Continued from Part I
To make things worse, the squad’s bookworm, Sotirakis, had been reading Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft recently, and his wild imagination conjured images of masked aggressors, outlandish beasts with claws and fangs. He’d sit with the rest at night and always start with something like “what if..”, weaving an improbable probability of monsters, ghosts and ghouls prowling the night after the men’s souls. They often tried to shut him up. Antonís threatened to break his legs if he didn’t stop. Unfortunately, Sotirakis had frequent nightmares as a result, crucially waking up screaming as the oneiric beast was about to catch up with him on his patrol and rip his lungs out. He’d occasionally wake everyone else with his screams, and as they were already scared, Sotirakis’ screams froze their blood, until they realised what happened and started cursing him. He then started reading Huckelberry Finn again just for a change.
Patrols passing near the chapel of St George thought they saw a figure in the cypress trees, lurking in the dark, although it may well have been the branches swaying in the night breeze. One night, as they were playing cards and singing, trying to beat the boredom, they heard scratching on the roof. They all fell silent and froze, listening what sounded like a huge pair of claws scraping the roof. In the end Kostís went out and saw that one of the branches of the eucalyptus tree was so low it started to scrape the roof. They cut it down the following morning.
They easy excuse for most things was the enemy. The Turks were probably teasing them, crossing the ceasefire line at night and throwing stones at them or crying out to frighten them. They kept telling themselves that, but didn’t really believe it. They kept their weapons loaded and bayonets fixed just in case.
Things went from bad to worse, when they stopped going on patrols and manning the detached outpost altogether. The threat of punishment was somehow preferable to the threat of the unknown. They’d take a scolding from the brigadier or the captain any time to facing the long walk in the dark to relieve the guard. Sometimes they agreed to keep guard in pairs, doing effectively double shifts. That was the only way they’d brave the dark. The patrols kept moving, as opposed to finding a sheltered spot for a nap as they used to. They stopped by the guard posts for longer periods, sitting all together, smoking and pretending things were all right.
Eventually Captain Kitsis found out about all this and turned up at the outpost to calm things down. He thought that a considerate approach might work better than punishments flying. He tried to entertain their fears, claiming that they were just seeing things, but to no avail. They agreed in principle to go back to normal, but things just became worse after Kostís swore he saw some shadows follow him on his way to the outpost. They went back to spending their nights indoors and going everywhere in groups. Eventually, the regimental snitch grassed them up to the brigadier. They knew they were in for some trouble when they saw his car come up the drive unexpectedly, late one morning. The gate guard trying in vain to hold him up in order to give the rest some time to scrub up. He’d brought Major Troullos with him, as if to tell everyone off together. This caused Troullos great embarrassment as he knew nothing about what was going on.
“So what’s this I hear?” he addressed the assembled conscripts. “Apparently you lot have been seeing ghosts and what have you.” Nobody responded. “Can someone explain to me what’s going on?” he insisted. “Sergeant?” “Well, sir, it’s just that the men have been seeing and hearing strange things since we dug up that trench by the chapel.” “What about it?” demanded the brigadier, his face already beginning to feel the heat, droplets of sweat breaking on his forehead. “Well, there were some bones there, and we think we’ve disturbed the dead.”
“Nonsense! Are you saying there are ghosts? Don’t answer that. There are no such things as ghosts, lads”, changing to a friendlier tune. “I can imagine how here in the wilderness you can imagine things, but I assure you there’s nothing to be afraid of. Generations of soldiers have passed from here and we never heard anything like that” he reasoned, conveniently neglecting the events of 1982. “Now listen, let’s all take a walk together to the chapel and see, except for the guard of course”, he chuckled.
