It was one of those evenings when the world was coming off its hinges, and once again, who knows why, someone decided to be unwise enough to care for it so that it wouldn’t. I stood in the armory next to small, deeply embedded Gothic windows and, looking through the lead, mullioned glass (which looked like it was made from the bottoms of bottles), tried to see what was happening outside the castle doors. As a waterfall thundered down over the gables, bringing with it pieces of slate shingles, the storm rolled in through the arthritic oak trees planted by my ancestors.The removal of one felled tree cost £25, plus toll charges, the removal of two felled trees was £50 plus toll charges . . . I stopped counting at £925 and grumpily slouched into my library, where I sat at the fireplace, my back freezing and my front boiling. On the way, I stuck out my tongue at an ancestor with a high, Spanish-style collar, his eyes artistically painted in oils, eyes that follow you around, no matter where you go. I reproached him: “It was easy for you, Fergus McFergus. You had a wife, servants, and tenant farmers who worked for free.”
I kept my whiskey company, sat in a lounge chair, and was throwing darts when through the target on the wall entered one of Cromwell’s cavalry soldiers and the mad, headless baroness. I had told them a million times not to do that. The soldier wasn’t hurt. The dart went through his iron glove as if it were butter, but it missed the target by a foot and, as usual, pierced the leather back of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poor victim of the restoration regime’s political terror was becoming more and more like a red and black hedgehog… And Lenore was scratching and hissing, which meant that it wasn’t an accident that her head was not attached to her body. Although the official guide of British royal society about the castles of southern Scotland and Northumberland promised that she always carried her head with her, she had obviously misplaced it again. It was probably in the kitchen, which I had recently redecorated from top to bottom. You have no idea where a woman can misplace her head if you fulfill her irrational wishes by stuffing the kitchen with microwave ovens and electric bread knives.
No. Sharing a home with two ghosts is not easy. If I only knew what ghosts really are!
The authorities maintain a wise silence, or speak nonsensically about these matters. Douglas Adams claims that ghosts are people whose sudden deaths prevented them from finishing something important. There’s no point in debating Catholic doctrine regarding ghosts because we would end up staying here until morning and arguing about third-rate questions, from the Immaculate Conception to the Holy Trinity. I’m not familiar with the way the Anglican Church handles ghosts because Archbishop Ramsey is occupied at the moment with condemning female priests.
We Scots are never told why our miserable island is so richly endowed with ghosts; even the English maintain a reserved silence—if they even know anything in particular about it, which I doubt. Maybe it’s our fault because we shower them with attention? In a country where a third of the population is part of the nobility, the second third is unemployed, and the final third is always on strike, we all have enough time, even for spirits.
So I have no idea what the cavalry soldier and the beheaded noblewoman are made of, or how they even function. I’m not asking for much. There are moments when they really test my patience. They behave as if they had been living in this castle for three hundred and fifty years, and I for only forty (which is, in fact, true), and therefore I, Fergus McFergus IX, need some sort of certificate of citizenship, or at least a work visa and an anti-flea collar, if I want to keep them company. And on top of everything else, when there’s a full moon or a new moon, Lady Lenore speaks like Eliza Doolittle before George Bernard Shaw took hold of her for all eternity. The situation is, as you can tell, really rather bad, as my friend and fellow country club member, Lord Peter Rupert Carrington, said recently about the state of the Bosnian war. He is not a ghost yet, but he’s almost there.
“The situation is desperate,” said my cavalry soldier as he poured quite a bit of my whiskey somewhere behind the breastplate of his turtle-like armor, which was scratched and bent but still polished with care.
“The situation is hopeless, but it’s not serious,” lamented Lady Lenore poisonously and swiped a cigarette from my ebony box with its pearl-like mosaic. The cavalry soldier took pleasure in watching her, in vain, trying to find her head so that she could bring the cigarette to her lips.
I know from experience that, just like curious children, they leave more quickly if I talk to them than if I pretend they’re not there. “What’s troubling you? A new crisis with the government?” I therefore asked them politely.
The cavalry soldier shook his head in despair and tiredly set down his 180 pounds of armor on the chaise longue next to mine. Lenore nervously walked up and down the library, pulling books from the shelves, flipping them over, and putting them back where they didn’t belong. E.A., my favorite raven, sat on her shoulder and tried to be nice, but she grabbed his neck in irritation and put him beak-first into a blood-red vase made of Murano glass.
