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Divine Providence

About 24 hours before my arrival at the Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island, I

found myself wandering the third floor of the University of Rhode Island library. It was by sheer

happenstance that I stood in the aisle concerned entirely with Latin American Affairs, whose

shelves were crammed full of dusty, worn books about everything from communism to slavery

to voodoo practices. A book called The Magic Island caught my eye, and as I mulled the words

over in my mind, and began to wonder: What magic was there to find in my home state of Rhode

Island?

Supposedly, there is plenty. The city of Providence, in particular, is home to many superstitious

legends and sights. This is unsurprising news to anyone who knows Providence as I do: the

trendy capital city divided in half by a river, whose revered East Side is filled with funky

restaurants, important politicians, Rhode Island School of Design artists, and Brown University

students. I began tracing destinations and travel routes on a map of this part of town. The next

morning, sipping an overpriced iced coffee, I took exit 23 off of I-95 North and began my

journey towards three destinations, each with a legend or superstition of its own.

I drove a whopping ten miles per hour the entire time I was within the gates of the cemetery. I

was directionless, fueled only by intuition, curiosity, and the promise that the headstone of H.P.

Lovecraft existed somewhere in this giant graveyard. H.P. Lovecraft is considered to be one of

the most important 20th century authors of horror and weird fiction, but he was never recognized
or celebrated for his work while he was alive. In fact, he lived quite a sad and meager existence,

never making enough money to support himself. It was only after his death in 1937 that he rose

to literary fame, and since then he has amassed a significant number of fans and admirers. In

1977, these fans raised enough money to buy Lovecraft a headstone of his own, the very thing I

was searching for. I have admittedly never read a word of H.P. Lovecraft, but I can appreciate

the love and connection these fans felt; in fact, I traveled to another hemisphere to visit the

resting place of my favorite poet.

I drove along the twisting roads lined by towering monuments and tombstones. According to the

internet, I would find the grave at the intersection of Avenue B and Pond Avenue, neither of

which seemed to exist on the blurry cemetery map stretched across my steering wheel. When I

finally turned onto the elusive Avenue B and found the Phillips family monument looming above

me after 45 minutes of wandering, I gave thanks to whatever higher power had been helping me.

I heard rumors that Lovecraft admirers are known to leave gifts of candles at his headstone, and,

according to my friend, it’s even a tradition to drip melted candlewax onto the grave. This ritual

was to be my first task of the day, but as I strode along the frozen grass, enchanted by the heavy

silence hanging all around me, I realized that I had forgotten my candle at home.

The headstone was small and plain. There were exactly none of the promised drippings of

candlewax, but the sight was curious nonetheless. Gifts left at the grave included a pen from La

Quinta Inn and a Skyn condom, still in its wrapper. As I stooped over to ponder the small mound

of trinkets and tokens, the careful warble of a bird pierced the silence. I wandered out of the
cemetery in a trance, overcome by the powerful, if odd, show of devotion to Lovecraft’s words. I

made a mental note to read something of his.

I turned out of the cemetery entrance onto Blackstone Boulevard, and began my trip to College

Hill. After navigating a series of residential streets lined with colorful, gothic-style homes, I

parked my car in a visitor lot on the far end of Brown University’s campus. I embarked on foot

towards the main quadrangles, and my next destination. Thayer Street was nearly empty, which I

found peculiar even in January. I was relieved at the lack of students; even without them, I found

myself hyper-aware of my status as a public university student, an imposter among the

prestigious academic prodigies. I swallowed the thought that I didn’t belong, and followed a pair

of middle-aged professors speaking an undetermined foreign language. When they turned into a

stout, dark-bricked Mathematics building, I continued along Thayer, admiring the 1920’s

dormitories and classic Ivy League architecture lining either side of the street. I reached a stately

concrete arch, towering above all the surrounding structures, and I knew I was nearing my

destination.

The Van Wickle Gates perch assertively at the top of College Street, and serve as the pedestrian

entrance to Brown University. The main academic campus is made up of two grass quads,

adorned with obscure sculptures, such as a limbless tree enveloping a boulder. The turf is

surrounded by a range of academic buildings constructed from deep burgundy bricks, sand-

colored concrete, and wide panes of clear glass. I followed the walking path, eventually

encountering the Van Wickle Gates: my next stop in the search for superstition. The gates are

named after Augustus Stout Van Wickle, the Brown alumnus who bequeathed them to his alma
mater. The structure itself is comprised of three giant wrought-iron gates, set into a brick

archway. The center gate dominates the other two in size and intricacy. These gates serve as both

a literal and figurative doorway into and out of the university. According to tradition, any Brown

student who passes through the center gate more than twice is destined to be cursed. The gate in

question is only open twice a year—at convocation, and at commencement. To pass through the

center gate more than twice is nearly impossible.

