a story by
There she was again, not in the middle of my room, her usual spot, but slightly to the side, as if to cause as much damage to the carpet as possible with the inexhaustible water dripping from her clothes and hair. For a moment, I wondered which less disturbing to look at—her swollen fingers bent in unnatural angles with shards of bone protruding through the skin, or her bruised legs, a hose twisted around one ankle, the soaked rim of her dress leaking streaks of indigo-blue color down her pasty flesh. For sure, it was not her head, and closing my eyes wasn’t an option. When I did that last night, she came to stand above me, and the blood squirting from the wound on her forehead mixed with the mud in her hair and came down on my face in long, sticky drops. I had jumped out of my bed and begged her to move away so she wouldn’t ruin my pillow and sheets, but she stood there for the rest of her visit.
“How may I help you?” I asked, not expecting an answer—she hasn’t spoken once in the previous five nights—but out of inbred propriety. I so wished Grandma were home. Maybe she would know who this woman was and why her ghost had come to bother me. But Grandma was enjoying her mineral baths, and I alone had to deal with all this, every night playing guessing games, every morning dabbing the muddy carpet with towels, and mopping the water from the hardwood floors in the entry and the living room. I had to agree that it was polite for a ghost to enter through the front door, but on the other hand, I was afraid that the moisture would lift the parquet pieces and ruin the floors. Which reminded me to ask the ghost a favor.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Would you mind draping yourself with the blanket over there?”
She stared at me with her usual stare, blank and solemn at the same time, not giving any indication she had heard me. I knew better than to get angry. However, the situation was starting to wear me out.
I took a deep breath and spoke slowly, carefully enunciating each word, trying not to shout. “Who-are-you? What-do-you-want-from-me?”
The woman lifted a hand to her face and moaned. I couldn’t understand what she meant; each of her broken fingers pointed in a different direction.
“What?” This time I shouted. “Open your mouth and speak up, damn it!”
She opened her mouth. A dense flow of hemorrhaged blood, carrying chunks of flesh and broken teeth, spilled down her chin.
That served me right.
“Sorry…I am very sorry. Please close your mouth. Ma’am, please. Maybe you could nod?”
The woman closed her mouth and nodded.
“Thank you,” I said, and went on asking my questions. Was I supposed to know her, was she a relation of mine, did she want dry clothes or anything to eat (I was smart enough to not offer her water), and did she have a message for somebody, to all of which she slowly shook her head. I wished she would wipe the blood from her chin, but she didn’t.
Finally, the first rooster crowed, and before the rest of them had a chance to join in, the ghost was gone. I thought for a moment about the soaked carpet and the wet floors, but couldn’t make myself get up and start cleaning. Tomorrow I would put plastic sheets all the way from the front door to my room, three feet wide at least.
The next morning I woke at ten. The sun had just reached the damp spot on the carpet, and greenish vapors filled the room. The air was rich with smells of acidic soil, stale water, blooming cattails and manna grass. The tang of decomposing matter mixed with the sweet fragrance of calamus leaves, reminding me of the marshes along the river.
I cleaned the mess, took a shower, and after opening all windows and interior doors, and turning on the fan in the living room, I left the house.
Mrs. Quince, the next-door neighbor, had already installed her scrawny self at her watching post—on the front porch of her house, partially hidden behind the boxes with begonias. She didn’t notice me. She seemed to be nodding off.
Farther along the street, Mr. K. Bayo and Mr. J. Bayo, the twins, were fighting dandelions on their front lawn. They appeared more inept then usual, and seeing me, used the opportunity to abandon the weeds. They crossed the lawn with their identical, jerky gaits and came to a tentative halt in the shade of the magnolia tree.
“Mrs. Quince is asleep on her porch, and you don’t look your cheerful selves,” I said. “Did something happen?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Mr. K. Bayo, the older twin, said, wiping his bald dome with a huge, checkered handkerchief. “Only the masons made an ungodly amount of noise last night, and no one in the neighborhood got enough sleep. I mean us, the oldsters. You probably slept through all the ‘..more sand…more bricks…pass the mortar hoe’, but at some point I was about to be rude and tell them to shut up.”
“Talking about ghosts, I had a little problem myself. Do you happen to know about a woman who drowned in the area?”
“Many people, both men and women, drowned in the time of the flood, nineteen-fifty-seven,” Mr. K. Bayo said. Being the older of the two, he did all the talking. “Can you tell by her clothes if she lived then?”
“No. Maybe… Her clothes are plastered about her body, and so wet, I couldn’t even tell what color they had been. And I’ve never heard of any of the flood victims haunting the town. It seems kind of late to start doing so after more than fifty years, don’t you think?”
