Like, totally boo, dude--California ghosts

The Visitor

by Steve Kaza © 2004

On most nights, she wandered the dark, deserted streets, keeping to the shadows where the silvery moonlight could not reach. There was no purpose to her wandering. Without wishing she would find herself first in one place and then the next, sometimes chancing upon a neighbourhood that felt familiar. And standing very still, she would close her eyes and conjure up a memory of when it had been alive with the sights, sounds, and smells of her people.

At one time there had been many memories. She could make each place she visited come alive. And she passed the centuries slipping from one happy recollection to the next. But the last few years had not gone well. More and more she found it difficult to summon the images of the past. And instead of a colorful street bustling with activity, she found herself alone in the crumbling ruins of a dead city. She could not explain how it could happen to someone who was not alive, but she knew she was growing old.

The few memories that did remain were not happy ones. She could remember a storm breaking across the valley one sticky, Summer afternoon, dark, rumbling clouds out in front, lightning dancing across the sky. It was exciting to watch. But it had sent torrents of rain into the streets, scattering the people and closing the markets. How angry she had been that day, for her mother had promised to buy her a songbird.

And she remembered a child blaming her for a broken toy. As punishment her father had taken away her own favorite toy, a dark-haired doll, and given it to that lying child. How she had cried. But in the end, it was not losing her little friend that hurt so much. It was the smug look of satisfaction on that child's face, and the realization that her favorite toy was now with a very clever child who could fool even the adults of her world.

But worst of all, more than any other memory, she remembered the priests in their long robes and great, silver rings dangling from their ears coming to her home. She had not wanted to leave. She was only a girl, not yet eight or nine. But they told her parents she had been chosen. She cried and clung to her mother's skirt, but they tore her away. And they took her to the temple that rose into the sky at the center of the city. There they bathed her in holy water, gave her foods prepared from secret recipes, and read to her from the most sacred books of her people. And on the third day, her blood was spilt by ritual dagger, and her live heart cast down from the heights of the temple to satisfy the gods of harvest.

More than any other memory, she wanted to forget that one. She wanted to wipe it from existence, purge it from her soul. She tried to pretend it never happened, that it was merely a story she had picked up somewhere. She tried raging against it. She tried crying and sobbing it away. Each gave some relief, some comfort. But in the end, the memory persisted, and sometimes despite her best efforts, it returned stronger than before.

Her only relief, her only escape, was to wander the streets of her lost city and try to conjure up the more pleasant images of her past. Her only release from the grip of that horrible memory was in the colored tiles of the sun-splashed plazas, the honey-sweet candies her auntie would bring her, and the lively tunes of the street musicians- all of the happy memories that were now slowly fading into a nameless void.

She smiled. But tonight was different. Tonight she would not wander the deserted streets trying to summon her fading memories. Tonight she would not think about how old she had become. For a visitor had arrived the day before, stumbling into her beloved city, where no man, woman, or child had been since her people died out centuries before. At first, shy and frightened, she had watched him from a distance. But then she sensed his memories, fresh, succulent, and full of life. And she realized how very hungry she was.

"Who is it?" the man asked waking suddenly.

"It is only me," she said softly, her voice almost a whisper in his ears, "last night I brought you water. Tonight I bring you a blanket."

"Gracias," the man said, "you are most kind."

He knew he must have struck his head. There was dried blood in his hair, and the spot on his head beneath the blood was tender to touch. His vision was blurry. During the day, he could see shadows at best. At night, he was as good as blind.

"How many days have I been in this place?" he asked.

"It has been two nights since I found you," she said.

"Two nights? Then tonight is the third night I've gone missing. They'll come looking for me," he said reaching out to take hold of her arm. But she was not where he judged her to be by her voice.

"You must keep watch, "he said, "do you understand? My friends will come looking for me tonight."

"Yes," she said.

