Close your windows soon, folks. The fog is on its way down, and it looks to be a thick one tonight.
The wind is dying down. We close the shutters, draw lots on who will stay awake, discuss options with the patients. We measure sedatives into little cups, unlock the padded rooms, get out the silk-lined handcuffs.
Tonight, there will be a fog.
The meteorologist on the radio is talking about the thickness and speed of the fog rolling off the plains. He talks about the particle count, picked up from the cheerful little flowers of the Pinnipedium somnifera on the upland slopes. We’ve heard it all before. I turn off the radio.
In the sudden radio silence, I hear Merot singing, voice echoing down the hall. Some of the other inmates join in. It is a religious song, a gentle melody that wavers up and down, a praising song, a pleading song. One that honors the gods of the borders, of the land and the sea. I’m not religious, but I don’t mind the song. It’s a song to soothe fear.
There is no wind to clear the air. The fog is starting to creep in around the edges of the window frame, where the wood is warped. We will have to do repairs soon. We have to do them often at the sanatorium. The fog pries like fingers at the edges, reaching for the people inside.
The air in here feels flat, cold, and stale, like the inside of an old ice box. I turn on a fan.
As a child, I had wondered why the wind stopped blowing and the smell changed during a fog. But Mum had told me that she didn’t want to talk about the fog, and I wouldn’t either if I knew what was good for me. I couldn’t blame her. She was scared of losing me, or maybe she was scared of losing herself. She was scared either of us or disappearing like Pa had so many years before.
Lyam sits on her bed, wrist held out.
“You’re sure?” I ask. “You could just move into the padded room?”
“No, dear. This has worked for me at each and every fog for eight years.” She lies back. “I like my bed. It’s comfortable.” There is a knock at the front door.
“Ok. I’ll do this now, and come back to check on you in a bit.” I lock Lyam to her bed, and she lies there, looking peaceful.
“No rush,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere.” Astrid has opened the front door. Two people rush in, looking nervously around.
“You,” I point to Astrid, “are supposed to be sleeping. Go. I’ll manage our guests. We’ll need you in the morning.”
She nods, yawns, and turns away, leaving me to welcome the newcomers. All are welcome in a fog. The sanatorium is a refuge for any who are afraid, or who feel the tug. I close the door quickly behind them, shutting out the fog which is creeping in around our ankles.
They say fewer than twenty people are lost in the fog each year. The odds are on your side. Just do what you’re told, stay inside and away from the cliffs, and you’ll probably be fine.
I pass Merot in the hallway, also heading to bed, now singing a song to the oblates. I don’t like this one, but it celebrates those chosen by the fog as well as mourning their loss. It sounds like the oblates, too, this keening song.
Mum never took me to church, always said that it was a load of horseshit. We didn’t need to celebrate anything. People who wandered out into the fog were fools, she said, even Pa who had just stepped out to restart the generator, and she’d tell me to get away from the damned window.
Here in the sanctum for the scared, we will say anything, sing anything. Whatever helps those who feel lost, any and all who ask for assistance.
I guide the newcomers to the cork-lined rooms deep below the ground, away from the night’s stillness, keeping up a gentle conversation as we go. They should know the layout of the sanatorium, they will have come here yearly when they were at school, but we find that most people who arrive during a fog are dazed. Their minds are already wandering, drifting away. They cling to themselves with what little is left.
Zui and I finish the rounds. We don’t feel the tug. Our job is to keep those who do feel it calm and safe through the night. They are here for protection. We will hold them, protected. On the other side of the night, Astrid and Merot will take over. Their job will be to carry the inmates’ emotion, their tears, their fury, or their phobia until it drifts away. Until it is all burned off.
I move into the next room and gently steer the inhabitants away from the window.
I wake to the sound of yells. I shouldn’t be sleeping, not yet, but I must have drifted off at the foot of Lyam’s bed. There is shouting from the hallway, and I am standing before I’m fully awake.
“Oy,” says Lyam sharply.
I unlock her, muttering, “Sorry, sorry,” and we both hurry out of the room. The front door is open, and there are tracks in the frost leading away from the sanatorium.
This is my fault, I think.
“This is my fault,” Zui moans.
“No, it’s not.” I shake my head, lying to comfort both of us. I run a hand through my hair. It is tacky from sleep, and I wish I could pull it in frustration. I take a calming breath. "Who is it? Who did we lose? One of the new people?” Five had come in total before the fog had hit. Each had been settled in, I thought. None of them had looked like jailbreakers.
“It’s Astrid.” Zui looks on the verge of tears. “It is my fault. I fell asleep.”
I feel smacked. Sick. “It’s not your fault. It was quiet. I fell asleep too.” I shake my head again. “We couldn’t have known. She’d never felt the tug before, not that she ever told me.”