They walked down the trenches, approaching the place the bones were found. When Kostís pointed out the place, the brigadier kicked it lightly with his boot, laughing. “What, this pile of dirt? Some dog probably buried a bone here and you found it. If there were ghosts here, where are they now? I’m actually kicking their ground.” The soldiers looked in disbelief. “Listen, all this is nonsense, I guarantee you that there is nothing to be afraid of. I know you lads have been really tired with long shifts, so to show you I mean it, I’ll post four more men up here, to help with the shifts and give you a break”, he added, eager to wrap this up and head back to the village where the mayor was waiting for him for lunch. The troops were visibly pleased at this, as they hadn’t had proper leaves for a long time.
They returned to the outpost, calmer and more relaxed. It probably was all in their heads; it was easy to get carried away in this solitude. They went about their business, and the officers got into the back of the car and the car drove away. As they were going over the bridge, they saw an old woman standing there, waiting for them to pass. The brigadier turned and looked at her, but thought nothing more of it. About half a mile down the road, there was another old lady, a typical yiayia dressed in black. As the car drove fast past her, raising a cloud of dust, she cursed at them, waving her hand. “Stop the car” ordered the brigadier. He shuffled himself out of the car and looked, but the old lady was nowhere to be seen. He thought it was weird, and stood looking around bemused. “You did see that, didn’t you Troullos?” he asked as he entered the car. “Yes, of course.” “Old hag probably disappeared in the trees” he dismissed unconvincingly.
But it did have an effect on the brigadier after all. He kept waking up at night, hearing a woman crying, and strange noises from the street. The yiayia appeared in his sleep, standing on the bridge, silent and dressed in black, her eyes staring hard at him, deeply set in her wrinkled face. He woke up, time and again covered in sweat, cold sweat rather than the usual sticky sweat and humidity of summer. His wife tried to calm him down but in his moment of vulnerability and insecurity he growled at her to hide his distress under a veil of testosterone. “It’s this bloody heat woman, don’t you bug me as well now” he snapped at her. His wife, a patient and stoic woman who learnt to submit to him and his outbursts over the years, just kept quiet once again, preferring to vent her own frustrations on other things. The brigadier’s nightmares didn’t go away, however. The yiayia kept appearing in his dream, always the same scene, her standing on the bridge, unmoved by the gusts of wind and dust and sometimes pointing at him; him unable to shake off her stare and implied menace to him.
In the meantime, the calm at the outpost didn’t last very long. The soldiers started seeing shadows and hearing whispers, wailing at night and howling noises. They tried to convince themselves that it was the wind and nothing else, but deep inside they were shaking with fear, as if they knew they’d committed hubris and their nemesis couldn’t be very far. Even the newly posted troops caught the fever. They quickly learnt from the rest that things were not rosy, and shared their fears. Luckily the power generator was fixed so they didn’t have to sit at night with just the petrol lamp. They could watch TV, but occasionally the power went out suddenly, always around midnight, something they attributed to the generator overheating until Sotirakis, like the encyclopaedia of horror that he was, helpfully informed them of the significance of the witching hour.
One evening Mastre Hambís turned up with a couple of bottles of brandy and some food, only to find them in an almost deranged state. They were all sitting inside the outpost, without a guard at the gate. They were all armed to the teeth, bayonets fixed and weapons loaded, as if the supernatural could be killed with 7.62 bullets. When they heard Hambís’ voice, they calmed down, as if the old man was their link to the soil, its ghosts and saints. The old man realised that something was seriously wrong. When they recounted the story of the bones to him, he told them the old legend of the village witch. According to the legend, there used to be a witch at the village, a vile woman who always dressed in black, had a black cat and practised magic, giving people the evil eye. This woman’s father was desperately trying to get her to marry, and brought the finest princes in the land to ask for her hand, but she refused them all. She even murdered one of them, and they say he was buried around the chapel, where the trench was dug. The evil witch disappeared and is said to appear around the time of the murder, terrorising the village, although few people can say they have seen or heard her. The soldiers realised that what they’d been experiencing had something to do with this tale. Mastre Hambís was the chorus in this unfolding tragedy, filling in with crucial information inside the amphitheatre of the sun-baked landscape.
To be continued…
Part of the Army Tales