"They are good people," he said sensing what he thought was apprehension in her voice. "They carry guns like the government soldiers, but they fight for the poor, the dispossessed. They fight for our country, to free it from corruption and injustice. And they fight for our future, the future of our children. If you tell them my name, if you tell them I am in your care, they will treat you as their own sister."

"I am not afraid of your friends," she said.

He felt her covering him with a blanket, tucking it under his arms and feet. When she finished, his skin began to feel warmer. But the cold of the place still lingered in his bones.

"Can't you build a fire?" he asked, "even for a short while?"

"Your enemies may see it," she said, "What would I do if they came?"

"You are alone in this place then?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered.

"Your friends? Family?"

"Gone," she answered.

"Then why do you stay?" he asked, "it seems such a desolate place. Why not move down the mountain into one of the villages?"

"This is my home," she answered.

"I see," he said nodding, "when this war is over, perhaps they will build a road up to this place, perhaps they will bring electricity. Then maybe more people will come."

She said nothing. Outside the wind howled, and the room seemed so quiet and empty that he wondered if she hadn't left.

"You wear a ring," she suddenly said, her soft voice jumping out at him. "Do you have a wife?"

"Yes," he answered.

"She must be beautiful," the woman said, "tell me about her."

He knew he had been married several years already. He could remember the date he stood before the priest. He knew he should at least be able to recall the wedding or some other happy memory. But he couldn't. On the other hand, he could remember several arguments he had with his wife. That was how he remembered she was tall, and she kept her hair long. But he couldn't remember her face. And even worse, he couldn't recall her name. He had lay there most of the afternoon going over women's names in his mind, trying to find one that felt familiar.

"I don't know what's wrong with me," he said, "but I can't seem to remember much about my wife or our life together."

"You have had a bad fall," she said.

He reached out from under the blanket and felt his head.

"Yes, but it doesn't hurt that much," he said, "Just a little here where the blood has dried. You would think that ..."

She took his arm and tucked it back under the blanket. He flinched from her touch. Her hands were cold.

"It would be best if you rest and try to get some sleep," she said, "I will stay with you again tonight. You can tell me what you do remember."

"Gracias," the man said, "you have been most kind. Without your help I may have died out there, or worse yet, the government soldiers may have found me. I owe my life to you. But I don't want to sleep. I have been sleeping all day and all night for two days now. And I know it sounds strange, but each time I wake, I seem to remember less than the day before."

"You have had a bad fall. You should rest," she said, "I will listen for your friends. Tell me something about them."

Unlike his wife, it had been only a few days since he had last seen his comrades. Still the memories did not come quickly. He remembered a camp somewhere, hidden in the jungle where the government soldiers could not find them. He remembered some of the details of life in the camp, the harsh rigors of his training, the rain, the mosquitoes. He remembered learning how to clean his rifle, then practicing it over and over, until he could do it in his sleep, because there was nothing else to do. A smile crossed his face.

"There is one man," he said, "I don't know his name, but it is not that I have forgotten. It's just that he never told us. We all call him the Cuban. He is one of our leaders."

"Is he handsome?" she asked, "with a moustache?"

"Yes, he has a moustache. And yes, I believe women would call him handsome. But to me he has a very friendly face, always smiling and laughing. At times he acts quite foolish, but you should not underestimate him. He is strong, very strong."

The man laughed, "One afternoon he beat us all at arm wrestling, one after the other, without a rest in between. And he is strong in other ways as well. There is steel in his words, in his determination. You can see it when you look into his eyes. He is a man to be trusted, or to be feared if you are his enemy."

"He saved your life once?" the woman asked.

"Yes," the man answered, "but how did you know that?"

There was a short moment of silence. Then the woman answered, "In your sleep, you sometimes talk."

"You see," she added, "you are not losing your memory as you fear."

"Maybe you are right," the man said.

The woman reached into the folds of her dress and pulled something out.

"Here," she said, "I brought you some bread. It is hard, already a few days old. I'm sorry."

