‘We Were Ghostless Against Her’, Ioanna Papadopoulou

Illustration © 2022 Sarah Salcedo

 [ Where my bones are, © 2022 Sarah Salcedo ] We told ourselves we were going home. The home of many, many generations ago. Our forever home. Nobody told us that the ones who never left would see us as foreigners, ostracising us from their communities. Nobody thought this land of never-ending sun, which burnt our flesh as we worked its fields, was also the ancestral home of another people, and when they left, their ghosts stayed here and hated us for coming to replace them. And we were defenceless as our own ghosts stayed in our old homeland, near the Black Sea. Maybe our ghosts, those poor lost souls without family and culture, tormented the ones who went there to replace us as theirs did to us.

But I don’t know. I will never go back to the home I was born in. I only have this land, the one my tongue and faith dictates to call mine. It doesn’t want me and I don’t like it, but it’s the only home I have been left to claim, so I must.

“Son,” my mother calls and I am up on my feet immediately, rushing to her side. “Can you give me a hand?” I hold the box she lowers from the attic and then help her climb down. “I think these belonged to the old inhabitants of the house. I saw some old carpets there too. We can use them for the winter, when the first colds start.”

Mother is a woman of logic. Not that she doesn’t have faith. She is loyal to our God, always praying before sleep and lighting a candle for all our dead, but her faith isn’t emotional like mine. Father, when the sweet man was alive, always said my faith was so strong when he looked in my eyes, which he said were windows to God for others. It convinced me to train to be a servant of that same God.

“My daughter’s,” Mina whispers in the air. Mother shivers as our ghost stands close to her but unable to see her. “I knitted them myself for her,” she says. “When I was pregnant.”

I watch our ghost kneel next to the box and her see-through face go hazy as tears gather in her eerie, uncanny flesh. Mother picks one of the knitted baby clothes and lifts it.

“Is it well made?” I ask her, completely unaware of women’s textile skills.

She nods. “And made with love,” she mutters. I study the way her hands caress the wool, examining its details, seeing through her fingers. My eyes move to her left where Mina’s face appears right behind Mother’s shoulder. Her colours are faded but she still has grey hair, sun-kissed brown skin like ours and dark, nearly black eyes.

Just as I expected, her sorrow turns into anger. She moves her hand through my mother, making her jump and move away. “Oh, that felt weird,” Mother says.

Mina smiles as Mother shakes from the discomfort, trying to calm herself from the ungodly intrusion into her body. Her eyes turn to me, knowing I am the only one who can see her. “Tell her not to touch my daughter’s clothes,” she demands threateningly.

We have been in the house for just a few months but already Mina ensures our days are filled with accidents, spoiled food, and any other small and petty misfortune she can manifest. I take Mina’s knit from Mother’s hands, fold it carefully and place it back inside the box. “Go and get some fresh air,” I urge her.

She nods and glances around the room, wondering whether she has missed something. She is ready to ask me something but I am lucky there is a knock on the door. “Foteini!” My aunt, Melina, calls, and Mother rushes to the door. Before she has the chance to invite her in, Melina pulls her out. Mina closes the door with her bony ghost hand and we are alone.

“I want you to leave,” she tells me, as she does each day since we arrived in the village. “This is my house.”

“The Government gave us this piece of land to grow grain as part of the population exchange,” I answer her as I do each day. “Your family is never coming back. There is no point for you to fight us.”

She laughingly mocks my answer. This is a pattern we repeat each day, priest and ghost of two different religions. “I was part of the Empire. Not some meagre tiny government.”

And I narrate to her again that the empire has fallen, broken up in many different countries and two of them exchanged people, as if they exchanged objects, so there would be two countries with one main religion and language each.

She curses in her tongue, which is so familiar to me. I used to hear it in our old home. So many of our old neighbours spoke like that, it feels natural. I know everything she says, of course. I am bilingual, as she is, but I block their meaning. I no longer need to be bilingual in this land, not for the sake of a ghostly old woman, whose own faith has departed without her.

