Author Archive for jess

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Bastard babies are born with broken hearts: an interview with Leslie Worthington

Interview by Jessica Powers

Last week, we published Leslie Worthington’s short story, “The Beach House,” a story about a young woman, pregnant and  unwed, and trying to deal with her emotions as the father of her baby arranges an adoption. This week, I spoke with her about the spark for her story; about the realities of young women and pregnancy both today and back in the 1960s, when the story is set; and about why writing about these issues is important.

1. What was the spark for your story?

 The spark for the story came from a single sentence: “Bastard babies are born with broken hearts.”  That popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration and the oxymoronic nature of the phrase “bastard babies.”  We don’t use the word “bastard” in its original sense much anymore, so it added a shock to the statement.  At first, I thought the sentence was a line of poetry, but it eventually became the story “The Beach House.”  I wrote the story around it.

 2. Setting (time and place) is critical for this story. Can you give us a little bit of historical background for women who found themselves in your protagonist’s situation (unwed, pregnant) in the 1960s, when this story is set? The 1960s are an interesting bridge between cultural mores since the so-called “sexual revolution” was happening yet it was before Roe v. Wade.

Women find themselves in this situation even today.  Their options may be different, but sometimes when they are young and poor as Cecelia is, things aren’t all that different.  I set the story in the 60’s partly because I wanted the reader to think about that.  At first glance, you can say “oh, thank goodness it isn’t like that anymore.”  But is that really true?  Yes, as you say the sexual revolution had begun, but yet women didn’t have access to reliable birth control, there was no planned parenthood, and the options were, keep the child or put it up for adoption.  I think most women got married whether they wanted to or not.  Those who put their babies up for adoption were often hidden away as Cecelia is.  These girls were kicked out of school and sometimes sent off to homes for unwed mothers or to live with family far away so they could come back and pretend nothing had ever happened.  No one spoke of the child, and the girl could never speak of what had happened to her.  Another option was sometimes to give the child to a family member as Cecelia’s mother had left her to be raised by her grandmother.  Most of the time, these women never had a voice or avenue for release, a way to deal with their loss and pain over the huge thing that had happened to them.  They just had to shove it down inside themselves.


Dr. Leslie Worthington

Despite easy access to birth control, despite additional options, despite the lessened stigma on pregrancy without marriage, women, not just girls, still find themselves in this situation.  As a college English professor, I meet them all the time.  They are in my classes, they miss exams to have babies, and they write essays about babies they’ve lost and given up.  And society now, in the twenty-first century, isn’t as forgiving as we might like to think; these women aren’t always as forgiving of themselves. 

For Cecelia, she isn’t going to get married.  The baby’s father doesn’t have that in mind.  Her family thinks she is, so she can’t even go home without humiliation.  Can she go home to her grandparents with a baby, as her mother did?  It’s obvious she doesn’t have the means to keep the baby and care for it by herself.  It’s also obvious that she doesn’t want to give that baby up.  She’s decided on the baby’s gender, given him a name, and a future.  She’s imagined his future without her.  She’s fallen in love with her child before he’s even born, as mothers do.  Cecelia faces a horrible dilemma.

3. I love the ending, where we don’t know if Cecilia dies or just imagines her death and, later, makes it to shore. Metaphorically, however, she felt as though her life was essentially over. Can you talk about how you crafted the ambiguity and the metaphor into that ending?

I guess I haven’t thought much about intentionally crafting the ambiguity of the ending.  I’ve displeased some readers who couldn’t believe I’d create a woman who would kill her child.  I think the ambiguity comes from the fact that even Cecelia doesn’t know what she’s going to do.  She doesn’t set out intending to commit suicide.  She doesn’t go into the water intending it.  Maybe she thinks she’s letting fate take over, and the universe will decide.  She’s been in denial, not thinking about what’s going to happen.  She’s a very adaptable person, as we can see from her memories of her life before the baby.  She’s alone, and her future is uncertain, but she’s making the best of where she’s found herself.  She’s enjoying the leisure, her reading, the beach.  Being able to adapt to change and stick it out through hard times is a desirable and even admirable quality, but sometimes it hurts us.  Sometimes we need to be able to say, “No, stop this” “or I want out of this.  I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Wes’s remark about this being over soon sets her thinking more deeply about her situation.  So when she sets out for her walk that day, reality is flooding over her.  She does not want to give up her baby, and maybe killing herself and taking the baby with her is the only control she’s ever going to have over her own life.

