T3 শারদ সংখ্যা ২০২২ || তব অচিন্ত্য রূপ || বিশেষ সংখ্যায় Satavisha Ghosh

THE DIGGER

She was already there, digging. Crouched beside a dark headstone and surrounded by thick vegetation, she was digging frantically, fingers slipping in the damp soil. Her gray hair hung lose almost reaching the ground. I could catch a glimpse of her as the car drove up to the church. Almost as if she was playing hide and seek with the new-comers.
I turned to the professor and asked, “Surely you saw that?”
He merely shrugged and turned to get off as the car stopped.
Both the church and the cemetery were built in the 18th century by European settlers. This in itself was not uncommon, but to find an established church so far from a city was rare. Such was the oddity that we came to investigate. My thesis was entirely dependent on how well the visit went.
Apart from the obvious academic interest, there was also a matter of the rumours. The local beliefs about the cemetery ranged from mild discomfort to the speculation that it housed demonic spirits who came out every new moon and searched for human souls to devour. Whilst none of that could be true, the gossip must have been sourced from somewhere.
The church and its associated grounds were taken care of by the groundskeeper. His job was done by his father before him and his grandfather before that. The church was not in regular use anymore though, the Europeans had started a steady stream back to Europe in the early 20th century leaving their ancestors buried and their places of worship empty.
The man stood in front of the open church doors. He was a middle-aged man, seemingly unaffected by the eerie atmosphere of the space he occupied. The greenery and sunshine also seemed out of place for such a sombre place. Above the huge set of doors, it said “Open for One, Open for All”.
His voice when he spoke was artificially cordial. “Good afternoon, professor.”
“Afternoon,” the Professor replied. “I am glad we could come to an agreement regarding the timing of our visit.”
“Of course.” I nodded along smiling slightly.
The groundskeeper had wanted us to visit as the sun set, a strange demand for a strange place. But he led us into the church graciously with no further protests. The interior of the church quite plain and small except the sunlight streaming in through the high stained-glass windows. The geometric patterned glass made the intimidating aura lessen. Behind the altar hung an empty cross. When asked about the emptiness, the groundskeeper waved us off mumbling something about idol worship.
Then, he ushered us through a non-descript side door into the cemetery. The click of a lock sounded as we walked towards the rows of the graves. The Professor and I exchanged looks but continued walking forward.
“Say,” started the groundskeeper again. “How long will you be staying?”
“We leave tomorrow morning,” I said, so as not to be left out. “We rented a house for tonight.”
“Didn’t want to trouble you,” added the Professor.
“It would have been no trouble if you chose to stay back here. In fact, I would still insist that you do. Staying overnight in the church is a very unique experience that we recommend to all our guests.”
The Professor shook his head. “No, that’s alright.” Then, he walked up to the first grave in the row and began setting up the cameras. The indication of disapproval was quite pointed and no other word was spoken regarding the matter until…
The downpour was unexpected, yet I felt it was somehow inevitable. The car was unable to drive in such low visibility and the rain showed no signs of stopping.
The groundskeeper, ever the professional, held up an umbrella and led us back to the church. The side door was slightly ajar as we approached. The charm of the church under sunlight had completely dissipated with the gloom of the rain.
“We haven’t seen the offices,” said the Professor.
The groundskeeper jerked his head in direction of the altar and said, “It’s past there. The member of the clergy used to live here while this place was still in its heyday. But you should look at the bedrooms first, I might need to prepare them before you can stay for the night.”
The Professor raised his eyebrow at me behind his back as I replied, “Sure, we’ll take a look.”
By the time we were finished with the piles of paperwork in the office that night, we were so tired that we could barely keep our eyes open. There was a lot of usable material, but in the later years the church seemed to have strayed farther and farther away from any known forms of Christianity. Mentions of human sacrifice and the afterlife increased. We didn’t quite cover enough for anything substantial, but there was definitely something to be studied long-term. The church and the cemetery seemed to exist for a specific reason.
Our bedrooms were across from each other, above the offices. I had one facing the back of the church, a window showed only an overgrown woods shivering in the uproarious storm. I fell asleep quickly, pleased but apprehensive.
The latter feeling came to fruition when a noise woke me up. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, until the sound was repeated. Drag, thud… drag, thud… drag, thud. It seemed to be traveling away from my room. I promptly got up and went to look out into the hallway. As I opened the door, I could only see a faint outline of a person going down the stairs at the end of the hallway – thud, thud, thud.
I followed as silently as I could, feeling the walls with my hands in the darkness. By the time I was at the stairs, the person was already dragging something across the aisle and towards the side door, the cemetery. I watched silently as they left the door open and exited into the heavy rain. As much as I didn’t want to go out and see what was happening, there was no way for me to escape except through the cemetery.
So I waited a few moments to brace myself and then followed the figure into the cemetery. At first I couldn’t see anything through the rain and the kept slipping in the mud. But as I got further into the place, I could hear voices.
“He is protected, you know this already. They have worked for us for centuries,” said a female voice.
“He was only causing problems, he isn’t here for that,” answered a male voice. A very familiar one.
“Then where’s the one for your mother? You know she’s been suffering in the mortal plane, wallowing, dissipating-”
“Please don’t go on. I know. I have one. I finally found a good replacement for her, but you must hurry. She is near.”
I had crept closer during their conversation and now I could see the grave. The female speaker, she was on her hand and knees, digging, digging, digging while she spoke. The groundskeeper lay unconscious next her crouched form. At the foot of the grave stood the Professor, pleading to the old woman.
I gasped.
The Professor turned to look at me and then smiled softly. “The sacrifice is already here, priestess.”
His smile sharpened as he lunged at me. “My mother can finally go to heaven.”

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