My Country is a Ghost
By Eugenia Triantafyllou
When Niovi tried to smuggle her mother’s ghost into the new country, she found herself being passed from one security officer to another, detailing her mother’s place and date of death over and over again.
“Are you carrying a ghost with you, ma’am?” asked the woman in the security vest. Her nametag read Stella. Her lips were pressed in a tight line as she pointed at the ghost during the screening, tucked inside a necklace. She took away Niovi’s necklace and left only her phone.
“If she didn’t die here, I am afraid she cannot follow you,” the woman said. Her voice was even, a sign she had done this many times before. Niovi resented the woman at that moment. She still had a ghost waiting for her to come home, comforting her when she felt sad, giving advice when needed. But she was still taking Niovi’s ghost away.
Stella paused. She gave Niovi a moment to think, to decide. She could turn around and go back to her home taking the necklace with her. Back to her unemployment benefits and a future she could no longer bring herself to imagine, or she could move down the long stretch of aisles, past the dimming lights and into the night, alone, her mother’s ghost left behind—where do ghosts return to in times like this? Niovi would be a new person in a new country, wiped clean of her past.
Foreign ghosts were considered unnecessary. The only things they had to offer were stories and memories.
Niovi had prepared herself for this, and yet she had hoped she wouldn’t have to leave her mother behind.
She gave the necklace to the impassive woman and let herself drift down the aisle as if a forceful gust of air ushered her away.
Her mother’s ghost waved goodbye behind the detector and Niovi’s thoughts was of the Saturday of Souls. It was a prayer, an invocation as she put more and more distance between her and the security woman, her and the necklace. Without her mother’s ghost she would start to forget soon. But this she had to remember. She needed to hang on to something now that her mother had been pried from her hands.
The Saturday of Souls.
When the ghost finally disappeared, Niovi’s legs felt like lead. Her arms felt like lead. Everything felt like lead and she could barely move.
“Welcome!” Niovi heard the driver say as she boarded the airport shuttle.
The first thing Niovi faced when she stepped out of the shuttle was the cold. It was only October. Snow would start at the end of November. But even now the cold was so utter, so complete, it seemed like a wall, an extra line of defense between herself and these people who had too many ghosts and her who had none. A final warning that foreign ghosts were a nuisance, a waste of space.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered to the frost. “You are too late.”
She started her new life in a small apartment in a badly-lit part of a street that led to a cul-de-sac.
In the mornings, as she waited for the days to pass so she could start her new job, she would walk around the city, counting ghosts.
Every time she went out the people of the city would notice her, look at her, and scrutinize her. No, not her. The absence of her ghost. She was an oddity among people cloaked in spirits that followed their every step. Some of them looked at her with concern and others with outright curiosity.
There were others without ghosts, of course. They were usually huddled together in small groups, shielding themselves against the unwelcome stares or, perhaps, against their own loss. Niovi couldn’t bring herself to even glance at them. Instead she gravitated towards the other ones. The ones who still had ghosts. Despite their looks of curiosity and sometimes pity. Most of them didn’t even notice their presence, the ghosts’ affections were natural, ordinary. Niovi found this nonchalance fascinating.
Then, there were the untethered ghosts. The ones conjured by the collective memory of the people. They did not belong to anyone in particular. They belonged to everyone. Niovi liked to think they belonged to her too, especially here.
There was the ghost of the old general. He stood right next to his own statue along with the ghost of his horse and offered a spectacle for the little kids. A stubborn man, as Niovi found out; he had been trotting the same square for two hundred years. He had died in a battle that few remembered. He stood there with his medals of honor, speaking in an antiquated manner that nobody understood and riding his ghost horse, saluting the tourists.
Niovi liked the General. He was old, really old and came from a time when ghosts could move around following their loved ones without borders tearing one from the other. Niovi thought of the necklace she tried to bring her mother in. They had sent it to her a few days later, cold, empty. She kept it anyway. It was her mother’s after all.
She sat on a bench, a bag of chips in her lap, and let her mind wander back home. To her empty house. Her mother’s house. Did her mother’s ghost stay there or had she moved on? Maybe she had followed someone else in the family like she did when she was alive and Niovi ignored her calls. Become their ghost.
