“HOLY GHOST” by RYAN NAPIER

I.

For a little while, he had a name. This was from 1702, when he was born, to 1747, when he died. After that, people called him “the ghost.”

He was born in Salonika, the oldest son of a dye merchant. He stood to inherit the business, but felt himself called to something higher and simpler, so the dye went to his younger brother, and he entered a monastery. He was eighteen when he took his vows, and was given the monastic name Loukas.

Father Loukas never saw his family again: his monastery, Agio Pneuma, was on the island of Phalaris, five hundred miles southeast of Salonika. He remembered his father and mother and brother in his prayers, but he did not miss them. The monastery had given him dozens of new brothers, and together they worked for the glory of God.

Each brother had his place in the life of the monastery: Father Loukas was the beekeeper. He knew his bees, and his bees knew him. They landed on his habit and his face and his hands, and he was not stung. He walked among them, in the stillness of their hum, and it was in these moments that he knew what the scriptures meant by “the peace that passeth all understanding.”

His greatest sin was the little thrill of pride that ran through his chest when pilgrims or the other brothers praised his honey. He told them that it was not his honey: it was the bees’. But in his heart, he did feel that it was his honey, and he was glad to hear others say so. He confessed this to the abbot, and was forgiven.

 

***

 

One day, he died.

For several years, his heart had been beating too fast. He felt fine, except for some occasional lightheadedness, which he attributed to the peace that passeth all understanding. But he was not fine, and one night, his heart gave out, and he died in his sleep.

His brothers wrapped him in his habit, and veiled his face, and laid him in the crypt beneath the chapel. They had buried their brothers there for twelve hundred years, and they expected to bury them there until Christ returned.

 

***

 

He did not understand death. None of us do. If we believe in an afterlife, we think it will come with certainty. Those tormenting questions of meaning and purpose are supposed to end. Hell is eternal torture, but it makes sense: you know where you are and why you’re there. And so we imagine that when we die, someone—God, the devil, St. Peter—will greet us and explain our new existence. But this, as Father Loukas found out, is wrong. No one explains this life, and no one explains the next.

He fell asleep in his bed, and woke up on the shore of the island. A hot ache filled his chest, and he knew—immediately, viscerally, inexplicably—that he was dead, and had become a new kind of thing.

He did not know what this new thing was: in many ways, it was like the old thing. He could still feel (nausea, for instance) and see—there was the beach in front of him, and the monastery on the hill. And he still had a body, it seemed: when he looked down, he saw his beard and his stomach, his legs and his feet. But something had changed. His sense of time had broken. The seconds no longer ticked away evenly: as he sat on the shore and thought about his new life, he saw the sun race across the sky, stop in place for what seemed like hours (he had no way to tell how long), and then fall like a stone into the sea.

He prayed, and waited to understand. The full moon rose, and he decided to walk back to the monastery. He went first to his beehives. The bees flew around him as before, but no longer landed on his habit or his body.

It was late now, and the brothers were in their beds. He went to the chapel and prayed again. He shut his eyes—just for a moment, it seemed—and when he opened them, it was almost dawn. Soon, the brothers would arrive to sing the matins.

Time slipped again, and through the windows behind the altar came the red light of the sunrise. He turned and saw one of the brothers, who had come to prepare the chapel and was now frozen, staring.

He saw the terror in the brother’s face, and tried to speak, but the words got stuck between his throat and his lips, and each syllable stretched into a long groan. He stopped, and swallowed and tried again. The words still would not come. Language had left him: now he could only groan. He saw his brother begin to shake, and he ran.

He hid in the crypt, and prayed and waited, and tried not to look at his own corpse.

What was he? His life did not resemble heaven or hell, or even purgatory (which he considered a Latin heresy). Some of the church fathers taught that after death, the soul does not go directly to paradise, but instead sleeps until the final judgment. But the fathers were wrong: he was awake.

 

***

 

He stayed in the crypt for some time. He could not tell how long: the crypt was completely dark, and he had no hunger or thirst. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t. This was the new thing that he was: he could only move and think.

And so as he waited in the crypt for days or maybe weeks, he remembered again and again the terror on his brother’s face, and dreamed of the words that would change that fear into love. He composed long speeches in his head—descriptions of his new life, requests for patience—but when he tried to deliver them, the words died in his mouth, and the groan echoed through the crypt.

