The third time Kate refused Tyler, she realized she didn’t want to go home to Charleston with him. That night after they’d made love and she was wrapped snugly in the sheets, caught somewhere between wake and sleep, she got out of bed and walked naked around the cold room. She leaned her forehead against the icy windowpane and remembered a movie she’d seen as a child. She didn’t know how old she’d been or even its name. But she remembered hanging over the back of the front seat, leaning between her parents in the muggy summer night. On the drive-in screen, thick green quicksand sucked and closed over a head. Maggots cleaned a skull in the rot and riot of a swamp.
She’d never been South. No reason to image in Spanish moss like hands of hair. No sense in the hot, sick feeling that churned inside of her. She went back to bed. Tyler covered her up and slept with his arm thrown over her and his leg curled around her hip. She fell asleep, glad she had let him take care of her, but half-sorry she hadn’t gone back to her own apartment where there were no bars of shadow on the ceiling and she could arrange the pillows around her like a fortress.
Pre-wedding jitters, Tyler told her. All winter and into the spring, he kept asking. Come with me, he said. Let me take you home. A new place, a new life with me. In the end, she went. No rational reason not to, except nerves over meeting his parents and the fear she would hate the place he loved. Down deep she wondered if those were good reasons at all, if this were why she was apprehensive about Charleston. But once Kate was there, she felt stupid about her fears. His parents were lovely. The city was beautiful. Tyler took her to the beach where squadrons of pelicans flew in wedges over their heads and he buried her in the warm white sand. They walked along inlet banks where gators drifted and herons waded in the black mirror of water. They drove down alleys of live oaks and roads dotted with vegetable stands loaded down by bright tomatoes and summer squash.
On the third day, he took her to the Straw Market. They parked and crossed the street to the long open buildings where black women sat in the shade, weaving baskets out of sweetgrass, rushes and palm. Kate and Tyler stood in the hot, muggy air and watched the women bind reed cords in endless circles, wrapping them with wider strips they pushed through spaces jacked open by broken spoon handles. Kate picked up a round, flat basket from the selection laid out on the selection laid out on the sidewalk. Rings of green and brown coiled out from the basket’s eye. She was tired from the excitement of the trip and hot and irritated that Tyler was so insistent on being in charge. The rings blurred and moved. She shut her eyes. Tyler took the basket from her and bargained with the woman who had made it, a bony black with eyes a milky, moony blue, a child balanced on her hip.
Tyler paid too little for the basket and gave it to Kate. Before she could thank the woman for it, he took Kate’s hand and led her towards the market’s warehouses crowded with shoppers and vendors manning stands that offered clothing, trinkets, food and jewelry. Kate looked over her shoulder at the woman, who stared back over the head of the child. “Do you like the basket?” Tyler asked as they wove their way through the mass of people.
“It’s beautiful,” she answered, “but you barely paid her anything for her time.”
“There’ve been black women standing on that corner for as long as I can remember. My grandmother used to tell me they’d been standing out there since they got off the boat from Africa. Guess I forgot those women have anything but time.” He shrugged and slipped his arm through hers.
Kate wandered behind Tyler as he led her single file through the people jamming the aisles, reached over her shoulder and picked up a straw hat with pink streamers. When he set the hat on Kate’s head, the lacy weaving on the brim laid a shadow web on her arm. She traced the pattern with her finger. When she looked up, he was examining the shell necklaces two stands down. Crowds pushed past him, vendors stopped customers, and Kate watched him as she would a stranger. He joked with a saleswoman. Kate imagined him carrying one of their children on his shoulders and holding another by the hand, her pushing the baby in the stroller. They’d take their family to all the places he showed her. She came up behind him and slid her arm through his. The heat sat on her chest like a concrete block.
He held up a necklace. When he moved to slip the loop over her head, the strand of shells swung in front of her and she ducked.
“I don’t feel well. Can we get something cold to drink?”
Tyler put his arm around her shoulders and guided her around the corner. He bought two lemonades from a street vendor, then walked her down a block of narrow-fronted pink and yellow houses that stretched back deep into their lots. She chewed on a piece of ice and half-listened as he explained the architecture and read historical markers to her. Although they walked next to each other, his voice was far away, as if they were in different rooms. The bright sun made her blink, broke the shadows on the front of the houses, the light and dark alternating at the edge of her vision. She had the strange thought that all time was somehow condenses and happening together. As she and Tyler walked down the street, women long dead carried their babies through corridors of the old houses, while behind her future descendants followed in an endless, jostling stream.
Tyler glanced at her and stopped. “You feel okay?” He put his arm around her.
“A little dizzy.” She leaned her head against his chest.
