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I'm 33 years old this year and this happened nearly 30 years ago when I was still at nursery school. Nursery schools in those days were often run by Buddhist shrines and mine was no exception. I remember there was a charnel house and a cemetery right next to the nursery building. One late afternoon I was playing in the nursery playground. I was the only one playing outside. I think there were still a lot of children staying behind but somehow I was playing alone.
I saw a child standing on the top of the climbing frame. It was a boy. The boy wore short trousers and a jacket with gold buttons. He was barefoot. He had closely cropped hair and looked a few years older than me.
He stood still staring down at me. I don't remember feeling scared or surprised. But I remember being overcome by a sudden, inexplicable loneliness. Without a word, the boy got down from the climbing frame and started walking, past the charnel house and towards the cemetery. I followed him from behind.
I didn't see the cemetery as a scary place because, being next to the nursery, it was a part of the everyday scenery; we sometimes even played hide-and-seek in there. I am sure I had my eyes fixed on the boy's back all the time but somehow I can no longer recall what happened next, no matter how hard I try to search my memory.
The only vivid image I still retain is about a small grave overgrown with moss. A massive tree, such as the ones often seen in old cemeteries, towered over me, shutting off the dying sun rays and making the place appear darker than usual. I think I was out there only for one or two minutes but it felt like I was there for a very long time.
Sometime later my grandmother came to fetch me home. When I think about it now, it was the first and the last time my grandmother ever came to the nursery to fetch me.
For some reason I felt really relieved the moment I saw my grandmother's face. My grandmother stood there, gazing at the cemetery for some time, her eyes full of sadness. Then she said: "You have nothing to worry about, dear. Granny will take care of it." I remember the intense look she had on her face as she uttered these words. We went home with our hands firmly joined together. On the way we walked past a sweets shop and I really wanted to go inside, but she chided me by saying,
“Not today! Not today! We have to go home quickly!” It was the evening of the very same day that my grandmother passed away.
Strangely I don't remember clearly the details surrounding her death. I do remember the funeral and how it was busy with all the relatives rushing to our house, but even now I don't remember feeling sad at the time, although my grandmother's death must have caused me a great distress because I was very attached to her. The following year I entered the elementary school. The school was right across the street from the nursery but I never went near the nursery anymore.
To be more precise I couldn't go near it because whenever I thought of the nursery the image of the little moss-covered grave flashed across my mind and it disturbed me.
When I became a junior-high schooler I got involved in a community work and it gave me an opportunity to revisit the shrine in the nursery. The cemetery had been going through a renovation and all the ancient gravestones had been removed. The nursery too had a new building. The place looked very different from how I remembered it.
The main shrine was also about to get renovated and our job was to clean it out and take all the old things and rubbish to the outside. The chief priest was sorting out various things that had been brought to the shrine.
Among these were many photographic portraits of the deceased. We were told to carry them out as well. All portraits were wrapped up in old yellowish newspapers but there was one portrait which had come unwrapped.
The moment I picked up the exposed portrait and looked at it, all the blood in my body froze. It was a portrait of the very boy I saw in the nursery. But there was also my grandmother, who was strangling the boy's neck from behind, with such a fierce expression on her face that she did not look like someone of this world. I passed out right there and when I next came to, I was in hospital.
My father and mother were there and they both looked terror-stricken. I found out later that they asked the Buddhist priest to perform a purification ceremony on the portrait and had it incinerated.
According to the story which my father heard from the priest, the boy was adopted by the landowner who lived around the area during the war. The boy suffered much maltreatment until one day he succumbed to illness and died. My grandmother used to be a housemaid at the said landowner's household when she was young, and she was the only one who treated the boy with affection.
The priest told my father that the boy probably appeared to me because he wanted to take me with him. My grandmother was not going to let that happen, and the result was what we saw in the picture. We moved out of the area soon after that, but even after all these years I still find myself musing over the incident from time to time.