All Souls Day

Entry by: writerYNKGHTYLDE

5th November 2015
HE sank to his knees in the soft sand, bowed his head over the edge of the bank, and immersed himself in the brown water.
The splash sent a scattering of birds rising from the reeds to head for the heavens, their black shapes against the slate grey sky.
His head jerked backwards, he spluttered and coughed, prompting more birds out on the estuary to take flight.
Stripped back to his shorts despite the cold November dawn this is how he always started this day – All Souls Day.
He reached into his battered brown rucksack and pulled out two items – a rolled-up mat, and a garishly-painted wooden statue.
He’d got both on his travels 19 years ago in Mexico. The year he disappeared into the unknown. Off the radar, as far as family, few friends, and any former colleagues who cared enough to wonder about his whereabouts, were concerned . To find himself. Or at least find a place where he could start to heal the wounds.
He rolled out his mat, religiously, painstakingly across the grass. He planted the small statue, to one side, the end he’d sharpened with his red Swiss army knife his late father had brought him back from a mountaineering trip as a young boy, spearing it into the soft ground so it would stay upright.
He’d picked up the statue at a Day of the Dead commemoration all those years ago – treasured it - and used it this day ever since.
Then he knelt, bowed his still-soaking-wet head into the glistening grass, and prayed, mumbling at first, but soon gaining full voice, there was no-one here to disturb, no-one to overhear, no-one to question what he was doing.
He prayed for each and every one of them. He remembered their faces. One by one. Said the same words each time he pictured their angelic young smiles.
“Keep them safe oh Lord, on this All Souls Day, and throughout the coming year. May they rest in peace now and always.”
Each time he thought of one of the children he kissed the head of the statue.
The tranquility, the remoteness, of that estuary setting was a world away from the city scene which had erupted in such horror.
More than 20 years ago now. How time flew.
But the pain never lessened.
If he listened hard enough above nature’s silence he could still imagine the sirens.
If he squinted at the buoys’ blinking lights, marking the safe channels out to the wide open sea, he could picture some of them flashing blue.
And it didn’t take much of his imagination for the whole brown muddy watered estuary to be transformed into one with pools of vivid blood-red.
He knew it was all in his mind. But the memories, the visions, were real.
He’d never escape the nightmare. He’d just learned to live with it.
His All Souls Day prayers, baptism, christening, were part of the routine. His way of coping.
The rest of the year he was the village’s semi-retired vicar.
The man who walked his dogs on the same route down by the estuary, past the train station, along the main road, at 6am every day, always a good morning for the newsagent and milkman along the route.
The man who went for a run at 7am every day, always a wave for the same passing cars as they made their routine journeys to their factories, offices and nearby hospital.
The man who you’d often see trekking up the barren moor at dusk to sit on a bench amid the long grass at the top of the hill with only sheep for company and then spend hours gazing at the stars, hoping to see the Northern Lights.
From the looks he got, and the comments he overheard, especially at social gatherings at the close-knit community’s annual events – the summer gala, harvest festival, the Christmas fete – he knew he was very much the outsider. “David, the odd-one who can’t stop walking, the weird one who just keeps on running.” Forest Gump some re-christened him. If only they knew that for him, life was far from being a box of chocolates – quite the opposite. It would choke them to know the truth.
Today, was the one day no-one ever saw him on his morning walk or his daily run. They never put two and two together. They never realised it was the same day every year.
He couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. Not even with neighbours who he’d learned to trust.
No-one knew he’d been a schoolteacher .
No-one knew it was later in life he became a vicar. Or knew why the conversion to the cloth.
They knew he was unusual. Knew he didn’t conform like the previous clergy they’d had in the village. Knew he could be challenging and forthright on some aspects of religion others just took for granted.
The subject which troubled him the most, the one which kept him awake at night, the one he struggled to articulate, stammered over, bringing back a speech impediment which was most pronounced as a child, was when people asked what still remained to him the big question on this day and every day – “If God is good, why does he allow such cruelty?”
That’s because David had seen the wickedness, the evil, first-hand, and the destruction and devastation, caused to men, women and children – an entire community ripped apart, as callously, as easily as tearing blood-soaked tissue.