“Everything’s going to hell,” said the soldier. “The elements of water and air conspired against us, and I’m not just talking about the light rain outside. My intimate friend and fellow soldier, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell—”
(His intimate friend and fellow soldier Oliver Cromwell, blah blah blah. He saw the great commander in person only once, in 1641, not long after riots in Ireland began, right in the basement of a freshly burned-down nunnery, where the Lord Protector was just buttoning his trousers and proclaiming these historic words: “Don’t they have anything besides white wine in this brothel?”)
“—notified me by carrier pigeon—which was in, fact, delayed, as the pigeon has only been dead for a few years and he’s not used to it, so it doesn’t work as it should—that in the gulfs and at the airports all around the Continent, strange things are happening. According to our code of honor, these things should be absolutely forbidden. Absolutely! Just listen to this: In the Port of Bari in Italy on Friday evening, an ocean liner from Panama untied itself and then made its way to the open sea without a tugboat, all by itself…”
“All by itself?” I asked, feigning curiosity.
“All by itself,” the cavalry soldier confirmed seriously. “Not a single living soul. Even the ship’s cat was lifted off the deck before the ship left the port and taken by a small squall to the nearest dock. Poor thing. Its name was Cicciolina. The heavy ship anchors pulled themselves out of the muddy seafloor, the steel chains cranked themselves onto the deck, wrapping themselves around the anchor windlass, the lights lit up by themselves like millions of happy little eyes reflecting on the rails of the passenger decks and the tall, proud smokestack, they lit up the windows of the cabins and the captain’s stateroom, the siren howled sadly into the darkness, and it could be heard from farther and farther away. The radar of the port authority was completely confused for so long that it was too late: green lights flashed madly, eerie whistling sounds assaulted their eardrums, and there was no one who could understand what was going on. Before they became aware of what was happening, the ship was swallowed by the fog, and waves silently crashed over the ship’s wake.
“The same happened in Piraeus, in Casablanca, and even in the naval harbor in Cherbourg.”
“Ghost ships?” I asked with curiosity.
“Uh-huh,” nodded the cavalry soldier. “And that’s not all. At nightfall, empty Boeings take off from the airports at Hofburg, Schwechat, Le Bourget, Orly, and Ciampino and no one in the control tower can do anything to stop them. No one even knows how they can take off with an empty fuel tank—someone would have to notice if the tanks were filled, damn it—and who turns on the lights on the runway. Luckily, none have crashed yet because the phantom planes fly through the other planes that find themselves in their airspace, the passengers on the other planes don’t notice anything, or if they do, they are calmed by the normal routine: there is some light turbulence, boys, nothing unusual, stay calm, and refrain from smoking, please. But the European governments are, of course, nervous, and the ministers of defense smoke like Turks, as they are losing their air and navy fleets in a completely new manner.”
“Ghost planes,” I nodded. “And where is all this traffic headed?”
“Where do you think?” said Lady Lenore crankily. “To England and Scotland, where else?”
I gasped. I could practically see how a strong sense of patriotism was awakening in my two ghosts, going up their throats, into their mouths, from which place they were about to throw up into my lap… Not that foreign-born ghosts could in any way soil our pure Scottish blood—that would be going against nature. But who can guarantee they wouldn’t hurt us in a different way?
“They are coming,” nodded the cavalry soldier with concern. “The ghosts are coming in great numbers to the island, also through the tunnel under the English Channel…”
“Wait a second!” I exclaimed. “It’s not even finished!”
“And so what?” the cavalry soldier shrugged his shoulder armor, which had a pattern of terrifying shooting stars. “They are ghosts, aren’t they? Phantom ships, phantom planes, phantom train, in a phantom tunnel… everything matches up.”
“Nothing matches up!” Lady Lenore screamed angrily. “Nothing at all! You haven’t even told him the most important part!” She threateningly brought the part of her that would, in other circumstances, have been her head close to my face. “Are you even aware,” she hissed angrily, “that our castle is haunted?”
