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Fiction

Bohemian Letter #1

Dearest Eva,

Do you remember, love, the summer night we spent in my uncle’s chalet off Como, when we thought we heard a ghost in the parlor?  I know now that it was a ghost, and, I tell you, we will never go back there.

The fighting is mostly in Spain and Portugal at the moment, but they stationed me, despite my earnestness – which I made clear – in an old chateau on the edge of a green valley, rather far off in the Bohemian countryside – the exact location I think I shouldn’t reveal.  It is an assignment fit for a literature professor, I suppose, no matter how much he believes in the cause.  There is a chance, the secretary at HQ told me, that secret enemy regiments, of which we might still know nothing, will pass through the valley on their way to surprise our front line from behind.  My orders are to watch the valley all day and some of the night, and, if I see anything suspicious, to send up smoke signals, using a process – it is surprisingly simple – one of the under-secretaries wrote out for me.

My great, unbearable frustration, Eva, is that I can’t watch the valley.  There is only a groundskeeper here with me – or, rather, there is only a groundskeeper living here with me.  The chateau is still owned by one of the oldest and wealthiest families of Bohemia, who want to keep up the estate’s appearances – but they don’t stay here anymore.  The groundskeeper hasn’t ever met them, only one of their representatives, who comes out here once a month to inspect his work and pay him his salary.  He warned me the afternoon I arrived that the ghosts of everyone who’d ever died at the chateau haunt the place, and so it was always crowded, and terribly noisy, and he didn’t know how I would accomplish anything for our allied forces here.  I suspected he was senile, of course, but we were standing in the sunlight on the gravel drive that leads to the stone front stairs – statues of Greek gods parade along the balustrade – and literally in the next instant something banged inside the house and a shutter fell off, breaking on Apollo’s upturned foot.  That was the beginning.

Yes, God, yes, my love, do ghosts haunt this house.  I can’t do anything about it.  In fact, I know that, if anything, I’ve exacerbated the situation.  They can’t wait to show off how they died to me.  They’ve long since given up trying to impress the groundskeeper, who rarely looks up from his work, but every one is convinced that I’ll be amazed, or moved, by how he or she reached his end.

“Sir!  Sir!  You must watch this!” a transparent blue butler called from the top of a staircase the moment I walked in.  “You will be very interested!”

Calling up my courage, I said, “I have no intention of watching you.  There is a war going on and I – ”

“I was walking just like this, with a tray just like this one, stacked with this many plates – ” he held a real tray and real plates “ – and when I came to the first step, I – ”

“Listen!” I cried.  “I’m Private Saltz of the army of the – ”

Peering over the tray so that he could see his feet, he missed the first step, went end over end, and somersaulted to the bottom, the plates flipping into the air like huge coins and then breaking on the hardwood floor or bouncing on the sofas.  A white shard slid into the toe of my boot.

“Of course,” he said, laying with his head on the last step, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, “there was food on the plates, then.”

“One of them hit me in the face,” interjected another, faint in the sunlight, whom I had not noticed before.  “There was a moment when I thought – ”

“I am not interested,” I said, looking away, only to find that there were many more shattered plates lying around the room than the butler had been carrying.  The groundskeeper, who had disappeared, came out from beneath the staircase with a dustpan and a broom.

It got worse.  They took no interest in me or why I’d come – not one asked my name or rank.  I was any face in an audience to them, no more than my look of interest or boredom.  That evening, as I sat in an open window in the parlor, a countess kept trying to get her dress to catch in the fireplace – of course it wouldn’t, it wasn’t physcial – a once broken-hearted young prince repeatedly drew a dinner knife across his throat, howling each time – thought you couldn’t howl at all if you’d just slashed your windpipe – and a middle-aged man in a tuxedo performed an agonizingly slow (for me) heart-attack on the lawn outside – there’s no need to tell you that men suffering heart attacks don’t jump in the air like he did.

When in frustration I leapt from the window– I was looking at the valley, not watching it, anyway the parlor was on the ground floor – I ran into the groundskeeper, who was making a nightly round, or something.

“That’s self-evident,” he said, when, breathless, I’d broken off ranting.  “The worst of it is that, for many of them, it’s been so long they don’t really remember how they died.  You could get used to it if they always did it exactly the same way.  But, you know, there’s a young woman who has thrown herself out of every window of the house, and you never know which it will be next.  And even when no one’s watching, they’re always practicing for a time when someone will.”

“Is there any danger?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.  “For a while a few cooks kept trying to re-enact a kitchen explosion, but I told them that it would be better to only jump the way the first one threw them, as another actual explosion would leave them with no kitchen at all.  Really, you only have to sometimes watch out for falling things, like that butler’s plates.” He stopped, looked at a hedge, then off at the moon.  “There was a danger about this place, but I succumbed to it, which was – ” he lit a cigarette – “that you can spend so many years of your life, so many, keeping plants alive for the dead.”

