Nobody talks about what happened in Hasan’s city, so he looks for clues. His memories are jumbled up and broken. Boots thudding. Shards of glass. Shoulders and fists slamming on the thin wooden door of his flat. He remembers one night some men forced their way in. The latch is still broken. But Hasan’s father says no. That was only because Hasan locked himself in once and the neighbors had to rescue him. It’s a funny story, not a scary one. And his mother is with relatives. Hasan doesn’t need to worry.
Sometimes Hasan’s father wakes up crying.
Hasan has milestones for every season. In autumn, he waits for the Projectionists, scanning the streets for their hand-lettered posters. In September he spots them, taped up at the corner shop; papering over the bullet holes on the old shoe factory. The Projectionists hang a sheet against someone’s wall and play films for the neighborhood. Hasan watches Black Panther and an old Star Wars film and other movies from America. He comes home with his head full of stars and explosions and hidden kingdoms, and pours out his wonder to his father, spills his tea in his excitement. “Amazing,” says his father. “Tell me more. How did they hide this kingdom? And what was it called again?”
Hasan goes every Thursday, with a blanket and his father’s flask of hot tea. He wants to be a projectionist when he grows up. It’s not a job, not a proper job, but he wants to learn how anyway. He hangs around, watching the tallest of the young men wrestle the sheet into place.
In winter, it’s too cold to sit outside, so the Projectionists take a break. The smoke of coal fires hangs over the city. Daylight is trapped behind the clouds. The dark disorients Hasan, like the clocks and the prayer-towers and the bread-sellers are all playing tricks on him. He wakes groggy, and his flat is so cold that his breath hangs in the air.
But winter also brings the snow, gentling the city in thousands of small ways. It smooths over the potholes on the way to the market, and the frozen mud doesn’t clog his shoes, at least until it’s trampled into slush. The snow trims the broken-faced buildings in smart white paint.
He likes the squeaky crunch of fresh snow underfoot. The smell of chestnuts splitting over charcoal. Snow fights. Sliding down the steepest streets on flattened cardboard boxes. Snowflakes that dust his gloves but disappear on his bare skin. The sting and flush of his face and ears, then hot barley soup and action films on the television in the long evenings.
In winter, everyone walks as slowly and carefully as Hasan’s father. Nobody clicks their tongue impatiently behind him.
Hasan’s father is setting a record. On the surface, it’s simple: to go the longest stretch of days without mentioning a particular woman. Every day his lead increases. But there are vastnesses in his silence. Daylight trapped behind the clouds. Hasan knows his father.
“Make sure you have your jacket with you,” Hasan’s father always reminds him whenever he leaves the house. “But it’s not snowing,” Hasan says, and his father replies, “It’s not snowing now, Hasan; nobody knows the future.”
But snow tells Hasan the past. Where people went, the shoes they wore, how long ago they left. The unmarked snow is as white as the Projectionists’ sheet before the film plays, and the footprints are the beginning of the story.
Hasan is a detective in winter. Footprints crisscross the snow on the main paths, so people’s tracks are cleanest when they trespass and stray. The shortcut-takers that hem their neighbor’s gardens; the rooftop traceries where people tap into the power lines; the double set of footprints on a mysterious errand in the half-finished hotel.
Not everyone leaves footprints. There are the silent people. Hasan has seen them ever since he can remember, one or two in a week, perhaps, but there are more and more these days. They’re everywhere. Behind broken windows and waiting for buses on routes that are no longer serviced. Mostly they just seem bewildered. They make no tracks for Hasan to follow.
It sounds simple, Hasan knows, but sometimes you never do find out where people go. Like the son of the bookseller, the one near Little Tree Street, who sometimes gave him cloves to chew when he helped his father in the shop. The old man shut his lips tight and shook his head whenever Hasan asked him when his son would come back. Now he knows better than to ask. Some things he must find out for himself.
Every day his father’s record is a day longer, and harder to break.
One day a woman slips on the ice. Her head hits the concrete and bounces hard. People rush to her side. Hasan hangs back. The helpers crowd in, brandishing cellphones, talking urgently, telling each other not to move her. It’s cold, well under freezing, and soon the woman shakes so violently her legs drum on the concrete. A shopkeeper comes out with a woolen blanket, and they lay it over her. The ambulance arrives eventually, and young volunteers in red fleeces slide a brace around the woman’s neck. Hasan perches under the overhang of the shop and watches.
Someone comes and stands next to him. It is the woman, the same woman. She is lying on the ground, now still. She is standing next to Hasan. She is being loaded onto the ambulance. She is watching herself, puzzled.
