I was dressed in a completely inappropriate shade of pink.
Though I remember my sister telling me not to worry; there was no living person who could have noticed it.
She was right in many ways.
I was just five years old and it was the first time I ever stepped into a graveyard.
“Ellen, see? No one’s there. Come on!”
My shoes were definitely too large for my feet and they made it difficult to walk.
“How did you know mum is here?” I asked, stumbling behind her.
“Old Winkie told me. He was there when it happened.”
In the corner of the burial ground there was a little mound. That’s where Maggie stopped. I joined her there and I stared at the little heap of dirt at my feet.
“That’s mum?” I asked puzzled.
“No, dummy. Mum’s underneath. She’s buried.”
Back then, I didn’t know what buried meant and I didn’t ask. I wasn’t even convinced that our mum was there. I had never met Old Winkie, but everyone knew he was nuts.
Also, I was sure our mum wouldn’t like to stay in a spooky place like that, where all the colors had turned grey and the mist seemed eternal.
“How are you sure it’s her?”
Maggie lingered a bit before answering. There was no headstone, not even a note with a name written on it.
“Old Winkie said is this one” she answered then.
“Old Winkie is mental. And he drinks” I replied.
“But he was there when it happened!”
And that closed the argument. Old Winkie was the only one who saw our mum dying and somehow that made him the only person who could know where she was.
Look further, my dear…
“Did you hear that?”
My sister was now kneeling on the heap of dirt, perhaps trying to recognize some sign of our mum’s presence.
I strained my ears, but all I could hear was silence. A crow flew off a few yards away and then silence fell again.
“Nothing” I whispered.
I jumped at my sister: “There! Did you hear that?”
She must have heard it, I thought. But she just stood up and gave me a reproachful gaze.
“It’s the wind, you dummy.”
It wasn’t the wind, I was sure. I heard that voice.
Come along, my dear…come along…
The voice was now coming from behind a short wall, just a few steps past me and Maggie. She was again on her knees, looking at the dirt as if she was looking straight in to mum’s face. Me, I was more and more convinced that mum couldn’t have been there at all.
I stared at the short wall, expecting that voice to resound once more amidst the dead stones. But no more sound came. Instead, a weak flame lit at the top of the bricks. It lasted a moment and then it was gone. But there was no doubt that it had been there.
No more attempting to catch Maggie’s attention, I stepped towards the spot where I had seen the feeble light. I was sure the voice came from there.
As I got closer, the mist grew thicker. I turned back to check on my sister and I saw her still kneeling on that mound of dirt – she hadn’t moved one inch.
I turned again towards the short wall, but the mist had grown now too thick, so thick I couldn’t see my hand waving in front of my nose. I looked back, but even Maggie had disappeared in that milky sea.
I was lost and I couldn’t see. Paralyzed by fear, I couldn’t move either, stuck in the white emptiness of the deadly place I was in.
I cried: “Maggie!”
The air was an ocean of floating drops, coming in waves at me each breath I tried to take. I felt like drowning on dry land.
There was no answer from my sister. Could it be possible that I moved so far away that now she couldn’t hear me? Or was it the fog, so thick now that even the sound of my voice couldn’t get through?
I moved a few steps forward, hoping to touch the wall at some point – it shouldn’t have been that far – but my foot hit something hard and I fell on the ground, face down.
Then came a deep, friendly voice: “There there…poor little thing”
There was an old man standing right on top of me. He was the voice that called me, the same voice I heard only a few moments ago.
I was still lying on the ground, spitting the dirt from my mouth. He helped me to stand up again. My dress wasn’t now so flashy pink as it was before, rather brownish at the front – for my great and silly relief. For some reason, I felt more comfortable in a muddy dress, blurred with the surroundings.
The old man then reached out a hand to take mine and together we walked through the fog.
Suddenly I felt a weird sense of security. I was still lost and the man I was with, I had never seen him before in my life. Nevertheless he was the only one I could trust to lead me somewhere.
Just like getting out of a giant jelly mould, we came out of the fog.
We were still in the graveyard, though.
The old man took me to a little stone building. From the outside, it looked like a church, with that big crucifix on top of the entrance and little angels aside. In the inside, though, the walls were covered with old cracked headstones. It must have been a tomb as well, though for a lot of people.
“It’s a family vault” the old man said, as if he was answering to my thoughts.
“Why are we here?” I asked.
He winked at me: “You wanted to see your mother, did you not?”
I nodded suspicious. He knelt and put his hands on my shoulders. I could see the holes between his teeth, while a bittersweet breath made my nose wrinkle as he talked.
“Just stay here for a moment while I open the passage, right?”
I nodded again and looked at him as he moved away, still mumbling in his soft voice: “You do remember your mum, don’t you? Of course you do. She was beautiful, was she? Now you’ll see her, she hadn’t changed a jot. Still lovely as she was when she came the first time…”
He walked to the farthest corner of the room and then disappeared behind a column. I could still hear him talking, though.
Then a door squeaked open and everything became colder. I shivered and braced myself tight in my thin pink jacket, waiting for the old man to come back.
