The Baby in the Shoebox

 

I’ve never quite believed in spirits. Even when I was young, when the preacher told me they were real. Evil spirits roamed the earth, he said. They’ll claw their way into your heart and pull you away from God.

Words can’t force belief. If they could, I’d be a fiery southern baptist, filled with anger and ashes. That’s what they wanted me to be. But their words couldn’t make me believe.

And yet, those words stayed with me. I’d lie awake at night and envision it over and over, seeing myself cast into flames and devoured by insects. That’s what would become of me, they said. You must believe. And sometimes, when shuddering in my bed and lingering on the destruction of my own soul, when the fear was at its greatest, I did believe. But only for a moment.  

I could tell plenty of stories about those times, but not today.

Today, I want to talk about those brief moments of doubt, when a non believer like myself is given pause. Let me tell you about the baby in the shoebox.

When I was young, my grandfather told me a sad story about his childhood. One of his friends lost a baby sister. The child was sick, and the family couldn’t afford a doctor. The newborn passed away when only days old, surely from some common illness. The family was forced to bury the child in a shoebox on the outskirts of a local cemetery.

My grandfather was a wise and sensitive man. He never forgot that story. Throughout his life, he occasionally made trips to that cemetery and pulled weeds away from the unmarked grave. He died without sharing his opinions on faith and religion with me, but I knew that grave meant something to him. Maybe it was a courtesy to a long-dead friend, or simply a kind sentiment for a child who never had a chance to live.

When he grew old and sick, my mother started taking me there. She wasn’t the one responsible for the hellfire and misery I endured at the baptist church. She was some sort of pagan, and held a deep appreciation for the spiritual and the paranormal. Her beliefs courted me without harsh words, but as magical as it felt, it stirred no true belief.

I wanted to be a pagan, but I can’t make myself believe.  When mom and I ventured out to spot UFOs and talk to ghosts, I wasn’t there for the spirits. I was there to bond with my mother, but I always hoped something ghostly would show up and change my mind.

She and I went to the cemetery late at night, where we visited graves, admired the old church, and talked. WeI talked for hours in that remote little cemetery in rural Alabama, at the end of a dirt road, with nothing but farmhouses for miles. Sometimes we thought we saw faces peering out of the church, or long-limbed figures lurking in the trees. Sometimes we spooked ourselves and fled, only to laugh about it later. But most of the time, we just laid in the grass and looked up at the perfect sea of stars, and we talked about everything imaginable.

Before leaving, we always checked on the baby grave.

My grandfather died when I was in the tenth grade. After his passing, tending to the baby grave became a ritual. Mom and I built a ring of stones around the grave and planted a cement angel as a marker. We even spoke to the church and let them know about this sixty year old unmarked infant’s grave, and they agreed to maintain it along with the others, even though nobody ever paid for the plot.

It felt good to do something that would have made my grandfather proud.

When my family moved away, I kept going. In my college days, I took my future spouse to the cemetery. We would lay in the same grass and talk. We inspected gravestones and learned their names. Sometimes, I brought flowers for the ones which never had any.

The cemetery became a sanctuary, just like it was for me and my mother. Of course, I still checked on the baby grave. I never left without visiting.

One day, my college friends invited me to a late night ghost hunt. It was a random, ill-advised adventure fueled by boredom and vivid imaginations. I agreed, and we spent a few hours driving around to supposedly-haunted sites in the area.

Eventually, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, I offered my cemetery. My sanctuary. I knew my friends would be respectful, and part of me just wanted to share it with them. But another part of me simply longed to visit. How could I go to so many cemeteries without visiting mine?

We dove an hour to the remote little church. It was close to 3:00 AM. We pulled in and quietly dispersed. Flashlights danced over aging grave stones, and excited whispers filled the air.

I didn’t feel bad about being there, but it was different with so many people. None of them knew how special that place was to me, or the story about the baby in the shoe box. I recall standing beside the church and looking out across the cemetery, watching my friends comb over it, and wondering why I’d wanted to bring them so badly.

Then, I heard a soft cry.

My flashlight swept over the grass, searching for the source. Another cry confirmed that it was the weak, distressed voice of a kitten.

I called to my friends, and they helped me search. In only moments, the voice led me to a familiar part of the cemetery.

I shined my flashlight on the baby grave, and there I saw an impossibly skinny kitten huddled beside the angel that my mother and I had left there years before. She was so young and so malnourished that I couldn’t believe she was even alive. But there she was, crying for us in desperation, looking for a savior.

When I approached, she crawled to me. Overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her condition, I cried.

Thankfully, not all ghost stories are tragedies. The kitten was only the size of my palm when we found her. She didn’t know how to eat solid food, and she was skeletal and sickly. But the following day, a veterinarian claimed she was in remarkably good condition. With some medicine, a good diet, and plenty of attention, she survived.

We named her Annabell Lee. What else do you name a creature found starving on a grave?

I moved across the country, closer to my mom. I haven’t visited the baby grave since. But my morbid little princess is just fine.

I wasn’t a spiritual person before this happened, and I’m not a spiritual person now. But we like to be challenged. That’s why I was in the cemetery that night, searching for ghosts that I didn’t believe in. It’s fun to imagine things we can’t quite accept. Sometimes, we like to wonder.

Mom doesn’t believe I found Annabell by accident. She believes that the baby in the shoe box decided to pay us a visit in gratitude. She believes that Annabell, my beloved friend, came to say thank you. 

What do you think?