Ghosts by Ana Mendez
Anna is a migrant from the Czech Republic. The suicide of a Cuban immigrant to Florida Anna remembers all kinds of ghosts. By Ana Menéndez. Pictures by Jackie Morris.
Pictures by Jackie Morris ©
Anna Kralova stands outside the apartment door and listens. Anna does not believe in ghosts. She believes that when we die, we are gone forever. She believes that everything we know about the world, we know through our senses. But she can’t explain why she feels so sad now after the young man’s death. She opens the door. Not too slowly, not too quickly. It’s the door to her old apartment. There is no one here. There is nothing here. Just Anna and her breathing. No one is living in the apartment now. It is empty. But it is empty in a way that Anna does not know. The floor, the little rooms, the yellow kitchen cupboards all speak now of a place empty of life.
Anna Kralova didn’t know much about the man who lived in her apartment. Only a name, Yuliani Garcia. Later, she learned he arrived from Cuba the year before. She never met him. She decided to let her apartment in the financial crisis, after she lost her job at the newspaper. The idea was to go back home, but at the last moment there was another job in Tampa as a photographer. She was happy to take the job. And she was happy to leave the building. The man downstairs always gave her problems.
The miserable man gave Yuliani terrible problems too. And when the agent called Anna in Tampa to give her the bad news, the first thing she thought was that the neighbour shot Yuliani dead. But it was just a suicide, the agent said. One of many suicides in this town. Anna remembers that the agent said she was sorry. But what was she sorry about? Bad things are not always someone’s fault.
Anna didn’t reply and the agent talked. She told Anna not to worry, that she would take care of everything. And then, she said, ‘The suicide won’t affect the value of the apartment. We can keep it secret.’ Ghosts were not so easy. And just to be safe, the agent suggested she light some sage in the apartment. Anna thought it was a joke. But when she was in the supermarket, she saw a big green sage candle. Anna takes the candle out of her bag and puts it on the table. The first match she strikes is wet. The second one is weak, but Anna lights the candle before the match goes out. Suddenly the candle burns so brightly that Anna takes a step back.
✽ ✽ ✽
Anna was 17 when the Berlin Wall fell. Two years later, she was working for the Czech ministry of foreign affairs. Over the years, her parents sold jewellery, china, even the silver her grandparents hid after the war, to pay for English lessons for her, their only daughter. Later, those lessons helped all the family. Anna was pretty. But she got the job in the foreign ministry because of her perfect English. She learned it secretly from an old British lady by learning long English poems.
In the early years after the revolution, there was a lot of work in Prague, like the rest of Eastern Europe. Anna worked 15 hours a day, going from meeting to meeting as an interpreter. She took the job instead of going to college. It was the best short course in international business. Anna listened to salesmen from car companies, fast-food businesses, and chocolate companies. She understood each of the words they said, but she couldn’t understand what they were saying. But slowly she understood.
One evening, she sat in a conference room with her bosses and the representatives from USAID. Three men sat on their side, three men sat on hers. Anna met many Americans and they were always so healthy-looking, with their straight white teeth, their short hair, and their smiles. All the Americans she met smiled. She thought all the men and women in the Midwest would be like this.
Her own people were different. Her grandmother always said that history beat them down. And maybe she was right. Did these Americans know anything about war or occupation? Were they ever hungry? The meeting started in the usual way. The Americans asked about her bosses’ families. They learned to do this, Anna thought, in a seminar somewhere and she didn’t like it. Then they started the discussion. Her bosses understood English very well, but they wanted Anna to interpret for them. Then no one could blame them for mistakes.
The men were there to talk about business. The Americans offered their expert help. The bosses were very thankful. Her country was so far behind the West. After an hour, Anna’s boss said to her in Czech: ‘Look, don’t translate this but can you hurry up? We only want their money.’
✽ ✽ ✽
Anna walks a few steps and stops. She is suddenly cold. There is loud knocking through the floor. Then a voice shouts, ‘Stop it!’
It’s that terrible man. She is angry and stamps loudly on the floor, then she takes off her shoes. She walks quietly to the kitchen. She takes the camera out of its case. The police investigation took a month. When it was finished, they took the young man’s things away. Anna organised this She worked with the agent to clean the apartment. And for more money the agency put new things in the apartment.
The furniture is mostly from Ikea, Anna sees that now. It all feels very sad. The agent took some photos before, but Anna didn’t like them. She goes through the apartment with her Nikon camera. The light is good. But when Anna looks at the camera screen, she sees that all the photos of the kitchen have horrible shadows around them. She puts out the sage candle and starts again with the small living room and the bathroom. She leaves the bedroom for last. They took away the rug from here and now Anna stops in the doorway. The new laminate on the floor is dark and shiny. The double bed is made. Anna recognizes the bedspread from the IKEA catalogue. Also the bedside tables and the drawers. Over the bed there is the only art in the apartment, a map of the world. Anna always finds it strange to see North America in the centre.
She takes a deep breath and walks into the room. He cut his wrists. Just 21 years old and he went to bed one night as if to sleep, but he cut his wrists. A friend found him. Or a client – the police later told Anna that Yuliani worked as a prostitute. At first she said, ‘No, he was a masseur!’ She cried. And the police laughed. Anna takes a photo of the cupboard. Walk-in cupboards are unusual in buildings of this age. That will help to sell the apartment, as the agent would say. Anna closes the doors again. Then she sees something – a shadow – on the top shelf. She stops. It’s not a shadow. Not a shadow. Not a shadow. She shuts the cupboard door. Not a shadow, Anna. She opens it again. She puts on the light. A suitcase. Perhaps the suitcase is from one of the workers. Perhaps one of the workers stayed a few nights. Perhaps he wanted to try a new home, new sheets, a different life.
