We arrived in the cemetery around four o'clock, stepping off the grumbling school bus into the crisp fall air. I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck, pulled my hat further over my ears, and blew into my gloved hands."Are you alright?" My teacher, Mr. Cainson asked. His dark eyes were full of concern.I stared up at him and nodded, bending my head again so my hair fell like a curtain over my face.
"Good," he said, patting me shoulder gently and walking with me toward the slabs of gray stone.
My classmates followed behind us, walking amongst the bare trees and chattering about what they were doing over the weekend. This field trip held no significance for them. I blew on my hands again, rubbing my palms together through thin cotton, fingerless gloves, and tugged on my scarf, which did nothing to keep the creeping cold out. White puffs of breath followed me as I walked over rocks and stepped into leaves. My father was not buried here, but the memories were strong.
The field trip was to a cemetery in order to learn about local history and do gravestone rubbings. Mr. Cainson directed the trip every year in the fall, but I had doubts as soon as the school bus had passed through the tall gates atop which read in spiraling letters "Est. 1680."
“Pay attention to the dates on the stones,” Mr. Cainson had announced, peering over his shoulder at the rest of the bus’ occupants. “Was it a parent? Teenager? Child? Maybe an entire family? In the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t uncommon for folk to die early from disease, fire, or even childbirth. A single sick family member could infect an entire community.”
There was a story he told about a circus coming to town during a particularly bad epidemic. The town used the circus tents to house the ill and dying, until one day someone set those tents on fire.
Something like that.
In bed this morning I had thought of pretending to be sick and spending the rest of the day reading safely indoors, but the sun was out, the leaves outside the bedroom window were glowing orange and yellow, and I realized that countless other classes had gone on this trip, done research on an urban legend, and come home safely. They had touched graves, looked at them, and walked among the spirits of the dead in this old part of the woods surrounded by rock fences. They had come home alive and happy.
Perhaps it was not the frightening, crumbling stone that faltered my steps; the skull’s heads with angel wings and grimacing, empty eyes, but my own inhuman grief. Perhaps sometimes a deep hole dug by sadness was avoided by bolting in fear. Death was simply one of those things that I couldn't help but to shy from.
My friends followed close behind me as I took hesitant steps into the cemetery, then diverged off their different ways. My teacher stayed by my side.
We sauntered forward, stepping over broken twigs and branches as the trees churned overhead in the crisp gale.
I stopped walking abruptly. there in the leaves was a tombstone almost as tall as me. A poem was etched in the stone and atop it was a sneering gargoyle.
Ludwig Von Tökkentakker, it read. Died 1898. An owner of a carnival who gathered many players who perhaps was never killed but stole the souls of his slayers.
I flinched and pulled my hat down over my ears again as a blast of wind picked up the leaves and made them swirl in the air. Such a sight I always thought was beautiful. Now, I shivered.
"I..." Mr. Cainson said gently. "I wouldn't take the words literally. The poem was probably a joke...there are several legends surrounding Ludwig Von Tökkentakker and more than likely someone long after his death put an epitaph on his grave based on those legends. There are photos of his grave and when it was new there was no writing on it. It was simply put there to frighten people into believing silly stories. You can imagine the sorts of people who would do that.”
Further down the hill, Dylan and Rob, two hockey players from my class, were guffawing loudly and throwing sticks and leaves at the girls. “Don’t get eaten by graveworms!” They shouted.
Carissa, Melissa, and Natalie shrieked behind pretty smirks, fluttering their eyelashes. Melissa’s hair was impeccably platinum beneath a perfectly positioned wool beanie, and Carissa covered her mouth in mock terror, her dark curls falling over her shoulders.
“Boys,” Mr. Cainson said sternly, walking away from me and towards them.
I touched the word carnival with a fingertip, then jerked me hand away. "It seems old to me," I muttered.
I turned away to find something less weird when the shine of something caught my eye.
There -- partially covered by dry leaves -- I walked toward it without thinking, taking my hands out of my pockets and swooping down to cup it in my palms.
A golden coin -- heavy, the size of a field hockey ball, and nearly half an inch thick. I had to have it. It was so delightfully shiny, and the weight was pleasant in my hands.
“Anna!” Beatrice was shouting for me.
“Anna,” Carissa mimicked in a mocking tone.
Barely readable were the words Admit One to Carnival. Instantly I glanced around, my eyes searching for the grave. On the tombstone lay a round indentation; as though someone had taken a large hammer and pushed the stone back an inch or so.
“Come over here and see this!” Bea called.
More shrieking. The sheen of leaves was getting kicked up by running feet. The boys hollered, giggling.
“Let’s get focused, people,” Mr. Cainson called.
My hand, with the coin, reached toward the place on the tombstone where it belonged, and pressed the coin in. The indentation clicked, then the coin fell into a hole.
“Cool,” I muttered.
Rustling of leaves. My classmates shouting to one another and stirring up the forest floor. Birds twittering overhead. The hillside roaring, rushing up to meet me.