One thing I did want the story to have was metaphor.  I wanted the things she sees on her walk along the beach to have meaning to her, as our surroundings take on life and meaning when significant things are happening to us internally.  Yellow houses become symbols of a happy life.  Birds protecting their nests become young mothers who have to give up their babies.  The world around Cecelia becomes infused with meaning as she becomes more emotionally aware.

4.  Why do you think it’s important to probe these issues surrounding sexuality, pregnancy, and motherhood in literature?

These issues are part of our common experience, and art is a cultural experience as well as an individual one.  I don’t believe literature has to be didactic, but it does need to be about something, something important.  Sexuality, pregnancy, motherhood are all important to who we are as women, and the sharing of these experiences and feelings joins us.  Sharing can sometimes lead to healing.

5.  What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished an academic book about intertextual connections between Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy entitled Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn.  It was released a couple of weeks ago.  I’m currently working with a colleague on an anthology of essays about images and definitions of home in the work of Appalachian artists.

With my own fiction, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for some time now.  It will probably be called Odes of Solitude. Each piece has a female character who imagines, remembers, or hallucinates the story, yet she’s the only character who is actually present.  “The Beach House” is part of the collection.  And I continue to write poetry, usually about the experiences of women: career, love, children, grandchildren, and balancing all our many, many roles.

The Beach House

Fiction by Leslie Harper Worthington

Cecelia walked the beach again that morning.  A few other beach houses dotted the shore, but she didn’t give a damn.  She was barefoot and big-bellied.  It was 1962, and she wasn’t hiding any more.

She had that dream again last night, the one where she gave birth to three little black kittens, each small enough to fit in her shoe.  What would he think if that was all he got – little black kittens?  She tried to keep herself from such silly thoughts.

Seagulls were soaring overhead and diving for their breakfast.  Raw fish didn’t sound like a bad morning meal, but she had to admit she’d been eating some strange things lately and craving even stranger ones.

That Army doctor said not to gain more than twenty-five pounds.  It’d been only seven months and she was sure she’d already gained more than that.  What did he know about having babies?  He’s an Army doctor.  Still, it was nice of him to see her, considering she and Wes weren’t married.

According to that palm reader, they were never going to be.  No one can see that in your hand.  “This child will not fulfill your expectations.”  What did that even mean?  If you talk in riddles, then people can believe what they want to believe.  The girl wasn’t much older than Cecilia herself.  She had startled Cecelia when she approached her on the boardwalk and took her hand without asking, but Cecelia could see reassurance in her hazel eyes.  “It’s going to be okay, “was what Cecelia saw her eyes say.  Who knows what more she could have said if Wes hadn’t pulled them apart.  “This is nonsense,” he said as he took Cecelia by the arm and guided her toward the clown giving out candy on the other side of boardwalk.  Cecelia didn’t realize she was even showing.  Wes probably didn’t either.  It was the last time he’d taken her out anywhere.

Wes’s sergeant was kind to let her stay at his parents’ beach house.  She wondered if they even knew she’d been there the last four months.  Everyone was being so nice.  For Wes’s sake.  It wasn’t as if any of them knew Cecelia.  She had never seen any of these people before Wes brought her here, and he wouldn’t have done that if not for the baby.  He was being nice for the sake of the baby.  What was going to happen after?  She didn’t mean happen to the baby.  Wes had that all planned out.  The baby would have some where to go.  But what was going to happen to her?  Who was going to be nice to her then?

She’d like to stay right here forever.  True, there wasn’t a radio or television, but that made it peaceful.  The high ceilings of the beach house reminded her of the church she had attended as a child, the church where she’d learned to sing “I’ll Fly Away” and “In the Garden.”  That white church around the corner from her house had been the place she’d loved most.  She’d sneak in early to listen to the choir practice before service began.  She wanted to sing too.  The church was close enough that she could walk there by herself, so she never had to ask for a ride.

