Ghosts of August
By Gabriel García Márquez
We got to Arezzo a little before midday, and we wasted more than two hours looking for the Renaissance castle that Miguel Otero Silva, a Venezuelan writer, had bought in the idyllic bends of the Tuscan countryside. It was a Sunday in early August, burning and bustling. With the streets filled with tourists, it was almost impossible to find someone who knew their way around. After many fruitless attempts, we returned to the automobile and left the city on a path lined with lifeless cypresses. An old woman watching the geese told us exactly where the castle was. Before leaving she asked if we planned to sleep there. So we answered that we were only going for lunch, as we had planned.
My wife and I did not believe in midday ghosts, so we made fun of her gullibility. But our two sons, nine and seven years old, were thrilled by the idea of meeting a ghost in the flesh.
In addition to being a good writer, Miguel Otero Silva was a splendid host and had a sophisticated palate. He had prepared an unforgettable lunch for us. Because it had gotten quite late, we did not have time to see the inside of the castle before sitting down at the table, but from the outside it looked harmless. Any concern we may have had was erased by the incredible view of the city from the flowered terrace where we ate. It was hard to believe that on that hill of teetering houses, where not even ninety thousand people could fit, so many men of everlasting genius had been born. Nonetheless, Miguel Otero Silva told us, with his Caribbean humor, that none of them was the most distinguished in Arezzo.
“The greatest,” he proclaimed, “was Ludovico.”
Just like that, without a last name: Ludovico, the greatest man of art and war who had built that castle of misfortune. Miguel spoke of him throughout lunch. He told us of his immense power, his ill-fated love and his horrifying death. He told us how, in an instant of passionate fervor, he had stabbed his lover in the bed where they had just made love. Then he set his ferocious war dogs on himself and was torn to shreds. He assured us, solemnly, that at the stroke of midnight the sprit of Ludovico wandered through the house in darkness, trying to find peace in the purgatory of love.
The castle, in reality, was immense and dark. But in broad daylight with a full stomach and happy heart, Miguel’s tale just sounded like one of the many jokes he tells to entertain his guests. The eighty-two rooms we walked through without awe after the siesta had suffered through all kinds of adjustments, owner after owner. Miguel had completely restored the first floor. He had constructed a modern bedroom with marble floors, a sauna, a fitness center, and a terrace, covered in flourishing flowers, where we had eaten. The second floor had been used the most over the course of the centuries and was composed of a series of characterless rooms. The furniture from different time periods was left to its own devices. But the last door opened on an intact room, perfectly preserved, as if time had simply forgotten to pass there. It was Ludovico’s room.
It was a magical moment. Right in front of us was the bed with a gold-embroidered canopy and tasseled bedspread still stiff with the dried blood of the sacrificed lover. There was the hearth with solid cinders, the last log turned to stone, the well-polished dresser, and an oil portrait of a pensive nobleman in a gold frame, painted by one of the Florentine masters who did not outlast his time. Nonetheless, what stunned me the most was the scent of fresh strawberries that seemed to be encapsulated within the bedroom without possible explanation.
Summer days are long and slow in Tuscany, and the sun does not set until nine at night. When we finished our tour of the castle it was after five, but Miguel insisted on taking us to see the frescos of Piero della Francesca in the San Francisco church. There we stopped for coffee, chatting in the gazebo in the town square. When we returned to get our bags, dinner had just been served. So we stayed to eat.
As we ate under a mauve sky with one solitary star, the children lit a few torches in the kitchen and went to explore the darkness upstairs. From the table we heard their wandering gallops by the stairs, the groans of the doors, their happy cries calling to Ludovico in the sinister rooms. It was their bad idea to stay the night. Miguel Otero Silva delightedly encouraged them,and we did not have the heart to say no.
Contrary to my fears, we slept very well. My wife and I stayed in a bedroom on the first floor and my sons on the fourth floor in adjoining rooms. Both rooms had been modernized and neither looked at all sinister. As I waited for slumber, I counted the twelve reverberating strokes of the pendulum clock in the room, and I remembered the eerie warning of the old woman who watched the geese. But we were so tired that we fell asleep very quickly, into a dense and uninterrupted slumber. I awoke after seven in the morning with the splendid sun shining between the vines that covered the window. At my side, my wife sailed, sleeping, in the peaceful sea of the innocents. “What foolishness,” I thought to myself, “that someone would still believe in ghosts nowadays.” Just then the smell of fresh cut strawberries made me tremble. I saw the hearth with solid cinders, the last log turned to stone, and the portrait of the sad nobleman who watched us from three centuries ago from a gold frame. We were not in the first floor bedroom where we had gone to bed the night before. Instead, we were in Ludovico’s bedroom under the intricate molding, dusty curtains, and sheets soaked with the still-warm blood of his cursed bed.