The first few drops of rain brought with it the mist.
It was through the mist that I saw the speck of color and heard shallow laughter.
The rain washed fir gently swished its branches, as the reeds swayed in the air. The river of eternity flowed with renewed vigor, its icy whirlpools rising and falling, milky crests carrying debris and forsaken blossoms. Broken, dead leaves and twigs, like fallen soldiers, were carried along to a higher plane of existence while the willows lining the bank sang their elegy.
In a valley, one’s life revolves around mystery. It’s like a rift between the unseen wilderness of mountains and the familiar effervescence of life!
That monsoon, the rain came early, filling the golden skies with dark clouds, and bringing the mist. As Mist trod over the valley with her dainty feet, she wrapped them in a cold embrace and held them firmly to her bosom.
It was a melancholic day. The mist made everything look eerie. Humming a mountain song, I kept gazing outside the window at the blanketed world, as the rain pattered against the roof.
The fact that Ramu had had the wisdom to bring in my weekly supplies beforehand impressed me. He was indeed a man of the valley! He could feel nature’s pulse better than any weather vane.
The laughter was soothing to the ears, sweet and lulling. Was it the willows whispering to the birches, the river gurgling with its new inhabitants?
Or had it simply been an outburst of my fancies, invigorated by the playful mist?
However, beyond the smoke from my fireplace and the mist, a speck of tangerine had greeted my eyes. Could this be an illusion too?
Then that I heard the song of the mist:
…As the harsh river swept-
the blossom with its tide,
The helpless willows wept,
and her albino mother cried…
Again that laughter!
In a trance, I left the porch and yielded my jacket.
Who could it be at this hour of the day, amidst this rain and mist?
As I crossed the threshold of my ancestral villa and walked out, a cold blast of air hit my face.
Again, the lulls of a melodious voice drifted back. This time, it seemed guarded, as if aware of intrusion.
…She travelled a long, dreary way
From the valley to the meadows
And cried and cried all day-
Till she befriended the shadows…
Again, there was a cry of laughter!
…Will the mist be her song?
And the flowers adorn her hair?
As the church hits its gong-
In the hours of despair…
I was transfixed. Who was singing, if there was nobody? Just then, I heard the throaty cry of a cicada.
It was drizzling and the mist had cleared some. But where had the voice disappeared?
Then, I heard it again, sure and steady.
…And cried and cried all day-
Till she befriended the shadows…
Just as I was about to begin this chase again, there was a sudden deafening boom of thunder. Before I could gather my senses, my eyes fell on a fleeting speck of red, rapidly disappearing into the woods.
“Who are you?” I screamed into the mist. There was no reply but by then, my eyes were focused.
I was surprised by what I saw: a little girl in a tangerine frock! Before I could call out, she disappeared into the woods, giggling and singing.
I considered going after her and helping her back home when the weather was better. Then, the thought struck me: I was the only person living here. For miles, there wasn’t a soul inhabiting this desolate corner of the valley.
Apparently, I was wrong. The girl must have had been from the woods! What parents let their children play around in such unfriendly weather? I made a mental note to go to her house, when the weather cleared and rebuke her parents about such carelessness.
The mist was settling in again, this time bringing a tinge of frost and my teeth started chattering. So, with a silent hope that the girl had reached home safely, I decided to get back.
Back in the warmth of my parlor, I sat with my art portfolio and some hot, steaming coffee.
Frequently, I kept looking out of the window, as if somehow expecting that strange girl to materialize again.
I wrote the day’s diary entry before retiring to bed that night. After some hesitation, I added the song of the girl from the woods, in long cursive letters.
The next day, I woke up to the grating calls of the bulbul and the sunbeam dancing on my eyes.
After too many days of rain and mist, the golden rays painting the skies with glamour came as a sweet release.
Ramu came early, apologizing for the last day’s delay and cursing the weather. “It’s going to get worse Sahib! I can smell it.” Seeing his dramatic expression, I grinned.
During the course of the day, Ramu did his chores while I enjoyed the last day of my stay, before returning back to Delhi. At around noon, I remembered the previous day’s curious happenings.
“Ramu, who lives in those woods?” I asked.
“In the woods?” he hesitated. “None, Sahib.”
“Are you sure?”
“I swear on Him. There is nobody in there. None that I know of!”
Seeing my grave expression, he must have had figured out that something was wrong.
“What’s wrong, Sahib?”
In a nutshell, I told him everything.
When I stopped, I was shocked to see the color draining from his plum face. “Are you sure she was wearing red? What did you say she was doing?” he asked nervously. “What exactly was she singing?”
