This time our group is lucky. Right in the middle of the forest was a large clearing. Surprisingly large. The tent had already been pitched. It is dusk, and time for our revelries. Our leader, Q, has deemed this a safe spot – safe for music. My brother, V, he’s told me there’s going to be a surprise for me. It’s not my birthday or anything. I can’t guess what it might be.
Some of the men and women are quite tipsy this evening. And who can blame them, we have had some pretty rough days. I pull out my journal and sit in the corner, and smile at my group – my family. Q approaches me and shuts the journal with a snap.
“No, no! Nope,” she says with finality, “None of that tonight. I want you to go and join the dances.”
“No, Q, I am just not in the-”
“This isn’t open for discussion.” She holds up a hand. But her expression is kind and a hint of a smile hovers around the corners of her mouth.
I give her a brief smile, the haughty and obedient, borderline indulgent smile of a favourite child to her parent and take a few steps towards the group engaged in frenzied dancing. Clap, tap, beat, hop, and turn! Someone’s hand comes flying at me, and I duck. Shyly, I turn with the rest of the group, and start clapping along with the rest of them.
And then I see him.
I cannot believe it at first. I think maybe it is someone who looks like him – hair falling into his eyes, the freckled jaw, the wide grin. But… it cannot be. It’s not possible, he’s not –
When the group moved in a ring behind me is when I realize I’ve stopped dancing. His part of the group moves closer to me. He sees me and waves. So it is him. But how? Then I remember V’s words. But I still find it hard to believe.
We are not allowed to call anyone by our real names, by the names we were known by before we entered this world, this life. I don’t know yet what his assigned name is. For an instant, I have forgotten how to smile, and my eyebrows are still high, going higher. I finally return his wave, and he steps out of the ring towards me.
“Hi,” I say, my voice low, scared that it might all be an illusion easily shattered by the sound of my voice.
“Hi!” he responds; my heart sings, this is real, this is real!
“How are you here? You’re not… I mean, you have never…” I don’t know how to continue without sounding rude.
He shrugs, “I am.” We begin walking away from the crowd.
“No! You can’t be!” I say with more force than I intended, “I mean, I’ve seen the Empath Diaries. If your name was in there, I would’ve seen it. Besides, aren’t you married? You eloped or something?” It still hurts me to say it, to think about it.
“It ended,” is all he says.
“I am sorry.” I am not sure I mean it.
“It ended because I am – what do you call it? – I am an ‘Empath’. I just never compulsively made notes like you guys did or you know, I never -” he looks at me shamefaced, “I never believed it was real. I thought I was going mad.” His voice quivers a little. “Then she left.”
The quiver in his voice hits me like a dagger. But what right do I have to be sad? He had been married after all. I remain quiet.
“Hey, why do you call yourselves ‘Empaths’?” he asks suddenly, looking intently at me.
“Cos ‘medium’ is too mainstream?” I laugh at my own little joke. He smiles.
“So, you… I mean, did my eloping have anything to do with you… being here?” he asked hesitantly.
We’ve walked to the corner of the tent where Q and V are standing. Are they observing us? I can’t say. But something about the way they look at us forces me to lower my eyes. The question remains unanswered.
“Av, can I take a minute?” V asks me.
“Sure,” I reply. I still haven’t asked what his assigned name is.
V leads me away; from the corner of my eye, I see Q and him sit down on the ground.
“So…” V begins.
“Please don’t do that thing where you read me like a book. Please?” I blurt.
V guffaws and says, “No, I was just gonna say you won’t have time for your little journal anymore.”
“Hey! I document our findings in it! It’s not a-”
“Sure,” it was V’s turn to cut me off, “Go fool someone else with that drivel.”
I am peeved, but I cannot stay mad for too long at V. After a few moments of silence, I ask him about the new recruit’s assigned name and how they discovered him.
“We’re gonna call him Spv. Not yet been tattooed on him. He’s still a little dazed. He doesn’t know what’s happening or what we do or whether it’s real. His marriage ended because of this – his… ability.” V gives me the briefest of looks, to gauge my response. I maintain a stoic expression. Or think I do. “Would you like to take him with you for your next assignment?”
My eyes light up and I smile broadly at V.
“Now, now, don’t get too excited. I know what happened the last time,” V warns but I am no longer listening.
We are a group of ‘Empaths.’ We hunt ghosts. Yes, they exist. Q maintains logs, called the ‘Empath Diaries’ where we note down names of mediums and hunters the world over. Almost all mediums maintain journals and document their sessions and seances. These journals help us track them, and if needed, recruit them. So far, there are 53 of us, 54 with the addition of Spv. There are several others out there. Sometimes, the spirits refuse to leave the medium they visit, and we have to take care of them. By that, of course I mean get rid of them. It’s dirty work, but it’s worth it. I’ve seen ghost towns, and even perfectly normal looking houses where spirits reside. We sell our findings to travel networks on TV, they pretend to do what we’ve already done and then take credit for it. We don’t mind – the pay’s enough for all of us to lead our nomadic life. The only thing we are not allowed to have is music. That is, unless, Q tells us it’s ok, like she did tonight. Music lulls our senses and invites the spirits. We are useless in that state.
As for Spv, yes, we had a history. Empaths aren’t allowed to get married or have a family (we think of ourselves as a big family. I call V my brother, but we aren’t related by blood). I ended things abruptly with Spv years ago when I realized what I was. I knew they could recruit me any time they wanted. I was devastated, even more so when a few years later, Spv eloped with a girl. That was when I wrote to Q asking to be recruited.
“Does this not scare you?” Spv asks, as we trek through the forest, sticks in hand, shoving away fallen branches.
I listen to the rustle of dried leaves as they are crumpled beneath my feet. Insects chirp to remind me of the silence. I finally say, “Not the ghosts, no.”
“So something else scares you?”
“Hmm,” I nod,”Spiders.”
He laughs, assuming I am joking. “But I meant, aren’t you afraid of something you cannot see?”
“You can’t see spiders,” I reply matter-of-factly,”You run into a web and you know they’re all over you. Or you feel them all over you. Everywhere. But you can’t see them.”
We were quiet for a bit. He picks it up again, “So what are we going to take care of this time.”
I come to a halt. “You mean, you don’t know? You weren’t briefed?” I ask, shocked that we were almost at our destination and I was travelling with someone who had no clue what his role was.
I think there must have been a mistake. V should have briefed him. We don’t have much time; I don’t know how much I could tell him before we reached the spot. I force myself to remain calm, even as anger against V bubbles to the surface.
End of Part 1
Part 2 here