“And then the group of students followed the source of noise. Something in their hearts told them the source of the noise was not among the normal noises one should hear in the night in a forest. But brave since they were, they followed on when suddenly something sprung from behind…. AAAA!!”
The doorbell rang. Everybody started and resumed their calm. It was raining heavily outside, the perfect eerie atmosphere one needs to build up for a horror story. Sandy stood up and reached for the door. “Grandpa, you almost gave us a heart attack. Now come in.” Sandy helped his old grandpa get the umbrella while it dripped water. The night sky was occasionally getting lit up furiously followed by a tremendous sound of lightening a few seconds later.
Sandy’s grandfather, Professor Tonks, was a retired History professor from St. Xavier’s university. Even at this age the old man was fit as a fiddle. He could jog up to five kilometres every morning and could give boys half his age a beat for their breath. He had led several expeditions in his younger days and had contributed in the city museum with numerous priceless historical artefacts, making the museum a major tourist attraction in the town. But his most priceless possessions were his singular experiences and his finesse in narrating them. Sandy and his friends loved hanging out with him and listening to his stories.
Professor Tonks joined the kids after he had changed his wet clothes and dried up his grey hair.
“So, what are you kids up to tonight?”
“We are having a horror night out. The weather is just apt for such a night, don’t you think, Professor?” Amy’s eyes glistened in candlelight.
A thin smile appeared from his bushy moustache. “So, what is the story about? Vampires, werewolves or ghosts?”
“Well, we were starting with zombies, but clearly you have something in your mind already,” replied Sandy who was a little annoyed that his grandpa had already taken over the charm.
Professor Tonks burst out laughing. He ruffled his grandson’s hair and replied, “Well, the horror is never in the story, my boy. It is in the narration. But I am not going to crash your plans by telling you a nerve chilling story from my very own experience.” He gave a wicked wink.
Sandy realized that after this, neither he nor his friends would be able to stop their curiosity until they had heard another unique experience from his grandpa. He was going to ask him to continue but was interrupted by Anna, “Horror in History, Professor? Please tell us this one.”
The professor made himself comfortable in his favourite high back velvet armchair and lighted his pipe and puffed a few smoke rings before continuing.
“Ever heard of Limpopo, kids?” asked Professor Tonks.
“Isn’t it a state in South Africa?” Sandy replied.
The bearer knocked in and entered the room. It was time for Professor’s evening black coffee. Professor placed his mug on the desk beside his high back chair and gently shook his head.
“A province. South Africa does not have any states. The story I am about to tell you dates back to my thirties. I was on an expedition in Limpopo. A farmer had found a gold idol while cultivating his land and they were not sure if that was an historical artefact. Hence my team was sent over to further investigate the whole situation. We were a team of four, an excavation leader, an engineer, me the historian and a junior archaeologist who was looking after the finds and logging it and other stuff and few of the locals who helped in the excavation.The idol was approximately five hundred years old and probably belonged to a temple and there was a possibility of other such relics being buried under.
For three weeks, we relentlessly dug, studied, excavated, cleaned and dug more. Well, at the end of three weeks, we were done. There were only paperwork and other small stuff that remained. We cleared up our camp from the field and returned to the village. An old family was kind enough to let us stay in their house. We were staying in their upstairs room and they provided us with food and sheets. The old couple had a smart young son, Liam. He was barely sixteen at that time. I was so impressed by the boy that I always kept him by my side. He was our local guide. I would teach him stuff in history and he would listen intently and ask intelligent questions. You see, education was not very strong in these areas but Liam was a very sharp boy. If given the opportunity, he would have grown up to be a successful young man.” Professor Tonks sighed and inhaled his tobacco deeply. Then, he continued. “So well, our expedition was almost complete and we were supposed to leave within a day or so. But the place had charmed me so much that we decided that we would stay another week and tour the place.
The province is named after the river Limpopo that flows in that area. But not only that, it is a house of several archaeological sites too. Although the province is predominantly underdeveloped but what many people don’t know, it once used to be an enriched trading centre for the Arabs, Chinese and Indian traders. Basically, this place used to be a resting place for the traders who temporarily stopped at the coast before resuming their journey towards the east or the west. So, as you can very well understand, the city of Limpopo was influenced by many cultures from all over the world. And hence the curiosity of a historian.” Professor’s eyes sparkled in the dark as he reminisced his past days.
