A decade ago I visited Panmure Island cemetery and only today can I tell you the story without breaking out into a cold sweat.
The picture in the Guardian reminded me of that visit to the Panmure Island graveyard. Back then, the road in the picture was less than a path in the woods, grown over from decades of neglect.
Panmure Island was always mysterious. It was sparsely populated. At night it gets black as coal and the ghosts are out.
Martha Graham, my mother-in-law now deceased, told me the safest way to the graveyard, which dates from the 1800’s, was along the beach.
Martha baked the best apple, lemon and blueberry pies which has nothing do with this story but everything to do with why I was in Murray Harbour North that day.
Martha was born and brought up on the island and knew its stories and ghosts. In the 1980’s I satisfied my curiosity taking the beach route. The graveyard is on a point of land at the end of the island in St. Mary’s Bay. I found it easily with Martha’s instructions.
The headstones of Island sandstone were embedded in the earth, most were not vertical.
Time had worn off the engravings and what you could read was pretty vague. Still it was exciting to find it.
Inside the cemetery surrounded by the trees was an ethereal peace. I sat on a rock and contemplated the place and who might be buried here.
A decade later on a hot August day I drove up to the path. This might be the day to proceed directly along the road to the cemetery, even though Martha said it was not easy to find by the road. I had an SUV then but it wasn’t going anywhere.
My sons started out walking with me but they turned around when the mosquitoes started biting. I laughed them off and kept pressing forward.
The brush on the road seemed thicker and the mosquitoes were getting peskier. What’s a sub-gram insect to a human? They can’t conquer me. I kept walking in the heat into the dampness of that swamp. It felt like the heart of darkness.
Constant swatting was having no effect. I entered a zone of solid, flying insects. However, I was a man and no bugs would stop me.
In between flailing arms and hands, it dawned on me that I was breathing them in. They were inside my ears, nose, and mouth, down my shirt, in my eyes and on my eye lids. I panicked. I couldn’t take it anymore.
Turning right 90 degrees, I set off in a mad dash across some fallen spruce trees. No hurdles in the Olympics could pose a more formidable obstacle in the race to the beach.
The black dead branches were like soothing balms wiping the bugs off my arms and head. Underfoot were even more dead branches that grabbed each foot and held it fast.
I can’t really run, it’s like a fast walk in three steps – one, two, hop – not pretty. That day I became an Olympic athlete in an instant. An attempt to jump over a spruce tree hurdle resulted in severe pain in the groin. I landed in a clump on the other side and the damn bugs were on me again.
Pain or not, I jumped up and headed across no man’s land and bolted for the beach. I could see it through swollen eyes. Bloodied and bruised I threw myself across the last tree and onto the beach.
Throwing my sneakers off, I ran head first into St. Mary’s Bay and dunked under the cold water to elude the pursuing enemy. Coming up for air, I looked and the devils were gone.
In their place was an elderly couple walking their dog. They gave me the oddest look. I smiled wanly and searched for my shoes.
I sat on the beach and sunned for a few minutes until they disappeared around a corner.
Even though I could see the cemetery, I had no heart to enter the woods again to battle the mosquitoes. Perhaps one would return another day.
Back at the truck, the boys were doubled over in laughter. They had heard my blood curdling screams from the deep woods and imagined Panmure Island’s ghosts were awake in the heat of the afternoon.
No use telling them my story so I saved it for you.
Originally published August 18, 2008