“Look Ramu, it’s nothing serious. She could simply have come here for a stroll!”
The stupidity of what I was suggesting hit me.
“She was singing about blossoms carried away by the river, shadows and church bells.”
For a moment, I thought Ramu might faint. I made him sit and drink. When blood returned to his pallor, I told him to proceed.
He began in a small voice, with shaking hands. “She isn’t a girl but a wandering soul, Sahib. Krishan claimed to have seen her, but none of us believed him, as he is a liar. But now that you saw her, it’s true!”
I didn’t believe him but didn’t tell him so either as men of the valley are very sentimental.
Assuring Ramu that I would be extremely careful and letting him pack my trunks, I released him.
Alone again, I sat with a coffee mug and my portfolio.
The sun was blushing red and a sweet breeze was blowing. Unable to concentrate, I decided to take a stroll.
Walking past the dust road and ferns, I reached the turn where the river flowed the fiercest. Just a hundred yards away, stood the deserted remains of the countryside church- one of the only signs that people had once lived here.
I walked towards the river and peered over its edge. A shudder ran down my spine. Somehow, I got reminded of floating blossoms.
It was then that I realized that all around me, mist had set in. ‘Ramu was right. The weather is getting worse!’ I told myself.
Even before I could rush, big drops of rain started falling. I swore. There was no way I could get back without drenching myself to the bone. Besides, the mist was tricky!
So, like a logical man, I ran for cover, which happened to be the church.
The church gave an air of welcoming solitude.
Once inside, the rain started falling harder. The mist disappeared. Having nothing else to do, I started exploring the old nave. All that remained of the lectern and pews were broken planks. Outside the northern window, stood the huge walnut tree, waving its branches.
Then, I felt the shiver. All of a sudden, the entire building started reverberating with horrid childish laughter.
The song followed soon after.
I was shaking head to toe and looking around me frantically, trying to figure out where she was! The walls kept echoing the sound, making it hollow and muffled.
Just as I was about to go insane in fear, a lightning bolt hit the smoked glass window and shattered it.
Then, I saw her; for the first time I realized how lovely she looked in spite of that ghastly aura around her. Loneliness was prominent on her face. She kept looking longingly at the church bell.
…Will the mist be her song?
Will the flowers adorn her hair…
She looked less like some evil spirit and more like a ten year old child, who had lost her childhood and landed here.
The laughter stopped and was replaced by a sad wail. I felt a strange urge to console this pitiful voice. I realized that all along, she had been trying to tell me something.
In a blink, she vanished into oblivion. I was delirious!
However, where she had been a moment ago, something caught my eye. On walking towards the western wall of the church, I saw some phrases engraved on it. Having removed the layer of soot, I read:
The mist will offer her respite,
The birds will teach her to sing!
Till someday a passerby might-
Make the church bell ring!
Her soul be set free that night,
And let joy the blossom bring!
I remembered her song and rushed down the aisle towards the gong. I rang it twice, thrice but the weeping continued.
As I kept ringing it, the wails became louder.
Ring! Ring! Swish!
My heart beating at one twenty and mind delirious, I finally passed out.
My mind was morbid with bizarre dreams of ringing bells and floating blossoms!
Ring! Ring! The voice! The wails? Are those coming from me? Why am I shaking? My jacket! Splash!
I jerked wide awake. Someone had sprinkled water on me. Who was it? The spirit? No, familiar face. Ramu’s? How can it be Ramu’s? No, I was hallucinating…
“Oh my God, Ramu? You here? The rain? The bell? Is it ringing? Where is she…”
Something about his demeanor seemed alien to me! Or was it his disorienting smile…
The candle in his hand gave him a strange aura; almost a supernatural one, but…
I must be hallucinating. Badly.
Ramu nodded and helped me to my feet. With shaking legs and feverish thoughts, I followed him out.
With a last glance at the church, I staggered down the dirt road.
“But how did you… “
Ramu silenced me, shaking his head.
I reserved my questions for later.
Almost at the doorstep, I turned back to invite him in. ‘He needn’t go back to the village at this hour’, I thought. But…
There was not a soul behind me, just darkness and mist. A distant hoot of an owl!
I abandoned my search and went in. Having shut all the doors and windows, I settled for a warm bath that cleared my head.
How had Ramu materialized there, only to disappear again?
I left the next day, full of unanswered questions and an interesting tale to share with the city-battered mechanical souls, though I wondered how many would believe me!
Sahib: Hindi for gentleman