I walk out of the house as her insults grow louder. She switches between the two languages, forming half sentences.

“My family. I want my family,” she cries in between her curses. “Why aren’t they here?”

All sense gets lost from them, eventually. I close the door behind me as I hear her cry.

I can’t hate her but I also can’t comfort her. I hate her people, her faith. I hate her people so much I find my faith shaken and desire to punish her for the soldiers who pushed us away from our homes. But my hate is always polluted by the memory of my family’s dead. If they are ghosts, like Mina, they are trapped in a foreign land, just like her. And my faith isn’t logical like Mother’s, but emotional, and I know that Mina is a test I must endure, to prove to my God I am a truly good man and worthy of calling Him my master. I even suspect that I am a test for her.

On my way to our village’s church, I see familiar faces from my past life, the same ones from the old neighbourhood, or rather what has been left of it. Like us, each family lost members on the journey to this new home. We lost Father, whose body we had to leave in an unmarked grave before we walked through the border. Like our house, the village is full of ghosts of men and women who hate us.

I, alone, see them all.

Their ghostly, uncanny flesh mingles with ours. They glare at us, interfering any way they can in our attempt to survive and heal. Like Mina, they don’t forgive us for being here. I hear their voices constantly, mocking my friends and neighbours, our customs, our names, our faith, our clothes. Everything we are and do, they hate and ridicule.

I reach our church and go inside. The ghosts who followed me, whispering their vitriolic hatred towards me, wishing for my penis to fall off so that I can never father children or for my mother to grow ill and die, stop at the door.

In my church, I am free of them, the only solace and peace I get from the strange ghosts that plague this place.

“Iordanes,” Father Paisios says. I rush towards him and kiss his hand. “Help me with the candles.”

The moment I exit the building, I hear them again, talking amidst themselves.

“The injustice,” they all whisper.

“Our families lost and these faithless strangers have taken over our fortunes.”

“My son used to live there.”

“My grandchildren used to play in this garden, as I did when I was a child myself. This is our land, we lived here for generations. They are strangers.”

They are right, I know. Their bones are here. Their memories and legacies are etched on our newly occupied houses. They are right; we are naked against their past. Our legacies and memories were left behind, next to the Black Sea.

It isn’t their fault. It isn’t ours either. “Go find and haunt the politicians that decided this,” I snap at one who passed through me, on purpose.

I reach our house and find Mother and Melina sitting at the table. Her two surviving daughters and my only surviving brother are seated next to them. The smell of a freshly baked pie reaches my nostrils. The smell travels me back to our old house, to another time. The windows are large and have yellow curtains adorning them. There are paintings on the walls and vases with flowers on the table. I have my own room, with my books and my bed. My father will return home in just one moment and somewhere close my little sister is about to come skipping into the room.

“Your mother made the food wrong,” Mina criticizes. Her mouth is right next to my ear, making me shiver from her chill. “Not the way any of the women of my family make it.”

I open my eyes and smile as my mother takes the pie out of the oven. “Smells wonderful,” my brother compliments.

“It does,” I agree, causing Mina’s snorts behind me.

I sit at the table and dutifully kiss my relatives as my mother serves us. Once she is seated, I kiss her and, as the oldest man and priest-to-be of the family, I put my elbows on the table, clutch my fists together and lower my head against my knuckles. The rest of them mimic me and I begin praying on our behalf.

Mina makes her appearance again, as always eager to interrupt the moment. As I pray in our language, she prays in hers, tempting me to make a mistake in my words and suck out the simple family joy of the meal. I speak slowly and the prayer ends. Immediately, she finishes too and comes to watch us eat.

“What a terribly ugly family,” she mocks us. “And what terrible food.”

The night has three possibilities. Mina either roams the house, causing small accidents wherever she can, walks the fields and disrupts the crop’s growth, or sits on my bed, infecting me with nightmares of the way we were taken, of the journey and Father, who died for no reason. Of my youngest sister, barely five, who died at the first refugee camp we stayed in.

