The Ghost of Zefort
by M.C. Williams
There’s a knock at the door. I stand up to answer and then I remember that I don’t have a door here on the pig farm.
Besides, there’s nobody to come knocking on doors that don’t exist except the pigs, who aren’t very well-mannered and don’t have hands to knock even if they were. So I sit back down in my lawn chair. I look around at the grazing pigs and the field. I’m by the Roman ruins we accidentally unearthed a few days ago, which lay empty and quiet. There’s no one out here except me.
But I hear it again, that knocking sound. Maybe it’s a memory, an echo from when Carlos would come around and knock on my bedroom door. He’d say, “Let’s shoot,” and we’d play pool all afternoon. Pool was the only thing that ever made any sense to me, which probably explains how I ended up here in La Mancha with the pigs.
I listen. Maybe it’s the memory of Carlos tapping his stick on the floor as I lined up my shot or the sound of the balls knocking against one another when I’d break the rack. Maybe it’s beer bottles knocking on the wooden bar as Sara said, “Here you go, boys.”
I was there so often that I never had to ask her for a beer. Nobody ever knew me like Sara did. She’s the only person I ever told that I was born on another planet, very far from here.
“You look human enough to me,” she said when I told her.
“I am, 100% homo sapien sapien. But I spent the first eight years of my life in another solar system, on the other side of the galaxy.”
“Cool,” Sara said. “Tell me about it.”
So I told her how the zoo where I was born was the biggest and best zoo in Zefort. I was one of the main attractions at Zefort Zoo, and they’d come from all over just to stare at me. The zookeepers mostly studied us from afar, but they also gave us weekly classes and measured what we could and couldn’t understand. Sometimes, during our feedings, they sat and ate with us. It was a strange relationship, an unequal one, but loving and respectful, too.
When I was eight years old, they decided that keeping certain species in zoos was unethical, including Gorzaps from the Trappist-1 solar system and Earth mammals such as dolphins and primates. My parents were too old to be released back into our natural habitat, but they returned me, along with a baby bonobo named Nicolas, to Earth.
When I told her all that, Sara said, “Shit, man,” and got me another beer.
“Do you miss them?” she asked.
By then, it had been twenty years since I’d left Zefort, and I hadn’t heard from my parents or the zookeepers in all that time.
“Sometimes,” I said. “Not as much as I used to. I’ve adapted.”
I asked if she believed me, and she said that if anyone was from another planet, it was me. I think she did believe, despite her doubts. I even doubt it myself sometimes. But then I remember the aircraft taking off and flying low over the countryside beyond Zefort, the way the black sands stretched as far as I could see and the pink rivers glowed a neon hue. I’d been so transfixed that I didn’t think to look back at the zoo until it was too late. I remember the way I hurt, as I’ve never hurt before or since, when I realized that I was losing my home forever and hadn’t thought to look back one last time.
“Hey Santi,” Sara said a few days later, “Spanish is your first language, right?”
I confirmed that it was.
“So, on this other planet, they all speak Spanish?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “At least, the humans in the zoo do.”
I explained that in Zefort, Spanish was the most commonly learned Earth language, and the one all the zookeepers used. It was chosen because of the most widely spoken languages on Earth, Spanish has the most straightforward pronunciation.
“Consider the letter A,” I told Sara, “In English, depending on the word, that letter can be ‘ay’ or ‘ah.’ In Spanish, it’s always the same sound. Things are pronounced the way they’re spelled. And Mandarin has all those tones—well, you see why they went with Spanish.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Sara. “I guess it’s the obvious choice.”
They saw that humans were the happiest in Ecuador, so that’s where they took me. They left me with a family, my uncle and aunt, supposedly, but who knows. I was so young back then I can’t remember what was real and what the zookeepers invented to help me adapt. All I know is I was left on a man’s doorstep with documentation showing that I was the son of his long-lost, recently deceased brother, and that was that.
We lived in Ecuador for a while and then we moved to the Bronx. The Bronx was cold and miserable, but I came to have a fierce pride about it, which I haven’t felt for any place before or since. In the Bronx, there were kids from all sorts of places I’d never heard of, and being from Zefort didn’t feel so strange. I liked living in the Bronx. Most of my high school friends went as far as they could for college, but I stayed.
My randomly assigned roommate at school was Carlos, an international student from Madrid. We became close friends, and after we graduated, Carlos and I found an apartment together. Those were the years when I was most content, living with Carlos around the corner from the pool hall where Sara worked. My aunt and uncle were nearby and I’d take the bus to have dinner with them on Sundays. They were happy days, but I didn’t know that till it was too late.
I married a woman who wasn’t Sara and moved to Spain. Things didn’t work out and that’s how I got here, to the pig farm. When Carlos heard that my wife left me in Barcelona a few months ago, he told me I could stay with his uncle and grandmother in La Mancha.