Finally he reappeared and reached out a hand to me, as he did before. I held on to it and followed him through a small door, which led into a narrow and dark passage.
We walked into it and soon the darkness became so intense that I felt like almost vanishing in it. There was no hint of walls aside of the passage, not a hint of a roof – even if it was fair to believe there were one.
We were walking down in to the darkness. Nonetheless, the old man seemed perfectly aware of where he was going and his hand kept on leading me forward, inch by inch, until I could finally see the end of the tunnel, where the light of flaming torches shaped a luminous orange circle right in front of us.
It got colder and colder the more we went down the tunnel, until we finally reached the edge of the light.
We entered a big room, slightly brightened. Shadows were dancing with the flames, in a desperate seek and hide game. Cracked column surrounded us, but they weren’t holding up the roof, far too high above them. All around us, fallen bricks lied on the dusty floor, as in a ruined place, old and forgotten.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Does it matter, my dear?”
Something moved at the other side of the room, where the shadows were darker. I held the old man’s hand tighter and tried to hide behind him, but he let my hand go instead and moved away, leaving me alone.
I stood there waiting and I saw a woman coming out of the dark. She had long blond hair that fell lightly on her shoulders; her dress long and weary; her eyes were wide open, though dimmed in a grey shade.
My mom – because even in that state I could recognize her – made a few steps towards me, and then stayed still, waiting. Her eyes were vacantly staring at the void in front of her.
I didn’t know what to say, not even sure she could see me, let alone recognize me.
“Mom, it’s me. Ellen.”
Her shallow eyes lifted to my face, as if she could see the words coming out of my mouth.
“My little Ellen…is it really you, my love?”
I nodded, then said it out loud: “Yes, mom.”
She made another step forward and stretched her arm, but she was still too far away to reach me. So I stepped forward as well and I felt her hand on my forearm, then on my shoulder and up to my face. Her touch was that of a cold stone hand, no warmth was in her bloodless fingers.
“It’s really you, my love” she whispered.
She took my hand and brought it up to her face, in what should have been a gentle caress.
Suddenly I felt uncomfortable. She was holding my hand against her cheek, so tight I couldn’t move it. I felt her lifeless skin under my fingers, dry and cold as death.
“Come with me” she said.
I didn’t know how to answer. So I didn’t. The sense of discomfort was growing and I just wanted to go away, rush back to the graveyard, where my sister would still be kneeling on that mound of dirt.
She looked my way without really seeing me. Her attempt to smile turned out to look more like a grin. Her hand tightened its hold on mine and tried to pull me closer.
Without much thinking, I burst away and back into the tunnel, without looking back. I could just hear my mother’s screams coming from the pit.
“Come back! Come back my love! We’ll be together, me and you! Come with me!” she cried.
I did my best not to listen and run in the dark, stumbling and tripping over stones I couldn’t see. Then I heard footsteps behind me – it was the old man coming after me. I run faster, but still could feel his breath getting closer.
Come back…you have to stay here…
I heard his voice inside my head. I tried not to listen and kept on running.
Stop…I showed you your mum…you owe me…
If that was true, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of that stinky, dark tunnel and see the light, one more time.
“Leave me alone!” I screamed.
I closed my eyes and trusted the dark, reaching my hands forwards, waiting to hit the wooden door at any time.
I could feel that the old man was closer now – his fingers grasping at the air behind my hairs. That’s when my hands finally touched the door still half-closed. I slammed it open.
Now that I was in the light, I opened my eyes and attempted to look back over my shoulder. The old man had stopped at the exit of the tunnel, taking his breath. When I reached the doorway of the family vault – when I was only a step away from the light of day – only then I turned at him.
We stared at each other for a long moment, until he just turned and walked away, closing the old door behind him.
I don’t know how long I stayed, gazing at the door, expecting the old man to come back and continue the chase. But he didn’t and I finally walked out.
Outside the family vault, the fog had dissolved and a pale sun attempted to shine in the grayish autumn sky. My sister wasn’t kneeling anymore, but stood instead, glancing at the stones around her, looking for me.
I moved forward, past the same short wall that appealed to me so much only a few minutes ago. Now I looked at it with suspect, mistrusting any sparkling reflex of light.
“There you are, you dummy! Where have you been?” my sister yelled, when she spotted me.
She wouldn’t believe the truth of what I had seen, so I just shook my head and said: “Around.”
I couldn’t tell her about the old man, not about the narrow and black passage. I couldn’t possibly tell her about seeing our mum, touching her dead hands and her face, so hard and cold. Not about running away from her, getting myself free from her deadly grasp.
“Oh God! What happened to your dress?”
I looked down at my once shining pink dress, now completely covered with dirt, and I shrugged my shoulders.
“It’s going to take ages to get it clean again” Maggie said, looking at me crossed. Then shook her head and grabbed my arm.
“Just let’s go home.”
I let her lead me out of the graveyard, but I couldn’t help glancing one last time back at the family vault. And there he was the old man.
He was standing on the doorway and winking back at me. My sister turned around and saw him too. I flinched as I heard her say: “Look, there’s Old Winkie over there! Let’s ask him about mum!”