She first appeared at the treeline around the cemetery. I heard her before I saw her. She called out in a breathy little “mrrrrawf” as her tail bobbed above her like a periscope.
Allen Cemetery sits about halfway between Tarheel and Dublin, North Carolina, on Bethel Church Road. It’s a little over two acres of sand and sparse clumps of grass dotted with almost 500 headstones. Most of the stones are from the 20th century though the oldest is from 1855. It was empty of living persons on the day that I visited in early September 2011.
Since August of that year I’d been driving my pregnant wife to the college in Dublin where she worked as an English professor. I’d been laid off earlier that year from my job as a high school English teacher and so had nothing much to do with my days. I would see her to her office and then either read in the college library or, on days that weren’t oppressively warm, explore Bladen County.
I was actually at Allen Cemetery to do volunteer work. I’ve been a member of Find A Grave (it’s exactly what it sounds like) since 2010 and part of the beauty of the site is that people can post photo requests of memorials. Say that you live in California but your great-great grandmother is buried in Columbia, South Carolina. Obviously you want to know what her cemetery marker looks like, right? Post a request and Find A Grave members in the Columbia area will be notified.
Camera in hand, I had scrawled out a list of a few headstones to photograph.
Likely drawn out by the hope that I’d have food, she had begun paralleling my slow walk among the headstones. She was scrawny but sleek and obviously unafraid. Her call came at intervals like she was testing the acoustics of the various rows – or, continuing with the periscope imagery, like sonar, bouncing her rattling little speech off of the invisible audience of grandmothers, infants, and drunk-driving victims.
“I’m sorry baby, I don’t have any food with me.”
“If I did I’d give it to you.”
“I know you’ve gotta be hungry, sweetie.”
Of course I was assuming that she wasn’t at least noshing on whatever little rodents lived in the area. She maintained a distance of about two rows from me, leisurely strolling along the crabgrass, and gingerly stepping on the heads of artificial flowers that had abandoned those to whom they were dedicated.
At some point I started taking her picture. The camera I had was best for subjects that were immobile. It was maybe eight megapixels and slow of shutter. As she strutted on her little white feet my every attempt came out blurred.
“I know sweetie, it’s not fair, it’s not.”
Her calls had ceased sounding like questions and had taken on a more resigned “well I’ll be durned” tone. She was a country cat, after all.
Bladen County itself is a massive rural expanse dotted with a handful of towns. Elizabethtown, with about 3,500 souls, is the largest. The population density is roughly forty people per square mile.
There’s no available census data for cats, however.
About six miles northwest of Allen Cemetery is Bladen County’s economic anchor and eyesore, the Smithfield Foods plant. The facility employs almost 5,000 people (so technically it’s the county’s biggest town). Prior to becoming home to the largest slaughterhouse on Earth, the site of the plant had been a plantation driven by slave labor and, prior to that, the land of the Siouan-speaking indigenous people.
30,000: it’s the human population of Bladen County, the median income of Bladen County, and the number of hogs slaughtered in the Smithfield Plant each day.
We both stopped. It was only in the mid-80s and the humidity was mild but I just planted my feet to the ground. Some small breeze hissed through the Loblolly Pines and the oak trees.
There was an enormity behind us and in front of us. Terrifying. The Earth is full of the dead. It’d be tempting to say full to bursting but no, the dead decay, they’re just another part of the planet. Still, there’s an enormity.
I’ve often entertained the thought that in the South, during the summer, none of the recently deceased are able to depart for the afterlife. The humidity traps souls like tree sap, tugging on ghostly toes. It’s better to just wait for the first day of fall-like weather and then the Southern dead are spring-shot from their dixied-purgatory into the hereafter.
But that September day was humid. Fall hadn’t liberated the newly dead, or so it seemed. So we paused near the end of a row, and she brushed her bouffant tail against a miniature obelisk:
Earth has no
I took her picture as she stared at me. Her tiny feet pressed together and her head slightly tilted. Liquid green eyes.