Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 1998
Adult Winners

First Place

Our top adult entry was written by Stephen R. Wilk and takes place around Pirates' Glen in Saugus. It takes place not on Halloween, but rather the night of the Harvest Moon, a big part of our past locally and still a major holiday in China.

The Ghost of Pirate's Cave

Stephen R. Wilk

"Ghosts can't hurt you," I always thought. Ghosts are insubstantial, incorporeal, incapable of harming the living. They are Shadows of Things that Have Been -- and how can a shadow hurt you? Mind, I've always been a skeptic -- I read Martin Gardner and the
Skeptical Enquirer and all, but I'm broad-minded enough to allow ghosts to exist. And it's always bothered me that the people in ghost stories are terrified of ghosts. They run shrieking from haunted houses. In the stories by H.P. Lovecraft and his ilk they faint dead away. Why? What are they afraid of? A ghost ought to be a subject of profound wonder and scientific investigation. I could imagine some malevolent ghost using its appearance to, say, block your view of an open elevator shaft, or pursuing you persistently enough to be annoying, but ghosts never seem to be that creative. So why, I wondered, were people terrified by ghosts?

I don't wonder, anymore. I wish I'd never seen the ghost at Pirate's Cave. I'll tell you about it.

Ages ago, when I was an undergraduate, I had to do a report on political economy in the New England colonies. It was about balance of trade and the export of crops or some such. In order to research the matter, I was able to sweet-talk my way into the library stacks where they had some of the original records from colonial days. Because these were taxation records and import records no one else seemed to have been interested in them. Some hadn't been touched since they were filed away, and when I separated the yellowing pages the sand used to blot up the ink trickled out.

I'd worked through quite a few of these, struggling sometimes to decipher the none-too-clear crabbed handwriting, when I suddenly noticed a smudge on the back of one sheet. Any diversion from the tedium of research was welcome, so I turned it over and looked more closely. Paper was at a premium in colonial days, so they wrote in tiny letters on both sides of the page, but this blot stood out as an island in the middle of a sea of calligraphy. It must have been there before the writing. Probably they had filled out the one side first, then set this sheet down on another freshly written piece of paper. Instead of re-writing the other side, or trying to erase the smudge, they simply wrote around it.

I almost set it down, but my curiosity was piqued. What message had they inadvertently blotted up? It was against the rules, but I slipped out with the ancient sheet in search of a rest room. Holding the message up in front of a mirror I could see the message un-reversed, but it was still smudged and badly written. It took some time to figure it out.

"... tells me that he has himself seen the ghost. They say that it makes its appearance on the night of the September full moon, called the Harvest moon. He saw it near Pyrate's Cave, and so thinks it may have died by violence at that spot."

And that was all. A fragment of a note from one bored bureaucrat to another, penned on a now-lost piece of paper and preserved by chance because someone was too lazy or too busy to erase a chance inkblot. I eventually photographed it and photocopied it, but I never did anything about it, because God knew where Pirate's Cave was. Some crag in a coral reef someplace, or a sinkhole down in Bermuda, perhaps. I saved the notes, thinking I might do something with it, someday. But I never did. And I never mentioned it to anyone.

Years later, I moved to Saugus, Massachusetts and heard about a formation called Pirate's Cave. The rocky formation near Vinegar Hill (Blueberry Hill to the locals) was famous for the many failed attempts to find treasure there. I knew of no other Pirate's cave in the area, and one day, as I was cleaning my papers and stumbled across my notes, the revelation that this Pirate's Cave and the one in my note must be one and the same struck me like a thunderbolt. God did know where Pirate's Cave was, and with His wonderful sense of humor, He decided to tell me.

So now I knew where and when a ghost was supposed to make his annual appearance. I thought of going to see it, then dismissed the thought. What was I going to do -- spend the whole night out there? Someone would probably see me, and I'd be arrested. "No, honest, officer, I'm only out here to see a ghost!"

But the idea wouldn't go away. It haunted me. What kind of skeptic are you, I asked myself, unwilling to put things to the test when this perfect opportunity comes your way. Chances such as this don't come by every day. As far as I knew, this was MY ghost. The legend certainly wasn't common knowledge, and I had never told anyone. I could be a real Ghostbuster. The more I thought about it, the more the desire to see this ghost grew. So I resolved to spend a night at the Cave.