“You should’ve asked her,” Mr. J. Bayo said all of a sudden. His voice sounded stronger and clearer than the voice of his brother, as if he had preserved it by not using it.
It took me awhile to overcome my surprise. “I did ask her. She wouldn’t tell me anything. Most of all, I want to know what made her choose our house. I am sure there has been a mistake.”
“Hardly a mistake,” Mr. J. Bayo said. “The only two houses in town not haunted presently are yours and Mrs. Quince’s. Do you think anyone, living or otherwise, would want to move in with Mrs. Quince?”
“That’s a good point, but… Can’t you take her? You have only your mum’s ghost to haunt you, don’t you?”
“It won’t work,” Mr. J. Bayo said, almost wistfully. “Mum doesn’t get along with girls, and—”
Mr. K. Bayo coughed. It sounded as if he was trying to clear his throat of rusty nails. “Off with you, Reni. Didn’t you say you are on your way to the library?” he said, and turned to his brother, “Come on, Jeleb. The heat is insufferable. I can barely stand on my legs.”
They went into the house, and I went to the library where I asked Miss Mona for the Statistics, Particulars, and Curiosities of Kirpich by the locally renowned historian, St. Kvasin.
“Kirpich is a small picturesque town in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains,” I read. “It has 15,678 inhabitants according to the last count (1968.) The citizens think they are just as refined and sophisticated as the people living in cities with populations of up to 100,000. Which is probably true.” It went like that for about twenty pages before I reached the part that interested me. “The town has one of the largest per capita ghost manifestations. No less than two thousand five hundred ghosts haunt residences and public areas. For a detailed description and haunting habits, see Appendix B.”
I leafed to Appendix B and spent an hour-and-a-half going through the list. The masons were classified under “Fratricides, Double, Trivial.” The two brothers had decided to build a house together, on the lot next to Mrs. Quince’s house—the lot stood empty since—but had quarreled before the walls were all the way up and killed each other with their masonry tools. Now their ghosts could be heard on clear nights going about finishing the house, shouting orders and requests to each other and robbing a whole neighborhood of peaceful sleep.
Fatima, the other communal ghost, was listed under “Suicides, Love, Unshared.”
The coachman that cruised the streets from one end of the town to the other, beating his horses mercilessly, was under “Revenges, Love, Lost.” I disliked his ghost, but thankfully, it was easy to avoid a chance encounter—wheels screeched, horseshoes met the asphalt casting sparks, dogs howled in its wake.
I found twenty-six cases of death by drowning, accidental and intentional, none of which referred to the ghost in my room.
The Kirpich Times Call was housed just two blocks from the library. I walked there and placed an ad to appear for the next three days in Lost & Found: “A ghost of a drowned woman, circa nineteen-fifty-seven. Any information appreciated. Reward.”
Imagine who called the next day? My grandmother. “Why didn’t you tell me about the ghost?” she asked.
“How did you hear about it?”
“Well, what do you think? We have computers in the lobby—actually, one computer, the other one is always broken—and I read the paper online every morning.”
“Grandma, I didn’t want to spoil your vacation, but since you know already…” I told her all about the ghost, the wet clothes, the puffy flesh, the twigs in her hair. I skipped the part with the muddy water dripping onto the floors.
“Twigs in her hair? What was her hair like?” Grandma asked.
“Hmm, loose, maybe dark.”
“What do you mean by maybe?”
“I don’t know. She has mud all over—”
“Knee-length, three-quarter sleeves.”
“It doesn’t ring a bell,” Grandma said, and then her voice became muffled as if she had covered the phone to talk to somebody there. When I thought we had been disconnected, she spoke with a high-pitched, girlish voice I almost didn’t recognized, “Sorry, dear, my bingo is starting in a minute. Just keep the ghost happy until I come home. Talk to you soon.”
She called again in the evening, just as I was starting to fret. “Check with the Vlaevs,” she said. “River Street Number 80, second house east of the dike. The old Vlaev lost his wife in the flood. No one blamed him—he couldn’t swim, and even though the water was only waist-high, the current was really strong down there. The rumors were that he had climbed up a pear tree, watching from there as the water carried away his wife, screaming and begging for help. He never admitted being haunted, but still, it’s worth a try.”
“Ciao, dear. See you on Wednesday.”
“I thought you were coming back tomorrow!”
“Change of plans. Need to practice my samba a bit more,” she said, and giggled.
I looked at the frozen dinner still rotating in the microwave and, deciding a delay wouldn’t make it any less tasteless, I hurried through town, down to River Street Number 80.
