Shaffer: Graveyard angel glares in darkness

October 21, 2012 

— Just before midnight, I stopped at a tall headstone and aimed a flashlight into the eyes of the Ratcliffe Angel, guardian of Raleigh’s dead.

I’d heard the story: Visit her in darkness, admire her beauty and she will turn her marble head to face you. If she favors your company, she might even flutter her ankle-length wings.

It’s funny how stories that sound preposterous by day seem like a certainty in pitch blackness. Nobody doubts a ghost story in the middle of a nighttime graveyard.

So I slowly moved the light up her wings to her shoulders, over her face to her pair of unblinking eyes – staring nervously into urban legend.

She stared right back.

“That,” said my neighbor Jim, along for the thrill, “is pretty creepy.”

By day, the angel guards the grave of Etta Ratcliffe, who died in 1918 after a sickness that dragged on for five months. Stern-faced, unsmiling, the angel doesn’t gaze so much as glower into the distance – a fitting monument to a mother of five dead at 37.

But at night, her eyes seemed to drop down and stare directly into Jim’s and mine, none too friendly. Someone left a pile of coins at her feet, and I spoke to the angel in the reassuring tone you’d normally reserve for a growling dog.

“I’m going to pick up these coins and count them,” I warned her, expecting some supernatural punch in the face. “Please don’t curse me.”

Technically, we were trespassing. Oakwood Cemetery closes at 5 p.m. You’re not supposed to go wandering around the stones at night. Please don’t. The staff offers Friday-night flashlight tours, and they’ll gladly direct you to any grave.

I felt entitled to stumble around in the dark because I know people who work there, and I’ve written a dozen stories about Oakwood’s inhabitants: the Yankee soldier mistakenly buried in the Confederate cemetery, the vagabond who died on a volcano, the Texas lieutenant hanged for taking potshots at the Union cavalry on its march down Fayetteville Street.

For this string of haunted columns, I’ve traveled to Goldsboro, Mufreesboro and Beaufort. Raleigh ghosts need love, too.

But the historic graveyard that holds governors and generals has suffered no end of vandalism – including to the Ratcliffe Angel, who is cracked and mortared-together at the neck and wings. Understand that if you damage this statue in any way, I will find you and haunt you in this life and the next. I suspect Jim Valvano and Josephus Daniels, buried nearby, would take a similar attitude.

Not that the Ratcliffe Angel wouldn’t kick your butt herself.

She came to Raleigh from Italy, ordered by Etta Ratcliffe’s husband and knitting-factory magnate, William. But her ship foundered and sunk off the coast of Wilmington, and the marble angel spent years underwater before a tender-hearted seaman plucked her out of the ocean.

You can understand the Oakwood angel showing the stink eye to a trespassing stranger like me. Shipwrecked angels don’t strum harps with a beatific smile. As I picked up the coins and showed them to Jim, I imagined her melting our faces like the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

But it didn’t happen, and I spread the Ratcliffe Angel’s 41 cents across my palm. One quarter. One dime. One nickel. One penny.

I placed them back at her bare right foot and looked to the angel’s face again. But she wasn’t staring at me anymore. She was looking out over the field of Raleigh dead, eyes fixed on the horizon in the east, waiting for the sun to light another day.

jshaffer@newsobserver.coma or 919-829-4818

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