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Coconut Dreams

Title page: Coconut Dreams. Stories by Derek Mascarenhas. Published by Book*hug Press 2019

Contents

The Call of the Bell

1994

Carriers

Birds of a Feather

1995

Picking Trilliums

When the Good Shines a Little Brighter

Two Islands

1996

Small Things

So Far Away

Fallen Leaves

1997

One Hundred Steps

Private Property

1998

Learn to Care

1999

Snapshots

Grand Opening

2000

The Elephant in the Mountain

1996

Hold It Like a Butterfly

2006

Coconut Dreams

Acknowledgements:

About the Author

Colophon

The Call of the Bell

May 25, 1946

Felix Pinto’s birth in a cemetery was never forgotten by the village of Colvale. Mysteries, like tragedies, are long remembered.

Felix’s mother, Rosetta, attended the funeral of her former elementary school teacher that morning. While she was trying, and failing, to squeeze her pregnant belly into her best black outfits, Felix’s father, Miguel, wearing dark slacks and a dress shirt, suggested she stay home and rest. “Even the monkeys stop running on the roofs in this heat.”

“I’m not a monkey, and I don’t intend to run on any roof.” Rosetta finally pulled a brown dress down over her belly; fifteen days overdue, she was rounder than she’d ever been with her two previous pregnancies.

“You should stay and rest.”

“Miguel, I’ve known Mr. Lopez since I was a girl. The least I can do is attend the service.”

The house was quiet. Rosetta and Miguel’s two sons had already returned to Bombay to get ready for school. The boys’ Nunna had accompanied them, so Rosetta wouldn’t have to make such a long journey so close to the baby’s arrival.

“At least let us try to catch a ride at the road, then.”

Rosetta nodded. It wasn’t far to the church, but she knew Miguel wanted to feel useful. He fixed machines in the cotton mills. He needed to fix things, but not all of life’s problems could be solved with the same mechanical exactitude.

On their way to the main road they saw a bullock cart approaching. The cartload of coconuts was pulled by two giant oxen with coats, eyes, and wet noses the same jet-black colour; their white horns curved skyward.

Miguel waved the driver down.

“I’m heading to the Mapusa market, but I can drop you at the church on the way,” the driver said, and gestured to the back. “As long as your husband is okay sitting on the coconuts, Madam, you can join me up front.”

As the driver helped Rosetta into the passenger seat, she noticed the sinewy muscles in his forearms, concluding that he must also climb the coconut trees himself.

With Rosetta up front and Miguel settled atop the many green, football-sized fruits, the driver gave the oxen a tap on their rears with a thin bamboo stick; the cart rolled through the humid air, the oxen’s heads bobbing and dust billowing behind them.

The cemetery was adjacent to the tall stone church built by the Portuguese. The church, painted a bright seashell-white, stood in sharp contrast to the jade palms and indigo river behind it, and the ground of tiny, red xencare. These small stones had been rounded by rain on their journey down from the high hills.

Rosetta and Miguel thanked the driver as he got back on his cart. Miguel asked him if he was taking the hill path to Mapusa, pointing to a dirt trail that started at the cemetery and led straight up the hill to a lone, empty house at the top. Rosetta’s brother claimed that the house was haunted, though most houses that stayed empty for long were conferred that status.

“It’s the fastest route. I need to let the oxen drink by the river first, though.” The driver gave another tap on the oxen’s rear, but one of the animals groaned and bucked, nudging a single coconut off the cart. It hit the ground with a thud. Miguel picked it up and handed it back to the driver, who smiled, embarrassed, at the animal’s disobedience.

“Good luck at the market,” Rosetta said, as they waved goodbye.

Miguel led Rosetta by the hand to the crowd gathering outside the church. “So many people,” he said.

“He was well-liked.”

Mr. Lopez’s quiet kindness had been his way of conveying an innate belief in every student’s potential. It was what brought most of his graduates back to visit him years later. Rosetta had gone back to ask Mr. Lopez’s advice many times herself.

