Chapter 17: Mrs. Dalby and the Gravekeeper of Hatteras Island
Seaside Graveyard Shanty
Note: when I transferred data to a new phone, I unfortunately lost most of the photographs from this particular trip. Hopefully, you’ll be able to use your own imagination to help tell the story.
It’s unexpected, and that feels really good.
Actually, before I even go there, I should note: I’m a Sagittarius moon and a Sagittarius rising. A “double Sag” (pronounced “sa-juh”) as my astrologer friends might dub me. I never learned to identify with it, that chunk of my chart, until much later, around the middle of 2021. Sagittarius makes up for four planets etched into my astrological blueprint, and while I’m still totally unsure as to what it all means, I know that my body was bound for adventure from the start. My spirit is drawn to the act of wandering, and oftentimes it creates bountiful, euphoric results.
Yes, it’s highly unexpected, and that feels really good.
My body drifts through the seaside graveyard in Hatteras, a southern, wispy town in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I’m thinking about my Sagittarius, considering my great fortune to have been predestined to explore as an act of spiritual duty. While I’ve spent much of the past year (March 2020, when the world turned inside-out, to now, March of 2021) inside several abandoned spaces strewn across the country, this particular expedition is important because it marks the first time venturing out into the world virtually unafraid because dose number one is in my arm.
Pfizer. “Pfeil’s Pfully Pfizer’d,” I threaten will be the phrase slapped on a sleeveless tank I’ll wear all summer after I dosey-do with dose number two, (although it’s not a threat at all, rather, a conceivable move that wouldn’t shock or scare my friends in the least).
I have waited for this moment keenly, desperate for wanderlust to unabashedly activate my body again. I plan, meticulously, very unlike me, this drive from the magic of the Catskills to the mystery of the Outer Banks. I plan to shack up in a bungalow on Hatteras, one barrier island of many in the makeshift archipelago. At a certain point, at the southernmost point of this particular island, my car meets the sea, and though I see on the map that the next island down isn’t too far away, it’s just far enough that I’m unable to see it without my specs on and a clear day.
I walk down the NC State Highway 12, one headphone in, the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash burrowing into my skull, boldly caroling:
It’s getting to the point
Where I’m no fun anymore
I am sorry
Sometimes it hurts so badly
I must cry out loud
That I am lonely
I am yours
You are mine
You are what you are
You make it hard
I breathe the saltwater air, a far cry from a year of oxygen from inside a tiny home nestled in the Hudson Valley, 90 minutes north of the original American pandemic graveyard where the virus first made landfall and made a contagious riptide out of the five boroughs of New York City — where for months, each and every night, the bells and whistles of residents, hanging out their windows and off their fire escapes, rung out into the golden hour sunset, to honor the army of selfless essential workers who put their lives on the line for the sake of society continuing to “function” at its current, impossible pace.
While the five boroughs of NYC were merely jimmy rigged and branded as a graveyard by the mass media, the graveyard I’ve just walked into, quite by accident, is intentional. And old. I took this morning walk to trace my footsteps onto the Inlet Peninsula that overlooks the Crab Spawning Sanctuary to Ocracoke and beyond. The headstones seem to appear out of the dense air that surrounds me on all sides. The sun peeks its head out then turtle-shells back regularly, but the day feels wet, as it would on a Mid-Atlantic island in the spring.
And there they are: low, marshy graves, a pebble’s toss from the elongated Frisco Beach which stretches up and down the NC-12. I’ve been meandering through this buried pasture of bones for less than 30 seconds when the sun finally, permanently peeks out from behind an evaporating cloud bank and reveals a small, crumbling cottage in the distance, about 300 yards or so from where I stand amongst the tombs. At first I assume it’s occupied; my eyes are slowly becoming less reliable as I age — but then they begin to adjust as I carefully glide towards the two-story structure, a phantom consistently, inoperably curious of any building that looks remotely abandoned.
I reach a grove of trees that conceals me from any view a window on the house might have, and I see that, indeed, the shanty is vacant and decrepit. It’s impossible to see it from the highway because the front is completely enveloped in thick brush and overgrown weeds, forcing the house to mirage into the landscape.
