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By: Alma S. Anonas
It was a muggy day in March when five friends decided to eat lunch behind their school’s music building. There were shade trees and a closed-off stairway and disused entrance that would provide privacy, comfortable seating, and a good surface for eating. As they sat chatting and exchanging banter over their lunch boxes, the five heard the haunting strains of a Chopin lullaby drift out through an open window. Curious about who would be playing music during the lunch hour, the friends went around to the building’s other entrance to investigate. This school was an old age, one that had survived the ravages of the Japanese Occupation of World War II and the carpet-bombing of Manila that heralded the end of foreign occupation. Ghost stories were rife here and the friends were eager ghost-hunters, though they had not yet really “caught” any ghost as a group. As they walked on the old, yellowed tile of the music building’s hallway, they approached the piano rooms where the school’s nuns gave piano lessons to students. This was one of the oldest structures in the school and had vaulted ceilings that were prone to dust and cobwebs. The music was coming from the room at the very end of the hallway, some even rooms down. “Funny,” one of the friends, the tall one, commented, “isn’t that the piano room that has been locked for ages?” The door was old, with an old-fashioned keyhole lock beneath the rusty, dust-coated knob. The wood was dry and the dark brown paint was peeling in places. The door’s glass window was obscured by many decades’ worth of grime. The others looked askance at their tall friend and the curly-haired one scoffed: “You just want to scare us. Maybe they unlocked the room and put the piano to use. It can’t all be about ghosts, you know.”
“Let’s go and see who’s right, then,” the chubby one piped in. “Or are you all too chicken to find out?”
The remaining two, one skinny and another who had freckles, silently led the way to the dusty door at the end of the hall. Beside the door, leaning on the wall was an old cello bereft of strings and laced with cobwebs.
Gingerly, the chubby girl touched the doorknob. “It’s cold,” she said, pulling her hand away. The freckled girl laughed and said, “You’re just trying to scares us,” before twisting the knob. The door creaked open the music , thought it was composed as a lullaby, came thundering out in a crescendo. The room was shadowy and dark at the far corners though it was just past noon. The air was musty and the piano room’s only window looked as if it was rusted shut. The piano was an old upright, the antique kind that had candleholders flanking the copyholder where music sheets are placed. The room smelled fusty- of melted candlewax and the dust of years. Chubby gathered her courage and walked in first, moving towards the upright piano on her right. The other four hung back, leaning against the doorjamb, not looking, not admitting that they were, indeed, quite chicken. They heard a chocked -off yell and a thud. Peering inside, Skinny saw Chubby lying on the floor beside the piano. “Okay, who’s going in to get her?”
The music kept playing, sounding more and more like a funeral dirge now than a lullaby. No answer, but there was a scratching , like a chalk against a blackboard. “The music is definitely coming from the piano,” Freckles said. “But I don’t see anyone playing it. Maybe you and I could drag Chubby out?” She turned to her skinny friend and cocked an eyebrow in a silent dare. Skinny shrugged and took the gauntlet: “Sure. But I’m closing my eyes, because, whatever chubby saw, it made her faint and you don’t wanna have to drag me out, too, do you?” Freckles nodded in agreement, adding the taunt, “chicken, bok-bok-bok,” as a friendly barb. Frenckles and Skinny went in and Skinny kept her eyes on chubby and, after grabbing Chubby by the feet, shut her eyes as she started dragging her friend out backwards. Freckles looked up to her left as she stooped to get a hold of Chubby, looking towards the source of the scratching sound, screamed, then promptly fainted. Skinny, sighed, wondering what on earth her friend had seen and, careful not to look anywhere but at her unconscious friends, she dragged both out with much difficulty. Keep your eyes on the patterned tile floor, Skinny kept telling herself. Just stare at the floor.
Once out of the room, the other two, Beanpole and Curlylocks, assisted Skinny. “What happened in there?” Beanpole asked, while Curlylocks nodded her concurrence with the question.
“I don’t know,” Skinny said. “I’ll go and take a look. I’m more curious than scare now. ”
In went Skinny, looking first at the piano on her right, then turning to the blackboard by the window on her left. Skinny saw translucent white hands playing the piano, the veins on the hands standing out with the effort and strain . There was nothing but those hands, severed above the wrist , hanging in the air and playing Chopin. As she watched the hands play the sonata, overwhelming fear, sadness , and rage filled her and she left like she was going to throw up. Skinny covered her mouth and pushed down the bile. Then she looked to her left, in the direction of the sound of chalk scraping against the old blackboard. Feeling as if her feet were encased in lead, Skinny walked forward and faced the blackboard. A piece of new chalk was scratching the faded green slate, writing on the words: “Help me. Pray for me. ” The words were written over and over, as if the writer was doing after-school punishment from beyond the grave. Holding the chalk was another white, disembodied hand. This time it dripped blood onto a growing pool on the floor. Skinny slowly walked out of the piano room, fighting the emotions tearing through her and the chill air in the room. She called to her friends, who seemed miles away and began to sway into a swoon. She put her left hand on top of the piano to steady herself and felt something like beads under her hand. There had been nothing on the piano when I went in, she thought as her hands clutched the beads of a wooden rosary. Almost at the door, Skinny started losing consciousness and her friends, including the two had been revived from their own faints, caught her as she fell. Curlylocks brought out her first-aid kit, which she never went anywhere without, and opened a small bottle of ammonia and put it under Skinny’s nose. Revived, Skinny looked at the rosary in her hand. “I think this belongs to someone,” she said. “Maybe we should bring it to the lost and found.” “There’s no time now,” Beanpole said. “The class bell rang about ten minutes ago. We have to go to class. Let’s talk about this later.” The friends agreed to meet at their spot at the school gate after class and went to their classrooms. When the five went to the lost and found area of the gate, they were told to go to the nun’s house, as the wooden rosary was similar to those the nuns hung on their habits’ belts. They proceeded to the priory, where an old German nun answered the door and received the rosary. The nun examined the rosary closely and her face went very pale as she turned the cross over. “Who gave you this story?” the nun asked the five. The friends told the nun their strangle tale, including how Skinny found the rosary on top of the piano. The nun showed the friends the initial. “MJ” carved on the back of the cross. “Those are the initials of Sister Mary Joseph, whose classroom you entered. It was sealed up after she died because people felt cold, angry, and very sad whenever they went in there.”
The nun shook her head and crossed herself. “Sister Mary Joseph died during the Japanese Occupation. She used to be a very talented piano teacher and her hands were cut off as punishment after she lost her temper and slapped a Japanese soldier who hurt one of the other nuns. She died of blood loss because the soldiers would not allow anyone to give her treatment and today is her death anniversary.”
Beanpole, Chubby, Skinny, Freckles, and Curlylocks left the priory and could have sworn that, as they walked to the school gate with the summer sunset at their backs, they heard the faintest strummings of a Chopin sonata.