The paragraph below comes from Symphony in a Minor Key. Neil McCrae has read a ghost story at Halloween, timing it to end just as the bell rings in his sixth grade class.
Half the students leaped to their feet screaming, then broke into laughter, and went out for their break repeating juicy bits of the story to one another. Neil sat back with a feeling of satisfaction, mixed with amusement at his own self-indulgence. There was a lot of theater in Neil McCrae, but he kept it on a tight leash. Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.
Since the novel is based on my teaching career, it will surprise no one that Neil and I share a few characteristics. Keeping theatricality on a tight leash is one of them. Telling ghost stories on Halloween is another. This is one of those stories, based loosely on a joke I read in Boy’s Life back in the fifties.
Of course it’s a true story. I wouldn’t lie to you.
I had two brothers as students. I had one in my class one year, and his younger brother the next. They were always hanging out together. Some brothers get along; come don’t. These two were great friends.
They were outdoors types. The liked to fish and hunt. Their dad would take them canoeing, and sometimes the three of them would camp out together.
The year I’m thinking about, the last year I knew them, their dad had been really busy all fall, so they were on their own. They decided to go off together in the canoe, and go camping along the river.
I didn’t mention, did I, that the Tuolumne River runs along about a mile from the school where I taught? Or that the regional cemetery is right along the river? Of course, the students I told this story to, already knew that.
Since it’s a true story, I have to keep the details straight.
This particular fall had been rainy, and both brothers were involved in soccer, so they kept putting off their canoeing and camping trip. September came and went, and then October, and by the time November was just around the corner, they were getting pretty desperate to go. That’s probably why they decided to go on the last Friday night in October.
I probably wouldn’t have gone, myself, because it was Halloween, but these two had a habit of daring each other, and that often got them into trouble. So they went. They put in the river at Fox Grove and intended to sleep somewhere about five miles west, then paddle on down to Legion Park the next morning. Their mom was going to pick them up there. Too bad she never got the chance.
Everything went along fine for the first hour. They got a late start, but that didn’t matter since they could camp anywhere. It’s pretty wild down along the river. They got past the rapids under the bridge. They were pretty tame rapids. Things went well for the first few miles, but then fog began to form. That was fun at first.
Did I mention it was Halloween?
The fog hung in the old trees along the river bank, but they could still slip along below it. At first. Then it got dark, all the sooner because the fog was cutting off the moonlight.
Did I mention there was a full moon? That was part of the reason they went that night, because they thought they would be able to see by it’s light. They hadn’t figured on the fog. Pretty soon they couldn’t see anything. They got on down the river for a while by instinct. If you’ve been on the water enough, you get a feel for currents, and anyway, you can’t get lost on a river. It only goes one direction.
Still, it started to get dangerous, not to mention creepy, so they pulled up on a mud bank to think things over. They also had been drinking two liter Pepsi’s, if you know what I mean. They had to take care of that little chore, and they did, but while they were looking for a bush apiece, they got separated. They could hear each other clearly, but the river banks threw back such echoes that they couldn’t find each other. And then they couldn’t find the canoe. Finally, Joe – that was the younger brother – found a path up and shouted to Tom – that was the older brother – that they should climb out of the river bottom and meet on the flat land up topside. Tom shouted back to go ahead, so Joe went up.
That might not have been the best idea they ever had. They had made it further down the river than either one realized, and when Joe got to the top, he found himself in the cemetery.
Now Joe wasn’t particularly spooky. Camp fire stories of ghosts just bored him. But this was a real cemetery, and the fog in the trees looked like Spanish moss hanging down – you know, like in the stories of the bayous. He didn’t like it. He hollered for Tom, but got no answer. Then the fog thickened and the moon, which had been mostly obscured, disappeared completely. He found that he couldn’t see anything, so he put his hands out to feel, and found himself moving along, guiding himself by the tops of tombstones. He didn’t like that much either, but what are you going to do?
Tom, meanwhile, thought he had found a trail up, but it only led him into a bramble of raspberry bushes. It took him ten minutes to work his way through them and by the time he made it up to the top, his clothes were in tatters and he had blood all over his hands from fighting the thorns. He staggered out on top, panting with the effort, and found himself in the cemetery, too.
I know all this because I was one of the ones who went looking for them then next day, after someone had found their abandoned canoe. It was easy enough to track them, first by river mud footprints, then prints in the soft soil. We knew which was which because Tom’s shoes were much bigger, and besides, there were all those drops of blood.
What neither boy knew was that there was a funeral scheduled for that Saturday. The groundskeepers had dug the grave, and it was standing open. Tom found it first.
Of course, it was pitch dark, so he found it by falling in. The groundskeepers had done a good job. It was seven feet deep, with straight-up sides, three feet wide and seven feet long and completely impossible for Tom to get out of. And did he try! He leaped. He scrambled. You could see the next day where he had dug his fingers into the sides of the grave, with no success. I’m sure he shouted, but no one could hear him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he cussed a little.
Eventually, he exhausted himself and sank to the ground, curled up in a ball, and decided to wait for morning. He was half asleep when Joe found the grave the same way Tom had.
Joe fell in, and the sound of a body falling into the grave with him sent Tom to his feet. He slammed himself back against the side of the grave, wanting to scream, but no sound came out. It never occurred to him that it might be Joe, but every other monster from every movie he had ever watched went running through his head. He squeezed back into a corner of the grave in abject fear, while Joe picked himself up, turned, and began leaping and scrabbling at the wall of the grave.
About that time, just enough moonlight came down into the grave that Tom could recognize his brother. Joe slid back to the bottom of the grave for the third or fourth time as Tom reached out his bloody hand, with tattered sleeves hanging down, and touched his brother’s shoulder. His voice was hoarse from fright as he said, “You’ll never make it out of this grave.”
But Joe did. He screamed and gave such a leap that he outdid himself, caught his fingertips on the lip of the grave, scrambled like a madman, and was gone.
Tom was still there when we found him the next morning. I won’t say he was all right. I don’t think he was ever all right again. But he was there.
Joe was never found. They dragged the river. Friends, neighbors, and strangers turned out in the search, but it was useless.
Tom and his family moved away soon after, but I get Christmas cards from his mother every year. She tells me what Tom has been doing, but she never mentions Joe.
Me either. Except every year about this time I feel the need to tell his story. Just a cautionary tale, you understand. Nothing to do with me, whatsoever.
I wouldn’t lie to you.