Despite full knowledge that the gate in question would be locked shut, I was still disappointed to

find myself unable to use it. Once I stepped through the left-most gate onto the cobblestone

sidewalk, I sat down on a granite bench. The frigid stone sent a chill through me as I read the

stone plaques inscribed with a dedication to Mr. Van Wickle, and something else in Latin. It was

in this spot that I heard the approaching voices of three boys, probably college-aged. I heard their

voices jabbering on long before I could see them. Someone had presumably just finished telling

the story of the curse, and the other two were jokingly attempting to break through the lock and

walk through the center gate. They emerged from the leftmost gate, the same one I had passed

through just moments before. The narrator was wearing jeans and a lightweight fleece jacket,

which I noted was rather sparse for the frigid 28-degree weather. The other two wore basketball

shorts and thin cotton t-shirts.

“I’ll use one of these knocker things and knock.”

“Yeah, that’ll work.”

It didn’t work, and eventually they gave up.


“I just wanna be cursed!” I heard them grumble as they continued down the street. I stood up

from the granite slab and set out down the hill to my next and final destination.

The Providence Athenaeum, a charming private library, is a historical and literary institution to

the city. A popular spot for students and book-lovers to enjoy a good read, the charming space is

filled with the sounds of rustling pages and creaking floorboards. While I could spend hours

between the Athenaeum bookshelves, my interest that day was not inside the library. I was there

for the centuries-old fountain cresting the front of the building. A popular legend says that

anyone who drinks the water from this fountain is forever destined to return to Rhode Island.

Making my way down the hill, I wondered what kind of person would willingly sign up for that.

I have spent my entire adolescence detesting my home state; when you’re from here, it’s hard not

to feel like Rhode Island is made of quicksand, impossible to escape. Though I’ve never lived in

this city, and the odds are that I never will, I could feel myself slipping under the spell. As I

approached the fountain, I could almost imagine a future here, tucked away in a quiet library on

Sunday afternoons, reading my way through the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I was about to seal this

fate for good.

I rounded the corner and approached the fountain. The structure is the size of a small building; a

tiny drinking fountain crowned by two arches, and sheltered beneath a pointed roof. The smooth

granite surface was ornately carved with leaves and flowers, and the arches were adorned with

the words “Come hither every one that thirsteth.” The opportunity before me was unique,

because for decades on end this fountain had been completely dry. Just the previous spring,
water was restored to the Athenaeum Fountain. I stepped forward, spellbound, and ready to

cement my destiny to this tiny state for all of eternity.

The fountain was dry. Well, not entirely dry. There were a few fallen leaves cemented in a frozen

pool of water at the bottom of the structure. Given the temperature, I should not have been

surprised; and yet, I felt a little let down. The life I had so briefly and vividly imagined for

myself in this city, filled with books and mugs of chamomile tea, seemed to wither before my

eyes.

The walk back up College Hill left me once again feeling mystified; every sight jumped out at

me as if in Technicolor, and the jumbled noise of the city faded as if someone was turning a dial.

I had embarked on this journey as a skeptic, looking to examine a few superstitions and decide

for myself if they live up to their legends. What I found was something different. Providence is a

place where magic hides between bricks, between tombstones, between wrought-iron gates.

Secrets hide beneath our feet and all around us. Superstition is stitched into the culture of this

city. Writers like Lovecraft felt this force and translated it as sinister, ghostly, malevolent.

Students like those at Brown feel this force and channel it into their studies, leaving imprints on

their institution in the form of traditions and legends all their own. Artists feel the force and use

it as creative jet fuel, holing up in makeshift studios and creating until all hours of the night. The

city itself is enchanted.

It’s hard not to slip under the spell. As I returned to my car, I found myself wading through a

certain type of sadness. I marveled at every brick, every pebble, every sidewalk crack. I didn’t
even get to drink from the Athenaeum Fountain, and yet…I felt like I was saying goodbye to

something special, an energy I hadn’t ever cared to notice. I had been so hell-bent on escaping

this state that I blinded myself to an extraordinary beauty. Perhaps, the real magic is in the things

I became numb to, the things I always chose not see: a fading headstone among thousands of

ornate monuments, an iron gate bolted shut for months on end, a marble fountain whose basin

remains frozen solid in the January cold. Perhaps, the real magic hides in the mundane.