Went the vase made of Murano glass, when it crashed on the stone tiles, where it was tipped over by E.A. the raven, desperately trying to get his freedom back. The great bird dug himself out of the broken pieces of the scarlet vase, squawking and flying onto the top of the doorframe, where he straightened his messy feathers with his beak, his round, black little eyes boring evilly into Lenore, and mumbled something. It is certainly possible, even very probable, that it was “Nevermore.” In the meantime, I was trying to figure out what to do with the information that had been dumped on me by the crazy baroness.
The castle is haunted, of course, definitely. It has been haunted for more than three centuries, from which point Cromwell’s cavalry soldier in 1644, after the victorious battle at the Marston Moor, gave in to severe alcohol poisoning and the baroness was beheaded with a saber by her jealous husband who caught her with—no, not with the stablehand—with the stablehand’s daughter. But I couldn’t say this to Lenore. She is not the type of woman who can handle remarks of a personal nature. It seemed to me that my pets were saying something completely different, something new—they are basically trying to tell me how the castle is haunted—
“—more than usual,” said the cavalry soldier in a calming manner. While rubbing Lenore’s troubled feet. “We have a new ghost. And that certainly violates our code of honor!”
“It’s jumping up and down in the scary little room in which—while it’s true that it was only once, so what?—Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, slept and strummed her guitar,” Lenore complained.
“The ghost sings in a language that no living soul could possibly understand, and it seems that it’s something about a linden tree that flowers the same way it did last year, and about swearing on his blue peasant blood, and about how he would like to be a white button on the neck of his darling, and about what it’s like when a Bosnian man makes love,” the cavalry soldier completed her thought.
“In his blood? He would like to be? He? You are cluelessly guessing without giving it any thought!” Lenore angrily rebuffed him. “It seems quite clear to me that this new parasite is a she!”
What could be worse?!
“Let’s go see,” I sighed.
The cavalry soldier scratched his forehead under his tall helmet. “In my opinion, we should be armed just in case,” he suggested.
The thought of Lenore carrying a halberd seemed pretty funny. “In my opinion, we shouldn’t,” I said with determination. “If the ghost isn’t carrying anything more dangerous than a guitar, we can try, at least try, to behave as true British gentlemen and diplomats.”
“Like the United Nations Protection Force?” mumbled Cromwell’s soldier.
We went to see this mysterious ghost, who had no tourist visa. We carefully crawled up the steep, creaking steps under the blackened rafters. I was walking at the head of the expedition with a heavy seven-branched candelabra in my hands. The candelabra was brought from the Crusades by Fergus McFergus I, and no one alive today knows what it should be used for anymore, but when all seven candles are lit, it is quite useful. British electricity is also not what it used to be in Victorian times.
I pushed open the squealing doors into the small but sexily furnished bedroom of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and peeked inside.
She was—oh, how can I explain it to you!—so amazing your heart would stop beating. Thick, black curls fell over her naked shoulders. She was looking at me as if she were a little fox amid the pink heather at the edge of a fresh, green pasture at the northern slope of McFergus Hill—like the little fox who caused me to strictly forbid any kind of hunting on my property years ago. Causing general horror among the other Fergus McFerguses that are looking down from their portraits in judgment. She wore tight jeans with a waistband so low that between it and the short white cotton T-shirt that barely covered her firm, round breasts you could see a good part of her silky, flat tummy and her belly button, which was like a rosebud. Behind my back, Lenore sighed sharply. On the walls of the lovely little bedroom, the seven-branched candelabra in my hands threw shadows that quivered and disappeared. And something in me was also trembling. She was happily dancing, crossing her legs in front of her as she moved, spinning on the tips of her vermilion-painted toes, and now and again in a seductive Levantine manner, she strummed the strings of the small pearl and silver-glazed tamburica that she held in her shapely hands just under her beautiful breasts—have I mentioned that she had fantastic breasts?
She smiled at us affectionately and said in a singsong voice:
“Hablan español, señores? Or at least ladino?”
We said: “Huh?”
“Hebrew?” she asked. We looked at each other in despair.
“Latin?” she tried to help us.
“The last person I heard speak Latin I impaled with a stake,” Cromwell’s cavalry soldier smirked. “What the hell is she making up, that know-nothing trollop?” yelled Lenore in her most prestigious Doolittle Cockney accent.