He prayed for forgiveness, for an understanding of his state, for the knowledge of how to end it.

Except for the geckos that crawled the walls of the crypt, he was alone. Sometimes he heard the hum of his brothers—they were above him, chanting the hours, as they had done four times a day for twelve hundred years. He chanted too, as best he could. His wordless voice blended with his brothers’ drone, and sounded almost like singing.

They were his brothers, still.

He knew that he could not explain himself. But he loved them, and he could not spend his new life here in the darkness, listening to geckos scuffle along the walls. So he left the crypt, and rejoined his brothers.

He was careful not to be seen. When they chanted the hours, he stood in the darkest corner of the chapel, and he visited his bees only at night. But he could never be careful enough. Once, he was with the bees, and time started to run. One of his brothers—the new beekeeper—surprised him. He fled, and later, from his spot in the corner of the chapel, he heard his brothers whisper about the ghost.

He hid in the crypt again, and told himself that he would rather hide there for eternity than frighten his brothers, or spoil their life together. But soon enough, the geckos and loneliness drove him back aboveground. By then, his brothers seemed to have forgotten about the ghost, or at least stopped talking about it. From his corner, he groaned the hours with them again.

 

***

 

Years passed. He watched his brothers’ eyes wrinkle, and their beards grow longer and grayer. He began to feel a strange hope—they too might change. But no—one by one, their bodies were laid in the crypt, and still he was alone. He knew as much about the state of their souls as he knew about his own.

New monks replaced the old ones, and those monks wrinkled and grayed in their turn, and were laid in the crypt, and replaced by newer monks. And still he was alone.

But he did not feel alone. He had his bees and his corner of the chapel and his brothers. The bodies changed, but the robes and the prayers and the chants stayed the same.

Of course, he sometimes felt sick when time lurched forward, or lonely when he listened to his brothers talking and longed to join them. But he told himself that he had felt sick and lonely as a living person too. Those feelings had passed then, and they passed now, when he remembered the vast thing of which he was only a part. The little whine of his sickness and loneliness was drowned out by the hum of the bees and the drone of the chant, sounding together across the centuries.

 

***

 

The world was changing.

He heard his brothers discussing France, the king, the poor queen dragged from her palace. Soon, Europe was at war, but the monastery was the same. Years later, the brothers talked about the Turks and independence and the new king: Greece was now free, it seemed. The brothers prayed and chanted as they always had.

So it went. Fascist and communist, partisan and junta—these words echoed around the halls of the monastery for a few years, and were gone. Things kept happening, but they always happened out there.

Still, his brothers sometimes worried about the world. He wished he could help them—wished he could speak the truth that would ease their hearts—and hated his silence all the more. His brothers were young, so they sighed over the little things of the world—referendums and restructurings, credit default swaps and economic adjustment programs. He did quite not understand what these things were, but he knew that they did not matter. Two hundred and fifty years of death had taught him one truth: kings and governments changed, but Agio Pneuma did not.

 

 

II.

In early 2018, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund met to determine the conditions for the next round of the Greek bailout. These conditions included further pension cuts, privatization, and deficit reduction.

As part of the deal, the Greek church had to become revenue-neutral—that is, priests would no longer receive a salary from the state. In its report, the IMF noted that the church had many ways to make up the shortfall: it could, for instance, better utilize some of its vast property portfolio.

The church hired a German consulting firm to assess which of its properties it could sell or, ideally, rent. The firm’s report identified the monastery of Agio Pneuma as a key asset. The monastery had several advantages. It was located close to Naxos and other islands with tourism infrastructure already in place (ferries, etc.), and it required little development: the existing monastery could easily be converted into a resort-style complex for mid- to high-end travelers.

The brothers of Agio Pneuma were notified, and reassigned to various monasteries in the Aegean and on the mainland.

The church hired the Sylvan Group, an international hospitality management company, to administer the property. Sylvan came highly recommended, and had a reputation for providing innovative solutions to world-class properties and brands. (The group had been formed in Boston, but its headquarters were now in Ireland.) It would be in charge of both the marketing and day-to-day administration of the former monastery.

Sylvan promised to respect the rich tradition of the site. That tradition was, after all, the very thing that would form the core of the resort’s brand identity: the group planned to target travelers looking for a unique and authentic historical and/or spiritual experience.

