This is a memoir about a place that is very special to me. This is a place where I conquered my fears, my proof of childhood bravery. It is a story about overcoming the obstacles inside myself to find out everything's not as I expected.
The cemetery is on the top of Moose Hill and is sectioned into two parts. The graveyard on the right is pretty plain, and we only go there to visit friends that have passed away. On the left side of Moose Hill is the big cemetery. They rarely bury people there now, only the people who had pre-bought plots. An iron fence runs along the street but not the whole perimeter. To the left of the main entrance there is a fountain which is sculpted and rimmed by stone frogs, butterflies, and turtles, all chipped and cracked. The water doesn't run anymore, and the stagnant rain that has been there forever is murky and dirty, filthy. But to me, the fountain is a treasure in such a bleak place, a dead world.
About a hundred yards from the fountain is a small tomb. I remember the first time I saw the strange structure, camouflaged with glistening icicles and frost. It had been that previous winter when I was nine, had snow up to my knees, and was so cold I could feel myself turning blue. When I set my bare hand upon the gray cement to rest, I was instantly overcome with inner chills that I can only describe as revulsion. Years later I read a quote from Sir Walter Raleigh in his verses to Edmund Spenser: "Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay." I got those same chills when I read that line as if I had looked upon my own grave or touched it. For a moment I saw myself lying on a cold slab of marble rotting away to nothing but protruding teeth and empty sockets. I think when I read that line and remembered the same feeling of touching the crypt, I truly became aware of the deplorable, gruesome implications of death.
Running my fingers along that freezing tomb I suddenly realized how gray and sullen the cemetery was. I had only been to my grandfather's in the summertime when the flowers were full in bloom and the trees had huge, green leaves shading the plots. Dark clouds covered the sky and it began to snow soft, fat flakes. I was with my friend Michele and she suggested that we walk back home. As we trudged the way back, squinting against the fresh snow, she told me a story about how the lady in the tomb could be heard rocking back and forth if you went to the cemetery at night. My curiosity was aroused. Why did the lady's ghost stay in the tiny crypt? Was she protecting something? Maybe jewels, money, or treasure? I wanted to know more. Walking around to the front I found that it was protected by metal bars and impossible to get into. Inscribed on the front is one name, Mary M. Wright. There are no dates of birth or death, no epitaph, nothing. This tomb intrigued me, haunted my dreams. Just like there are frightening stories that go along with every strange place, there is a horrifying one that goes along with this one too. Of course any teen loves to have the privilege of scaring a ten-year-old girl, and it was in this way that I learned of the legend of Mary M. Wright.
It was early August, almost midnight, and very muggy. Night had closed in, oppressing the trails to the graveyard in darkness, leaving my brother Derek, me, Michele and her brother in a nervous silence. The crunching of twigs and rustling of leaves as we walked by were the only sounds in the still night, echoing too loudly like a scream in a deserted town. I slipped and fell a few times, struggling up a steep, leaf-covered path, but I defiantly pushed away hands offering help and balance. After all, I was the youngest and this adventure was proof of my bravery. I think it was the first time I had been out that late, and I know it was the first time I ever snuck out of the house.
We were going to the graveyard, and I was as frightened as a deer caught in a spotlight, my nervous emotions frozen. I was worried about my mother waking up and finding us gone, getting grounded, getting lost. I had a strange feeling that Derek and Stephen were going to play a horrible prank on us but I tried not to let it go to my head. I was determined not to let my agonizing fear show. I just wouldn't let them scare me. That's all there is to it, I told myself.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "You gain in strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' " Was that what I was doing? Looking my worst fear in the face? The tomb had become my nemesis, and now I was going to stand before it at midnight and listen for the sound of Mary's rocking chair to prove that it was real and that I wasn't afraid of anything. Well, maybe I was still a little . . . terrified.
Finally, after a frustrating climb up the slippery trail, we made it to a second flat trail running to the left and right. One direction led to a family tomb, a most frightening place built into the side of the hill with the door slightly ajar behind the gate. I only ever came close to that a few times and never in the dark. Past that was the mausoleum, a building just as intimidating but not quite as scary, with dying vines slowly falling off the walls and a brick face crumbling from harsh winters and wet springs. The opposite direction led to a flight of stone steps that rise almost a quarter-mile up the hill. There is a second set of steps about three-hundred yards away but they were very dilapidated and far worse than the first flight whose stairs are also broken and unsafe. By the time we made it to the top my heart was ramrodding against my ribs from fatigue and the realization that I was actually in the graveyard after dark. Fear began creeping into every part of my body; my feet wanted to run, my hands wanted to pull out my hair, and my mouth longed to scream with the acute, temporary insanity that was setting in.
