A New Year's Chant

By David Gallup

I endeavor with this tale to raise the ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it raise your spirit pleasantly.

Your faithful friend and fellow human,

December 2016

The waning moon rises high above his skyscraper as Hugh puts his "Best regards" on his final email of the evening. A winter chill slinks up his fingers from the cold of the laptop keyboard. The screen's light flickers as he presses the power off and leans back in his large mahogany desk chair.

What report to shareholders is due in the morning? How many conferences calls are scheduled for later that week? What is all the commotion coming from the street below, breaking his train of thought? He walks over to one of the windows of his 3rd story downtown condo and looks out. "Oh," he mutters to himself, "just some holiday partygoers singing a bit too loud after one too many drinks."

"Don't they know I still have work to do?" he thinks. He opens the window a crack and yells, "Damn revelers. Keep it down!" In typical city fashion, the partygoers yell back, "No, you keep it down!" They all laugh in unison and keep on walking and singing.

Hugh slams the window shut. He tidies all the papers on his study desk, reviews his phone calendar, and jots a few more notes. "Well, that's almost it for tonight," Hugh furrows his brow. "Roberta can take care of the rest of the planning for this week's meetings," Hugh says aloud to the bookshelves and wood paneling that quietly keep him company. His voice slightly echoes.

Though it is New Year's Eve, Hugh picks up his cell phone and texts his personal assistant Roberta for the seventh time that evening, with directives, points for research, speech edits, etc. Always a polite return text from Roberta, "Yes, sir, Mr. Mann. Right away."

Immediately after he sends the text, a call comes in from a local charity requesting an end of the year donation. "Absolutely, not!" Hugh shouts into the phone. "Disturbing me when I've told you every year prior that charity begins at home! Bug someone else." He pokes the hang-up button forcefully.

Head still down toward his cell, he paces from his study across the long hallway lined with empty rooms and perfect photos of his perfect vacations to Paris, Milan, London, Geneva, though most of his memories are the heated arguments in the boardrooms, not the magical waters of fountains or the mischievous gargoyles mocking cathedral visitors.

Making his way into the dimly lit living room, he pulls out a Waterford glass from the wet bar and pours himself a finger of cognac to calm his mind and muddle his concerns. He sits in the oversized leather armchair, kicking off his hand-made Italian shoes and resting his feet on the ottoman. His voice command turns on the gas flames in the wall mounted fireplace. The cognac warms his tongue and burns his throat as he sips.

The orange-blue flames are mesmerizing as they flicker, jump and crackle, now the only sounds in his otherwise silent condo. The cognac and the fire seem to mix as if he is sipping the flames.

Hugh picks up the glass to take another sip. Staring at him from within the crystal is the face of Mr. Mortimer, his partner in his energy and armaments consulting firm, who had died seven years prior. Hugh squints at the glass, shuts his eyes, and slowly reopens them. Only the viscous amber liquid clinging to the sides of the glass is now visible.

He pulls the heavy down comforter off the side of the armchair and covers himself from head to foot. Must be all the figures in his head and the cognac making him see things. "I'll just rest here a bit," Hugh decides, retreating under the comforter with his glass of liquor rather than walking through the cold, empty condo to his master suite. Some repose from the long hours that have taken their toll would be welcome -- a respite from checking his financials, making deals, and persuading business and government leaders to follow his advice.

Yet the cognac, the fireplace and the heavy down comforter can't seem to relieve him of the winter chill. He buries himself further into the armchair and shuts his eyes, drifting off to sleep.

From the fireplace, a clang, loud bangs and clanking of chains startle Hugh from his cognac-induced sleep. The crystal glass slips from his hand over the armchair and shatters across the marble tile. Before him a bulking translucent body, wrapped in chains and in what was once a fancy suit, now tattered and stained, drifts out of the fireplace toward Hugh. It is the ghost of his former partner Mortimer.

The Ghost of Tristan Mortimer

A resounding deep voice from the ghost of Mortimer calls his name, "Mann!"

Hugh is silent in astonishment.

"Mann!" shouts the spirit.

With no where to hide, Hugh squeaks out a "yes?"

Hugh had spoken at Tristan Mortimer's funeral. He lauded Mortimer for all his cunning in business. But he hadn't thought of him hardly since. Why was he showing up now?

The ghostly Mortimer rattles his chains, oily chains that Hugh can see are interspersed with yellowing spreadsheets, invoices, business cards, and a once glossy prospectus.

The spirit groans, "You must listen to me, Hugh."

"Why are you so pained?" Hugh asks. "You never had a worry about another when you were alive."

"These chains weigh me down. My spirit is shackled," Mortimer moans. "Don't you recognize the links of this chain? Don't you see the indifference, the ingratitude, the selfishness?"