Accordingly, Agio Pneuma was developed with utmost care. The group installed only the most necessary conveniences—mattresses on the hard monastic beds, a modern kitchen and showers, wifi, a small fitness center in the former library. Unfortunately, some parts of the former monastery could not be preserved: the apiary, for instance, was removed, because the presence of so many bees could deter guests with allergies—or worse, invite lawsuits.

In spring 2019, guests began to arrive at the former monastery. Soon, several guidebooks listed it as a great stop “off the beaten path.” Its Tripadvisor page had hundreds of positive comments: a woman from New Jersey said it was “so beautiful,” and a Danish man called it “spiritual” and “well preserved.” It met its projected revenue totals.

 

***

 

One day, a Belgian couple returned to their room at the former monastery and found a robed, bearded man standing next to their bed. They demanded to know who he was and why he was there. The man opened his mouth and groaned. The sound seemed to come out of the earth itself—the Belgians felt it vibrating in their teeth. They ran downstairs and complained to the front desk, but when a resort associate checked their room, there was no sign of the man, and nothing had been stolen. The manager nonetheless apologized to the Belgians, moved them to a new room, and refunded the cost of their stay.

A few days later, two Korean children were playing in the chapel. They chased each other past the icons and around the pillars, and suddenly the man stepped out of the shadows. His groan knocked the children to the ground—hours later, they were still crying.

The Sylvan Group contacted the island police, who searched the little fishing village at the south end of the island, but no one matched the man’s description.

The man appeared more and more. He scared a Canadian couple at breakfast, and ran through the kitchen during the dinner rush. He surprised a young couple on the first night of their honeymoon, and caused an old woman from northern Virginia to fall and break her wrist.

The group began to worry. The woman from northern Virginia had sued, and the settlement was significant. Worse, the group had no plan to end the man’s appearances (which brought the possibility of further suits and settlements). It questioned each of the resort’s associates, convinced that one of them knew the man’s identity. Several associates were fired, but the appearances did not stop.

The majority of the associates attributed the man’s presence to some supernatural factor. At first, the group dismissed this as superstition (many associates were migrants from sub-Saharan Africa), but eventually, after several more appearances, it was forced to admit that it had no better explanation.

The group considered some extreme options, and even contacted the Greek church about an exorcism, but before it could be performed, a higher power intervened, and Agio Pneuma was saved.

 

***

 

At the end of June, four Oxford students stayed at the former monastery. They spent their first day at the beach, and watched the sun sink into the Aegean. As they were returning to the former monastery, they saw someone standing on the path ahead of them. They approached, and the figure turned. It was, of course, the man.

The students spoke to him, and he groaned and shook the students to their bones. They stepped back, but did not run. One of them took out her iPhone and began to film.

The video lasts fifty-three seconds. The man stands looking at the students, and then groans again. The video’s sound distorts into piercing fuzz. Off-camera, one of the students swears. The video zooms in on the man’s face—his mouth hangs open. He stares at the camera for several seconds, turns, and runs. The camera follows him off the path and loses him among the bushes.

When the students returned to the former monastery, they watched the video several times and posted it to Instagram. Within a day, Buzzfeed had written a story on it. CNN showed it at the top of every hour for six days. A version uploaded to YouTube received 953 million views (almost as many as Katy Perry’s “Firework”). Newspapers and online content aggregators published and republished stories about the “haunted monastery,” and comment sections filled with theories about the ghost. Most people thought that the video was viral marketing for an upcoming horror film, but The Sun published an exclusive history of the “murdering monk” who was doomed to walk the night as punishment for his sick crimes.

Reservations at Agio Pneuma surged.

When they checked in, guests asked about the ghost—when was the last time he had been seen? and where was the best place to see him? They spent their days at the beach, and at night, they roamed the halls of the former monastery with their iPhones.

The Sylvan Group worked quickly and created a guide, which was given to guests when they arrived at the former monastery. The guide offered helpful tips for viewing the ghost, and as always, it was done with utmost care and respect. For instance, it avoided terms like “haunted monastery,” which, due to its similarities to Disney’s Haunted Mansion, the group feared would damage the sense of authenticity and spirituality that were essential characteristics of the former monastery’s brand identity.