The bell tower chimed every few seconds to let everyone know the service was starting. Shielding her eyes from the sun, Rosetta could see the silhouette of the bell operator up in the tower swinging the bell’s rope. She had heard his signal the night before: the prolonged gap he’d left between each of the three chimes had indicated that someone from the village had died.

The crowd parted to let Rosetta through. She gave them a funeral-appropriate half-smile. In spite of this, her dimples still showed. Everyone’s eyes were on her belly, a bulging jackfruit ready to drop.

Miguel helped Rosetta to a seat near the back of the church after a few parishioners made room. She was thankful to sit once again; a short distance felt like a marathon in the day’s sweltering heat.

Once everyone was sitting, Father Constantine stepped up to the pulpit. His bushy grey eyebrows rested above thick rectangular glasses, and he rushed through the mass as if it were community announcements.

As he spoke, Rosetta eyed the closed coffin of simple, unvarnished wood at the front of the church. She had heard that the only thing included with the body of their beloved schoolteacher was his iron walking stick, and pictured it now, folded in his hands.

After the mass concluded, Father Constantine led a procession of pallbearers outside. Rosetta let the rest of the congregation exit first, before she followed with Miguel. She felt the blazing sun as soon as she got outside and took her time walking past the stone statue of St. Francis of Assisi—painted the same seashell-white as the church—to the shade offered by the cemetery walls and trees. Mr. Lopez had once told Rosetta and the rest of her class—to prevent them from cutting through the cemetery—that those walls weren’t built to keep people out but to keep spirits in.

Rosetta’s friend Nina intercepted her halfway.

“Have you seen Noah?” she whispered, sweat on her forehead and worry in her eyes. “He normally works late, and if he doesn’t come home he stays at his brother’s, so I wasn’t worried. But I just saw his brother in the church and he said Noah didn’t come over last night.”

“Maybe he’s still at his office?” Miguel suggested.

“I hope so. I’ll go check as soon as the service is over.”

Miguel, Rosetta, and Nina joined the crowd gathered around the grave. The muggy air was heavy, absent the mercy of even the faintest breeze. Rosetta could feel the sweat under her arms and breasts. She shifted her weight in discomfort but couldn’t get comfortable; Miguel stepped behind her, letting her lean back into him.

As Father Constantine flicked the coffin with holy water from a silver aspergillum, he mumbled Latin prayers that Rosetta and most of the village didn’t understand. Before the coffin was lowered into the ground, he called for a final moment of silence. During this time at funerals, the silence was often broken by a murmur, sniffle, or sob. Occasionally, mourners were so overcome with emotion that they wailed and cried; rarely, someone would actually faint. But today, when the quiet was interrupted, it was not by one of the mourners.

A cry for help came from above.

The voice seemed to emanate from the top of a tall palm tree beside the cemetery. And within its fronds, Rosetta saw a waving arm.

The voice shouted, “Nina!”

Nina raised a hand to her forehead to block the sun. “Noah? How did you get up there?”

“I don’t know. Help me get down.”

A woman from the crowd hollered, “Why don’t you climb down?”

“I don’t know how. I need help.”

“Fetch Diego,” someone else suggested, “he’ll handle this.”

Rosetta felt the baby move, followed by Miguel giving her hand a squeeze and then releasing it. “I’ll go run and get the boys by the river,” he offered.

Rosetta thought maybe it was a mistake to let him go, but he returned with three boys and a coiled rope, which one of the boys put around his waist before they climbed up the tree, one then the next in tandem. The boys hugged the tree and curved their feet around the trunk, shimmying up half body lengths at a time. Once up top, they tied the rope around Noah’s waist and began to lower him to the ground as if he were a cluster of tender coconuts.