The edges of her mother’s face were already beginning to blur in her mind. They became fuzzy. She looked at her mother’s pictures on her phone but they were lifeless and flat. They did little to bring her mother’s image back.
So she sat at the square looking at the children scream in a language she was still learning and heard them laugh and laugh.
Niovi’s first job was at a Greek restaurant next to the Southern Harbor. She wanted to cook. In fact, she needed it. Not just so she could justify her staying in the country. Cooking was what her mother had done best when she was alive, and when they were still together in Athens, daughter and ghost, cooking could help her not forget the things she desperately needed to hold on to.
The sullen ghostless man at the restaurant inspected Niovi’s resume and asked her a series of questions, dubious that she could do what she claimed. He told her that many people claimed to do things they couldn’t just to get a job here, but Niovi wasn’t sure that was true at all. Maybe they could do those things but, if they were ghostless like her, and like her sullen to-be-boss, at some point they had started to forget the details. Niovi tried to drown a small voice whispering that she might be next.
“All right,” the man said in the end. “You’ll start with the dishes and you’ll move up to prep.”
Her heart dropped at that, but it was a door—or perhaps a half-open window—to the job she wanted, so she agreed to work the morning shifts.
Niovi conjured her mother’s image stirring a pot of stewed okra, the ghost of her mother’s aunt whispering something to her as she cooked. She conjured the smells of spices and the tomato and the sweat gathering on her mother’s brow like this could bring her ghost back. Or at least help her keep those precious details.
She found herself in that scene too. At the table her young self looked down at her plate and scrunched her face in disgust. Her father nodded in a conspiratorial way from the other side of the table, much to his own ghost’s disapproval. He made up a chore to excuse her from the table. Her grandmother—her father’s ghost—shook her head but said nothing. Niovi slid from her chair and ran outside, because back then she hated okra. How stupid.
In the end she was not sure this helped at all. Instead what she found when her break was over and she was back in her post was a whiff of similar scents drifting from the restaurant’s kitchen wrapped in a blanket of hot air. It wasn’t okra they were cooking. But the spices, the slow murmuring of pots, the noises, were all achingly intimate.
She couldn’t help but leave the water running and follow the scent to the kitchen. She expected familiar scents here but not that familiar.
There was a man hunched over bigger and smaller pots. His moves calculated in a quiet choreography as he assembled the dishes. Locks of ashen blond hair peered from under his head wrap. Niovi knew that the staff was mostly made up by non-Greeks but still, this man’s ghost caught her off guard. Not because he had a ghost to begin with. Almost all the waiters she had met had one; this was their country after all. But this ghost was everything he wasn’t and everything familiar to her.
It was the ghost of an old woman, older than her mother was when she died. Her hair was dark with grey streaks, curly and unruly, and her face at odds with the cook’s. She hovered over him and when his hands twitched or when his breath quickened she would rest a hand on his shoulder and he would calm down again, his moves becoming more precise and deliberate. When he would finish assembling a dish the ghost would smile and nod. His back was turned away from the ghost but Niovi knew he felt her approval.
“Niovi!” Her boss’s voice came from the back. And just like the man looked up, and so did the ghost that reminded her so much of her mother, and the Saturday of Souls snapped back in her mind like a wound that had just reopened.
Before the man, who had a smile that took up half his face, had a chance to utter a word, she realized she had been standing there for far too long. So she gave him a faint nod and left to finish her shift, turning her head on him a little too fast, desperate to hide her tears.
Niovi asked about him the very next day. She talked to Matilda who always spoke slowly enough for her to understand, but her attention drifted as soon as Niovi had a hard time finishing a sentence. Or perhaps without a ghost Matilda had nowhere to rest her eyes on. Perhaps this absence made her uneasy.
The cook’s name was Remi and he was born here, though his maternal grandparents came from Greece some fifty years ago. They died here too, never having a chance to really retire. That’s why he could still have his grandmother’s ghost, who seemed to fit in this place as much as Niovi did, which was not very much.
Niovi felt the stabbing of jealousy. Remi could have it all. He could speak like a native and have a ghost which carried the kind of knowledge Niovi had to fight to keep with her. As soon as she thought this she felt ashamed.
