The inspiration for this story came from a couple of things. My father, a veteran of World War II, was recently admitted to the “Memory Ward” at a nursing home. Seeing him alone in a wheelchair when I visit makes me wonder if people passing by have any idea what this quiet man, a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa, endured in that war. Short answer: They do not. Nor do most folks consider what they owe to that generation, a generation of heroes which slips away from us day by day.
The other spark for this story was a fascinating article in Ancient Origins about the once widespread practice of interring items in tombs the dead could use in the afterlife. These “parting gifts” weren’t cheap. Consider what archaeologists found in the tomb of Princess Ukok of Siberia:
Buried around her were six horses, saddled and bridled, her spiritual escorts to the next world, and a symbol of her evident status, perhaps more likely a revered folk tale narrator, a healer or a holy woman than an ice princess.
There, too, was a meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold. And a small container of cannabis, say some accounts, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander.
Often, the living would supply the departed with the means to carry on their life’s work. The Ancient Origins article cited a study of tombs from pre-Roman Italy that revealed “indications of the commonality of military service since men’s tombs of the era routinely contained metal weaponry lying across or near the skeletal remains.”
That got me to thinking about the many deities and religions — not to mention nations — that have come and gone over the centuries, and how all of them arose because they met timeless human needs. The more I thought about it, the more intriguing the possibility a future society could adapt this ancient practice. Next thing I knew, I was outlining a story I’d already titled “Black Ghost.”
Stories provide much that religion offers. The tales we read, like the ones we encounter in worship, may not be factual but are nevertheless true and necessary. The cycles of nature, the challenge of growing up and leaving home, and one’s inevitable confrontation with life and death arouse fear and fascination within every human heart. Stories and myths have the power to startle, teach, and assure us on life’s journey. That’s why religion and storytelling have germinated in all cultures.
And whatever one’s views on religion, we can all appreciate the story’s secondary themes of the debt the living owe past generations, the heroism of ordinary people that make life possible, and the boundless potential — and petulance — within every 12-year-old. Enjoy.