Tonight, she does all three. She begins by infecting the crops, then I hear her breaking things in the house and, finally, she enters the room I share with my brother and stands on top of me, piercing me with her gaze. “Why do you do this?” I ask, even though it is futile. There is never going to be an end to her pain, nor to ours.

“I am a ghost,” she replies. “What else is there to do but haunt you? You! You! The ones that stole my family.”

Like a well-rehearsed dance, I repeat the story of how the empire fell, how the people were exchanged and she ignores me. Too tired and too sleepy, I roll around, hiding my face under the pillow and try to sleep, ignoring her muttering hateful sounds. I pray under my breath, wishing for strength, kindness and understanding to not be cruel to this old and helpless woman, who is so desperately missing her family.

She sits on my bed, so much like my grandmother used to when she was alive and we still lived by the Black Sea. But instead of Grandmother’s warm touch, her rough skin but tender touch, Mina’s cold hand chokes me. She fills me with her bitterness, her sorrow, telling me what I already know. Her pain is real and valid.

“Will this be for the rest of my life?” I ask her. “Don’t you wish for heaven, Mina? I know your faith also calls it heaven. Do you not wish for rest?”

Her hand pauses over my body and her pain ceases pouring into me. “Heaven?” she asks and her voice sounds childlike, like my little sister’s when she didn’t understand what I was saying. “Is there such a thing for me? Is there such a thing for you? People treated like objects?”

This is new. A rare chance for us to speak honestly, shedding the prejudice we feel for each other. I move the pillow away from my head and sit up. I watch our knees, next to each other. “I think so,” I tell her. “My God is forgiving. Isn’t yours called the All merciful?”

She nods. “But why did this happen then? What part of this is mercy? It’s not for me, not for you.”

Taking a chance, I let my head rest towards her ghostly self. This time there isn’t a chill, but a cool breeze. This time, her pain doesn’t turn into vindictive anger but it’s shared. “Do you think my family might live in your old house?”

I doubt they would have swapped us exactly, but I still nod.

“And they lived? They didn’t die like your father or your sister?”

“I hope so,” I tell her and I mean it. I hope her daughter, her son-in-law, her nieces, her nephews, and all the children they each bore didn’t die. “Do you forget on purpose who we are each day? What happened?”

She doesn’t answer. She only stands up and walks away from me. Did I offend her? Did I break whatever treaty we briefly formed?

For the first time since I met her, I fall asleep without the sound of things breaking and the house creaking.

She isn’t in the house when I wake up. Nor walking in the fields. I start to roam the village in search of her and, to my surprise, all the other ghosts stay away from me. Their hateful words don’t reach me. My feet take me to church and I unlock its doors. The building is old, converted to belong to us and I move to sit on the wooden benches.

“Iordanes? Are you well?” Father Paisios asks me. He comes into the main body of the church, still in his nightgown.

I nod. “Yes, Father, I just needed to come here.”

He doesn’t question me further. He rubs my head and squeezes my cheek and leaves me as he goes to resume his personal worship. The church is big and still unfinished. The walls are half painted as our fate dictates and half as they were before our arrival. I turn and see the ghosts lingering around the building but never entering. Father Paisios and Mother would say the power of our God keeps them away, but I know that’s not it. Our God would welcome them. Their pain prohibits them from entering, from seeing the change over the place they once prayed in. Perhaps their funerals took place inside those walls.

Far away in our cities and villages by the Black Sea, our churches are being changed to suit those that were sent to make their homes there. It would break my heart too seeing our culture erased from those buildings, or even just masked.

I turn my eyes to the ceiling and the half-finished painting of a face looking down on me. How could they look up here? If I magically went back to our old home, I don’t think I could look up at the ceiling and stand the absence of the pictures. Why would they stand their presence?

Mina still isn’t home when I return. Mother is happy, telling me of how this is the first day she feels really at home here. It isn’t true but I smile encouragingly. It is a lie we all need to believe and the sooner we manage it, the best it will be.

