I have heard fascinating stories from my father….. About a man called Benjamin.
Benjamin the quiet man… Benjamin the feared… Benjamin and his hunting rifle…Benjamin the story-teller… Who possessed marvelous skills when it came to story-telling and could weave the most colorful story out of the most drab details of daily life. And (on feast eves, after downing a good amount of country spirit ;-)….)Benjamin the fearless…. It made me proud of him…
This is one such story. Dad narrated it to us one boring night when the dinner dishes had been cleared. He had to travel years down his memory lane, to remember this incident. And I shall narrate it to you as I have heard it… Spicing it up with a few things from my own story-telling skills. 🙂
Several years ago, in a village on the outskirts of Mangalore, there was a family that lived in a nice house very close to the church. There were quite a few children. When most of them had married and left, the house was left with the parents, two boys and a girl. The older boy was Antony(14) and the girl Marceline(8). The younger boy’s name was John(10). He’s my dad.
One evening as the small village was preparing to retire after the day’s toil, the peace and quiet was pierced by a shrill cry. It was like a banshee was wailing from the surrounding mountains. The people of the village were jolted out of their senses. Such was the intensity of that wail. It continued for about three minutes.
Then it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Isabel, my grandmother stood up from the grinding stone, bewildered. Never in her whole blessed life had she heard something so strange. When she was about to resume grinding, the air was once again pierced by the same cry. People everywhere, got out of their houses to see what was going on. But they could just not figure out the source of the disturbance.
The cry stopped. And the evening broke into night which passed uneventfully. Early the next dawn, the brothers Antony and John, went about their daily scuffle, to decide as to who would be the first to reach the church for the morning service. They both served as altar boys in the church and the first to get to church would get to ring the church bells. Antony mostly won because he was bigger and stronger.
After the service, the parishioners gathered in the church yard to exchange news (though they met everyday, there was no scarcity of petty village gossip here) and greetings. But today everyone could discuss just one subject. What was that ‘thing’ last evening that nobody had ever heard before? The consensus was that such ‘things’ should not be discussed in the presence of children (like our two young heroes) because we do not want them coming up with fancy ideas, do we?
That evening after drinking a cup of strong tea prepared by their mother, Antony and John accompanied by their little sister Marceline, went out to play with the kids in the neighborhood.
“Come back before sun down!” their mother shouted after them. When the sun did go down they trudged up the road to their house with their friends.
“Hey, the people are all speaking about that wail we heard last evening.” said Cyprian.
“Yeah, so what.” replied Henry carelessly. “It’s a good distraction in this boring village. And I hope it continues.”
“This place is not boring!” protested young Marceline.” And that thing whatever it was, was really horrible. I hope it does NOT continue.”
“It will come again” said Henry. The boys admired Marceline’s pluck. She was as fast and lithe as the next boy when it came to running or climbing trees. But they liked to tease and annoy her nevertheless.
“Will not come” she retorted.
“Will.” Henry laughed.
“Stop it both of you” said Antony. ” Maybe it was just a passing migratory bird. I don’t think-”
They froze. In the distance they could hear a wail. Mournful at first, and as it grew louder, shrill and piercing. Marceline stuffed her fingers in her ears as her eyes rounded in fright. It stopped. But the air resounded with the cry. The kids realised they had been holding their breath.
“It’s gone” said Henry. “The wily witch has passed. She will now go home and brew a fragrance that will cause all young girls to come to her. Then she will cook and eat them.”
“Stop it!” cried Marceline trying to put on a brave face.”It’s not funny.”
No sooner had she said this than the wail began all over again. AAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEE…..On and on like a mourning woman. They noticed that it was coming from the North. But the first time it had been from the West. It stopped and started again. This time coming from the hills in the East.
The kids hurried home when it had stopped completely.
“Ma… Henry says its the wailing witch. And she will take little girls away!” Marceline cried breathlessly.
“There is no such thing as the wailing witch dear.” said Isabel sensibly.
“Of course.” the mother smiled. “And you are a nice little girl. Nobody would do you any harm. And it’s probably the last we’ve heard of this strange happening.”
She was wrong of course.
Because the ominous creature wailed the next day too. And the next.
This happened for quite a few days. The people could speak of nothing but the wailing. In the crowded bars and in the marketplace. In the church premises. And this time not bothering to keep the children away. They came up with several theories. Some said it was some bird that had come from some distant land and was looking for a mate. Some others said it was a sign. An omen. Maybe some evil would befall this quiet village. Someone remembered that a man had died a very painful death not too long ago. He had been buried in the church cemetery. His name was Michael Gomes. Maybe it’s his soul they said. One that had not rested in peace.
