Excerpted from Spooky Georgia
Mama told me I should never to walk along the marsh shortcut that led from our plantation to the town of Brunswick. She said it was dangerous and I’d get myself killed if I didn’t listen to her. That didn’t make any sense. The marsh shortcut was a wide, sandy path that my buddies used all the time when they went to the store in town. None of them ever got hurt. And at the age of thirteen, I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself.
It was Pa who told me why Mama was so scared of the marsh path. Pa said: “Your Mama’s little sister disappeared in the marsh a long time ago. She was taking the shortcut to the old pond to gather some firewood, and she never came back. They found her straw hat floating in the stagnant water, but they never found her body.”
“I ain’t gonna fall into the water like Mama’s sister,” I protested.
“That ain’t it, son,” Pa said. “It’s the spirit of yer little aunt. She comes to the marsh path some evenings and she…she sings.”
Color drained from my face and my arms grew goose fleshed. “She’s a ghost?” I gasped.
“Not just a ghost, son,” Pa said. “Your little aunt, she’s kind of like the Jack Ma Lantern. After she drowned, her ghost started floating over the marsh at night, singing softly of death and the grave. She’s lonesome and wants her family to join her, so she tries to lure them into the water with her song.” Pa swallowed hard and continued: “It’s safe for your buddies to walk that path ‘cause they ain’t family. But if you go there, the ghost will come fer you. So you stay away from the marsh.”
It was easy to forget the ghost in the long days of summer as the fellers and I rambled around the countryside after the day’s work was done. One day, my buddy Jimmy and I were caught in Brunswick after sunset. “My Pa’s going to be sore at me if I miss dinner,” Jimmy said. “We better hurry.” Jimmy swerved onto the shortcut through the marsh, expecting me to follow. I stared after my buddy, torn between speed and safety. I knew I shouldn’t take the shortcut, but with Jimmy present, chances were good that the ghost wouldn’t come because he wasn’t family. I raced down the marsh path after Jimmy.
As the wind swished through the marsh grasses, all whisper-whisper-whisper, I paused for a moment to admire the moon, which was rising over the treetops, making a glittering path across the still water. Suddenly, the air around me grew cold until my whole body shook with chills. Out of the silvery moon-sparkle there came a child-like figure that danced and floated above the dark water like a will-o-wisp. I gasped, my throat tight with fear. I called to Jimmy, just a yard in front of me, but he didn’t hear me and I knew he couldn’t see the spirit floating toward us across the marsh. Puffs of freezing air formed in front of my nostrils as the little girl started to sing.
“I know moonrise, I know star-rise, Lay dis body down.
I walk in de moonlight, I walk in de starlight, To lay dis body down.
I ‘ll walk in de graveyard, I’ll walk through de graveyard, To lay dis body down.
I ‘ll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms; Lay dis body down….”
I relaxed suddenly, as lovely pictures floated through my head. I saw myself as a grown man and I had become rich and famous. I had a fancy house and an expensive car and a lovely family. Then I saw my Mama right in front of me. She was beaming with pride over my achievements. She beckoned to me, want me to come give her a hug. I hurried forward, splashing through water that came to my knees, my waist, my chest. “I’m coming Mama!” I called, stretching strangely heavy arms toward her. Then I was overwhelmed by the stink of stagnant marsh gases. My mouth filled with sour water and I choked as the world went dark.
I woke gasping as someone pounded me on the chest. I choked and vomited swamp water all over the person thumping my ribs. Then I heard Pa’s voice: “Son? You all right? Son!” I opened my eyes and saw Jimmy and my Pa staring down at me in the shimmering moonlight. It was Jimmy that pulled me out of the swamp, and Pa that forced air back into my lungs. I was soaked to the skin and my whole body trembled with cold and shock. “I saw Mama’s little sister,” I gasped. “She sang to me…” Then I lost consciousness again.
When I woke the second time, I was in my bed and Mama was holding my hand and weeping. She hugged me so tight I could barely breathe and scolded me something fierce for disobeying her. I promised her then and there that I wouldn’t walk the marsh path again, and I kept that promise. And ever after, I could never listen to anyone singing the song ‘I Know Moonlight.’ It made me feel sick to hear it.