Imagine me, five years old, and scared to death to open my eyes — to take even the bitsiest peep — during prayers at the dinner table, at church services, or weddings. Was it some rule set by my God-fearing mother, a warning from a Sunday school teacher, or just basic intuition? Don’t look or God can’t do His work!
Wherever the habit came from, you’d bet wisely on me gluing my eyelids shut anytime the words “bow your heads” or “let us pray” were uttered by a grownup. Once, I didn’t hear the conclusive “amen” and so sat there, waiting, head balanced on the clenched hands in my lap, until I was shaken awake at the end of a sermon.
I was seven, I think, when it dawned on me: Since I’d never taken even the slightest peek, I had no idea whether anyone else was obeying the rules so staunchly. Or if God Himself ever entered the room and folded his arms, watching everybody as he twirled his white beard of cloud and chuckled at us oblivious mortals.
Seven, and no baby anymore! Rebellion and risk called out to me now, rather than repelling me.
So at Auntie Rae’s funeral, I decided I’d take a good look around when the preacher lifted up his voice to the heavens and asked us all to stand there, like good boys and girls, with our hands wadded up and our eyes tightly squeezed. Just this once.
We were outside, in the cemetery. Uncle Gordy was crying — I hadn’t heard a grownup cry before — and I was hoping for a turn sprinkling some dirt on the casket. Then the preacher said the magic words, and everyone froze, tilted their heads down, and went into that catatonic, divine state.
I shut my eyes at first, too, in case anyone was watching — then, after a spell, squinted at the grass and my dress shoes through trembling, eyelash-blotted slits.
Something glistened, scuttled at my left — slick and silent. My eyes popped open.
There was an imp hanging onto my mother, its twiggy legs wrapped around her forearm, its weird weenie and filthy butt smooshed against her skin. It gave me a cocky little wink and in a swift, skillful move, swiped the expensive watch right off her wrist. I’d still been holding her hand but let go now, revolted, terrified the creature would skitter onto me next.
And Mom, pious to a fault, didn’t open her eyes. A better Christian than me!
The imp flashed its bulging pink eyes to and fro, jerking its head like a bird. I looked around, too, as the pastor continued:
“…and welcome her at long last into your fold, O Lord…”
All around me, every grownup and kid, all the aunts and uncles and cousins and strange old people I’d never seen before, all of them remained still, hands clasped, eyes closed. None but me saw the dozen or more imps, six inches long and sickly-pale and oily, as they scattered nimbly up their legs and hair and skirts, digging tiny hands into their pockets, falling to the ground smirking with the weight of the wallets and gum packets and change they’d found and grabbed.
Something tugged at my shoelace. The watch thief. I kicked involuntarily, but the imp held fast to my Nike and stared up at me. It blew a raspberry and scrambled up my pant leg, hopped to my necktie and swung like Indiana Jones into my breast pocket.
I let out a yelp of shock and revulsion. No one looked up. The prayer carried on. “For in your wisdom you took her, O Lord…”
My outburst must’ve registered as a cry of grief. I opened my mouth to shout a warning, and the critter in my pocket grabbed my tongue to still it. I whimpered.
Silently, it pointed a gnarled finger toward a crumbling mausoleum at the heart of the graveyard. There, the well-worn paths of visitors ended. There, the shadows stood in sharp contrast to the sunny rolling fields of the dead, overgrown nettle bushes and saplings blotting out the light.
The thing curled out a bottom lip and nodded, jabbing that pointed finger in the direction of the tomb.
Get moving, kid.
A final desperate look at the gathered assembly of adults found none of them hip to my dilemma. If I did not go where the imp asked, would it bite me? Was it poison? A line of its brethren tracked single file, like ants, to the catacomb.
I swallowed hard and slinked away, following.
The imp riding shotgun in my Sunday finest shook with muted laughter and pumped a balled-up fist to the heavens. It grabbed the glasses right of my head and I stumbled, then righted myself, as it held the lenses up to the sunlight and hissed at the blinding result.
I grabbed my glasses back and had them on again when I reached the end of the dirt path, where the thicket sprouted and overtook the old catacomb.
I stepped into it.
My pants caught on wood and weed and nettle, ripping in places. There was no clear route to follow, only a line of the variously-colored creatures trotting single-file over barbs and through bushes to wiggle into a mouse hole at the base of the building. I kept some distance — they smelled, for one thing — and when I got too far into the thicket to look back anymore, I wondered if the prayer was over yet, if Mom and Dad had noticed me missing. The imp in my pocket gestured at a high opening where a window might once have been. He did charades that implied I should climb the angelic carvings all the way up there.
I managed it. I liked to climb, in better circumstances.
Whatever the mausoleum had once been, whoever it had been built to honor, was long forgotten. Now the place was teeming with glittering trinkets, no trace of the floor visible beneath the magpie nest of jewelry, pocketbooks, flasks, and monocles. I saw a G.I. Joe that I could have sworn had once been mine, in some long ago dream, poking out of a ceramic vase.
The imps couldn’t talk then — not yet. But I understood them, their flailings and hip gyrations and frantic arm-flapping. Perhaps as the quiet bashful type myself, I was more inclined. Or maybe it had something to do with the innocence of childhood. I don’t know. But we could communicate, in a way.
One of them, this one pink but not in a pretty carnation way, more like a naked mole rat, placed something in my hand, swinging down from a plaque that said “Mssr. Richard Gillespy, 1803–1869.”
It was a pocketknife. Bone handle. I tested it against my thumb, drew a drop of blood.