It isn’t so bad out here in the dry, golden part of Spain, just below Madrid. There isn’t decent pizza or much to do. But there is a beautiful plaza. At night, I can see the stars and I know that somewhere out there is the sleeping city of Zefort, where I was born. The bartender isn’t Sara, but we talk about football, which is all right. I’m the best pool player in town.
I work on the farm, supposedly, but mostly I just watch the pigs get fat. When the pigs are slaughtered, I massage them and talk to them to keep them calm, which I’m very good at. Adrenaline will ruin the taste of the meat, so the pig needs to be relaxed right until the artery is cut. I don’t think it’s a bad way to go.
On Zefort, they believe that life is a brief time in which your true self is in a deep sleep, dreaming, which is why their word for death and waking up are the same. They see their entire lives as a spiritual inner journey happening to their true selves. When they die, they believe they return to the true world and their true selves with whatever knowledge, skills, and experiences they’ve gained. Life-long development and improvement is a national passion. Unlike Earth, where we expect our grandparents to slow down and do less, the elderly on Zefort are often out working and studying until the day they die. Sometimes when I prepare the pigs for slaughter, I tell them that they’re about to wake up as their true pig-selves.
One of the pigs snorts and there is a single, loud knock from somewhere in the fields.
“Who’s there?” I call but there isn’t any answer.
The black eyes of the pigs follow me as I walk through the bright midday sun. I follow the strange sounds as best I can and end up standing before the Roman ruins.
We’d wanted to build a little restaurant for visitors to try our ham and wine, but when we tried to add plumbing for the toilet, we hit an ancient hallway, and then a whole room, preserved underground. Nobody was very impressed, really. In New York, they’d have been thrilled. In Spain, you don’t need to go digging for history. It’s all here on the surface. The town already has Roman walls scattered about, so nobody aside from myself was too excited about the dark little corridor or the small room filled with broken pottery. Mostly they were annoyed that they’d wasted time trying to build there.
Standing before the rope, at the mouth of the corridor, I hear it again.
“Hello?” I call into the darkness.
A cold breeze comes from the hallway and there’s another bang from within. The site is clearly haunted. We must have upset a ghost by digging it up. I decide not to mention my discovery to Carlos’ family, but that night at dinner, I learn that they’ve noticed the ghost, too. Carlos’ grandmother heard a knock at the door while she was cooking but found no one there when she opened it. Carlos’ uncle says he’s been hearing strange noises all around the farm. They look at me and I confess that I heard a knocking sound in the fields when I took the pigs out. The old woman shuts her eyes and shakes her head. After dinner, she lights a candle and says a prayer.
Carlos’ uncle goes to town for a drink, but I stay to keep the old woman company. I think she would have fit in well on Zefort because she’s very active and sharp, despite her age. She limps around the house, cleaning and shooing me away whenever I try to help. When she finally sits down with me, I ask if she believes in ghosts.
“I don’t know,” she says, gazing out the window. “But they say the dead in Spain are more alive than anywhere else in the world.”
We look together at the quiet fields and the falling twilight. I wonder just how many spirits could be out there. This town, originally settled by Romans, was later conquered by tribes from the North, and it had been the site of numerous battles between the Catholic monarchs and the last king of Al-Andalus. The Spanish Civil War had swept through, too, and perhaps those are the dead that Carlos’ grandmother is thinking of. During the war, her father was captured and lined up with the other men accused of communism. They were told to confess. Those who confessed were still killed, but they were buried in the Catholic cemetery. Her father refused. He dug his own grave, got into it, and was shot.
When Carlos calls that night, I tell him about the strange knocking sounds.
“Maybe it’s a pipe?” he says. “I don’t know. I guess you think it’s a ghost.”
“Of course it is.”
“Are you scared?”
“No. Ghosts can’t harm us physically. They can only frighten us.”
“Well, that’s good to hear. How’s everything else?”
“Not bad. Are you still at work?
“It’s five here, I just finished.”
“How is work?”
“Oh, it’s fine.”
I can hear the quick clicks of his keyboard as he types what I imagine to be a final email for the day.
“When are you moving back to Spain?” I ask, though I know that Carlos will never leave New York.
“Ha. I do miss it,” he says, “But even if I wanted to come back, there aren’t any jobs there. Everyone’s leaving.”
“Everyone except me.”
“You’ll leave, too. After you’re back on your feet.”
“I don’t know where I’d go. I think I want to go to outer space. Or back in time.”
I can hear that Carlos is annoyed with me.
“Hey, I’ve got to go catch the train,” he says. “Keep my grandma safe from the spooky noises, alright?”
It’s easy for Carlos to joke about the ghost, but that night I am jolted awake by all the windows in my room banging open. I leap out of bed to close them and immediately someone knocks on my bedroom door. When I open it, there’s no one, and the windows are whipped open again, as if by the wind.
