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Hattie Campbell

Writing Contest home

Charlotte K. Landon, Potsdam NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Runner up in Category: Creative Nonfiction 21+

"Miss Charlotte…Miss Charlotte…please help! Please help Clarence! He can't breathe!"

The voice on the phone trailed off in a rough whispy cough; its Deep South drawl evoking magnolias, bayous and Spanish moss. It was a voice I was just starting to become attuned to, a voice with an accent and reverberation particular to old women of color raised in the gentle rurals of Alabama and Georgia, descendants of slaves steeped in the cruel mysteries of their ancestry and jerked north during the restless move for racial equality and civil rights. It was a voice light cream coffeed and black licorice velveted, eased and folded, creased and pleated into the fabric of a difficult but determined life. Spouses long dead and children long grown, these women inhabited lonely city apartments in downtrodden neighborhoods where the okra colored paint in the hallways peeled like dry skin and the air was scented with the odor of stewed greens. Scratchy recordings of spirituals were punctuated by the driving rhythms of rap from cars idling on the streets below and the air was thick with the taste of distrust. They sat in threadbare armchairs and ragged sofas, fingers nervously tapping telephone tables and eyes opaque and blue with age only dimly discerning vital phone numbers scrawled on paper scraps: the Reverend, the Doctor, the Church Ladies, the Cemetery.

The Cemetery. I was The Cemetery. Miss Charlotte. A new mother with a waspy white voice, Scarsdale not Savannah, Bronxville, not Birmingham. With eyes as clouded with innocence as theirs were with wisdom, I had accepted the position of caretaker for a two-century-old cemetery with a deep history of black burials. Educated at an upscale New England college and accustomed to a life of privilege, I stood on the edge of a world of spectral mystery and shrouded secrets; a world of superstitions and rituals, of voodoo and hoodoo, of spells and mojo bags. This course voice from a distant place was to be my Orpheus.

"Clarence who?" I gasped, shifting my toddler from one hip to the other and untangling her sticky fingers from the telephone cord. "Do you want me to call a doctor? Can you dial 911?"

"Oh, Miss Charlotte, you have to help him! He can't breathe! It's too heavy on his chest. So heavy…so heavy…" Her voice trailed off, then suddenly rallied with the sharpness of a sting and the determination of a viper. "I'm Miss Hattie, Miss Charlotte. Hattie Campbell. Over on Lexington. Help Clarence, Please!" My daughter, entangled again, whimpered softly.

"Where is he, Miss Campbell? Is he in the room with you?"

"Oh, no, ma'am. He's with you! I need the Fiery Wall" Oh, the Fiery Wall!"

My mind raced. Who was Clarence? Where was Clarence? What was the Fiery Wall? Hattie continued insistently, "He's been with you for years. April 2, 1974. Plot 1316A-5. He's suffocating!"

Her coffee-creamed and velvet voice rose to a toxic pitch that clashed with the wails of my child. My sluggish cerebral cells simultaneously registered that Clarence Campbell was buried in my cemetery and that my daughter needed a grilled cheese sandwich.

"He's been with you ten years, Miss Charlotte. My only son…only son…snatched too soon, Lord. Too soon." She began muttering and mumbling his name and repeating "7-11 Holy Miracle, help me now" in a low moan.

"Why can't he breathe, Miss Campbell?" A rhetorical question. Clarence was dead and gone; pushing up daisies under a three hundred cubic feet of dirt. I really wanted to ask what the 7-11 Holy Miracle was.

"He came to me this morning. Stood right by my bed. Said, 'Mama, somthin's heavy on my chest. Can't suck in a breath. I'm 'bout to smother. Have t'get outta the ground. Have t'get out.' You have to help him, Miss Charlotte. I'm old. I'm blind. Got women's problems. Can't walk. Don't drive. No friends. All dead."

In my most dignified and serene cemetery voice, I replied, "Now, don't worry, Miss Campbell. I'm sure he's fine. I'll go out in the field and check for you."

