Sukie in the Graveyard
Between the heat of the July day and Jamie’s non-stop moaning things were beginning to be a little hard to bear. As we drove the ten miles or so from the hotel to the cemetery, I tried to ignore his whining as best I could. I would ask him questions to distract him but he just kept complaining and the temperature kept rising. The air conditioning on full blast was barely more than a breeze caressing a scorched earth and when Jamie pulled down the window for the third time and searing Georgia air filled the car sucking out any accumulated coolness, I yelled at him. It made him jump and he wound up the window of the cramped rental car and sat back, forcibly pushing his feet into the back of my chair.
‘Stop it,’ I said, ‘I won’t tell you again.’
‘It’s too hot,’ he sulked.
‘There’s nothing I can do about it,’ I said, ‘it’s not far to go so just put up and shut up.’
‘Why couldn’t we stay at the hotel?’
‘Because we’re on holidays and you need to see the outside world.’
Jamie didn’t respond. I had the upper hand. I could sense he was formulating a counter argument.
‘It’s not like anyone else wanted to do anything today,’ he said finally.
I chose to ignore his comment knowing full well that he’d start accusing me of making all the decisions and of hijacking what was supposed to be a rest day.
‘Who wants to see a load of dead people anyway?’
Evie, who would normally stay out of any argument I had with Jamie, waded in with calm words.
‘Once we get to Bonaventure we can get a coke. Your dad really wants to see this place. It’s important to him. Remember he does plenty of things for you.’
As always, Evie struck just the right tone at just the right moment. Whether Jamie was satisfied with her suggestion, I couldn’t tell, but he was quiet and, at that moment, it was enough.
‘What’s Bonaventure?’ asked Sukie who’d been sitting quietly in the backseat alongside her brother.
‘It’s a cemetery,’ I said, ‘a place where they bury dead people.’
‘Like granny,’ said Sukie.
‘Like granny,’ I echoed.
‘I know,’ said Jamie petulantly, ‘I’m twelve. I do know things, why do we have to hear about it all the time?’
I shared a glance with Evie. She smiled gently and squeezed my hand.
We carried on in relative silence for the rest of the journey. Occasionally I could hear Sukie babbling to herself in the way young children do. The car became calmer if not cooler and I could feel Jamie’s resentment subside. Sometimes, as I glanced in the rear-view mirror, I would catch a glance of his eyes burning holes in the back of my head.
We arrived shortly after two. The drive from the hotel had been no more than thirty, maybe thirty-five minutes, but with the arguing and the relentless energy sapping heat it seemed as if we’d been travelling for longer. Once parked we stepped from the sticky car into the heavy humidity of the afternoon. The air was like inhaling wet paper and I felt sweat trickle down my back. Evie and Jamie made their way to an ancient vending machine which stood squat in the shade by the restrooms to the right of the entrance. I mopped by brow and fanned my shirt to create a draught. We were all suffering in the thick heat. Only Sukie seemed to be coping with it .
‘Are there kids in here?’ she asked me.
‘It’s a really big place,’ I said, ‘I bet there are. Do you want to go and see?’
She nodded and scrunched up her nose before scratching it.
Evie returned with a can of diet coke and handed it to me. I opened it and went to hand it to Sukie but she shook her head and made her way towards Jamie who was leaning languidly on one of the impressive pillars that marked the entrance to the cemetery.
‘Feeling better?’ I asked.
He grunted and after finishing his coke with an audible slurp followed us in. I saw a red cardinal perched atop a statue. It moved its head in that twitchy motion birds make and flew off before I could point it out.
Like many tourists who sought out Bonaventure I’d read John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and wanted to see the Bird Girl statue. It was only later, as I was leaving, that a local walking her dog informed me that the statue had been moved to Telfair Academy in Savannah. The book, a curious mix of non-fiction and fiction told of the seedier side of Savannah society and wove local folklore into the narrative in a rich, evocative tapestry. It was this texture of ghosts and secrets and antebellum southern gothic that captured my imagination in the way only a compelling story can.
The cemetery was on the site of a plantation and one story tells of a fire at the main house some time in the 1770s. The blaze occurred during a dinner party and the host, rather than stopping the party ordered the servants to take it outside where the assembled guests revelled late into the night by the light of the raging fire. According to local lore if you listen carefully on still nights, you can hear the sounds of the party carried on the soft breeze that drifts in from the Wilmington River. There’s no solid evidence to support this as fact, but never let the truth get in the way of a good story, or so the saying goes.
Sukie was making headway along the main avenue and lagging behind were Evie and Jamie who were taking regular sips from the now warm bottle of water we’d brought with us. As I passed them in an effort to catch up with Sukie I heard Jamie moan about the heat. Evie pulled him close to her and gave me a signal to hurry up and see what I could as we’d probably have to leave before too long. I understood Jamie’s discomfort and boredom and reproached myself for not being more insistent about coming alone. I had suggested it but Jamie, happy in the soothing cool of an air conditioned hotel room had agreed to come along because I had sold the trip on the pretext of spooky graves and ghosts and ice cream. Five minutes into the journey and Jamie’s enthusiasm had evaporated into the stifling greenhouse of the car.
