I had been working the overnight shift at the Windsong Assisted Living Home for just shy of two months. Once I adjusted to the hours and the smell, a smell of atrophy that was somehow also antiseptic, I had grown to really enjoy it. By no means was I thinking of it for a new career, but it was the best in the long string of bad jobs I had since I left the Army.
The residents all varied in age and ability, and in their propensity for conversation. Most of the ladies were genial and would gossip and flirt. The men treated me with a polite indifference, until they found out I was a vet. And there were a few, I quickly learned which ones, who were so lonely after being unceremoniously dumped by their families that would latch on until I feigned an emergency just to escape their room.
And then there was Manon Pelletier. Never once had she uttered a peep. Until now.
“Could you leave the curtains open tonight please?” she asked, her voice a hoarse, cracked whisper.
She was a tiny speck of a woman, just wrinkles and bone, really. Every night when I came in to her room, she would be hunched in her chair, bundled under her tattered, old blanket, staring as images flashed across her television. And every night my “How are you tonight, Ms. Pelletier?” fell on deaf ears. Or so I thought.
“Sure thing, Ms. Pelletier,” I said, shocked at her request. “You want to see the lights?”
Due to a spate of recent solar storms, the news was reporting that the Aurora Borealis would be visible as far south as the Mid-Atlantic, and up here in the northeast kingdom of Vermont, they were forecasting quite a spectacular show.
“Have you ever seen them before?” I asked, trying to coax a little more conversation out of her.
She gave no response. I went on doling out her meds in silence, and then, just before I was about to leave, she spoke, her voice growing stronger and taking on the French Canadian lilt that is common this close to border.
“When I was a girl they would call us half-breeds, my sister and I. Our father was Québécois, and our mother was Inuit. We lived with her people when I was small. Every night we would watch in silence as the lights danced across the sky. They were beautiful, but we were afraid.”
“Afraid? Why?” I asked.
“There is a saying the Inuit have. The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls. You see, we don’t believe in God, but we believe that everything; man, walrus, caribou, whale, seal, everything--has a soul. And when they die, that soul is released. That is what you see at night. The lights are the souls of the fallen, of the dead. And it is said if you whistle at them, they will come down and take you away forever.”
“Whoa. That’s crazy.”
For the first time her gaze deviated from the TV and over to me. Her eyes held a fierceness, a spark that belied the deteriorated state of the rest of her body.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not calling you crazy, but…”
“It’s ok. I understand. But I am going to tell you something, something I have never told anyone, not my husband, not even my parents. When I was a girl, things were simple. Simple, but not always good. There was a man, my mother’s uncle. He was a bad man. He did bad things to my sister. She was twelve, two years older than me. I would pretend to be asleep, wishing he would leave her alone, but in a way, thankful it wasn’t me.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
“One night after he left our room, I saw her sneaking out. I followed. The lights were brilliant that night, swirling on the horizon. When she began to whistle I got scared and ran to her. She was crying. When she saw me she yelled at me to go back home.”
Tears started to well in her eyes, and she stared ahead blankly, searching her memory for details about that long-forgotten night.
“She said she couldn’t take it anymore… I wanted to stop her… She made me promise that I would go back home…”
I took her fragile hand in mine just before the dam burst, unleashing a lifetime of tears.
After a few minutes, she regained her composure.
“As I ran back home, I heard my sister start to whistle again. A harsh, frigid wind kicked up. I could hear something behind me, like the sound a train makes as it splits the cold, still air. I threw the blankets over my head and cried myself to sleep. In the morning, when they discovered she was gone, I told my parents not about the lights, but about my mother’s uncle. We left for Montreal soon after that.”
“I’m so sorry,” I repeated, not knowing what else to say.
“I’m very tired now, could you help me to bed?”
“Of course.” I hesitated. “Ms. Pelletier, do you still want me to leave the curtains open?”
She smiled at me.
“Yes, please. And thank you for listening to my story.”
I closed her door and walked back down the hall towards the front desk. Out the dining room window I caught a glimpse of shimmering green light. I turned out the lights and stood at the window, transfixed, as the Aurora, ethereal and electric, swayed in the night sky like whispers of smoke off some unseen, supernatural campfire.
I don’t know how long I was watching or what made me go check on her, but as I approached her suite, I heard a high-pitched whistle. I struggled with my keys, searching for the one that would unlock her room. The temperature dropped as a cold draft rushed out from the beneath the door. The whistling was joined by another noise, a hushed murmur that rose up into a throbbing, unsettling hum.
“Ms. Pelletier? Are you alright?” I screamed as I pounded on the door.
And then, just like that, it was gone. All of it. The whistling, the hum, the cold.
When I finally got the door open, Manon Pelletier was nowhere to be found. Her bed was a jumble of diaphanous sheets, soaked through with sweat. Her window, closed and locked when I left, was open. And out in the distance the lights danced on.
Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Erin Notarthomas