I value a good night’s sleep, and I’m not afraid of the dead, so I grab a flashlight, hop out of my first-floor window, and head out to the Roman ruins. I step over the rope and there it is, from the darkness below, that knocking sound.
I lower myself into the shallow hole and shine the flashlight down the dark corridor. I inch toward the banging till I can feel it in the walls. My hand, I realize, is on the door to the small adjoining room. I knock.
The sounds stop and a quiet voice says, “Come in,” so I pull it open.
In the corner, there is a young woman, her clothes black and her skin an odd gray color. We stare at one another. She seems to flicker, as if she is not completely solid.
“You knocked,” she says.
“Well, it’s the polite thing to do.”
“Did you know I was here?”
“No, not for sure,” I say. “I thought it likely.”
She grows, filling the room and sucking all the heat from it.
“But you know what I am.”
I nod. I’ve never seen a ghost before but I know what she is.
“Are there others like you here?”
“Yes,” she says.
When she does not elaborate, I ask, “You were in my room, weren’t you? Opening my windows and doors?”
The cold that radiates from her intensifies and I can see my breath when I exhale.
“You disturbed my resting place.”
I back away and look at the floor. She speaks Spanish very well, but her accent is strange. It’s one I’ve never heard. I suppose she’s been dead for a very long time.
“You’re right,” I say. “It was an accident. We should not have disturbed you. The sounds are to scare us off, aren’t they?”
“I do not like being disturbed,” she says, her voice even colder than the air. “I have been wandering the Earth for nearly two thousand years. I came back here, the room where I died, to fade.”
“I’m very sorry,” I repeat.
I lift my gaze and see that she is staring at me with stern, gray eyes. Her voice is still tight with anger but the cold air coming from her seems to recede a little bit.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“Where are you from?”
“That’s actually a rather complicated question for me to answer. I suppose you don’t know about Ecuador or New York City.”
“Yes,” she says. “I do. I died before they discovered the lands on the other side of the ocean, but I know about them. I used to leave this place. I used to hear things. I remember when they first found the place where you are from. I heard about cities full of gold and evil people.”
“I suppose I’m one of those evil people.”
“You aren’t evil. I can see.”
She circles me slowly, her feet hovering above the floor.
“I knew those people weren’t really evil, even then. I had already been dead a long time.”
She turns her head, her curly hair falling over her shoulder, showing a wound that goes all the way around her neck. I have never seen any woman so beautiful or so strange. I tell her that although I grew up in Ecuador and New York City, I was born on another planet, in the human exhibit at the zoo.
“Another planet,” she repeats. “Another planet circling another sun, in the stars?”
“I understand what you’re saying. I understand that there are other planets where there must be life, the way there was life on the other side of the ocean. But what you say is not normal. People are not born on other planets. I would know about this, unless it is very recent.”
“No, it isn’t normal. In fact, you’re only the second person I’ve ever told the truth to. Most people wouldn’t believe me.”
“Then why do you think I will believe you?”
“Most people don’t believe in ghosts either.”
She smiles and I ask for her name.
“I don’t remember.”
“I suppose it was a very long time ago.”
“Yes. I have forgotten most of my life. I used to know who killed me, but it was so long ago. I know I had a child. I stayed with her until the end. I thought I would fade when she died, but I didn’t.”
“Is she a ghost, too?”
“No. She went wherever the dead go.”
“You still don’t know?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
“No. I don’t know why some of us become ghosts. I don’t know where the others go. I thought I would be taken to the River Styx, but there is no River Styx.”
“In Zefort, the place where I was born, they told us that our lives were dreams. Our true selves were in a deep sleep and when we woke up, we’d have all the memories and experiences we’d lived. Sometimes, after I’d arrived here on Earth, I thought maybe I’d died and woken up in a new world, like they said I would.”
“What do you think now?”
“Now I think there is no other world where the dead wake up, just like there is no River Styx.”
The ghost is silent for a long time, thinking. Finally, she asks, “Do they have ghosts on Zefort?”
“I don’t know. I never heard about them. But I was in the zoo, after all, and very young. Maybe they’d say ghosts were half-asleep, or they’ve got more to learn or experience before they can wake up.”
I realize that as we’ve been speaking, she’s gotten smaller. She’s now slightly smaller than I am and I wonder if this was the size she’d been in life.
“When I used to leave this place, I looked for answers, but I gave up,” she says. “I have been alone in the darkness, until you began digging here.”
“I have apologized for disturbing you, of course, but I cannot do it again with any sincerity since it led to our meeting and I am very glad to have met you.”
She smiles again.
“But,” I say, “I find it very difficult to go on talking without giving you a name. If you can’t remember yours, could I call you Sara, for example?”