Harvest moon was on a Thursday late in the month that year. It was a school night, fortuitously. That made it less likely that I'd run into kids out there after dark. At work I laid down some strategic groundwork, dropping hints that I wasn't feeling well, and might not be in the next day. As evening approached I threw a couple of sandwiches and granola bars in my backpack, along with bottled water and soda. There was a premature chill in the air, so I dressed in a snug sweatshirt and jeans, with hiking boots for my feet. I had a mini Maglight flashlight with a red plastic night filter (so I wouldn't lose my night vision) and a camera. (What setting do you use for ghosts? Do you need a flash? Is there really any point to using infrared film? Who cared? I probably wouldn't see anything, anyway.)

I put it all in my knapsack and hiked off for Pirate's Cave, getting into the woods before the sun set and finding my spot by natural light. I found an out-of-the-way place to settle in, off the trails and out of the open, and sat quietly, waiting.

When you sit in enforced stillness and silence like that, you notice things. There was a lot more traffic through the woods than I realized there'd be, and if I hadn't concealed myself I would have been spotted. But the traffic slowed and eventually stopped. I could hear noises from the town -- cars, trucks, occasional sirens. The planes circling in to land at Logan. There was a constant glow from Route 1. How can you be afraid of ghosts when you're surrounded by -- assaulted by -- civilization at the time? A loud domestic dispute could carry to where I was.

The sounds slowly died down, and the relative quiet gave me a chance to think about my situation. What was it I hoped to see? Errol Flynn as Captain Blood? Burt Lancaster as The Crimson Pirate? Tim Curry as Long John Silver? The guy from the Captain Morgan Rum label? A Pirates of the Caribbean figure with bandana, earring, peg leg, and Jolly Roger? How would I recognize my ghost when I saw him? Maybe I'd just mistake him for another wanderer in the woods.

Midnight came. A clock actually chimed, somewhere, and I checked my watch to confirm it. The Witching Hour, they say (who?, I always wonder). If there was an appropriate time for my ghost, it was now. I continued to wait. Fifteen minutes, half an hour, a full hour. There was no ghost.

The moon became visible. It must have risen much earlier, but was hidden to me by the houses and trees. It was a clear night, and the moon shone brightly, lighting up the area around the Cave and the Glen with light that appeared blue-white to my scotopic eyes. But aside from the occasional off-stage noises from the town, there was nothing. I ate my sandwiches and drank from my bottles. The night became very quiet.

I think I was starting to fall asleep, because I caught myself with a sudden jerk. The fact that there was something out of the ordinary must have registered in my mind, causing me to awake. Something very definitely was not right. There was a sense of otherwordliness to the scene -- something besides the moonlight and the quiet, but which I could not put a finger on. I waited.

I saw motion near the cave. Not a glowing, luminous ghost, but a dark shadow. Something emerged from the case stealthily, slowly, and stood up. I had seen nothing go in, and I know that I would have. Whatever it was stood up and looked around.

It turned towards me and stopped, locked on my location. I had been feeling apprehensive since I saw it come out of the cave, but now... well, it takes cliches to describe the feeling. "Chills running up my spine", "My heart in my mouth". The edges of those phrases are blunted by repetition, so that to most of us they're meaningless. But they were true to me at the time. My heart did feel as if it stopped. In the presence of the Weird, I wanted to scream, to run. To behave like a person who had seen a ghost.

I did none of those things. I'd like to think it was the result of a supremely rational mind, but I think it was just shock. I slowly stood up, rising from the concealment of the bushes. The specter and I stared at each other across the gulf. It was now absolutely silent.

I walked over towards the thing. As I did so, I could begin to make out features in the reflected moonlight. From a featureless black silhouette it began to acquire dimensions and character. It stood its ground as I approached.

