by Benjamin Scuglia
Do you remember when you realized you were growing up? I do. I was about twelve years old. My brothers and our friends were playing a game called ghost-in-the-graveyard.
Ghost-in-the-graveyard is pretty much hide-and-seek, with a macabre twist. The game works best if you play in a real honest-to-God graveyard, but any place with lots of spooky areas to hide will do. You need at least four people, one of whom is chosen as the “ghost.” The ghost runs off to find a good, shadowy place to hide while the rest of the group loudly counts to fifty. You have to count loudly, because the ghost has to know when everyone else is ready to come looking.
Everyone sets off as a group to search for the ghost, who — at the scariest possible moment — leaps from his hiding place. He scares the living hell out of everyone, then grabs the nearest quivering soul, who in turn becomes a ghost. Because large groups of frightened children tend to scatter like crows, grabbing someone is pathetically easy. Once everyone calms down and regroups, it’s back to the beginning while the ghost and his new sycophant head off into the shadows, ostensibly planning a more elaborate scheme to capture other souls.
Eventually, under the best of circumstances, you have fifteen or so “ghosts” chasing someone’s sobbingly terrified little brother or sister around a graveyard at night. We’d always plan ahead of time to leave my own little brother for last. It was years before he caught on.
Our games grew increasingly elaborate. If we found a ghost before he found us, he was “rescued” and became “human” again. We invented all sorts of ways to ward off the ghosts: secret words and spells that, once invoked, sent the ghost back into hiding. Aside from the occasional hitch, as when a ghost would “accidentally” capture his girlfriend first off and disappear for hours, it all worked amazingly well.
Friends of our family lived next door to an enormous graveyard. Every time we visited, my brothers and I waited until dusk, grabbed as many people as possible, and started up a game of ghost-in-the-graveyard. The night I had my moment of realization was a quintessential autumn weekend. Night, crisp and breezy, descended early. The game began in earnest. I had been feeling particularly nimble that night and eventually found myself the sole “human” of the group. Everyone else had long ago been caught and become ghostly. Even my little brother.
So there I was, silently creeping among the graves in the purplish twilight, on the lookout, when I heard a twig snap. I froze, then ducked into the shadows. Presently, a boy I did not recognize appeared from behind the nearest gravestone and stepped quietly over to me. “Follow me,” he whispered. “They’re back here.”
I assumed he meant my brothers and the other spirits. He crept away and I followed. His appearance was not unusual. Neighborhood kids often joined mid-game. I figured he’d just managed to avoid getting caught. For the next half-hour, we did not speak as we slipped from shadow to shadow. He led, I followed, and we managed to avoid all of the ghosts.
Eventually, I heard my mother calling. The moon had risen and all of the best shadows were shrinking rapidly. My older brother called olly-olly-in-come-free. I jumped to my feet, heady with victory. It was the first time I’d ever managed to avoid being caught.
The boy pulled on my arm. “Get down!” he whispered furiously. “The game’s not over.”
I crouched beside him, confused. I watched as he got down on his hands and knees and crawled away. “Where are you going?” I asked aloud.
He twisted his face toward me, eyes wide. I remember how his face seemed to glimmer in the twilight. “Quiet!” he hissed. “Follow me! Quickly!” He stood and began to run. I half-ran after him for several feet. By now, the others were calling for me by name. He stopped, turned around, and gestured impatiently for me to follow.
I took one or two steps forward, then I heard someone, maybe my mother, calling for me nearby. I glanced away from the boy and yelled, “Over here!”
I recall seeing, in my peripheral vision, the boy as he ducked away. When I turned my attention back and ran to where he’d been standing, he had vanished. I called for him quietly, but there was no answer. He was gone.
Later, I asked if the others had seen him. No one had. I described him to our friends who lived in the neighborhood. No one recalled his name. As we were about to leave that night, I ran to where I thought I’d been hiding when he first appeared. There were a series of gravestones in that row, all with a name like Michaelson or Mitchelson. One of the headstones read “Beloved Son.” Although I cannot recall the exact dates of the boy’s birth and death — early 20th century — I could see that he had been around ten years old when he died. The boy I had seen had been no more than my age.
I didn’t discuss with anyone the possibility that I might have seen — actually talked with — a real ghost. What really struck me were the words “Beloved Son” on the gravestone. A boy my own age had died. I’d thought dying happened only to old people. How had he died? Had it been an accident? Had he been sick? More importantly, I wanted to know why he’d died at all. What was the point of being born, if you weren’t going to be able to live your life? I wanted to know why God would go to all the trouble of putting someone here in the first place, if they were going to die so early.
I walked back to the car and became aware of the immensity of things. This awareness began as a slight perception, somewhere in the back of my mind. I turned my attention to the graveyard, to the grave markers all around me. A shiver slipped up my back as I truly processed the fact that all of these people had died. This was only one graveyard on the entire planet — and not all the people buried here were old! “What if this happened to me?” I thought. The realization that I could die was terrible and I tried to push it from my mind. I picked up my pace and soon began running. It was no use. I had finally realized that I was a part of something larger than myself.
Now, I won’t say that I began to live every moment with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the fact that I was alive and healthy. As I make the transition to adulthood, however, that perception of the immensity of life grows. I observe with wistful nostalgia the self-centered aura surrounding very young children. I’m only in my twenties, but sometimes I can’t imagine ever having been that young or innocent. It is with a sort of bemused horror that, as I began to perceive years ago on that autumn night in the graveyard, I’d always known I would grow up. I just didn’t know when.
This essay appeared in the original edition of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries, published in 1996 by Automatism Press.
Benjamin Scuglia is an author and playwright, producer and stage manager, actor, aphorist and traveler of moderate renown. He is a member of Theatre West, the oldest continually operating membership company in Los Angeles. Recently, his play “Last of His Kind” was a winner of the 2015 Lesbian & Gay Play Reading Festival sponsored by the City of West Hollywood. His play “Gay for Pay” was a Top 30 Finalist for the 2015 Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway Short Play Festival in New York. Benjamin’s most recent book is Filthy Remarks (2013), a collection of quotes about sex and relationships. He is very happy to be able to participate in the 20th anniversary celebration of Death’s Garden. Twitter: @500Turtles.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.