She notices him looking and offers him a sunflower seed. Hasan shakes his head politely, and the woman shrugs. She opens her mouth to speak, and her face distorts, like the image on a flickering television when there’s interference with the transmission. White noise. A snowy screen. Silence. The woman flickers jerkily back into place.
That’s when Hasan knows. They’re ghosts, the silent people.
Workers from the countryside clear the snow. Hasan flinches when their shovels scrape the concrete; their plow-wielding trucks belch fumes and churn the snow into wet dirt. They’re hungry men, their families live far away. He’s not sure where they go in summer.
When the roads are clear, the traffic starts back up, choking the city and making Hasan’s father wheeze. But where the snow is left alone, where people don’t tread and cars don’t go, it sculpts itself into lovely shapes: porcelain bowls, the prows of ships. It sparkles in the sunlight. And it hides treasures for Hasan: a five-tan coin, a bird skull.
Hasan’s father buys him a pair of waterproof boots. He likes the slip and give of their soles on the weathering snow. But one day Hasan breaks a lace and, impatient, walks home along the road by the government buildings. The pavements there are always well-salted and cleared of ice.
Outside the Ministry of Security, the silent people throng. He shivers when he sees them, but something in him wills them not to fade away.
By four in the afternoon, Hasan is home with his father. It’s already nearly dark, but the small television screen glows. Hasan winds himself up in the rug, and rolls himself out, and sneezes. His father watches television from the chair, but Hasan prefers the rug. His father nudges him with his stick, and Hasan sits upright. The Minister is on the television again. There’s supposed to be a film, but the news runs late. The Minister talks about traitors and terrorists. Suddenly the image fades. The screen blinks. There’s a snowy flurry of interference. Hasan’s father rumbles from his chair. Hasan obediently gets up and waggles the aerial until the Minister fades back into the screen, an apparition. He rambles on with his speech. Finally, Hasan’s film starts.
The snow makes the ghosts clearer, sharper-edged, as if it amplifies whatever connection allows them to appear in Hasan’s city. Hasan thinks for a long time he’s the only one who can see them. Then he realizes everyone can see the ghosts, but only children stare. People avert their gazes, keep their faces blank, twitch their children away and make sure their sleeves do not brush against them. If a ghost is on the tram, retracing their old routes, the living leave a respectful space, even when everyone else is squashed in until the windows stream with condensation.
When he next sees the woman who fell, the one who offered him a sunflower seed, she’s filling her basket with winter pickings at the market: fat pumpkins, chestnuts, leeks. He’s used to the silent people by then, so he pushes right past her. He thinks he’ll pass through her because she’s dead, but instead he jars her arm, and she drops her basket. She’s solid and alive. Hasan apologizes and helps to gather her spilled groceries. “How’s your head?” he asks.
She stares at him in confusion. In life, her eyes are green. “Oh!” she says. “Were you there? Just a concussion, thank God.”
He doesn’t know what to do with this clue. More and more, Hasan learns, there are things in his city he must not notice. Questions nobody asks. Small things, like a friend’s careless comments, to which the response is a poker face or a noisy clearing of plates. Big things, too. Shiny squares on dusty tables or bright patches on faded wallpaper; the marks of exiled photographs. “Sometimes people see or say too much,” his father tells him. Hasan works out the rest of the sentence on his own. Such people are troublemakers. Sometimes troublemakers disappear, and when they disappear, nobody remembers them.
That night, the news presenter frowns. She’s not trying to be difficult. She just wants the Defense Minister to reassure the viewers, and her. Somebody must know what’s going on. The Defense Minister looks more and more flustered. “We’d like to remind the public that, even if they look like—like someone you think you might know—they’re—terrorists—traitors—not citizens.”
“But how are they—”
The Minister cuts the presenter off with a sharp wave of his hand. “We’re dealing with it.” He smiles tightly. “We don’t give airtime to terrorists.”
Hasan learns the rules. Grief shows that you remember. If people disappear—terrorists, traitors, not citizens—they never existed. But grief gets in the way. So in Hasan’s city, people do not grieve. No smoke and jasmine and blue beads to map the dead’s path to the next world. No mourning prayers, no tears or other defiances. No keeping vigil until the right moon sets. No bodies.
Even the dead can drag you down with them if you love them too much. Hasan’s neighbor made this mistake when her husband disappeared. Now their flat stands empty. Hasan fears sometimes that his whole city could disappear like this, chains of people destroying each other through reckless grief and love and stubborn memory.
