by Claudius Reich
I was nine years old when we moved in next to the cemetery.
I suppose I didn’t always hate the suburbs; that came later. From a crowded apartment in the middle of Boston, all of a sudden we were in this three-story Victorian house, just the four of us. Huge rooms everywhere — kitchen large enough to eat in, an entire bedroom suite for my parents, linen closet more capacious than some apartments I’ve lived in since. There was more room to be alone, even if only to read or daydream, without being under my family’s gaze every minute.
My sister and I had an entire floor to ourselves. We shared a playroom, where I could leave everything in place for the elaborate dynastic games I played with my sister’s Barbies, without having to clean it all up just when things were getting interesting. My favorite game was always having the main Barbie be the orphaned offshoot of an inbred, mentally unsound family. In the end, she finally drove the Barbie Camper off the cliffs (a table) onto the looming rocks below.
The basement was the first place I got to know well. The furnace sprawled right at the foot of the stairs like a sooty engine powering the house, keeping the floors level and the wall jutting upward. There were about half a dozen rooms down there — for laundry, for tools, for wine, plus a bathroom that never worked. During each heavy rainstorm, the basement would flood and we would have to put down old newspapers to soak up the rain, making trails along the floor that turned deep gray and squelched when you tiptoed over them. When the sun came out again, you had to follow those trails and toss the sodden newsprint into battered metal trashcans. I always tried to swing the papers so they’d rise just high enough that their center of gravity would pause over the mouth of the trashcan and then let them simply fall in.
It was always a little chilly in the basement, even in the New England midsummer. It always smelled like dirt somehow, in spite of the concrete floor: like a burrow, or as though the ground compressed under the house was trying to seep through.
Actually, the whole house had its share of dark corners. There was an attic of sorts off the third-floor bathroom, with an unfinished raw wood interior, no light of any sort, walls sloping toward its edges under the roof. I was afraid to explore the limits of the room; it seemed as if there would be huge nails protruding from the walls, invisible in the shadows, onto which you’d get pinioned and hang, like a chloroformed butterfly. My mother used to store toys there that we’d outgrown. They clustered toward the door (nearest place to drop them, I suppose). I could never decide if they were pleading to be let out or gathering into a mob to pounce. Desperate or gone feral, they gave me the creeps. I was always shamefully relieved to slam the door closed again.
The walk-in closets (of which there were several) weren’t nearly as frightening. They smelled of cloven apples and my mother’s clothes. Some of them even had their own lights. It was only when playing hide-and-seek in the house, when I got to be It and was standing in the closet, heavy door closed, counting, that I would think of the Victorian children’s tales I’d read: of the little girl in ringlets and velvet who wandered into an abandoned room and couldn’t get out; of venturing into other worlds for an afternoon and coming out to find a century passed and everybody dead. When I finished counting, I’d barrel out of the closet, smashing open the door with my shoulder, trying to find anyone as quickly as I could. My sister and I used to search for secret passages — measuring the widths between the rooms, the dimensions of the closets and floors — but in retrospect, I’m kind of glad we never found one.
As adolescence approached, I started to spend time in the garage, to be out of hearing as well as sight. The garage was an old carriage house, with a second story and a basement. I don’t know if it had ever been used as a residence: servants’ quarters on its second floor, maybe? There was no running water, only vestigial electricity. The town was affluent but, I think, never quite that posh. Likeliest the second story had always been what it was: a place to store things that were too good to throw away but not good enough to use. It was a fine place to just lie on an abandoned mattress on a summer day, baking in the heat but out of the glare of the sun. An odd collection of round holes of varying sizes had been drilled in the floor, from the diameter of a finger to the width of a hand, for no visible reason, through which one could see to the ground floor. It was the sort of pattern you didn’t care to stare at too long: they might have been a diagram of a strange solar system or a mesh for summoning strange creatures from the Cabala.
To get to the basement of the garage, you’d walk beside the garage, down the sharp slope overgrown with ferns, around to the back of the building. The basement had been essentially abandoned for a long time. The door was left open year-round; fallen leaves drifted in during the fall and there was already a respectable layer of mulch in the basement’s front half. The few discarded objects — tires, furniture — were already so broken-down as to be unrecognizable, just lumps in the smoothness of the floor. Nature had more than half-reclaimed this space. It would have been a great place to bury the body and grow mushrooms on the grave.
A short way further downhill, down into the green shade, was our border with the cemetery. (“Quiet neighbors,” as my father put it.) A chainlink fence, with just enough room for a skinny youngster to shimmy under it: lie on his back in the dirt and bend up the bottom of the fence just a little and slide on through. It was a huge cemetery, nowhere near full, the graves well-tended but still holding areas of wilderness. You could wander for hours without retracing your steps, never more than crossing your tracks every now and again. Few of the graves were at all interesting — calm, stuffy, respectable, much like the town itself — and post-Civil War at the earliest (which is not, for New England, very old). Nonetheless, it was a fine place for a wander, ducking from one shade tree to another on a humid summer afternoon, or stomping through the angled snowdrifts that the wind built up against the gravestones.
I remember particularly one summer day when I was eleven or twelve. I had wandered into one of the undeveloped areas and, for no reason I could really explain, stripped off all my clothes (except for putting back on my sneakers, against the rocks and underbrush). I ran back and forth through the untended trees and untrimmed bushes, exulting on the top of a hill, sunlight all over me, none but the dead in their graves and the silent foliage to see me, feeling myself in a body for the first time. Then the sun went behind some clouds, the wind rose, I got dressed, and went home.
The fruit never falls far from the tree, they say. Sex and death, fear and solitude: the rest followed.
This piece opened the first issue of Morbid Curiosity magazine.
Claudius Reich wrote for Morbid Curiosity magazine and had three pieces in the original Death’s Garden book.
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. The submissions guidelines are here.