“You know,” Matilda said. The ghost of a young man stood always by her side. From the similarities Niovi could guess it was a close family member. A brother maybe. Matilda seemed at ease with it and didn’t even give it a second glance. Niovi looked Matilda in the eyes to avoid looking at the ghost. “You could come with us one night out. Just some people from work. Talking more to us would help you practice.”
“What about Remi?” Niovi dared to ask.
Matilda smirked a little, which made Niovi’s face flush. But before Niovi had the chance to say anything Matilda gave her a half-shrug. “He prefers to hang out with the ghostless. That’s not going to help you integrate.”
All Niovi could hear behind the concern was, our ghosts are enough. We are enough. But their ghosts were too different and living people were harder to be around. She had spent so much time with her mother’s ghost, her quiet sighs and her calm stare engulfing her every move, that when she was asked to join her coworkers after a shift she would always decline.
“Too tired,” she said, because she did not want to say too sad.
In this city, like in any other, Niovi would find ghosts everywhere. They peered out from behind curtained windows, waved at her from old swing sets, or stood in grocery store aisles staring thoughtfully at a shelf that wasn’t there anymore. But most of all—if they were the tethered kind—they were discreetly following their person.
Ghosts were made of stories. It was the way they chose to tell them that was different. In this country ghosts seemed more like shadows to her. They were calm, less opinionated. Their stories were made of stares and slight nods, sometimes a pat on the back.
In Greece the ghosts were louder, their disapproval mattered, their whispers were sought out and their stories carried memories her people would not have remembered otherwise. Not in the same vividness of smells, tastes and textures. Sometimes, when listening to one of her mother’s stories, Niovi could catch herself reliving an event that never happened to her. Something that had happened to her mother or her grandmother decades ago carried the feeling and the weight of the present. It made her happy, sad or angry, in what here would be considered a disproportionate amount.
Despite her efforts to conjure the memories, she couldn’t do it in quite the same way. She was beginning to forget. It started with the holidays, then the right words took longer to reach her lips and later the proper way her family spiced the dishes.
When her mother’s swift hands stuffed the cheese filling in the pie on Sundays before the sun had risen, was it mint or basil she used? When she cooked the tender beef in casserole with fresh tomatoes, was it cinnamon that made its flesh so sweet and aromatic or was it allspice?
Even as a ghost her mother never failed to remind her of those things, of who she was and why she was, especially when she felt sad and lonely. Her mother was really good at picking up on that. Without her mother or her ghost around, she was losing parts of herself she did not know how to get back.
None of the ghosts she met here spoke her tongue or at all. She knew there must have been people like her who died in this country. As much as this thought made her stomach churn, she knew this might happen to her in the future. But up until now she thought they had chosen to return home rather than stay here. Follow their roots back to where they came from and haunt a relative or simply move on.
But then she saw Remi’s grandmother and nothing was quite the same after that.
It was a strange day at work.
Her ever-surly boss told her that she would be moving up to preparations next week. Her stomach twisted into a bundle of fear and nerves.
“You’ve made it.” Remi patted her on the back, smiling. His ghost ever so slightly touched the boundaries of her perception, made her recoil.
She whispered a thank you and swallowed. The world was closing in around her.
Niovi’s new place would be next to Remi in the kitchen. Seeing him—seeing his grandmother’s ghost too—for as long as she worked here. Asking for another shift would be too soon, quitting would be unthinkable. She had nowhere to go.
She started drifting in and out of a past she could barely piece together. The Saturday of Souls was just around the corner and she had spent the previous nights talking with relatives on the phone, trying desperately to recreate her memories vicariously. Longing for that connection to her mother again.
What ingredients did her mother use for the offering of koliva? What were the words she would say in her prayers? Niovi tried to invoke the particulars that made her mother’s ritual unique. Not the ones she could ask other people about, the ones she could read about, but the ones she could once taste and hear in her mother’s distinct voice. A one-person culture among her people’s collective one.
She could not. Yet her family offered to help.
“There are nine ingredients in koliva. How could you forget?”
“When will you visit us?”
“Light a candle for her soul.”
“Is there a Church to take the offering? Where will you go?”