Rosetta watched from below. The boys had the same sinewy strength in their limbs that she had noticed in the bullock-cart driver. Noah’s body, dangling like a tea bag on a string, was comparatively short and pudgy, and his limbs flailed like those of a caught insect.

Nina ran over and hugged Noah. Disoriented, he asked for water. A clay jug was fetched from the church, and as Noah drank and regained his composure, Diego rode up on his white horse. He had broad shoulders, a thin moustache, and wore the khaki-coloured uniform of the Portuguese officials, complete with black leather boots, navy blue blazer, and matching hat, brimmed on only the left side.

Diego nodded to Father Constantine, who stood impatiently beside the grave, Bible in hand.

From atop his horse, Diego addressed Noah. “So I hear you got stuck in a tree. How did that happen?”

“I don’t know. Last I remember I was on my way home.”

“But how does that get you up a tree?”

“Arrey, I told you, I don’t know.” He shook his head from side to side. “I woke up, and I was up there.”

The crowd murmured nervously. Nina made the sign of the cross, and the act spread to others around her.

Diego turned to Father Constantine. “We can discuss this later. For now, Father, please continue the service.”

Father Constantine made a show of clearing his throat, and took his time opening the Bible to the exact place he’d left off.

As the last of the flowers were placed on top of the grave, Rosetta felt an overwhelming wave of heat and exhaustion. With tears flowing down her cheeks, she felt it: a sudden warmth.

Miguel mistook Rosetta’s tears for mourning and handed her his handkerchief, which Rosetta twisted in her hands. Water began running down her legs as the crowd filtered out of the cemetery. They were anxious to get out of the sun and properly gossip about how Noah had really ended up in that tree—a prank, or maybe even a malicious spirit.

Miguel put an arm around Rosetta but pulled away upon noticing the wet spot on her brown dress.

Rosetta felt a pain much sharper than she had in her previous pregnancies, and dropped to the ground. Miguel called her name, gripping her shoulders in panic. He helped her lean against the gravestone beside Mr. Lopez’s grave, then ran for help, shouting to the crowd now outside the cemetery walls.

Through the cemetery entrance, Rosetta watched as Miguel was intercepted by a hard and heavy green coconut rolling down the hill to Mapusa, tripping him and sending him to the ground. Rosetta cried after him, and for a moment he lay there. Then a low rumbling noise followed. A landslide of coconuts was coming down the hill toward the crowd.

As the first coconuts began rolling underfoot, Diego’s horse rose up on its hind legs and kicked its two front legs in the air, throwing him to the ground. A wave of coconuts followed and knocked people over; those who kept their feet collided in the scramble to dodge the tropical avalanche.

When it was over, and the final coconut had gone bouncing off into the churchyard, everyone had been felled except Rosetta, protected by the cemetery wall. She watched as some people got to their feet. Others remained on the ground, moaning and clutching their legs where the coconuts had struck.

The bullock-cart driver came running down the hill, out of breath. He put both hands on his head when he saw the scene outside the cemetery.

“What happened? Are these your coconuts?” Diego asked him.

“Yes, but it wasn’t my fault. I was on my way to Mapusa, but when I approached the house at the top”—he pointed up to the hill, still trying to catch his breath—“I saw a pineapple fall down from the zamblam tree out front.”

“Pineapples don’t grow on trees,” Diego said.

“That’s why I stopped. But the oxen startled. The cart tipped backwards. And all my coconuts were sent rolling down the hill. I was lucky I wasn’t crushed!”

Rosetta felt a sharp pain and cried out. A few yards away, Miguel had regained his sense. “Rosetta is in labour,” he cried. “We have to help her!”

He arrived with a few villagers to discover Rosetta panting, blood flowing between her legs. “We need to go to the hospital,” Miguel said, but Rosetta shook her head. No time. The baby was coming.

An older woman who used to be a midwife was hurried over. She ordered others nearby to run and fetch hot water, a clean cloth and a knife, and a tincture from the Ayurvedic doctor for the pain.