“And I got the hang of the stone oven and the well too. No inconsistency in the fire, no failed attempt to get water out. It’s just been a good day that it feels—and I know it is silly and wrong to say it—but it feels like the house is accepting us too. It always felt like…” she pauses, trying to find a word that isn’t filled with superstitions.

“There were ghosts?” I add and she nods, smiling.

“I was afraid you would scold me if I said that, Iordanes.”

I shake my head. “No, never.” I move closer and kiss Mother’s forehead, the way she used to do it to me when I was still a boy, as my father did to all of us when he was the man of the family and, even farther back, when my grandfather did. “The food smells lovely,” I tell her. “Did you bake bread too?”

When Melina and my cousins come, followed by my brother, we all sit together and pray, for the first time without Mina trying to trip my words up.

The food tastes beautiful. The moment is one I thought I would never live again. Nothing exists to spoil it and I am suddenly happy; just for the duration of our meal, I have forgotten all the terrible things that happened to me, us. With Mina gone, wherever she is hiding, there is no constant reminder of the terrible past that haunts both the living and the dead of this village.

It is years later when our ghost makes an appearance again. I am now the priest of the village, a position which gives me respect, even amid the native population—the ones that were always here and always belonged to this country, as they like to remind themselves—who are forced to speak to me whenever I bring forth the issues our village faces.

For the first time, I see a ghost inside the church. I approach slowly, fearful that Mina is back, this time to haunt me in the church, instead of the house. She doesn’t lift her eyes; I am not sure if she recognizes me. Her body is fainter than ever before, as if she is made of mist ready to evaporate.

“Mina?” I call her name and she looks up, startled, as if she doesn’t understand the sound of her own identity. Our eyes meet and then understanding flickers as she watches my now manly face. She lowers her gaze again and the known sound of her crying, her agonising pain reaches my ears. I am again, as I was all those years ago, filled with mixed feelings of pity, bitterness, and empathy. I hate her again, not because her faith makes her belong to the people who exiled us from the Black Sea but because in her pitiful state, she mirrors my own.

“I can’t leave,” she says. “I always take a wrong turn and am back facing the graveyard where my bones are.”

“Where did you want to go?” I ask and wish she could have stayed away. The thought makes me feel ashamed because I know where she wants to go and like me, she can never find that place. It no longer exists.


“My family,” she says. To be guarding her own people, her descendants. Her home is there, on their side.

I look up. A drawing of my God looks down on me from the basilica ceiling.

“Do you remember what happened?” I ask her, dreading that our old loop of conversation will start again.

She nods. “They were exchanged,” she says and the words feel wrong in her mouth. The verb she should have chosen was “stolen”, “taken”, “exiled”, but she uses the one history books aim to establish and doesn’t include the misery of everything that happened to us, to them.

I look away from the basilica ceiling and lower my head to rest on my hands as I sit by her. I get cold slowly, and when I look up there are more ghosts inside the church, ones that never tried to leave. I watch them hug Mina, whispering their prayers to each other, and the sight again is reminiscent of ones I have lived through. A show of empathy and solidarity in the absence of all hope.

All those ghosts only have each other. Only they remember the place they used to live. Its name, its smells, and sounds. They coax Mina to stand up and their see-through bodies become a mass as they walk out of the church.

I look up to see my God again and I remember the lost souls of my family, praying they have reached heaven. My father, whose body I have tried to find but the unmarked grave is impossible to locate. My little sister, who died just as we reached this country. Her bones I have managed to bring closer to my mother at least, who leaves a flower at her grave each day. My brother, who moved down south and we never heard from him again. In my heart, I know it isn’t lack of love which has kept him from writing to us.

And I think of the ones who died there, back home. I stare at the face of the ceiling, suddenly unable to see my God in the picture, unable to find my faith as I stare at the painted eyes. An image shakes me. It enters my mind and I am unable to stop it. My grandmother and her generation. Her parents’ generation. All my dead. The ones that are my direct link to the creation of all the universe. So many of those souls are back at the Black Sea and I can see them in my mind. Their bodies are like mist and they are all walking at the seaside. I see them in their endless parade on the sand, the water washing over their non-existence. They are also trying to find a way out of that endless cycle.