Where would she go?
Where did the ghostless people go? The ones she met on the street always looked lost to her, directionless, the way they squeezed against each other. But maybe it was just what she felt, a projection of her own aimlessness.
She finally gave in.
It wasn’t so much the pressure of her coworkers that did the trick as much as Remi and his ghost. It hurt to linger in the kitchen when Remi was working. When they had to exchange to talk during their shift (which was not very often) she felt the stare of the woman following.
So one day, after her shift, she let herself be carried away by the people with the ghosts that did not hurt her, whose stares she could not read as easily. The ghosts who could teach her a few things about this place to replace the ones she had forgotten.
She let the crowd of five talk over her, through her, as if she were one of their ghosts. Once in a while she would offer a half-formed sentence or she would ask a question that seemed too fundamental to them, but completely vital for her understanding of their discussions. They spoke too fast for her to follow anyway.
After a while she gave up, or maybe they did.
She got up to leave, more lost than ever. As if she were the anchor, the reason all this was happening—she wasn’t—the others cut their conversations short and paid the bill in haste.
They all walked, half-drunken and languid, down the stone-paved street. The pubs, arranged on either side, were luring the people inside, away from the biting wind, but the street musicians had other plans. The restaurant where Niovi worked was right around the corner, on one of the busiest streets.
It was Matilda who told her then about the ghost of a street musician, a couple blocks down. She was untethered like the General and only appeared on Sunday nights at the same place she performed when she was still alive, strumming her ghost guitar.
“What kinds of songs does she sing?”
“Oh, the same sad songs. Some of them foreign.” Matilda rested an arm over Niovi’s shoulder to fix the strap of her slingback shoe. Niovi tolerated the jab of the woman’s elbow against the hollow of her neck. She wanted to be accommodating. “She’s really popular with the couples.”
Niovi nodded. She imagined what song her mother would sing if she were here. Probably none. She would make the pots clutter and shuffle around the table in a harmonious frenzy. That was her mother’s music.
They were getting closer to the spot where the ghost of the singer performed. Withered flower petals carpeted the concrete slabs.
When she heard the music she instantly knew the song was Greek. The ghost was a woman in her fifties, the hippie type, with kind eyes. She strummed the guitar while playing a tune on a harmonica set on a neck rack. She didn’t look Greek from afar, but Niovi had been fooled before.
As if he manifested from her most hidden thoughts, the ones she was trying to keep silent with a night like this one, Remi stood there, a few feet away from the ghost of the musician but fully enveloped in his own.
It felt like too much and like nothing at all. Like one of those moments where a decision must be made. Niovi looked behind her. The company of five had stopped in front of another street musician, a living one, or perhaps a pub—she couldn’t say for sure—debating something Niovi was too tired to decipher.
So instead Niovi took her place besides Remi who was mouthing the words of the song, absent-minded. His grandmother’s ghost—her curly hair worn in an old-fashioned updo—radiated calmness. Niovi felt her body permeating the outline of her, the warmth of familiarity against her skin sharper than the coldest of days here.
She did not move an inch, just stood very still listening to the song, feeling a sweet misplacement.
“How does she know the words?” Niovi was convinced now the musician’s ghost was a local. The words came out without the depth and the nuance they were supposed to. But they did come with an emotion Niovi admired.
Remi turned around immediately as if a current of electricity had run through him. His grandmother’s lips curled into a smile.
“From her husband,” he answered, still stunned by her boldness, perhaps, her change of attitude. “He came here in the late 80’s. She was the first person he talked to in this country when he walked down this street, wide-eyed and lonely.”
Much like you, Niovi imagined him saying the words, but she was certain they were there.
Niovi’s body shivered as she took a few more steps towards him. Towards his ghost that had haunted her in the most complete sense.
“You know,” he said after he had reclaimed some of his composure. “We are not alone here. There are parts of us everywhere you look. We have a past here too.”
You have a past, she did not say to him. He must have known he was different already. Instead a small hope flickered into existence. A promise remembered.
“Do you celebrate the Saturday of Souls here then?”
He smiled a faint smile. In his eyes there was openness and she was ready to listen.
He showed her a small engraved handkerchief. This was how he carried his grandmother.
