Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Finding the Fletcher Graves in the Forest

The raised concrete graves.

This fence surrounds the graves.

In my house this morning, my husband and I drag from the bed while the sun still sleeps. We have plans to search for the graves of Mary Vann (Polly) Dorminy Fletcher and her husband William Fletcher. Richard packs a book and a cell phone, a sure sign he has no intention of trampling through the woods. I pack my camera, a bottle of water, bug spray, a tobacco stick, and snake boots.

In southern Georgia the August heat can bring a man to his knees. I know. In my youth, I worked in the fields during the summer, and I've seen men and women get too hot and dehydrated. By the time we reach the truck, sweat is popping out around my face and neck.

On Sutton Road, we pull into Hal's driveway where he is outside waiting for us. When he has time, he's my gallivanting partner. He climbs into the truck with a bottle of water, directions, a smart phone, and a machete.

Every pond we pass this morning breathes, exhaling fog the way my father exhaled smoke after taking a drag from a Winston. Traveling toward a landscape of approximately 5,000 acres, we drink coffee and map out a plan for the hunt. This will be the second time I've searched the area, the third time for Hal.

Edd Dorminey, a descendant of the Fletchers, is not with us, but Hal has been in contact with him. Edd searched for the graves in 1996 and found them. We visited with several members of the Fletcher family before deciding to search for the graves. June Harper, another descendant of William and Polly, visited the graves three years ago. Lois Fletcher used to come to the site often, but she says it has been years since she has seen them. Lois fears the tombs are lost in the dense landscape. And that's why we are here this hot August day; we want to find the burial spot before it is gone and forgotten.

The GMC we're riding in is old. Richard has owned it since its birth in 1999.  As we pass pastures, fields, and ponds exhaling fog, he handles the truck with ease. When we reach the designated drop off spot, Hal tells Richard to pick us up in approximately three hours. My husband has no desire to hike through the woods in search of graves.

We won't have phone access back here.  It is now 7:00 AM and we should be finished by 10:00 AM.  "Meet us here at ten," says Hal to Richard. They share a joke about getting lost. I don't laugh. I'm seeping sweat, and the boots on my feet are heavy and too big. I feel as though I weigh a thousand pounds or more. My boots are bricks on my feet. Richard watches us climb a fence. I turn back and wave at him and he backs the truck onto the highway. He plans to read at a nearby church and cemetery until time to pick us up.

Hal and I trudge through mud, water, sand, vines, and thick weeds. I'm a redhead, and my flesh is on fire. At times I'm discouraged and other times I swell with excitement. I feel as though I've crossed into the past, and the past is a place of few sounds and many mysteries.

We've been trailing these graves for more than a month. During times of uncertainty, when I think the hunt will come to nothing, I fear the graves have been turned over to make room for the planting of new trees. I fear the graves are lost forever. I'm swollen with doubt, yet hope and the thrill of the hunt jolts me from time to time. I'm not yet ready to give up the chase.

Hal is the leader; he gives directions. After a tiring walk, we leave a clean path to move into a wooded area. He says, “The graves shouldn't be far from here.”

While plundering through the forest, we come close to deer, snakes, and all manner of wildlife.  Hal spots wild hogs and identifies what he believes to be the tracks of a bobcat. 

Religion doesn't grow here in this glorious place, yet there is something sacrosanct about nature. Hal and I are intruders, trespassers, strange creatures. Dirty, sweaty, tired, we walk on the holy ground of history. Perhaps I don't belong here, yet I am in love with this southern landscape. When I leave this land my footprints will stain the stanzas of one of nature's poems.

After searching for some time, we separate. Hal goes off in one direction and I take off in the other. We are on the verge of giving up for the day. Richard will be waiting for us, and if we don't meet as planned, he'll be worried.  Searching alone, the tobacco stick comes in handy for whipping through thick growth and alerting snakes that I'm coming through.

Like a scene from a horror movie, my legs tangle in strong vines and I'm yanked to the forest floor. Bam! Sweat clouding my vision, I lean back, relax, and wipe my face with the tail of my shirt. The view above me is lovely from down here. Dappled sunlight dances around me. The forest carries the scent of a mossy stone pulled up and turned over. I smell the Alapaha River. 
a coachwhip snake
When Hal and I meet up again in the woods, he makes another plan, and we head off once more through undisturbed land. It occurs to me that I am likely wasting another morning in the woods when I should be writing, Still, I search, aware that our time is running out. 

My family originated in Irwin County, and the Fletchers settled in Irwin County during the same time period. I come from Faulkner, Story, Tomberlin, Sutton, Rowe, Sears, Jowers, Tyson, Hendley. And I long to see the graves of the people my ancestors knew: Fletchers. 

Much later, when I am ready to give up, I hear Hal’s familiar whistle. I rush toward the sound of the whistle. “I found them,” he says.

I yell, "Yes!"

The tombs are surrounded by aged fence made of fence wire nailed to split-rail lighter posts. Sunlight slips through the trees and shimmers on the graves. The two burial spots are beauties. We recognize slave and servant graves once marked with wooden markers. Light gleams golden and hopeful on a thousand southern leaves shivering overhead.  

Hal cuts back thick growth with the machete, thinning the area so we can move in closer. Polly’s tomb reveals a small crack and two holes about the size of large marbles. The inner part of William's tomb has crumbled and is filled with dried leaves, straw, and soil. The outer structure remains intact.

As Hal works, I take photos. At some point I put away the camera and sit in this lovely bedroom of death. It's a place of quiet and solitude.

A large outdoor room containing two concrete beds is surrounded by fence. Quilts of moss cover the beds. The Fletchers sleep under the shade of a magnificent magnolia. I pull on posts, testing them; they are sturdy. William and Polly died in 1855 and 1860, and I assume the fence and posts were erected at least a century ago.  A rustic gate has been left open, as though the tombs, 150 years old, are expecting visitors.
Hal clearing the area.

The morning sun shimmering on leaves.
Everything out here seems luminous and fertile. I look back and imagine these people's lives. The laughter of Polly and William comes through the trees like a breeze. During their marriage they prospered, at one time owning oxen, horses, sheep, milk cows, hogs, and more than 1,500 acres of land. I imagine their children playing in the woods.  At night, in the Fletcher home out here in these peaceful woods, I see the couple holding each other, talking about the events of their day. Perhaps they make love with a wind blowing in from opened windows. Perhaps Polly gave birth to her children here.

I like to think that William and Polly Fletcher loved as deeply as any married couple has ever loved. 
The gate. "Come on in for a visit."

A post covered with moss and lichen.

I hope the Fletcher graves remain in this location, deep in the heart of the forest, sleeping among nature.  

Update: The graves are now accessible by car. Changes were made to the land.

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