"There is no need to apologize," the man said touched by the poor woman's generosity. "Anything is enough. Please set it down next to my canteen. But I am afraid I don't feel much like eating."

"Yes, of course," the woman said, "you need rest."

"Yes," the man sighed, "I suppose you are right."

He wondered if she was a beautiful woman. Her voice was young and soft. Yet living her life in such a harsh place, he guessed she must have aged beyond her years. And her hands were so cold! He pictured some of the Indian women he had seen in the villages nearby. Most of them looked ten to fifteen years older than they actually were. And with the poor medical care they received, few of them lived much past the age of thirty.

He told himself that it was for people like this woman that they were fighting. The revolution was not just for the workers in the cities and the peasants in the countryside. It was not just to satisfy the hunger for righteousness among the professors and intellectuals. It was for the people on the fringes of society also, the people who had a different color of skin and spoke a different tongue. It was even for those who cared little about politics. When the rotting capitalist institutions that enslaved them finally came tumbling down, society would need to make room for these people as well.

The woman began to sing a strange song, something like a lullaby, but full of lament. It was not in any language he was familiar with, but listening to the melodious rise and fall of her voice, he began to feel drowsy. He felt himself slipping off towards the edge of sleep. A part of him resisted, clinging to consciousness, still fearing there would be even less to remember the next time he woke. But then he heard the woman's voice soft and reassuring, like the touch of a butterfly upon his ears.

"All is well," she whispered, "sleep now."

He gave in to his drowsiness. He let himself drift off. In sleep, there was comfort. In sleep, there was escape from the cold. He felt the woman's cold hand on his forehead. It had been there the night before too, just as he was slipping off into sleep. He thought it strange that someone's touch could be so cold. But he realized that in a few moments none of it would matter. In a few moments he would be oblivious to it all.

But then there were voices, far off and nearly lost on the wind, the voices of men. Someone was out there. Someone else had entered her beloved city. She thought to cover his ears, but then he had heard them too. Already he was stirring. Quickly she removed her hand from his forehead. The man opened his eyes.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I thought I heard voices," he said.

"It was only the wind," she said.

"No," he said, "I thought I heard my name being called."

"I will go and look," she said.

She rose and went over to the doorway. From there she could clearly hear the voices of men talking in the distance.

"Do you hear anything?" the man asked.

"No," she said.

The wind picked up suddenly. The woman smiled and went back to the man's side.

"I could not hear anything from the door," she said, "it must have been the wind you heard. But if you would like I will go out and look for the men you described to me."

"No," the man said reaching for the woman, but once again finding nothing but air. "It is too dangerous."

"But if your friends are near," the woman asked, "how else will they find you?"

The man rubbed his eyes. He did not want to send the woman out alone and risk her life. But his eyes were next to useless in the dark. He knew there was no other way. He depended on her completely.

"I will not ask you to go," the man said.

"I will not be long," the woman said, and she turned and started for the doorway. But before she could reach it, the wind died down as suddenly as it had picked up. And in the cold, quiet night air, a voice could be heard calling in the distance, "Maaaaanuelll?! Maaaaanuelll?!"

"That is my name!" the man said sitting up, "It is them. They are calling for me!"

"Yes," the woman said from the doorway, "I can see them now, but they are not the men you described to me. They look like the dangerous men, the government soldiers you told me about. Somehow they must have learned your name."


"Shh," the woman said, "be very quiet."

But no wind rose up this time. And now a second voice joined the first in calling out.

"I know that voice!" the man said, and he started to get up.

But before he could, the woman was at his side, pushing him back down. She put her hand firmly over his mouth.

"Be quiet," she said, "it is trickery I tell you. They are not your friends."

The man reached out to push the woman's hand away from his mouth, but there was nothing there. Still, he felt her cold hand firmly over his mouth, keeping him from crying out.

"She must be holding me from behind," he thought, reaching back over his shoulders.

"Maaaaanuelll?! Maaaaanuell!?" the voices outside called, now even closer.

