Books·Transmission

A ghost learns to coexist with a family that's now home all the time in this short story by Aviaq Johnston

The Ghosts Aren’t Used to Us is an original short story by Aviaq Johnston, part of CBC Books' series about life during COVID-19.

The Ghosts Aren’t Used to Us is an original short story by Aviaq Johnston

The Ghosts Aren’t Used to Us is a story by Aviaq Johnston, part of CBC Books' Transmission series. (Submitted by Aviaq Johnston. Ben Shannon/CBC)

The Ghosts Aren't Used to Us is an original short story by Aviaq Johnston. It is part of Transmission, CBC Books' original writing series reflecting on life during COVID-19. Read more works from Transmission here.

i.

It is not uncommon for an Inuk to think once or twice or several times that perhaps their house, or any building they are in, is haunted. Ghost stories could be overheard in school hallways or tents and cabins on the land, a chill running up one's spine. 

Malaya had a couple of stories, convinced that the house she grew up in and still lived in with her parents, aunt and cousins was also occupied by some force beyond.

Perhaps Malaya should be thankful her haunting was more passive than those of her peers. Especially now, when she was stuck at home during a global pandemic. 

ii.

Being what I am, mostly nothingness, my senses are as nonexistent as I am. Clinging to the hot metal of the furnace, it does not bother me. I haven't felt the heat since 1987. 

I emerge from the furnace room occasionally, swiping at objects though nothing moves. I am weak most days; only once was I able to knock movies from a shelf or lock a door without the mechanism to do so. 

Passing by windows, my shadow streaking through the room is mistaken for clouds passing over the sun's rays.

iii.

"Ataat, did you hear about the toilet paper shortage in stores down south?"

"Ajai..." he responded as he made a sandwich, "is that gonna happen here?"

Malaya shrugged.

Sometimes, if I am in the mood, I can get them to sense me. Now that they are home all the time, I wonder if I should try.

"If it does, we're gonna send your aja to the store, she knows how to fight," he said. "Can't they use the Toronto Maple Leafs to wipe their asses, anyways?"

"Uaaa!" Malaya's cousin, offended, chimed in. "The Leafs are better than your toilet seat Montreal Canadiens!"

"I miss hockey, man."

Malaya interrupted. "What if the toilet paper shortage happens here?"

"We'll catch some lemmings," Ataata said matter-of-factly. "If this lasts 'til the summer, we can use moss."

"Gross."

"It's what our ancestors used! Don't worry, I'll get extras for when you're... you know." Her father brought a conspiratorial hand to shield his mouth from Malaya's cousin, but whispered loud enough for him to hear anyway, "…perioding."

"Ugh!"

Malaya's cousin laughed until tears filled his eyes. 

iv.

I think I was funny when I was alive, too. 

Though I was sad, perpetually, I was still able to make those around me sputter with laughter. To remain here, my only ability to sometimes make things move, has made me more of a shell than I had been in life. 

Sometimes, if I am in the mood, I can get them to sense me. Now that they are home all the time, I wonder if I should try. 

Not to haunt, but to coexist.

Aviaq Johnston freely admits the first book she ever wrote as a teen was terrible. But the author from Igloolik, Nunavut has moved on from a "Harry Potter rip-off" to a debut novel shortlisted for a Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature. 7:41

v.

Thursday, April 30, Nunavut's first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced. Worry and blame swarmed social media for the weekend, making it an unbearable mess. 

Antlers outside in the Mialigaqtaliminiq area of Nunavut. (Submitted by Aviaq Johnston)

Monday, May 4, it was announced that the case had been a false positive.

"Stay negative!" people would say as they passed each other in the streets, two metres apart. 

It seemed that the weather rejoiced with the good news, and people headed out to their cabins in droves.

vi.

They all left one day, bundled into layers upon layers of clothing.

I wrote messages in the mist on bathroom mirrors or bedroom windows, but they disappeared before anyone came back home to read them.

Days went by where I was alone.

vii.

Out at the cabin, Malaya had basked in the beginnings of spring. The sun was up for 18 hours, and the fresh air made for easy sleep. The ice stayed true, making the snowmobile highway smoother than the potholed roads in town. 

They went fishing or hunting during the day, spent their evenings playing cards.

We ask for proper health care and clean drinking water and then we're told to check our privilege.

Once back home, encumbered by aches and pains from riding in the qamutiik, Malaya took advantage of the hot water before the others could.

"Panik," Ataata said, when she came out of the shower. "There's been protests in the states about the quarantining."

"Really? Like what?"

"They want to get haircuts and go to restaurants," Ataata said. "Kinda funny, they don't have access to stuff like that and they start protesting. Tavvatu, we ask for proper health care and clean drinking water and then we're told to check our privilege."

"Can't wait to see the memes about this," Malaya replied.

viii.

I cannot express the feeling I had when they returned, their faces tanned like raccoons with necks as pale as the snow outside.

ix.

"Hey, you think the ghost missed us while we were camping?" Malaya asked, thinking of the times she heard strange noises from the furnace room.

"Yeah," her cousin replied. "I missed it. It always draws smiley faces on my window."

x.

Perhaps my presence was known well.

Perhaps they were joking.

Whichever the answer, I didn't feel so alone.


About Aviaq Johnston

Aviaq Johnston is an Inuk author from Igloolik, Nunavut. (Submitted by Aviaq Johnston)

Aviaq Johnston is an Inuk author. Her first novel Those Who Run in the Skya coming-of-age story about a young shaman trapped in the spirit world, won the Indigenous Voices Award for most significant work of prose in English. In 2019 the sequel, Those Who Dwell Below, was published. She is also the author of the picture book What's My Superpower?, illustrated by Tim Mack.

Her other works include the short stories Tarnikuluk, winner of the 2014 Aboriginal Arts and Stories Award, and The Haunted Blizzard featured in Taaqtumi: An Anthology of Arctic Horror Stories. She lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut, with her dog, Sunny.

About Transmission

Transmission is a new series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19. 

Transmission is part of the Art Uncontained initiative from CBC ArtsArt Uncontained offers inspiration for audiences and support to the Canadian artistic community in these unprecedented times.

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