“Sara,” she repeats. “The woman you loved. I see it.”
“Long ago, yes, quite right. You look like her.”
“No, I don’t.”
“A little bit, I think. It’s the nose.”
“I don’t look like Sara. But you look at us the same way. I see it.”
My face is red. I know because I can feel it burning.
“You can see a lot of things, can’t you?”
“I can only see you. I see Sara because she’s part of you. I see your wife. I see your relief and your pain when she left you.”
“Do you remember being in love? What happens if you try to remember?”
Sara frowns and thinks for a moment. Her gray skin shimmers and becomes translucent. The light from the flashlight passes through her, as if she were made of frosted glass, and illuminates the wall behind her.
“What I see in you is stronger than my own memories,” she says. “When I remember being in love, I see a pool hall. I see box fans and low, dim lights. I feel the cold glass of beer in my hand.”
She can see things about my past and it occurs to me that there is something I want to ask, something I have wanted to know for a very long time.
“I remember Zefort. I do,” I say. “I remember my parents and the zookeepers. But sometimes I think maybe I imagined it. People tell themselves the stories they need, especially when they experience something traumatic—I know that, everyone knows that. And of course, it has occurred to me that I invented Zefort.”
“Your aunt told you how your parents died. I see it.”
She grows even fainter as she says this and I stare at the glow of the flashlight behind her, too nervous to meet her eyes.
“Yes,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady. “She told me how they died. But the zookeepers had to make up something, didn’t they? They couldn’t tell her that I was born on another planet. But you can see what really happened.”
I wait, aware of the heaviness of each heartbeat in my chest. I want the truth and I do not want the truth. I look up at Sara. Her skin is completely clear now and I can only see the thick, silvery outline of her features. She opens her mouth to answer and for the first time, I am afraid of the ghost.
“I see a bright city in a valley,” she says gently. “I see mountains beyond it. I see black sands and pink rivers. I see your parents in a world much smaller than this one, I see strange faces looking at them.”
I nod vigorously. I turn the flashlight downward, hiding my face in the dark. I fight the urge to cry, but tears come streaming down my face anyway.
“That’s what I remember,” I say. “Can you see my parents now? I suppose they are very old.”
“I can only see you, not the future, not far away places.”
She moves close to me, her hand reaching out. There is no coldness coming from her now. Her hand stops just short of my face. I realize that she’s rapidly fading before my eyes, her outline barely visible.
“What’s happening? Sara? Are you all right? Don’t go just yet.”
“But I want to. I want to disappear,” she says. “I don’t know if I can. I have never been able to.”
She wipes away my tears, her finger grazing my cheek, as light and warm as summer. As soon as she touches me she gasps and says, “I remember. I remember the first time I went to Quito. I had never seen so many people. I remember the first time I saw snow in New York. We went sledding on garbage can lids.”
She is nearly invisible now.
“Stop!” I tell her, moving back. “Those are my memories, that’s what’s making you fade.”
But she ignores me, pressing both of her hands against my face.
“I remember my uncle teaching me pool,” she says. “It was so contained, so perfect and simple.”
I back farther away, turning, trying to hurry out of the room. I drop the flashlight, plunging the room into darkness. In the confusion I fall and land face first on the floor.
I am briefly above ground again, outside. It is morning. I am with a group of women filling jugs with water, getting ready to bathe by the new wall, still half-built, and there is a little girl, my daughter, water dripping from her hair. The memory enters me and lodges itself deep inside, as real as any other memory I’ve lived.
When the pain subsides, I sit up. I’m back underground, in the ruins. I feel for the flashlight and after a few good shakes, it comes on again.
“Sara?” I call, but I can tell I’m alone.
I pull myself up and return to the surface, where the night is calm and silent.
I stand in the dark and wonder what made the ghost fade. Perhaps it’s that emotional warmth melts them like candles, or perhaps it’s the soul in action and we must spend all of it before we can leave. Perhaps my memories gave her something to let go of. I don’t know. Part of me hopes that tonight I’ll be awakened again by a loud noise and return to find Sara recovered, large and cold and terrifying, but I know she’s gone.
If I become a ghost, I think I’ll haunt where I was born, instead of where I died. Sailors on the bioluminescent pink rivers will hear a knocking sound from the dark shores. They’ll look up and see me flickering in the light of the twin moons. I don’t know what they’ll make of me on Zefort. A spirit unable to understand what he needs to learn, a soul without a true self to wake up to. I’ll wander across the black sands beyond the city, slowly forgetting myself. My memories will be replaced by the memories of the people I meet, until I have none of my own, not even the memory of my name. When all I can remember of life is a little girl, my daughter, water dripping from her hair, I’ll fade away into the stars, as if I had never been anyone at all.
Copyright © 2018 by M.C. Williams