Hugh could not fathom what the phantom was implying. Hugh was proud to have his name engraved in gold next to Mortimer's on their company's signage: "Mortimer & Mann." Mortimer, like Mann, was a business man's business man. For Hugh, business, or rather, success in business is all that really matters.

"If you don't want to end up like me, doomed to wander the earth as an apparition, unable to change anything I see, unable to interact with those in need, then I suggest you take heed about what will happen next." Hugh knew Mortimer to be gruff, but the seven years since his passing had made him forget how much.

The chains and tattered suit begin to flutter and rise as the ghost begins to drift back into the fireplace. Before he disappears, Mortimer wails to Hugh, "You will be visited by three spirits over the next three nights -- when the bell tolls one. You have no choice in this matter. Your money and influence cannot stop this journey. I suggest you listen closely, pay attention and heed their warnings...." With one loud whooping sound and a large flash of orange flames, the ghost completely disappears.

Hugh jumps up out of the armchair with the comforter under his arms, bounds over the broken glass, down the hall to his bedroom, where he proceeds to lock the door, places a chair under the door knob, and climbs into bed. On his nightstand, he finds a sleeping pill and bottle of water which he has trouble opening with his trembling hands. He closes the bed curtains that block any stray light.

"That cannot have been real. It must be the take-out food from dinner upsetting my stomach. Maybe too much cognac?" Hugh surmises to himself. Though still anxious, he cannot stop the feeling of overwhelming exhaustion. "I'm sure I'll feel better in the morning. A good night's sleep will make me forget this nightmare." Hugh falls into a deep sleep.

Twelve slow clangs from the church bell across from Hugh's condo waken him for a moment. He opens the bed curtains and all is dark and quiet. Good! Now back to sleep. An hour later, or perhaps a day later, a long, deep clang, as if time has slowed to a crawl, reverberates from the church bell. Then comes a scraping at the window. It is an eerie, wind-howling sound like an axe scraping against the glass pane. Hugh, though still groggy, cannot ignore the scraping sound. "What could be scratching at my bedroom window three floors up and at this ungodly hour?"

Hugh slowly opens the bed curtains a half inch and peaks out. A ghost, in what he recognizes as tribal clothing and kufi cap with only faint reminiscence of color remaining, swoops clear through the window and up to the bed curtain. The ghost is more a boy, not yet a man. In the face of the ghost, Hugh sees the faces of all of the tribespeople he had encountered many years ago. These are the people who were protesting the spoiling of their homeland by their government and the multinational oil company that Hugh's firm represented.

The Spirit of New Year's Past

"Can a whole day have passed?" Hugh wonders more to himself than to the ghost. "Did I forget to turn in the financial report to investors?" But his musings are quickly halted by the child-ghost who takes hold of Hugh's hand.

At that moment, they are no longer in his bedroom, they are in a lively village with people going about their daily, happy lives, not knowing that a few miles away bulldozers, trucks, drill riggings, cranes, workmen, and armed guards are approaching.

"Are you one of the spirits that Mortimer foretold to me?" Hugh whispers.

"Yes. I am the ghost of New Year's past."

"Long past?" asks Hugh.

"No," says the child sadly, "Your past." "Take a look around. See all these happy people going about their daily lives?" The child-ghost leads Hugh through the village. It is a village he had visited many years before, as a young adult. It had oil-rich deposits, a place that the then-new firm of Mortimer & Mann could easily exploit, lobbying and convincing the government to continue to allow drilling for their powerful client. Hugh recalls that he had had a youthful twinge of guilt for selling out tribal resources without consulting the tribespeople, themselves. Mortimer had convinced him to ignore this feeling, and focus only on unemotional thoughts of what was best for business.

In one home, Hugh can see the family gathering for lunch, family members singing and setting the table. In another, a mother swaddles her child and puts him the bassinet for a nap while the baby's older siblings play games during the lunch break from school. Having a laugh or two while tending to crops and herding animals, the adults seem content, self-sufficient and without want. In the village square, the elders discuss their plans for their community over the next few years.

Hugh does not know how these contented people have anything to do with him.

The ghost takes hold of Hugh's hand, more forcefully than before. And again, they are transported, though not in place, but in time. "Twenty years have passed," the child-ghost explains. "Look around and what do you see?"

The fields lay barren of crops. Most of the homes are empty and in disrepair.

"Where is everyone?" asks Hugh with trepidation.

"If they are not dead, they have gone." The ghost child shakes his head and wipes away tears. "Your work, or those for whom you lobbied, poisoned our land and drinking water. We protested but the government arrested us, tortured us, and hanged us. Even if they hadn't, we would have died of cancer from the oil spills and waste discharged without thought of us who lived here."

