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The Past is a Ghost Story

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The war was all about movement. Armies moved across countries, across continents, bridging rivers, building roads. The caravans of men, of weapons, of supplies, of the wounded, all of them never ending. Pausing for the night, but never truly stopping, it was a nightmare machine consuming everything in its path.

When they said the war was over, Hana came to an abrupt stop. She has followed war across the Atlantic, following destruction, following death. She is twenty years old and she is finished with it all. She is retreating into the villa, into yet another beautiful place devoured by war. She will wait there. Death can come to her this time.

::

The war, of course, is not over. The war may never end. The last war had never ended for so many men she knew as a child in Toronto. The war will end for them when they die for the last time, if they are lucky and do not become ghosts.

::

Hana is staying in the villa with the Englishman. She will move him no more unless he chooses it. He was always being moved, turned, lifted, carried from one bed to another, one country to another, one continent to another, one death to another.

He has died many times. He died when he fell in love. He died when he lost his Katherine. He died in the fire, when he lost both his skin and his name.

He has one death still waiting for him. Hana will guide him there.

::

On nights when everything weighs her down, when too many ghosts are sitting on her chest, she makes her way to the kitchen, takes the pitcher of tepid water, and pours it streaming over her neck, up the back of her skull, an everyday baptism.

Water runs down her spine. Rivulets curling over her shoulders, under her arms, between her breasts. Tears are lost in fresh water. She could pretend her eyes were red with weariness were there mirrors left uncovered in the villa, but now the only mirrors are the lost boys who surround her.

She chose to stay, to let everyone leave her, for everyone to be dead to her at once. She wanted only to interact with the Englishman, and so of course Caravaggio appeared, a ghost belonging to both of them.

She has always loved Caravaggio, so in some ways it is right that he comes to her now, to this villa, this hospital, this space for exorcising demons. She won’t let him hold her for long; she’ll put him in danger. When the sapper comes to them, he is young, he’s the future, he’s strong in a new way, he resists from the outside. She lets him come close only at night.

::

They live in a hospital which was once a villa which is now a ruin. The chaos of the villa mirrors the chaos at the end of war. The villa is inside and outside at the same time, the rain and the sun and the lightening living in the rooms. Birds. Rats. Once, a confused tortoise. Hana thinks about chickens. Eggs would be nice.

Kip lives in the garden. He has his tent, his pallet, his sense of distance. He diffuses bombs inside. He sleeps outside. It feeds the topsy-turvy feel of the place.

::

Much of the villa has been destroyed, and the rest is quietly waiting destruction. Kip opens rooms to determine if they're safe. He turns up his radio and thinks through puzzles, possibilities, traps. He considers the narrative of the bombmaker. Next, Hana clears the rooms, scavenging, reclaiming, purifying, or marking off those which cannot be saved. Together they're bringing the villa out of the chaos. Together they're moving back to life.

She sits in the wide window in the patient's room, one leg swinging outside in the breeze. She closes her eyes and she's a child on the fire escape at home in Toronto. She opens them and she's a woman in Italy. The patient sings a song from a film she saw just before the war. She is surrounded by gentle men and music.

::

"My patient" she calls him, and somehow the Englishman is more real of a person than all the patients who came before him, each and every one called Buddy, the patients with names and then lives that have slipped away.

So much has slipped away.

Hana owns a hammock. Shoes. A dress. Bits of her uniform. Two things stolen from the dead, one issued from the Canadian government, the dress her bit of normalcy and in many ways her own commonplace book. The patient carries his Herodotus, but she writes everything on her person. The torn and mended pocket of the brown print dress. The memory of a stain scrubbed free. Kip's hand, a shimmering silver mark under the skin of her inner thigh.

This is what they carry with them at the end of the war.

::

Caravaggio gathers apples from the orchard, clamping them between his palms and tugging them free. He drops them into a bucket he carries back to Hana, the handle in the crook of his elbow. Hana peels them in one long strip like her father taught her. She drops a peel, inspects it, child-like, for the initial of her husband-to-be. She tilts her head and shrugs. "Maybe it's Aramaic?" Caravaggio suggests. "Or Hebrew".

"Maybe so," she agrees, amiably. She is only at the beginning of imagining a future. She slices one apple and hands it to him on a plate, turning away as he captures a slice between two long fingers. The rest she cooks down to a sauce for her patient, the sweet steam filling the space, and she remembers her grandmother at the stove and the kitchen smelling of cinnamon and nutmeg.

::

Hana reads to herself, and the Englishman happens to be there. She reads aloud to him while he’s awake, the rare English language texts she finds in the library, and when he sleeps she continues on her own.

He dips in and out of the book, just as they are briefly dipping into each other’s lives.

The villa is full with these four people, and their ghosts, and their music. Hana plays the piano, the Englishman sings, Kip hums, and Caravaggio spins tales.

They are decent and caring, tender, and here at the end of the chaos, they will heal each other.