The next moments were a blur for Rosetta: calm voices trying to coach her, waves of pain, panic, fluids, and contractions; it felt as if the life itself were flowing out from her.

The xencare on the ground were stained a darker red as Felix Pinto let out his first cry: piercing, high-pitched, and unnatural amongst the graves.

Normally, the birth of a child in Goa brought sweets and celebrations. Firecrackers would be lit shortly after the birth to announce the occasion: three firecrackers for a boy and two for a girl. Instead, at his wife’s bedside in the hospital, still holding her limp and lifeless hand, Miguel listened to the slow ringing of the church bell, the long spaces between each toll signalling another death.

Time passed, and the village of Colvale’s feelings about that day gradually shifted from grief to superstition. Rumours spread of a new noise in the night at the top of the hill to Mapusa: a rare metal twang, like an iron rod reverberating off stone. Some said Mr. Lopez had been too busy watching the events of that day and missed his chance to ascend to heaven. Legend also grew about the house at the top of the hill. How it had sat empty for many years. How, because the owners had cheated the labourers who had built it, when they died, their souls were forced to stay in the house instead of moving on to the next world.

A detour in the path to Mapusa was built through the trees to skirt the house, but other things were not so easily avoided.

May 17, 1958

The church bell chimed for the evening angelus, and Clara said to Felix Pinto, “Time to go.”

The two friends sat beneath a zamblam tree on the edge of the forest. Although the tree was an infant compared to the centurion it would one day become, berry-like fruit filled its branches and scattered on the ground below.

“Are you getting scared?” Felix tossed one last sweet and mildly sour zamblam into his mouth. His hands and teeth were stained by the juicy purple flesh.

“No,” said Clara. But she marked her page in her Enid Blyton book and stood.

“It’s just a silly saying,” Felix said. The rhyme used to scare children popped into his head: In the afternoon between twelve and three, the ghosts come out under the zamblam tree.

“I know,” Clara said.

Felix wasn’t fully convinced; Clara was two years younger than him and more likely to believe in ghosts, but he said, “Chalo. Let’s go, then.” He got up and returned his slingshot to his front pocket. He pointed to the road where a bullock cart, stacked high with hay, rolled along. “There’s our ride home!”

Sneaking up behind the cart so the driver couldn’t see them over his high load of hay, Felix first lifted himself up, then helped Clara.

They leaned back against the hay, watching the rolling hillside planted with cashew trees; the cash crop carpeted the hills green.

“I can’t wait for the cashews this week,” said Clara. The actual feast of St. Francis of Assisi was in September, but the village celebration took place in May to avoid the monsoon and take advantage of the children being on summer holidays.

“And the kadio bodio.” Felix was just imagining the sugary pretzel stick covered in nuts when he remembered the anniversary of his mother’s death always fell a few days after the celebration; this year also marked his twelfth birthday.

He then saw riders on horseback gaining on the cart from the rear, led by Diego on his white horse. A small spotted deer, freshly killed, was draped over the horse’s neck.

“Quick, hide!” said Felix. They both tried to bury themselves in the hay.

The riders passed on the right. Felix poked out his head to see if they were gone, but Diego was turning back to stop the driver, so he and Clara dove back under the hay as the cart pulled off the road outside Tinto’s, a tea stall famous for its homemade liquors.

“Come out of there!”

At Diego’s command, Felix and Clara jumped down from the cart without arguing and brushed the hay from their clothes. Diego waved his arm at the driver, and as the bullock cart resumed its journey, he whistled to his friends, telling them he’d catch up. Then he turned back to the stowaways, towering over them on his horse.

“You two are old enough to know not to sneak on the back of a cart like that. You could get hurt if it tips over.”

Felix cast his eyes to the dusty red earth.

Diego softened, and pointed to Felix’s slingshot. “Have you been practising your shot?”

“Every day,” Felix replied.

Clara, eyeing the creature around the horse’s neck, asked, “Did you kill that cheetal in the forest?”

