I’m a skeptic.
I believe that we live in a logical, empirical universe – one that can be completely known through the rigors of science. I believe that, progressively, every single unknown in this world, and in this universe, will succumb to the human’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge. And it will all be laid bare, ready to abide by the human vision.
But sometimes, things happen that threaten this very fundamental perception.
Such as the dead reaching out, all the way from the world beyond the grave, and making contact with us.
I have a nephew called Brian. 8 years old now. Brilliant young fellow. Carefree spirit. The kind of young man who climbs up trees, falls down from them, gets a huge bruise in the knees, but just skips away, as merry as ever. And every once in a while, he does manage to break a limb or two. Which slows him for only a few weeks, before he goes back to his carefree ways.
A normal boy, hence.
But three years ago, in 2013, Brian did something that shook me to the very core.
He talked to my granny, over a toy phone.
My granny who had been dead for 12 years by then.
It all started quite innocently, really.
December, 2012. Brian was brought by his mother to come live with me for the Christmas season. I used to look forwards to this, every other holiday, for the young man was very engaging, even at that tender age. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge. And he’d ask all manner of questions, on all manner of topics. And most of the questions would be quite intelligent, for a four year old.
On this particular Christmas holiday, I decided to get Brian a present that he had been pestering me about, for a while now. A toy phone. I got him one of those toy phones that have the hand piece connected to the dialing pad through a cord. It resembled those dialing handsets that offices used to have in the late 90s. Blue in color. Brian was ecstatic at the present, and he thanked me over and over, then went ahead to mimic phone conversations with various members of the family: his mom, his dad, and one of his cousins that he was especially fond of.
It was a heartwarming experience, watching a four year old displaying such remarkable intelligence. He would even put in reasonable pauses in his “conversations”, and then resume the conversation in a really convincing manner. At one time, I even applauded him for his performance, feeling proud to have such a remarkable prodigy for a nephew.
And it would all have been harmless fun, had Brian not started to mention a singularly disturbing name:
The conversations mentioning Cathy started off quite innocuously, one fine evening. Brian was, as usual, playing around with his gleaming, blue toy. He would place the hand piece near his ears, and then start mimicking conversations. But on this particular evening, in the middle of a conversation with his “nephew”, he suddenly sat up at attention, and said:
“Hello? Hi, I can hear you clearly”
A pause, then:
“Yes, I can hear you clearly.”
Another pause, then:
“Cathy? Okay. I’m Brian. Hello.”
Looking on, the smile on my face froze at the mention of the word “Cathy”. It was the last name I was expecting to hear from Brian. In the entire extended family, there is only one Cathy. Our grandmother, on my mother’s side. For some reason, no one else in the family had ever taken up that name.
But that wasn’t all. Cathy, my grandmother, had passed away some 12 years before. Old age. She passed away in her sleep. But three days before she died, she had, reportedly, told my mother, who was by her bedside, that she would make a trip back to this world, even after she passed away, and tell us about the world beyond the grave. Mom had, at that time, taken that in stride, assuming that grandmother was in delirium. She had narrated the same to other family members, and they had all had the same perspective. But for some reason, when she had shared that story with me, I had felt some kind of unease for a while, and had never forgotten about it, all those intervening years.
And now, right in front of my eyes, my nephew, five years old, was mentioning the name Cathy.
I looked on, as Brian continued listening, intently, to the toy hand piece. It was a surreal experience, since I knew that that piece in Brian’s hand was a complete toy, incapable of actually connecting with any other phone out there. It didn’t have any circuitry within it. No wiring. Just a hollow piece of plastic, molded and colored to look like a telephone.
There was no way that Brian’s conversation could have been real.
And then Brian said, to the toy phone:
“Yes, Cathy. I will tell him.”
Then, covering the mouth piece of the toy phone, Brian turned towards me, and with very realistic conviction, said:
“Cathy says that she is at peace. That she misses you and your mother, a lot.”
Despite my convictions that Brian was having a particularly inspired day with his mimicry, I felt my blood run cold at this. Brian’s facial expressions looked earnest… like he himself believed what he was saying. He didn’t seem to be acting. Additionally, I had no idea how he had come to know about my granny – who had passed away years before Brian was born.
At around this time, Brian suddenly seemed to be listening keenly to the hand piece in his hands, and then he said to me:
“Cathy says that she has to go now. That she is at peace. That she will see all of us soon.”
Then, acting like nothing extraordinary had just happened, Brian dropped the toy phone, and then went to doodle on some papers.
I gazed at Brian for a little while, pondering. Then I stood up, walked over to where Brian had dropped the toy phone, picked it up, and held the hand piece against my ears.
And waves of chills started going up and down my back immediately.
There was an actual dialing tone in the hand piece.
I stifled a yelp of pure surprise, as my mind tried to process this unexpected sound in my ear. What I was hearing, from this piece of plastic, was impossible. And yet, there it was. The normal dialing tone of landlines, that we had all grown up with, and that ceases only when one starts dialing. It was right there, in my ear, from what couldn’t possibly produce it: a toy phone.
And as I tried to process all this, I suddenly heard a click in the ear piece. The dialing tone disappeared. Instead, some sort of eerie silence followed. In a real landline, this is exactly what happened when a phone call got connected on both ends. I started shivering, at the thought that I had somehow just connected a phone call through a toy phone.
And as sure as the night then, I heard it:
Heavy breathing. Right in my ears.
Someone… or something, was breathing heavily on the other end of this phone connection.
By now, waves of disorientation were washing all over my mind. I could feel myself staggering a little bit on my feet, trying to come to grasps with what was technically impossible. This toy phone, a hollow piece of plastic, had somehow become a real phone, capable of making actual phone calls. Additionally, it had also clearly connected to someone, or something, that I certainly wasn’t ready to interact with.
I felt my mouth move of its own accord, and form the single word:
There was no response from the other end. Except for one thing:
There was a feedback of my voice, saying “Hello”, in an echoing sequence that went on and on for at least four seconds afterwards. It was almost like I had just shouted that one single word into a huge hall.
And thereafter, a single click, and the line went dead. No more heavy breathing. No more dialing tone. The piece of plastic in my hands went back to being just that: a piece of plastic.
Slowly, I lowered the hand-piece on to its cradle in the main telephone body. I looked over at Brian. The young man was busy doodling on his painting book, completely unnerved by the events of the past ten minutes or so. Perhaps he didn’t fully comprehend the full import of what had just transpired, I surmised.
I took the toy phone to the kitchen, and using the various knives there, pried it apart. I wanted – hoped – to find some sort of hidden wires inside it. Something, anything, to explain what I had just experienced.
But the toy phone was just as I feared it was: completely hollow inside. No hidden wiring. No hidden microphones and mouthpieces.
But through it, something had reached out to Brian, and I, that evening.