Elizabeth Banicki

Who Cares for the Dead

A lean man of average height with intelligent eyes set far apart, a narrow chin, and a mouth that sloped downward at its corners, August was quiet and diligent. He wiped a streaming droplet of sweat from his temple and went on steering the push mower around a patch of pink primrose. It was just a few days into May but already the heat was enough to parch his throat. The terrors had come again in his sleep the night before, and his eyes were heavy and red with fatigue. He had awoken, crawled from his bed to the floor and prayed with all his might to Jesus. “Please Lord,” he begged. “Set me free.”

As he mowed, his mind drifted from thoughts of Josephine and the honeyed smell of her perfume to how the grass would be turning brown before long and he would need to keep a handle on the weeds and water the few hardy plants that could endure the coming inferno of the Texas summertime.

The cemetery was home to one-hundred-thirty dead and August Albert Cook had been their groundskeeper for as long as he could remember. He knew every grave like he knew the contours of his own face. The bulk of the deceased consisted of two families, one with near two dozen members of German descent laid to rest with their headstones written entirely in German script. The people had settled here, and their language sounded clunky and exaggerated compared with the creamy drawl of the natives, August thought. They had icy suspicious eyes that put him on edge. Grassyville was August’s home but he kept to its periphery. The two families combined had fifteen children of varying ages who were all prematurely dead. August could remember the funerals as he had dug the graves and likewise filled them in. Each instance of a passing had washed him in a renewed sense of sympathy for the people, though he knew nothing he felt was of any consequence to them.

There were seven soldiers buried amongst the rest of the general population, and two unmarked headstones. A thoughtful man, August was compelled to pay special attention to those left unidentified because they were people who had been forgotten, or who had never been known at all, and that idea put a lump in his throat and a heaviness in his heart. Each spring when the poppies, indian paintbrushes, pink ladies, and thistle erupted from the ground August tended them like they were a part of him and let them grow wild between graves.

Looking back to ensure he had cut as close as possible without damaging any blossoms he thought, “They bring life to these dead.”

August’s companion was a dog with pointed ears, a curly tail, and four white legs. The rest of his coat was the color of fire. August had thought for a long time about an appropriate name. He deliberated carefully and after numerous eliminations decided on Red Dog. He was satisfied he had done the animal justice.

During working hours, Red Dog was gone venturing the dense woods and cow prairies surrounding the town. Where he went and what he did was a mystery, but without fail every evening as August crossed the field at the end of the day the dog met him in the tall grass, and when August awoke in the morning to see the rising sun seeping in through the windows Red Dog was already gone.

There is more to caring for a boneyard than most might imagine. Aside from mowing and weeding, the low-hanging branches of the cedar elms and live oaks had to be kept trimmed and the graves cleared of their dead leaves. The iron fence enclosing the acre and a half yard needed constant inspection to ensure it did not start leaning if the ground shifted during heavy rains. The headstones were of particular concern to August because they were symbols of the dignity of the deceased who, as he believed, should not be neglected just because dead. It was the opposite, he felt, in that even if an individual had been unworthy in life, in death, they had at least the right to be remembered, to be considered. In a sense the headstone acts as a stand-in for the dead in the world of the living. Might the dead not want, deserve even, to have their surrogate be well maintained? And so, he took his time looking over the stones. Carrying a pail of soapy water, a rag, and a wire bristle brush he visited each site and on his knees scrubbed away mold and mossy fungus from the names, dates, and words of mourning etched into the rocks. When he got to the last graves, the unmarked ones isolated in the corner of the yard, he left the cemetery with his lunch in a cloth sack and walked along the dirt road to pick flowers.

