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Ghost Baby

Signs marking the town where I grew up listed its founding as 1851, but everyone in my neighborhood knew of a graveyard down the old swamp road that was older than that. Weathered gravestones listed death dates in the 1830s. No one knew where these early people had come from, or why they lived on a small island in a cypress swamp when there was plenty of dry land elsewhere.

Mrs. Johnson, my neighbor, claimed they had been gypsies running from the law. That's what she had heard growing up, and she was over eighty years old. But Mr. Tucker at the fire station swore they had been witches—they lived in the swamp so no one would bother them, and they made potions with water moccasin venom. We weren't sure if that was just a story told to scare us, or if it was true.

Sometimes, we'd hear strange noises coming from the swamp, mostly on calm evenings just past sunset. This was the twilight time folks called dark-thirty because that's when the spirits roamed. Some said the sound was a moaning ghost; others thought it was more like crying, a child's or baby's cry. My parents said it was just the wind, a screech owl, or maybe a lonesome dog. It did sound lonely, but it didn't sound like any dog I had ever heard. It made me feel cold inside, even on a warm summer's night.

Loggers built the road that led through the swamp in the early 1900s. They raised it above the water by digging ditches on both sides. They put a rail line on top and hauled out the heavy cypress logs with a steam locomotive. They cut big pines off the island, too, but they left the old graveyard alone, a place where cedar and pine trees stood tall. Mrs. Johnson said the loggers refused to camp on the island because they heard eerie sounds coming from the graveyard, especially at dark-thirty. It was haunted, they said. That's why they left the trees.

When the loggers finished their work, they took out the rail lines and left the high rail bed to be used as a road. The old swamp road was never paved, and it became thick with soft sand during dry periods. We'd sometimes ride our bikes down it—especially in summer, because it was a short cut to the city park—but we'd only go during daytime. No one lived in the swamp, so there were no streetlights or other lights. Plus, riding by the old graveyard was spooky, even in bright sunlight. We'd sometimes do it on a dare.

One summer afternoon, my brother Dave and I rode our bikes to the city park to swim and play games. We became caught up in a ping-pong tournament in the park's indoor recreation center and by the time we stepped outside, we took one look at the sunset sky and began to panic. "We'll have to ride back by the swamp road," said Dave.

"No way," I protested. "No one goes that way this time of day."

"It's that or be grounded. We add twenty minutes going the other way." Dave spoke without a hint of fear in his voice. I glared at him, but I knew he was right. We had only two weeks remaining of our summer vacation and we didn't want to spend it restricted to our house and yard. We set off riding as fast as we could.

By the time we reached the swamp road, the western sky was brilliant orange. Some other time we would have stopped to enjoy the sunset, but we knew we had to get home as soon as possible. It hadn't rained in almost a month, however, and the road was so soft that no matter how hard we tried to peddle, we had to walk our bikes past the old graveyard. That's when we heard the noise.

"What's that?" Dave asked, stopping.

"I don't know and I don't care," I replied, feeling a sense of panic. I tried to run in the soft sand, but couldn't go very fast. It reminded me of recent dreams I had had—something was chasing me, but I couldn't run fast enough to get away.

Dave followed, but he abruptly stopped again. "Listen!" he said. "It sounds like someone crying. Like a baby crying." We had a younger brother, so we were familiar with crying babies, but this baby cry was different, more desperate.

"It's probably just a screech owl," I said. "Let's go!"

"Maybe someone left him," said Dave. He didn't move. We had heard stories of people leaving babies at churches and on people's doorsteps, but never in a graveyard. Dave, being older, put down his bike and announced, "We've got to find out."

"No," I said. "It's spooky."

"We have to," said Dave. "The baby may need our help."

I took a deep breath. That graveyard was the last place I wanted to walk into, especially at dark-thirty, but I reluctantly agreed.

As we pushed our way through brambles and vines, past live oak, cedar, and pine, the crying grew louder. Finally, we rounded a tree and saw it—a small baby wrapped in an old blanket laying in a shallow depression. He cried louder when he saw us.

"What do we do now?" I asked, petrified.

"Well," said Dave, "we've got to take him home with us."

"No way. Are you crazy? What will Mom and Dad say when we show up with a baby?"

"We can't just leave him here," said Dave.

I exhaled loudly. We had to make a decision quickly because it was getting dark. "Oh, I guess you're right." Dave was usually right, but I rarely admitted it out loud. This occasion was an exception.

Dave gently reached down and picked up the baby. Immediately, the baby stopped crying and started doing a kind of cooing sound. Dave managed to smile. "He's kind of cute," he said, "and he's light as a feather, or maybe he is a she." He checked and announced, "It's a he." He gave him to me to hold. Surprisingly, the baby was much lighter than our younger brother, although they appeared to be the same age—maybe four or five months old.

"I wonder how long he's been out here," I said nervously, looking around. It wasn't a place where I wanted to hang out. Deep shadows stretched beneath moss-draped branches. Tree frogs and cicadas called in rhythmic choruses, creating a strange pulsing sound, like a loud heartbeat. Mosquitoes buzzed in my ear.

"We'd better go," said Dave.

We started towards the road. Maybe I was more tired than I thought, but the baby seemed to be getting heavier with every step. "Hey Dave, you carry him," I said. "My arms are hurting."

Dave smirked. "We haven't even gone fifty feet." He reluctantly took the baby. He only made it another twenty feet before he started complaining. "Gee, you're right. This baby is getting heavy."

In another minute, we both had to carry the baby; Dave cradled the head and upper back while I held his butt and legs. The baby now weighed more than our German shepherd at home. This was getting weird. I glanced down at the baby and nearly dropped him in the road. "D-D-Dave," I stuttered. "Llllooooook."

