Excerpt: “The Word for Breaking August Sky” an Alaskan Ghost Story by James Sarafin


Photo: Gavia Immer


I came across a listing of this 2002 story in Ellen Datlow’s “Summation of the Year’s Horror” in the front of the The Best Fantasy & Horror of the Year, Volume 8, ed. by Datlow and Terri Windling. It sounded well written and was called a “ghost story” so I ordered a copy of the book it was first published in called The Mysterious North, ed. Dana Stabenow. Here is an excerpt.


‘He hadn’t seemed to notice the body, floating higher, less substantial than the air. But he had once told Tigges that Inupiats could see ghosts, that he had once seen his own younger brother, trying to talk to him. If Henderson couldn’t see this one, it must be Tigge’s own vision after all. But who? Always before he had been able to tell who was going to die, and how. And when. When he saw it, death always came soon.

Roger Tigge’s had seen plenty of the dead flying a transport chopper in Lift Company, Vietnam, ’70 and ’71. The dead and the soon-to-be-dead—hauling the one out and the other back in country. On a pickup, when Tigges would drop in fast towards the signal smoke, their bodies leaking blood, flesh and clothing charred by hot metal. Or lying in the paddies where there was no smoke, eye holes staring at the sky, faces turning black in the sun. Some found with hardly a mark on them, looking as if they had surrendered life without a struggle, had just rolled over quietly in the foxhole or taken time to lay down their arms and sit against a tree to rest.

Then there were the dead who fought for every scrap of their lives being torn away like a sheet, screaming, crying, begging, cursing. Shivering like a fish on the deck, flipping two feet in the air despite medics trying to hold them down.

Sometimes flying back to base with them stacked three-deep on the deck of his Huey, he heard them through the body bags and the whine of the turbines, trying to get out, straining to break free even from their lifeless flesh.

After a time the dead and soon-to-be-dead merged in Tigge’s mind. He didn’t know it until he climbed aboard at base and noticed his door gunner slumped against the open hatch, leaking red from his throat. Tigges grabbed him, trying to staunch the blood, yelling for a medic. But the gunner only pushed him away. “You crazy, man? Let go of me!” Not a mark on him, no sign of blood anymore. Tigges thought he’d hallucinated—until, on return from the mission, enemy fire laced out of the forest canopy. A few rounds clanged into the cabin, a groan came over his headset. He turned and found the gunner slumped dead, just as he’d seen before.

Later he noticed that if he looked right at the troops as they climbed aboard, he could see who was going to be killed and how. The word spread: Don’t mess with that black pilot, he looks at you, your number is up. Tigges didn’t know when he would see death coming, only knew he couldn’t stop ot, once seen. No warning had ever worked. He had never found the right words to save someone’s life.’


– James Sarafin, “The Word for Breaking August Sky”

(First published in The Mysterious North, 12 All-New Mystery Stories of Alaska, ed. Dana Stabenow, Signet, 2002)

3 responses to “Excerpt: “The Word for Breaking August Sky” an Alaskan Ghost Story by James Sarafin

  1. Nice presentation. One correction though: “The Word For Breaking August Sky” was first published in the July 1995 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and got labeled a ghost story because it won the “Write an Original Ghost Story” contest judged by Alison Lurie of Cornell University. I’m not sure why I entered the story in the contest, as I didn’t think of it as a ghost story. The contest prize included publication in Alfred Hitchcock. After publication, the story won the 1996 Robert L. Fish Award (best first mystery story of the year) from the Mystery Writers of America. I never thought of “August Sky” as a mystery story either. The story was reprinted in Murder Intercontinental (Carroll & Graf 1996), before being reprinted in The Mysterious North (Signet 2002).- James Sarafin

    Liked by 1 person

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