August could not recall where he had been born and had only a vague memory of his mother. He had been on his own since youth and earned his food and a roof by doing odd jobs for the residents of town. His true age he did not know but he placed himself somewhere around forty years. He was married once briefly to Josephine, a woman who had captivated him with her wit and large cocoa colored eyes. She had been as in love as he, but the final days of their life together had been strange and puzzling to August. Josephine had suddenly packed a bag and left Grassyville in the middle of a freezing January night. He had pleaded with her for her reasons why, but she offered no explanation and rushed away as though he had ceased to exist. She was just gone, and he had kept his emotions below the surfaced so that it may have appeared as though he handled things fine. But inside from that moment forward he was profoundly lost.

Since that night August had been routinely tormented by recurring episodes of sleep terror. There were no dreams or any recognizable source for these panic attacks in a way that he could have explained them. Rather they were visceral, the sense that he was being closed in on and clawing for an escape. These attacks woke him from even the deepest sleep and his bed sheet would be soaked with sweat and his heart hammering against the inside of his chest. In those first moments of confused consciousness his mind raced searching for an anchor and all it found was the deafening strum of crickets echoing through the screen door.

Along the roadside the dense woods smelled of cedar and sunshine. It had rained the previous night and the creek, which ran across a section of the road, was gushing over the rock bed. The Methodist church, behind which August meant to find the flowers, stood in a clearing to the left. He sat on the edge of the church’s wooden porch and unwrapped a small boiled potato and a chunk of fried pork from a brown piece of paper. The day was beautiful, and he felt simple joy. He ate his lunch and thought about Josephine, about where she might be. Where had she gone to live out her life and did she think of him? A year or so before she disappeared, she had wanted them to leave Grassyville and go north. The idea appealed but they both knew he ultimately could not find it in himself to make the move. He was a stagnant man and she did not hold this against him despite the unsettling feelings growing within her.

August cut the flower stems with his pocketknife so as to not tear up the roots. When he had enough to make two diverse bunches, he pulled a knot of twine from his pocket and cut two equal pieces. His leathery fingers worked the twine around the delicate stems tying them together. The walk down the road had simplified his mood, recovered him from the torment of the night, and put him into a kind of reflective trance. 

Late afternoon cast a golden hue across the graveyard and surrounding fields. August looked in to check for any sign of visitors, found none so he headed up toward his shack. Red Dog met him halfway and together they went about doing chores. He hauled buckets of water up from the creek to boil for use, set feral hog traps in the woods, and tended his vegetable beds. Then he sat on a wooden chair just outside his front door and had a pop of whiskey. Red Dog laid near him, resting his head on the ground, and watching August with a look of drowsy contentment in his shining eyes. August sipped and watched the prairie grass wave hypnotically in the breeze. From his chair he could see the cemetery across the field and instinctively his eyes shifted to it.

“Well what in the lord’s name you reckon ta see ova-yonder old man!” he laughed but the sound of his own voice shook him. He realized how long it had been since he had last spoken. He thought about it but could not in fact remember the last time he had said anything out loud other than a few words to Red Dog. He had not had a conversation in what seemed like decades yet strangely felt no longing. Never had he been struck by such a sense of the limitations of his existence. “I isn’t who I was,” he said confused but knowing that somehow, he no longer recognized himself and that the man he had known to be August Cook was diminished. Like mist he had an intangible presence in the world, invisible and inconsequential, but still conscious and able to recognize his own isolation. Night fell over August and he slid off to sleep laying on his cot stroking Red Dog behind the ear and listening to the patter of rain on the rooftop.

Again, he was overcome by the darkness of his subconscious. Falling through an abyss, his arms flailed in a desperate search for something to grasp. There was a tightness in his throat that only allowed him shallow breath and his skin felt like it was ripping. He struggled against an awesome weight that came upon his chest and body, and with all his effort he tried to free himself but could not move his arms, his legs, nor even lift his head. The cinching feeling around his throat grew so intense he felt as though his eyeballs would dislodge. He fought until he had no fight left and was as exhausted as he had ever been. His body went limp as he freefell through the void and all fear went out of him leaving only the bitter acceptance of defeat. He began to weep and the harder he cried the more weightless he felt. In a final gasping effort, he opened his eyes to the sun-drenched room. It was late morning and he was sweating under the sheet. He turned his head to the side and a tear streamed from the corner of his eye. It hung momentarily then detached, landing on the pillow. His eyes tracked a trail of darkened spots on the floor where Red Dog had lapped water and left a dribble path on the wood leading out the door.