She didn’t have a ride anywhere now either.  If she had a car, she could leave when she wanted, but she wasn’t sure she would ever want to leave.  She found the solitude restful.  She could barely remember a time before she’d had to work day in and day out.  She’d started working weekends at the mill when she was fourteen and had quit school to work full time at sixteen.  Before the mill, she had helped Momaw watch the babies she kept during the day while their Mommas worked.  She felt like more than four months would be required to rest from the first twenty years of her life.

She didn’t want to go anywhere right now.  Wes came every Saturday, and she wasn’t half way through The Complete Works of Mark Twain she’d found on the shelves in the living room.  She couldn’t leave until she finished. Huckleberry Finn was currently keeping her company.

What if she had a boy?  Would Wes let her name him Huckleberry?  Of course not.  She wasn’t going to get to name him anything.  But Huckleberry could be his secret name, just between the two of them, while she still had him.  When she remembered his slime-slick face and first-breath screams, she could think about her Huckleberry.  When she imagined him toddling across the kitchen floor, running onto the little league field, or walking across the high school stage in cap and gown, she could call him Huck.

The Killdeers rushing away from the surf caught her attention just then.  They looked as if they were afraid their little bird feet would get wet.  Cecelia didn’t care this morning.  Her green maternity pants were soaked to the knees.  She should have worn her dress again.  It didn’t matter.  The wet felt good.  It weighed her down as she walked along the beach.  The water was her anchor.  Wes would probably yell about the mess.  He yelled so much more now.  Most of the time, she couldn’t figure out why.  He used to be all sweet talk.

If he were here he couldn’t yell now.  The day was so beautiful.  The sky was as blue as her Papaw’s Irish eyes.  She wondered if Papaw and Momaw wondered what had happened to her.  The note she left that night said she was getting married but not where she was going or when she’d be back.  They were probably happy for her.  They didn’t know Wes, but she’d told them he was an officer.  In her small mill town, that meant something.  She could hear them in her head.  “Don’t worry none.  Celie be back fore we know it,” Momaw would be sayin’ to Pap.  “Don’t yall know it.  Bet that boy’s taken her north to meet his folks,” Papaw would reply and then flash a smile at her, so she’d feel better about it all.  How could Papaw be so happy when all he did was work all day in that nasty mill and come home too tired to even pick a tune on his guitar?  That town was a dirty place.  Momaw knew it even if Papaw didn’t.

Everything was so clean here.  The sea air rushing through her nose was fresh.  She wanted to open her mouth wide and swallow it all.

She wondered if the Killdeer had a nest somewhere nearby, if their dance was meant to distract her from finding their eggs.  None feigned a broken wing the way she had seen them do, but she probably wasn’t threatening enough or maybe just not close enough to bring on the full show.

A brown pelican landed on a pole a few yards away, a sliver fish in its peak – breakfast.  Cecelia was hungry.  She’d only had coffee before she headed out for her walk.  But it didn’t really matter today.

What had Wes said the last night he was at the beach house?  He’d brought groceries and a stack of old magazines.  She made spaghetti.  “It’ll all be over soon.”  That’s what he’d said.  She didn’t need magazines.  She had Mark or Sam rather.  She’d never known Mark Twain’s name had really been Sam.  What’s in a name anyway: Mark, Sam, Huck?  She felt she’d come to know him well enough to call him Sam.

As she looked up from the Killdeer, she noticed the sea oats dancing in the morning breeze.  They were supposed to be endangered.  If no one protects them, there might not be any more.  Without sea oats, the sand would wash away – no sand then no beach.  She was amazed how everything is connected to everything else.  Today the tall shoots looked like little brown boys having a game of freeze tag: stuck in one place till the wind touches them, instant unfreeze, and they are all free to run again.

She couldn’t tell how far she’d walked, but farther than most mornings, farther than ever before she suspected.  She didn’t remember that peach house.  The houses were so cute here – pink and blue, yellow and peach, like doll houses or the houses in the picture of the Swiss village above her mother’s bed.  She couldn’t remember much else from her mother’s house, but she would lay awake nights tracing the streets of that tiny village, wondering if life was happier in yellow houses.  Momaw and Papaw’s house was just dirty white, like all the puny, row houses on their street.  She’d spent only that one summer with her mother, the summer she’d turned twelve.  Her mother had called her “a handful” and sent her back on the Greyhound bus.  “Handful, my ass.  Celie never give me a minute’s trouble.  Unlike some other little girl I could name,” Momaw said to Pap, as they road back from the bus station.

