Ghost Village

I grew up in the shadow of the Ghost Village. We lived in the small town on the plain, its fringes scraping those of the hillside houses that had been deserted long before I was born. The other people had lived there in the days when they shared parts of our country, before a war and a treaty based on bad instincts sent them back to the country of their earlier generations. Some of our people lived in their country and had to give up their homes as part of the agreement. At first they repopulated the village, moving into houses that still had roofs and white walls in well tendered streets with terraces, fresh water and a sense of life. But they disliked it, claimed the other people had scattered poison and left curses in the air, and within a few years moved out to find homes in the new town and beyond. The village stood empty, with broken doors and crumbling roofs, weeds among the cobbles, clogged gutters and the stench of animals that left their mess in its buildings. Everybody in our town said it was a place to avoid after dark.

But during the day children often wandered into its narrow streets. Sometimes they explored nervously, scaring each other with imagined horrors of what had happened in the darker and more decrepit houses. Sometimes they ran into reckless games, chasing each other and fighting make believe battles on steps and in courtyards. Some parents forbad it, while others allowed their children to go but warned them to remain in groups, never allow one to fall out of sight. It was a warning that most of us ignored, knowing those minutes of fear were a great way of torturing the younger and more nervous playmates. Which was what I did with my younger brother, sometimes running away or dipping into a doorway where I could let out comical screams of pretend torture. After a couple of minutes I would allow him to find me, he would whinge, I would call him names and within another minute we would be laughing. He never complained to our parents.

Then came the day, when we were out with two other boys, that he ran away from me. The surprise enabled him to get two or three turns ahead, and for a minute or so I heard him taunting with calls of my name. Then it faded, we kept chasing, but soon didn’t know where we should go. I called his name and got no reply. We slowed down, began to look into houses and gaps that we usually ignored. We called his name louder, climbed up the rough path to the highest houses and the rock above the village and kept calling with panic in our voices. We looked for almost two hours until the light began to fade, hesitated in not wanting to return without him, then went down to our homes trying to stifle the tears. I begged my friends to stay with me so they could confirm that my brother had run from us. They agreed, stuttered fearfully and waited for my mother’s rebuke. I remember that her voice remained soft but her eyes were suddenly alight with fear, that she asked where and what direction he had run, then hurried to find my father. Within twenty minutes there were a dozen men heading into the Ghost Village, carrying lamps and calling my brother’s name. They never found him.

I never went back to the village in the two years we remained in the town – few of the children did – then we moved away and tried but never succeeded in getting over the devastation. When I was older I returned a couple of times to visit a friend, but always stayed in the town, fearful of how the deserted streets might throw me back to the feeling of muddled guilt. It was only on the third occasion, a year after my mother had died and I had entered my thirties, that I felt an urge to climb the hill. My friend – not one of those with me when we lost my brother – offered to come along but I felt I should do it alone. So I walked beyond the modern houses, across the road and into the sloping streets. It was quiet, with just a handful of tourists, none of the local children and little sound apart from distant traffic. I was free to wonder slowly, through alleys I could barely remember, looking into the grubby shells of houses, up steps that threatened to crumble and looking back towards the town as I climbed. I tried to find the precise spot where my brother had run from us but realised that I couldn’t place it, that my memory had lost its bearings. I began to feel a mild despair, as if I was letting my brother down once again. I walked blindly, recognising a large courtyard, some winding steps, a point where a path split, but failing to remember how they related to the spot. It led me up the hill to a point where I could see most of the village, felt the beginning of tears and sat on a mound, closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying not to feel pathetic. I recovered my composure, heard a noise from below and looked down. At first I saw nothing, but then noticed that off to the left a young boy was on the path, half hidden by the corner of a house and looking up at me as if cautious of going further. He looked about nine years old with dark hair and short trousers, a slight figure that quickly dipped out of sight but left me with a sudden sense of recognition. Had it been my brother? I stood up and quickly descended, aware of footsteps moving away from me, catching glimpses as the boy skipped downwards twisting in and out of my sight. I slipped on some pebbles and slid down a steep stretch of path, cursed and looked up to see the boy had stopped to look back. Again I thought of my brother, got to my feet and followed, again prompting the boy to run and dip out of sight. I got down to a point where the path turned into a cobbled street and saw him again, this time with a man and woman and two older girls. He said something, they all looked towards me and I took a few steps forward. Now I could see his face clearly, realised that there was a mild resemblance to my brother, but he could never be mistaken as the same boy. The family stared. I responded with an awkward smile, a nod and said I had made a mistake. There was no obvious route to move away without doubling back, so I kept going, moving to their side with a hurried step. As I passed the mother turned and held me in her stare, eyes filled with confusion and, if I saw correctly, excitement. Once I turned out of their sight I quickened my step to escape the village.

