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“What’s up, love? Why so quiet?”
“I got to pee.”
G. chuckled and stroked her hand, resting for a moment on the gearshift, almost a spider gilded by the setting sun. They had lived through this same scene so many times and that was what made her love overflow into such a soft little laughter – the familiarity of it all, the disarming beauty of their daily life together, the way she could see F.’s concentration falter and her eyes get a little bit vacant just because she had to pee. It was like a secret only the two of them shared and G. had always had a thing for secrets.
“I knew it, I shouldn’t have had that cup of tea.”
“True, but we know very well we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that Yorkshire brew.”
“Our lord and saviour. Good thing I remembered to bring some.”
Only half an hour ago they were still lying on a bed in the middle of nowhere, that is, in the middle of the Basilicata countryside, close to nothing, not far from the sea. Too tired for very physical, sweat-producing lovemaking, they had done a couple of crossword puzzles, one of the many other ways in which they made love. Intimacy is a dazzling, protean thing, much more so than people usually allow it to be. What a pity, thought G., and her mind was full of their skin kissing and their handwritings chasing each other on the page.
They had been driving through the Calanchi all day. Those strange clay hills eroded by wind and the merciless breath of hidden gods formed an almost surreal landscape. Barren, lunar, out of this world, so said the guidebook. One could add unforgiving, painfully naked… Tedious.
“I’m so sick of the Calanchi.” F. glanced out of the window. They were still there, too low to loom, so sharp they seemed to wound the silent. “And why is it so dark already?”
“The summer is over.”
“For everyone but us, my love.” F. flashed a smile, her glimmering smile that made something inside of G. unravel, even after two years.
‘Calanchi. Paesaggio dell’Anima’, read a signpost they had passed that morning. Landscape of the Soul. But whose soul? G. really didn’t want to know. Not mine, she thought – and hoped. But then again, she didn’t like the idea of being stuck in another’s soul either. Let alone one so deeply carved and bony.
“I think we’re almost there.”
They had left the main road – if you could call it that – and were climbing up the slope, the car snaking its way through sparse, scrawny bushes and the ever-present starkness of the Calanchi. And then, coming out of a curve, they finally saw it.
“There it is!”
It was beautiful, desolately, eerily beautiful, even better than G. had anticipated.
From the top of the hill Craco was staring down at them with countless hollow eyes. The dying light caressed its old buildings, while dusk was starting to enshroud them in lengthening shadows. Everything seemed plunged into an embalmed silence.
“Are you sure we can have an aperitif here? This place seems pretty much abandoned.”
“It is abandoned, but not entirely. People had to leave because of landslides and earthquakes. I guess they moved to another safer part of town which we can’t see from here.”
“They do call it a ghost town, though.”
“Yeah, but not literally.”
The closer they got, the more Craco looked like an emptied shell, an exoskeleton with too many orifices. The creature within had simply trickled away who knows how long ago.
Meanwhile, the sun was sinking through the glowing sky, vertiginously. It too must have been sick of the Calanchi.
And then they had to stop the car. They had arrived. Or so it seemed.
There was no one, no people, no cars, no little sounds of life. Only growing darkness and their dismayed eyes.
“Darling, I’m afraid our aperitif will have to wait.”
F. gazed at Craco defiantly but gave in immediately. “I can’t believe it! I was so sure. Someone even told me they had dinner here.”
Her voice was teetering on the brink between liberating laughter and tears of frustration. G. pulled it into laughter. “Aperitif with ghosts in an authentic ghost town. Now that sounds like an exclusive experience.” She jumped out of the car. “It’s adventure time!”
F. chortled and followed her. She knew G. was the least adventurous person on earth.
“Well, since we’re here, we might as well have a look around. Maybe some refined ghost has a good bottle of wine and some taralli.”
“And beer please, Your Ghostness, if I may be so bold.”
They approached the outer wall, which was quite low and partly ruined. Rather than guarding the town, it seemed to fill a little height difference between the outside and the inside. Cracks meandered through the reddish bricks and a burning line drew the shapes of the houses above, but not for much longer. F. stopped in front of some stone steps that led up the wall.
“Isn’t it odd?” G. asked. “Shouldn’t there be some sort of barriers to stop people from climbing?”
“I suppose so, but there aren’t any. Not down here and not even up there, from what I can see.”
