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The Ghost Whisperer
By Charlotte Rossler
The early morning sun rose to shining blue skies. We bounced along in the smelly, crowded bus taking the curves too fast through the White Mountains. Wearing jean shorts, my sweaty thighs stuck to the dirty vinyl seat.
I hummed the John Denver song, “Sunshine on my Shoulders.” The song, released the year before, in 1974, stuck in my head. I loved playing that song on my guitar back home in California.
The bus downshifted abruptly, throwing everyone forward. I screamed then laughed. The driver stopped for about twenty sheep crossing the road, shepherded by a mustached man dressed in dark clothes. He paced behind the sheep keeping them together with a guiding stick.
We traveled upward through the hills and Greek villages. Goats, called Kri Kri, and sheep had the right of way, so we stopped every time they sauntered across the road.
The bus gained speed, hit a bump, and Sila, my blond German friend, bounced out of her seat into the aisle. Alexis, our Greek friend sitting across from us, struggled to help her up, but couldn’t manage it due to Sila’s large frame and extra weight. Another sharp curve caused them both to tumble.
“Get off me!” Sila laughed and pushed him aside.
Sila finally got seated again and dug in her backpack for her tobacco and rolling papers.
“Another one?” I secretly hated that she smoked so much – especially when seated right next to me.
Sila and I met three weeks earlier on the ferry crossing from Athens. We became instant friends, talking while lying next to each other in our sleeping bags on the deck. We hitchhiked together around Crete ever since, even stayed overnight in the Matala caves, on a cargo ship, or anywhere free.
The day we left the Matala caves, we met Alexis, a twenty-something college student like us, traveling on holiday. He planned to end his trip and go home to Athens for the start of his new term. His shoulder-length dark wavy hair and bright face hooked us right away. We invited him to join us for a few days of travel before going home.
That was a week ago.
The three of us got off the bus near the mouth of the Samaria Gorge, prepared to hike the Xsiloskalo Trail. I tilted my head back, inhaled the fresh smell of pine before Sila lit another cigarette. We were the only hikers around and I felt glad. I didn’t want the natural serenity disturbed by transistor radios or kids shouting. A small faded sign indicated the beginning of the trail. Alexis confirmed it with the bus driver before the guy sped away.
We trekked into the rocky gorge with our heavy camping gear, sliding, almost falling on loose dirt in the steep areas. We continued to descend into the dark, tree-covered abyss. The air got so cold, I stopped and fished my nylon windbreaker from my backpack. A strange, eerie feeling seemed to follow me, but I shook it off, started humming “Sunshine on my Shoulders” again, trudged on.
“Watch out,” I warned Sila ahead of me. She waved her arms for balance, stepped stone-to-stone across a shallow river. In some places, thousand-foot walls of adjoining mountains closed in around us creating only a narrow passage. I felt like we transported into a Tolkien story.
We hiked a few more hours, then stopped on the crest of a hill to appreciate the vibrant green valley far below surrounded by steep mountains. An old abandoned village of crumbling stone lay peacefully on the valley floor. We cut off the trail, made our way down the grassy embankment to get a better look.
I threw my backpack into one of the deserted huts before setting out to explore the village. A few dwellings remained intact; others seemed to crumble before our eyes. I imagined the ancient people who once lived in this settlement hauling water from the streams and tending their livestock. Did they take time to appreciate the grandeur of the mountains or did they only think about survival in this remote place? Dry tumbleweeds and sprigs of bushes were all that remained.
“It’s so quiet here. I don’t even hear birds,” Sila said.
“I’ll be back in a while.” I set out with a canteen, found a goat trail leading up the steep incline above the settlement. I picked up a hefty walking stick in case of rattlesnakes. Sila and Alexis stayed far below, explored the different ruins and picked up stones to examine. When I returned to the hut, I found Sila smoking and Alexis digging through his backpack for something.
“Let’s camp here tonight.” I said.
“My thought too,” Alexis said.
“There might be a law against staying here overnight.” Sila routinely put the brakes on my ideas.
