by Hannah L. Clay
The cherub garden is full of tiny graves. Some of them hold the bodies of unnamed children
(Baby Boy Johnson, whose life spanned only 47 minutes, has a family but not a name). If the
coffin is small enough, the funeral home may throw in the headstone (barely big enough to write
“Here lies Baby Boy Johnson. God keep our beloved son.”) for free. A newborn’s coffin is
roughly the size of a safety deposit box.
Two-year-old John Dewey fell into a vat of hot oil. They swaddled him, mummy-like, in strips of
cloth and laid him by the fire, where he burst into flames and died. He was replaced, almost
exactly nine months later, by John Dewey, philosopher. What did it feel like to fill those
infant shoes, to live in the shadow of those callous flames? When his mother called his name, did John
Dewey, philosopher, ever feel like she was looking for someone else?
We held the baby for two hours. She did not cry, or move, or breathe. She was as delicate as a
Communion wafer – so tiny, so barely there that it seemed like a single touch might break her
apart. We buried her in a baptismal gown made from my mother’s wedding dress and named her
after a flower, knowing that she would make her home in the soil with the ants, and the
earthworms, and little John Dewey.
John Dewey’s mother, like mine, was a strict Calvinist. Though likely conflicted, she would have
believed that some of the infants in the cherub garden are damned to eternal torment, that the
flames that consumed little John Dewey might still torture him to this day. I find it difficult to
find comfort in the nuances of this theology, to believe that a flower, crushed and lifeless though
she may be, might deserve the flames of hell.
I cannot leave that flower in the ground. I dig her up every chance I get and wear her as a
pendant round my neck, a tattoo on my body. I expand around her memory, as if I could give
birth to her myself. My mother rarely speaks her name, but like John Dewey, philosopher,
I sometimes feel I must live a life for both of us, as if I could pull her from the flames, as if my
faith could be enough to save her, too.
Hannah L. Clay (she/her) is a writer, archivist, PhD student, and writing instructor in Boston, MA. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Boston College and a Master of Library and Information Science from Simmons University. Her work has previously been published in The Aquarian.