In his poem "Be Quiet: Fear Not," Frances Ridley Havergal writes:
Thou layest Thy hand on the fluttering heart|
And sayest "Be Still!"
The shadow and silence are only a part
Of Thy sweet will.
Thy Presence is with me and where Thou art
I fear no ill.
At that point in time the words meant nothing. I sure as hell was afraid of something and the presence of God didn't seem to be anywhere on that night. I was surrounded by poltergeists and spirits of my imagination.
"How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a specter through the heart, slash off it's spectral head, take it by it's spectral throat?" Joseph Conrad wrote that in 1900 and eighty-seven years later, when I was only ten-years-old, I was plagued by those same questions.
Stephen and his little sister Michele led the way to "The Witch's Circle." This spot is evil, or if it's not, then it's the most eerie, tense, malignant place in the world. The air sets heavily, pressing like a barbell with too many weights. I remember having to struggle to hold myself up, to keep my grasp on reality. Bad vibes and negative energy pulsated through me as I stepped inside the circle of towering pines and stood before a looming monument. It is etched with a family name and an odd saying that evades my memory. Surrounding this centerpiece are twelve smaller stones, all inscribed with names of that family, convenient to sit on, but I was more concerned with being able to run than with resting my legs.
Finally Michele and my brother Derek forced me to sit down in a tight circle and in the center of us, Steve placed my biggest fear, the Ouija board. The letters were carved immaturely into the rough wood, and a small sun and moon glared up at me threateningly. I stared back indignantly thinking, "I'm not afraid of you! You're nothing but a piece of wood!" Over and over I repeated this until my concentration was broken by the sound of Steve speaking.
"Can you hear that? Can you?" I heard a soft creaking among the trees. Or maybe it wasn't. Minute sounds I had paid no attention to before suddenly became distinct and loud, filling the night with noise. Crickets and birds, bats swooping overhead. Waves of sounds I had never paid attention to before rushed into my head.
"That's the rocking chair. Mary sits in it all night . . . watching. She knows we're here and I don't think she's happy." Michele giggled nervously at her brother.
"I'm serious," said Stephen.
"She's out there," said my brother. I shuddered, goose bumps running up my arms in spite of the heated night.
"Why?" I whispered in case her spirit should hear me.
"She's angry. She died horribly and broken-hearted," said my brother.
"What happened?" I asked intrigued.
"Well," started Steve melodramatically, "Mary was in love with a black man, which was totally forbidden in the early nineteen-hundreds, and one night her father caught her in bed with him. So you can only imagine how pissed off he was. He shot the guy right there, lying in bed with Mary. She flipped out and went crazy and had to go to a mental institution. While she was in there she pretended to get better and said that she had forgiven her father, but deep inside her, a pit of hatred was boiling over, seeping into the fibers of her body. She was rotting on the inside, corroded with the revenge that swelled her head. When they let her out, she went straight to her father's house, and there she took a .12 gauge and blew his head apart. His brains splashed all over the walls, painting them with blood. If you go there now, you can still see the blood stains."
"No way! " said Michele and I at the same time, incredulously.
"He's serious!" said my brother. "It's all true!"
"And it gets even better," Steve admonished. "After blowing his skull apart, she went back to her own room where her lover was killed and she shot herself through the mouth."
"Omigosh!" was all I could say.
Such a pitiable tale. Could it really be true? I wondered. It makes me think back to church school and the Proverbs we learned. "The memory of the just is blessed but the name of the wicked shall rot." Who, in this case, was just? Perhaps no one. Was Mary or her father rotting in Hell? It made me think that this is why the grave had no epitaph or words of good- bye. The way Steve spoke made me want to believe. And I wanted to believe that Mary was in the right.
"So let me get this straight," said Michele. "Are we here to call up Mary?"
Steve gave her his "Duh!" look and Derek then said, "We're going to call her from beyond the grave to tell us what the other side is like." Michele raised her eyebrows in disbelief. I, on the other hand, was terrified. My mind was rushing with thoughts of being possessed with Mary's crazy spirit through the Ouija board.
"I don't want to do it," I said. "I say we go home."
"I think you guys are stupid," Michele added.
"C'mon, don't be such babies."