"Out in the field." One of those wonderful white-world cemetery euphemisms such as "he's just sleeping" or "she's gone to a better place." Gong out in the field involved searching old moth-eaten ledgers, finding names of the dead written in scrawled script, locating the grave on pock-marked maps, bundling my daughter into coat, hat and mittens, strapping her into a stroller and trudging over twenty-seven acres of land in a macabre search.

"When?" Hattie Campbell's voice became thin, crisp, mean, resolute, and inflexible.

"Later this afternoon. I have to give my daughter some lunch."

"No. Now!" Hattie Campbell, emboldened by my gentle tone of accommodation, resonated defiance. I sighed, hung up the phone, walked to my office and opened the ancient records. It was my first week of work and I wasn't sure I wanted to keep this job. As it turns out, I stayed for sixteen years.

During my tenure as "The Cemetery" I learned more of what I did not expect to learn and less of what I anticipated I would master. Much of what I mastered was perversely practical; much was intensely emotional. I can dispassionately dig a coffin-sized hole with a backhoe and watch "the box" lower without sighing, but I cannot endure the thud of the first shovelful of dirt as it hits the casket. This is the sound of ultimate finality. I can sing hymns holding the hand of a grieving mother without shedding a tear, but week uncontrollably at the sound of bagpipes. They are the sound of ultimate sorrow. I am aware that certain cultures throw rocks on a casket and damage it so it cannot be resold, but I do not understand why a young man is killed for his designer sunglasses. This is the ultimate injustice. I understand that live chickens and fresh fruit on a grave are for the sustenance for the soul as it ascends to heaven but I am puzzled by split cow's tongue hanging from a tree. I have learned to accept the bleached white shells left on a grave as symbols of the sea which carried slaves to this country, but I have trouble accepting "offerings" of light bulbs, dolls' heads, tomato cans, pieces of plaster, stuffed bears and toilet tanks. These are but several of a multitude of personal and cultural enigmas.

A grieving man calls to complain that someone had torn the petals off the carnations he left on his wife's grave. I smile and tell him it is rabbits; they love to eat carnations. A heartbroken mother tells me the American flag on her son's grave has been ripped from its stick and shredded. I assure her that it's just squirrels; they use the flags for nesting material. A tearful widow whispers that her husband's grave is being dug up by body snatchers. I explain that it is just the natural sinking of the dirt; we must fill and refill gravesites for years after burials. Such things have simple explanations and satisfactory solutions.

But another world of perplexities and puzzles still exists. This is the realm that Hattie Campbell guided me through; a domain where curios and candles mingle with talismans and tokens to accomplish deeds based on the power of the believer. This profound belief in the mental or material ability of certain objects to cast spells in combination with the fact that the ideology of black and white graveyards is essentially different creates a cultural division in the cemetery. In the white cemetery, death is idealized and romanticized. The landscape imitates heaven on earth and thus attempts to dull death's reality. However, the black cemetery is altogether different. Trees are not encouraged or discouraged. Grass may or may not grow. The appearance of the grave matters less than the graveyard itself because a body buried in a strange ground will not stay buried. And, at all costs, a body must stay buried.

Hattie Campbell and her contemporaries taught me many things. I eventually learned that shards of glass on a grave show the mirror image of this life as contrasted to the next. I know that household objects are for the soul's use in the afterlife. I discovered that a split beef tongue is part of a spell to silence a witness or a gossip. I was taught that goofer dust (a combination of graveyard dirt, sulphur powder, snake skin and herbs) will jinx an enemy. And I came to understand that 7-11 Holy Oil will bring blessings and luck while The Fiery Wall of Protection is a safeguard against the most unspeakable horror.

However, I will never have an explanation for Hattie Campbell's knowledge of her son's affliction. I did indeed find his gravesite that day, although it was difficult. My cemetery workers had prepared the adjacent grave for a burial that afternoon. As they dug, the huge backhoe roaring and sputtering, they piled the dirt from the new grave on top of Clarence Campbell's grave. All 300 cubic feet of it. Clarence Campbell was suffocating beneath a mound of sodden, heavy, muddy earth. His mother, sightless and sick, alone with her spells, knew. She now rests peacefully with her son, the secrets of her past and the mysteries of her culture safe in her soul.

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