Cecelia was a long way from home today and a long way from the beach house.  She’d not seen the pretty peach one before.  She would have remembered the swing on the porch. She’d better pay attention and not get too far to walk back.  At least the beach wasn’t like the woods.  You couldn’t get lost on the beach.  All you had to do was turn around.  You could wander in the woods for days and still never find the way out.

She remembered that day at her Granny’s house.  Granny was her Momaw’s momma.  A rabbit was munching the grass under the butterfly bush beside the back porch.  Cecelia startled him, and he ran into the woods behind the house.  She was seven and she had to follow him.  She soon lost track of the rabbit and realized she’d been walking in circles.  It couldn’t have been passed noon, but she would have guessed it was passed midnight, with no more light than what trickled through the trees.  Cecilia would probably still be there in the dark if Brutus hadn’t found her.  She dropped to her knees when she saw that big, black dog standing on the ridge.  She didn’t have to be strong any more.  He’d save her.  He walked her to the road on the other side of the woods, and Mr. Burns, Granny’s cross the street neighbor, happened by in his pickup truck. He carried them back to Granny’s house.

That wasn’t the only time Brutus had saved her.  She’d love him even more for the stormy nights he jumped on her bed, circled a few times and then settled at the foot.   He’d lay his snout across her leg so even in her sleep she’d have a reminder that he was there.  Thunder frightened her more than anything else on God’s green earth, but she was determined never to let anyone know it.  Brutus always kept her secrets.

She wished Brutus was walking with her today, but he had been gone almost ten years.  Cecelia had never gotten another pet.  She wasn’t sure she ever wanted one after Brutus.  It would be like replacing a brother.

What would she do now if she got too tired to walk back?  Stop at a beach house and ask strangers to borrow their phone?  She didn’t even have a number to call.  It was okay.  She wasn’t that far or even that tired yet.

She looked out at the aquamarine waves.  From where she stood, the sea never ended.  She hadn’t been in the water for a long time.  Baby Huck was swimming in her water.  She waded out a little ways into the surf.  The water was cold, but it felt good around her knees. It would probably feel even better around her waist or where her waist used to be anyway.  She didn’t really have one anymore.

The water was deeper and calmer a few yards out.  She lay back and floated.  Making snow angels in the sea, she watched the gulls directly over head.  She wondered if the birds were taking breakfast back to their babies in the nest.  Some birds chew and swallow their food and then vomit it back into the baby bird’s mouth.  Her Momaw told her stories of women chewing beans and spitting them back out to feed their babies, in the years before manufactured baby food or at least back in the hollers where there wasn’t much store-bought food.  That was before they’d left the farms for the mills.

Birds aren’t much stranger than people, she thought.  Cuckoo birds lay their eggs in other bird’s nests, so once the baby cuckoo hatches, the foster parents feed the cuckoo before their own babies.  The cuckoos are bigger and eat all the food up from the smaller birds who eventually starve.  Are those cuckoos any happier for the switch, she wondered?  Wes said everything was going to be alright, that Huck probably wouldn’t ever even know.  But Cecelia knew from experience.  Bastard babies were born with broken hearts.

A wave splashed her face and reminded her she was floating along the shore. Is this how Huck feels?  But it’s dark where Huck is.  She’ll have to try it after the sun goes down.  She determined to float there — surrounded by fluid — till after dark.  She was floating a way.  She could be the only woman on earth.

Cecelia may have fallen asleep.  She wasn’t sure, but a seagull’s cry startled her and she realized she couldn’t touch the sandy bottom.  When she looked to the shore, the peach house was tiny.  In the opposite direction, a boat sailed in the distance.   The Bloody Mary, called the tattooed side panel.  If she started screaming who would hear, the people on the Bloody Mary or the people in the tiny peach house?  Wes off on that Army base?  Her mother over in Atlanta?  She had wanted to scream for a long time now, but still didn’t.  What would it feel like if her lungs were filled with water?  Could she scream?

Maybe she could wave, but she thought better of that too.  She was just too tired and floating felt too good to stop.  She lay back once again, not willing to resist the current, determined to drift till dark.  Where would she be by then?  She couldn’t tell.  She decided she didn’t care.  They were too happy to change course now.

