SHORT STORY

Ghost

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HIS face was a province of the past, along with the many variations of that single, luminous thing (she remembers, with the intensity of a nearly-consummated kiss, the entire gamut of emotions lingering like the anatomy of dry leaves), but when he visited her last night, whispering her name with measured tenderness, the whole village a slithering sibilant of sleep, his face has already morphed into the shape of horrible things. Who are you?—was her offhand remark, a stupid one, for his voice already anticipated the question, in the same way that someone announcing “It’s me” behind the door has already given away one’s identity. Shock and incomprehension quickly transformed into an urgent desire to touch, as if to make up for the months lost, lost with finality, until now, when he miraculously appeared, armed with a message, his presence filling the confines of the mosquito net, bigger than life, stroking softly the protuberance at the center of her being—nascent life, quickening in response. “Will you come back?” she asked at dawn before the crowing of roosters, looking at his dreadful face, hesitating to touch it, fearing the answer she already knew, and then holding in her mind as long as she can the image of that lopsided smile bidding good-bye before it can be drowned by the exigencies of every day care. Of course, he will return.
When the old man, the owner of the hut, looked at her questioningly that morning with eyes slowly being turned into marble by cataracts, the stare no less piercing despite the infirmity, she said nothing and let the silence settle. But nothing escapes him; she knows that, his perceptiveness honed by decades and decades of consorting with hidden things in a hidden world, where life and death advance and retreat in a volatile tango. Outside, in the backyard, while she was feeding the pigs, he whispered to her (for a moment she feared he would ask her about last night’s visit), “Security might be compromised,” and she understood: for a while now they have been keeping watch on their neighbor, a couple in their mid-forties, who, after a week’s stay in the city have been speaking in low voices but were obviously on the lookout for patterns of movement; she must be gone immediately, she had to move out. There wouldn’t be enough time to wrap up things, just enough perhaps to deliver a few essential messages, afterwards she and her buddy must relocate in a day or two. “I’ll help you pack up,” the old man said and she muttered her thanks but then he added, “Something’s troubling you,” to which she replied nothing, for in their world silence is a thickness that emanates meaning.

* * *

What she remembers: sudden terror encroaching on purest joy. “We’re married twice, like many of us here, you know, first by a judge, second by the people, but not everyone experiences anything like what happened to our reception, in a barrio fiesta, just imagine our sponsors coming from various points, it’s just the perfect cover, but then to our astonishment the enemies were there, no, there’s no way they could’ve found out about us, definitely not, they were just there to eat, but for us there’s no taking chances. So what we did was beat a hasty retreat, but not before eating our fill, so as not raise suspicion.” They were on the way to the nearest town, she and her buddy on board a cart, sluggishly making their way to a rendezvous to deliver a note. She was not given to sharing personal stories, so what she was telling her right now was already profuse; after seeing him last night, everything seems to beg release, as if words will become flesh with every telling. “Right after the wedding ceremony, during our honeymoon, or what passes for it, we were in a shack, really, mosquitoes hovering around us, I even used to joke that I had more physical contact with insects than with my husband (laughs), and it was then that he told me, because in what we do this is a daily fare, ‘We should not look to each other’s safety during a surprise attack, it will just slow us down, there’s no opportunity to think, just save yourself, do not go back for me.’ You are not my husband, but if that happens to us, do not go back for me.”

* * *


He visited her again, that night, while she was sleeping, dead tired from the day’s sojourn. Instead of whispering her name like he did the other night he caressed her hands and kissed her neck, repeatedly, it was less a request for permission for corporeal exploration than the middle stage of long-drawn farewell, because, who knows when will be the last time. Hours before, fresh from the road back home she half-expected him to be there, waiting for her, slumped on a chair, smoking or drinking coffee, whatever remains of his face smiling at her, his skin bruised, hair matted with blood, jaw dislocated. When he first came the other night, when the wan moonlight touched his face and bounced back to penetrate the inner workings of her eyes, she blurted out, “What have they done to you?” although, of course, she had seen the same horror when they claimed his body, finally after protracted negotiations, since the enemy’s logic operates in this way: desecration even after death. To her question he merely answered something he has said during their university years, although now in a different context, where danger is most real and palpable, “For us who live horrible lives, there can only be horrible deaths.” That night, his second visit, was devoted to various recollections and a certain longing for a future that is already irretrievable.

* * *

Even prior to their taking to the mountains, they have already decided to postpone having a child, their reason being that they wanted to spend a significant period of time serving the struggle before they’re restrained by domestic concerns. The moment they deemed the time ripe for the establishment of a revolutionary family, their first attempt failed, as well as the second, as well as many others. Then they found themselves separated—he was assigned to lead one of the biggest tactical offensives in the region in recent years—but they thought the distance would help, one way or another, to bring into focus whatever it is that life has in store for them. He was more than two months gone when it was confirmed that she was with a child, a courier was immediately dispatched to bring the good news to the father-to-be, but it turned out that he would never see his child, a crucial communication was intercepted and has led the enemy to their camps deep in the heart of the forest, he would have been able to save himself, but instead he came back for one of the fighters who was shot in the leg, and when the accounting was finished the verdict was that their unit sustained a heavy loss on lives. He was killed in the line of fire.

* * *

They came for her, a few hours before dawn, before the first of the villagers woke up to do their early morning chores. They barged into the hut, stealthily, upsetting nothing, consumed by a singular purpose, and within half an hour they left, the old man bleeding to death on the floor, the hut crackling under the tight embrace of fire. She was taken to their headquarters and for days was interrogated, tortured, interrogated, and tortured again, never an end to her suffering, not before, not now, not even after. All this time she was waiting for him to return, he who prophesied her death, to have his staying presence there in the cramped cell, not expecting to be rescued because nonetheless she would not give in, never—because that was her only freedom.

He did return for the last time, and the only thing she asked was for him to sing to her the song of the struggle they have always sung together, a song that has passed the lips of thousands before them, and undoubtedly will be sung even after victory is attained, and when the song has expended itself and an interminable silence settled in its stead she told him, as if it wasn’t obvious just by looking at her, “Our child is gone,” and then he broke down, reduced into halting, obscene, gasping cries, his hand on her hand, his disfigured face soothingly close to the womb that once housed the life they’ve created together, he the father of her child.

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