Wrought iron gates curve and twist atop white cement walling in the Old Burying Grounds of Beaufort, North Carolina. The mossy limbs of oak trees sprawl over the fence toward cloudy blue skies and gently sway in the ocean breeze.
My boyfriend and I wait for the ferry that comes on the half hour to take us across the water to Shackleford Banks, where the wild ponies are. I pass the time by poking around an old cemetery—totally natural for a poet, right? My more superstitious boyfriend prefers to remain outside, not setting foot inside the cemetery due to restless spirits.
The graveyard swallows me whole. No roads, only footpaths meander around 300-year-old gravestones with blurred names and dates and solitary brick markers. Just inside the gates is a small mailbox empty of guide pamphlets—there’s an app for that now.
Defiant weeds and summer flowers poke their way out between twig and stone on the footpath as I wander. Some graves are completely covered in concrete, as if the dead would arise according to old superstitions—or to protect the peaceful dead from vandals.
My fingers gently touch the headstone of a small child only a few months old, her mother lain nearby. There are other young children. A nearby wooden grave is draped with colorful Mardi Gras beads. British and American flags stick in the dirt. I can only make out “Little Girl Buried” on her dark and smoldered marker—not blackened with age but from a recent act of vandalism, I’ll later read.
Elsewhere, there are soldiers. There are farmers. People with short lives and those with long lives rest side by side. All these dates and ages, faded and soiled as they may be, give me something else to think about besides the death of my mother, which happened the day before my birthday this past June.
I check the time on my watch: 1:35 p.m. My boyfriend and I need time to walk the few blocks to the ferry and I turn back, seeing him stand by the gates.
“Tenemos tiempo,” he says. “You can stay.” He kisses me through the winding wrought iron.
Later that evening, we have a small argument after dinner that dredges up feelings of loss. I return to the night before my mother’s death, when I cried on the tile floor of a gas station not knowing why the crying wouldn’t stop.
Stupid arguments with boyfriends happen, but a deep abysmal knowing in your gut turns every cell in your body inside out. It’s the kind you can’t meet with an answer—it’s a feeling, not a happening.
The inability to identify that feeling as my mother’s death, my dying as she was dying, and the guilt of not having done anything about that drove me back to the grave of the “Little Girl.” She was buried a rum keg, I’d later discover, floated across the great Atlantic back home to her mother.
I floated in loss.
I’m not ready to walk back to the bed and breakfast with my boyfriend and spend time in silence. I want to be elsewhere when I already am somewhere else. I need something to think about besides the headaches that plague me since my mother’s death.
A presence calls me back to the cemetery to find some peace among the dead. I figure the gates will be locked, but at least the walk will give me time to center myself. The gates are wide open, though. My feet lead me to the little girl’s wooden grave in the dark. I sink to the earth, crying, talking nonsense, letting it all out.
It’s got to be a bit selfish to be talking to a dead little girl’s grave about grown-up troubles, right?
All I can offer as tribute is my voice. I sing phrases of songs I recall from childhood: “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Mama’s Going to Buy You a Whatcha-Ma-Call-It…” and Queen’s “Bicycle.” The songs are incomplete and drift into melancholy tunes, including “Siuil A Run” (“Run, My Love”) in mangled Gaelic and English, which is especially horrible, since there’s a part that goes “until my parents will wish me dead.” At least singing will keep my lips and breath moving, halting the crying.
The air around me hums, filled with impressions of children running and playing in the graveyard, of a man standing nearby and listening, all keeping a safe distance—some more out of curiosity than anything. The little girl—perhaps she is in a more peaceful elsewhere. Who knows? I smile and repeat what I know of “Siuil A Run” thrice. I wouldn’t think of it until later, but perhaps this little girl and I both knew what it was to ache to connect with our mothers: the distance of an ocean, of uncharted emotions between mother and daughter, and the distance of death from life.
Once home, I am finally able to research her grave. In the mid-1700s, a family called Sloo settled in America. The little girl’s mother was native to England, and she wanted to see where her mother grew up. Her father, a merchant, welcomed his daughter aboard ship, but the mother would only allow this under one condition: that no matter what happened, her daughter would come to home to her. The little girl got to see the delights of London and had a grand time in a place filled with history.
On the return voyage, the little girl became sick and passed away. The only way her father could keep the promise to his wife was to preserve his little girl’s body in a rum keg. That’s how they buried her—the barrel became her casket.
While there is no activity during the day, it’s said that her spirit can be seen running and playing between gravestones at night. Her spirit is known for placing objects left on her grave onto others’ graves. Nearby, when I had returned that night, I saw a shell placed on a nearby infant’s grave and thought it curious before knowing the lore.
Despite a tragic death at a young age, the spirit of this little girl perseveres in each of us. I hope she runs free through the cemetery, sharing her toys and shiny objects with other spirits as her story continues to touch others.
Originally published by the author at Luna Luna Mag on 10.30.2017.