At least I knew one of the Vlaevs—Ivaylo. He was a senior in my school, a year ahead of me. He had once asked me out, and when I refused, he stopped speaking to me. I hoped he had forgotten about it.
When I rang the bell, it was Ivaylo who opened the door. He pretended he didn’t know who I was and said, “We do not appreciate soliciting at dinner time.”
“I haven’t come to sell you things. I need to talk to your parents.”
“None of your business,” I said, and rang the bell again. Finally, Ivaylo’s mother came to the door.
“Do you have a ghost missing from the household?” I inquired politely.
“What are you talking about?”
“A drowned lady, short, stocky, lots of mud. My grandmother seems to think she was your mother-in-law.”
The woman started choking, recovered quickly, and waived her arms in fake outrage. “Ha! What nonsense. Go away, girl, and don’t bother us again.”
The door closed. I stood there, my hand halfway up to knock, unsure what to do. I’ve never heard of anyone disowning a family ghost. In a town with so many of them, there were unspoken rules and regulations of conduct. No one dared to insult a ghost, no matter if in residence or a communal one. No one turned their back and slept through the visitations without at least offering an explanation. I knew some people made excuses with work the next day or tests in school, but it had to be a really good reason, or they paid the price later.
What did the Vlaevs think they were? An exception?
I knocked on the door, rang the bell a few times, and when no one answered, I shouted through the mail slot, “You better come and collect her tonight, or…or…” I didn’t know what I would do if they didn’t show up. Call the police? Expose them at the town’s meeting? Write to the editor?
I went back home, ate the adhesive blob that my dinner had turned into, and used all the plastic bags left in the box to cover the floors. I had barely finished when the ghost stepped in, dragging her feet and dragging along my plastic bags, which were too thin and too light and stuck to the mud of her soles.
“Excuse me…excuse me,” I kept repeating while trying to hold the edges of the bags down, pressing them with my big toe. I pointed to the chair covered with towels that I had prepared earlier and called the Vlaevs. I didn’t care one bit that it was after midnight.
“Who is it?” Ivaylo asked. His voice was slurred. In the background, I could hear music and chatter.
“Having a party, yeah?” I said. “A celebration, I guess?”
There was a short silence, then: “It’s Saturday, Reni. What do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to come over and fetch your grandmother’s ghost. Haven’t you any shame?”
“Are you crazy? Or stupid? Why would I want to do such a thing?” The noise from the party died. Ivaylo was drunk, but not drunk enough to let his friends hear what he was about to tell me. “Do you know how much trouble she’s been? Because of her, we had to tile all the floors. Every night, we needed to roll up the carpets and lift them onto the tables or prop them along the walls. Do you think that was fun?”
“But she is yours. It’s not my fault that your grandfather let her drown.”
“I don’t care. Dad doesn’t care, and Mom doesn’t care the smallest bit. You are stuck, Reni.”
“What about your grandfather? Doesn’t he care?”
“The old fool has no say in the matter. By the way, he won’t be around much longer—he is going to a nursing home. No more spending his whole pension on wine to drink at night with the damned ghost.”
Ivaylo slammed the phone hard but must have missed the slot, because I could hear him swearing under his breath, then opening a door and shouting, “Is there any beer left?”
I turned around. The ghost sat at the edge of her chair, shivering, and looking more miserable if that were possible.
“Sorry,” I said. “No one is available at the moment. Please make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”
I hadn’t undressed yet, so I only needed my sandals. One of them was close to the ghost’s right foot, which she moved an inch or two to allow me to take my sandal without the discomfort of reaching into her aura. “Appreciated,” I muttered and left the house, this time in no particular hurry.
In the middle of the street, Fatima, the ghost of the Turkish woman that had thrown herself into the neighborhood well, sat on the asphalt with her legs crossed under her. Since they had filled the well in 1986 when the city paved the street, Fatima had nowhere to sit but on the ground. She hadn’t been an unhappy ghost before, I was told, sitting on the ledge of the well, tinkling the bangles on her wrists, and greeting the late night passersby with a soft “Assalamu Alaikum.” These days she kept her eyes down, her hands limp in her lap, and her bangles silent. Usually she sat very still, but tonight she was rocking her upper body as if in trance, back and forth, back and forth.
“Good evening, Fatima,” I said. She didn’t answer, just kept rocking. I took a good look at her. Even taking into account the shimmer and the luminescent transparency of her body and clothes, I could see that she didn’t have a drop of water on her. She had jumped to her death into the well, probably hitting the stone walls on her way down, and definitely drowning in the water, but her clothes were dry, her face wasn’t marked with bruises, and her hairpiece neatly covered her hair.
