In the hills of Italy lies a town that has lain empty for 60 years. Locals say it might be haunted. Edward has gone there is search of someone he loved…
I arrived late afternoon, as the mist came down off the mountains, feeling empty, hollowed out. What little I had left had been stolen by the callous air con on the plane and the torturous drive through the mountains to reach the town. Every bend in the road scraped out a little more of my grief and so, as I pulled up in the tiny, stone-circled square, the chaos inside my head finally fell silent.
I let my hands drop from the wheel to my legs and stared past the monument of yellow stone and across the mountains. With each breath that passed between my lips, the emptiness expanded until I thought I could fit the whole town inside me.
I opened my door, dragged my case from the boot, and strolled up to the town’s one and only hotel. They had my name and showed me to my room. There were details, the colours of the walls and carpet, the size of the TV, that I noted and promptly forgot. Nothing penetrated that hole inside and I clung to it, revelling in the space.
I slept, then, though for how long I had no idea. It was dark when I woke and I lay still for a moment, wondering what had pulled me from my slumbers. Voices. Music. I sat up and crept to the window. I feared looking out, scared that anything out of the ordinary would once again waken the tumult inside me.
But my emptiness remained as I tweaked the curtains and took a peak. The town was heaving with people, clad in shorts, flip flops and dresses despite the late hour. The streets were bedecked with bunting and from my vantage point I could see to the old part of town. In amongst the winding street that led between the crotchety old houses were fires on barbecue troughs and stands selling beer at hazardously low prices.
Music, soul or funk or something drifted on the heat of the fires to my window. Festival had come to my getaway, my escape. They hadn’t mentioned it when I booked the hotel.
I climbed back into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and squeezed my eyes closed. Any moment, my brain would wake up and fill in the space.
It didn’t. Nothing happened. The music pulsed through the walls, like I lay in a womb as my mother blasted music through to me on headphones. The traitorous part of me tried to drag me back, reawaken the things I’d spent so long rocking to sleep. I threw the covers off and the memories slipped away. I sighed and shook my head.
I pulled my shoes on and reflected a moment on my clothes. Long jeans and buttoned up shirt. Not suitable for a festival deep in the Italian mountains. I stripped, showered and, clad in a far more fitting pair of shorts and t-shirt pledging my allegiance to some random clothing label, I paced from the hotel out into the warmth of the summer night.
The mist had left the same way it came, unnoticed and uncared for, and the night was crisp. The tang of cooking meat and crisp smoke pulled me to a food stall with its smiling servers. They took my euros and furnished me with food that made me realise how hungry I was. It vanished and I went back for more, enjoying the second round just as much.
I paused by the beer stand, but only for a second. I had spent much of the last year trying alcohol and it had done nothing for the mess. If anything, my head was busier with it. The emptiness I craved never came before oblivion took me from the world for a few precious hours and a headache brought me back into it.
I stopped at the edge of the empty city and took a breath. A lump was forming in my throat as I stared up at the darkened windows and cracked roof tiles.
This was why I was here. Where better to find emptiness than an empty city?
There was an earthquake here, back in the 50s, and the population were evacuated down to the valleys. Sometime between then and now, the council came in and renovated all the damaged houses, shoring up the cracked bricks and painting the walls. But fresh paint means nothing to people who have already met ghosts.
Something kept the people away and so, for sixty years, this town has remained an empty shell, waiting for someone to come live here. Gazing up now, with the flickering firelight already drawing faces in the windows, I don’t think it’s been waiting too hard.
It feels… complete, here. The houses speak to one another, maybe, and have no need for the mindless bustle of the people that, for this one, ironic weekend a year, fill its streets.
I shake myself, shove my hands in my pockets, and let the sound of music pull me into the emptiness. I enter a stream of people funneled between two of the houses up to a stage that sits with the mountains behind it. A band are playing songs I don’t recognise so I keep moving, released from the river to forge a tributary away from the crowds.
The sound fades behind me, swallowed by the darkness. I glance over my shoulder and see the tiny shapes of mosquitoes buzzing back and forth before the stage lights, searching for their next meal.
The voices dwindle and soon I’m alone. Except, of course, I’m never alone. I feel her, sitting on my shoulder, watching me. It’s pitch black here, the street lights long since turned off. Would they have had street lights in the 50s?
Steep flights of steps take me up narrow alleyways between houses bearing cracked windows and dust.
I poke my head through an empty doorway and see the inside of my heart. The floor is tiled and plug sockets hang out of the walls. But the room is empty, alone, lonely.
This is far enough. I know what I’m here to do. My hands are shaking. I’ve prepared for this for months, but with the night holding its breath and the chill of the mountain air sinking into my bones, I can’t quite believe it’s happening.
