I grew up the daughter of necromancers and undertakers, well acquainted with unmoored spirits. Singing, weeping, and hearty, rich food were well-known qualities of a good homegoing, but it was harder for folks who left this world unknown and without proper honoring. My parents raised me on rituals to care for the rootless: tipping salt into the freshly turned earth, scattering dried flowers, singing unrehearsed prayers. Over and over until you felt the flutter of the veil and knew they’d found the peace they needed to move on.
“This country’s a potter’s field,” Mama would mumble, slipping salt into my pockets on my way out the door. She always wanted me prepared to put a soul to rest, even though I resisted. I hated pulling back the veil and seeing all my trapped kinfolk. It hurt too much, so I left the veil down as much as I could and tried to pretend that I couldn’t sense them.
I’d been tuning out the energy-prickles of stuck souls since my plane touched down at LaGuardia. I was interviewing for a job that only interacted with the living, and they’d agreed to put me up in a fancy hotel, and how could I turn that down? Mama had shaken her head when I told her, said that there was no running for folks like us. I said I would just learn to close my eyes, then, and she sucked her teeth and turned away. She hasn’t looked at me properly since, not even when she dropped me off at the airport.
When my cab crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, the energy mashed up like static and swam through me so fast I thought I would puke. It was the same feeling I got walking through a battlefield or plantation.
“Let me out. I’m gonna be sick,” I hissed at the cab driver.
He threw me a you-don’t-have-to-tell-me-twice look in the rearview mirror before pulling over. I shoved bills into his hand and grabbed my suitcase from next to me before stumbling through the door. A rectangular, storm-grey sculpture on a sad patch of grass loomed over me, cast in the shadows of colorless buildings. I braced myself against the cool railing that wrapped around it, sipped deep breaths. A glass plaque caught my eye as the sun glinted off of it.
ᴀғʀɪᴄᴀɴ ʙᴜʀɪᴀʟ ɢʀᴏᴜɴᴅ ɴᴀᴛɪᴏɴᴀʟ ᴍᴏɴᴜᴍᴇɴᴛ
I stared, not wanting to acknowledge the quiet dread seeping into me as I drew the connection between the monument and the pressure in my head. Instead, I pulled the hotel address up on my phone and took off, my suitcase click-clacking behind me, pushing through the pain as if all I had to do was outpace it. I marched toward a future where I could be a normal newcomer in a city full of millions of people with their own dark secrets. I would not be a necromancer haunted by her ancestors, beholden to responsibilities I’d never asked for. Not anymore.
Even so, the pressure grew. By the time I reached the hotel, my vision had blurred and all I could hear was high-pitched hissing. I needed reprieve, even for just a moment, so I reached out, feeling for the edges of the gossamer curtains that marked the border of the world of the living, and pulled back the veil. Air rushed forward, cooling my face and releasing the pressure in my head like a popped bottle of Coke. I breathed out, relishing the relief.
And then there they were. Thousands of spirits clogged the streets like a parade, dappled by a strange light that made me feel like I was drowning. Some wore shrouds, others tattered burial outfits and African jewelry. I shivered as one brushed against me. She had blue glass and cowrie shells all tied up around her waist like a queen and smelled of empty, crumbling earth.
There were so many children.
I snapped the veil shut and ran inside, trembling through check-in and the elevator ride, fumbling my key to enter the room, all the while wondering how the hell I could see that up in New York—until I opened the door and got a full view of a ship docking in a harbor on the Atlantic. Horror thickened in my throat, dripped down my spine like a chill, and settled in my stomach. It was one of those moments when you learn bad news, and your body reacts even before your mind understands it.
I drew the curtains shut and crawled into bed. It was broad daylight, but all I wanted was for sleep to take me.
• • •
I woke in the deep hours of the night wanting to call my mama. But I didn’t want her to know that she was right, that the shit down south was also up north and this whole country was so damn cursed. Instead, I fixed to stop running. I grabbed a glass from the nightstand, fully in motion before acknowledging what I was about to try.
The streets were mostly empty when I stepped outside and pulled back the veil. I walked among the spirits and looked into their cloudy, distant eyes, acknowledged them, let them pass through me, felt who they had been in a way I’d avoided for years. I wanted to make a home for them in me, to let them know that I’d find a way to free them.
When I found where they thinned, I knew it was the edge of their burial ground. Using the salt in my pocket would have been like trying to drain the ocean with a cupped hand. Instead, I shattered the cup on the pavement and sliced a shard across my thumb, spilling my blood on the steps.
I walked the borders of the burial ground for an hour, giving what I could of myself. Five fingers, five drippings of saltwater blood at the corners of the grave that formed Manhattan’s foundation. I stood in its center when I finished rooting myself into the earth. I did not have the flowers from our garden, carefully blessed and dried by my mama, so I waited for prayer to come to my lips.
It wouldn’t. Prayer required hope, and all I had was grief. After a lifetime of grieving, I knew that it would never be enough to free us.
Something fragile in me shattered, and I began to sob, hurting so much for every forgotten soul in that burial ground. I cried for my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents for devoting their lives to giving our people the respite they should have had while living. I cried for myself for needing to carry on their work, even now.
When I was out of tears, I chose to do what I had always done: walk away.
I didn’t stop until I was halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge and the threads connecting me to the burial ground snapped taut. The image of the soul adorned with shells and beads, the one who I wanted to call queen, jumped to the front of my mind. I would continue on, and she would remain trapped. And I knew that there would be no moving on from that guilt. This was it—either I kept my back turned as I always had, or I did something, anything.
I turned to face Manhattan.
The skyline twinkled like it had stolen every last star from heaven. I crawled over a crossbar with bloody, stinging hands to get a full view of the city, wrapped myself around the cable, closed my eyes, and, thinking of those souls, began to name them.
I named them Daughter, I named them Elder, I named them Warrior, I named them Queen. I named them Healer, I named them Brother, I named them Lost Love, Stolen Dreams, Roots Set Aflame. I named them my ancestors. I named them my pride. I named them my levity, and swore to carry them on my tongue, in my spirit. Shadows moved across FDR Drive and gathered at the East River. I raised my voice and named them louder. Row by row, they stepped into the water.
Spirits poured out of the lower tip of Manhattan by the thousands. I continued to name them even as I knew that something beyond my powers had taken over, shouting my love and my reverence in their direction. Awe weighed like a pendulum against grief, nearly knocking me into the water under its weight. All of those lives. All those centuries. I felt gates groaning open to welcome them.
Then the buildings shifted.
The city had been propped up on skeletons, and as ghosts rose from its bowels, lower Manhattan began to sink. The skyline folded in on itself with wretched creaks, displacing water that swelled outward and eastward to carry the spirits home. A wall of wind rocked the bridge, spraying me with sea water and nearly knocking me backward. I crouched down and wrapped myself tighter around the cable, watching the Financial District disappear as if it were a stranger’s dream.
The last skyscraper bubbled beneath the Atlantic and the waves stopped lapping at Brooklyn’s shores. The world stilled, as if at the tail end of an exhale, waiting to see how long it could go before taking another breath.
Then the sirens began.