Deep in thought, I didn’t hear the warning thunder of hooves and barely had time to flatten myself against a fence when the coachman came down the street. The coach leaped behind the galloping horses, the coachman cracking his long whip over their haunches and howling with full voice, “Giddyap! Giddyap!” as if they could possibly run any faster. The coachman’s features were distorted with rage but clear of blemishes, even though he had found his end tumbling down a 200 foot deep ravine. I tried not to look at the horses, wretched beasts, frothing and showing their teeth, the whites of their bulging, horrified eyes iridescent in the light of the half moon.
When we were in elementary school, my best friend and I collected signatures and tried to interest PETA in the inhumane treatment of the ghost horses, but no one returned our calls.
After that encounter, I proceeded more carefully, and managed to cross the town without meeting the coachman again. Just as I was about to turn into River Street, I heard him coming from the opposite end. I made a quick escape, cutting through somebody’s backyard and climbing the dike. He wouldn’t follow me here. I knew that for sure—he cruised only the streets and roads that had existed at the time of his death. The dike along the river was built in 1958, after the big flood.
As I walked along the dike, the houses down on my left, the river on my right, I thought about the flood. I remembered it with the false memory of an impressionable child, in the colors of the yellowed newspapers I’ve seen in the basement. If I closed my eyes, I could see the old tsar wading through the muddy water and the floating corpses.
I must have really closed my eyes, because when I opened them, I was standing on nothing, five feet up in the air. The dike had disappeared. The river was roaring under my feet.
Vertigo and disorientation overwhelmed me. I swayed in place, afraid that if I made just one step away from my invisible platform, I’d fall in the water. “What is going on?” I cried. “This is not supposed to be happening!”
Maybe I would have kept yapping like a lost puppy if the cool, prickly presence of a ghost hadn’t brought me back to my senses. It was the ghost of the drowned woman. She lifted her hand and pointed in the distance. A ten-foot wall of murky water was rushing down the riverbed. The ghost made sure I saw it and pointed down, at the houses. If I were not mistaken, one of her broken fingers was aligned with the Vlaevs’ house.
Eerie light replaced the illumination of the occasional streetlight. Actually, the streetlights, along with the posts they were attached to, had disappeared. Some of the houses remained the same, others were gone, and a few that I didn’t remember sprouted up in the vacated spaces. There were no street trees, no sidewalks, and even the concrete pavement was replaced with cobbles. At last, I understood. The ghost wanted me to see what had happened to her back in 1957.
The wall of water hit the first houses, parted around them and flew into the streets and the yards, uprooting small trees, hauling up cars, household items, a horse cart along with the struggling horse, people—men, women, small children. Birds abandoned their nests, filling the sky with black wings. Cats climbed on the roofs. The dogs in the dog runs didn’t stand a chance.
“I can’t… I can’t watch anymore…I can’t stand it.” I turned my head, preferring to look the ghost in the face but not the horror unfolding around me, but the ghost’s hand kept pointing with its broken fingers, and I had no power to refuse.
The water was no deeper than four or five feet now, but it seemed to flow even faster. A man’s voice hollering, “Paraskeva! Paraskeva!” drew my attention to the Vlaevs’ yard. First, I saw the man only. He was up a pear tree, leaning at a dangerous angle over the water. He straightened for a moment, only to take off his belt and wrap it around a branch, then he took the other end and leaned even farther. Now he was two feet closer to the water but still not close enough to reach the young woman holding to the trunk of the tree. Waves rolled over her head one after another. Every time her head bobbed up, she gasped desperately for breath, water streaming from her nostrils and mouth, waiting for the next wave to come and hit her. Still, it seemed she was going to make it. She hugged the tree with the fervor of a lover, and a branch the man had bent down was within her reach.
She waited for the right moment, concentrating on the task, not noticing the two barrels that just popped out of the basement. The water carried them across the yard so swiftly that when she saw them it was too late. One of them hit the tree trunk, smashing her hands into a bloody mass. The other one caught her on the side of the head.
It all became still. The dike rose from under my feet, the streetlights flickered as if just lit, the houses slept, and the river was only a silvery ribbon winding through the purple shadows of the jacaranda trees.
I sighed. So that was that. But what was it? What did it mean? I turned to look at Paraskeva’s ghost, but her expression was unreadable. She had shown me what she wanted me to see, and now it was up to me to draw the conclusions. Sorry as I felt for her, it had been Ivaylo’s grandfather who didn’t manage to save his wife. I wasn’t going to get stranded with her ghost.
