লেখক: Archita Mittra
শিল্পী: Team Kalpabiswa
To the Sunday school children, she is a shadow in the window, a welcome distraction from the humdrum classes. Her eyes have a hollowed-out look, too, and her red scarf is askew, but she can easily pass as one of their truant classmates. Over psalm recitals and the sound of chalk scraping the blackboard, you can hear the caw-cawing of the crows and, if you listen very closely, her gentle tap-tapping on the misted glass. These taps are soft and hesitant, as though she hasn’t made up her mind about attending class or not.
When the bells finally toll for home, the children rush out. They look for her, searching for a sign in the gravel, in the rustling leaves, in the birds artfully hidden in the swaying branches. Underneath a grey sky, they mournfully share their packed lunches, leaving a few scraps for the stray cats and mongrel dogs that have made the churchyard their home. They talk about the girl they sometimes see at the window and invent stories about her.
Each child tells me a different tale.
Rosa, who can never remember her math tables, says that she’s the ghost of a girl who died out in the cold. That’s why they can hear her faint knocks upon the window, begging to be let in. Rosa’s mittens are full of holes, and her sweater looks thin and frayed. I nod sadly, shivering on a winter’s day, as Rahim interrupts us. According to his dad (who is an architect and knows everything), a child was buried in the rubble when the roof of the annexe building caved in during a storm. Beneath the loose floorboards, her bones stir weakly.
Others chime in: a forest spirit, Satan’s minion, a kindly once-neighbour called Mary who died of the plague, and a daughter whose father was a famous sailor who travelled all across the seven seas.
They are all so eager to be heard, and I patiently listen to them all. A few think she isn’t a ghost at all but an orphan who sweeps the churchyard every week for a few morsels.
“Where does she live?” I ask, unable to hide my excitement.
Alina, who wishes to grow up and be a writer, gleefully whispers in my ear like she’s sharing a secret: “In the basement, beneath the bell tower.”
She is a wise one, for the truth is a secret.
The village pastor, of course, has his own official version of events. A century ago, before this church had been renovated, there was a small pond in the yard, reflecting the skeletal trees and the trail of migratory birds in its murky waters. One day, a child, barely seven years of age, had wandered outside during service and drowned. Later, her red scarf had floated up like a bloodstain. After that accident, her grief-torn parents moved away to a faraway town and the pond was filled up. The pastor swears all this by the thick and dusty parish register resting on a small rosewood table beside the ornate piano that is never played.
I nod, but I think he lacks imagination.
Perhaps the child had felt it too—that nip in the air, the whisper of dead leaves, the plaintive call of the thrush. When she kneeled by the edge of that sunlit pool, tightening that scarf around her neck, she saw something else. Instead of slipping, maybe she had dived into the pool voluntarily, bewitched by promises of salvation, into a heavenly underworld whose gates had opened for her and her alone.
To my greatest disappointment, the parents of the Sunday school children do not like talking about her. So naturally, they gossip about her all the time in hushed whispers and sideways glances, clutching their tiny wooden crosses to their chests like her very name is a curse that must not be uttered aloud. When the carpenter falls off the ladder to the bell tower and breaks his leg, the story makes it to the newspapers. The parish-goers exchange the clippings in silence. One of them leaves behind a copy of the report in the aisle and I glance at it, curious: …the locals whisper legends of a vampire…
I don’t blame them, but I’m overcome with an inexplicable sadness. The townspeople were always a superstitious lot.
To carry out my investigations, I turn to the animals at last. The stray dogs and cats tell me about the cold spot in the graveyard that they all avoid. The pigeons fly away even when I beckon them with grains. I spot a snake, but it quickly creeps back to its hole and doesn’t come out again, despite my pleading.
The winter air is carved out of ice. I shiver, feeling betrayed. The stories within me flutter restlessly, like caged birds begging to be let out.
When the service is over, and the church is empty, I creep back inside. I toss aside the torn newspaper article, and it floats away, already forgotten. My fingers ghost over the dusty piano keys, not strong enough to pull out a song. The candles are still lit, and I kneel by the stained-glass window. A painting of Mother Mary, her head patiently bowed in prayer, waits beside me. Through the coloured glass, I see the churchyard outside, the leaves playing in the wind, the sound of hidden voices and crows screeching in a circle.
For a moment, I am overwhelmed. I feel like I’m drowning again—the stories that I’ve collected all floating away like my scarf, my breath slowing down in the dark.
I scream. My cry blows out the remaining candles, and the paintings quiver in their panes.
These stories are mine, and I will not set them free.
My memories were stolen after I died. So, I must search for them in the people who are still breathing. They might not remember everything, so I eavesdrop when the adults whisper and ask the children when their classes end, collecting all the stories that I find. I hold them close, tightening my scarf, each tale another heartbeat stolen back from the grave.
The floor is icy cold, but this church is my home, and I shall not leave. On windless nights, if you listen closely, you can hear me breathe.Tags: Archita Mittra, Short Story, অষ্টম বর্ষ দ্বিতীয় সংখ্যা