Gray Ghost by Susannah Hardaway

On a cold, overcast day, a girl leans her back against a cypress tree and feels the strips of rough bark through her coat, a coat that matches the sky. Her friends – aren’t they her friends? - rush to the other side of the playground, a fluttering flock of birds flying away from her. She closes her eyes and tries not to cry.

The playground spans a whole block. It has monkey bars, a merry-go-round and see-saws, but mostly it’s empty – bare, dark dirt dotted with a few ancient trees. When the girls first came out of the classroom, she ran with them. Then they started their cry, “Gray ghost! Gray ghost!” and darted away, as if she were a predator in their midst. The realization that they were running from her stopped her cold.

Under the tree, she tries to look like she wants nothing more than to spend time alone with a tree. She tries to look like she doesn’t care that her friends are running from her. “Gray ghost! Gray ghost!” She wonders what this means and what it has to do with her.

She lives in the country, miles from her schoolmates, with no siblings close to her age. Her mother frets over this isolation, the lack of neighborhood, her aloneness. Her mother values an active social life; she likes to entertain and be entertained. The girl spends a lot of time reading and painting and just wandering in the woods. She enjoys people well enough, but they can make her nervous and embarrassed. Her mother calls her “shy” and tells her there’s no reason to act like that, that being shy is just thinking about yourself too much.

At this moment, she wants nothing more than to be part of the group, the murmuration that flows away from her. In fact, she wants to be the girl in the center, the one who first cried out “gray ghost,” the girl the others parrot, the girl they find magnetic. But if she can’t be that charismatic figure, she would settle for being in the gaggle of girls swirling around her. She wants to scream with them, those high-pitched screams that sound as much like terror as delight.

Fifty years later I stand on the playground of my elementary school. It’s July in Georgia and so humid the air feels more like liquid than gas. I wonder how my lungs can extract oxygen from this air. The playground has shrunk. In part, it seems smaller simply because I’m much taller, but also because they’ve packed new classrooms and a parking lot into half of it.

The cypress tree I leaned against survives. I stand under it now, and its drooping arms envelop me in a cool shade. After decades of thinking about myself – too much? - I know that the company of a tree is very good company indeed. I no longer think that something is wrong if I’m alone.

Usually if I think about the times the girls ran away from me, I focus on how hurt I felt. Now I wonder if they were showing me something important about myself. After all, I never managed to be a comfortable in a group. I may long for the shelter of a tribe, but I don’t know what to do with what I see - all the contradictions and the obliviousness exhibited by all of us in it. I want the hidden things acknowledged, but I don’t like to upset anybody.

“Ghost” might be the perfect word for me – someone caught between worlds, floating in a limbo between truth and denial. Maybe that’s what those girls knew when we came out onto the playground together and they cried “Gray Ghost.” Yes, this is more plausible than their explanation: that it was because my coat was gray.