They need an escape. As Mina and her dead company does.

Their feet walk slowly over the sand, just small steps and their faces are blank expressions.

Trapped. Like Mina and her dead compatriots.

I shiver from the cold and I am violently sick at the thought. My breakfast comes out of my mouth and spoils the floor, sticks on the wooden benches and some of it even destroys the bright black of my clothes. I stare at it. A yellow-orange mixture, with bits of solid food recognizable but having lost all their taste and beauty. The stinking of the food is a violent comparison with the smell that made me crave it in the morning. The memory of the warm and sweet flavour shares nothing with the odious heat that emanates from the vomit.

I stare at it, fascinated and disgusted. I see the entire story in the expelled half-digested food. My history. My grandmother’s, my mother’s, my father’s. Mina’s and her family’s. We were all spewed out, like food. A terrible mixture of things which had lost their real shape, odour, and taste and none of us, of those who remembered the journey and the loss, were appetizing to eat again. That was why the natives hated us. Not because we took their jobs or caused problems in their economy, not because we ate differently than them, sang different songs and danced different dances. They could celebrate those things we brought with us.

It was that they could see, as I could with the food, that we had been vomited out and they couldn’t stand that. We hadn’t come, as so many others might have arrived in new places, full of dreams of a better life or desire to make a home. We were half digested and wretched all over their world, so clearly traumatised and pained they couldn’t ignore it.

I hesitate. I am disgusted but still move my hand onto the vomit and feel it. There is nothing that can stop my tears. For the first time in all my life, I feel a desperate loneliness and purposefulness because the world isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair and no one, not a single person has apologized to me, to my mother, to Melina and her children, to our dead.

To Mina, either.

None of those people, who decided this forceful exchange, who caused our genocide, first through blades and then by vomiting us out like bad meat, has apologized. And they are both to blame, I suddenly feel that strongly. Both sides, I hate the same. The ones who took us and weren’t prepared to help us. I hate them as much as the ones who killed us and forced us away with their weapons. None of them cared enough to see us as real human beings.

I try to grasp onto my faith, to find a way to expel that anger and hatred but my God is nowhere to be found within me at that moment. All I can do is cry. All I can do is scream and feel those horrible emotions which have always been there, spoiling. Like the bacteria all over my vomited-out food.

“You need to clean this,” Mina says behind me.

She stands alone, none of her other ghosts have re-entered the church. I see them all standing by the door.

“I am so sorry,” I whisper. “I am so sorry this happened to you.”

“You are not at fault,” she whispers.

I shake my head even though I agree that I don’t bear the blame for what happened. “Someone must cry. Someone must apologize and those who should, never will.”

She stays silent until she puts her hands over my body, through my flesh and I am cooled down. It feels the same as when I have a fever and Mother puts a wet cloth over my forehead. It is painful but also relieving at the same time. Her presence, her impossible touch feels the same. A necessary relief that cannot be anything but slightly painful.

“Get up now, boy. You need to clean this. What if someone wants to come and pray?”

I nod and obey her. She stands and watches me as I bring a bucket of water, a cloth and scrub the orange-yellow mixture off the floor and the wood. The smell is harder to get rid of. I soak flowers in water to cover it but it is still there. It will take a long time for the smell to vanish.

“Your clothes too,” Mina says and I start cleaning them but soon give up, deciding I prefer to change into the spare robe I have in the back room.

When I return, Mina is again outside. I follow her and all the other ghosts, in a similar parade to the one I envisioned for my own relatives on the shores of the Black Sea. We reach their graveyard and each of them goes and stands at their place of eternal rest. I walk amid them, reading their names and giving their faded forms an identity again, even if it is only their name and age.

“I will not forget you,” I promise them as I walk in circles in this graveyard, completely empty of people but full of souls. “I will not forget that you existed too.”

© 2022 Ioanna Papadopoulou

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