A reader commented that he found ‘Our Host A Ghost?’ disappointing. It failed his horripilation test. It seems now I am also somehow responsible for his piloerection – his hair should stand up on the back of his neck. So, what makes a ghost story scary? Does every ghost have to be able to turn its neck 360 degrees? Spew vile words and green vomit and shake our beds violently? Or is our appetite for creepiness only satisfied with overt violence and gore? A bus driver lost in the country roads of Heidelberg inadvertently finding the same life-size crucifix on the same small roundabout three times seemed paranormal enough for those of us in the bus. A thick ancient book with eerie-looking texts so frightening your eyes dared not cast on it in case it sucks out your soul failed to increase his anxiety and stress levels too. The evanescent dust that rose from within the pages only made him yawn. “The guy simply lacks adrenaline,” I heard myself say. Anyone else would have felt their own knees clattering, heart rate and blood pressure skyrocketing, and wet cold palms squirming.
Well, I have many more ghost stories up my sleeves. This one will surely stop him from reading to the end, although I am not sure that is what I want. If Heidelberg doesn’t scare him, Prague will definitely make him cower in his dark corner. After all, what I experienced in April 2004 still haunts me. What I felt – what I encountered – have remained in my dreams since. Since then, my last two visits to Prague by comparison were sedate and uneventful; the Old Town no longer exuded any old charm. It was as if the centuries-old spiritual connections to their other world have been finally severed. Severed by throngs of tourists and ubiquitous modern bars and restaurants. I walked along Charles Bridge in 2017, desperately trying to reconnect with the spirit world – hoping to again feel the presence of King Charles IV and the Habsburg Kings, Maximilian and Rudolf II. All I witnessed were noisy tourists, busy vendors and street performers. I even went to the former Prague Ghetto in Malá Strana, now known as Josefov, named after the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Again, I was disappointed to find rude and rowdy tourists, some were even treading haphazardly on the messy disarray of tomb stones that protrude from the ground like uneven and crooked teeth on decaying gums. They disrespect the dead, lacking sobriety in their eagerness to take snapshots and videos of the final resting place of ten thousand poor souls buried on top of one another.
My first trip to Prague was with The Mrs, Big Sis and mum. A sister joined us from London. We arrived at our host’s apartment building early, after a succinct and entertaining brief on the history of Prague by our taxi driver. In those days, there was no Airbnb. It was also without the convenience of hotels.com and trivago.com. Everything was arranged by London Sis – she being sharp as a tact and most organised when it comes to finding bargains and places of interest for first-time visitors. Our apartment was situated at Malá Strana, i.e. just a stone’s throw away from the old Jewish Cemetery. The taxi driver had told us Golem’s creator was buried there, a rabbi by the name of Judah Loew. Golem was molded from clay and mud in the dead of night to protect the Jewish from anti-Semitic attacks. The creature would lie dormant until the Shem (Hebrew magic word) was whispered and Golem would come alive. The very helpful taxi driver had also handed me some tourism leaflets. One that he said I should not miss was the Ghost Walking Tour through the Old Jewish Town. I promptly folded the leaflet and carefully put it in the right side pocket of my jacket.
Prague has seen countless wars since its early beginnings in 850 AD. Countless massacres. Countless beheadings. Countless ghosts, therefore. Many martyred in the name of religion. The story of Jan Hus still reverberates loudly; a visitor cannot miss the monument built in 1915 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his martyrdom. For a long time safe under the patronage of Wenceslas IV, he lost his head when he lost the support of his king after he righteously denounced the sacrilegious sale of indulgences by the Protestant king during the fraught period of dual papacy. The proceeds were intended to fund the war of the Pisan Pope against the Roman Pope. There were also many wars with their neighbours. During the Thirty Years War, the Swedes looted a lot of treasure from Prague Castle. There was also much looting done by the Nazis. Emperor Rudolf II purportedly collected the nails from Noah’s Ark and a phial of dust from which God created Adam. I wonder who has them today. Maybe the Russians, if the Nazis didn’t get their hands on them? Prague fell under Soviet rule when the communists took over. Prague’s history is littered with too many conflicts and wars, i.e. too many lives torn apart, sacrificed, and destroyed. Too many gruesome deaths. Some of us believe that those who die an untimely death, a reluctant death, an excruciating death or from a treachery become ghosts. Their souls refuse to let go or move on to an afterlife after they perished.
Our host was late by a good 15 minutes. The old man towered over us. He had a crooked nose and a crooked back. His fingers were deformed too, wrecked from a long period of rheumatoid arthritis, I observed. He hunched badly, due to a hearing loss. Perhaps from years of bending down to mouth level, straining to understand what people were saying to him. He wore all black, as if in mourning. He failed to apologise for being late and he did not offer any excuses either. There could be no excuses – back then, Prague was a quiet town, with very few tourists. London Sis was animatedly in deep discussion with him about house rules and what-not when I noticed something very odd. We were standing by the roadside at the bottom of the stone stairs of the apartment building. The late afternoon was turning chilly, and I was glad Big Sis was helping Ma put on her long coat.The sun was coming down onto the gargoyles of the Gothic apartment building casting oblique grotesque shadows on the quiet road when it struck me that the one above us was sneering at me. It was the most hideous creature I had ever since in real life. As I squint up against the setting sun to examine it, it appeared to break from the stone moorings and attempted to take flight. I quickly dismissed it from my mind. “It must be the shadows playing tricks,” I soothed my nerves and refrained myself from telling The Mrs. London Sis caught my attention and gestured that I should be the one to help with Ma’s and Big Sis’ luggages, as our host jangled the bronze keys from his pocket whilst heaving himself up the steps to the apartment.