And anyone there that day – anyone who at the time had been deemed ‘lucky’ to be alive – lived with the true scale of the horror every single day for evermore.
Until they themselves joined the dead.
David had flashbacks every day.
But today, All Souls Day, he allowed them in. He felt he owed it to the children – they’d be adults now – but to him they’d always be young, smiling faces. It was his choice, his only petty, small, pathetic control over the otherwise all-consuming grief to remember them that way.
That day more than 20 years ago had started like any other.
Schoolchildren arriving by car, by tram, walking up to the school gates, chatting, shouting, joking, poking fun, amid a melee of engines, wheels and flashing indicators, parents’ cars jockeying for parking spaces along with school buses outside.
The bell had rung as normal.
The primary school children had run, skipped and jumped their way across the playground on the way to forming their distinct lines, chatting, laughing at every moment, swinging their school bags, bashing into each other as they went.
Then they’d filed up the three stone steps and in through the front door. As they dispersed into their different classrooms, teachers headed into lessons, and soon a calm, quiet order descended, the remaining parents filing away from the playground, the last among them the most anxious, looking back until the last moment, checking their ‘little angels’ had made it in safely, counting the hours until they would pick them up laughing and joking again at the school gates.
Only for some, that moment never came.
Because when that morning silence was broken, not only the city, but the whole world shook.
Screams, shouts, gunshots, mayhem.
More than 20 years on he still couldn’t recall the detailed scenes, the sequence of events. His memory, his mind had spared him that. He had that to be grateful for. Small mercies.
He remembered the whirring sound of the helicopters overhead.
Police marksmen, media, the eyes of the world suddenly on that rooftop, that school, that city space.
For so long a sanctuary. For so many a place of childhood memories, a safe, secure, gentle gateway towards teenage years and adulthood, where generations had felt happy, comforted, inspired, now lost for ever.
For David, all these years later and having escaped to the most tranquil of settings, even now if a mountain rescue helicopter approached down the valley it brought it all hurtling back.
The whirring overhead. The chaos. The screams. Still to this day he’d have to hold his ears to keep out the din. To save himself from being transported back to that ungodly scene.
Right now, he gazed around him at the reassuringly quiet scene collected his thoughts, and gave thanks for the peace.
The sun was starting to climb in the sky now. When he looked down he could see his shadow sharpening against the estuary grass.
He picked up his possessions, rolled up his mat, buried his statue deep in his rucksack.
He plucked out his favourite old clothes, brown trousers, thick grey socks, blue woollen jumper and battered old walking boots, pulled them all on one by one, tied up his laces which were caked in dried-up estuary mud, and hauled his pack onto his back.
Ritual over for another year, he was just about to head for the path back to the shore, when he heard an almighty crack.
A gunshot. There was no mistaking it.
Deafening, it echoed around the valley, bounced off the steep mountain sides, ricocheted around a huge stone quarry behind the village rooftops, felt like it shook the earth and cracked the sky.
It was followed, almost immediately, by a soft thud nearby.
Then David saw the shape moving towards him, fast, low, running, bounding across the tufts of grass, leaping across the pools of water.
The dog was brown and white, its bright red tongue was hanging out. He could hear its panting now. Then he saw it go headlong into the undergrowth and fetch out a duck in its mouth, all feathers and flesh.
Just as quickly as it arrived, it departed, turning and heading off straight back to its master, who David could just about make out, cutting a small well-camouflaged figure against the browns, the greens and the greys, way out in the estuary.
Another of God’s creatures taken from this cruel world. In an instant. On a whim. Oh God, Man had a lot to answer for.
David couldn’t turn the tide alone.
It was the dead, all those souls, who held the key to humanity’s understanding. To a better world for the living.
David’s job was to turn that key, to let out those ghosts, free them to roam the estuary, to inhabit the cities, the towns, so one day those who still walked this earth would be open to learning the greatest of life’s lessons, those from the dead.
Give all those souls back their voice, what would they say to us?
David’s day, his work, was only just beginning.