My body floats to the front of the off-kilter ruin, looking for a way in, and it finds an entrance with a titled porch, accessible with a little gumption. My 5’6"-ish frame is scrappy, and I pass through the portal with ease. My imagination, a trusty healing space that has been my source of spiritual medicine for the past year, ignites.
I step back in time.
The gravekeeper’s hut stands tall, humble, a place of sorrow where the gravekeeper and his wife have spent the last year burying victims of another virus that steals their legs and their spines. I pass into the front room and hear him murmuring softly as Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks on the radio, talking about the dangers of public education. I laugh at the notion of that the “centralization” of public education could lead the country into Communism, then immediately slap my hand over my mouth, afraid I’ve been caught. The gravekeeper doesn’t budge. He doesn’t hear me.
I don’t need to tiptoe.
I am a ghost to him, a ghost from the future.
In the next room, I hear the crackle of eggs and bacon in a frying pan. I hear his wife humming as she scrambles, flips, and scraps the food onto plates. I decide I will join them and wonder if I can eat food, since I’m a ghost.
When I sit down at the table, my hand passes through a serving basket that holds a variety of breads and cheeses. I wonder how it’s possible I can sit on a chair and not fall through it but try to grab a piece of sourdough and my hand whips right through it. Then again, “This is how they’ve portrayed it in the movies for years, so it must be so,” I muse and smirk.
Once my imagination starts to rumble, I have no control over what passes through.
The sun of the mid-morning bristles onto the breakfast table as Mrs. Dalby (as the gravekeeper calls his wife) darts back to the kitchen to retrieve a new pour of coffee for Mr. Dalby (as she calls her husband). When she returns, she quickly dispenses the coffee into a stone-washed mug then sits.
We eat in silence. I feel uncomfortable, and I don’t know why. I go to make conversation and ask questions, but every word that tumbles out of my mouth evaporates. After what feels like an eternity of thinking of exactly what I want to say to them, I realize that I’ve dissociated completely; breakfast is over, and the gravekeeper is out back tending to new plots.
That’s when I hear someone crying.
I can’t tell where it’s coming from, so I begin to search the small shack. For a moment, I drift back to 2021, tumbling back into April, tripping into this spring morning on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and feel that dumbfounded feeling I experience when I poke about these accidental abandoned spaces. It’s one thing to pour hours of minutes into research on the dreary old World Wide Web to find a specific ruin. It’s another to happen upon one like this. Houses in particular illuminate a deeper sensation in my body, and my imagination runs even freer in a four-walls-and-the-floor-little-boxes-on-the-hillside-and-or-giant-mansions-in-the-middle-of-nowhere kind of space.
Or, a gravekeeper’s shanty on the shores of North Carolina. The remnants of human life just left behind, sitting to rot, the eyes of the world turned away, mostly, as nature makes room for deterioration and eventual digestion by the surface of the Earth —
Which will happen to all of us at some point anyway, says a voice, softly.
I jump. It’s 1955 again.
Because, if we don’t perpetuate our own extinction first, it continues through the tears, which is an exceedingly likely event as it is, even if we weren’t already doomed, the sun is going to swallow us anyway. My face gets hot as my neck gets cold and goosebumps protrude fiercely on the back of my neck. I turn slowly to face the corner of the bedroom I’ve discovered.
And if none of that were to happen, which it will, the voice clamors on still, in four billion years the Milky Way Galaxy will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy, each on an inevitable crash course for one another, and all of this will have been for naught. My eyes fixate on a dimly-lit corner of the room, light bypassing the non-existent curtains hung in the dusty windows, but I can’t see anything. It’s only a voice.
This, meaning humanity’s current version of events, it concludes. I am bolted to the floor as a figure appears, coming from sit to stand, starting from its clogged shoes, up the bundled legs and thick brown skirt, past the modest torso, and up the sun-soaked neck and shoulders to reveal the gravekeeper’s wife. I hold my breath in my hands as I let out a whisper, partly curious, mostly afraid: “Mrs. Dalby, I presume.”
Speak up, boy, she barks.
When I’m presented with the options of flight, fight, or freeze, I choose freeze. Almost always. Every once in a while, flight comes into play, and I sprint from trouble, typically physical, and take pride in how fast I can go. Seldom do I fight, unless I varnish my words like bullets from a machine gun, but that’s only when I see another person being hurt. It’s self-righteous, really, but I can’t help it.
I said, Speak up.
