By Kenneth Yu
Hi, Edson! Sorry for the late reply. I only just saw your message. I accept your challenge! Your request for a ghost story to share with our friends is apt and timely, it being near Halloween and all, but I’ll go you one further, if you don’t mind.
But, before I get to that and the tale, I’d like to ask you a question: have you noticed that we have all entered the realm of middle-age that our fathers once inhabited? I’m sure you have, and I’m pretty sure many of our peers have, too. I see it in the shapes of our bodies: sagging, expanding; the growing wrinkles and spots on our faces and hands; the white hair, the diminishing hair. I hear it in our voices: the hoarseness, the beginnings of the croaks of old age. I listen to it as well in the litany of our complaints of painful bones and joints, aching muscles, poor blood chemistry results, and growing illnesses. I notice how much more often we reference the music, movies, and TV shows of our teen years in our conversations, as if they were harbingers or sources of wisdom of what we are experiencing today.
Most of all, I hear it in the stories we keep on telling each other. We repeat the same ones from our high school and college years over and over again, and we never tire of them. Almost everytime we get together, we repeat them like broken records (Ha! Only we would understand that reference; no, wait, vinyl is making a comeback, isn’t it?). We always talk about the teachers we liked, or the teachers we didn’t; the way Chemistry, Calculus, English, or History drove us crazy; the way we got away with our antics and mischief both during class hours and after, and even more, the times we didn’t get away and were caught; the girls we liked but who never liked us back; the fights we had with each other that now seem so shallow but had been such serious vendettas back then.
We sound so much like our fathers did whenever they talk about their youth.
Edson, what is it with nostalgia? What makes people think so fondly of their past, like it was some golden age, once they hit their 40’s? I think there must be something about a growing mortality that makes men look back. Or perhaps it is a hankering for a happiness brought about by youthful ignorance that was previously unappreciated. I think, right now, it is more of the latter than the former, but it will reverse itself in time, I’m quite certain.
Both reasons sadden me. In my opinion, to look back is not evil, but nostalgia can become a temptation to stagnation. We should never forget to look forward, as well.
Anyway, back to the ghost story; and yes, why not, for this time at least,back to nostalgia as well. As I said, I’d like to go you one further with the tale I’ll tell, if you don’t mind. All of us being old classmates, I’d like to tell a story from when we were teenagers, with characters out of our time in high school, and set in the X_____ School of our youth. No, not the current one with all the new buildings and edifices named after our fellow alumni of wealth, but the one we studied and grew up in, the one with more open spaces and greenery, the one that, because of our younger age, seemed bigger than the X_____ School we see today.
I hope that the story will be worth the time to read. Here it is.
On a visit to X_____ sometime in the 1990’s, I ran into Fr. L____ P______. I was there to pick up my younger brother that day (he was still a high school junior), and he was late to meet me at the Admin gate. I had found a seat near the accounting office and was just twiddling my thumbs, waiting, waiting…when Fr. P______ came walking by.
If you remember, Fr. P______ was our guidance counselor when we were seniors in 198_, and one of the pioneer missionaries who came from Europe to Asia to teach and establish our school. In high school, I remembered him as having this perennial fast gait, his head and chest leaning slightly forward, and his feet just fast enough to quickly catch up with his body, preventing him from falling over. He always carried an air of being busy, always rushing, always with something on his mind, but that is not to say he never found time for us when we needed him. It was because of him that many of us found a way to a university. If not for his recommendation letters, I’d say a good number of us wouldn’t have been able to enter the colleges of our choice.
But that time I ran into him, his pace had slowed down considerably, as if he couldn’t keep his speed up any longer, and I felt for the first time that he trulywas in danger of falling over.
Fr. P______ and I made eye contact at the same time, buthe was the first to smile and approach. I stood up to greet him, and when I took his hand and shook it, I was dismayed not just at the weakness of his grip, but at the cool, clamminess of his skin. Yet, where I instinctively knew that he ailed physically, I also knew there was nothing wrong with his mind. He addressed me by name,then he asked how I was doing in both my course and my college, identifying both as if he had just read my records a few minutes before. I answered, politely saying that I was doing fine, and in turn asked him how he was. He just shook his head and said, “It’s been difficult, but, you know, the older you get, the better you are at leaving matters to God.” He said that it was good to see me, shook my hand again, and waved as he walked off.
I didn’t know that that would be the last time I would see Fr. P______. In hindsight, I had caught him at a moment of deep and growing illness, and, I suspect, a gradual—and I hope, peaceful—coming to terms anda reckoning with his Creator.
We all know that it was only a year or so later that he became bedridden. An all-too-brief period after that, Fr. P______ passed into the arms of mercy.