“Yes, but you two please don’t get any ideas. The forest is much more dangerous than a bullock cart, especially at night.”

At this point, Wagh Marea emerged from Tinto’s, staggering over with a bottle of cashew fenny. “I see you’ve caught a small animal, Diego,” he said, more confident with his words than with his gait.

“Yes, but—”

“I once killed a full-grown tiger on a hunt.” Wagh puffed his thin chest out like a proud child and took a swig from the bottle.

Diego shook his head. “You shouldn’t drink that in front of children.”

Wagh briefly eyed Felix and Clara, as if just noticing them. Felix’s father had used fenny to start a fire, and when his older brother Jacob snuck a swig, he coughed for two minutes.

“But how many men have tugged a tiger by the tail and lived to tell of it?” demanded Wagh.

Diego raised his voice. “We hadn’t set out on a hunt.”

“Ah, so the hunt found you.”

“There have been sightings of strange men in the forest coming from Chikhli. That’s what we went to investigate.” Diego turned back to Felix and Clara. “Another reason for you not to go there. Now, I suggest you two get going home.” Diego tipped his hat to Wagh, spurred his horse, and rode off.

Wagh’s body deflated. But then he tensed and shouted, “Lousy packlo! Thinks he’s so much better than us.”

“We’d like to hear your tiger story next time,” Felix said, as they turned to go.

“Us outcasts have to stick together,” Wagh shouted back with a raised bottle, and Felix and Clara hurried home on foot.

The last of the day’s light was fading as Felix parted ways with Clara at her home, a squat yellow building that sat behind a weathered stone wall and two papaya trees.

Felix continued the short distance to his own home, picking up his pace as he passed Mrs. Rocha’s. From her porch, the old woman shot an unwelcoming stare at him, as if he were a black cat crossing her path. Mrs. Rocha did have the most beautiful bougainvilleas; the white and pink blooms covered the stone wall around her house. Felix often wondered how such a rotten person could sit behind such a pretty sight.

He hurried along to his house, opened the low metal gate, and ran up the verandah to discover his Nunna ironing dress shirts for church the next morning.

“So late you’ve come,” she remarked.

“Are Nicholas and Jacob home?”

“Your brothers are older, Felix. And they came home to bathe and eat already.” Felix’s Nunna dipped her hand into a bowl of water and flicked droplets onto the shirt’s front. The small iron had hot coals inside, and when she ran it across the shirt, steam rose to the ceiling.

She finished the last shirt with a few deft presses and hung it on a hanger. She then walked over to Felix, her bad knee causing a slight limp, and gave him a kiss on the forehead with her wrinkled lips. “Go eat. I kept your food out.” Then she added: “And go quietly past your father. He might still be asleep.”

Felix was blessed with his mother’s dimpled smile and he shared it with his Nunna. He had learned not to smile this way to his father; it triggered a slow and sad remembrance in him.

The hard cow-dung floor was cool against Felix’s bare feet. He tiptoed past the bedroom but jumped when he heard his father’s voice.

“Felix. Come here.”

Miguel was sitting on the bed, feet on the ground and shirtless. The room smelled of cigarettes.

“Where have you been?”

“Just out playing with Clara.”

“Let me see your hands.”

Felix held out his hands, eyeing the thin bamboo cane standing in the corner.

When Miguel saw the purple stains, he shouted, “You know what they say about those trees!”

“But it wasn’t afternoon.”

“Do you want the schoolteacher haunting us?” Miguel made a move toward the cane but stopped himself. “And involving Clara. You’re going to lose your only friend. Now go wash your hands of that evil.”

The twilit sky reflected in the water at the bottom of the backyard well, shattered by the pail as it crashed below. Washing his hands, Felix thought about how his Nunna had told him that it was only after his mother had died that his father had become superstitious. She’d told Felix this to make him feel better, but it had the opposite effect—and everything became even worse when the anniversary of his mother’s death approached each year.

