The Night a Grieving Phantom in the Everglades Changed My Life
The land that was previously seen as harsh and brutal by colonial forces was actually a site of survival, new life, and renewal.
My mother’s voice was distressed. From there, things escalated quickly. Frightened, I immediately assumed my grandmother had died. “Is Abuela okay?” I asked her. She stayed silent. She grabbed my arm, parading me through the various vendors. “¿Tú eres lesbiana?” she interrogated. Her tone grew louder until I could feel my peers’ eyes singeing holes into my back. I let out awkward giggles in between unconvincing noes.
But she already knew. She’d discovered my diary hours before and learned the truth of my secret relationship. Shocked and terrified by the revelation and the fact that I had been keeping something so personal a secret from her, she dropped what she was doing and drove over to confront me. She was scared of what this would mean for my future—how society would treat me. She accused me of being manipulated by my friends—You always go along with what others do, she claimed. I told her I was bisexual, but to her, sexuality was black and white; the spectrum did not exist. That night, she laid out her rules: If I didn’t end the relationship, she said, she would pull me out of school, where I was one of the top students in my class and from which I’d already been accepted into my dream college. Even worse, I would have to rescind my acceptance at Columbia University. She told me she would tell my father. She assured me that his consequences would be even more severe.
When we got home, she had me call my girlfriend and break up with her in front of her. On the other line, my girlfriend knew what was going on, and she played along. Suspicious, my mom demanded all my passwords and began tracking my text messages, Facebook posts, and phone calls. In an instant, I felt everything I had worked for, and the new love I felt refreshingly secure in, crumble around me. My home became a breeding ground for anxiety and paranoia, my every act called into question. I wondered how long I could keep up the charade before my mom found out or, worse, my girlfriend grew tired and broke up with me.
After hours deliberating, I was eager to exit the mortification. I was desperate to escape my mother’s scrutiny; nothing I said appeased her. I felt like I had committed a crime without knowing it, a crime for being different from who she was and who she wanted me to be. I lied and agreed to it all. I sold my peace of mind for an easy out. I comforted myself with the fact that I only had to keep up the charade for a few months anyway. Soon I’d be out of Miami’s eternal summer. So when my friends proposed a trip to the Everglades where cell phone service was sparse, I jumped at the chance.
I needed to get out.
Even though I’d grown up just miles away from the wetlands, save for annual car drives across the state to Marco Island, I’d never been. I didn’t know what to expect. But I would take any opportunity to get out of my house, and especially one that promised limited cell phone reception.
Amid the marsh and fauna, my paranoia dissipated. As the sun set, we all gathered in our tent, snuggled in our sleeping bags. My mom managed to get a call in. I answered and pretended to be sleeping over at a friend’s house who she approved of. I felt so at ease, among my friends and the girl that I loved, that the lying felt like the truth. We set up haphazard lanterns, casting the tent in a warm orange glow. In the wetlands, for the first time in months, I felt safe and free.
In the wetlands, for the first time in months, I felt safe and free.
Cared for by Miccosukee and Seminole people, the Everglades has long been a site of refuge. As early as 1689, formerly enslaved Black people fled from South Carolina to Spanish Florida seeking freedom. The Maroon people took shelter in the seemingly harsh terrain of the Everglades and were welcomed by the Seminole people. The land that was previously seen as harsh and brutal by colonial forces was actually a site of survival, new life, and renewal.
The Everglades and its most desolate areas also have a storied history of supernatural occurrences. Centuries later, in 1996, all 110 passengers died on ValuJet Flight 592. The plane crashed into the Everglades about ten minutes after taking off from Miami and disappeared from radar at the exact time that it crashed. Eyewitnesses in a small private plane reported that Flight 592 seemed to “disappear” after hitting the swamp. Years later, another plane crashed into the Everglades, and the few survivors reported seeing ghosts of the victims during later flights. Other legends tell of a “skunk ape,” related to bigfoot/Sasquatch, and a ghost ship that drifts quietly through the sawgrass.
The night we gathered around the Ouija board in our tent, the spirit we summoned, Claire, was one of the phantoms that loomed in the Everglades. She was a French settler from the 1800s and had died from tuberculosis. When her newborn baby died, she was consumed by melancholy and lost the will to survive. During our encounter, Claire told us we needed to see a psychic. She was a lost spirit in limbo because of her own unprocessed grief during her lifetime. As we learned more of her story, others in the group grew concerned. They asked for permission to leave—proper Ouija etiquette—but the planchette kept shifting to no. It may have been the ideomotor effect, an unconscious, involuntary physical movement—that is, we moved when we were not trying to move—or maybe it was a spirit reluctant to let go of her one connection to life.
Claire unlocked a collective subconscious knowledge for each of us in the circle—that grief must be processed and released regardless of the pain.
Once we had finally gained permission to leave, I checked my phone. My mom’s routine paranoid texts did not faze me. Maybe it was the result of being faced with a spirit who couldn’t break free from the life she’d led and was bound by, or maybe it was the comfort of having my girlfriend pressed against me in the dark. But I saw my mother’s texts for what they were: a futile attempt to maintain the control over my life that she knew was quickly slipping away. Soon I would be gone, and she’d have relatively little say over my personal life. My mother’s rage did not change my truth. If I allowed my mother’s paranoia to kill my relationship, I would be the one to carry that loss—not her.
For a moment, as we sat reeling from the summoning, my mother’s disapproval felt so minor. Minor in comparison to Claire’s situation and in comparison to, well, everything. We were sleeping in the midst of historic land, land rife with spirits and healing. Maybe this issue with my mom would just be a bump in our personal history. But like the Everglades, life would move on, I thought, it would evolve. Our relationship had to grow. The alternative, Claire seemed to present, was getting stuck in some limbo between isolation and despair.
That evening, we played manhunt under the stars and in the pitch-black night. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face past the darkness. But it was freeing—running wild in the wetlands with nothing holding us back. A year later, my mother would put aside her fear of what my sexuality would mean for my life and accept me, but I didn’t know that then. That night, the only thing that mattered was beyond my mother or my girlfriend’s acceptance. I was reclaiming my own sense of self. The next morning, a frantic scourge of mosquitoes finally scared us away. As we drove, the Everglades in our rearview, I let go of the fear of being myself. I carried the land and its medicine with me.
Alexandra Martinez is a Cuban-American writer and editor based in Miami, FL. She covers arts and culture with a focus on the Cuban diaspora. She graduated from Columbia University in 2014 with a Bachelors in Film Studies and has worked on feature-length fiction and documentary post production teams. Including Ken Burns’ “Jackie Robinson” and Frances Negron-Muntaner’s “War for Guam”. Find her at alexandra-martinez.net