At the edge of the forest, at the bottom of the world, lives a man with a false name, false papers, an altered face and eyes that cannot help but search from side to side. He lives in a tight, neat European house with lawns wrestled into submission, an aerial postage stamp view encroached on two sides by what he thinks of as the steaming, dangerous excess of a tropical jungle. Of course it is not a jungle at all; it is too dry and not nearly hot enough. But he calls it the jungle.
He would say he lives alone, but that is not quite true. He thinks he is alone. He thinks he has fallen off the edge of the world, that his loneliness is terrible and final. But he is not alone. Living with the man, tending to the man and his house and his improbable lawn, are the servant woman Alegría and her husband Tomás and their several children. He is not unkind to them, nor particularly kind, although he sometimes gives the children coins and once, when Tomás slashed his arm with a machete, he stitched the wound with a quick and calming sureness that surprised them all. These distractions are rare. More often days pass without his really being aware of other people in the house. Their noisy kitchen life does not impinge upon his own.
Each year Indians come from the forest to harvest the maté leaves at the edge of the man’s property. They brew a drink from the leaves and sing long into the night. He sees their fires from his window at night like misplaced stars. But he does not speak to the Indians. He does not drink maté. He drinks tea.
He was drinking tea when he saw the ghost for the first time. She came stepping out of the forest in an embroidered skirt and vest, red ribbons in her hair, dark hair, and eyes just as dark. An inferior racial type, he thought, possibly a gypsy or worse, and yet he could not take his eyes away. Not knowing if she was real, and watching as she pushed her way through vines, thorns... surely she would cut her hands, the soft skin of her cheeks, but there was no blood. Barefoot, bracelets flashing on wrists and ankles, she came to perhaps ten feet from where he sat at his white wrought-iron chair and table, under his shade tree. She stood before him, not speaking. And then she began to dance.
The ghost comes to him each afternoon at three, more steadfast than the most faithful lover. He never speaks to her. He does not know her name or remember her face. He does not know why she was chosen or what she might require of him. He only knows that she comes to him each day, and that each day his mind seems less his own.
Her patience cannot be exhausted. His torment can never end. Nor her sorrow at his torment.
For I am the ghost that haunts him, the red skirt of a memory he can never dance away.
I dance for him every afternoon in the shade of the forest. Because I danced for him once.
Because I told him I was a dancer and he said Yes, dancer, that is another word for whore, isn’t it? And I said again I was a dancer and he said Very well, then, I shall see you dance.
I danced and he would not let me stop; I spun until my feet ached. The others, the soldiers, shouted words at me: Slut, gypsy bitch! Dance, he said, and I danced until I fell. The man looked at me. Up, you cow, he said, and shot me in the leg. And when I got up he shot me in the other leg. Does anyone want a whore with two bad legs, he said, and they laughed.
I looked at the man who could save me. The one who could make it end. He stood for another minute, all of us waiting. Then he told them, See that this trash is burned by morning, and he left.
I remember this as a story that might have happened to someone else, though I know it happened to me. It was in a place far from this forest, far in more than miles. We were caught trying to cross the border. They said we had stolen some horses but it wasn’t true. Even that man didn’t believe it was true; it was just a thing to say, the thing they always said about us. The old ones, the grandparents, were killed right away. My parents sent to a place from which no one returned. I remember thinking I might be able to save my brothers.
But of course no one could save anyone then.
I remember his look, that assessing eye. A calculation of practicalities, utterly without mercy. Yet also without hate. A kind of tired withdrawal, contempt. A dead man’s eyes.
I see his eyes watching me now. Watching me dance.
He thinks he has found a way to live in the world. He thinks he has found a haven, a square of earth he can control. He holds up his hand and says stop, here, and the forest stops. The huge tree roots mutter and fold their knees resentfully.
His dreams are not of the past. He dreams of earthquakes, floods, of being forced into the public eye by some natural disaster. Of being recognised. He is tired, all the time. He fears energy, activity, the need for pretense. His life is a reptile life. A folded newspaper beside his plate in the morning. A steaming cup of dark, sweet coffee and a bun. "Gracias, Alegría."
