Although there’s no ghost. At least not in the traditional sense. Though there is a campfire and martyred marshmallows, impaled on sticks and charred black. There are log cabins, handsome conifer trees, and hiking trails. Pan out a little further, past the old riding ring and the older swimmin’ hole, and bear witness to an impressive balancing act: a one-hundred acre plot of land perched on a mountain top; a mountain teetering on the pinpoint where Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee meet.
Lean back even further, and you’ll see all the lives this one-hundred acre plot of land has lived before it was sleepaway camp for girls: a hunting range for deer and duck; a Confederate prison camp; A phantom limb of Cherokee tribes forced westward––their descendants in Oklahoma can still feel it twitch.
But for the sake of this story, we’ll need to keep our eyes trained on the present––on a little Black girl, specifically, who has found herself at this summer camp despite the assertion that little Black girls don’t “do” outside (amongst other things like swim or behave or matter much at all).
To say that the little Black girl knows, from the very beginning, how things will go would be a lie. A comforting lie, sure. But let’s not rob her of hindsight; at the end of this ghost story, it will be the only consolation prize she gets.
If she’s being honest, the first thing that comes to mind on drop-off day is her grandmother’s peaches––the ones she uses to make peach cobbler; that are dunked in boiling water, then rinsed under cold right after, so the skin slips off nice and easy. The little white girls’ faces split cleanly, pink lips pull back over pretty teeth. Their smiles are almost enough to hush the alarm bells that are ringing, telling the little Black girl to brace for something that is coming coming coming from a long ways off, but coming still.
Flush and well-fed on the stories of their mothers and grandmothers, who traipsed these grounds during much simpler times, the little white girls have come prepared––with SPF 60 sunscreen and sleeping bags glutted on goose-down. They bring their camp songbooks, though they don’t need them; their mothers and grandmothers made sure to pass the songs down, too. They sing around the campfire, after meals, before bed. Fast songs and slow songs. Songs with clapping and rounds.
It would be ridiculous if it didn’t sound so pretty ringing off the tree tops.
The little Black girl knows that if she can find her place amongst the tinkling sopranos—slide her voice in (gently, gently so as not to break anything), she’ll be fine. She buys a camp songbook from the trading posts, commits the whole thing to memory until she, too, no longer needs it. Practices quietly alone until she is certain that when she opens her mouth, what comes out will be priceless.
Every summer after, she sings and climbs trees and whittles sticks to points. She skims the top of the swimming hole, unconcerned with what lurks at its bottom. The horses in the barn no longer twitch when she approaches. The alarm bells go quiet altogether.
The ghosts still can’t be bothered with her, though (or at least, the ones you’re probably thinking of—gauzy and ethereal and hopelessly dramatic). Every evening, her bunkmates come squealing back from the dining hall or main lodge, giddy with conviction because of a pipe or floorboard gone ornery with age. The little Black girl wants to share in this, too. She begins to wander the trails at night, flash light off, willing something to come at her from the dark.
The little Black girl is unafraid; she now knows this one-hundred acres as intimately as the songs in her songbook––which berry bushes are edible and which are not; what’s Virginia creeper and what’s poison ivy; the arrowhead of cottonmouth versus the sleekness of a watersnake. She is at the age where she still believes that being able to identify danger, to call it by its name, is the same thing as safety.
It won’t happen until years later, when the little Black girl is now big. A counselor who holds smaller hands in hers, and reminds them to drink water and not run and stay with the group.
Not now, though. Right now, the littles ones are asleep, and a campfire rages, lighting up the Nalgene bottle full of vodka and orange juice like a lantern. Much has changed. Hips have widened. Legs have lengthened. Wobbly sopranos have mellowed into altos. But the desire to sing, to throw back their heads and measure their voices against the stars, remains the same.
Down to the swinging bridge we go
For a good time and a show
There aren’t many girls, maybe seven or eight. But the acoustics of the clearing makes their voices fuller—like a whole chorus sits just outside the light of the fire.
Bring a picnic and a blanket
And a camera, dontcha know?
The flames and smoke and vodka lick all facial features away. The little Black girl can only see rows of teeth winking in the dark.
Cuz’ the prayers’ll fly high
While the coons hang low!
The last line is supposed to be While the angels swoop low. The little Black girl knows this, searches frantically in her memory for the lyrics from her songbook, but comes up blank (it is a revised edition, that song book. Some would say sterilized and “PC’ed”, stripped of the joy of a much simpler time). But all the Little Black girl can see are mouths hovering around the fire. Pink lips stuck in a perfect circle, drawing out the ooooooo in coon until they become rifle scopes. Until the past becomes a stray bullet, traveling impossibly fast and achingly slow, its trajectory turning little Black girls into deer and duck. Until a ghost story becomes a reminder.
Kayla Lightner is a Georgia Native who currently works at a literary agency in Harlem where she gets to indulge her love of books and creative writing. Her work has previously appeared in Phoebe and Another Chicago Magazine.