All right. Calling me a baby was enough to set my ten-year-old jaw, and I was convinced. Who did he think he was talking to? I wasn't a baby and I would show them all even if it did mean being possessed by a spirit.
Our fingers all settled lightly onto the pointer. Steve began calling the spirits as if he were the leader of a cult. "Come O ye spirits and grant us with your eternal wisdom! Speak to us from your earthly grave! Glorify us with your presence!"
And slowly, ever so slowly, the pointer began to move.
"Mary M. Wright! We call to you O tortured soul! Come to us and speak of the world beyond the living! Endow us with your knowledge, O beautiful ghost!" Suddenly the pointer moved sporadically, flying across the board and the abruptly stopped at "yes."
"Mary?" Steve called. "Is that you? Speak to us!" The pointer slowly moved away and then came back once again to "yes."
"Tell us Mary, is your soul filled with hatred?" Again, "yes."
"Have we disturbed you from your eternal slumber?" I looked at Michele questioningly, wondering what slumber meant, but the pointer jerked away from "yes" and moved to "no." I saw Steve's mouth open to speak but the pointer moved again, this time to the letters below, spelling something out. R . . . E . . . S . . . T . . . We said the letters along with them as it moved.
"No rest," reiterated Derek.
Looking back on the cemetery adventure doesn't make it any less confusing then it was at the time. Something really did begin to happen. Cold winds blew around the circle of dismal trees and my hair flew about wildly, blurring my eyesight. The wind numbed all my senses, and I couldn't feel or hear anything. Michele began screaming, Derek's deep voice came from somewhere in the background, and Steve's obnoxious laughter rang through the graveyard.
My head was pounding with confusion, and I just barely felt Michele push past as she crashed through the pines. Across the graveyard, dodging headstones, she ran as if the devil were pinching her ass, screaming how it was Mary M. Wright's ghost returned from the grave. "It's her! It's her! Run! Run! It's really her! Run! " I followed as best as I could, trying to listen to her voice before it was carried away in the wind. I saw her jump over Beal and around Carrington. She went between Davis' family plot and over Wilson's broken headstone, through a bush and then disappeared.
Suddenly, everything just seemed to come to a halt, as if God himself had stopped the Earth for a moment. Then a long terrified shriek came from somewhere past the only memorials of forgotten peoples. It didn't stop. I tried calling to Michele and I had no idea where my brother and his friend had gone. It was just me, all alone in the graveyard at midnight, listening to the sound of Michele's tortured screaming.
I tried calling her name but she would not answer. She kept right on hollering until I found her clawing the walls of a fresh, open grave site, still unoccupied.
A grave seems only six feet deep
And three feet wide,
Viewed with the calculative eye
Of one outside.
But when fast- bound in the chill loam
-"A Grave" by John Moreland
Dirt was falling onto her head and face, and she was ranting and raving about being buried alive. Her nails were torn and bleeding from digging at the stony mud. I thought perhaps she really had been possessed, her tear-streaked face contorted with agony and terror.
Poor Michele must have been in a serious state of panic and pain. I can only imagine how she must have felt but for some reason, the whole situation became very amusing to me. How she managed to fall into an open grave, I'll probably never know. What were the chances of that happening? We didn't even think they still buried people there. The irony of the whole scene made me laugh. I helped pull her out and all the while Michele was yelling at me that it wasn't funny. She still claims she really saw a ghost, that she had seen Mary M. Wright herself. To this day I have to chuckle about that.
She wouldn't walk home with me, she ran. I tried keeping up but my side hurt so horribly from my hysterical giggling that I just couldn't do it. "Serves you right! Walk by yourself!" Michele called back before disappearing into the streets.
I felt so proud and strong that I had made it through the last hour of torture. Fear had grabbed me by the heart and lungs but had not taken my capacity to think. "There are times when fear is good. It must keep it's watchful place at the heart's controls. There is an advantage in the wisdom won from pain." Aeschylus Eumenides said that in 458 B. C., and reading it now brings me back to that point where I stopped at the bottom of the hill and looked back at the cemetery. There were no bony skeletons or decrepit zombies chasing me down the hill, no grotesque monsters reaching their fleshless hands out to grab me from behind. It was still exactly the same as it always had been . . . maybe just a little less terrifying.
Camp, Wesley D. What A Piece Of Work Is Man! Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 1990.
Clark, Thomas and Esther A. Gillespie. 1000 Quotable Poems. New York: Willett, Clark and Company. 1937.
Walsh, William S. International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company. 1951.
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