Only the week before, Miguel had erupted when they were collecting mangoes. Felix had been using his slingshot to knock the fruit from their backyard tree. His aim was excellent—he fired stones through the tree’s foliage and hit only the stems, so the ripe mangoes dropped down to his brothers below. Jacob and Nicholas jostled one another to catch the falling fruit. “Great job, Felix,” Nicholas said. With their father watching from the kitchen window, Felix felt proud and useful. But then Jacob smirked and said, “Yeah, almost makes up for killing our mom.” Enraged, Felix took aim at Jacob with the slingshot, holding it taut. He wanted to hurt his eldest brother, but something made him miss, and the stone landed in a hole in the yard, beside the stone fence.

Miguel rushed outside. “There’s a snake living in that hole! Are you trying to bring more curses on this family? It will remember our scents and come to take revenge at night. Now go see the Shinari.”

Obediently Felix went to the holy man, who gave him rice blessed with prayers. The Shinari wouldn’t take money, for fear of losing his God-given powers, so in exchange Felix had to give him the mangoes he’d collected, along with a week’s worth of bananas, and when he returned home, Miguel made Felix spread the rice around the entire perimeter of their house so the snake wouldn’t enter.

The sun was down by the time Felix washed most of the purple from his hands. He remembered his dad’s warning about the schoolteacher, and before going back inside, he paused and stared at the almost full moon, thankful that at least his mother hadn’t also been turned into a ghost that haunted the village.

Felix sat with his family at Sunday-morning mass, and Clara with hers, but they caught each other’s eye when Father Constantine fell asleep after Communion. Felix tilted his head on his flattened palm to mimic a pillow, and Clara nodded. The priest was old, and it was sometimes difficult to tell if his eyes were open or not, but as the hymn ended it became clear he was asleep. The altar servers had already put the gold chalices away and returned to their seats. The rest of the congregation knelt in their pews, waiting for Father to stand, but he remained sitting.

Felix motioned to Clara to look at a few of the younger children, who had also sensed what was happening. The kids swivelled around looking for confirmation, their eyes full of delight. The adults managed to keep the children in line before their laughter spread.

Eventually, the organist started a new hymn, skilfully emphasizing some of the deeper notes. When he saw Father rousing, he quickly concluded the piece. Unaware of any aberration, Father rose, and the rest of the congregation followed.

After mass, Felix and Clara walked home together to change out of their church clothes, then reunited under the bright yellow flowers of the golden rain tree—Clara’s choice.

“Are you hunting bats with your brothers tonight?” Clara asked.

“It’s a full moon, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know why you go with them. They’re so mean to you.”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Felix looked past her, eyeing a carriage coming down the road. It was small, but fancier than most he had seen.

“Why, because I’m a girl? They only invite you because you’re the best shot,” Clara said, but Felix ignored her: the horse pulling the carriage was as white as Diego’s, and the driver wore all black. This was odd, as few people wore black in the heat of summer, unless they were in mourning. But then, as the carriage slowed to a stop next to them, Felix noticed the driver’s white collar.

“Hello, could either of you direct me to the church?” The priest had neatly parted, coffee-coloured hair, his skin as smooth as a boy’s and lighter than that of the native Goans in the village.

Felix stepped forward, pointing. “Just down the road and to the left.”

“Much appreciated.” The priest bowed his head slightly. “My name is Salvador Barroso, your new priest.”

Both Felix’s and Clara’s eyes lit up, unaware they were getting a new priest and excited to be the first in the village to meet him.

“Where did you come from?” Felix asked.

“All the way from Lisbon, my young man.”

“You met him?” Jacob asked Felix. Felix sat with his older brothers near the edge of the forest around a small fire they’d made from dry palm leaves and sticks. Nicholas held a stick over the fire with one of the flying fox bats impaled on it. The bat’s hair was singed off and the smell of roasted meat hung in the air.