Leslie Harper Worthington is chair of the Department of English at Gainesville State College where she also teaches composition, literature, and creative writing and serves as advisor for The Chestatee Review, the college’s award-winning literary magazine.  She holds a Ph.D. from Auburn University with a concentration in Southern Literature and is the recipient of a Brittain Fellowship from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Quarry Farm Fellowship from the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College.  Her short stories and poetry have been read at the Southern Women Writers Conference, The Southern Literary Festival, The Mildred Haun Conference, and several Gainesville State College events.  Her poems “She’s the One” and “Home without You” appeared in the “Pectoriloquy” section of CHEST: The Journal of American College Chest Physicians in summer 2011, and her book Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn will be released by McFarland Publishers in summer 2012.  Dr. Worthington lives with her children and grandchildren in Flowery Branch, Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Read our interview with Leslie Harper Worthington conducted by Jessica Powers, Bastard Babies are Born with Broken Hearts.

Mother, Writer, Mentor-come write with us!

Announcing Mother, Writer, Mentor: practical tips for writing moms

The Fertile Source is kicking off 2012 by expanding its offerings with a sister site, Mother, Writer, Mentor: practical tips for writing moms.  Our focus is two-fold, to offer writing courses for mothers who write and to develop a mentoring program for writing moms. At Mother, Writer, Mentor, we hope you’ll find a place to share the layers of your experiences with one another in a safe writing community full of members aspiring to be the best mother and the best writer possible. 

Those of us who have come through those early years of sleepless nights and phantom manuscripts know that the most empowering support for maintaining a vision of wholeness and possibility when it comes to the dual role of motherhood and writing comes via the solace of the words and direct experiences of those who have gone down the path ahead of us.

 Consider this our call to you, our loyal readership, to help us tailor our Mother, Writer, Mentor website as we strive to offer resources that fit actual needs. While we can certainly guess at some of those needs based on our own trajectory to writing, editing, and publishing while mothering, we’d love to hear from you directly. Please email us your suggestions either to jess [at] catalystbookpress [dot] com or tania [at] catalystbookpress [dot] com.

While we are developing the rest of our resource offerings and the mentoring program, we will be posting regularly to the blog on the home page of Mother, Writer, Mentor (where we will shortly be putting up a call for guest posts).  In the meantime, we are offering two courses this spring, at a reduced introductory rate. Visit Mother, Writer, Mentor for full course descriptions:

February 2012

To the Cradle and Beyond: Excavating and Writing the Poetry of Motherhood with poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz

April 2012

Sexy Mommy Stories: Writing Romance Back into Motherhood with founding editor Jessica Powers

Happy Holidays from The Fertile Source

Happy holidays from The Fertile Source! We will resume normal publication after the New Year.

Into the Center of a Maze:Amy Amoroso on giving birth, motherhood, death, medical school, and writing

Interview by Jessica Powers

Amy Amoroso’s essay, “Hundred Year Old Soup,” was published in The Fertile Source on December 5, 2011.

1. One of the things that really drew me to your essay was the way you discussed how your understanding of what it means to be a writer helped you through the last final gasps of giving breath. Can you talk about that process a little bit more–both the writing process but also the fact that knowing this helped you give birth?


Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Amy Amoroso, photo by Duncan, age 4

Giving birth to Duncan required going into a kind of dream-state. Seth and I took a class called Birthing from Within to get ready for the birth, and one of the things we learned is that the journey into labor is like journeying into the center of a maze. You (metaphorically) turn corners and twist through small places, moving further and further away from your rational brain and closer to your animal or mammalian brain. Our mammalian brain helps us to birth a baby without drugs or interventions. In this state, we don’t feel pain in the same way. But there are things that can take you out of this trance, like fluorescent lights, loud noises, or perceived stress of any kind.

 When things got stressful during Duncan’s birth, I did momentarily come out of the dream-state and it was very scary. I began to doubt that I could give birth at all. But I was able to get myself back into the birth trance by looking down, turning inward, and lots of deep breathing.

 When I’m writing and things are going well, I go into a similar place that allows me to turn off the part of my rational brain concerned with logistics, like the checkbook, the house cleaning, or the grocery list. In this state, I can transport myself to different times and places. I can be the people I’m writing about, and let the story unfold organically.