I sit on one of the steps and stare up. There aren’t many stars visible between the buildings, but the couple I can see finally coax a memory from the depths. I try to clamp down, but it bullies its way through and I catch glimpses of myself sitting on another hillside, far away from here, staring up at the night sky. I’m screaming and the stars are blurred by the tears streaming down my face. But then, just as now, the stars didn’t give a shit.
I swallow, hard this time, and glance to my right. A face appears in the gloom of a broken window and I jump so hard I come straight off my step. My heart goes from slow to sprint in moments and I clutch my chest, waiting for the next breath. It takes long enough to bring spots to my eyes and a sweat chilling across my neck.
My eyes are closed. I don’t know when, but I squeezed them closed. Opening them now would mean seeing the face again. I sit for a moment, chest heaving beneath my hand. The silence closes in and promises all the things creeping up on me. My eyes flash open and the first place I look is the window.
The face is gone. It was pale, the colour that sits beneath white and shows itself once the white fades. My first ghost. My cheeks ache and it takes me a moment to realise it’s because I’m smiling. I don’t remember the last time it happened, but my muscles want me to stop.
I clamp my hands to my knees and take some deep breaths. I came to the right place. I’m still empty, but I’m ready to fill it, now.
I settle myself again, rest my hands on my legs, and close my eyes. The silence is welcome this time. Deep breath in, deep breath out. The words come unbidden, rising up from the emptiness to spill from my lips.
‘Spirits of Accadia, I come to speak to one of you. My mother is called Antonia Tiano, I must speak with her.’
My words fall into the nothing of the empty city and are swallowed, stolen away by the night. I say them again, but nothing replies. I say them a third time, and still nothing comes back to me. Something is rising in my chest, clamping tight to my heart and squeezing. My breaths are short, each forced in by an act of will alone.
Is this what it feels like when you have a heart attack? Am I having a heart attack? My eyes crack open and the darkness is so complete I wonder for a moment if I’m dreaming. I hold my hand up and it passes before my eyes as a pale white blur, as though I’m made of cloud.
I didn’t know white could be any colour other than pale, but there are a hundred different shades just in the fingers I’m wiggling in front of my face.
The tightness leaves my chest and the emptiness comes flooding back. But it’s different, now. It’s a cold emptiness that seeps through my skin and settles in, like mold in the walls of a house left empty too long. I take a breath, but nothing happens.
I spin and the world spins with me, leaving vapour trails that fill my vision. I’m not dizzy. I can feel my body perfectly, but it has no edges, no boundary that defines me. I know what’s happened, but every part of me denies it. Even when my spinning slows and I see the body slumped back on the step, I deny it.
I look elsewhere, desperate for something to disprove the cold filling my chest. Is she here? If she is, I can see her now. I might even be able to touch her.
I drift away from the body.
That’s when I begin to see them.
The empty city is no longer empty.
Faces in windows, children playing just out of sight. Their cries echo through the streets, though they’re the cries that come with grazed knees and stolen toys, not play or happiness. An elderly lady hangs out clothes not seen in half a century on a line made of frayed string.
I drift, searching, examining every face. Some of them see me, staring with curious eyes. I can’t decide if they’re unfriendly. I sense no hatred or anger, but their expressions aren’t friendly, either. Suspicion, perhaps, but tempered by… what? Fatalism? An understanding that the world is what it is and their actions means nothing?
I shiver. I’m truly cold, now, a cold that burns my bones and makes them ache inside me. Where is she? Where is she? I explore the city. I see the years in their faces, the spaces between them, but I cannot find her.
She isn’t here. I know it long before I realise the sun should have risen hours ago. She isn’t here. She was never here. Did I know that, also?
I drift back through the city until I reach the steps. My body lies there but, as I draw nearer, a chill entirely different to that which fills me, creeps up my neck. I glance over my shoulder in the hope that something is tricking me, but it isn’t. Even the ghosts have left me.
I draw nearer still and every muscle stiffens. It’s me. I’m wearing the same clothes, it must be me. But I’m old. My face is lined and wrinkled, my eyes hidden beneath brows bushy and unkempt. My hair hangs well past my waist, but it’s fallen out in clumps, surrounding me a halo of grey and brown locks. I’ve only been here a night, but…
I haven’t been here a night. I’ve been here for years, decades. I squeeze my eyes closed, but the darkness doesn’t change. I came searching for her, but instead I found my home. An empty city for an empty man.
I turn from my body and drift away. Will they ever find it? I imagine someone will call the hotel when my hire car isn’t returned. The police will come in and someone will be forced to enter the empty city. Will they be able to recognise me from my passport?
I find an empty house, a truly empty house, and settle in. I came searching for her, for my home, and I found it.