“You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900. Another hundred years were ground up and churned, and what had happened was all muddied by the way folks wanted it to be—more rich and meaningful the farther back it was.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
“The years go by, and I’ve told the story so many times that I’m not sure anymore whether I actually remember it or whether I just remember the words I tell it with… At this point, what difference does it make whether it was me or some other man that saw Moreira killed.”
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Night of the Gifts” (Trans. Andrew Hurley)
My senior year of college, I lived in an apartment next to an old cemetery.
The cemetery had headstones and crypts that dated back to the 18th century. Several of them belonged to the college’s first students. I always wondered whether they willingly chose to be buried there out of devotion to the college, or whether academic rigor got to them before they could graduate. I typically assumed the latter.
The cemetery was mostly green and wooded. Parts of it were steep, and it even had a ravine dividing it down the middle. With its tall trees and eery voices, the graveyard was hauntingly beautiful. During the fall and spring, I used to take a shortcut through the cemetery. I was drawn to the tranquility and quiet, and of course, the dining hall on the other side. I told myself it was a shortcut, but I still doubt if it actually was. I had to climb down a sharp incline then up another hill to get across, usually taking about as much effort as just walking around the cemetery. I never dared to take the path during winter, lest I came across winter gnomes, shout in surprise, then slip, break a leg, and freeze to death.
If you’re still wondering about the eery voices, those belonged to students. No, not the dead ones. Nearly every time I walked through the cemetery, I found someone on the phone. This is because the buildings in that area of town had horrible cell reception, whereas the cemetery had excellent service. Go figure. To this day, I’m still not sure how taboo it is to order Thai food over the phone while standing on hallow ground.
With its air of mystery and spectral nature, you can see why the college cemetery could be rife with local folklore, folklore I unwittingly contributed to one fateful night about a year ago.
My friend Abe (who’s a bodybuilder, a fact you would know too, 3 minutes after meeting him) and I were waiting on some friends to go get ice cream. We had just picked up his backpack from my next door neighbor. His friend had left Abe’s backpack on the front door step, where anyone could get it. We got to talking about whether anyone would’ve stolen it. The answer was obviously no; Abe’s backpack was so massive, he became a bodybuilder solely to carry it around campus. However, even if it was a normal backpack, we didn’t feel like anyone would take it. Our quaint, little college town felt immune to crime, a notion reinforced by all the MacBooks left lying around ownerless in the library. Neither of us knew at that point in time that the cemetery was also home to the victim of a notorious murder in the 19th century, a fact that’s not at all relevant to this story but interesting nonetheless.
“You never know. Anything can happen,” I said, “Matt was telling me the other day this crazy story that happened to him in high school.” Thus, I began telling Abe a swashbuckling tale about the cemetery. On a moonless night, Matt and some friends had gone out to the cemetery on a dare. I dramatically told him how they came across a group of strange men, who were ALSO hanging out in this cemetery. The men were obviously up to no good, since they were meeting under the cover of darkness. Perhaps they were a cult, grave robbers, or worse, a college secret society. When the men saw Matt and his high school buddies, they chased them with shivs. Quickly scrambling up the hill, the boys barely escaped. They never found out who those men were. How strange, right? It was the kind of cautionary tale a mother might tell her children, “Now don’t go out into the cemetery tonight, honey. Remember what happened to those poor boys. Tsk, tsk.”
Abe and I sat there, wondering what everyone was doing at the cemetery so late in the first place. As two people not from New England, we concluded that townies were just weird. Back where we were from, people didn’t wander about cemeteries, and men only threatened each other with proper knives and guns, none of this makeshift business. Eventually, the rest of our group joined us, and we got our ice cream. I completely forgot about the cemetery, and shivs, and winter gnomes. That is, until I bumped into Matt.
“Hey, so I was telling Abe about that time you and your friends got chased by some guys with shivs. That’s so crazy,” I chuckled.
Matt gave me a confused look, “What?”
“Yeah, you know. You guys were in the cemetery for whatever reason? Like, late at night?” I kept throwing out details, but it soon became clear Matt had no idea what I was talking about.
“Oh,” he unfurrowed his brow, realization spreading across his face. “Yeah, but that wasn’t late at night. We just came across a couple people smoking pot.”
Still incredulous, I added, “Sooo, you weren’t chased with shivs?”
“Uh, no.” Awkward. Oh so awkward.
I went over it in my mind again and again, but it didn’t make any sense: “Then, I wonder why I thought that.”
He shrugged. “Maybe it’s because we were fighting with sticks,” he said graciously.
Abe found the situation hilarious. My version of events had been much more intense, with lots of action, fighting, weapons, secret societies, and runaways. I might as well have started the story with a nod at J.K. Rowling:
“And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”
(After all, my habit of quoting Harry Potter is only second to that of quoting Friends. Mean Girls is a close third. As you can see, I still live in 2004 apparently.)
I, on the other hand, was crushed. Not only was the true story much less exciting, but as an avid storyteller, the whole situation unnerved me. “How could I get it so wrong?” I thought, “Was I becoming an unreliable narrator? Just another common literary trope, ripe for discussion in a college-level English class?” I felt like a character in a Borges story, living out the shortcomings of memory. And if you’ve ever read Borges, you would know that the last thing you would ever want to be is a character stuck in the endless, complicated loops of a Borges story.
I have no real answer to this, except that John Gottschall’s words come to mind: “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” So perhaps, late into the night, in my deepest sleep, I dreamt of that shortcut through the cemetery; and I told myself a story so vividly, I blurred the line between fiction and reality. Maybe in my next telling, the winter gnomes will save Matt.
One can hope.