From the moment I saw it I had no doubt that it was no human being. It could not possibly have come from that Cave, not when I had seen nothing go in. Aside from that I had no rational reason to think it was supernatural, but I knew that it was. As I approached the ghost, I saw that there was plenty of corroborating evidence. It was a very dirty figure, its hair in long, greasy tangles. Its clothes were nondescript, dark-colored things with tears and bad patches. Its face was badly pockmarked in a way rarely seen today -- in life, he had had smallpox, and the ghost still bore the waffle-iron face. The teeth, from what I could see, were bad and neglected. It had been young -- no more than fifteen. In every way it was not at all the way you would picture a pirate. This didn't look like a lusty freebooter, scouring the seas for treasure. It looked like an unfortunate who'd been shanghaied from the streets of some coastal town, possibly from Saugus itself. The sole concession to the picture of a pirate was a single earring, crude and badly shaped, that hung from one ear.

I came to within about eight feet and stopped. Somehow I knew that if I approached closer he would be gone -- run or disappear somehow. We continued to look at each other. God knows how I looked to it. I'd like to think that I was studying it with a calm demeanor, but I may have been gawking. To me, the ghost looked like a trapped animal. There was fear in its eyes, and something else. Desperation, perhaps. Now and then it looked away, but its gaze quickly came back to me.

It didn't want to be here, I realized. It is seeking release, and it might think that I can grant this. Some magic word, some action that will free it. Isn't that what they say ghosts want? In the stories the hero is always seeking to right some wrong that will let the ghost go to a lasting peace.

"What?" I asked, too loudly. "What do you want?" The sound of my voice seemed to scare the ghost even more. Fear crept into its eyes, and I think it started to shake. It held out its hands, palms up, pleading.

"What do you want me to do?" I asked, in exasperation. The ghost turned and ran, but stopped after a few paces and looked back at me again.

What did it want? Did its bones lie buried there? Was it murdered to guard the treasure, or so that he couldn't tell its location? It seemed too melodramatic. Besides, the cave had been worked over by too many treasure hunters through the years who would have found any bones.

Or perhaps that was the problem -- its resting place had been disturbed and it wanted me to -- what? I couldn't bring back its bones. I had no idea who had been digging in this cave over all these years. Maybe the worst thing I could do was to try and disturb the ground again.

I looked into its eyes, at that odd mixture of fear and hope mingled in them. This seemed all wrong. I had found the ghost, and now it seemed afraid of me. It lay in my power to rescue it, if only I knew how. But I didn't. Did it want a decent burial? An obol in its mouth for Charon? Pennies on its eyes? Christian rites? I asked it, but it just regarded me, like an animal with its leg caught in a trap.

It might not even be a pirate. I only thought so because the name of the place was Pirate's Cave, and it was the expected thing. But this might be some farmhand, killed by a falling rock. Or an indentured servant who tried to escape his contract and died of exposure. It was just a teenager who died here over two centuries ago and left some essence of himself impressed on this site.

It was beginning to get lighter now. We had been there longer than I realized. At the knowledge of this, my legs began to ache from long standing in one position. The ghost noted it, too. It turned and moved quickly off. I think it circled back to the cave, but I am not sure. It was gone. When I realized it was not coming back I squatted down, feeling pain in my legs. I stretched and then I rubbed my aching muscles. As soon as I could I started for home, hoping to walk off the pain. I took off my clothes, crawled into bed, and was instantly asleep.

Since then I have tried to find some historical record of the apparition, but there was nothing to be found. Most people are born, live, and die without leaving much of a ripple in the historical pond. Young, unmarried males are the most ephemeral -- they leave no records of marriage or land deeds behind them. There were no accounts of boys found dead in the woods, no records of hangings or killings, no reliable accounts of pirate treasure.

There was no suggestion of a way to "lay the ghost", no way to assure him eternal rest. I've gone as far as to consult books on the topic, but none of the suggested rites seem at all convincing. They're a Hollywood screenwriter's idea of the supernatural, an Invisible World of special effects, rather than the reality of a suffering soul.

That's what I remember from that encounter -- the Suffering Soul, the Lost Spirit in Torment. The ghost I can't help. I know that there are living souls in worse torment in the world today (and I have been far more generous in my donations to charities since that night), but I haven't seen them.

Ghosts are incorporeal, insubstantial, but capable of hurting the living, all the same. I looked into the eyes of centuries-old despair on the night of the Harvest Moon, and that look will haunt me forever.

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Copyright © 1998 & Stephen R. Wilk;
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