In a residual mental fog leftover from chaos August made his way to the stove, lit it with a match, and put a small pot of water on the flame to boil. He set a metal strainer on a cup and poured coffee grounds from a can into the strainer. Stroking the stubble on his hollow cheeks he walked over to his rusted metal bed frame, which doubled as a clothes hanger, and pulled on the shirt he had worn the day before, along with a stained pair of pants. The water bubbled through the grounds and he put his face over the steam inhaling deeply. His brain was flooded with the desire to connect with another human being. He drank the coffee black and quickly, feeling the bitter heat on his throat. Then he wrapped a slice of bread in paper and put it in his sack along with a can of sardines.

The flowers he had picked the day before were on the table in a tin full of water. He slid his boots on, took the flowers and his sack, and pushed through the screen door out into the white sunlight.

He looked over the field as he made his way towards the graves. On his tongue he could taste the sweetness of fading spring. As he walked the trail between the forest and the prairie, he could see what he thought was a gap in the iron gate. Stopping on the path he shaded his dark eyes with his large hand, squinting and struggling to make them focus through the sun’s reflections. The gate was open. Gripping the flowers, he began stepping quickly along the path. “I know dat dere gate was closed,” he questioned himself, canvassing mental images of what he had seen the day before after leaving the church and walking home, passing the yard on his way. His brow furrowed deeply; he was sure nothing had been left undone. “Dey been ta visit?” He pondered the likelihood, “Da people,” his brain traced portraits of them, the children, the soldiers in their grey coats with brass buttons, the blue eyes empty and cold. It was possible, though August could not remember anyone having visited in so long.

He reached the yard and surveyed. There was a little patch of ground just beneath the gate where grass had never grown and where there was only dirt, and on this morning mud. In the mud were two small narrow footprints. Unmistakable. August looked up and scanned the grounds but could see no one. The smell of gardenia, a woman’s perfume, slid across the perspiration on his upper lip and into his nostrils which were wide and panting from his sprint. He turned in circles looking out onto the cow prairie and down the dirt road, and in all directions. He walked the graves looking for any new ornamentation that would indicate who had received the visit. As he paced, the corner with the unmarked stones caught his eye because something was propped against one of the headstones. He got to the grave in a few long strides and saw it was a small plaque with gold lettering. August went to his knees and read:

August Albert Cook

Birth Unknown – Death 1895

May His Soul Rest in Eternal Peace

August stared at the words reading them several times. His fingertips grazed his Adam’s apple and wrapped around his throat. Birds chirped in the trees overhead and sweat ran down between his shoulder blades. He looked at his hands, at the one still holding the flowers their stems crushed and discolored.

August read the words again trying to digest their meaning. He thought of how many times, how many years gone by, he had walked the dirt road to the church to gather flowers. Memories flashed through his mind in no kind of orderly sequence and they were all in Grassyville, and he felt he had never been anywhere but here. He looked up and Red Dog was laying in the shade of an elm watching him and panting in the heat. “You know me,” There was a desperation in his tone. “You always knowed me,” he said in a broken whisper, extending his trembling hand to set the flowers on the ground next to the plaque. 

After years of exercising horses at America’s Thoroughbred racetracks, Elizabeth Banicki began writing. Her work on horseracing has been published in The Guardian and has been nominated in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Essays. She has also written features and book reviews for The Austin Chronicle and is currently creating her first short fiction collection. The story submitted here is based on a visit to a ghost town in Bastrop, Texas where all that is left of the people who once lived there is a quiet graveyard in the middle of a remote and isolated prairie.