Anna Kralova stands outside the apartment door, listening. This irrational impulse makes her cringe, though she assumes no one is here to record her embarrassment. Anna does not believe in ghosts. She believes that when we die, we are gone forever. She believes everything we know of the world, we know through our senses, a sudden flaming vision through time. And yet how to explain this feeling? This sense of a foreign sadness that’s been lodged in her throat since the young man’s death.
She turns her key in the lock and opens the door. Not too slowly, not too quickly. As naturally as she can, she opens the door to her old apartment. The door swings into silence. What was she expecting? Creaking hinges? A cold spot on the floor? Footsteps? Anna smiles to herself. For days afterward, that odious old man downstairs continued to complain about phantom footfalls.
There is no one here. There is nothing here. Just Anna and her breathing. The apartment is vacant. But vacant in a way that Anna has never experienced. More of a grey absence. The once familiar floor, the little rooms, the yellow kitchen cabinets all speak now of a place hollowed of life. And the faint antiseptic clinging to the air is itself a kind of ghost, a reminder of what happened here.
Anna Kralova didn’t know much about her tenant beyond a name, Yuliani Garcia. Later, she learned he had arrived from Cuba the previous year. She never met him. She’d put her place up for rent at the height of the financial crisis, after she lost her job at the paper. The idea was to go back home, but at the last moment, another job opened in Tampa photographing corporate events, and she’d taken it gratefully. She was glad to be out of the building, anyway. The man downstairs had given her grief since the day she moved in. Once, she had held an afternoon baby shower for a colleague and the man had called the police, who had showed up shame-faced at her door.
The decrepit bručoun had terrorized Yuliani as well. And when the agent called Anna in Tampa to give her the news, the first thing she thought was that the neighbor had shot Yuliani dead. But it was just a suicide, the agent assured her. One of many in this town. Anna remembers the agent said she was sorry – an English construction that Anna had never been able to accept. What was there to be sorry about? As if the bad that happened always had to be someone’s fault.
Anna didn’t respond and the agent kept talking. She told Anna not to worry, that she would handle everything. And then before hanging up, she added, ‘It won’t affect the value – the suicide – we don’t have to disclose it.’
Ghosts were trickier, less disposed to discretion. And just to be safe, the agent suggested, she should light some sage. Anna assumed it was in jest. But then she was at Target and there, in the bargain bin, as if an ancient trickster were calling her by name, sat a big green sage candle.
Now, Anna takes the candle out of her purse and sets it on the counter. The first match she strikes is humid. The second one is weak, but Anna manages to light the wick before the match goes out. The candle flame sputters, threatens to expire and then flares with such ferocity that Anna takes a step back.
✽ ✽ ✽
Anna was 17 when the Wall fell. Two years later, she was working for the Czech ministry of foreign affairs. Over the years, her parents had sold off pieces of jewelry, china, even the silverware her grandparents had hidden after the war, to pay for English lessons for their only daughter. Later, those lessons paid off for the entire family. It helped that Anna was pretty. But what got her into the foreign ministry was her flawless English, acquired clandestinely from an elderly British lady whose pedagogy involved memorizing long passages of English poetry.
In the early years after the revolution, Prague, like the rest of Eastern Europe, was awash in suitors: corporate, national, international. Anna worked 15-hour days, going from meeting to meeting as interpreter. She had taken the job instead of going to college. She couldn’t have hoped for a better crash course in international business. Anna heard pitches from car companies, fast-food businesses, chocolate empires, all the time wondering at this new kind of twisted poetry. She understood the individual words, but couldn’t make sense of them. ‘If we can leverage this synergy, the impact on your market will be off the charts.’ But slowly she came to understand. And, though she would never say this to anyone, she overcame the translation hurdles by understanding that these Americans were using language in the same way her own apparatchiks had done all her life. After that it became easy: substitute one nonsense phrase in English for its equivalent in Czech.
One evening, she sat in a conference room with her bosses and the representatives from USAID. Three men on their side, three men on hers. Anna had already met many Americans, but they never failed to impress. So healthy-looking, with their straight white teeth, their short hair. Cheeks gone pink in the lingering spring cold. And, of course, the smiles. She had yet to meet an American who didn’t smile. She was still another year away from her first trip to the Midwest. But already she imagined a country full of men and women like this, shiny with wealth’s good humor.
In contrast, her own people. ‘Beaten down by history,’ as her grandmother always said, with her usual abundance of drama. And maybe she was right. What did these brand-new Americans know of war or occupation? Did they even know what it was to be hungry?
The meeting started with the usual preliminaries. The Americans asked after her bosses’ families, something they must have learned in a seminar somewhere and that always made Anna recoil, as if a guest had opened the refrigerator in her home without permission. Then they wandered down to the discussion. Her bosses understood English very well, but they still let her handle the interpreting. That way they couldn’t be blamed – that much hadn’t changed.
The men were there to talk about entrepreneurship and business. The conversation went back and forth. They were offering their expertise. The bosses were very grateful, so much work was still needed, our country so far behind Western-style development. The Americans could cover infrastructure costs, ensure there weren’t too many stumbles on the road to privatization.