“So what? We’re not disturbing anything.”
She shrugged, shook out her sleeping bag. “If we get in trouble, I’m blaming it on you guys.”
“Yeah, there’s gorge cops everywhere.” Alexis grinned at her.
I propped my backpack against the stone wall. Alexis leaned back against his, closed his eyes, Sila rolled another cigarette. I dug for the jerky, bread, and goat cheese we brought.
A breeze blew into our one-room shelter through the doorless entryway. The evening shadows grew long, and night settled in. The temperature turned to a biting chill.
I relaxed, drifted off to sleep and dreamt about the generations of families who’d spent their lives in that hut.
Deep into the night, the sound of a sharp crack, like a branch breaking, startled me awake.
“What’s that?” I tried to identify where the sound came from.
Alexis sat up cross-legged on the floor, said nothing, stared at the open entryway.
I gasped, Sila yelped when a scruffy man wearing a dirty beanie cap poked his head through the open doorway. He swung his lantern into the hut then stepped inside. His dusty clothes draped on his thin frame in tattered layers. The light showed his hands were cracked and crusted with dirt, as though he dug with his long, curved fingernails. He moved in slow motion, back stooped to a hunch. The odor of dead animal drifted in with him.
I covered my mouth to guard against his smell. His pitted, blotchy face pinched into a scowl and his squinty eyes bore into mine. When his stare shifted to Sila, she lay her hand across her chest like protecting herself from an oncoming heart attack and scooted back to the wall. He leaned toward her, growled.
Alexis spoke to him in Greek. The man’s head jerked towards him, like he resented the interruption, then he spat out a string of words in response.
“He claims he’s the guardian of the Gorge,” Alexis said without taking his eyes off the hunched man. “The village is protected grounds and we’re trespassing. He says we’re not welcome and must leave.”
“What are we supposed to do?” Sila said. “It’s too late to hike out. It’s dangerous.”
“I think it’s more dangerous to stay here with him, don’t you?” Alexis said.
“Give him something, a gift, like some jerky or - give - give him a cigarette, Sila,” I said.
Sila quickly rolled one and held it out from where she sat, cigarette visibly shaking with her hand.
Shadows danced in swirls on the walls from the lantern light although nobody in the hut moved. The man appeared to stop breathing, frozen in place. He tilted his head like listening to something then his lips moved, no words came out. Moments ticked by.
Sila got up and without stepping closer, stretched her arm again, offered him the cigarette. She waited, but he didn’t move. She met my eyes, sat back on the floor, slid further away.
The old guy looked pale, lifeless. I took tiny breaths, tried not to inhale his smell.
He turned and paused at the doorway, hovered over us from his stooped stance. His lantern cast dark, crooked shapes on the stone walls. Shadows moved across his distorted face and into his mouth like bugs, making him appear unearthly.
“Oh, my God,” somebody, maybe me, whispered.
His dark, cave-like mouth twisted as he said something else, then turned and left.
“Thank God he’s gone. What did he say, Alexis?” I said. “It’s so dark in here without that lantern.”
“He said if we refuse to leave, we’ll regret it. Where’s those stick matches? I need some light.”
“Regret it? Why?”
“He said the village is haunted. It’s been reported many times throughout history.”
Sila looked Alexis in the eyes. “What does that mean? He threatened us?”
“He’s just a crazy old guy who lives in the Gorge.”
“He looks – like – like a ghost and smells like…” my voice trailed off. I took deep breaths, tried to calm myself.
Sila continued questioning Alexis face-to-face. “What are you not telling us?”
“He said the wind blows menacing spirits through the village at night when provoked, agitated by strangers.” The stick match he held burned out.
I gulped back my rising panic, tried not to let it consume me. I needed to think. “What can we do? It’s got to be another two or three-hour hike to the bottom.”
“We don’t have flashlights,” Alexis said. “We’re stuck here, but we’ll be fine.”
“I believe that ghosts are friendly, so I’m not worried.” My cheery words sounded as weak as they felt.
