living wake, some recall vivid details. For others, only glimpses remain, flickers and sounds that somehow set them to smiling or pool tears in their eyes. Hope and love abound, either way. They remember their loved ones fondly.

Others of the living are affected in ways none can explain. Some claim to see shadows in the brilliant starlight that cling to no earthly mass. Men and women hear whispers of hope on the wind and shudder at something they don’t believe is the cold.

Have you felt such a night? Have you stood beneath a nighttime dance of Christmas snowflakes as they fall and mute the world? Have your most vivid dreams come to you Christmas night? It feels altogether different, yes? It is them, these spirits. Their joy resonates with a very real heartbeat, surges outward and covers everything.

The girl, the phantom and this new spirit watch from the mountain summit.

“This is wonderful,” the girl says.

The phantom nods.

It soon ends. The doorway between the two dimensions closes, and the ghosts scatter, disappear.

The new spirit’s rapid aging continues. He shrinks from his peak height. Gray shades slither through his thick hair and make it fine. Wrinkles etch his skin.

By the time morning light starts to drown out the stars, the robed, bearded ghost that was once a shrieking infant has withered to an old man. His back has hunched, hair a wintry marble of white and gray. Tremors grip him. The holly leaves and berries in his crown shrivel to an unrecognizable mass of decay.

I feel the girl’s longing for him as a babe a second time. She sits next to him on the ground and holds him and strokes his hair. The hooded apparition’s shadow covers them both, winds ruffling its robes.

The girl has what looks like tears in her eyes, dots of moisture that glisten like sunlit diamonds.

“What happens now?” she asks.

The spirit draws a deep breath and exhales something that almost sounds like a laugh. He reaches a shrunken hand toward the girl and brushes knotted fingers against her face. They shake violently, and more crystalline tears erupt from the girl’s eyes.

“Why do you cry?” the old man asks.

“I do not want you to leave,” the girl says.

“Child,” he says, “I will return.”

“What?”

“In one year’s time, exactly where you found me.”

The girl smiles. Even the phantom seems relieved.

“In one year’s time, my dear,” the ghost repeats. “In the same rock outcropping. You’ll have to search harder this time. There will be no brilliant lights to guide your way. I will reappear as an infant and exit just as fast. Those who live here will have little time to visit the living realm, but it will happen.”

The old man strokes the girl’s face a second time, manages a smile.

“I’ll not easily forget the love you gave me in such a short period, the warmth you exuded when you saw me in the sand.”

Tears of his own bloom in the corners of his eyes.

“Your love made me strong,” he says.

He turns to the phantom. “Your faith that I would comeI felt it, even before I emerged into the world. It lit my way, guided me here.”

The phantom nods. This now-ancient spirit nods back.

Then he lurches, draws panicked breaths. White drowns out his eyes, leaving milky orbs behind. Air hisses past slightly parted lips into the frosty air and is whisked away across the mountaintops toward the rising sun, casting pinpoint shadows in the light.

The old spirit begins to decay into clouds of ash that hurtle into the sky. The girl stands and watches. After a few moments she runs to the phantom and buries her face in his robes, sobbing.

In a few minutes, every trace of the old ghost disappears. The phantom and the girl are alone.

“I miss him,” the girl says.

The phantom nods, grips her tight.

Read part 17 here.

A night of miracles