After an hour of this, Anna’s boss turned to her and said, in Czech: ‘Look, dearie, don’t translate what I’m about to tell you. But can you speed this up a bit? We just want their money.’
✽ ✽ ✽
Anna takes a few steps and stops, suddenly cold. Sharp knocking comes through the floor. Then a shaky voice cries up through the wooden slats, ‘Knock it off!’
Christ. That nasty man. She stomps once on the floor in anger, then slips off her heels. After a moment, she tiptoes to the kitchen. She takes the camera out of its case, pops in the wide-angle. The investigation had taken a little more than a month. When it was over, Anna arranged to have the young man’s possessions removed. She worked with the agent to clean the place. And, for an extra fee, the agency refurnished the apartment.
History seems like a big thing to those outside it. But it’s experienced in miniature: a boat’s humid hold, a creased passport
Mostly Ikea, Anna sees now. And the monotonous lines add to the sense of melancholy. The agent had taken some photos, but they made Anna wince. She begins to move through the apartment with her Nikon. The light is good. But when Anna checks the view screen, every photo she’s taken of the kitchen is framed by grotesque shadows. She extinguishes the silly sage candle and starts over. The small living room, the bathroom. She leaves the bedroom for last. They’d had to rip out the rug here and now Anna hesitates at the threshold. The new laminate is dark and shiny, unmarred. The double bed is made. Anna recognizes the bedspread from the catalog. Also the nightstands and the dresser. Over the bed hangs the apartment’s only piece of art, a map of the world. Anna has never got used to seeing North America in the center.
She takes a deep breath and steps into the room. He had slit his wrists. Just 21 years old and he had lain down one night as if to sleep, but instead he’d slit his wrists until all the blood drained from him. A friend had found him. Or a client – the police later told Anna that Yuliani had been working as a prostitute. Her immediate reaction was to protest as if it were her duty to preserve the honor of the dead, ‘He was a masseur!’ she’d cried. And the cops laughed, a laugh that in an instant burnt up the distance Anna Kralova had travelled.
Anna crouches for a shot of the closet. Walk-in closets, even small ones, are rare in buildings of this age. That will be a nice selling point, as the agent would say. Anna is closing the doors again, when she notices something – a shadow – on the top shelf. She stops. Not a shadow, she tells her wild heart. Not a shadow. Not a shadow. She shuts the closet door. Not a shadow, Anna. She opens it again. A dark box pushed back against a corner. She taps the light switch. A suitcase. Anna considers the situation. The suitcase might belong to one of the workers. Perhaps, Anna thinks, one of the workers stayed a few nights, unable to resist the temptation of a new home, new sheets, a different life.
Anna clings to this version as long as she can. But she is too long accustomed to seeing things clearly. No worker would have left a suitcase here. And still Anna does not move. She has shorn herself of her mother’s superstitions. But she does not want to touch the effects of the dead man. She turns to leave. Someone else will remove the suitcase. Anna closes the closet doors. She begins to walk away. She will send someone, maybe one of the same workers. If it was his suitcase, he will be glad for the opportunity to take it home. And if it belonged to the dead man, someone will throw it away. Anna pictures the suitcase lying in the dumpster outside. And what of the boy’s family? Wouldn’t Anna, living far from home and all alone, wish a stranger to gather the small evidence of her life? Isn’t that part of the respect we owe the dead?
Anna opens the closet again. The suitcase is a solid thing, a mute invitation. She stands on tiptoe and nudges it from side to side until a corner hangs over the edge. Anna grabs and yanks hard. But the suitcase is lighter than she expects and it flies across the room, landing with a crash on the new laminate before bursting open. Papers are still flying down when violent tapping echoes through the room. Anna’s heart seizes. Then the disembodied voice from below, ‘Knock it off!’
Jesus Mary and Joseph. Anna is afraid to move. Papers litter the room. Slowly, quietly, she begins to gather them. Receipts, letters, photographs. She sorts them in piles. Lodged into the corner of the suitcase, a brick of letters, tightly wound in rubber bands. Anna releases them and the letters fall open, hundreds, all written on airmail paper. She opens them one after the other. Long letters in a tiny script. Almost all of them begin with Gracias por el dinero, mi hijo. Anna’s Spanish is not perfect, but she can read most of it, at least take away the sense. Me alegro mucho. Que bonita suerte. Como te estraño. All the words that a mother would write. About happiness and longing and the good luck that her son was enjoying in that abundant land. How pleased she was that he was making a life for himself, however much it hurt her to be so far away.
Anna sits with the suitcase for a long time, much longer than she had expected, absorbed in the story she unfolds page by page. She finds other letters, from friends, perhaps. Birthday cards, most of them handcrafted. One card is made from pressed paper, a bird in flight with wings that open and close, like a fan. A pile of medical receipts. The results of an HIV test – negative. A Cuban passport, the photo in black and white of an impossibly young boy. Some two dozen photographs of young people, smiling at the shore, in the fields, on the great lawn of what seems a library or university.