"These people are, were, my family, my tribe. This was my home. But your work destroyed it, destroyed me."

Hugh cannot help but feel remorse for this child. But what is worse for Hugh is that the child feels remorse for him. "I bring you here for your welfare, Mr. Mann," admonishes the ghost-child. "Your wealth and power is no use to you or anyone if you don't do anything good with it..."

"Spirit," Hugh beseeches, "Remove me from this place...Please no more. Why do you torture me like this?" Hugh begs the ghost-child to bring him back home.

The spirit of New Year's past replies, "I show you what you have accomplished. These are shadows of what has been. Do not blame me for what has passed."

Now, Hugh grabs the spirit's hand, thinking that he can force him, being only a child, to listen to his plea. Upon touching the ghost's hand, Hugh is thrown into darkness. As his eyes adjust, he finds himself clinging to the fringe of the bed curtain in his apartment.

Hugh is overwhelmed with drowsiness, whether due to the journey to his past or the sleeping pill, he cannot be sure. He falls fast asleep, until the slow clang of the 1 a.m. church bell wakes him with a start. He looks around his room with the flash light from his cell phone, but sees and hears nothing.

No sooner does he fasten the bed curtains closed then he feels clammy hands reaching in through the curtains and pulling him out of bed by his wrists. He does not immediately get a look at the apparition as he is whisked away.

The Spirit of New Year's Present

Hugh finds himself in a low-rise apartment building staring at a family who is scurrying to collect personal belongings. He is standing next to the ghost of a young woman, perhaps 17 or 18, wearing a disheveled head scarf, with specks of ash and blood on her dress.

"Who are you? Where are we?" Hugh does not recall ever having visited this locale.

"This is my family. You must look!"

She proceeds to show him her family, her apartment, as mortars and rapid gunfire explode near by. Hugh covers his ears and ducks. "Why do you crouch? These bombs cannot hurt you. This is your present, but you are not presently here, not really. You are not here when the bombs fall from the sky, are you? But see, they do affect my family."

The ghost's mother, father, two sisters and brother gather a few pairs of clothes, some food, whatever they can fit into back packs, even the four-year old brother carries one. The family stares blankly, frowning as they take one last look at their apartment for any important item they might need. The children sob softly as they needlessly shut the apartment door and make their way down the back stairs into the hidden alley.

The ghost takes Hugh by the collar, dragging him along behind the family as they make a long trek at dusk to the outskirts of the city where they plan to meet another family and leave the country. All the while, to avoid stray bullets, they stop intermittently to hide behind whatever concrete walls remain of neighboring buildings.

A moment later, the ghost pulls Hugh through the back of a delivery truck. Inside, Hugh sees the families hidden under tarps, quietly whispering. One mother sings softly to calm her baby. The road is bumpy with debris from bombed out buildings. Through the truck window, Hugh sees bodies strewn on the ground and attempts to turn his head away, but the spirit grabs his head by each ear and forces him to look at the destruction.

"This is what you are doing to my family and to my city," the spirit says to Hugh, pointing to those in the truck and the devastation outside the window.

"I did not cause this," Hugh retorts. "This has nothing to do with me..."

The spirit puts her hands to her hips, then lifts her left arm with hand extended gesturing to everything around her. "You think that your lobbying has nothing to do with this?" the spirit raises her voice incredulously.

"Your work allows the rebels and the government alike to be armed, to have an unending supply of artillery, guns, bombs, and war planes."

"It's not my fault," Hugh protests, "that there's an arms industry. This is just part of the business."

"Well, your business," the spirit scoffs, "and one of its bombs got me killed."

The family begins to say prayers and hold hands. Despite the artillery fire outside, the mother, father and children gain a resolve in their expressions. They muster the will to press on and find a new home elsewhere in the world.

For Hugh, though, the spirit jerks him from the truck and drops him back at the city's center. Hugh instinctively runs for cover behind a concrete wall. He is not alone. Two trembling children, or rather the ghosts of two children, are crouched by his side.

"Those are my cousins," the spirit starts, then continues with emphasis, "and your cousins."

"The boy is named Selfishness and the girl is named Oppression," the spirit states. "And although these two are dead, they have many twins amongst the living."

Hugh asks, "They could not find refuge or resource?"

The spirit replies, "Are there no camps, no jungles for the persecuted and the displaced? Are there no factories of hard labor? No prisons for dissidents?"

The ear-piercing shelling intensifies, and a bomb explodes next to Hugh. Then, complete silence. He slowly opens his eyes to find himself in his bed, covered with sweat on his brow and above his lip. He shivers and pulls the covers over himself. Could this be a delusion from fever? Before he can think further, the church bell rings 1 a.m. once more.