The guests were not disappointed. The ghost appeared more and more—in the rooms, the fitness center, the refectory. But as the guide noted, he was most often spotted in the northwest corner of the chapel, next to the mural of St. John. This was the darkest corner of the chapel, and even when the ghost was not there, its presence seemed to linger: guests often heard a low hum there, a faint vibration through the floor and the wall.

When the students had filmed it, the ghosts had been confused, but now, it seemed to be angry. A Chinese family saw it on the roof, and took out their phones. The ghost groaned, and the family continued to film, but instead of running, the ghost let out another, deeper groan that shook the monastery down to the crypt. The family was very frightened and very satisfied.

The ghost got angrier and angrier, and the guests were thrilled. It began to chase them through the halls, and the former monastery was booked three years in advance.

 

***

 

The last sighting was in the chapel. The ghost was in his usual corner, his hands against the mural of St. John. He turned to look at the German woman filming him, but did not deliver his usual groan. He stepped forward, and passed through St. John and into the wall.

After a week of no sightings, the manager reassured the guests. There had been almost daily sightings in the last few months, but this was unusual, and the ghost’s absence was simply a regression to the mean. Surely, he would appear soon. But another week passed without a sighting, and guests began to ask for refunds.

Some Israelis claimed to see him a few miles away, on one of the cliffs at the north end of the island, but when they returned the next day with a large group of other guests, they saw nothing but stones and scrub and a few wild goats.

Negative comments flooded the former monastery’s Tripadvisor page, and reservation after reservation was cancelled. #FRAUDastery trended for a few days, and The New Yorker published “The Rise and Fall of Agio Pneuma.”

The Sylvan Group halted its development plans (given the demand, it had been in the early stages of building a new resort complex just north of the monastery) and refocused on branding. It pivoted away from the historical/spiritual brand, and launched a new campaign emphasizing the natural beauty of the island.

It was too late. The U.S. student loan bubble had just burst, and it had taken the global financial system down with it—experts said it was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Tourism in the southeast Aegean was devastated.

The Sylvan Group downsized its staff and halved its rates, but at the height of the season, the former monastery had only six guests.

Now—for the first time in fifteen hundred years—Agio Pneuma was quiet.

The Sylvan Group, however, remained optimistic. The economy would recover—it always did. In a few years, they could complete the rebranding. Or perhaps the ghost would return, and chase the delighted guests again. The immediate prospects looked bleak, but for the long-term, the group had faith.

 

 

III.

But just as Father Loukas did not understand his death, the Sylvan Group was not prepared for what happened next.

It was late September, and the only guests at Agio Pneuma were a family from California—an assistant professor of management and finance, her husband, and their two unvaccinated children. They were in the chapel, taking pictures of the murals, when they heard a low hum.

They followed it to the northwest corner of the chapel, to the mural of St. John. The family stood and listened, and the hum grew louder and louder. They had heard the rumors the ghost, and were very excited. The son hit the wall with his palms. His mother told him to stop (he had knocked some of the paint from St. John’s beard), but she too wanted to see the ghost, and when he started to hit the wall again, she said nothing.

The sound of the hum sharpened, and the family felt it tingling along their skins. The son slapped the wall again, over and over, and stopped only when his sister shouted that something had bit her. She started to cry, and her mother and father squinted at the little red bump that had swollen up on her arm.

The son pointed up at the wall and told his parents to look. The father shushed him and kissed the bump on the girl’s arm, but the son kept telling them to look. He was pointing to a crack in the stone just above St. John’s head, out of which came a cloud of large black bees.

They had been there all along, of course. When the Sylvan Group dismantled the hives, some of the bees had escaped into the spaces the between the walls. They had built new combs there, and bred and bred. The ghost had tended them for a while, but now he was gone, and they were wild and angry.

The family ran, but it didn’t matter: the bees landed on their hands and faces and necks. The swarm poured from the crack above St. John’s head, covered the murals of the saints and Virgin, and swelled out of the chapel and into the hall, the lobby, the kitchen, the fitness center. The few remaining associates were too late: they heard the buzz, and then it was on them.

The bees kept coming, and in a few minutes, the former monastery was theirs.

 

 

Ryan Napier holds degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His stories have appeared in EntropyNoble / Gas QtrlyQueen Mob’s Tea Houseminor literature[s], and others, and a chapbook is forthcoming from Bull City Press in 2018. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier