by Frej Wasastjerna

      When you're attending a scientific meeting, you don't expect to hear that one of your colleagues has died.
      When Radostina Manolova called for our attention, just as the session on Deterministic Three-Dimensional Shielding Calculations was due to begin, I thought she wanted to tell us something about that evening's dinner or some other practical matter. When, instead, she told us that Natalya Markova had drowned while swimming, probably because of a heart attack, it was a shock.
     We all stood up and were silent for one minute. What else could we do?

     After a subdued dinner, I went to sit on the hotel porch. I gazed east at the Black Sea, where the heavy rollers, that earlier in the day may have triggered Natalya's heart attack, belied the sea's name by gleaming pink and pale azure under the cloudless, balmy evening sky. A lethal beauty, like a languid tiger.
     I hadn't really known Natalya. Still, I was shaken up. This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen.
     A stupid thought, I realized. So I pondered how, in the midst of daily life, death could suddenly snatch us away. That was really more of a medieval idea than a modern one. In our antiseptic century we shy away from even the thought of death. But, really, our medieval ancestors knew a thing or two that we lack the courage to face squarely.

     As I sit there, praying to all the gods that I don't believe in that my family would be spared sudden death, it grows dark. The other hotels up and down the Golden Sands twinkle with light, and I can hear the Chicken Dance tinkling from the next hotel south. But it's as if our whole hotel is mourning Natalya. There's no gleam of light in any window, not a sound.
     In front of me, dark figures gather on the beach. Driven by an impulse I don't understand myself, I get up and join them. I see Josef Marek and touch his arm to ask him what's going on--but my hand goes right through his arm. I'm not surprised, I expected something like this the moment I saw Natalya in the crowd. I touch my own arm, and my hand slips through that too.
     Somehow, while we're still alive, we too are ghosts, come to keep Natalya company. I look at her, seeing seaweeds on her pale face and kelp in the dark hair made stringy by water. I want to console her, but no words come. Still she smiles, maybe sensing my intention. I pat her arm--and this time my hand doesn't go through. This puzzles me, but maybe semi-ghosts like us can touch a real ghost.
     We stand there, communing silently with Natalya, until the full moon rises. Its gleam on the treacherous water shines right through her. Blowing us all a kiss, she slowly fades away.

      I suddenly found myself back in my body. Shivering from the evening chill, my re-occupied body got up from the chair on the porch and went to bed, with the rest of my mind adamantly refusing to believe what my memory told me. I never dared ask my colleagues what they had experienced that evening.

(Dedicated to the memory of Ludmila Vasilevna Kohanovskaya, with thanks to Thomas E. Kennedy for triggering this story and to Suzanne Zweizig for identifying the Chicken Dance.)