Making sure the coachman was not in sight, I climbed down the dike, crossed the back alley, and jumped the low fence around the Vlaevs’ backyard. It was darker here than up on the dike. I stumbled through a vegetable garden, my feet stirring the fragrance of mint and crushed tomato leaves. The two-story house loomed above me with its black windows. Somebody coughed, a dry hacking cough that came from a smaller building to the left, a detached garage. Dim light squeezed out from under the door. I turned the knob, expecting to find Ivaylo’s father polishing his golf clubs or whatever the guy did after midnight in his garage. Instead, I found a very old man lying on a narrow bed, covered to the chin with a dirty comforter. A table and a single chair completed the furnishings. The bastards! They had put the old man to live in the garage!
“Paraskeva,” the old man spoke. He wasn’t looking at me, but to the side. I turned and saw Paraskeva’s ghost sitting on a big, old fashioned suitcase next to the door. “Sorry, sweetheart, they won’t let you visit me in the nursing home. It’s against their policy—I asked the nurse that came to fill out the papers. No spirits of any kind, she said. Ah, what are we going to do?”
Paraskeva’s ghost pointed at me. The old man saw me for the first time and slow understanding started to creep up his face. Not allowing him even a moment of hope, I cried, “No! I am sorry. We don’t have the accommodations.”
The old man started sobbing quietly, tears running down his hollow cheeks, disappearing into the white bristles of his week-old beard.
Unable to take my eyes away from him, I stepped back, tripping on a loose piece of concrete and almost losing my balance. The concrete chip fit nicely in the palm of my hand. I swung it with all my strength and sent it flying at one of the second-story windows. The crash splintered the quiet, and the Vlaevs’ shouts and cusses came through shredded and unrecognizable.
I ran the whole way home. Last I saw Paraskeva’s ghost, she was sitting on her husband’s suitcase, but fast as I ran, she still beat me to my room. I dropped another towel around her feet, and barely having the strength to remove my sandals, I fell into my bed.
The next three days I lived my life in very small increments. I took small steps everywhere I went, sipped small sips of water when thirsty, cut my bread into miniature bites, and answered questions with yes or no.
At last, Wednesday came and at six-twenty-five, a very ancient taxicab delivered my grandmother and her numerous bags in front of our house. I had been waiting there for the bigger part of the afternoon. Grandma patted me on the cheek and said, “There, there, it couldn’t be all that bad,” but when we got inside, she seemed to think otherwise. “Oh my,” she said, and after a short moment of indecisiveness, she rolled her sleeves up, noting, “Good thinking about the plastic bags.”
It took Grandma two hours to clean the house, air the rooms, and start dinner. Around nine-thirty, she fed me my first home-cooked meal in the past eighteen days, and told me to get lost. Not in these words, but the meaning was clear. She needed to be alone with the ghost, and I had to go and entertain myself elsewhere.
I went to the rock club and drank diet sodas until closing time. The tower clock rang two times when I finally headed home. The closer I got, the faster my heart beat, about to explode when I took the last turn. Fatima was already there, seated in the middle of the street. “Assalamu Alaikum,” she said, and when I answered, she gave me a little wave. The bangles on her wrist jingled. It seemed like a good sign. I felt a little better.
Grandma had left the porch light on. Otherwise, the house was dark. I opened the front door, starting to hope for the best. Releasing a long breath, I reached for the light switch. “He, he, he,” I heard my grandmother’s laughter from the direction of the kitchen. My hand froze in the air. Holding my breath again, I tiptoed through the living room and looked into the kitchen.
At the table, Grandma and Paraskeva’s ghost chatted amiably. More precisely, Grandma chatted and the ghost nodded, her crooked fingers wrapped around the stem of one of my grandmother’s second-best sherry glasses. Grandma had a glass, too. Between the two of them, the liquid in the decanter shone like a lava lamp.
My grandma must have sensed my presence, because she said over her shoulder, “Don’t worry, dear. We have an arrangement with Paraskeva—she will be entering through the kitchen door and will try to keep to the lawn chair.”
Paraskeva’s ghost was, indeed, seated in one of our plastic lawn chairs.
“But, Grandma,” I whined. “She looks so…er…untidy. And she drips water.”
“Her appearance will improve as soon as her husband passes away—doesn’t it happen to all of us?” Grandma said. “And a little water won’t hurt the linoleum. Besides, after twenty years of insomnia, there are not many books left that I care to read. Go to bed, dear, and don’t give it a second thought.”
Grandma turned to Paraskeva’s ghost and continued the conversation, I mean, the monologue I had interrupted. “And then I told him: You are such a flatterer! I haven’t danced for years. And guess what he said…”