I was nine when I saw my first ghost.
My father and I were raking leaves in the cemetery where he'd worked for years as the caretaker. It was early autumn, not yet cool enough for a sweater, but on that particular afternoon there was a noticeable bite in the air as the sun dipped toward the horizon. A mild breeze carried the scent of wood smoke and pine needles, and as the wind picked up, a flock of black birds took flight from the treetops and glided like a storm cloud across the pale blue sky.
I put a hand to my eyes as I watched them. When my gaze finally dropped, I saw him in the distance. He stood beneath the drooping branches of a live oak, and the green-gold light that glimmered down through the Spanish moss cast a preternatural glow on the space around him. But he was in shadows, so much so that I wondered for a moment if he was only a mirage.
As the light faded, he became more defined, and I could even make out his features. He was old, even more ancient than my father, with white hair brushing the collar of his suit coat and eyes that seemed to burn with an inner flame.
My father was bent to his work and as the rake moved steadily over the graves, he said under his breath, "Don't look at him."
I turned in surprise. "You see him, too?"
"Yes, I see him. Now get back to work."
"But who is he--"
"I said don't look at him!"
His sharp tone stunned me. I could count on one hand the number of times he'd ever raised his voice to me. That he had done so now, without provocation, made me instantly tear up. The one thing I could never abide was my father's disapproval.
There was regret in his tone and what I would later come to understand as pity in his blue eyes.
"I'm sorry I spoke so harshly, but it's important that you do as I say. You mustn't look at him," he said in a softer tone. "Any of them."
"Is he a--"
Something cold touched my spine and it was all I could do to keep my gaze trained on the ground.
"Papa," I whispered. I had always called him this. I don't know why I'd latched on to such an old-fashioned moniker, but it suited him. He had always seemed very old to me, even though he was not yet fifty. For as long as I could remember, his face had been heavily lined and weathered, like the cracked mud of a dry creek bed, and his shoulders drooped from years of bending over the graves.
But despite his poor posture, there was great dignity in his bearing and much kindness in his eyes and in his smile. I loved him with every fiber of my nine-year-old being. He and Mama were my whole world. Or had been, until that moment.
I saw something shift in Papa's face and then his eyes slowly closed in resignation. He laid aside our rakes and placed his hand on my shoulder.
"Let's rest for a spell," he said.
We sat on the ground, our backs to the ghost, as we watched dusk creep in from the Lowcountry. I couldn't stop shivering, even though the waning light was still warm on my face.
"Who is he?" I finally whispered, unable to bear the quiet any longer.
"I don't know."
"Why can't I look at him?" It occurred to me then that I was more afraid of what Papa was about to tell me than I was of the ghost.
"You don't want him to know that you can see him."
"Why not?" When he didn't answer, I picked up a twig and poked it through a dead leaf, spinning it like a pinwheel between my fingers. "Why not, Papa?"
"Because what the dead want more...