“We will look forever. I know we will solve the mystery of BURNT BABY!” - age 10
Years of reading Nancy Drew and Boxcar Children books had a profound effect on my imagination. At nine years old I memorized Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and would repeat it to myself every night in bed. I don’t want to say that I was morbid. I wasn’t morbid. I never lit animals on fire or wanted to paint my bedroom black. But I DID enjoy a good murder mystery. When I was ten, one such mystery found itself in the backyard burn pile of our newly purchased home: The Mystery of the BURNT BABY.
My Mom’s backyard was a fantastical place when we first moved in. It had overgrown bushes we used as forts and old gnarled trees that looked like hands. At night I would peek out my window and see the finger branches reaching out and snatching up a squirrel or low-flying bird. It was awesomely terrifying. There was also a long forgotten burn pile that up until BURNT BABY day, we had stayed away from. It was ashy, dark and near the back of the yard where monsters were most likely to live.
One day, sometime in the fall, our cousin’s came over to enjoy the backyard shenanigans. Each of us had a stick and we began poking them into the burn pile. My sister (who has always been the most fearless) got right in there and started picking out little pieces of who knows what (clothes, papers, shards of glass, poisons). You know, stuff for kids. About 10 minutes in, she came up covered in soot and holding a strange piece of seared cloth. It could have been anything; a dishrag, a shriveled up phone book. But for some reason, we immediately assumed it to be BABY CLOTHES. All of us started digging in this sick pile until we unearthed another shocking indication; negatives. After holding them up to the sun light, we saw that they were old baby pictures. My cousin Greg dove into the pile and picked up something that looked like a charred banana peel. He put it slowly up to his nose and sniffed it with dramatic emphasis. He turned his head to each of us and declared, “It smells like…BURNT BABY!”
We all started screaming and ran back towards the house. We attacked my Mom demanding she call the police, because there was clearly a baby body in the burn pile. She was surprisingly calm considering the situation that was unfolding. We couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to cal the police! Had she been involved somehow? Was this “burnt baby” the reason we got the house for so cheap? How did Greg know what a burnt baby smelled like? There were too many questions left unanswered. We spent the better part of the next two years discussing the mystery and digging for clues. “Burnt Baby” took over our young lives and we did find a few other pieces of evidence.
Evidence 1: A few days later, I found a key in the yard. It was unanimously decided that this was the key to the lock to the secret underground trap where the baby had been kept until its fateful demise.
Evidence 2: An old looking soda can turned up. Somebody was watching us and drinking old soda. We were getting too close to the truth.
Evidence 3: A few weeks after the initial discovery, the four of us spent the night at my grandma’s condo. My cousin Jessica and I were staying up late in the guest room. I looked out the window and saw a flickering light coming from a condominium unit across the street. I told her I saw somebody moving in the shadows under said light. Jessica, always the realist, explained intelligently (at age 10) that it was probably just the dark playing tricks on my mind. I explained to her that she should take this more seriously. This was obviously the baby murderer, and we were his next victims. It is well known that people who murder babies move onto older children as they become more proficient at murdering. We were the perfect targets to try out his newfound skills.
Evidence 4: My sister Haley pooped her bed. She had never done this before, and I was confident it was because she was slowly being poisoned.
Evidence 5: I found a piece of well-cooked rope somewhere near the burn pile. Do I even need to say it? The rope that the baby was tied up with, obviously!
My sister and cousins grew bored of “burnt baby” much faster than I did. My imagination has always run rampant and being a detective was my go to career move when asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Even after the attention had faded, I would occasionally write about it in my diary. There are entries spanning three years! I’m sad to say that I never did solve the mystery of BURNT BABY, but to this day I check out friends and neighbors burn piles. I can’t help it. When recently purchasing my first home, having a large and tangled/ somewhat creepy backyard was a must. Knotted trees, overgrown ivy and thorny bushes hiding secrets are my weakness. I bought the house with the worst possible yard. It’s been the bane of my husbands existence, and my secret indulgence.
I planted a garden this spring, and during my excavation of the land- I found an archaic looking garden tool. It was made entirely of heavy metal, and looked like something out of the dark ages. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about the burnt baby murderer once I uncovered it. My thought process went exactly like this-
“What the fuck is this? Oh wow… COOOL! OLD GARDEN TOOL! Somebody has gardened here, in this exact spot, hundreds of years ago!... Or did something else and tried to bury the evidence…man, this thing is heavy. Really heavy. Heavy enough to hurt somebody… This reminds me of burnt baby… Woah, my mom’s house is just around the corner. Oh yea, I’m keeping this.”
Parents, when your kids are “finding clues” to things in your backyard and digging up your flower garden- don’t deny them the fun. I was allowed to explore all aspects of my imagination (even the more gruesome parts). Doing so helped me retain some of the magic of childhood, even in my adult life. Nothing makes me happier than finding a relic buried deep underneath my front porch, or coming across a black and white picture of strangers. I never really wanted to solve the mystery of “burnt baby”, I just wanted the story to keep going. Much like life, it wasn’t the ending that I was excited for, but the surprise twist around the next corner. When everyone else has grown up and forgotten how to believe in what was never there, I strongly suggest taking the opposite stance. I continue to trust in the power of a good story and because they are constantly unfolding around me, my life will never be boring. I can only hope the same for my children…Maybe I’ll throw a couple of dolls in the burn pile though, just to get things started.