In the mid-aughts, I again found myself back at X_____. I don’t exactly remember how, but I somehow became involved as a writer in an alumni fund-raising project whose regular meetings were held on school grounds. This time, I ran into Fr. S_____ M___, another one of the original missionaries, walking one of the corridors near the alumni office just before my meeting was to begin; he was our Religion teacher when we were sophomores, if you recall. In contrast to Fr. P______, Fr. M___, being younger, was very much still spry and strong, still larger than life with that big smile and tall frame. We spoke a bit, talking about all that was happening at the school (so many new buildings!), and how he felt that “strong winds of change were coming” for X______. I said something about how the school was beginning to look very different from what I remembered.
“The only thing constant in life is change. Always remember that. Time spares nothing and no one,” Fr. M___ said through a toothy grin.
Where Fr. P______ was very logical, practical, and, to me, almost martial in discipline, Fr. M___ I found to be a more “out-of-the-box” thinker, certainly not in the mold of a stereotypical Catholic cleric. That is not to mean that he didn’t have any discipline (all our teacher-priests did, as far as I knew), but he was the unorthodox one, the one who was more open-minded to doing and thinking things that were not, should we say, “conventional”. He was, after all, semi-famous (or was that notorious?) among his students for saying that he would like to have all his relatives’ cremated remains placed around his office. “It’s a comfort,” he had said, “to have all their urns on my shelves,” I recall him telling us. He had also said that if he were to die in an accident, he would like his organs to be donated to some blind person. “Maybe that blind person will end up with my eyes, and see the world the way I do,” Fr. M___ had joked. He was well-meaning and generous, but as teenagers in a conservative all-boys’ Catholic school, I know that we found his declarations morbid, nonetheless, even downright creepy. And these were the less shocking of his idiosyncrasies. That Fr. M___ was the writer among our school’s priests is not, therefore, a surprise.
I bring up his eccentricities because, I believe, of all our teacher-priests, he would have been the one most open to what people say happened on the fourth floor of the old high school building at X_____. This was the place, they say,where the night came when Fr. M___ met Fr. P______ again.
Being the least conventional of our teacher-priests we have had the privilege to have been under, it was Fr. M___ who habitually walked the empty corridors of X_____ in the dead of night, even at the—ahem—ungodly hour of 3 a.m., when everyone else at the school was asleep. The wee hours of the night, when darkness is at its deepest, is the time of the thinkers, the writers, the dreamers, the artists, so therefore it was no surprise that Fr. M___ would not be uncomfortable to be active at this time. Where the other priests would perform their devotions in the quiet of their rooms or the solitude of their residence chapel, Fr. M___ would pace the corridors of the school tirelessly in the darkness, mumbling his prayers under his breath and through his steps.
I can imagine him criss-crossing the school’shallways, starting out perhaps on the second floor of the high school building where there was easy access from the priests’ residence via a short bridge, fingering the beads of his rosary, muttering his Hail Mary’s to himself. He would climb up stairs, or down, as his random fancy led him–“letting the Holy Spirit guide my feet” he would probably say–taking him past the empty classrooms that were as filled with so much silence at night as they were with noise during the day.
Can you imagine him, Edson? In my mind’s eye, I can see Fr. M___’s silhouette as he passes, in the dark, the typing room, or crosses the high school gym diagonally and then back, becoming visible only for scant seconds whenever his body passes between shadows, through slivers of light from the rays of either the street lamps or from the moon. I can hear his footsteps softly echoing in the gym or in the corridors, as well as the quiet mumble of his prayers. He would cross the quadrangle near the old grade school gym, pace the area near the ping pong tables, slip through the canteen and dining hall area, or walk the places that overlook the football fields. I think Fr. Mena would have probably spent a lot of time there near the grass and the trees, enjoying the cool, night wind, and the sound of rustling leaves, as he prayed.
In my mind’s eye, X_____ was bigger before than it is today. I’m struck sometimes that the school even seems to have shrunk. Of course, we know for certain that the school’s size hasn’t changed. I believe that it is we who have been altered, by time, by life; it is we who are not as small as we used to be.
Surely, Fr. M___’s feet would have taken him to the fourth floor of the old high school building on one his jaunts. We, as students, would remember that area most as the storey where St. Joseph’s workshop was located, that large classroom right at the top of the rightmost flight of stairs, the room which, at that time, was the only one with its own air-conditioner. What many of us would probably not recall as well is that on the other end of the corridor was—besides the restrooms—Fr. P______’s old office. I’m sure many of us have had the good fortune of talking to Fr. Papilla there one-on-one when we were consulting him over which college to apply to. It was here, I believe, where many of us got to know him better.