He steered her around a slab of sidewalk erupting over a tree root. “I’ll show you the church. It’s air-conditioned.”
A chest-high wrought-iron fence ran in front of them and on around the cemetery that crowded the church. Tyler swung the gate open for her and Kate pushed at the heavy vestibule door. Cool air hit her face.
“This place has been here forever.” He guided her through the interior doors and ushered her into the last pew. “I thought if you liked it, we might plan on being married here.”
Kate set the basket next to her, stretched her feet under the kneeler and rested her head against the back of the bench. Above her, a huge mural of the Virgin, lost in a swirl of robes and clouds, filled a medallion in the middle of the ceiling.
Tyler massaged her shoulder. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
Kate relaxed and listened to her pulse beat. It throbbed at the pressure point in her neck, demanding attention to what was always there and never noticed. She laid her fingers against it to stop the twitching. The walking and heat were making her so tired. Tyler dragging her around, giving her his sales pitch for Charleston. She just didn’t want to be here with him. She closed her eyes to shut him out.
Voices bounced eerily off the stone walls. A priest entered with a wedding party for the rehearsal. He herded the men with him to the front of the church and took his place under the crucifix. His thin, watery voice called to the women. They rustled and whispered, then followed each other with muffled footsteps down the aisle. When they had taken their places opposite the men, all of them turned toward the bride. She hesitated at the head of the aisle, pushed back a lock of hair, the grasped a phantom bouquet and began her dreamy walk. She paused slightly after each step, with the same bobbing, ebbing motion of wood caught on the waves.
“And now,” Tyler leaned closer to Kate, “they live happily ever after.”
“Let’s go,” she said, “before we disturb them.”
Outside, Tyler started through the gate but Kate laid a hand on his arm. The edge of a tombstone glowing white in the sun caught her eye.
“I want to see the graveyard,” she told him as she turned down the side steps. She wanted to read the markers that stood so thick and close there didn’t seem to be room for single bodies under the ground between them.
“I thought you wanted to go,” Tyler said.
“In a minute.”
Overhead, live oak branches wove a tangle from which moss hung like rotted cloth. Halfway around, the spiked fence gave way to a tabby-covered wall, and beyond that rose the skeleton of an office building under construction.
Kate walked down the narrow rows. She didn’t want to step on the graves, but they were so old and close together that the earth had sunk even with the ground between them. She read the inscriptions on the tombstones. Places of birth, mostly European cities; dates of death, from the 1700s on. Personal histories and epitaphs. She traced out the chiseled letters that had been nearly erased by time and weather. Her fingers read the crevices that filled with shadow, some messages so faint the stones looked blank from a distance. The rows and rows of markers surrounded her like the files of marchers closing rank. She touched the stones, half expecting them to feel like skin.
She walked around the four sides of an obelisk that named a father, mother, five infants, and four more sons who had died in their twenties. Along the back wall, a row of tiny markers with only initials and a year were crammed so tightly there barely seemed space for even cats to be buried under them. A large flat stone marked the grave of a family from Cork who had all died from yellow fever a month after their arrival. Tyler trailed behind her until she stopped by one of the many stones that marked a multiple grave.
“Kate,” he said as he reached for her hand and pulled her next to him “Why don’t we move here?”
“It’s a lovely city.” He slid his arms around her waist. “A good place to raise children. I didn’t know how homesick I was.”
Over his shoulder she read the inscription on a marker wedged between a crypt and a wall. Large letters spelled out “This Memorial Erected by Mathew Morgan.” Smaller letters below listed the names and dates of his the babies and wife who had died one by one more than a hundred years before.
“You could find a new job here,” he went on. “Or raise our family. I’ll take care of you.”
She read the stone again. The words were deep and distinct. “Tyler,” she said, “how did they bury people here?”
“What do you mean? With shovels? In coffins?”
She pushed away from him and walked over the wall, shading her eyes from the sun glaring off the face of the stone. “No. I mean there’s so many mothers buried with their children. Whole families under one stone jammed next to more stones.”
“I guess the mortality rate was high. Immigrants not used to the climate. No resistance to disease.” He looked into the air in front of him as if the answer were there.
“Yes, but did they dig the first grave deep and stack the others on top? Or did they rot so fast they took the baby’s bones and lay them in the coffin with the second?”
“That’s a grim thought.” He came up and stood behind her.
“I’m serious, Tyler. Look at the size of the graves. There’s not enough room.”
Tyler pulled her around so she faced him. “What’s wrong with you?”
Kate jerked away from him and started down another row. Her eyes hurt from reading the faint inscriptions in the bright sun. Three stones down, she stopped and pointed to a markers titled at an angle. Kate thought if she pushed it with her foot it would fall backwards and she could look into the open grave and somehow speak with the woman there.
