The Writing Traveler: Ghost with a Broken Heart

The sun sets on the sands of Pawley’s Island, gateway to a friendly little coastal town with a lot of ghosts.

I walked up to the bartender. I bought a fifth of whiskey. I scooped up a handful of glasses and announced in a loud voice, “Has anybody in here ever seen a ghost?”

I love ghosts.

I’ve walked through graveyards at midnight. And all I’ve seen are graveyards at midnight.

Several years ago, I traveled to the Grand Strand of South Carolina, down on that ladyfinger of sand that stretched southward from Myrtle Beach to Georgetown, weaving together the quaint fishing villages of Murrells Inlet and Pawley’s Island.

The Strand is haunted, they told me.

The dead still walk the sands of the islands, they told me.

Looking for ghosts? They’ll pass you on the streets if you’re still out and about when the sand goes down.

I was. I wandered among old houses, abandoned houses, empty houses, and a handful of haunted houses.

Nothing.

So I did what I do best. I walked into a bar down on the far end of Pawley’s Island where the fishermen and the roughnecks and the whatnots had come to drown their troubles at the end of another wasted day on a boat.

Caleb Pirtle III

I walked up to the bartender. I bought a fifth of whiskey. I scooped up a handful of glasses and announced in a loud voice, “Has anybody in here ever seen a ghost?”

For a jigger of free whiskey, they would have seen anything I asked them to see.

I poured, and they talked.

“What you want to do,” said one old codger who had caught as many tattoos as fish, “is go up and visit Clarke Wilcox in the morning.”

“He seen a ghost?” I asked.

“Hell, man,” the fisherman said, “ Clarke lives with one.”

“You know where he lives?”

He did.

Clarke Wilcox was seventy-six on that morning, and it was a long time ago. He was the master of the Hermitage, the soft-spoken elder statesman of Murrells Inlet. He sat out on his big front porch, gazed out across the marshes of the Atlantic Ocean, and, on occasion, he said, he heard the quiet padding of Alice’s footsteps walking slowly up the stairway in a small, haunted upstairs room.

It was her room. She seldom strayed from her room.

Alice had been dead for a hundred and twenty years.

But still, Clarke, early in the morning, can hear her walking.

Others have seen her.

She was a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl who loved gardenias and who fell in love, alas, with a man in the turpentine industry. Here brother, Dr. Flagg, who lived in the Hermitage, believed she should marry a doctor or lawyer or minister. He was angry when he found out she was engaged.

A man with turpentine on his hands? He would never be good enough for Alice.

She was in Charleston at a girl’s school when the fever struck. Dr. Flagg brought her back to the Hermitage. He glanced at a ribbon tied around her neck. It held a ring, the ring given her by the young man she had been forbidden to marry or ever seen again.

The doctor, in a rage, ripped the ring off the ribbon, stormed outside, and threw it into the marshes.

Poor Alice.

In her delirium, she thought she had lost it. And when anyone came to see her, she would beg them to help her find her ring.

A few days later, Alice died and was buried beneath a flat marble slab in All Saints Cemetery.

Clarke said, “I hear her sometimes at night now. She’s still searching the house and walking the marshes, looking for her lost ring. Very often, we even find zinnias and marigolds on her grave, placed in an old tin can. This has been happening since I was a small boy. Nobody knows who puts them there.”

B. E. Templeton, a businessman on Pawley’s Island, remembered the night he carried a group of neighborhood children to Alice’s grave. The boys had picked wildflowers to leave there. He said, “We arrived at midnight and the boys began to giggle. I turned off the flashlight just to quiet them down a bit with the darkness.  When I turned it back on, there was a fresh gardenia lying beside the wildflowers.”

Gardenias weren’t even in season, he said.

But there it was, he said.

Fresh.

And still speckled with the morning dew.

I went to the gray marble slab that night, the one with Alice’s name carved in the stone.  I knelt for a while and waited.

I thought I might see her.

I didn’t.

I guess she was out walking the marshes that led her toward the sea. It had been so long now. Broken hearts never heal. But neither do they ever give up

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