“Our room was not large enough but there was one window that opened up to large open ground. The people of the town gathered there in the evening to gossip and enjoy. They sometimes sang local folklores. Their songs were in the local language Sosetho, or Sotho. Liam had taught me some of it, so it wasn’t all unknown for me. Well, on one such evening, I was looking out of my window and was enjoying the singing and music of the natives when something in the dark caught my attention. You see, across the ground, the forest started and a dark silhouette caught my attention.”
The kids were listening intently to the professor all this while. But now the professor paused for a moment to drink his bed time coffee. “What was it, professor?” Anna asked as if prepping herself for something scary. “A cross.” Professor replied.
“A cross?” the kids were taken aback.
“Yes, against the dark shadows of the trees in the forest was a cross on the top of a building.”
“Like a church?” Sandy asked.
“Yep, that’s what it looked like, at first.”
The professor shot a quick look at each one of them and then satisfied that he had been able to engross the kids in his story, he continued. “I immediately grabbed my binoculars and looked through but it was dark so I could not see much. So, I woke up early next day and started walking in that direction. You would not believe what I saw. The building was indeed a church but it was desolated. The church was very old but the foundation was strong. The church has resisted decay for so long. Amidst the tall and sturdy trunks of the forest trees, the church stood proudly on its feet. I knew Limpopo was predominantly a Christian province, but I could not understand why should this church be in such state. So, I started inspecting the grounds nearby to get more information. The age of the church could not be determined exactly but it was at least a thousand years old. There were certain inscriptions on the walls of the church but I could not decipher them. The script was no longer in existence. Enthusiastic about the origins of the church, I started clicking pictures of the church and started looking around the building. The door was locked but the lock was something out of the ordinary. It was unusual. The shape resembled the head of a bull, the horns formed a circle that secured the bars. The horns were tied to chain and the chain was linked to a bell hanging from the walls above the door. It was one of the most peculiar construction of church I had even seen. I tried lifting up the lock and immediately the bell rang. The sound of the bell loud and rich but not exactly pleasant. The vibrations were so penetrating that I could feel them in my body. I immediately drew back. As I walked towards the back of the church, I felt like I heard something rustle in the leaves. I turned but I could not see anybody. I was immediately alert. Because in these jungles you never know what kind of animal may attack you, are they venomous or not. I waited quietly for a minute but when I heard nothing I gave up and resumed my search. As soon as I reached the back yard my senses were overwhelmed by a ghastly smell. The smell was so horrible that I had to cover up my nose with kerchief to save myself from fainting. It was the smell similar to rotten meat. Perhaps an animal had ended up dying nearby. Later, my senses got used to that smell and I could remove my kerchief and continue my inspection.
The back of the church was most interesting, kids. It was a huge wall and nothing else. No windows, nothing. A small rectangular shed protruded from the wall whose purpose I could not fathom.And there was a semi-circular metal ring fixed at the lower surface quite similar to a clamp.”
“A clamp, grandpa? What’s the use of clamp in a church?”
“Exactly, Sandy. I was wondering the same thing. It was quite high so I could not reach to it but I could see there were similar scripts at the bottom of the shed and I started clicking photographs. But again, I was interrupted by a strange feeling. It was a feeling that I was being watched. I turned and looked around but again I could not find anyone. Normally my senses never fail me and I was quite astonished how could they fail me twice on the same day. Quite surprisingly the sky started growing dark like it would start raining anytime now but rains were not expected at this time of the year at Limpopo. All these thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the same rustling sounds I heard a few moments back. This time I was determined to find what it was and so I grabbed a stick and broke it in an angular way so that the tip was sharp and could be used like weapon. I headed out towards the main door of the church.I called out saying I was armed and asked them to reveal and the rustling grew stronger and a person came out of the bushes.”
“Who was it, professor?” Anna cried, her eyes wide with shock.
Professor Tonks smiled lightly. “It was Liam. He had heard the bell ring from the village and he had come to check out the reason. But–” The professor’s face grew grave as he continued– “he stood right there and did not advance a single step towards the church. I called out to him to check out the stuff I had found out but he stood like a rock and all he said was ‘You should never come here’. The look on his face was clearly of fear but fear like nothing else. I called out to him to show him my findings but he would not budge. At last I gave up, I looked at the sky and I could feel the storm would start anytime soon. I decided to come back later at some other time with my team. Now that I had found out about the existence of this church, I was pretty sure that they would be equally interested to have a look at it.