“Calm down, lassie,” my (my, really my?) new ghost winked at her. “If you don’t speak it, you just don’t speak it. So we’ll talk in your language, won’t we, laddie?” And she also winked at the cavalry solider.
With a lump in my throat I inquired about her name and hoped that she’d say that she’d wanted to become Mrs. Fergus McFergus all her life.
“Renana is my name,” she winked at me. “And who are you? And what are you doing with a menorah in your hands?”
“He’s taking up arms,” Lenore said spitefully. “He has good reason to do so.” Somewhere far beneath us in the kitchen, the baroness’s head spit scornfully.
“This is a menorah?” I looked at the candelabra in my hands with disbelief. “Are you sure?”
“I suppose so,” she said and winked at me again. (Me against the cavalry soldier, it was two to one, good, good…) “I should know, I am a Jew, a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo. Either way, I’m a Schrödinger cat.”
“She’s a real tiger,” admitted the cavalry soldier and then added: “Ow!”
A person would assume that a barefoot woman, even though she is a headless baroness, could not cause any major damage even if she firmly steps on the foot of a man in riding boots. But obviously this isn’t true for ghosts.
I smacked my forehead.
Of course. This was something we should have known about ghosts from the beginning.
Ghosts are Schrödinger cats.
“And now, can someone explain to me—if someone is even aware that I am still here—” Lenore said bitterly, “what a Schrödinger cat is?”
“A Schrödinger cat is a completely real notion from quantum mechanics.” I took a deep breath (I was going to need a lot of breath…) and reconciled myself in advance with the worst that could happen and peacefully headed into a long and winding intellectual discussion. “It's a kitty cat that you seal in a box…”
“Do you give it any milk?” the cavalry soldier inquired in good humor.
“They sealed me in a bomb shelter,” said Renana. “And at the end, we ate road salt mixed with livestock feed.”
“We drill a microscopically small hole into the box. Through this hole, we shoot electrons at the cat…”
“Why on earth—what did it do wrong?” The cavalry soldier was appalled and curious at the same time.
“Let me explain, Lord Protector!” hissed Lenore.
“I was shot at with missiles,” said Renana.
“The electron hits the cat, or it doesn’t. If it misses, the cat survives, and if it hits its mark the kitty cat is no more. Until we unseal the box and we see how the little animal is doing, we can’t be sure what its fate was,” I kept lecturing steadily. “Normal people could only claim that the cat is either alive or dead until the box is unsealed. But not quantum physicists, you see. They think in this way. As an electron was involved in the experiment, this is an occurrence from the field of quantum mechanics. That is why we have to judge it in the light of a probability calculation and make claims about the cat in this way: until we pull off the lid, the cat is fifty percent dead and fifty percent alive. And at the same time, it exists in two overlapping forms of energy waves—that, in reality, is nothing other than…”
“No,” Renana and I shook our heads. “Nothing other than a ghost.”
And so on that stormy evening, with the help of a young Sephardic Jew from Bosnia, I resolved the question about the substance of ghosts. Lord Protector and Lord Peter Rupert Carrington will soon see how it feels to be a little bit alive and a little bit dead at the same time.
“Every Bosnian is a Schrödinger cat,” Renana said calmly. She sat cross-legged like a Turk on the bed pillows belonging to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (she looked so natural there), smoking the cavalry soldier’s pipe. I was perched at the foot of the bed and inching my way closer to her. The cavalry soldier was a gentleman and excused himself, moving behind the window curtains.
E.A., the raven, flew to the attic and gently pecked at little pink mice in the palms of Renana’s hands.
Lenore stormed down into the kitchen, and even all the way up in the attic the sound of glass breaking and furniture being knocked over could be heard.
“Not only living people are fleeing Bosnia,” said Renana seriously. “The ghosts are also starting to turn their backs. You know, babies are born and take the place of the dead, and houses in ruins can be rebuilt. But when mosques and synagogues are being destroyed, when language, culture, and writings are being annihilated, when the nation is dying, at that point, even the ghosts have nothing to keep them there anymore.”
“But you are not a Muslim,” the cavalry soldier said, confusedly. “You are a Jew. The war in Bosnia is not your war.”