I can imagine Fr. M___ in the dark, climbing the stairs to St. Joseph’s Workshop, then turning right at the top, maintaining a rhythmic pace to match the prayerful cadence of his Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s. He would have finished maybe half a decade, maybe a bit more, by the end of the corridor, his feet instinctively turning right again to go down the flight of stairs at the end, perhaps already at the end of his fifth decade, ready to return to his room at the priests’ residence, when, in the middle of all that X_____ silence, he hears the muffled clack of typewriter keys from just to his side and behind.
Fr. M___ stops, retraces himself, and looks back. The sounds of the typewriter do not stop. Fr. M___ pauses, maybe grips his rosary a bit tighter, or maybe not, since after all, this is Fr. M___ we are talking about, a man, as I have said, who wasvery much open to thinking “out-of-the-box”. He does not go down the stairs; he does not return to his quarters. Instead, he follows the sounds of the incessant clacking, muffled as they are because, as he nears the source, he discovers they are coming from behind the door of Fr. P______’s old office.
Maybe Fr. M___ hesitates before raising his hand to the doorknob, or then again, maybe not. Again, this is Fr. M___, after all.
By all rights, the door should be locked, correct? After all, security has always been tight at X_____. All our classroom doors are locked at the end of each day. The security guards make sure of that, or the janitors. And every owner of every individual office always makes sure to lock up behind him at the end of every day. Besides, no one has occupied Fr. P______’s office since his passing. His files have been boxed and stored away, surely, but of course, back then, every office still contained a typewriter, and they left Fr. P______’s there, waiting for the next occupant to use, whoever he may be.
Fr. Mena reaches for the doorknob, twists—it is unlocked!—and pushes the door open.
The typewriter stops. Of course it would. It would also be funny, (well, depending on the person imagining the scene), if the typewriter’s bell also went off right at this point, leaving a high pitched “ding” that faded into the darkness.
What did Fr. M___ see? The window of Fr. P______’s office is large, and would have let in enough moonlight to see by, surely. What would have gone through Fr. M___’s mind, I wonder? Would he have turned on the lights?I doubt it. The harsh fluorescents would have jarred Fr. M___’s vision. I think he would have preferred the darkness, where in the dimness, he would see the shadows of Fr. P______’s desk, the outline of the swivel chair turned to the side, facing the old Underwood on the squat typewriting table.
I wonder, if it had been in that darkness, would I have just continued walking down those stairs, or, if I had been able to open the door, would I have then just shut it behind me and retreated once the typewriter stopped?
How about you, Edson? What would you have done?
But, this is Fr. M___, not us. And this is Fr. P______, his fellow priest for so many years at a school they had founded and served, and whose mission they so dearly believed in. They had been together for so long, had traveled across the seas and continents. What is there to fear, between long-standing comrades, no matter whether one has moved on and one has not?
With his “out-of-the-box” thinking, it makes sense that Fr. Mena could have, would have, simply said:
“It’s time for rest, L____. We’re still here, your brothers. We’lltake care of the boys, do not worry. But for you, it’s time for rest.”
Fr. M___closes the door. He then continues his paces around the school until he finishes his rosary, then heads back to his room.
When dawn breaks, X_____ school is ready for another day.
I guess that’s the end of it, Edson, hehe. If this story was expected to scare for Halloween, I’m sorry. After some time of reflection, it does not, really, and in the end, it was not meant to. Fr. M___ himself has moved on already; it’s been many years since his own passing. For all you know, he and Fr. P______ visit X_____ School still, praying for us, their students, invoking constantly that we remember and stay true to the lessons and principles that they have taught us.
These are twopriests, after all,who cared for all of us when we were still teenagers; I must emphasize that we, their students, are not a part of this story I have just told. We should not dare to insert ourselves here. This is their story, the story of two brothers not by blood, but by mission and faith, who had been part of a larger group of missionaries who had set up a school with a vision for educating and training God-fearing citizens for this country.
Whether this story is true, as has been proclaimed by some students and alumni over the years, or just the fancy whimsy of some few to pass the dark nights away whenever nostalgia about X_____ for our generation hits, I think thistale really speaks more of the brotherhood these priestshad—or rather, have—with each other; these foreigners who came from the other side of the world to ours, to teach, so far away from their familiar homes, because they believed in their mission. With their belief deeply ingrained, when any one of them moves on, you can be certain that they all wish him well; and with their belief in the life hereafter, that when they do see each other again, they can then resume their brotherhood in their rewarded faith.
Ah, enough nostalgia! This tale is so full of it, Edson! I am sure Frs. P______ and M___, grateful as they are that we remember them, would not have us wallow too much in the past. “You each have a mission in life!” I can still hear them say in their strong, young voices, the voices they used when they stood in front of us in the classroom. “Faces forward! Keep moving forward!” they encouraged us, egging us on to always do more, and be more, notwithstanding whatever stage of life we are currently in, not even if we are soon to join the ranks of the seniors and the elderly.
And so we should.