The Castle of Souls

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

“Who goes there?” Sparrow called to the darkness, as she walked the perimeter of the Castle of Souls.

Sparrow was a demigoddess sent to the earth realm to guard the castle and to spare undue calamity to human-kind by keeping the living outside the gate and “others” inside.

The Castle of Souls, or Purgatory as some call it, has existed since the beginning of time. It is nestled in the remote forests of Death Valley near the steep, rocky banks of the raging River of No Return and, most notably, features a sprawling garden of souls that glow eerily from skulls on bone posts where they reside until they are granted passage to heaven. It is certain death for any human unfortunate enough to witness such a sight, which is why Sparrow was so vigilant this dark, chilly night. 

She heard another sound echoing from the rocks near the river’s edge. “Hello! I know you are there. Identify yourself!” she demanded sternly.

“I’m lost,” a young voice cried from the blackness. “I’m lost an’ I’m hungry an’ I want my Mama, but she fell into the water when our boat tipped over and she never came out. I’ve been waitin’ and waitin’ but she never came…” the voice grew louder and clearer as a child with wild golden hair, shivering, wet from the river, wearing torn clothing that clung to her like skin, emerged into the light.

“Please don’t come any closer, child,” Sparrow pleaded, “I cannot help you. This is no place for a child to be. Follow the river this way,” she instructed, as she pointed down river, “soon enough you will find yourself in the village. Now run along.”

“But I’m cold and I’m tired. It’s dark. Can’t I just stay here with you?”

Sparrow took pity on the child and granted her wish, but only until morning, and only outside the wall of the castle grounds. She made a soft bed of leaves and wild flowers for the child and kept watch from the other side of the gate to make sure the girl didn’t wander inside.

Dawn of day is the time when souls arrive from death to the castle. It is a necessary cleansing of the veil between time and eternity. The presence of too many souls wandering the earth always creates chaos for the living. 

When the souls arrived, floating through the gate, looking very much like fog, many paused to gaze fondly at the sleeping child.  One soul lingered longer than most. Sparrow watched as it hovered over the child. She grew increasingly impatient with the soul, until she realized that it was the child’s mother. 

The allotted time for soul receiving was ending as the sun inched above the horizon. Sparrow urged the mother soul to come inside, but she refused to leave the child. If she didn’t close the gate soon, Sparrow risked a mutiny of the other souls in her keeping, so she made a deal with the mother.

“I see that you love this child more than eternity,” Sparrow said, “so I will grant you three days, and three days only, to stay with the child until she finds her way to the safety of the village. It’s a two day’s walk from here. Remember, three days only and you must return.” Then Sparrow closed the gate.

The booming noise from the shuttering iron gate startled the child awake. She remembered Sparrows’s instructions and set off down river. 

Her mother’s soul followed closely behind. She soon discovered that she could communicate with the child by sending a flutter of wind moving leaves to reveal bunches of tasty berries or by rustling shrubbery to redirect the child if she set off in the wrong direction. 

They traveled along the rocky shore of the River of No Return and through the canyons and salt flats of Death Valley until at long last a village came into view. The child’s pace sped up when she noticed people in the town square. A kind woman with several children of her own noticed the girl and took her in. The mother watched from afar a day longer to make sure the girl was safe and then, as she had promised, returned to enter the castle garden on the third day.

Sparrow noticed something different about the mother soul when she returned. She glowed warmer, brighter than the other souls. And one other thing; she did not wail and moan, which was a common practice that made the garden a miserable place to be. 

Sparrow was so inspired by the peaceful presence of the mother soul, that she declared that all souls would henceforth be granted three days to make their peace with life and the living before entering the the Castle of Souls.

You may have heard that the souls of the recently deceased linger three days, wandering amongst, and making their peace with the living before moving on. It was not always so. Now you know the story of how it came to be that when someone you love dies, you feel their presence ever so near, because my dears, they are!

~kat – 2 March 2017

A strange tale for Jane Dougherty’s Sunday Strange Microfiction Challenge inspired by the painting above by Ivan Bilibin, a Russian illustrator.

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