“I knew it was a mistake to stay here.” Sila stuffed her cigarette pouch in her backpack. “I shouldn’t have listened to you guys.”
“Go to sleep, Sila,” Alexis said in a gruff manner.
I fluffed my sleeping bag and crawled inside thinking about the man’s warning.
I came up from a deep dream. My eyes flew open. Was that a baby crying? I lay there terrified that I might hear the cry again. The wind howled around the corner of the rock shelter.
I sucked in a muffled scream when something touched me. Sila lit a match.
“I heard something.” Her eyes opened wide.
“A baby cried. Oh my God –" I stopped speaking, aware that Sila stared at me.
“What baby? Please don’t talk crazy. I’m scared enough.”
The match flickered out. Alexis moved in his sleeping bag. I nudged him, but he didn’t wake.
Another sound came, a low scratching noise. Sila’s eyes held mine.
“Alexis, wake up.” I pushed him.
“Ti?” He jarred awake, sat upright. The clouds moved with the wind to reveal moonlight again.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“We – we heard something.”
“You woke me because you heard something? It’s the wind. Let me sleep.” He shook the jacket he used for a pillow, laid back down.
A high-pitched squeal penetrated above the wind. The sound pierced my brain like a needle. Alexis bolted upright.
“Sounded like an old woman’s scream.” Sila’s voice quivered.
My heart pumped gallons of blood through my arteries. I reached for Sila’s hand, scooted next to her.
Alexis lit a match. He shook it out, picked up my walking stick, crept toward the doorway, stopped. He lifted the stick like a weapon, a bat. In a slow movement, he leaned, searched, then stepped outside. He looked back in. “I saw something. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared, leaving us alone.
“Oh, my God! No! Alexis!” I shouted, leaped to my feet, peaked outside into the dark. “He’s gone. What the hell?”
A gust of wind blew into our hut then the faint odor of a dead animal followed, lingered. I suspected the hunchbacked man himself was the ghost he warned us about. Maybe he sat outside waiting in the dark for Alexis.
The furious wind roared on through the ruins.
Alexis slipped in through the doorway, the stick no longer held like a weapon.
“Don’t ever leave us alone like that again.” Sila stood, visibly shaking.
“We were scared to death.” I commanded my voice to stop quivering.
“I was right outside. I saw something, a shadow, but it moved away. Probably a Kri Kri goat or wild dog. I didn’t see anything else. I’m going back to sleep.”
“You’re going back to sleep just like that?” Sila said.
“Just like what?” He took Sila by the shoulders, held her steady, looked at her teary face. Then he saw mine.
“You two are way too paranoid.” He gave a low laugh.
I couldn’t sleep, listened to every sound. At first glimmer of daybreak, we got up and hiked out of the Gorge in record time. We reached a small settlement at the end of the trail, waited with a few villagers for the ferry to take us to Hora Sfakion.
We didn’t talk about the events of the previous night until Alexis said, “That old guy was full of shit. He just wanted to scare us off.”
My mind felt clouded from lack of sleep. Alexis caught me when I stumbled boarding the ferry then went to find drinkable water. I leaned against the back rail, gazed at the mountains looming above us. My confidence restored, my mind cleared, and I felt safe.
“Alexis was right. That old guy was full of it, just tried to spook us, play a joke, and we fell for it. Especially you!”
“I don’t know,” Sila said.
“He wasn’t a ghost,” I went on. “Just a feeble, bony old man. Even I could take him in a tussle.”
Before Sila could respond, an enormous wind slammed me back from the railing, made me crash into Sila standing behind me.
“Where’d that come from?” Sila yelled above the wind. She coughed and covered her nose with her red bandana. “There’s that awful smell again.”
I pulled my jean jacket closed as goosebumps ran up my legs to my neck. “It’s him – that old man.” Whatever it was, I knew it was not feeble and not joking.
The ferry’s engine rumbled under my feet and the boat moved away from the landing. If the boat hadn’t left when it did, I’d have jumped in and swam to Hora Sfakion.
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