And so, I returned with Liam. The entire way he didn’t utter a word and I realized he was pretty upset about me going to the church without informing him. When I returned, I was surprised that the entire village was waiting in the ground. I started walking towards my room but I was stopped by villagers. I could feel all of them were very scared. It appeared to me that perhaps I may have insulted their beliefs or something. So, I told them that I didn’t enter the church I had looked at it from the outside. This seemed to calm them down a bit but some of them were still very scared, so scared that they would not even come near me or even touch me. Later in the evening, I asked Liam about the whole deal and he narrated a story to me that has been told among them since generations.
Before Christianity became a popular religion in Limpopo, the people of Limpopo had their own spirits and deities. One such deity was Xeita. She was very powerful and very dangerous. She was very difficult to be satisfied and was quick to anger. Her devotees had to perform arduous levels of sacrifice like human sacrifice to achieve her blessing and once someone achieved her blessing, they were invincible, toughest of ailments and gravest of misery would disappear. The clamped wall was where the human sacrifices took place. But the people were more scared than devoted to this goddess. But one day a very learned evangelist arrived in these lands and asked the people to get rid of their fears and devote themselves to the holy Jesus. This is how Christianity was established. But the people were still scared and would not believe him. To prove the power of his faith, he declared Xeita as devil and converted her temple, her only temple to a church. He preached that the devil had now returned to hell and the temple was now a holy place where God resides. The church that I saw in the morning used to be that very temple of Xeita that had been converted to a church. He reconstructed the temple and established the cross on the top of the temple to establish holy spirit in the place. He handed over the church to the people and continued his journey further south. But the curse of Xeita didn’t spare anybody. Soon there were cases of mysterious deaths in the village. The appointed clergy to the church started disappearing and few days later they were found hanging by the same clamp at the back of the church. People were now more scared than ever before. They believed that Xeita was angry and she won’t spare anybody. Priests were called upon and prayers were done. Finally, a group of priests came over and locked down the temple with a special type of a lock that resembled the devil’s horns. The lock was attached to a bell, it was called the devil’s bell.Whenever the bell rang it brought misfortune and misery. The devil could not escape unless she was called and one could call her by ringing that very bell.People were asked to steer away from the church, so that she could not escape. In his entire life Liam had never the bell ring until today.
I heard his story very intently and I promised that I would never go back to the devil’s church as long I had stayed there. I talked about this with my team and they agreed with me about it. One should never criticise the beliefs of the natives, if they believe that it was unholy then we outsiders should not mess with that. With it was also our duty to help them get rid of superstitious practices, but that cannot be changed in one night, only education could save them.”
“So, grandpa, did you ever go back?”
“Actually, we did. We thought that the site was indeed a historical treasure. Can you believe that a temple that was thousand years old was still alive till date and at such a close range. How could they not be tempted to see it? It was living proof of another civilization completely. Whenever I stared out of the window all I could see was that cross peeking up from the woods. Like it was calling me to come back. So, my team and I decided to go back to see it after dark when everybody was asleep. We took our torches and set out to our unofficial expedition. I led the way and my team followed. We reached the site quicker than I did in the morning. The church still stood proudly; her head held high against the sky. We set to work. We scratched the sample of the stone used in the church. We photographed the scriptures properly and all the usual stuff. We were inspecting the intricate designs on the door of the church and the devil’s horn lock, as named by Liam when the chain bearing came loose and a storm started soon after. Before we could put the bearings right at it place, the storm grew from bad to worse. The wind was so strong that it was impossible to even look ahead and so we gathered together and waited for the storm to stop, but it did not. Instead, the rains started, first a drizzle and then heavy downpour. And with that, the bell started ringing with the winds of the storm. We could not head back. So, with no choice, we decided to take refuge under the shed at the back of the church. From my morning experience I already knew that there was some dead animal lying nearby and so I was prepped up for the smell but astonishingly there was no smell this time. It could have been the rain but I was confounded at that moment. Everything was seeming unnatural kids. The storm, the rain, the absence of smell and the rhythmic ding dongs of the hell’s bell, every bit of it was unusual even spooky, if you will. We waited till the rain stopped. But the downpour was so bad that soon the rain started dripping from the edges of the shed. Cold rain drops poured on us carrying the dirt of the walls with it as we waited in silence listening to the ringing of the devil’s church’s bell. With no other thoughts to go on, my mind kept going back to the fable that Liam had narrated in the morning wondering if there indeed was any truth about it.”
“Did you believe it, professor?” Anna asked, her voice almost down to a whisper.