And the people stuck to this theory. They began to get paranoid. They started to fear their own shadow at twilight. Soon the bars lost their attendance. And in the evenings, the roads were deserted. Mothers forbade their children to go outside to play.
Of course, Benjamin heard. And laughed his head off. “Honestly!” he said to himself. “Do they think they can shut themselves up forever? Silly cowards!”
Looks like the same thought had crossed the minds of the Parish Council. They agreed that something needed to be done. And after a session of brainstorming, they decided on the action plan. They summoned the youth of the church, who obediently gathered in the front yard one fine evening.
“When this… this…. cry begins,” said the priest. “I want three groups to head toward the three different mountains. Move up the mountains and chase that creature.”
“And you Father? What are you going to do?” asked one young man.
“I want a couple of men to come with me.” said the priest wiping his perspiring forehead with the sleeve of his cassock. ” We shall proceed to the cemetery.”
The men exchanged looks. Apparently they admired the guts of the priest.
“We have to solve this mystery today.” he said. “Now go. May God be with you.” They set out with the vigor that comes naturally to young men faced with adventure. The Parish priest and five other men started out to the cemetery. It was dark.
No sooner had the men stationed themselves at the foot of the hills, than the cry began. Sounding twice as terrible to the anxious crowd. They ran up the hills leaving behind clouds of dust. Shouting to each other and trying to decipher what each one was saying in the chaos. It was pandemonium.
“What is it? Where is it?” they asked breathlessly. And to their utter shock and disappointment, they found nothing.
Nothing. Despite the fact that the wail was now closer, louder, and more dramatic, being magnified at the hilltops and echoing in the distance.
Meanwhile the priest and his band of young men, had positioned themselves behind the bushes bordering the cemetery. They could feel shivers pass down their spines as the cry began. The atmosphere was eerie and chilly. The tombstones looked like humans frozen in time. Every leaf that rustled in the wind made them jump.
And suddenly one man pointed out to the left. ” L-Look! Oh my God! Look at that!”
“Where?” asked the priest. And then he saw it. In the distance a figure was approaching with a lantern. Floating in the swirling mists. The priest swallowed. “Mother of God!” he exclaimed. His courage failed him.Two of the men ran away in fear. The remaining, including the priest continued to watch, frozen to the ground and dumbstruck -their mouths wide open. In the background was the wailing, and in the foreground a new drama was unveiling.
The figure stopped at a tombstone, not far away. The priest who knew every corner of the graveyard suddenly recognized it as the one belonging to Michael Gomes, and trembled violently. The clouds shifted and in the pale moonlight, they watched the figure raise its arms. Now the shadows lifted off its face.
“It’s Benjamin!” exclaimed the priest who was now sweating profusely. “Jesus Christ!”
There was a loud noise as Benjamin struck the tombstone with a long wooden stick. “Michael!” he yelled (apparently full of country spirits) at the top of his lungs. “Michael! You useless country loafer! I knew you when you were alive! You drank like a leaky water tank and smoked like a chimney! And I know every other secret of yours that your wife doesn’t!” The priest thought his heart would fail and shut his ears in horror.
“Now go to hell you oaf!” Benjamin was unstoppable. “Because that’s where you deserve to be! And if you think that we will be scared of a loser like you, you’re mistaken! Now stop wailing! Stop! I said SHUT UP!”
The wailing stopped. “That’s right!” he shouted. “And if you ever come back, I’ll bury you in the gutters!” Then he made his way around the tombstones, muttering to himself and disappeared around the corner.
And miracle of miracles, the wailing had ceased forever. Benjamin was the hero of the village. Everyone spoke of him. For the next four days, a priest had to be called from the neighboring village to offer mass in the church, because the Parish priest was down with a violent bout of headache and fever.
“So what was it?” I asked dad when he had finished. “I mean that mysterious creature.”
“Oh come on.” I said rolling my eyes.”You don’t expect me to believe it was Michael’s spirit?”
“Honestly?” replied dad. “I don’t know what it was. I dunno if it was his spirit or if it was some strange bird that coincidentally migrated away after that night…. I don’t know. In fact nobody knows.”
But it was a great story I decided. One of a kind. It’s strange how dad can convert a simple incident, into an intriguing story. Just like Benjamin. And funny how I can embroider it to make it different.
But then no surprise. Benjamin happens to be my grandfather.