by Heath Dollar
Johnny Benton, in his cowboy hat, starched jeans, and boots with a walking heel, parked his truck alongside the state highway, stepped across a bar ditch, and headed toward the gate of Baby Head Cemetery. The cemetery, which was situated beneath a rugged hill of pink granite and Texas scrub, was all that remained of a settlement that bore that same grim name. The burial yard was surrounded by a chain-link fence, and invariably, it seemed, every time Johnny visited, someone had strung doll heads on the gate with baling wire. Most likely, he figured, this was done by high school boys from the nearby town of Warnell when they had nothing better to do on a Saturday night. They seemed like odd totems, those plastic heads, and Johnny Benton thought of them as artificial surrogates for the trophies hung outside the lodges of warriors of bygone times, a physical warning of the danger within.
But there was no danger here. Not now anyway. And though Johnny Benton was unclear on many of the details, he knew that his family was tied to the history of this place and to the lore of its danger and horror, for his great-great aunt, a child of only four years old, was stolen and beheaded by Comanches, who then placed her head on a pike on the stone hill above. The Comanches, Johnny was told, thought this would make the outsiders leave. Instead, the outsiders named the settlement Baby Head, a gruesome reminder of the times, and stayed where they were.
Johnny Benton wondered where Nettie Louise, the little girl, was actually buried. He wondered if a chunk of granite or perhaps a long-gone wooden cross had marked her grave. There was no one to ask. The descendants of the Baby Head community, even the members of his own family, were now scattered throughout the county, and little had been passed down through the generations. There was no community knowledge, no local heritage. And perhaps the old-timers had remained reticent. Perhaps they had nothing they cared, or were even able, to say.
Johnny walked the cemetery silently, stepping around the headstones and contemplating the lives of people who had somehow become nothing more than a name and two dates in an out-of-the-way cemetery along a two-lane road. The oldest graves were of white marble, with bas reliefs of angels, lambs, and crosses upon them. Many of the graves were of children who had not yet reached their second year. The children had names, which was somewhat unusual, since many that young had not. They had simply been called “baby” until it appeared that they would manage to live. The children buried here, Johnny thought, never had the chance to truly live or enjoy life. They never had the chance to fall in love, to have a family, to pass on their values and traditions.
No one had been formally buried in the cemetery for more than half a century. And every settler family Johnny knew of had moved on or died away. The cemetery stayed mowed because Johnny mowed it. The cemetery had no weeds because Johnny sowed herbicide in early March and pulled thistle and crabgrass in the spring and summer. He wondered what would happen after he passed on. He had no children. No wife. No family. He had no one to pass the job on to. He had no one to teach the cemetery’s secrets, or at least the secrets that he knew.
Once he had a wife, but he had one no longer. She had left him years ago. Once he had three children, but they all arrived stillborn. His heirs had come stillborn, one after the other, like drowned puppies from her womb, and he and his wife had had no taste to try again after that. They had seen the three arrive dead, one after the other, one hope after the other arriving dead, without life, death wrapped in a placenta, death in the shroud of life, and he and his wife would wager for the miracle no more. They had rejoiced in the gift of life but were given the blow of stillness thrice in a single day, and never would they try again. Never again would they wager on such a cause. They loved each other. That was true. They loved each other evermore, but they became distrustful, dysfunctional, and they buttressed their love by exchanging the pills of propagation for the pills of prevention, and somehow after four more years the pain of intimate knowledge, the pain of constantly being reminded of the tragedy just by seeing one another’s face became more than they could bear, though they never unhinged their lips to speak of it, for there was no expression to speak, no expression they cared to share, for reticence was their only savior, all that could save them from the madness and grief of that thrice-cursed day, and they would drift to different rooms and different beds before drifting to different lives, lives in twain, and banishing themselves from the garden of the pills of infertility and the life they lived together. The tragedy had merged them together and then been their undoing. The act, the only act, the act of love, had become an act of trepidation, the act that could end in another calamity, a day of rough, arduous, dangerous birth that could once again end in lumps of death sprawled upon a white sheet.
Johnny walked toward the back fence of the cemetery and lay down in the grass looking up at the sky. The sky was blue and wide, and the clouds moved quickly, for Waylon County was a place where weather patterns collided, and he thought about the clouds and what they looked like, though to him they were nothing but clouds. He did not imagine seeing animals or ships or anything else. The clouds were simply clouds.
The plot where he lay had no headstone, for he had not yet ordered one. This was his grave. He had already bought it. And he had bought the plot next to it in case Deborah changed her mind. Above what would be both of their heads, he had buried the three boys, one next to the other, each in swaddling clothes and lying in a bed of limestone. He had buried each of them himself, with his own pick and shovel. He had chosen not to give them a tombstone, for that would have warranted chiseling their names, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego, upon their joint grave. He wished he could have just called them all baby, but these were not the times. The boys’ location was unknown to anyone but Johnny and his former wife, though he knew in his heart she had not been to this cemetery in at least eight years, for he doubted her heart could take it.
Johnny lay in his place and looked into the sky. He felt comfort here. Comfortable to be lost with the others, comfortable among the other broken dreams, the other tragic losses, the obsession with a past and no honest hope for a future. He was comfortable to be in a place where all was stagnant, decayed, or gone, where all was in retrograde, except the nourished green grass on which he lay. Perhaps Deborah would come back to him. Perhaps she would not. Perhaps it did not matter. It probably did not matter. He doubted it even mattered. Anyhow. He would lay on the grass in Baby Head, and he would not wait on anything or anyone, but then, he would not move on either.