What struck me about the cemetery, aside from the pounding heat, was the serene atmosphere. There was a keenly felt tranquillity to the place which enhanced every aspect of the experience from the definition on the faces of the strikingly realistic statues to the stately mausoleums to the vividness of the ivy that snaked along the ornate crypts. Not quite surreal, but difficult to articulate, this was a place that existed in the space between both words and worlds.
Evie stopped to admire the pink azaleas that clustered along the path and dotted the graves like flashes of paint in a watercolour. Jamie looked up at the live oaks which were draped with fluttering beards of Spanish Moss.
‘Why does it grow on them like that?’ he asked, ‘it’s like the tree has hair or something.’
I had asked someone that same question as I walked through Colonial Park Cemetery two days before and now repeated what they had told me.
‘It’s not part of the tree, it’s a separate plant that just likes hanging on the branches.’
‘Like a lazy leopard,’ said Jamie.
I nodded in appreciation of his words.
‘I think it’s cool,’ said Jamie, ‘it makes the place seem relaxed.’
‘So this wasn’t a waste of time?’ I said.
Jamie didn’t say anything but I knew I’d got through to him. He moved over to Evie and felt along her arms to her hands searching for the water bottle. He took it from her hand, twisted the top, and offered it to me. I shook my head and looked up along the path to where I could see Sukie moving through the light and shadows like a butterfly. After the brief pause we ambled along in a quiet procession and I took in the angels and cherubs and names on the graves. I reflected on lives those named had lived and how they were now reduced to letters and numbers carved into marble. We stopped at a family plot and noted with sombre respect the grave of an infant. As we went further into the environs under the canopy of tangled oaks we noticed with increasing frequency the number of graves belonging to children. Evie moved in beside me and took my hand casually, squeezing it as she had done in the car, before disengaging and returning to sync herself with Jamie’s slow steps.
I had lost sight of Sukie and moved more briskly along the path. We were quite far into the cemetery by now and Evie suggested that we should turn back to the car soon. I told her if she wanted to make her way back with Jamie I’d catch up with them. Jamie looked pleased with this and they turned foot and began their slow retreat from the oppressive heat. Even under the protection of the oaks and moss, the sun pushed suffocating air from the ground like a wave of hot oil.
I pushed ahead and within a minute saw Sukie off to the right of the path sitting at a grave surrounded by a high and ornate wrought-iron fence. I approached slowly. Sukie was in one of her dreamlike moods where nothing in the world bothered her and lost in her thoughts she could wile away hours narrating the events around her. She was a free spirit in the truest sense. I’d always been simultaneously enchanted and disarmed by this quality of hers and I waited for her to acknowledge me.
After a moment she turned to look at me and waved and smiled.
‘Hi,’ I said, ‘you could have got lost running off like that.’
‘I knew you’d find me,’ she said casually, ‘you always do.’
I sat on the ground with her and she snuggled into my body. She pointed to a statue behind the wrought-iron fence.
‘That’s Gracie’s grave,’ she said.
I saw the word Watson on the low wall that surrounded the grave.
‘There are words over there about her, but I couldn’t read them all,’ said Sukie.
I stood up, looked through the bars of the fence, and read the inscription. Little Gracie Watson had died on Good Friday in 1889 aged six.
‘The same age as me,’ said Sukie.
She was reading my thoughts again.
I thought it apt, albeit sad, that this little girl had died on Good Friday. Something about the place made me think of death not in terms of finality or even separation but as resurrection. It was the abundance of life that did it. The trees, the flowers, the skittering of small animals, the song of birds rendered death powerless. My eyes were drawn to the lifelike and life sized statue of Gracie sat at the back end of the enclosure surrounded by a muted congregation of purple azaleas. The inscription told of how the statue had been carved by sculptor named John Walz from a photograph and I couldn’t help but admire his skill.
My eyes looked down at Sukie who was examining the gifts visitors had left for Gracie. There were small stones as a mark of respect, but there was also a hairbrush and a yoyo and small toys befitting a little girl. Planted into the ground was a blue windmill that made me think of the Holy Angels plot in Glasnevin where my brother lay. I thought of how he and Gracie were connected through time and distance by the winds of the world that raced over the Atlantic to spin their windmills and sound their wind chimes. Stopped in this moment I felt Sukie’s hand curl around my index finger.
‘I hear her ghost haunts this place.’
‘It says in the guide that if you look at her eyes in certain way they follow you.’
The sound of these words broke the peace of my reflections and instinctively I looked to where it had come from. A young couple in smart shorts and t-shirts stood to my left. They shared a nod and one of those half-hearted stranger smiles with me then took out their phones and snapped a picture of Gracie’s grave.
‘Have a nice day,’ they said as they moved along.
I looked back along the path and realised Evie and Jamie would be waiting.
‘I’m glad we came here,’ said Sukie.
‘Can I stay and play with Gracie?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
She smiled at me and gave my finger a squeeze.
‘I’ll see you later,’ she said.
‘Not if I see you first,’ I replied.
She skipped into the azaleas and disappeared into the light and shadows. The red cardinal descended from a nearby branch and perched on Gracie’s statue. There was a ripple in the air as if the line between one world and another blurred. I watched for a moment before heading back. As I turned, I heard the sound of uninhibited joy that only the laughter of children can express.
I knew Sukie would be okay.