Along the Savannah River there stands a sculpture of a woman waving in the wind. The story goes that she was based on a real-life woman whose beau set sail out of Savannah, and for whom she waited faithfully to return, devotedly running out to the bank when all the ships would pass, waving a small sheet or towel and seeking out her lost love. She was said to have done this for over 40 years. That’s the kind of dedication that has, thankfully in many ways, disappeared largely from the world. But there’s a certain sad and undying love in that, and a faith and hope in something bigger than our individual selves. I hope she found other happiness in her life.
To get the grandest scope of the city while not exhausting ourselves, we opted for an old Savannah Trolley Tour. It’s always the easiest and quickest way to see the highlights of any historical city, and we plotted it out so that we would begin and end nearest to Mercer House, which we would tour afterward. We stopped by the river to see an immense cargo ship pass, looking like an entire city in motion and afloat. We sat and ate ice cream as we watched the people go by. It was a perfectly lovely day, the kind you don’t often get in November, and we held onto the moment. As we ambled off the trolley after the final stop, we headed back through Forsyth Park to Mercer House – the sight of the infamous killing that set ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ into motion.
It began on the veranda. Such a lovely word, such a lovely space. Certain words perfectly conjure the prettiness of what they are meant to describe. Moss and water plants played among the brick inlay of a sunken garden, while mirrors filigreed with wrought iron stood sentry at each side of the back door. A breeze blew somewhat harshly on this Sunday in November, but the sun was still strong, and the house was resplendent in the light. Our tour guide filled in the history of the house; despite its namesake no Mercer ever lived here.
Upon entering, the righteous focal in my eyes was the floor: a harlequin of alternating dark and light ceramic tiles that dated from the origin of the house – miraculously surviving all sorts of mischief and mayhem, and still shining as if just laid.
The artwork was an eclectic and judiciously-edited wonder, grouped in that uncannily gorgeous manner of the most distinguished and revered collectors.
From the dining room we made our way past the stairs, looking upward to the stained-glass dome that was the first thing Jim Williams renovated when he purchased the place and began its revitalization. He put it on the map in more gruesome ways, which we touched upon as we entered the study – where the infamous killing occurred. I tried to imagine that night, and the players involved – then we were back across the hall into the sitting room. It was my favorite space in the house – an exquisite room that looked gloriously onto one of the only real front yards in all of Savannah. Shades of soothing sage called from elegant sofas and chairs, and I wanted to stay there and take it all in. Soon, though, the rest of the house beckoned – the music room with its grand piano, then the eggplant-tinted smoking room, with its tufted couch topped with a leopard pelt, head still intact. More than one dead body still inhabited the place, as a glass aviary housed a number of stuffed birds, frozen in mid-flight, frozen in time. Too quickly, our tour was over and it was time to leave Mercer House. We walked through the lush squares again, and the trees took on new meaning.
There were spirits and ghosts here; it was almost tangible. Even in the bright light of day, some of the squares hung thick with history – hangings and murders and countless yellow-fever deaths. That sort of stench doesn’t wash away with rain or wind or even the passing of time. It stains the surroundings, like the brick that bled through the walls of The Pink House no matter how many times they tried to whitewash it.
I found it fascinating and intriguing, though if I’d been in a more vulnerable mood I could easily find myself scared out of my mind. We never did do any of the ghost tours, and places like the Sorrel Weed House were left for another, braver day.
Savannah was revealing itself, slowly and seductively, with more than a hint of deadly danger. There was something beautiful in ruin, something gorgeous in deterioration. It showed in the plaster that was crumbling all around us, gradually uncovering the brick that was beneath the faux-stone.
Nothing lasts forever, but still beauty remained here.
JoAnn and I parted ways in Forsyth Park – she headed back to the hotel while I took one last stroll around the historic district…
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