F. shrugged and placed her foot on the first step.
“Wait! I don’t think we can go inside.”
“But there are no barriers, I told you.”
“It just doesn’t seem safe. You said yourself that the town was abandoned because of earthquakes and landslides.”
“Yes, but if it were dangerous, they would do something to keep people out, wouldn’t they?”
G. pondered for a while, but was still hesitant. What F. was saying made sense, and yet the whole thing seemed pretty absurd. How could they leave the place like this? So open, so vulnerable, so easily invaded.
“Now, is it adventure time or not?” F. held out her hand.
G. took it. “I guess it is.”
They walked up the dozen steps side by side and once at the top they found themselves among debris. It half suffocated some of the buildings on their left, but on their right the ground seemed to become more even and the houses to breathe more freely, their bottomless eyes perfectly empty. They headed that way and after a little while they began to see glimpses of a cobbled street beneath the rubble and the hungry tufts of grass. They followed it, their expanding shadows holding hands behind them.
Before they realised it, they were inside the town, walking on a clean echoing pavement, surrounded by fragile homes and churches, the Calanchi finally out of sight. Everything there had the same colour, a dying orange turning to dust, which reflected on their own skin and on the whites of F.’s eyes. And then a thought came to G.: she should have been colder. They were on a hilltop, at the end of summer and of the day, yet she did not feel the cold. The air was wondrously still, so still and wondrous that she sped up her pace, almost dragging F.
“What’s…” she was protesting when she heard it. A tinkling, a fizz, a laughter.
They stared into each other’s eyes. It was near, too near.
“Maybe I was right”, F. said, but her pupils were dilating. “Maybe there is someone.”
The street was empty. Nobody was to be seen anywhere and the buildings mocked them with gaping openings that could hide nothing. Yet they heard those sounds, so close, so impossibly close.
They stopped looking and listened.
“It sounds like people drinking.”
G. knew they should be going, she wanted to, but there was something improbably exhilarating in those glassy, watery sounds. F. must have sensed it too, for she did not move.
She could still feel F.’s hand holding hers, softly, eyes closed not to be deceived. “It seems to come from there.”
They knew where to look now and saw the entrance to a narrow alley, squashed between two hollow buildings and concealed by dusk. As they approached the black threshold, the tinkling and fizzing became more sparkly. They peeked inside, taking care to keep out of sight.
In the darkening alley someone was having an aperitif.
They were seated at too small a table, which shook on the uneven cobbles every time one of them moved. Their voices intertwined indistinguishably, broken at times by thrilling laughter, while glasses were incessantly filled and clinking, unseen bells at nightfall. The table was covered with little plates of half-eaten food, shining bottles, flickering candles, and they were passing around a basket full of…
“Taralli?” In F.’s voice were bewilderment and delight.
The ghosts were people in a dream.
Or so they seemed to G. She had never been able to make out faces while dreaming. She saw people, vivid fleshy people, and sometimes she even knew who they were, she knew it with the immediate confidence of sight, yet their faces remained just out of her grasp. The odd thing was that she didn’t sense anything amiss until she woke up. Only then did those blurred faces acquire an unnerving quality. To look and not to see… it brings with it a unique sense of frustration and creeping helplessness.
The ghosts in the alley were just like that: vibrant bodies with ungraspable faces. She looked and did not see, but it was as in a dream, as if she were not meant to see anything more, as if that were the natural state of things. And yet she was not dreaming.
“Sit down, sit down, sit down!”
They hadn’t realised the ghosts were aware of their presence, but they were among them now and the ghosts were making such a welcoming fuss, gesturing them toward a vacant chair. Their meeting glasses and overlapping voices sounded even more cheerful inside the alley. They had a new echoless transparency that rang deep in their ears. G. sat down and put her arms around F. who sat on her lap. She rested her head against F.’s back and felt her spine pressing tenderly against her cheek, each pearl so strange and familiar.
The basket reached them and F. immediately grabbed a tarallo.
“Don’t eat the food of the dead”, G. cried out, but she was giggling. It was as if something warm inside her was being unleashed.
“This is not, not, not the food of the dead”, the ghosts replied in chorus.
“This is not death?”
“No, no, no. It’s the other place.”
