The spot in my yard
This story is true.
There is a place in my yard where the grass won’t grow.
We moved to this foothill of a foothill eight years ago. We live on the downward slope of a rise they call a mountain. It sits in shadow of the highest point in this part of the county. If you stand on top of my mountain, you can see the top of the other. If you stand on top of that one, you can see the Blue Ridge Mountain range. The ground here is red clay and stains clothes like blood. Against common sense, it holds nature’s roots, and that was reason enough for the people here to plant.
A man named Rivers Stone developed this land when I was a teenager. He owned the mountain and made millions planting tract homes on hillsides full of sweetgum and oak. He knew this land was different. Unlike developers who would follow him, Stone left the biggest trees, the kind of towering shade structures that could grow in any soil. Whether a marketing scheme or respect for the land, the remaining mature forest provides shade on hot days. It’s enough to make one wonder how the grass grows so thick on ground that doesn’t see the sun.
When we moved in, the previous owners had ripped a row of dead red tips from the property line and left a muddy, copper-colored mess along the old lady neighbor’s fence line. We planted new trees and tended to the land. The fescue grew on our happy half-acre and we were sure we’d found the perfect little place to start our family. It all flourished, blossomed, and looked great from March to November. All except for one spot.
A year or so into our stay here, I noticed the place where the grass wouldn’t grow. I considered it a failure on my part. As I stood on my porch and looked across the yard, I saw that my patch of red clay was fertile. I knew the grass would grow thick, lush, and as green as the clay soil was red. I must have done something wrong.
I hired a lawn service. The men in the bright red trucks came with their fertilizers, aerators, clippers, mowers, and seed. They made my thick carpet of fescue even thicker. They stood on the curb and surveyed their work. They smiled, stood like men, and knew they had made a good lawn even better. What they couldn’t see from that spot in the cul-de-sac was the spot in my backyard where the grass won’t grow.
Several years ago, my dog, a 13-pound mutt, pulled a few things out of the ground and left them near the bare spot in the lawn. Even at a distance, it was clear they were bones. The marrow was all but gone, the bone itself half-stained with red clay. There were three or four pieces, all curved in the same way. I pretended to be tough and picked them up one by one to examine them. They were ribs, no doubt in my mind.
One would think I’d spent enough times in high school science classrooms—and if not that, butcher shops—to know the difference between human bones and something from a pig. As I stood there on that early Spring day, I had no idea. I held one up to my own chest. Two pieces, when put together correctly, fit perfectly on one side of my sternum. Two pieces of rib, because somebody had sawed through the bone.
Just as, I thought, a butcher would.
I tossed the rib bones back into the yard and wondered why anyone would ever bury their table scraps in the yard. More, I wondered how my dog found them and why she left them for me to find.
The phone rang so hard it almost shook itself off my bedside table. I pulled the cobwebs apart and reached for the receiver. Before I remembered I had moved the phone to my wife’s side of the bed, the earpiece was against my head. A child’s voice–a young girl by the sound of it–was on the other end of the line.
“Uh-huh…” I wasn’t quite awake yet. I’d been in the middle of a particularly ugly dream about my little dog. She was sick and I couldn’t make her better. I hated dreams like that.
“I just wanted to warn you,” she said. She sounded tentative, as if she were afraid herself. “The man was outside your house again this morning.”
“What man?” A better question would’ve been: Who are you? But that’s not what I asked.
“The same man that’s been there every morning this week. He was trying to get your dog to come to the curb.” She was talking faster.
“My dog is right here next to me,” I said.
“I have to go. Bye.” She was gone with a click.
That was a dream within a dream I had in 2002. I wrote about it here and then wrote it off to some Chinese food. I didn’t think about it again until my dog found the bones. The idea that some man who wanted to steal my dog stood outside my house at night only scared me long enough to shake me out of sleep. It was absurd.
Still, it set my mind to wondering about the few pieces of rib bone my dog pulled from the red clay in our back yard. It’s soil that seems too thick and hard to grow anything, and yet it shoots hibiscus, tulips, and dark green fescue from its grasp every Spring. Rainwater flows down the mountain and soaks into the ground a life and shoots from a bed of fertilizer I can’t see. Roses, ivy, and holly mix pinks, greens, and red without fail. It seems there is nothing that won’t spring from the ground around my home. Even bones.
Still, there is a place in my yard where grass won’t grow. I stand and look at it and wonder what is in that soil that snuffs any life that tries to poke through the clay. Nothing I do, nothing the professionals do, nothing nature can do will let life survive in that circle of backyard.
Tonight, as midnight approaches and the October air feels cold, another thought is niggling at my brain. It’s as uncomfortable and absurd as the thought of a man standing outside my house waiting for a chance to snatch my dog. It’s the type idea a man shouldn’t have when he has shovel in the garage and enough caffeine to keep him awake until dawn.
There’s a place in my yard where the grass doesn’t grow. That much is evident with every trip I make out my back door. What may be less clear to people—people who haven’t lived here for eight years, who haven’t tried to make life happen in that circle, who haven’t seen the rib bones spring like weeds on the fence line—is that nothing was ever supposed to grow there. Nothing was ever supposed to grow on my half-acre in paradise.
It occurs to me there’s a place in my yard where no one is buried.
Happy Halloween, y’all.