The man started to become frantic. Not only was the woman's hand covering his mouth, but his nose as well. He was finding it hard to breathe. And no matter where he reached he could not find from where she was holding him. It was as if he was wrestling with the air. He began to kick and flail his arms. But it did not weaken the woman's hold on him. He tried rolling away, but somehow the woman managed to pin him against the wall. He could not breathe. He felt himself losing consciousness, blacking out. He reached out with his one free hand, found the strap of his canteen.

The Cuban held up his hand. Everyone fell silent.

"Did you hear that?" he asked.

The wind blew, and they covered their eyes and held their mouths shut tight to keep out the dust it stirred.

"I didn't hear anything," one of the men said once it passed.

"I heard something," the Cuban said, "over here."

And drawing his pistol he ran off around the corner of a crumbling building and down a narrow alleyway. The others followed behind him. When he had gone about fifty meters he stopped and knelt down on one knee. The others came running up behind him.

He held up a canteen. Those who had flashlights shined them on it. The initials "M.R." were crudely etched into its side.

"It is Manuel's," one of the men said.

There was a set of crumbling stairs leading up to a dark doorway.

"I'm going up," the Cuban said, "Pako, Miguel stay here. The rest of you follow me."

And he quickly, but quietly climbed the stairs. Just outside the doorway, he paused. Someone passed him a flashlight. He switched it on. And with the light in one hand and his pistol in the other, he charged into the room. The others followed behind.

There was shouting from within the room.

"What do you see?" Pako shouted up from the street below.

A man stuck his head out of the doorway. "He's here!" he shouted, "Manuel's here!"

In a few moments, they were carrying him down the stairs from the room. They set him down gently on the ground. Someone ran off to get a stretcher. Someone else shined a light on his face. They gasped when they saw his face. He was deathly pale. He looked as if he had just been dragged fresh from the grave. And there were red markings on his neck, as if he had been burned. But his eyes flickered and opened.

"Where is she?" he asked.

The Cuban pushed the flashlights away and out of his face. "Where is who?"

"The woman," he said, "the woman who was there with me in the room. I think she was trying to kill me."

"There was no woman," another man said, "you were alone."

"No," the man said, his eyes darting left and right, "I was cold, and she brought me a blanket. I was thirsty, and she filled my canteen. I was hungry, and she brought me bread to eat. It was next to me there where I lay."

"There was no blanket in the room," the Cuban said, "you had some straw over you. That is all. And I saw no bread next to you, only a rock."

The Cuban looked at the others who had gone into the room with him, and they nodded their agreement.

"Here," one of the other men said, and everyone turned to look at him. He had unscrewed the cap on Manuel's canteen. When he tipped it upside down, sand ran out from it.

"There was a woman," Manuel said, "I am telling you. She was different, strange. But she talked to me. She was kind. Her hands were cold as ice, but I felt them touch me."

Some of the men crossed themselves.

"Well, she's not here now," the Cuban said.

And bending down, he said to the others, "let's get him out of here."

They lifted him, one on each side. He put his arms around their shoulders and carried him as quickly as they could from that cold place.

She watched from the shadows. In the distance, there was a low rumbling. At first, she mistook it for a stone wall, weary of its many years in the ancient city, buckling and crashing to the ground. She had heard it before and gone to see the rubble afterward. But this rumbling sound was followed soon by a rapid succession of smaller popping sounds. With her new memories to draw on, she realized it was the sounds of men. They were wielding their new powerful weapons, fighting a war over this land.

She stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. It would be day soon, but night would return. And there would be others. This war would bring her more visitors, more memories. She was sure of it. And some of them might not have any friends to come looking for them. She smiled and began spinning, around and around, her tattered dress flowing. How alive it made her look! She laughed. It was as if she was flesh and blood again.

x x x

Lonely ghosts fill the pages of literature. This one is more pleasant than most. Stop by and visit when you're in the neighborhood. Shouldn't take more than a millenium or so. -GM

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