“Yeah, I talked to him for a while and told him where the church was,” Felix said. He was surprised how fast news had spread through the village. People who normally wouldn’t talk to him had asked about the new priest. Felix’s father even said they’d all meet him tomorrow on the feast day; usually when his family talked to Father Constantine after mass, he was excluded.

“I heard Father Constantine didn’t even know the bishop was sending anyone.” Nicholas removed the bat from the fire and broke off a piece of steaming meat before he passed it around. The flying foxes gorged on fruit and nectar, so their flesh was more tender and tasty than any chicken or pork.

The boys had snuck out of their home with flashlights to visit the guava and chikoo trees where the bats fed. The full moon made it easier to locate the bats high up in the trees, and then they used the flashlights to stun them. Although all three brothers fired rocks with their slingshots, only Felix’s shot hit: tonight he’d killed both bats.

“He’s so old, he probably just forgot,” Jacob said, a piece of the cooked meat in his mouth. The way Jacob talked while eating annoyed Felix, the food smacking noisily around. Then he proceeded to lick his fingers.

Nicholas said, “Do you remember the story of how Father Constantine tried to exorcise that haunted house at the top of the hill?”

“Yeah, the door slammed shut when he started saying prayers, and his cap disappeared,” said Jacob, inserting another piece of meat in his mouth, “so he ran from the house with his Bible in his hand.”

His brothers’ laughter bothered Felix. “Every year that story gets more exaggerated. When I first heard it, there was no door slamming or cap disappearing.”

“Our brother doesn’t believe in ghosts,” Jacob said to Nicholas, “despite being born among them.”

Felix was reminded of what Clara had said about his brothers. Maybe she was right. He speared the second bat through its mouth with a stick and held it over the flame. The fire crackled, then sizzled as fat dripped down into it.

“If you really don’t believe in ghosts, then go into that house.” Jacob stared at Felix. “I bet you won’t.”

The moon lit the way as the brothers walked past the cemetery where their mother was buried and past the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, up the hill to the haunted house.

“What’s that noise?” Jacob asked.

“What noise?” Nicholas said.

“You don’t hear that banging?”

Felix couldn’t hear anything, but judging by the smirk on Jacob’s face, he knew what his brother was going to say next.

“Must be the schoolteacher. You know what they say—he roams these paths. If you keep walking, he’ll protect you, but if you look back, he’ll get you for sure.”

“Felix, you better hope he protects you,” Nicholas added.

Felix, silent, kept walking up the hill, but as they approached the top and he saw the property overrun by vegetation, his toes tingled with each step.

The boys passed under the giant zamblam tree in the front yard, their feet crunching through stray palm fronds, greedy shrubs, and dead leaves that hid the red-stoned earth, and stopped in front of the house. The roof and walls were covered in vines that had been dried by the summer heat and were waiting for the monsoon to grow green again.

“Well?” Nicholas finally said.

Felix marched up to the house to show he was not afraid, though he swallowed as he neared the door, hoping it was locked. No luck: the door was slightly ajar, with a crack leading to darkness. As he pulled it open, the door scraped on the dirt ground. Moonlight illuminated the entrance, but no further, and Felix swept his flashlight ahead of him as he entered.

The main room, other than a small table and rocking chair, was empty of furniture, and the air was stale. Felix took slow steps to the rocking chair. He could hear his brothers talking outside. As he was peering down the hallway, the front door slammed shut behind him. The moonlight vanished and Felix was left with the single beam of his flashlight. The seclusion sent a fright through him, and he shone the light erratically at different spots in the room, expecting to find the schoolteacher rising out of the dark.

Laughter filtered in from outside. Felix went to the door and tried pushing it open, but something was blocking it. “Nicholas! Let me out!” Felix banged on the door. “Jacob!”

No response.