Something loosened inside of her.
He had no other family, no siblings—unlike her—and no parents. The ghost was of his grandmother who had raised him since he was ten. When she died she stayed with him.
“I came back home from the funeral,” he said. “And there she was, standing over her handkerchief, waiting for me.” He took a small sip from his coffee, his voice unsteady like his hand.
The ghost’s eyes were compassionate as she stroked her grandson’s head.
“She is the only connection I have with the past. My past.” He smiled. His smile had a bitter tint. Niovi understood more than he let on. She blinked back tears, for him, for her, for envying him all this time, for not reaching out to him earlier.
If her longing for her mother was a string, that string had somehow grown into a rope within days, hours. Ever since Remi had told her he would help her see her ghost again. There was a reason ghostless people huddled together. To share memories and stories and pool their resources. There were even untethered ghosts formed by the memories of big enough families. There was a way to bring her mother’s ghost into this country. If even for a little while.
“You cannot do this alone,” he said. “But you can do it.” There was a promise in his words and for the first time since she came here she believed it.
On Saturday she met Remi. He took her to a place in the city she had never been before, but she had not been to most places anyway. They walked around, shoulder bumping against shoulder. His grandmother’s ghost followed them timidly.
In those streets almost no one looked at her—at the emptiness above and around her—with sorrow or alarm. Even the locals strolling the alleyways with their ghosts did not give her a second glance. The ghostless people met her eyes unfazed. Many of them walked in groups but now her perception had shifted. Now she saw the enjoyment as well as the need to share stories, jokes, company. To give as well as take.
The ghostless held candles and plates of koliva and offerings for the dead. There was excitement in the air. It was a celebration.
“This is how ghosts are conjured here,” Remi told her. “It doesn’t have to be sad.”
No, it didn’t.
She was daunted and restless about this newfound freedom. The ease of knowing that the person she came from—because people came from people more than they came from places—could be revisited like a place could. Back in Greece she had never had to think of lineage before. She had taken her mother’s ghost for granted and she realized now that this was a privilege.
If her longing for her mother was a rope, that rope had branched out to Remi, to his grandmother’s ghost, to the ghostless people around her. Niovi let the rope guide her. She followed the crowd rushing inside the red bricked, corner building, wedged between offices downtown.
Whispers and laughter hang in the air when she came in. Niovi took a careful look around for familiar ghosts, her breath caught in her chest. Her anticipation deflated a sliver, when she found nothing had changed. She scolded herself for hoping too much when Remi guided her to the far side of the wall.
There was a long table there, covered in white embroidered tablecloths. Plates of all shapes, sizes and colors were left on the linen but held only one thing: koliva, food for the dead.
She left her own plate there. Niovi had made them herself, taking extra care to not forget any ingredient, afraid that if she did, then all this, all the strength she had gathered inside of her during the days leading up to Saturday, all would be for nothing.
Niovi lit a candle, steadied it inside the heap of koliva, and left the necklace on the table. Remi stood right there next to her, his shoulder brushing hers. She took a deep breath and took in the smell of each of the ingredients. Nine like the ranks of Angels:
Wheat, for the Earth and the souls of those who lie buried under.
Bread crumbs, for the dirt–may it be light upon their grave.
White, candied almonds, for the blanched bones of the dead.
Pomegranate seeds, for Persephone and Hades, but also the promise of Heaven.
Cinnamon, for all the smells and tastes of this world.
Parsley, for the green, green grass of the resting place.
Raisins, for the vines of Dionysus and the sweetness that is this life.
Sugar, for the sweetness of the Afterlife.
Nuts and seeds, for fertility and life that laughs in the face of death.
There was a change in the atmosphere, a mixing of scents. Niovi heard Remi draw in air and opened her eyes. For a few moments she stared at the necklace on the table. She didn’t dare look up.
When she did look up her mother’s ghost was not as she remembered. The ghost was made of memories that all lit up at once like a beacon inside her, her voice was a mixture of spices and familiar tastes. It all descended on her, draping her like a veil.
She saw her mother’s eyes for the briefest of moments. And then what there was of her mother’s ghost scattered all around her and soaked this new country so she could finally call it her own.
About the Author
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.