In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia is a small town called Little River. It hasn’t changed much since it was first settled, except for a slowly dwindling population and a slowly growing general dissatisfaction with the way things are going. But the roads, some paved and some dirt, still wind around the steep mountain sides, connecting the various far flung houses, and the high street still ends at the Calvary Baptist Church of Christ the King. The church is painted white and is perpetually dusty on the inside, with a perpetually old minister. But it is not the building, nor the clergy, that is interesting. It is the cemetery behind the church, which is partly in an ancient stand of pine. The gravestones are not in any particular order of age, some of the old crumbling ones near the church, others nestled in the shade under the trees, the new shiny ones interspersed among them. There is a red oak hidden in the pines, and in fall it looks as though it is burning and cinders seem to twirl down from its branches to decorate the graves. There is a gravekeeper at Christ the King, a woman named Martha Wright. She is the oldest resident of Little River and is always wearing a grey dress and a white apron, with her silvery hair pulled back in a neat bun. If you go to the cemetery early enough in the morning, you may see her walking through the dewy grass, watering memorial flowers or brushing leaves off the headstones. Sometimes, if the sun is still hidden by the mountains, she may sit and talk a while. On rare occasions, she might even be found in the evening, preparing the cemetery for the night. Martha knows the names of every resident of the graveyard, how and when they died, and where their graves lie. And she knows all the dirty secrets that a little mountain town can hold. “The dead rarely hold their tongues,” she’ll say with a wink, if pressed on her sources. If you go into the pine grove and search among the fallen leaves under the red oak, you will find where Martha sleeps. There is a crumbling, moss-covered and water stained stone tucked among the roots of the old tree. A name, a date, and an epitaph are carved into it in nearly unreadable letters: Martha Wright. November 26 1850 Year of Our Lord. First to be Laid to Rest in Little River. Martha herself is the first to tell you that her death wasn’t interesting–not like some of the others. “It was only a touch of pneumonia,” she might say. “Not like ol’ Ben Williamson. Fell out a hay loft tryin’ to catch a rooster that got stuck. And only two days after marryin’ his third wife! Him and Lillian and Lizzie Mae and Rachel are all laid over there, up near the church.” Fall is Martha’s busiest season, and not just because of the leaves piling up and the duties that come with getting ready for winter. The other residents of the cemetery grow restless with the lengthening nights and cooling weather, and she has her hands full keeping them out of mischief. She prides herself on the brightness of her cemetery–there are no dark, twisted roots, no noxious mists winding through the headstones, and the residents are well-behaved. (Most of the time. There are a few rare instances of malicious hauntings but these are few and far between.) There is another fall task of Martha’s and that is preparing the cemetery for the Halloween Ball. She arranges the leaves of the red oak in patterns between the graves and she drapes garlands made of corn shucks through the branches of the pines. A candle is placed at every headstone and jack-o’-lanterns are scattered through the grounds. She usually has the
children string pinecones on lengths of twine to wrap around the cemetery fence and has the adults carve the pumpkins. Sarah Miller, a seamstress back in her day, always takes out the banner that reads CEMETERY AT LITTLE RIVER ANNUAL HALLOWEEN BALL on the 30th of October and touches it up, adding a stitch here and a stitch there. Martha hangs it across the back door of the church the next morning. Someone, normally Lizzie Mae Williamson, writes out invitation cards a few days before and leaves them at each headstone. The residents of the cemetery dislike the sun so the yard behind the church is empty during the day of the 31st. But when the sun disappears behind the mountains and shadows consume the graveyard, the guests of the Halloween Ball begin to arrive. Martha is there first, of course, to collect the invitations and to keep out anyone who doesn’t belong, namely those of Little River who live outside the cemetery. Children and the occasional adult still try to sneak peaks of the ball through the fence or the church windows but Martha gently shoos them away. Emma Lee and Mary Jo Taylor, the twins who died in a fire in 1900, are always right on time, giggling with joy even though they’ve been doing this for a century at least. Sarah Miller and her husband and their daughter and her family are next. Then comes Ben Williamson and Lillian with their ten-year-old son, and the entire Green clan–all seven generations of them– follows. Nearly all the residents of the cemetery attend, minus a few of the newer ones, who are still quite ornery. Abe Wheatley is always very nearly late, handing in his invitation just before the ball starts with his battered fiddle case in tow. “You won’t mind if I play a bit of music, will you, Ms. Martha?” he invariably asks. “Of course not!” is Martha’s reply. There are games and a table of refreshments and an open space for dancing. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, enjoys the cemetery’s biggest event of the year. They only stop when the morning sun begins to peak over the mountain tops. Then Abe puts away his fiddle and the children are rounded up, and one by one they go to bed until Martha is the only one left. She tidies up the grounds, taking down the banner and snuffing out the candles. Sometimes, she’ll stop and talk to an early riser from the town. But by the time the first rays of sun hit the church, the only things left in the cemetery are the corn shucks, the pine cones, and one or two jack-o’-lanterns. Artist Statement: Around Halloween, my dance teacher decided to make a Halloween-themed dance. We all sat around talking about things that scared us and other Halloweenish things, such as ghosts. I thought it would be fun to write a story about dancing ghosts because of that.