G. knew it was not death and she was laughing partly because of that. She had known for a while the unspoken reason why people are afraid of the ghosts of the dead, the secret of fear nurtured by guilt, covered with guilt. Because the horror of the living before the return of their dearly departed has its root in their inability to really want it, to want what they should want most. Hence the guilt, and the dizzying fear that the dead can see right through you and see that you don’t want them back. After her father died, G. sometimes had dreams about him. She dreamed that he was back in their house and nothing really happened, except that she knew he shouldn’t have been there because he was dead. This was enough to turn the dream into a sort of nightmare. She wasn’t happy with his return and couldn’t be, for she was overwhelmed by the feeling that something was horribly wrong, that there was a ghastly tear in the fabric of reality.
But here, in the darkened candlelit alley, there was no room for horror or guilt, only for subdued elation and the rich, crumbly taste of taralli on their tongues.
“So good”, G. whispered in F.’s ear. She squeezed her hand nodding, her mouth too full to speak.
Two glasses were handed to them, their contents straw-yellow and golden: wine for F., beer for G. They took a sip of the drinks, which were fresh and light, and so kept sipping, slowly, easily. The glasses were cold in their hands and the light danced on their shiny rims.
The ghosts were talking all at once, something G. would have normally hated but now somehow found comforting. The tangle of their voices enveloped her and through it a lambent feeling was seeping in. She wondered if that was the sense of belonging she had so often envied in F. How she cherished the place she came from and the people. How she was one of them. Her kinship with the land, that ancient stretch of coast in the shadow of a sleeping volcano. Her visceral love G. knew nothing of.
But there amid the ghosts, her head still resting on F.’s back, she was perhaps experiencing something close to the quiet glow of belonging. She half-closed her eyes. While listening with one ear to the ghostly chatter, with the other she could hear F.’s heartbeat.
The basket had already gone around the table and returned to them. F. took a tarallo, handed half to G. and ate the rest.
The more G. listened, the more distinct the ghosts’ voices became, and the more unfathomable the beatings of F.’s heart sounded. Lulled by the stillness of the air and the blossoming warmth within her, she felt her head swimming, gently, as if in the ebb and flow of an impalpable tide. Before she realised it, she found herself clinging to a single voice. It was that of the ghost beside her and was speaking to her. Speaking with her, for G. was responding but wouldn’t have been able to repeat the words that fell from her lips. The ghost was close and still she couldn’t grasp their face. It didn’t matter, though, because she knew the ghost saw her. Their words pierced right through her and reached a soft spot deep inside her, there at the heart of her unutterable desire for perfect communion.
Talking with the ghost came easy, and as they talked, recognition thrilled through her being. A long-dreamed space of transparency and untroubled correspondence opened up between them. She felt soothed. She looked around, looked at all those blurry faces, and again experienced that mellow feeling that might have been belonging.
She was gazing at the other side of the table when she caught sight of F.
Her otherness was more startling than that of the ghosts.
She was conversing with them, her hands fluttering in the still air, her face lit by the dancing candles. G. could see it perfectly well, every line, every moving shadow. And yet she couldn’t say what lay behind. What thoughts, what flashes of feeling. The old fear came upon her, the fear without words that gripped her every time she glimpsed something in F. that she couldn’t recognise. If their eyes met now, what would she see? What would F. see? Would she see her, acknowledge the things of darkness and light that coiled around her deepest heart?
G. had no recollection of F. getting up from her lap and moving around the table, yet there she was in front of her, chatting and gesticulating among the ghosts.
But she was among the ghosts, too, and the one beside her was still talking. It was getting even easier to just let their words in and reciprocate them, for they spoke of things that were so very close. Still, her attention flickered.
She kept glancing at F. across the table. So fair and so vividly, inescapably other. Her hair blazed in the night, her hands touched everything and her eyes were bright. What was at the bottom of them, what was at the bottom of her…
It was scary to love across such gulfs of distance.
What if she could let go of fear…
Did she think it? Or did the ghost say it? They were stroking the back of her hand, softly, so inexpressibly softly that it made her want to cry. All of a sudden she was feeling small, a fragile thing to be delivered into the caring hands of ghosts. Their fingers were tender, and light, and intimate. She wanted to curl up in their tenderness and be as light. She wanted to stop wondering how to distinguish the pangs of love from the pangs of fear.
The ghost next to her kept talking and petting her.