But a worker would not leave a suitcase here. Still Anna does not move. She does not want to touch the dead man’s things. She turns to leave. Someone else will take away the suitcase. Anna closes the cupboard doors. She begins to walk away. She will send someone, maybe one of the workers. If it is his suitcase, he will be very happy to take it home. And if it is the dead man’s suitcase, someone will throw it away. But what about the boy’s family?
Anna opens the cupboard again. Anna pulls the suitcase down from the shelf. The suitcase is light and it falls down and opens. There are papers everywhere. Then Anna hears banging. Anna’s heart stops. Then she hears the voice from downstairs. “Stop it!”
Anna is afraid to move. There are papers everywhere around the room. Slowly, quietly, she begins to pick them up. Receipts, letters, photographs. She puts them in piles. In the corner of the suitcase there are letters in rubber bands. Anna takes off the rubber bands and the letters fall open, hundreds, all on airmail paper. She opens them one after the other. Long letters in very small writing. Almost all of them begin with Gracias por el dinero, mi hijo. Anna’s Spanish is not very good but she can understand most of it. Me alegro mucho. Que bonita suerte. Como te estraño. All the words that a mother would write. About happiness, the good luck that her son was enjoying in that rich country. His mother was so happy he was making a life for himself and so it was OK that he was so far away.
Anna sits with the suitcase for a long time and reads the letters. She finds more letters, from friends, perhaps. Birthday cards, most of them are handmade. One card is made from pressed paper, a bird with wings that open and close. There are medical papers. The results of an HIV test – negative. A Cuban passport, the photo in black and white of a very young boy. Two dozen photographs of young people, smiling by the sea, in fields, in front of a library or the university.
It seems a long time since Anna walked up these stairs for the first time. She knew very little then. Memories come back to her like ghosts, again and again. But she sends them away back to the past. The boy’s life brings back thousands of her own memories.
✽ ✽ ✽
Maybe her father was right, maybe it was a bad idea to leave home. Now she is not American and not Czech. ‘I was in Prague after we left Slovakia,’ the agent said when 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. That’s all the Americans know about Prague. How could Anna explain that she only read Kafka after she moved to the US? After her unusual education, she knew more about Shakespeare and Auden, and she knew long poems by Yeats many years before she read Kafka.
So much time has passed. Anna thinks about her childhood and how it was not the safe place she thought. Is it like this for everyone, or only for those who leave their country? Losing her first language and learning a new language has changed the way she remembers things. Her poor, lonely first language has no more stories to tell. And English, her new language has all of the power.
When did she last visit her home? Three years ago? Five. She was at the Palacky Bridge five years ago. She sat with her mother over a cup of tea and talked for hours about her old friends five years ago. They talked about who left and who stayed.
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 then it was almost a full day’s journey in their old Škoda car, from eight in the morning to five in the evening. They usually stayed for two weeks. They usually left early in the morning. But one year they left the village in the late afternoon. They drove through the night. Anna fell asleep and woke up again and again. When they came to Bratislava, the sun came up. Anna’s father saw her looking through the window.
‘That’s Vienna,’ he said.
‘The lights of the city,’ said her mother.
Vienna, city of great lights. And for the rest of Anna’s childhood, that’s what the West was, a strange place from another world, a place where people refused to live in the dark.
And then Anna remembered other things in her first language. A to je ta krásná země, země česká, domov můj. When she was a very thin schoolgirl. A boy she loved. The first smell of summer. Her lovely childhood. And at the end of her childhood – the protests, the thousands of people in the square. She remembered them all with love. That is what it was like to live inside great changes. That is what it was like for Yuliani. He was like a brother to Anna. He did not know that and she did not know that.
She’s been in Miami for 17 years. Three years before that she was in Chicago. Two years in Los Angeles. Half her life in a foreign country. It doesn’t feel like a foreign country. But it is a foreign country, Anna thinks. She is the foreign country. Fourteen years photographing strangers. She can’t remember how many people she has met. She can’t remember all of them but perhaps they all remember her.
Who will remember Yuliani Garcia? How did he come here? How long did he dream of coming to Miami? Anna knows very little about his story. But she knows that he left early in the morning so his mother did not see his tears. She knows that he was sad to leave home but that he was also very excited. Only someone who has left home can understand that. No, Anna does not believe in ghosts; we are our own ghosts, carrying with us our sad past lives.
Anna packs the suitcase again slowly. She folds the letters and puts them in the rubber band. She puts the certificates, the birthday cards, and the photographs in piles. She folds the last page, closes the suitcase, and sits with her head in her hands.
History seems like a big thing to those outside it. But when you are inside history, it seems very small: you are on a boat, you have a creased passport, a small suitcase full of papers that you carry from city to city. Nemoc na koni přijíždí a pěšky odchází. We lose so much between languages, we forget so much. So many dreams in this town. Her grandmother’s favourite phrase was: bad luck arrives quickly on a horse and leaves slowly on foot. Her grandmother lived through three currencies and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, she is buried in a city of Zara and Starbucks, a Prague she would find it difficult to recognize.
Anna will look after the papers. Maybe she can find Yuliani’s mother. Someone must stay to collect the photographs. Someone will find meaning in them.
After a long time, Anna stands up. Her legs shake and she pulls the suitcase through the sad doorway 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.