Or maybe this is what will save the city. If you are remembered, you persist.
He wishes he could remember more of his mother.
Hasan learns. Anything can be erased. A son. A war. But he also watches the snow. Things are still there, underneath.
The Chief Minister makes his next speech on Victory Day. Bored, Hasan sprawls on his stomach and tugs blue threads from the rug. Hasan’s father likes the rug, but fair’s fair, he has also insisted on the speech even though there’s a James Bond film on the other channel.
Hasan wraps the blue thread around his finger. Then Hasan’s father makes a sound that might be a laugh. Hasan’s father never laughs. He glances at his father in shock, then up at the TV. Six burly security guards surround the Chief Minister, but they cannot keep them out. The crowd of ghosts press in. They cluster around the Chief Minister like moths to a candle.
The Chief Minister’s eyes widen and widen, his voice shakes and his breath quickens. He looks very carefully straight ahead of him, as if he can’t see the silent people, and continues with his speech. A halo drifts in front of the camera, like snow across a street lamp. The Chief Minister shuts his eyes and shudders.
“Why doesn’t he just stop talking?” Hasan asks. His father shrugs.
The Chief Minister mumbles. He has lost track. The General standing next to him opens his mouth, but his face is filmy because a ghost hovers between him and the camera. “They’ll be, um, defeated,” the Chief Minister says. The sound is crackly. “The gho—the terrorists. We cannot give in to, to, to tr—”
“Maybe they’re not ghosts,” Hasan says, thinking of the woman with the sunflower seeds. “Maybe they’re still alive somewhere.”
His father meets his eyes. It is a look he gives Hasan every now and again, a look as if he is sorry and maybe a bit ashamed, and for a long moment Hasan thinks his father is going to tell him. But Hasan’s father swallows, and the presence of Hasan’s mother fades back into the dusty curtains that she sewed and the marks on the couch from her careless cigarettes. “Yes,” he says, eyes back on the screen. “Somewhere.”
The thaw comes. The snowplows rest. The air is clean and quiet. Hasan finds a piece of blue glass in a puddle of snowmelt, as smooth as if it had come from the sea. The weather warms, and the Projectionists show their films again. One of their friends, the tallest young man, doesn’t return. That happens sometimes. Their sheet is shabby, stored in a dusty cupboard over winter, and without their friend, they struggle to reach high enough to hang it.
But other things have changed too. Maybe the ghosts made them brave. Now the Projectionists show films unlike any they’ve shown before. Not from America. From Hasan’s own city. They have ordinary people in them, talking in a way that Hasan has never heard. It’s in his language, but it uses new words, and familiar words in new ways. They’re talking about things people are not meant to talk about. Like truth, and justice, but not the Truth and Justice that American superheroes bring. More like farmers discussing the rain, quiet but sure. They need it, but they know the drought always breaks eventually.
Hasan’s father bans him from visiting the Projectionists after the first police raid, but he does not see what Hasan sees. Amidst the cracking truncheons and the running feet, Hasan sees a man he’s been told to stay away from, a security officer whose job is to scare and hurt people. Today, though, tears stream down the violent man’s cheeks, glinting in the blue-white light of the projector. A ghost faces him calmly. Hasan recognizes the tallest Projectionist. The violent man shivers in the spring sunshine, trying to keep his eyes on the sky and not on the ghost’s face. He gazes at the sky, and his lips move.
Is he praying? Hasan cannot lip-read. He doesn’t know what has made the man like this. Fear, perhaps regret. But he knows the man will never again be able to do what he used to.
Hasan steps closer.
“Please,” the man is saying, over and over. “I’m sorry. Please. I’m sorry.”
After that, Hasan isn’t scared. He’s not the only one. People become bolder, speculating secretly, then openly. He hears the grown-ups around him ask and say things they would never have dared to say before. In his whole life, he’s never heard people talk like this.
Even his father ventures a thought. “They’re not remembering themselves,” he tells Hasan quietly, who has burbled on all through dinner. “We’re remembering them.”
A ghost passes by a white wall like an image from a film, and something clicks into focus for Hasan. They’re projectionists, these ghosts, sending themselves back. They’re stuck somewhere and can’t move on. Like the woman who fell on the pavement. She left her body when it was hurt and cold, to stand peacefully next to Hasan for a little while. In Hasan’s comics it’s called an out-of-body experience. But as much as he’d like to believe otherwise, deep down he knows the woman is the exception. Maybe it was something in his father’s face. Not every ghost returns to their bodies. Most are dead.