There was such a comfort in their faceless closeness that G. started to realise letting go might be easier than she expected. As easy as being there among the ghosts.
As easy as staying there among the ghosts.
In that dark secluded alley where candles danced and glasses tinkled, in that skeleton town where the night was still and the windows endlessly empty, she had found a place of warmth and pure transparency. There she could belong, safely wrapped up in depthless shadows.
She wanted to tell F., tell her the secret of this warm, transparent place. But when she looked across the table, she was gone.
Her stomach jumped. Then she saw her. She was walking away towards the entrance of the alleyway, a ghost walking beside her.
G. got up, but the caressing hand was now grabbing her.
The ghost spoke in a squeaky voice.
“Please, please, please.”
She tried to tear herself free with no success, while F. was moving further and further away. The fingers of the ghost were still soft, and yet there was a new sharpness about them. A sharpness that was reminiscent of sorrow and made G. hesitate for a moment.
“I’ve been with you so often, so so often.”
She looked at their elusive, pleading face with volatile eyes that didn’t want to lose sight of F. Outside their circle of flickering lights, she and the other ghost were shrinking silhouettes on the edge of blackness.
“But you never saw me.”
The ghostly grasp became painfully fond and tight.
“I was right there, but you never, never, never saw me.”
And then G. stopped resisting. Something within her snapped. She let herself be touched by the ghost, deeply, and felt that what they said was true. She thought of all the times when dreaming of sameness had been safer than reaching out to otherness, when the gulfs of love had been scary and made her feel small, when she had suffered and had no name for her sorrow.
She looked around at the ghosts – their cheerful chatter, their hidden sadness – and knew them all. The ghosts we make. The ghosts we feed. The ghosts we welcome between us and others when we love and are afraid. The ghosts we never want to see.
Gently, G. untangled herself from their grip, but when she looked up, there was no trace of F.
“Stay,” the ghost entreated her, their hand resting on hers, now loosely.
Their touch was sweet, but there was a sweeter pang in her heart and she couldn’t tell what it was. It resembled love, it resembled fear. She only knew that right now she ached for F., wherever she was, however far from this warm, reassuring place. She just wanted to be with her, look into her eyes and be startled.
“I must go”, she said. “But you can come with me if you want.”
They nodded, tentatively, and when she walked away, they followed.
The night was dark and their steps were light.
Side by side, G. and the ghost advanced among the ruins under the eyes of forlorn buildings and cold, shimmering stars. All around there was no one but the two of them, and G. was feeling a wave of unease descend upon her, slowly but unrelentingly. Where had F. gone? Where could she possibly be?
They had to keep going, get out of this town. But to do that, she had to be careful not to get overwhelmed by the quiet panic in her body. She listened to the little sounds they made against the cobbles, the faint disharmony of their paces, and once again looked at the ghost beside her. She looked at them closely, but their face still remained just out of her grasp.
She knew now that what she had once read was probably true, that our ghosts only want to be seen. So they couldn’t be that different from us, after all. Not that different from her. And perhaps one day she would do it. She would look at her ghosts and dare to see them. But for now they were walking together, side by side, towards F., and that was okay.
For maybe being in love also always means being with ghosts.
“What took you so long?”
They had reached the end of the town and F. was standing at the top of the stone steps.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
She smiled, her glimmering smile, and something inside of G. unravelled.
“Let’s go.” F. held out her hand. “I have to pee so badly I think I’m transcending.”
G. laughed, pulled her closer and kissed her across gulfs of distance.
She could feel the ghosts around them, their haze of tenderness and fear.
She took F.’s hand and they left Craco.
About the author:
Born and raised somewhere in northern Italy, Greta Colombani is currently a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Cambridge, where she is researching representations of communication with the Other World in Romantic poetry. She is the author of the scholarly monograph A Gordian Shape of Dazzling Hue: Serpent Symbolism in Keats’s Poetry. She loves weird creatures, when the days get darker, and being emotionally devastated by fictional characters. | Twitter
About Greta Colombani
Born and raised somewhere in northern Italy, Greta Colombani is currently a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Cambridge, where she is researching representations of communication with the Other World in Romantic poetry. She is the author of the scholarly monograph "A Gordian Shape of Dazzling Hue: Serpent Symbolism in Keats’s Poetry". She loves weird creatures, when the days get darker, and being emotionally devastated by fictional characters.