Before the bell completes its ring, Hugh is no longer in his bed. He is clinging with all his might to a large piece of plastic in a rough sea. Hugh's ears are deafened by the thundering waves crashing and thrashing all around him.

The Spirit of New Year's Future

"What are we doing here? There is no land as far as the eye can see," Hugh attempts to shout at the ghost floating in the air above the waves. The ghost of New Year's future has withered, wrinkled and burnt skin with boils oozing a putrid green liquid. Its bloodshot eyes have no lids to protect Hugh from the phantom's fixed gaze. Its only clothing is red flames that rise from its body in rings around its legs, midsection and chest.

As Hugh pulls the plastic sheet closer to his chest, the ghost hovers above the waves whose waters only seem to stoke the fires on the ghost's skin.

"Our world is no longer livable. This is the future that you are creating."

A tsunami approaches in the distance. Hugh is swept away, carried atop the waves where all he can see is water for miles. The salty, oily water burns his eyes, and he gags as some water forces its way into his nostrils. He shuts his eyes tight, and the next thing he notices is a feeling of extreme heat as he lands upon a sand dune in a desert.

The spirit howls, "This used to be the northern plains. Look what your handiwork has done! Men think that they can control nature. We don't own the earth. We belong to the earth."

Hugh considers all he has seen from the three spirits. He thinks aloud, "One's actions will foreshadow certain ends, to which if persevered, they must lead. But if one departs from those actions, the ends will change."

"Please, say that it is thus with what you show me," Hugh implores the ghost.

Hugh begins to sink as a sand storm piles fine grains all around him.

Hugh cries, "I will honor the new year in my heart and will try to make each day of the year a new beginning. I will live the past, present and future now with the spirits of all three in me. I welcome the lessons they teach. Please remove me from this desert."

Reaching up for the hand of the ghost, despite the flames all around it, Hugh attempts to pull himself free of this desert grave. The ghost floats away, out of Hugh's reach. But Hugh holds up his right arm as if to make an oath before a judge that he will change.

Suddenly, the winds stop and the sand transforms into his comforter on his bed. Light shines through the bed curtains. He runs over to the window, swings it open and yells down to a kid on the street. "Hey, what day is it?"

The kid shouts, "New Year's Day, of course."

Hugh jumps for joy, not having missed New Year's Day, for the spirits visited him all in one night. He throws on some clothes and runs out of his apartment building down to the street. With the bright sun above, he does not notice the chill in the air. Grinning, he hops on the subway. When he exits the subway, he looks around at the city, with a new sense of appreciation. On the subway ride, he thought about what he could do and what he would do. Having a little lunch first couldn't hurt.

As he walks down the street a bit more, he finds himself at the doorway to the apartment where his assistant Roberta lives. He rings the buzzer.

"Who is it?" asks Roberta.

"It's me... Mr. Mann... Uh... Hugh. Sorry to bother you on this day off, but I brought a little lunch, actually a big lunch and I have some good tidings I'd like to share."

Roberta sighs to herself; but surprised by her boss's energetic enthusiasm, and, well, the offer of a hearty lunch, it would be impolite to refuse. She and her young son Tim would not have to trudge out to the grocery. She buzzes him in.

Hugh hands bags of warm and savory food to Roberta as she opens the door to her modest apartment. Seeing the big smile on his mother's boss's face, Tim, who usually hides behind his mother's legs whenever he sees Mr. Mann, gives a little wave and a soft hello.

They sit at the kitchen table and begin to eat. Hugh tells Roberta that he wants, needs, to draft an entirely new business plan for the firm. Fossil fuels and armaments will be phased out. Solar and renewables, repurposing weapons factories, and manufacturing for infrastructure would be their new focus. Between bites of sandwich, Roberta expresses her surprise and delight.

Hugh continues, "Tomorrow, I am calling the local refugee agency and will sponsor a family to stay with me. My condo is plenty big and I could use some company. And while I'm at it (he looks at his cell phone), I've got to call that fellow back from the charity and send in my annual donation."

Roberta's jaw just about drops. If it hadn't been for the yummy food in her mouth, it would have.

The End of the Chant

Hugh was better than his word. He did it all and became a good friend and mentor to Roberta and Tim, as good a person as the good city knew, or any other good city in the whole world.

Some people laughed at Hugh to see the alterations he had made in his life, in his work, in his life's work. But he did not mind this laughter for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened in this world, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter at the outset.

Knowing that people such as these would think his moral advocacy to be nothing more than utopian folly, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle their eyes in grins, than try to dissuade him in unattractive ways.

His own heart laughed. And that was quite enough for him... and for the world.