Hasan thinks he understands. They can’t move on because they were never mourned. No jasmine, no tears. But they find their way back because they are remembered.
So Hasan looks. He tries to be an aerial, a blank slate, a fresh snowfall, a white sheet. He tries to be a projectionist and reach out.
But what he wants eludes him. He must be close. Every day he stops at a certain spot outside his block of flats, a tiny edge of land where wildflowers struggle and thrive each summer. Another milestone. In this particular spot, Hasan’s frustration and sadness are almost too big for him to carry. Perhaps the feelings are from within him, but maybe they belong to someone else.
Hasan admits it to himself. He’s hoping.
When the ghosts bring names, tiny messages to the living, it spooks the Chief Minister even more. He announces forceful new measures. The ghosts are banned, interacting with ghosts is treason, and the ghosts don’t exist. People read the messages anyway. The Minister of Security quits. Some say he had a nervous breakdown.
Hasan finds it strange that nobody he knows personally is scared of the ghosts, but everyone in charge seems terrified of them.
The ghosts don’t listen to the Chief Minister. They cradle scraps of cloth and paper. They warm their hands on them. Still silent, they reach for the remnants of words. The scraps are as intangible as the ghosts, so they cannot hand them over,
tel thm ii
tlel ssara i
but the ghosts learn. Through trial and error, they grow stronger and capable of more. They remember language. They hold the scraps up for the living to read. It has cost the ghosts everything to write these fragments. All their ingenuity and patience. But they are read,
I am adam sami ali tell
robin lina i love
im rosa im ella i sorrow
and the living whisper the messages and pass them on. The names reach the people who love them,
all send my love
tell leila im
with her our son
the survivors who cherish every syllable. The messages are heard,
do not fear
spray-painted on walls and broadcast on pirate radio stations.
But Hasan never finds her. She cannot reach him. He’s only gleaned one word from all his searching. A breath on the wind, passed with a puzzled look by a stranger who caught a bus to find him.
And Hasan holds back all his longing until the day he comes home and looks at his father and says, “She’s not with relatives, and I need to know.”
Hasan’s father looks back at him. He is so much taller than Hasan. The silences are gathering. Daylight trapped behind clouds. Hasan should have known. Should have held back like his father.
“Annie,” says Hasan.
And Hasan’s father’s face crumples. “Annie,” he repeats. “Annie.”
He gathers Hasan in his arms, though Hasan is far too big, and at last he tells him.
He doesn’t understand all of it, not straight away. His father’s story is raw and rough, never before voiced. But there will be time for more conversations later.
And Hasan will remember. “She drew cartoons,” his father tells him, just before Hasan falls into a tearstained, proud, exhausted sleep. And, “sometimes we don’t get endings.”
The Chief Minister can do nothing to stop the ghosts. Every day people are braver. Even the children know that something big is coming; they rush around, nervous and excited, while their parents smoke too much and talk in low voices.
The government releases their own lists. Lists of the dead, of the people never grieved. They were accidentally overlooked, the Chief Minister says. They died of natural causes. He extends his condolences.
The bookseller sobs. Hasan’s father retrieves the photo of Hasan’s mother from under the mattress. He places it on the windowsill where the sunlight pools in the mornings. His father moves so gently and holds himself so upright that Hasan has a fierce feeling, something like pride or love. He punches his father on the arm and rushes out the door. He goes out to the wildflowers and cries there.
It’s not enough. Not yet.
When the people march, the ghosts march with them. The ghosts have no bodies to hurt, no freedom to lose. Death has made them untouchable. The authorities panic. The more they crack down, the more ghosts join the march.
Hasan watches it all on the television, then when the broadcast is cut, he sneaks out and watches with a gaggle of other local kids from alleyways and balconies. Then, braver, he joins the back of the crowd.
His father is there somewhere, limping up ahead of him, a tiny photo of Hasan’s mother tucked into his shirt pocket. And a tiny photo of Hasan.
It’s the first time Hasan thinks his city might not be the way it is forever. That there are other ways that it could be. He thinks of all the questions he can ask his father. The city is a blank sheet, and everything is starting.
E.M. Linden (she/her) is a postgrad peace and conflict studies student from Aotearoa New Zealand, who has also lived and worked in the Middle East and Australia. She has recently returned to speculative fiction so that she can spend more time writing about ghosts, monsters, and witches. She lives with her partner and a disreputable rescue cat. On twitter: @e_m_linden