Our rooms were magnificent. Full timber floors and high ceilings. Resplendently presented with red velvet curtains and ornate Gothic fireplaces in every room. A strong floral musk filled the air – someone had been too liberal with the spray, I felt. The crisp bedsheets and pillow cases all had sharp fold-marks, reassuring to those of us who notice such details about fresh linen. Everything was in order. We thanked our host and were about to let him go when he asked me quietly if the leaflet in my right pocket meant I was interested in the place. Talk about horripilation! I pretended not to hear him and waved him goodbye, without offering a handshake. I did not want him to feel how icy cold I suddenly felt.
The restaurants were dimly lit and poorly patronised. Ma wanted to try their Chinese cuisine. A disaster. The discoloured char-siew was fatty and burnt, sitting on a thick layer of oily and gooey syrup. The rice was uncooked and dry. Still famished after our first night’s meal, we went for a stroll and could not resist walking into a pub around the corner. We wanted to eat what the locals ate. A disaster. The pubs only sold cheap beer, stewed dumplings and salty goulash. “Cheatin’ Czechs,” I grumbled under my breath. They charged me more than the menu prices, I realised belatedly after I had parted with my money. “Overcharged by quite a lot!” London Sis hissed. When I complained to the smiling waiter, he said “No English! No English!”
It had been a long day. We all decided to go back to our apartment and rest. Besides, it was getting uncomfortably cold.
We had all said our goodnights hours ago. The Mrs was curled up like a furry puppy. I watched her cheeks rise and fall gently as she snored cutely. Normally, I would be in dreamland as soon as my head hits the pillow. But, I only sleep well in the familiarity of my own bed. My own smell, to be exact. Much to the disdain of The Mrs. She likes her sheets smelling fresh like gum leaves in a park. The floral musk still smelled strong in the room, but I have the nose of a dog (gross exaggeration).There was an underlying smell that I could detect, but I could not figure out what it was. No, it wasn’t the odour of putrescent meat. It was much fainter than that – a bit like a neighbour’s overnight durian or a stain of Gorgozola on a sleeve. I sat myself up against a pile of pillows as gently as I could. I made sure not to stir up The Mrs, just in case she mistook it as another of my failed attempt for sex. For a long time, I peered into the darkness of the room. The longer I looked, the more my eyes got accustomed to the dark. Even though the fireplace was not lit up, I could make out the “Fleur de Lys” motif on the stone mantle. The ornate carved castle dragons on the Corinthian columns seemed to beckon to me. I didn’t want the shadows to come alive, as they do the longer we look into the darkness. So, I sat there in my brand new blue striped pyjamas and closed my eyes tightly. Maybe I dozed off. Maybe I didn’t. To this day, I can’t be sure. But, this I remember.
There was a previously unseen whitish grey fabric that divided the room like a curtain. On the other side of it was the fireplace. As it was drawn open from both ends, I got up and walked towards the carved dragons. Strangely, I could not reach them even though they were just about 4 meters away from my bed. Instead, I found myself leaving the building and was met by my host at the bottom of the stone steps. “I knew you would come,” he said. “This way…” he gestured with his hand towards the direction of Prague Ghetto. As we walked past the Klaus Synagogue which is on the left of the street, he finally spoke again. “The building to the right of the Old Jewish Cemetery houses drawings by the children of Terezin concentration camp. I must insist you go there.” he voiced his intention firmly. “The Gestapo sent over 150,000 Jews to Terezin, including 15,000 children. Less than 150 children survived.” “You wanted to see ghosts in your walking tour?” he used a growling voice that was most confronting. “Now, you walk inside by yourself,” he said as he opened the wrought-iron gates of the cemetery. It wasn’t a nightmare I was having. I saw them. They looked so thin and pained with sorrow. So withdrawn from the world. No, they are not from this world. They do not belong here. But, they do not want to in the other world either. They weren’t ready to go, so they stayed. “We weren’t buried in coffins,” a voice said. “They wrapped us in muslin.” “….and simply threw us into the hole on top of one another,” another wailed. I panicked and rushed to leave. The spitting rain had turned heavier and I fell to the ground as I slipped on a muddy patch. Momentarily I lost my sense of direction before stumbling out of the cemetery. “Now, you will pay your respect to us, and go to Pinkas Synagogue. “Our names are inscribed on the walls there.” “Us,” he said. Us! My host was one of them. A Bohemian Jew.
When morning broke, I found myself tucked snugly in bed. I kicked away the heavy blankets, and readied to sit up. The Mrs immediately frowned at me and shook her head. “WHAT?” I said. What have I done wrong again? “I just woke up!” I muttered to myself. “You should know by now not to get into my bed without changing into your pyjamas!” The Mrs said. To argue with her would be as futile as sand fighting to stay dry on the beach. I glanced at the fireplace and saw my blue striped pyjamas crumpled in a heap on the floor. The Mrs followed my eyes and walked to them. She picked them up and pointed to the mud stains, “Where have you been? They are wet!” All I said was we must visit Pinkas Synagogue that day.