As I stood at the gate ready to make my maiden visit to a graveyard, years of conditioning reverberated loud and clear in my head.
Thanks to my grandmother, I held a deep repulsion and stigma around this place, where everybody must eventually come and rest.
In 20 years of my life, I had only observed the graveyard from outside. I never realised till date, that despite the supposed soul calming quiet that the wise people proclaimed it to be engulfed in, the place reeked only of loss and helplessness that man faces at the hands of the absolute truth of life – death.
As I took my initial steps towards the sea of tombstones, I could actually smell gloom and grief. With every step, my nervousness soared and my head hurt. I blinked hard and shook my head to keep my focus.
“Watch your step, son.” a grizzly voice called out over my shoulder. I simultaneously felt a hand under my arm. Relieved, I stabilised my feet across the step that I had failed to notice.
I turned, and all the sense of gratitude faded away immediately when my eyes fell on a wrinkled face covered with greased white hair combed perfectly in one direction.His bloodshot eyes shone with a mysterious glint. Blame it on my hyperactive imagination, they felt like those dark puddles that dared you to jump into them only to drown forever.
His eyes remained fixed on me. The mysterious glint now bordered on a menacing shimmer. I felt my Adam’s apple wobble as I tried to swallow a lump of air down my throat. I tried to move my tongue over my suddenly parched lips, but it refused to budge.
The old man’s thin but abnormally red lips turned upwards, exposing a crooked set of shining teeth. My heart slammed against my ribcage in fear.
This is it! I told myself.
All those stories of horror with a graveyard in the backdrop, which my grandmother told me throughout my childhood, were actually true!
I hadn’t even reached her grave yet, and I was already being preyed by the evil.
“What happened son? You ok?” His evocative smile turned into a confused frown as my breathing turned constricted and my eyes bulged out in fear.
“I hope you aren’t having a heart attack, young man.”
He tapped my back and broke into a throaty laugh.
I had definitely had a drink one too many. Blinking hard, I reprimanded myself and shook my head vigorously to clear the fuzziness.
With bated breath I ran my eyes from his head to toe and then back. Dressed in a three piece suit, his back was slightly bent. His demeanour was confident and relaxed. I noticed a tote bag on his shoulder which he was now shifting to the other side. I wondered what he was carrying in it. He gave me another one of his crooked yet penetrating smiles, and I stopped in my tracks!
“Who are you here to meet?” his voice broke through the gaps in his teeth. A chill ran down my spine. I considered pushing him away and make a run for my life, but air got stuck in my lungs, while the old man pushed me ahead, willing me to walk. I relented for a second, but eventually did as he expected of me. I was still not prepared for his evil wrath.
I saw him watching me with a conclusive intent.
Was he making up his mind? Whether to strangulate me or suck all the blood off my neck? I wondered.
“Damn you grandma! One of your stories is going to turn true on me.” I muttered in distress and sent a quick prayer to her, to send rescue my way.
“Who are you looking for, my child? Tell me, I might be able to help you.” The eager spark in his eyes coupled with his vice like hold on my shoulder made me freeze. The effects of liquor ran scuttling out of my system. I felt my knees give away, but just then the creepy old man lunged ahead and threw his arms around my shoulders.
This indeed is the end of me!
I braced myself and shut my eyes waiting for him to tighten his hold around my neck and start laughing menacingly.
Moments passed but nothing happened. Instead, I felt the weight of old man’s body shake on mine.
“Are you crying old man?” though confused, I mustered the courage to ask, trying to push him back and have a better look at him.
The old man pulled away and sniffed, trying to stop the tears threatening to escape from his eyes. I was startled and utterly confused. God! This maiden visit to the graveyard was turning out to be a nerve racking experience.
With arched eyebrows, I waited for the now not-so-fearful-old-man to say something. He took his time,
“I have been around here for too many years now. Enough to feel the grief that people carry with them when they walk into this graveyard. I just can’t help but reach out to them and share their sorrow.” In a blink of an eye, he threw out any traces of vulnerability, replacing it with compassion.
“And you, young man, look extremely shaken right now. I had to hold you.”
I looked at him, failing to extract any reaction from within me.
“So, who have you come to meet here?” the question had now begun to sound like a track from a broken record.
“I …. ummm… I came to see my grandmother.” My irritation gave way and I answered him in a stuttered voice, just to ward of any further queries. I looked around trying to find someone who could direct me to her grave.
“What’s her name?” the old man asked while I ignored him, looking around to locate a priest.
“What’s the name, lad?” this time he was louder and was successful in drawing my attention.
With nosy oldies like him, seriously one can’t find peace even in a graveyard. Now that I wasn’t all that terrified of him, I sighed restlessly,
“Julian Gadela….that’s my grandma”
You wanted the name? You’ve got it. Now what old man!
I tilted my head and gave him a stern look. He nodded as recognition dawned on him, and with a sweeping gesture of his hand he asked me to follow him.
He actually knew my grandma’s grave!
He led me to the graveside and patted my back,
“I am going to be a gentleman now and leave, so that you can have your moment with your grandmother.”