I got the sense that although his work at the chateau really had defeated him, he was overdoing it.  We parted with cool politeness, and I finished my watch on the gravel drive while the house slammed and slapped and bayed behind me like a monstrous Swiss clock.

I tried to sleep in a guest room.  Ghosts in fact can’t pass through walls, I locked the door and kept them away, but they either practice all night or hoped to draw me out – their screams and crashes echoed down the halls.  When the sun rose I was red-eyed and aching – aching because I was bruised, because the loudest of the thousands of thumps often threw me out of the bed.

What makes everything all the more irritating is the critical interest the ghosts take in each other’s deaths – the way they turn getting my attention into a collective effort.  I encountered this preposterous phenomenon that morning.  As I staggered into the music room, I came across a group of them standing around a maid – you could see straight through their legs – who lay gurgling and clutching her chest on the carpet.

“No, no, I don’t believe that face, and neither will he,” one of them said.

“And why not?” the maid asked.

“Look how you’re straining.”

A few nodded.

“Oh?  And I suppose you know how your face looked when you went?” the maid retorted, and a few others nodded at that.

I crept by without their hearing me, and resolved to spend the entire day in a garden on the roof that the groundskeeper had mentioned, which would afford me the best view of the valley and some quiet.  Turning so sharply at each corner that the rifle I wore repeatedly banged the back of my head – I was beyond exasperated – I at last found my way up three separate staircases and stepped out into a quaint flower garden behind the spires of the facade.

The valley stretched out below me, I descried deer scampering across the grass and drinking from the stream, blackbirds fluttering across the depression.  I did not, Eva, let myself fall asleep, even after that horrific night, but sat with my knees drawn up on a stone bench and stared straight ahead, blinking infrequently.

My eyes must have been crimson when, late in the afternoon, one walked up behind me.  He was a dapper young man in a tuxedo, holding a real cigarette, and my look seemed to startle him.

“I was up here, smoking with a young lady,” he began, having quickly recovered his composure, and pretending to take a puff.  “We’d escaped from a ball downstairs.  I leaned in to kiss her the very moment she leaned in to kiss me, and my cigarette – ”

I leapt to my feet.

“I’m trying to fight a war!” I screamed.

“Dying is lonely!” he shot back.

“So is reconnaissance!” I cried, which I knew, even from those few hours that day, is true.

He squinted, then, casually, smirking, flicked his cigarette at me.  The tip burned my wrist.

That was the first time I used my rifle.  Though, of course, to no avail.

“Leyevsky was killed in a hunting accident,” he said coolly when the echo died.  “He would like it if you went to see him.”

What prevented me from throwing myself off the roof right then, Eva, was the thought that I would join such company for eternity, and a sudden memory of your face.

Eva, I’ve found a respite, of sorts, in a plum-orchard at the edge of the estate.  There I spent that second evening, lying beneath trees black against the orange sunset, my mind drifting into waking dreams.  Once, only once, a pale blue knight on a pale blue horse rumbled by and leapt off the cliff – but it would take him a long time to ride back up to the estate to do it again, and anyway, he’d woken me from a light doze, which I should not have been enjoying on duty as it was.

It’s been a week now.  All day I spend in the lovely, quiet orchard, keeping my watch, vaguely marking time by the knight.  But I so often just pass out that the valley might as well go unguarded.  It is late summer, and though I’ve tried several times, it is too cold for me to sleep there, in the soft grass, after the sun sets.  The groundskeeper, who shares his hut with two previous groundskeepers – one an awfully phlegmatic fellow from the middle-ages – has no room for me.  When the stars come out, I wander back to the chateau.  I must have already tried to sleep in half the bedrooms.  Their screams keep me awake, their crashes send me flying, no matter where I am.  And when autumn comes, with its brisk air and winds, I fear that I will not even be able to spend my days outside under my plums.  I eat well – the groundskeeper shares his vegetables, and once a week he goes to the nearby town to buy bread and meat at the market.  But I am nothing more than alive.

I remain for the cause, but I even wonder now if my heart is really in it.  I worry more that the old gardener will die, and there will be one more of them, than I do about the war.  I came all the way from Copenhagen to fight for our beliefs, Eva, but the reality is that I’m fighting with all these ghosts.

Yours forever,
Felix

P.S.  I realize now, having written this, that I know of no way to mail it to you, dearest.  This crushes me, but also allows me to write my final line:

I’m thinking about burning the chateau down – I don’t know what that will do, but I want to do it.

F.
xxx

Linus Urgo is a writer. He lives in Brooklyn