If you browse the tourist traps lining the South's historic, wide streets, with their rows of books about spooky houses and battlefields, you’ll soon discover the South is full of ghosts. Or at least, it wants desperately to be. On Tybee Island we stayed in a sparkling yellow bed & breakfast, so ripe with butterflies that I had to swat them away. There were bunnies – four, though we only saw three – who roamed the grounds, freed from their cages. There was a cat, but I don’t really like cats and today, two full weeks later, I couldn’t even tell you what color it was. There were wind chimes on its sprawling second-floor porch, but our time on Tybee was hot and I didn’t hear them move.
I wasn’t thinking about the ghosts of the south at all, that first night on the island.
Our room bordered the second floor porch, just next to the free cookies and drinks that were available 24/7. We’d been warned breakfast time might be a little noisy. The owner, chatty, had told us all about how she’d been ‘called’ to buy this property and give up her career as a real estate broker to refurbish it; the house was built around 1910, and had been a hotel in the 20s, and had just opened last year in its current incarnation. It felt like a movie set.
That first night there, my new husband fell asleep before me – a rarity. In our king-sized, four-poster bed, I tossed and turned, my brain still trying to process the fact that I was married now, that we’d just thrown a wedding, that nothing and everything had changed. I'd had no trouble sleeping in Savannah, with its open skies and mossy trees. It was disconcerting.
The thing we’d already realized about the South was this: it is quiet. Even on its noisiest streets, even in its honky-tonk bars at midnight on a Saturday, there’s a curtain of quiet that muffles out sound. It’s quiet enough that, at one in the morning in a b&b with a website that says “those seeking a Historic or Paranormal Adventure need search no further,” to hear any sound at all is enough to make your chest spasm in fear.
It was the wind chimes, singing their song in the earliest hours of the morning. I kept my eyes shut; I knew the drill. I just had to tell the ghosts I didn't want to see them today.
I have experience telling ghosts to hide from me. My senior year of college, I lived in a two-bedroom, first floor house on the outskirts of Trenton. For a host of reasons we’d only moved into the place in mid-September, so by the time we threw our first party the weekend before Halloween, any paranormal activity hadn’t quite had a chance to show itself yet. Someone there –maybe a roommate’s guest, or a friend of a friend – had declared himself a tarot card reader and general clairvoyant, and he roamed from room to room to get, he said, a feel for the spirituality of the place. He told me we had a fairy living here, and my Tori Amos-loving heart soared.
Then he stopped in the kitchen. His face changed. I got caught up in another conversation, in another guest, another beer, and he left.
That was the coldest house I’ve ever lived in. I would curl up in my comforter on the floor next to the radiator, trying to get warm. In the shower one winter day I finally felt comfortable, only then I grew too hot, lost my vision, fainted, and crawled out, naked and dripping water, into the dining room. I put my head between my legs. My vision returned, and with it a noise of roaring water so intense I turned around to see if some sort of tidal wave had breached the nearby river; it turned out to be my own blood rushing back to my brain.
That house had a second floor where a single woman lived, and most afternoons we’d hear her boyfriend with her, and she was loud, but I was never worried about upstairs. It was the downstairs that tricked us – a clichéd basement that felt off somehow; we kept the door closed.
One day in the middle of finals my roommate woke up before sunrise and found a little girl in an old-fashioned dress sitting on the edge of her bed. She wore ribbons, my roommate said. She was blonde. She stared. My roommate says she turned over, closed her eyes, and said out loud, “Please go away.”
I thought that was a good idea – a little politeness goes a long way – so I decided to do the same. I didn’t want to take any risks, you see. So every time I was alone in the house, in the big, cold, sprawling house with the terrifying basement we never ever went into, I would say out loud as I moved from room to room, “Hello, ghosts. I don’t want to see you today. Thank you!”
On the May morning of college graduation, I pulled up my comforter to make my bed and found a necklace tangled in the blanket, the same necklace that had been missing since fall; the same necklace that my roommates and I had searched high and low for.
I think it was the ghosts trying to make amends.
The wind chimes on Tybee stopped; I fell asleep. But there’s something about those old southern trees, the way their roots break up the cement under our feet like flowers reaching for sunshine. There’s something about the lazy sun in Georgia, in South Carolina. I am sure even the ghosts are different down south. I’m just happy I never got to find out.