“Belief is a strong word, Anna. Coincidence, on the other hand, is not. I would say it was a coincidence that the bearings came loose which led to the ringing of the bell and the storm coincidently broke loose on that very day. The rain stopped after this and we returned to our room because anytime soon the sun would rise and people in villages, unlike you kids are very early risers.” Professor chuckled and continued. “But as we made our way towards the village. Something followed us like death, that smell, that ghastly smell that almost knocked me unconscious in the morning. I soon realized it was reeking from my clothes but strangely it was not bothering anybody. As we left, the bell kept ringing with the winds as if reminding us of the prophecy.”
Professor stopped his narration for a moment and grew pensive as if he was living the day one more time. Sandy looked at his friends and spoke up, “What happened next, grandpa?” That startled Professor mildly as if he was woken from a deep sleep.
He smiled but his smile didn’t reflect in his eyes.“Well, we returned and found that Liam was waiting for us at the door and he was very mad at all of us. He asked us to leave the village immediately as we didn’t respect their beliefs and cultures.”
“What did you do, professor?” asked Amy
Professor raised his both hands as if surrendering. “We left the very same day. How could we disobey the natives?”
“But the bell?” asked Sandy.
“Oh! We fixed it before we left, of course,” replied the professor
“And the smell?” argued Amy.
“I washed the clothes, kid.”
“And the prophecy?” reminded Anna
“Fable, my dear. That’s all it was.”
The kids were still not satisfied. They still had numerous questions but the professor allowed only one more and instructed them to retire for the night.
“Did you ever go back and contact Liam?” asked Anna innocently.
Professor Tonks’s eyes moistened and he slowly shook his head. Then he stood up and made his way to his bedroom, while the kids slipped in their sleeping bags and bid good night to each other.
But Professor Tonks didn’t retire. He unlocked his secret compartment under his box bed and retrieved a diary wrapped up in an old shirt. The shirt was stained and faded and torn at a few places but he caressed it and placed it aside very carefully. The diary contained records to his Limpopo expeditions. He flipped through the pages casually and looked at the pictures of the devil’s church. His heart beat stopped as he reached the last picture. It was a picture of a young boy hanging by the neck from a shed across the wall. He caressed the picture and removed his glasses to rub his eyes. He had lied to the kids out there because he wanted to protect them from the truth. They were too young to know the truth. That morning when he returned Liam was not waiting at the doorstep, in fact he was nowhere to be found. When they returned in the morning the old couple was still asleep and Liam’s bed was empty. But they didn’t think much about it and retired to their room. Professor changed his shirt and soaked his wet shirt thinking he would wash it later. But as soon as he soaked the shirt in the bucket, the water turned red. Thinking it was just blood of some animal, he changed the water and soaked his shirt again but the water turned red again. No matter how much he washed it, the stains would not leave his shirt like his guilt for not keeping his promise to Liam. As the day proceeded, Liam’s parents realized their son was missing and started getting worried. He was nowhere to be found. The sky had not cleared from the last night’s storm and the winds were still faster than usual. He could hear the distant but clear sound of ringing of the bells.
Professor and his team searched for Liam the entire day everywhere but the boy had vanished in thin air. The bells kept ringing the whole day like a countdown for a big event waiting to happen. Whensomeone keeps hearing the same sound rhythmically for a long time, the ears get used to it and at some point, they forget about the existence of the sound. This is what happened with the professor; the ringing had become so routine that at some point his mind stopped noticing it altogether which is why he didn’t remember at what hour of the night the bell had stopped ringing. When he woke up next morning, it was not due to the sun rays but the shouts and voices of people downstairs. Liam was found, or at least his body was. He had committed suicide on the church’s backyard. His body was found hanging from the clamp. Immediately Professor had rushed to the site and saw the most dreadful scene. He felt utterly responsible for Liam’s death although law suggested otherwise. Post mortem report pointed that Liam’s body contained no traces of drugs or alcohol. Police concluded he was on debt and had given up his life to save himself andmarked the case closed as suicide. But Professor knew Liam was not a coward, he would never give up his life for the fear of payback. He clicked one last picture of the body. The storm had cleared out and sun was finally shining today. Oddly the bell had also stopped ringing. Professor returned to his room and noticed his shirt still soaking. Something told him that the stains would have left the shirt too. He drained the water for one more time and soaked the shirt for one more time. This time the water stayed clean but the stains, although faded, didn’t wash away. He dried his shirt and packed it carefully in his bag.The police declared that the church site was out of bounds and warned the people to stay away. That evening they left the village for good, hoping that the devil’s bell never rings again.