I could finally be on my own and spend some time alone mulling over the loss of my sweet grandmother. How I would give everything to go back and make some more memories with her. With both parents working to make the ends meet and provide for my education, it was only she who was there for me. Always. I spent my entire life until 18 years when I moved abroad for higher studies, listening to her stories and gaining life lessons.
A lot of them were about the good and the bad. The angelic and the evil. The church and the graveyard. I chuckled, ever so lightly, as I recalled that among other influences she had on my life, her most iconic and most talked about one was that she had managed to keep me away from the graveyard all my life.
“No! He doesn’t need to go to that place. What if some evil spirit falls for his unusual pale grey eyes and decides to possess him!” she would hassle whenever there was demise in the extended family that warranted my presence at the funeral.
Ironically, I couldn’t reach in time to be at her funeral either. But I came, that is, as soon as I could,
“I am sorry grandma, I know you don’t approve, but I had to come to this graveyard for you.” I fondly ran a hand over the marble beneath which she lay, “Please don’t be miffed with me.”
I spent some silent moments leaning on her tombstone. Later, I gathered my splintered self and stood up to leave.
That’s when I saw him again. The not-so-creepy-anymore old man. I was drawn towards his sitting form leaning against the tree while he looked over a grave. His eeriness intrigued me. I felt like I wanted to know more about him. And also thank him for guiding me to my grandma’s grave.
He sat on the ground, with a bunch of flowers along with two glasses of wine laid out besides the grave.
People have different ways to get over their grief.
I almost appreciated him for keeping up his unique date with whoever he had come to meet, but then my eyes fell on the epitaph and all blood drained from my limbs. For the second time that evening!
The old man turned at my exasperated sigh. The glint in his eyes withstanding, he smiled at me,
“Don’t you worry young man, I haven’t lost it completely yet. I know that the person in this grave passed away a hundred years ago.”
He signalled for me to sit down on the ground and produced another glass from his bag. Pouring some wine from the bottle, he offered it to me. I couldn’t rationalise my actions when I accepted the glass.
A distant thought that the wine might be poisoned popped up in my mind. Shh! This is no grandma’s tale. People don’t go around poisoning strangers for no reason. I patted my fear to calm down.
“I belong to a fishermen’s family from a beach village in Goa. Against all conventions, I went on to make it big as a businessman. The success got to my head and I began to think too highly of myself. I became arrogant to an extent that I thought nothing of my own parents, my wife or my only son.”
I noticed the despondent longing in his voice as he stared ahead into nothingness.
“I hardly spent any time with them. It takes a lot of MY effort to earn the money due to which you are having a comfortable life. I was sure to throw these insensitive words on my family as often as possible.”
With every word, the old man’s voice and the air around us became heavier. I feared that he might break down. It was now my turn to pat his back to comfort him.
“Twenty years ago, my son Sam, at a mere age of 15 threw a tantrum that he wanted to go on a picnic. And as usual, I dismissed him. My parents and my wife decided to take him out. I couldn’t have cared less and I left for work.”
The way his eyes turned dark, I knew something ominous was to follow.
“You don’t have to continue.” Given that he was hurting so much, I tried to dissuade him.
His eyes dilated and welled with tears.
“Their cab met with an accident with an oil tanker. There was such a huge fire that the onlookers claimed to have witnessed the flames from miles away.”
I found that my own breath was hitched in my throat and my eyes fixated on his cheek where a trail of tears was now running down.
“They were all burned and went up the fumes in that fire. I never got to even bid them a proper good bye.” He shook to and fro, not able to withstand the pain.
In that moment, the old man seemed so still, almost lifeless. He could have been just another tombstone.
“I am sorry for your loss.”
His eyes met mine and a soft moan left his mouth. This old man who I had went from considering a ghost to a mad man and finally to a grieving old victim of loneliness within a span of couple of hours, was very perceptive too. He understood the question that loomed large in my eyes. Sighing heavily, he took control of his scattering self.
“For twenty years now, I do not know what to do with the fortune that I earned at the cost of my family’s happiness. For twenty years now, I visit this graveyard everyday and spend time at any one of the hundreds of graves. I hope that those who have found peace here will be generous enough and send across my message to my family. I want them to know that I really miss them.”
My eyes went wide in disbelief,
“You too think that souls of the dead live here in the graveyard?”
“Oh yes! I have felt their presence many times in this place. Sometimes when I cross a grave, a strange chill runs down my spine. The air goes hot or cold of its own accord, as if trying to reach out with some message. You have to meet me another time, if you want to listen to all the spooky experiences I have had in this place.”
I shook my head incredulously,
“Oh! I want to hear none it. And I have no doubt that if even I were to concede to your request, my grandma’s soul would rise from her grave and we would both have to face her wrath.”
Both of us shared a subdued laugh. I took leave of the old man and turned towards my old lady’s grave for one last time before walking out.
I recalled reading somewhere that with time the sense of loss diminishes, but grief? Grief remains. It walks by your side for as long as you live. Some learn to deal with it as they move on in life. That probably will be me. And then there are those, who wear it like a shroud. They continue to breathe, albeit in contrition. That’s the old man I met this evening.
Photo By: Capri23auto
This is an entry from team Scribe Tribe of ArttrA-3 – A Game of Writers, co-sponsored by Diners Club International.
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