How long ago it seems that Anna climbed these steps for the first time. How little she knew then. Spirits press down on her, and again and again she rejects them. Sends them packing, back to the pre-rational past. Not a haunting, but an echo. The boy’s life a gesture pointing back to her own. A dream of a thousand iterations. From nowhere, now, comes a fragment of Yeats, a ghostly melody.
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
✽ ✽ ✽
Maybe her father was right, maybe she should never have left. Now she is neither American nor Czech. Now she is some in-between thing, diminished.
‘I was in Prague after the split,’ the agent told her after they signed the rental lease with Yuliani. ‘I loved it.’
‘Yes,’ Anna said. ‘Americans love Prague.’
‘Because of Kafka, probably,’ said the agent.
Anna nodded. Of course, Kafka and the Charles Bridge. The extent of American knowledge of Prague. How could Anna explain that she didn’t even read Kafka until she moved to the US? Thanks to her eccentric education, she knew more about Shakespeare and Auden, could recite long passages from Yeats many years before she made the acquaintance of Gregor Samsa.
So much time gone by. Anna grasps at the blurred edges of her childhood, the past no longer the certain shelter she imagined for herself. Is it like this for everyone, or only for those who leave? The loss of her childhood language, the acquisition of a new one, has altered the topography of memory. Her poor, lonely mother tongue has run out of stories to tell. And the present is a tyrant who speaks English. I am old with wandering through hollow lands and hilly lands…
How long since her last trip home? Three years? Five. Yes, it’s been five years since she stood at the Palacky Bridge, tracing the Vltava’s black embroidery through the city, five years since she sat with her mother over a cup of tea and talked for hours about her old friends: who made it, who didn’t, who got out, who stayed behind.
When she was a girl, her parents visited her mother’s village in Slovakia every summer. Today the trip takes less than five hours. But in those days, it was almost a full day’s journey in their old Škoda, from eight in the morning to five in the evening. They usually stayed for two weeks, setting back early on the morning of departure. But one year, they didn’t leave the village until late afternoon. Night caught them on the road. And the last hours, they moved through the darkened countryside, the rocking and steady hum of the car lulling Anna in and out of sleep. As they approached Bratislava, a great glow came up behind the hills. It was as if the moon had fallen to earth.
Anna’s father must have seen her pressing her face to the glass.
‘That’s Vienna,’ he said.
‘The lights of the city,’ murmured her mother.
Vienna, city of great lights. And for the rest of Anna’s childhood, that’s what the unreachable West was, an other-worldly radiance set in the wilderness, a place where people refused to give in to the natural gloom.
And that memory loosens others. They come rushing back to Anna in her native tongue. A to je ta krásná země, země česká, domov můj. Her skinny schoolgirl years. A boy she loved. The first smell of summer. The lovely childhood lived in quiet obedience. And how the end of it – the protests, the thousands in the square – all tasted to her of love. That is what it was like to live inside great changes, to ache for a life viewed so long from a distance. That is what it had been like for Yuliani, more brother to Anna than either could have known.
She’s been in Miami for 17 years. Three years before that in Chicago. Two years in Los Angeles. Half her life in a foreign country. Though it doesn’t feel like a foreign country. The foreign country is here, Anna thinks. She is the foreign country. Fourteen years photographing strangers. How many people had she met? She’s lost track. She can’t remember all of them, though it occurs to her that each of them may remember her, lit up against the blazing tragedy that delivered her to their door.
Who will remember Yuliani Garcia? How did he get here? How long had he been dreaming of Miami? Anna knows almost nothing of his story. But she knows that he departed at dawn so his mother would not see his tears. Knows that the sadness of leaving was mixed with an electric anticipation that no one who has never left can understand. No, Anna does not believe in ghosts; we are our own ghosts, dragging our mournful pasts.
Anna repacks the suitcase, taking her time. She refolds the letters and secures them with the rubber band. She stacks the certificates, the birthday cards. She gathers the photographs into a pile, the strangers still laughing by the foreign sea, sweetly mocking Anna Kralova, a woman they don’t even know exists. After she folds the last page, Anna closes the suitcase and sits with her head in her hands.
History seems like a big thing to those outside it. But it’s experienced in miniature: a boat’s humid hold, a creased passport, a small suitcase full of papers that you drag from city to city. Nemoc na koni přijíždí a pěšky odchází. So much lost between languages, forgotten in transit. So many dreams in this town. Miscommunications and galloping misfortunes. It was her grandmother’s favorite phrase, uttered in every season: misfortune arrives on horseback and departs on foot. Her grandmother, who had survived three currencies and witnessed both the crushed Spring and the fall of the Wall. Now, she is buried in a city of Zara and Starbucks, a Prague she would scarcely recognize.
Anna will see about the papers. Maybe she will track down Yuliani’s mother. Someone must remain to collect the photographs. Someone will find meaning in these fragments of a life.
After a long while, Anna stands, legs shaking, and rolls the suitcase across the unforgiving threshold as softly as she can.
‘Ghosts’ comes from One World Two: a second global anthology of short stories. For more details see Windows on the world, our world fiction titles.