Here in the clouds, Jim could feel an unsettling sense of communion. Monsoon mist spilled through the branches of deodar and cypress trees. No mountains were visible, only a cowl of murky white, obscuring the ridgelines, the lake and the tops of the taller trees. Jim’s hair was wet from the veil of moisture. The rain had stopped but his rough cotton shirt felt damp and droplets of water clung to the blonde hairs on his arms.

He had come to the graveyard alone. There were leeches this time of year and patches of stinging nettle growing between the headstones. His father – Christopher William Corbett – was buried in the cemetery. He had died seven years ago on 21 April 1881, when Jim was only six. Out of habit more than grief, he had stopped at his father’s grave and run his fingers lightly over the inscription, as if he were reading Braille.

Many of the headstones in the cemetery dated from 1880, when the great Nainital landslip claimed 151 lives – 108 Indians along with 43 British subjects. Most of the Christian victims were dug out of the debris from the mudslide and reburied in the cemetery next to St John in the Wilderness Church, on the Mallital side of town. This catastrophe was one of Jim’s earliest memories and he could remember listening to the cannonade of rain on their sheet metal roof, non-stop for two days, and then hearing anxious voices calling out in the storm. The next day he was led by his sister Maggie to a point beyond the garden fence, where they could see a massive scar on the hillside where the mountain had collapsed, consuming homes and hutments as well as part of the Naina Devi temple at the western end of the lake.

Neat rows of gravestones were laid out on terraces below the church. The claustrophobic whiteness of the mist was combed by bristling needles of deodars. Jim tried to imagine what it would be like to die in a landslip, buried alive and suffocated by mud. A peacock orchid grew near his father’s headstone. Its purple petals stood out amidst the plush green moss like a gaudy exclamation mark.

The swirling mist made Jim think of ghosts, not an individual phantom but a collective spirit emerging from dozens of separate graves and mingling together in a haunting embrace. While each headstone bore the last remnants of identity – names, dates of birth and death, as well as a scripture verse – the mist carried no such markers.

At this early hour, soon after daybreak on a Saturday morning, nobody else was around. Jim felt as if he might be the last person on earth, alone within a condensed fog of tears. He almost wanted to shout, or sing, or whistle to chase off the loneliness.

He had come to the graveyard for a purpose that had nothing to do with crumbling memorials or uneasy mysteries of the afterlife. Jim was gathering ferns for his botany collection, uprooting specimens and carrying these in a small jute bag. Later, he would press the ferns, their delicate ligree dried and preserved. So far, he had found six different species – two kinds of polypods, a male fern, maidenhair, common lip, and a Bible fern that looked like a triangle of green lace. More than any of these, he was searching for a mouse-ear fern, which was rare. Jim had seen one in a collection at school, the brittle specimen stuck to the yellowing pages of an album, its scientific name written in faded ink – Gymnopteris vestita. As he picked his way between the graves, Jim scanned the terraces for the distinctive shape of those fronds, like miniature green ears listening to his approach.

Stephen Alter | Image credit: via Twitter
Stephen Alter | Image credit: via Twitter

A few bird calls could be heard, the mournful wailing of a great Himalayan barbet and the tremulous shriek of a whistling thrush. The birds remained unseen and the sounds seemed far away in the mist. He thought of the cries of buried souls beneath the slurry of rubble and collapsed homes. For two days after the landslide, voices could be heard calling out for help as men dug desperately with pickaxes and shovels. Few of the victims were rescued alive.

Beyond his father’s grave, he climbed a set of shallow slate steps to the next level, passing a tilted cross and stooping to avoid the lower branches of an oak. As he raised his head and glanced around, he could see the wall of the cemetery built along the contour of the hill. Layers of mist sloughed off in the breeze. Jim could just make out the Gothic bell tower of the church where he had been baptised fourteen years ago. Twenty feet above him, on a higher terrace, he spotted something strange – a pile of dirt.

Hesitating, Jim stepped around another gravestone, then scrambled up a section of the hill where a retaining wall had collapsed. He caught sight of an unusual fern growing out of the fallen stones but didn’t stop. A new grave seemed to have been dug...but here, in a forgotten corner of the cemetery? Most of the recent graves were down below, including Miss Coles’s: she had taught him maths last year and died of typhoid fever this spring. Jim had attended her funeral, along with everyone else at Petersfield School. In this section the graves were not as recent, going back at least ten years, before the great landslip. There were soldiers and merchants, memsahibs and infants, civil servants and missionaries who had lived and died in Nainital from the time it was first settled by the British in 1841.

Climbing cautiously, Jim could clearly see the mound of freshly turned earth. Pulling himself up with the help of a cypress branch, an uncomfortable sensation passed over the back of his neck and shoulders as if someone had brushed his skin with a dry fern.

He glanced around but nobody was in sight. By now, the curtains of mist had drawn closer, so that he could see only a few yards ahead.

The hole in the ground looked as if it had been dug in a hurry. The dirt was a dull, reddish colour from iron in the soil. Several tree roots had been exposed and hacked. Peering into the grave, Jim winced and took a step back. Inside were the rotted remains of a coffin, broken boards pulled apart, nails twisted. The pit was six feet deep and the box had been tipped to one side. It was empty. Someone had removed the corpse or skeleton – whatever was left of the person buried there. Jim leaned forward again and searched the tomb with his eyes but he could see no trace of human remains.

Whoever had taken the body must have come here last night or early in the morning, long before dawn. A puddle of rain had collected at the bottom of the grave. The mud was marked by smeared footprints, some with shoes and some without. The naked impressions of bare toes and heels looked almost obscene.

He felt an impulse to run away, the nerves in his arms and legs twitching, his breath sucked in, teeth clenched. Jim nearly dropped the bag full of ferns. Yet something held him here, as if he were trapped by the mist, an infinite white glove that closed in around him and made it impossible to move. Beyond the pile of dirt, he caught sight of the headstone, which had been dragged aside. A rectangular slab of granite, it was lying at an angle, half-buried by mud excavated from the grave. Though the stone was blemished with leprous patches of lichens, Jim could easily read the inscription after brushing away the dirt.

In Loving Memory of

Cynthia Lily Bertram

Dearest Daughter – Beloved Sister
Born: 2 May, 1859 Died: 7 April, 1878
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
Psalms 27:1

Excerpted with permission from In The Jungles Of The Night, Stephen Alter, Aleph Book Company.