This is a ghost story. A story about spirits and the memories they leave behind them. Because here in Savannah, ghosts are everywhere—there are skeletons in every closet. You pull open the doors and the bones come tumbling out, sending up a plume of dust to be swept beneath the Persian rug that warms the floor. The solitary bone from the knuckle of your great grandmother’s pinky finger scatters along the hardwood grooves like a marble, scooped up by the wicked cat who gnaws upon its surface from the comfort of a perch that catches the first morning rays of the sun. A detached rib rattles into stillness on the ground beside your slippered foot, a femur echoes as it clatters along its meandering path, coming to rest beneath the four-post bed.
Savannah may be beautiful, and I may be captured by the warmth and grace of this little town, but it sure has its secrets. And if there’s one thing that a Southerner is good at—it’s burying them, locking them away beneath the silk negligees and unmentionables that line the worn grave of antique chests. A heavy, ancient padlock, rusted at the edges, seals Pandora’s box from the leader of the Monday night Christian women’s group who waits with prying eyes by her parlor room windows, pulling back the heavy tasseled drapes for a look at what you have to hide. So, in honor of Savannah’s ghosts, here I sit, in the pitch of night, half a mile up the road from the Bonaventure cemetery, listening to the cries of the dead seep out from the earth.
“Don’t touch the moss,” the driver cautions me. “They’re full of the red bugs.”
And I know he means chiggers. If you’ve never felt their presence under your flesh consider yourself lucky because they crawl into your porous skin and burn like shards of fiberglass in cheap, uncovered insulation. And as we continue our drive through town, he points out the black neighborhood but his tone doesn’t change and it takes me a minute to realize he’s stopped talking about parasites and moved on to something else but clearly it’s all the same to him.
“Don’t walk here at night,” he warns. “99 murders in Savannah in 2016 alone and for a population of 145,000 that’s a lot. It’s all black on black crime. Theft, gangs, molestation—you’ll get robbed or raped for certain.”
And I want to remind him that I’m white and therefore don’t factor into his statistical data but instead I sit in silence as we drive through the streets where the little girls sit on old, tattered steps and tighten one another’s braids and the boys shoot hoops into rims long abandoned by their nets.
And throughout the day, another driver says the very same, pointing out the gentrified places that were safe for this little white girl. The two men beside me in the bar warn me to be careful at night, gesturing towards the sidearms they wear under their clothing. And every sentence was formed the same it was all structured the same, “Be careful where you walk at night—it’s not safe to go past MLK Blvd.” Every time. The words didn’t vary they didn’t change or alter it was as if everyone here read from a script—had all been spoon fed the same instructions the same words the same thought and I found the root of the issue in the fear and ignorance displayed by rational thinkers and capable adults.
I think back on my conversation with Erwin, who found me sitting in the parking lot, on the phone with the rental car company because my little Yaris took a shit on me and I’m four hours away from Atlanta and they want to charge me for the 243 mile tow because I opted out of roadside assistance and I’m holding the phone up to the hood of the car and listening to the screech of a loosened fan belt and trying to explain to the lady on the other end of the line that I’m not paying for a damned thing and like hell am I driving that car back to Altanta. When pigs fly.
And so Erwin finds me sitting there on the curb near to tears, beneath the trees strung with Spanish Moss, and he says he has a question for me. A weird question and he hesitates and stutters for a moment and I’m thinking he needs money or something but then he stops and looks me dead in the eye and asks,
“At any point in your life, have you ever seen a black person and been afraid?”
And I look at him sideways for a moment and then I meet him head on and I say yes. Yes I have and I’m ashamed to say it and I’m sorry that the word even came out of my mouth but it’s engrained in me and I’ve felt that fear. And he told me he already knew the answer. He already knew the answer because, when he had passed by me earlier, I started a bit, like a horse startled by a passing car, like a cat startled by the slamming of the screen door on the wraparound porch. And I didn’t remember doing it but I give him the benefit of the doubt, because God knows I was raised around some prejudiced ideals.
And so he starts asking me questions and I offer to buy him a coffee since I’m not going anywhere any time soon and we head across the street to a little coffee shop and we get to talking about culture and race. He asks me what I like about Savannah and I tell him about how much I love the trees here and he tells me about his grandfather. About how his grandfather could tell you exactly which trees used to hold a noose instead of the Spanish Moss. And he told me about the lynchings and the sic’ing of dogs and the fire hoses unleashed on the sit-ins. And how his grandfather watched every one. And all of a sudden, the moss swaying from the oaks starts to look a lot like rope. And the arching, heavy, black boughs start to look a lot like the waving arms of a black man clinging to his last breath of life.
I didn’t tell him about how when I walked back inside, the man behind the counter asked me if I was okay. I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want to hurt him and some things are just better left unsaid but that single question pointed out the gap between the races, like an open wound that seeps out gangrenous poison into the flesh of these disunited states.
And I realized that history is truly told by the victors. That this place, beautiful as it may be, is built upon the racial tensions that run through the town like the Savannah River, fierce and proud and muddier than anything you’ve ever seen. That while those trees may be magical for me, for some, they are a terrifying reminder of the capacity we have for cruelty. And that just breaks this little wanderer’s heart.