Astrid and I had worked together for years, had been friends since school. Both of us had lost parents to the fog. It’s how many of the staff end up here in the first place. She would have told me, surely. The last of the fog lies like a blanket over the porch, over the town. The smell of the night lingers.
“I’m going to go find her.” I pull my coat off the peg. I turn to Zui and Merot. “Can you two manage here?”
Merot looks horrified. “You can’t go out in that. It’s still there, the tug. The gods still want us. You. Me. All of us. They want us to join them,” Merot says. He is religious. I am not, and I shrug.
“Do you want company?” Lyam looks hopeful, her face a mask of longing, and Zui lays a hand on her shoulder.
“Come away from the door,” she says gently to Lyam, and to me, “It’s not safe yet. Don’t go. I’m sure she’ll come back.”
But the tracks lead away, in a straight line, and I know where “I’ll be back soon,” I tell them. “With Astrid. I promise. Close the door behind me.”
The air is crisp, air that feels like a bite of an apple picked from a shaded tree in the autumn.
My heart feels full, and I know this path. I walked this when I was young.
“You stay the hell away from the window, the fog, the cliffs, and those damned seals,” Mum had told me after she’d found me halfway to the cliffs. I’d left the house, searching after the night my father disappeared.
The further I go, the calmer I feel. Though I am worried for my friend, the fear I expected doesn’t surface. I don’t hate the fog, even though Mum had tried to instill her animosity in me. Instead, I feel a deep wholeness.
The roads are empty and the grass crunches underfoot. Trees are misty outlines, barely there in the white-on-white. Sounds are muffled as though they are happening under a duvet, though the keening is emerging, carried from the cliffs back to the town. The air is still and smells soft and sweet like daydreams.
The fog blurs the edges of everything. Details become clear only when I am on top of them. I follow the footprints in the crusted grass. I have done this before.
A dream shape emerges, a wraith in the white.
“Elethian,” she says and reaches out a hand to me. “You found us.”
“Us?” My voice falls flat, dulled by the fog. I am suddenly afraid, though my heart leaps with joy at finding Astrid. At her finding me.
“Those of us who come, those of us who bear witness.” More bodies appear, miragelike, from out of the fog. “Those of us who are not called to transmute, but are called nonetheless, carried by the keening cries, and the scent of the air. Those of us who are drawn by our longing for those lost.”
Her voice is soft and lyrical, touching me like a feather. The others nod. Someone rests a hand on my shoulder. I recognize Pilo, a mechanic, and Darya, the grandmother of an old school friend.
“Don’t be scared,” someone behind me says. “Come on.”
We follow the footprints, which continue ahead of us, three sets at least. Three people who felt the tug in the fog in the night and left their homes to follow their hearts. The fear is melting away. I know it is the particles from the little somnifera plants growing on the upland slopes that are keeping me calm. I wonder if the plant is also what is imbuing me with fullness in my heart. If it is what is keeping me going.
We follow their trail. I wonder if this means the fog has caught me.
I say a silent apology to my mother in my head.
The cliffs don’t appear until we are on top of them. The fog lies thick and still. It is a heavy fog this time, it might last two days or more before the sun fully burns it off. It hugs the top of the cliffs, but doesn’t fall down. As I reach the edge, I see the line of the sea below with its inhabitants.
There is clothing piled up, here at the top of the cliffs. Shirts and trousers, socks and shoes, all neatly folded and stacked. Small mounds, little shrines, empty of their people. There is Astrid, standing like a ghost next to me. I feel the others around me, hear their breathing and the crunch of icy grass underfoot. I breathe a sigh. We are not mounds of clothes.
I wonder which mound is my father’s. I crouch to touch the nearest one, the rime on the fabric cold against my fingers. I whisper Merot’s Prayer for the Absent under my breath.
“They’re not gone,” Astrid says, touching my shoulder. “They’re right there.” She leaves her hand on my body. I leave my hand on the clothes.
She says, “I’m sorry I left the door open, Elethian. I’m sorry for the concern I caused. I was hoping you would follow me. Hoping you would come. It was long past time for you to join us.”
“Who? Who is us?” I cannot tear my eyes away from the shapes on the beach, swimming and landing ashore, huddled together, resting their heads on each other.
“We are the guides. We are the observers. We are the few who lead them safely, who keep our love for them current and alive,” Astrid says. “We are the ones who remind them where they came from.”
She waves. The keening from the shore lessens. I raise a hand in imitation.
One of the seals stares up at us, at the small group of people standing at the edge of the world. It lifts a forepaw. It is a wave of sorts.
Emma Burnett is a recovering academic. She’s big into cats, sports, and being introverted. You can find her @slashnburnett.