I open my mouth and the letters make words as they tumble out which makes me talk faster than I usually do, as if the words have all blended together. “IthoughtIheardsomeonecrying.” I pause and pant. I wait for her response.
I was crying. I feel sad today. So what? She squeaks. I don’t move.
And who are you? she says, softer, as she steps closer.
I feel warmth vibrating from her crisp skin, and I see a glow shining in her ferocious blue eyes, encapsulated by shadows on all sides. My body relaxes, slowly, as I tell her my name, where I’m from, and why I’m here.
Then, it dawns on me: “Wait. You can see me?:
She says nothing, at first, then I see her body relax too, and she nods. And as her nod comes to an end, I connect two dots I hadn’t yet, a slightly painful admission that can’t hold itself in my subconscious much longer. She isn’t real. This is the work of my imagination, and it’s on purpose. This is my brain going into overdrive to protect my subconscious in a moment of vulnerability and longing. I miss these kinds of interactions with strangers. Maybe not this awkward, but it’s true: I miss people. I didn’t realize it until she stood before me, blood and tears and the smell of fresh bread, the amalgamation of an invented spirit, providing me the reprieve I need in this moment, one year in, one shot in my arm, one day lived a little bit less in fear.
“You feel real,” I sputter.
So do you, she responds. And here I was, beginning to think I was losing my sanity. She laughs, and I do too, uncomfortably, if not slightly disingenuously as I glance around the room, tattered and torn. We’ve flown back to 2021, but she’s here with me, Mrs. Dalby, the proud and stoic wife of Mr. Dalby, the Gravekeeper of Hatteras.
So. Like what we’ve done with the place? she laughs again. This time, I join her, but it’s real because it really has gone to shit. “Yes. But it makes me a little sad,” I offer. “And also, I know that I’m trespassing.”
Trespassing? she demands with a howl. We abandoned it decades ago. Rather, I did. There was no need for it. Mr. Dalby died, and I had no reason to stay here. It became a place to visit. You’re not trespassing. You’re welcome here.
I’m astonished. Suddenly, my world feels smaller and more expansive at the same time. My face goes pale. I might’ve been mistaken. I might be talking to an actual ghost. But once again, she convinces me otherwise when she responds to the thoughts that tumble about in my head. Yes, dear. I am a ghost. It’s sarcasm, and I like it. My name is Mrs. Judith Dalby, and my husband Mr. Simon Dalby and I used to live here before both of us died.
We pause together, taking each other in, then her tone shifts. Want to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made? she asks.
Then, without my consent, she snaps her fingers, turning my imagination up a notch. The room goes dark, and millions and billions of stars light up the sky made of decaying ceiling, circling the bedroom of two ghosts, and the air gets hot as the waves crash on the shoreline outside, and everything that ever existed anywhere at all seems to congregate in this small room.
Mrs. Dalby motions to me as the room twirls, dancing with itself. She invites me to sit in her shoddy pink chair. I do, and I feel her hands grace my shoulders with their touch. My body becomes light, clouds, and I forget my fear of dying, a virus that has infected my brain for far too long. As she wraps her arms around me, I cry saltwater tears, bound for the Atlantic tide. I’m millions and billions of lightyears away, a comet rattling across the sky, watching time become a ball of white light in front of me, its own star, which swells and explodes as Mrs. Dalby whispers in my ear, You’re fine.
I open my eyes. I’m standing outside of the house, facing the thick brush covering its front facade again. I look up and see Mrs. Dalby in the window, who waves, then takes a step back and evaporates.
I hear the Atlantic Ocean harmonizing with the sound of the cars on NC State Highway 12, the hum of the voices of people with their windows rolled down, laughing, being alive, listening to Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” blasting up into the atmosphere and out across the galaxy en route for a show four billion years.
I start to hum with them:
Remember what we’ve said
And done and felt about each other
Oh, babe, have mercy
Don’t let the past
Remind us of what we are not now
I am not dreaming
I am yours
You are mine
You are what you are…
- “Transcript: Dwight D. Eisenhower — Remarks for the White House Conference on Education” — The American Presidency Project
- “President Eisenhower’s Address To The White House Conference On Education, 1955” — Internet Archive
- “President Eisenhower On The Importance Of Education — 1957 — Past Daily Reference Room” — Past Daily