You’ll understand, I think, if I tell you I’d asked for a pocketknife just like this one the past two Christmases and got nothing but eye-rolls from Mom. I was seven, remember.
So this imp, joined by two others, closed my fingers around the knife with some effort, grunting in their tiny voices. More to get their rubbery lukewarm flesh to stop rubbing on my palm, I stuffed the thing in my pocket, said, “Thank you,” and craned my neck toward the window to hear any murmurings of the adults outside.
Yes. Yes, there was movement out there again. They’d be looking for me. And on Auntie Rae’s funeral day!
“I gotta go,” I said.
As one, the tiny mob shook their heads.
Not just yet.
“Sorry!” I said. “My mom…”
But they either didn’t understand, didn’t care, or — more likely — both.
In their deft and barely noticeable manner, they slunk and crept their way up my body. I yelped, swatting at them, but they held fast to my belt loops. I hopped onto an empty casket to reach the window landing and grabbed onto it, flailing my legs, trying to get the things off me. By the time I was hanging out of the window from the waist up, the tittering imps had managed to unbuckle my belt and drop my pants. A few of them darted away with my Dockers, rounding a teetering mound of loot and disappearing with them. I dropped, standing there in my underpants, breathing heavily, tugging at my hair. I couldn’t just leave like that! Every adult I knew was outside.
Horror wasn’t being held hostage by a gaggle of impossible beasts. For a kid like me, horror would be appearing before my extended family and assorted clergy half-naked, ranting about magical kleptomaniacs the size of birds.
So I stayed. And waited. Not daring to call for help, not knowing who might come and find me like that.
I was shivering, hungry, and still crying by the time the nasty vermin reappeared with my pants, offering them to me like a gift instead of my own personal property.
But that’s their way. See? They take it, it’s theirs.
My family was long gone, likely filing a police report by then. I got dressed and turned to make a break for it when four of the snarling, drooling things grabbed my arm and nodded out the window, cupping their ears.
Another funeral had begun. A shaky-voiced widow was saying something many yards away. The imp that I’d first discovered, the one who took Mom’s watch, licked his maw greedily. It pointed out the window.
I shook my head. The creature bared its teeth.
So what else could I do? I snuck outside, flanked by little men, and hid behind a tombstone watching the procession. I saw more grownups, this time total strangers, vulnerable with grief and weakened, defenses lowered in a way I’d not seen in any adult until earlier this day. Or was it the same day? I couldn’t account for the time in the mausoleum, the hours of crying and panic having snailed by in that way time passes for kids.
I fumbled with the pocketknife tucked into my waistband. It was perfect. The thing I’d wanted for two years — an eternity to someone so young — I now had. It had been so easy.
Did someone here have a Walkman? Or a Gameboy? The things other kids at school snuck onto the playground and paraded around, never sharing, watching the rest of us turn a nasty shade of envy green?
“And now let us pray.”
The preacher had given the signal. Everyone lowered their heads. Shut their eyes.
And so it was time to find out.
I came back to the mausoleum every weekend for years. Well, you’ve probably figured that much out. But what nobody knows is that sometimes I slept in the cemetery, camping under the stars with my little friends. Mom always worried, suspected something wasn’t quite right with me since I’d disappeared for a whole day after Auntie Rae’s service.
Do I think she guessed? No. No, I don’t figure she could have.
Over time I taught them language. Nothing impressive. Just little things. “Yes,” “no,” “give me that,” “you take that one,” and stuff. We understood each other on a deeper level than speech could accommodate anyway. I named them. Shemp, Yancy, Greg. They never answered to the names, but I found it helpful.
Sometimes I’d take one or two home with me for the night. They’d sleep on my pillow, drooling on my cheeks, nibbling my fingers in their dreams. And every weekend we’d find some gathering of devouts — oh, yeah, we’d ventured beyond just funerals. The good stuff people brought to church, to weddings, to Christian music concerts.
I was big into youth group until one girl told the counselor she felt me stick a hand into her back pocket during altar call.
Anyway, they don’t like to be away from the cemetery too long. They get tired and weak. So I learned to keep the trips from getting too long, or else plan them near to other graveyards. A pit stop among the tombstones, here and there, usually gave them a boost.
But wherever we went, we’d find people supplicating themselves to God Almighty and we’d score. I opened a savings account Mom still doesn’t know about, making regular deposits of whatever I found in wallets and purses.
Which is how you caught me, obviously. At that Catholic parish’s block party. That was stupid, I admit. Of course there’d be security there. And you guys aren’t taking part in the service. You people don’t bow your heads. You’re on your toes. Man, that was stupid of me.
You didn’t see them, I’m guessing. They’re quick and small. Not like me. Bumbling fat kid. Grubby fingers. Red hands.
Are you going to call my mom? You are, right?
I’m graduating high school next week. I told the little guys a while back that was coming. I’ll move away for college. End of the month. I mean, I told them it’s not like I’m a little kid anymore.
I said they could come with me. I’d stow them away in my suitcase or something, and it’s a Christian college, nothing to turn up their nubby little noses at.
But you know what? I went back to the mausoleum last night, same as always. And it was empty.
They were gone.
I know how it must sound, but God, these were my friends. You risk your hide and gamble and tempt fate with anybody for that long, you’re bound to form a bond, you know? I can’t imagine life without them.
I feel a little lost. Pretty hopeless.
I mean, I could use some guidance.
I’m wondering if — ah, it’s stupid.
I mean, I just wonder if you’d pray with me?