That evening I travelled with my friend to the next town, so we could eat at his cousin’s restaurant. I had felt uneasy from the incident, told him what had happened then but, helped by the wine and good food, gradually relaxed into enjoying our conversation. I paid little attention to the other diners, glad it was not too busy and there was no need to compete with loud chatter. It was only when we had finished our food and were drinking tea that I noticed some movement among a group in the far corner, heard nervous voices and looked around to see a child standing beside the table. It was the boy from the Ghost Village. He stared at me for a moment, turned back towards his father, and I noticed that once again the mother was looking at me with an expression of awe. I felt uncomfortable, told my friend who they were and realised that I had to speak with them. He waited as I moved across the room, noting the hint of tension in their faces, and introduced myself with an apology.

“Sorry, I may have caused you some distress earlier today.”

The father and the two girls immediately relaxed, saying there was no cause for concern, but I said I feared I had scared the boy and triggered some anxiety in his mother. Then I briefly explained about the boy’s passing resemblance to my lost brother, and the fact that it seemed stronger when I was feeling painful emotions.

“I caught a glance of him at a distance,” I said. “It prompted a strange feeling, one that made me want to see his face more closely. I realised when I came across all of you that I had made a stupid mistake.”

The father smiled and assured me there was no offence, and the boy’s expression became more trusting. But the mother seemed to have a tear in my eye. I apologised to her again, saying I was sorry if I had frightened anybody. She shook her head.

“It wasn’t that. I thought I saw someone I knew as well.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Your face. You look so much like my uncle, when I was a girl. He and my mother were very close, and he was always nice to me; I loved being with him. Then he disappeared. He used to like walking in the mountains. One day he set off alone and he was never seen again. Nobody knows what happened.”

“And you thought that I ….?”

There was a moment of silence, a tear ran down her cheek, then she nodded and smiled.

“For some time, when you appeared in the village, and even as you walked past us I was shocked by the resemblance. Now you’re here in front of me I can see the differences – my uncle had thick eyebrows and a small scar on his cheek – but through the afternoon I felt you were an apparition, that I had briefly seen him again.”

Then she laughed.

“This is silly. I’ve made a fool of myself.”

Her husband moved his hand across the table to touch hers and one of the girls placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Not at all I said. I think we’ve both been looking for someone we may never find and begun to see them in strangers.”

They invited me and my friend to join them, and we spent half an hour in friendly conversation. They were interested to know more about my brother and sympathetic when I told them the story. They came from another part of the country, had visited relatives close by and only knew vaguely of the Ghost Village before that day. The mother told me about her uncle and said, despite the shock of our first meeting, that she was glad that we had been able to speak with each other. They were due to move on the following day, and we parted on warm terms, although knowing we were unlikely to meet again.

The following day I went back to the Ghost Village, not expecting any revelation but feeling I should finish something that had been interrupted. This time I drifted in at a slow pace, took time to stare towards the top of the hill, lingered by courtyards and stood back from houses, just absorbing the fact that they had once been homes. I didn’t try to find the point where I had lost my brother, but began to recall spots where we had played and joked together, one where he had jumped out of a doorway onto me, another where I had allowed him to beat me in a wrestle. It became a leisurely exercise in happy memories. Then I slowly crossed the village along one path and back along another, climbed the hill to the western side, walked the highest trail and went back down to the east. I paused several times, admired the view and bathed in the sense that a gentle breath of earlier lives still floated in the spaces. And I began to feel that my brother was part of it. It must have been two hours when I made a final ascent, sat on rocks at the top of the hill and allowed my eyes to drift. He was still there. I would never find him, but I could feel his life as part of the village, preserved in memories of our happy times together. It gave me a feeling of peace.

After a while I made my way back down, glad that I had returned, knowing it was enough for this visit, but that I would go back again. For years I had stayed away from my childhood home, but now I knew my brother was there, as part of the village, among the ghosts.

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