Renana moved—oh, how can I explain, with such grace!—her naked shoulders. “Do you think that the sniper who had me in his line of fire asked me? Everybody is already so numb that they can’t even speak anymore. They have also forgotten the name their mother gave them. In the evening, they curl up in the fetal position with a gun between their legs; they know they have to sleep, so they will be well-rested in the morning to continue killing. And when they wake up, they know they have to keep killing. Only they don’t know any more why they have to keep killing. They only keep moving their finger on the trigger as if it were the only part that was still capable of thinking. And the finger is thinking in its own way, apart from the head. And that is the problem: ghosts can’t exist in a country where people can’t talk anymore, not even to themselves; not even in their own minds.”
“And all these years and all these ships…” the cavalry soldier summed up his thoughts.
Renana nodded. “Exactly. Bosnian ghosts kidnapped them to run away to safety. What else could we do?” She smiled bitterly. “If you only knew how they awaited us at the airport in Manchester! Near the landing zone, a group of German officer ghosts, who died during World War II in a nearby POW camp, gathered. A few skinheads and other unemployed youths mixed with the crowd. They covered their heads with pointy hoods like the Ku Klux Klan, with holes for the eyes, and white robes that reached to the ground. They carried burning crosses and eagerly attacked us. There was a lot of struggle and many bloody heads, and the police didn’t even know who to arrest because they couldn’t differentiate between ghosts and living people because of the white robes. So they just stood in the background with their bulletproof glass shields and kept asking their union representative if this would be counted as overtime even though they were just standing there.”
“But why,” I asked her, “did you choose England and Scotland as your place of refuge? You should have known how stuffy it is over here—that a full crow never believes a hungry one?”
E.A., the raven, hiccupped and was so wonderfully full that he just dropped to the carpet and fell sweetly asleep.
Renana looked at me as if there was something missing inside my skull. “We came here to punish you, of course,” she said severely. “Look: your Carrington should have helped us, but he didn’t. Your Owen should have helped us, but he didn’t. And now it’s too late. And even though you might get sick of playing cowboys and Indians with those other Muslims there in Iraq, and for a change you send your smart bombs to Bosnia—those smart bombs that can decide by themselves if they should enter through the door or window into the house under attack, even knocking first—it is too late for me and for one hundred and thirty-one thousand others. The least you can do for us is to help each and every one of us individually in every way that is in your power to do. We have to manage it on our own—why in God’s name do you think you should be spared?”
Well, if you put it that way…
Renana luxuriously rolled over to the velvet pillows and rested her hands behind her head. (Have I mentioned that she had beautiful arms?) “I’ve managed to resolve things for myself,” she smiled slyly. “You’ll help me, won’t you?” she whispered sweetly and winked at me with those fox eyes, due to which I, Fergus McFergus IX, only stalk women amid heather in sunny green pastures.
And now we are up shit creek without a paddle.
Now I know that ghosts are Schrödinger cats, and this gives me many benefits.
I loyally take black coffee and Cadbury chocolate with raisins to Renana in the bedroom of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. I also gave her the menorah and enough matches to light a candle every evening. When all seven are burning, she snuffs them out with her long white fingers and starts all over again.
The cavalry soldier is rudely sucking up to her. In the newest version of his story about meeting Oliver Cromwell, it hadn’t happened in the basement of a nunnery but on a hill where they sat shoulder-to-shoulder, each on a stallion, and stared with machismo into the morning mist that was swirling above the battlefield. So when Renana persuasively declared that as long as she was alive (alive?), she didn’t want to hear anything more about battlefields of any kind, he changed his tactics. The last time I burst in on him he was holding a book of Tennyson's poems in his hands; he stared sturdily ahead and repeated diligently like a schoolboy: “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love…” Young man’s fancy, really! Hypocrite.
E.A., the raven, is stepping lightly on the landing in front of Renana’s bedroom; wrapped in a striped scarf with silky tassels, Renana solemnly and resoundingly recites the Shema Yisrael: “Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad… ”
Lenore stubbornly sits in the kitchen. She sets her head on her forearm, which is on top of the microwave oven, and places lit cigarettes, one after another, between her lips with a depressed and absentminded movement. When I enter the kitchen, she starts to throw haggis at me. This might not sound very scary, but if you were hit in the face with bile made of sheep intestines you would, without a doubt, understand the torments I suffer.
© Maja Novak. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Kristina Zdravič Reardon and Nina Dolgan. All rights reserved.