He still believes that the evil in him was something separate. That it could be burned away, that it has been. That through ritual, politeness, the million civilised graces of a day, he could be a man again. He thinks he can forget and be allowed to forget, as if forgetting is only a negative quality, the lack of remembrance, when it is in fact an act of will as definite and determined as murder. And this is why the ghost comes to him: not hatred, not revenge. It is simply that he must be broken. Broken like a bone, like a haphazard fracture that must be snapped in two cleanly to heal.
He begins to use drugs to block the ghost from his mind. Measured doses, carefully injected, gradually increased. He is, after all, a doctor. The drugs never work. When she comes to him he is always awake, always watching. He sees her lips move, imagines she is singing. He feels that if he once hears her sing his mind will be lost.
A day comes when he leaves his house, seeks distraction in the nearest small town, a town at the edge of the world. No one will know him, he thinks. The ghost will not follow.
He is sitting at the one bar of the town, an afternoon bar that is almost empty. Only a spider spinning its web, and a small brown dog that has come to lie on the floor to escape the heat, and an Englishman reading the newspaper. He sits not too near the Englishman but the man notices him, buys him a drink, begins to talk of music.
The Englishman has a grizzled, fox-colored beard. A scar runs into his collar, white where the rest of his face is pink, and he is talking about Wagner. Strange references begin to slip into his speech, remarks the doctor ignores at first, never sure he has heard them, imagining he has misunderstood.
"I am a Swiss national... retired manufacturer from Basel..."
"Ah," says the Englishman. "Those industrious Swiss. Best banks in the world... bars of gold. Gold bullion. Gold fillings" or would that be filings? They speak German there, I believe."
"German, yes," the doctor says. "And also French."
But the Englishman speaks to him in badly accented German, Kaiser Wilhelm and Von Richtofren and Deutsche marks, or Deutsche Marx... the allusions grow broader, more audacious, goose-steps and showers and ovens, all in an amused bantering voice.
And then, as always, it is three o’clock and his ghost is there, dancing for him as she dances at the edge of the forest, and he stares, not believing. The dog watches too, and the Englishman... can the Englishman see the ghost? Or does he see the doctor seeing her?
"Haunted by ill angels only..." The Englishman sips at his drink. "On the whole I should think it worse to be pursued by an angel than by a demon."
"I will not be insulted!" The doctor throws money on the bar and leaves. A curse in a language he has tried not to use forms on his lips.
The Englishman is drunk.
Perhaps a week later Alegría announces some visitors. Callers from the American consulate in a city to the north of here. Several Americans, also one Englishman, and a thin balding man who walks with a cane and speaks in a different accent, one Alegría does not know. The doctor questions her about this man but she remembers only his eyes, small behind thick black-framed glasses, peering with the intense frown of a near-sighted man who is looking for something. He orders her to tell the visitors he is ill, an attack of migraine so brutal that only darkness, quiet, complete rest can be tolerated. The men go away.
He knows they will be back.
On the next afternoon the ghost dances before him. He has written several letters, sealed them, given them to Tomás to post. He is writing another letter, one he will not seal. He has tried not to look at the woman but as always his head lifts, his eyes turn as they always do to her, and he cries out in his own language. "You have not defeated me!" His words are heavy in that shaded air. "My mind is not changed!"
He hears her singing now, a song he does not know yet seems to remember. He takes a step toward her, presses his hand to his forehead, falls to the ground. He sees the trees of the forest, of the jungle, and they seem to open for him, to show him a way inside...
I watch him walk away. I do not follow him. I feel myself growing lighter, as if air alone could carry me. And still I wait.
I would save him if I could.
I want him to remember everything...
A startled whicker of wings. Birds wheel above the tallest treetops, as if disturbed by some sharp and loud and sudden noise. Deep in the forest, where no one can hear.
Kathryn Kulpa received the 2000 Florida Review Editor’s Award in Fiction and was one of the winners of the 2000 Bridport Prize in England. Her short fiction has appeared in Madison Review, Larcom Review, Indigenous Fiction, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. She lives in Middletown, Rhode Island.
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