Dave looked down and nearly dropped his end of the baby. Smiling up at us was no longer the face of a baby but that of an old man, gray-haired and wrinkled. "What do we do now?" I whispered, stiff with fear.

"We have to take him back," Dave whispered back. Dave always seemed to have an answer for everything. I admired him for that, and was a little envious, but Dave didn't always give good reasons for his answers and this was one of those times.

"How come?" I asked.

"How come what?"

"How come we have to take him back?" My voice shook. I didn't want to return to that spooky graveyard.

Dave's voice lowered even more to where I could barely hear him. "I think he's a ghost baby," he said. "If we leave him in the road, there's no telling what might happen."

I'm not sure what had suddenly made Dave the ghost expert, but strangely, his answer made sense. We reluctantly turned around and headed back toward the graveyard. As we did, the baby became lighter and the old man's face returned to that of a baby. Near dark, when we finally laid the ghost baby back down on what must have been the shallow depression of his grave, he started crying again. "What do we do now?" I asked, panicked. I felt like crying, too.

For the first time, a frightened look came across Dave's face. "Let's get the hell out of here," he said.

He didn't need to say it twice. We ran out of that graveyard, tripping over headstones and falling into brush. When we reached the sandy road, we ran right past our bikes and kept going.

Arriving home breathless and well past dark, we burst through the door and gave Mom and Dad the whole story in about fifteen seconds.

It wasn't fun to be grounded for the last two weeks of summer vacation, but we now knew the source of the lonely cry that crept through the night air like swamp fog.

Author's Notes

"Ghost Baby" was inspired from reading a brief description of a similar story in Ghost Stories from the American South, a scholarly work compiled and edited by W.K. McNeil. I was collecting spooky stories to share at an upcoming Halloween gathering and was searching for last-minute inspiration. I wrapped a personal story around this old tale, stretching a two-paragraph story into one that lasted about fifteen minutes. The audience was spellbound and "Ghost Baby" turned into one of my personal favorites.

According to McNeil's research, ghost baby stories are often associated with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and with people from other Latin American countries. These stories can involve the baby growing a gray beard, or sharp teeth or fangs. Sometimes the baby grows larger, not just heavier, and turns into a type of devil, with claws, horns and tail. Some versions have the "baby" dropped and it disappears, or it must be returned to the graveyard, as was the case in the story I shared.

More about Swamps, Logging, and Graveyards

Florida 's cypress trees were once reminiscent of the California redwoods due to their size. Massive cypresses, sometimes thousands of years old, reached lofty heights up to 150 feet, with buttressed bases of thirty feet or more in circumference. In pre-logging days, cypress giants dominated many of Florida 's forested swamps, casting a thick veil of shade in the growing season. Smaller trees and dormant seeds seemingly waited in anticipation for one of the larger trees to fall from a storm, lightning, or old age. Then, they hastened to flourish in the new window of light.

Florida 's champion bald cypress, "the Senator," grows in Longwood. It boasts a thirty-five-foot girth. The national champion bald cypress in Louisiana has a whopping fifty-three-foot circumference. The largest old-growth cypress forest that remains in North America is the Audubon Society's 11,000-acre Corkscrew Swamp near Naples . Visitors can also see old-growth cypress along the Tamiami Trail in the Fakahatchee State Preserve.

Logging of Florida 's cypress forests began in earnest in the early 1900s and continued through the 1940s. Cypress logging first involved girdling the trees by notching around the base so the sap would run down, starving the trunk. The final cutting would not occur for several months. In the meantime, loggers often built a grid of raised rail beds or trams so logs could be moved out of the forest. In the early days, men worked six- to nine-foot crosscut saws. The toppled trees were trimmed and then hooked to long cables connected to a steam powered rotating drum known as a power skidder, which sat on a rail line. Once the power skidder began pulling an enormous tree, everything in its path was crushed as the log plowed through the swamp's soft bottom. Logging accidents were common. Once dragged parallel to the tracks, the cypress logs were loaded onto rail cars with cranes and taken to a sawmill.

A logger's day often began with a wake-up call or whistle at 4:30 a.m. Breakfast usually consisted of fried fat pork, biscuits, syrup, and coffee. Around 6:00 a.m., a train carried the loggers to the work area, and then back to camp after ten or twelve hours of hard work.

Today, cypress trees are still logged for their wood, but young trees are often cut for landscaping mulch. It is feared that cypress trees in Florida are being cut at a rate faster than they can naturally grow. Conservationists are urging consumers to purchase pine bark or melaleuca mulch (made from an invasive exotic species) to reduce the pressure on cypress forests.

While early graveyards were not normally established in cypress swamps, they were established on adjacent lands and on pine islands, such as the one depicted in "Ghost Baby." If gravestones were visible or the graveyard known, loggers often respected these graveyards and did not harvest the trees, thus the reason why graveyards often harbor the largest trees in an area. In the Midwest , some of the last native prairie plants can be found in graveyards and along rail beds.

Storytelling Tips

"Ghost Baby" is best told in dim light with enough room to move around. Try to imitate a crying baby, one that is desperate sounding. Done properly, this will send a chill through your audience. You don't need to move around much until you enter the graveyard. Then you can pretend to be pushing your way through brush and stepping over headstones. When you reach the baby, bend over, soften your voice and carefully lift with outstretched arms. Your listeners will easily visualize that baby, making it all the more shocking when you begin straining your arms from the steadily increasing weight, and the "baby" turns into an old man.

Speed up your dialogue at the end to convey a sense of panic.

Estimated Telling Time: 11–12 minutes

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