“Here’s another one. ‘Antoinette Recamier. Born, Rheims. Died, Charleston. 1847.’ Four babies dead before they were five and then her the year after the last one.” Kate stared at the marker and it seemed to waver. She turned away quickly, afraid the motion was more than a trick of her eyes and the shimmering heat. “All those bodies and not enough space for me to lie down on top of them.”
Tyler put his arms around her and held her stiffly. “Stop, Kate.”
She laid her cheek against his damp shirt. She wanted him to take her out of here, away from Charleston. Nothing here was what she wanted it to be.
Tyler laughed softly and turned her to face a marker against the rough shell surface of the tabby wall. The Latin inscription was still legible. “Look. ‘Matheus Scholok. Transylvanius. 1838.’ I didn’t know we had vampires in Charleston.” Jokingly, he tried to nuzzle her throat.
His cologne was sweet and his skin stuck against hers. She pushed him away and started towards the gate. “I want to go now.”
“I was just kidding, Kate. I wanted to get you out of this damned mood.” Tyler hurried after her.
Before she got halfway up the steps, she saw that the gate through which they’d entered had been locked with a chain. She tugged at it. Then she banged the links against the bars to show Tyler. Her took the chain in his hand as if he had to hold it to believe it was real.
“I’ll get the priest to let us out with the wedding party,” he said. He beat on the locked vestibule doors with his fist. “Hey, in there. We’re locked in.”
Kate leaned against the fence and watched Tyler walking back and forth, looking up at the church.
“The rehearsal must be over,” he told her. “I think they’re gone.”
He paced the fence, staring out at the deserted street. Kate rested her head against the iron pikes and watched Tyler rattle the gate and try the doors again. He wiped beads of sweat off his upper lip and ran his fingers through his hair. She’d always thought he was worth having because he’d take care of her, that together they’d be safe, that somehow a family would give them a kind of immortality. He didn’t have any more power to get them out of here than she did. If he couldn’t save her, she didn’t want him.
“Don’t worry. Somebody’ll come along and we’ll send them to the rectory for the key.” He squeezed her shoulders. “You go around back and sit under the oaks.”
He pushed a lock of hair off her forehead and trailed his hand down her back as she walked away from him. She went down the rows in a trance. Shadows dappled the stones. The moss hung over her. She kept her eyes on the lacework pattern of light swaying slightly against the tabby wall.
She ran her hands over the wall, the broken skeletons of shells still visible in the limestone. It stopped her from getting away. Not from Tyler. That wasn’t it. But from this place. The air was too heavy here. The humidity pressed like weights, earth, bodies. Walled in, stacked up, covered over.
This was crazy. Tyler would get them out. He could lower her over the wall. What was wrong with her lately? She reached up and felt the rough surface, then glanced back at the markers crowded around and filling up the churchyard. They seemed closer and denser than before. She couldn’t see him. Everyone here was dead.
She squatted down in front of the wall, pulled the hem of her skirt though her legs, and tucked it in the front of her waistband. After testing a tombstone with her foot she stepped up on it and grabbed the ledge. She lifted herself up, swung her other leg over the top, and straddled the wall that dropped eight feet to the empty earth of the construction site and the litter of broken bottled. A hot breeze blew over the top of the wall and the rough surface dug into the back of her legs. She looked back to the graveyard jammed with stones and imagined seeing through the earth to the tangles of bone.
Oh God, maybe she was sick. Sitting on top of a wall and imagining bodies unburying themselves. Wondering how many fit in one grave. How fast they rotted in the heat. How quickly the babies turned to dust. She took a deep breath. The basket sat on top of a crypt like an offering, a tribute. She couldn’t make herself go back to get it, though she knew she’d regret leaving it behind. She wouldn’t stay here, not even long enough to call Tyler. The tabby scratched her hands. She swung her other leg over and the church slid from view as she let herself drop.
Barbara Esstman, MFA ’87, is a National Endowment for the Arts, Maryland Council for the Arts, Virginia Commission for the Arts, and VCCA fellow, in addition to being a Pushcart finalist and Redbook Fiction Award winner. In addition to numerous short stories and other distinctions, her two novels, The Other Anna and Night Ride Home, were published by Harcourt Brace and Harper Collins in the US and in thirteen foreign editions; both were adapted for television by Hallmark Productions. With Virginia Hartman, she co-edited an anthology, A More Perfect Union: Poems and Stories about the Modern Wedding, published by St. Martin’s Press. She has taught extensively at local universities and The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. A third novel, Sure Thing, is forthcoming.