When he got out, he would fire so many stones at them, and never again miss on purpose. Felix slammed his shoulder into the door once more. When it didn’t budge, he turned and, following the beam of his flashlight, began to inch down the narrow hallway toward the back of the house, brushing away spiderwebs and passing dark doorways he didn’t dare point his flashlight into.

The hallway opened to a backroom. The windows were shuttered yet permitted slices of moonlight into the room. The back door was locked and one of the window shutters was jammed, but Felix was able to open the other window with some effort. Peering outside, he was glad to see the ground a few feet below. He turned off his flashlight and climbed out.

In the backyard was an outhouse covered in the same vines that thickened into the forest. As Felix began creeping around the house, he noticed a light in the forest. It looked like a bonfire with two dark shadows standing in front of it: one broad and looming, the other skinny and sticklike.

A loud twang of metal hitting stone rang out. Felix cowered and looked all around. The figures had vanished. Another twang reverberated and the bonfire disappeared, too.

When the sound came a third time, he ran.

Heading into the front yard, he tripped in the weeds and dropped his flashlight, which went out as it hit the ground. He didn’t pick it up, just kept running, the sound ringing out behind him.

Felix’s brothers were gone, but the sound had him scrambling down the hill. He slid and braced himself, and somehow managed not to tumble over on the way down. At the bottom he diverted his eyes from the statue and church and graves, sprinting past. It wasn’t until, doubled over and breathing hard, he stopped at Mrs. Rocha’s bougainvillea that he realized he couldn’t hear the sound anymore.

A hand grabbed his arm.

“Stupid child!” Felix’s father yelled. He was wearing a white cotton undershirt and shorts. “What were you thinking going to that house?”

“I—”

“I’ve already caught your brothers. Don’t you lie to me!” Miguel pulled Felix away by the arm. “I told you not to go messing with ghosts.”

“There are no such things as ghosts!” Felix blurted out, then cowered, expecting to be hit.

“I’ll teach you,” his father growled, dragging Felix through the front door of the house and slamming it behind him.

The next morning at mass there wasn’t an empty seat in the church. The feast celebration usually attracted more parishioners than the normal weekly service, but the whole village had shown up to meet the new priest.

Felix sat in the back row with his brothers, Nunna, and father. The boys squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, their bottoms raw and swollen. Miguel had given Nicholas and Jacob two whacks each with the cane, but Felix got five for talking back. He could still hear the whir of the cane cutting through the air. In the morning, Felix’s Nunna had given them all fresh gel from the aloe plant for their sores, and both Nicholas and Jacob apologized to Felix, looking genuinely sorry. “We were going to let you out but then heard the schoolteacher’s noise for real and couldn’t go back,” Nicholas said. “Did you hear it, too?” Jacob asked.

Felix refused to speak to them. He didn’t want to admit he’d heard the same thing. He didn’t want to tell them what he’d seen either, as he wasn’t sure himself—the fire, the figures. And how they’d just vanished.

The thought that he might indeed be cursed entered Felix’s mind as Father Constantine introduced Father Salvador. The shorter members of the congregation and those in the back stood on their tiptoes to catch a better glimpse of the new priest stepping up to the pulpit. Having already met him, Felix let his Nunna have the better view, but she sat back down soon after, rubbing her knee.

Father Salvador thanked Father Constantine and turned to address the congregation. “I’m already overwhelmed by all of the pious people I’ve met and look forward to becoming part of this community. I’m also thrilled to be able to assist Father Constantine and learn from such a fine and long-standing servant of our Lord.”

Felix’s Nunna exchanged smiles with her friends, impressed by Father Salvador’s respectful demeanour. The new priest stood silently at Father Constantine’s side as the older priest conducted the mass, but when the time came for the sermon, he delivered a passionate call to help the less fortunate: “If we cannot help our fellow people, what other purpose do we have in this life? Especially on this day celebrating St. Francis of Assisi and his good deeds.”

To the congregation, it was like a fresh light after years of the same dull words without action.

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