I came across the hidden grave my first day in Woodbine Cemetery. It was late October, warm and sunny with a mild breeze stirring my nostalgia and the colorful leaves that had fallen from the dogwood trees. Despite the temperature, I could feel autumn in the air—or at least in my imagination—as the sun settled toward the horizon.
Those fading days always brought twinges of melancholy and I was glad to have a new project to buoy my spirits. I was still in the early phases of the restoration—mapping, photographing and spending untold hours immersed in historical records. The hard labor of clearing brush and cleaning headstones would soon follow, but for now I luxuriated in the courtship stage, that heady, golden time of acquainting myself with the dead and their history.
Woodbine was one of the forgotten cemeteries in a whole community of burial grounds that fanned out from the Cooper River in Charleston, South Carolina. Tucked away at the end of a narrow lane and hidden from street view by a shrouded fence, this withering gem had languished in the shadow of the historic Magnolia Cemetery for decades until revitalization efforts in the area had uncovered it.
The grave was just as well hidden, secreted in the farthest corner of the cemetery and sheltered from the elements and the curious by the graceful arms of weeping willow trees. The graves of children always moved me, but this one affected me in a way I couldn’t explain. Perhaps it was the stone monument cast in the shape of an old-fashioned baby crib that so intrigued me, or the likeness of the child that peeped from underneath the hood. Or the unsettling epitaph, which read Shush…Lest She Awaken.
There was no name on the memorial, but I could make out the birth and death dates. The little girl had passed nearly fifty years ago at the heartbreaking age of two. Setting aside my camera, I smoothed my hand along the edge of the polished stone as I studied her portrait. What a beautiful child she’d been, with a heart-shaped face and perfect bow mouth. The black-and-white image had been hand-painted to tint her lips and cheeks pink, her curls golden and her eyes a lovely violet blue.
She hadn’t smiled for the camera and the solemnness of her countenance sent an inexplicable chill down my spine. It was strange to see such a serious expression on the face of an infant. Had she been ill? I wondered. Had her short life been filled with so much pain and suffering that death had come as a blessing?
I couldn’t look away from that sweet, doleful face. The child captivated me. There was something so mesmerizing about her eyes…something almost familiar about the shape of her mouth and nose and the lines of her jaw and chin. I couldn’t have known her. She’d passed long before I was born. I had only Mama and Papa and my aunt Lynrose in the area, none of whom had ever spoken of a dead baby. Despite the discovery of so many long-buried secrets, I doubted a familial bond, and yet I was drawn to that nameless child in a way that defied a real-world explanation.
Was she reaching out to me? Had my mere presence somehow awakened her?
It was not a comforting thought. I was a ghost seer, a death walker and sometimes a detective for the unquiet, but I did not embrace my calling. I took no pride in my abilities. I considered my gift a curse because all I’d ever wanted was a normal life. A quiet, peaceful existence, perhaps with a child of my own someday.
But ordinary was not meant to be, and I was coming to accept the painful reality that children were out of the question. I couldn’t take a chance that I would pass on my gift just as it had been passed down to me. The ghosts were frightening all on their own, but the malevolent entities that had invaded my world—the Others and the in-betweens, the malcontents and the shadow beings—made for a harrowing existence. I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone, especially a child. And as I had only just discovered, there was yet another danger lurking in the dark underbelly of the city. The Congé was a secret, fanatical group intent on ridding the living world of any force they perceived as unnatural. If they learned of my gift and the light inside me that attracted the earthbound entities, they would come for me and mine.
So, no, a family wasn’t in the cards. I would never willingly subject a child to the horrors and dangers that came with my bloodline.
But…back to this child. Who was she? Why had she been buried in a nameless grave in this sheltered, forsaken corner?
Forsaken perhaps, but not forgotten. The grave had recently been tended. Someone had cleared away dead leaves and planted purple pansies in the bed of the crib. Someone remembered this child. Someone who still grieved for her perhaps.
The breeze drifted through the willows, tinkling a hidden wind chime. I was so caught up in the mystery of the grave that at first I didn’t take note of the melody. And it was a melody, distinct and haunting, as if an invisible hand tapped out the notes. Tearing my focus from the portrait, I lifted my gaze to comb the tree branches. The smell of woodbine deepened even though the blooms had long since faded. I felt something in the breeze—no longer a trace of autumn, but an ethereal chill that raised goose bumps along my arms.
Go. Go now, I told myself. Go back to your work before you get drawn into yet another ghostly puzzle, yet another dangerous mystery.
But I feared I had already lingered too long.
The sun hovered just above the treetops, but inside the grove of willow trees, a preternatural twilight had fallen. Here, the veil had already thinned and I could see a vague, timorous shadow in the deepest part of the shade. I shuddered, my hand still on the edge of the crib as a whispery missive floated over the grave and into my head. Mercy…
“Is someone there?” I called, and then chided myself for my stubborn naïveté. After all these years, after everything I’d seen and heard, I still wanted to believe the presence could be human and benign.
The shadow darted through the wispy strands of the willows and I heard a high-pitched giggle, followed by a muffled thump. Then an old, weathered ball rolled out of the shadows at my feet. I wanted to ignore the overture. I told myself to get on with the exploration of the cemetery, but before I could stop myself, I gave the ball a gentle kick back into the shadows. It was instantly returned, but this time I let it roll into the bushes.
The childish chortle died away and suddenly I sensed a darker emotion. The laughter that followed held no humor and only a remnant of humanness. Fear trickled down my spine as I searched the shade. “Who are you? What do you want from me?”
From who? For what?
It was time to end this game, time to heed the instinct that warned to distance myself from this grave and the specter hiding in the shadows. But when I would have turned to scurry back into the light, my feet tangled in a vine that snaked around the base of the tomb. I hadn’t noticed the creeper earlier. It almost seemed as if the woodsy tentacle had slithered in while the ghost had caught my attention. As I bent to free my snared shoelaces, I heard the wind chime again, the sweet, haunting melody inharmonious with the darkness I felt from the entity and that high, mocking titter.
Instinctively, I reached for the key I wore around my neck, a talisman blessed by a divine hand and left to me by my great-grandmother Rose as protection against the ghosts. This provoked an even stronger reaction. A gust blew out of the shadows, so strong the blast felt like a physical assault. I was still bent and off balance, and as I staggered backward, the vine tightened around my ankles, jerking me off my feet. I fell in an ungainly sprawl, stressing my right wrist when I tried to catch myself.
I went down hard, gasping as pain darted up my arm. Cradling my tender wrist, I focused my attention on the shadows. I could see her there, watching me from the gloom. Her face reminded me of the embedded portrait, but she couldn’t be the infant’s ghost. This girl looked to have been at least ten when she passed. Sisters, perhaps. Dead but still clinging to their mortal bond.
I wanted to know her name, her history, her connection to the infant in the tomb.
I wanted to scramble to my feet, hurry from the cemetery and never look back.
The ghost’s childish trickery disturbed me in a way I didn’t yet understand. I found myself once again reaching for my talisman, but the key was gone. Frantically, I clutched my neck while tracking the mischievous entity. She giggled again before fading back into the shadows.