But coming out of that state in order to edit or revise, requires a different part of my brain. And if I come out of the dream-state too soon and start to layer in metaphor or play with the larger themes before the story has been “birthed,” I risk doubting my instincts, making a wrong turn, and losing the story altogether.

Maybe on some level, I was able to return to my birthing trance because I was familiar with the dream-state of a writer. But I think we all have access to this state. It’s just a matter of letting yourself go there.  

2. Knowing that Duncan was born without breathing, I initially had a very different thought upon reading those lines, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out.” Can you talk a little bit about the symbolic and metaphorical links between a) being an artist, b) giving birth, and c) that awful reality called death?

 When Duncan was on the cart not breathing and I was on the bed holding my breath, I was hit with the reality that he could die, and that everything we’d prepared to bring him safely and peacefully into the world and back to our home, all the love we’d already filled ourselves with for this child, would be for nothing. And that place was even darker than where I was when I was doubting my ability to push him out. I think I was also, on a subconscious level, scared to lose a part of who I was, if Duncan didn’t survive.

 Children carry on our gene pool and our legacy. Art carries a piece of the artist’s soul, and as long as the world is willing to read or look at it, art will live on forever. Birthing, parenting, and writing require my heart and soul. And pouring heart and soul into a work of art that may never be born or that will never see the light of day can be devastating because you’re giving up an integral part of yourself. My greatest hope is that my work, as a mother and an artist, will thrive long after I’m gone from this world.

3. Why do you think so many of us mother writers are compelled to write the stories of our children’s births? What compelled you to write “Hundred Year Old Soup”?

I initially wrote Hundred-Year-Old Soup to heal. When I began it, I was pregnant with my daughter and I knew that I needed to heal the wounds of Duncan’s birth before attempting to give birth again. The first version of this essay was three times as long. In that first draft, I did a lot of exploration to try to figure out why Duncan got stuck and why it happened the way it did. I went down many different paths— everything from blaming myself for my own patterns of getting stuck in my life to blaming Seth for having such broad shoulders and passing them on to our son!

What I finally came to was that none of it mattered and that I just needed to tell the story and forgive myself for whatever I thought I’d done wrong. I spoke at length with Duncan’s pediatrician about the helplessness I’d felt when his cord was cut and he was taken from me. She reminded me that I wasn’t helpless, and that I knew exactly what Duncan needed when I told Seth to go over to him and let him hear his father’s voice. This was a pretty big shift in the way I began to see the story.

I think mothers are compelled to tell the stories of their children’s births because they need to understand what really happened. We are so quickly thrust into raising these little people that it is hard to reflect on and process what happened on the day they were born. And too often we hold on to judgment of ourselves for the choices we made—sometimes without even recognizing it.

I’ve been teaching a class on writing birth stories here in Portland at a wonderful community center called Birth Roots. And the work we do to find the heroic moments in child birth is transformative for so many mothers who start the class feeling shame or guilt or remorse about the choices they made around their child’s birth. And it is not like we are just putting our rose-colored glasses on. There are always heroic moments in childbirth—for the mom and the baby. Always.

4. You left medical school to become a writer. Tell us about the process you went through to make that choice. How does your background in science/medicine inform your writing?

My decision to leave medicine is another essay (or book!) altogether, but it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. As a child, I was fascinated with the insides of things. I remember in seventh grade the day we dissected the cow’s eyeball was the day I decided I was going to be a doctor. And as I grew up and became more and more interested in stories, my choice of medicine was reaffirmed because what better position to be in than a doctor’s to hear the most intimate details of people’s lives? My plan was to be a doctor who wrote novels.

There were many heart aches in medical school for me. But in the end, I was not happy doing it. I kept a notebook where I was supposed to keep notes on various health issues and treatments, but instead I wrote about my patients’ lives. I wrote about the sterility of the hospital locker room. I wrote over and over again about how something was missing in my life. Something was missing.

In my second year, I took a class called Medical Humanities. In it, we read poetry and fiction, watched films and looked at paintings and sculptures all related to healing, death, dying, and medicine. It was probably the best class I’ve ever taken in my life. I remember sitting on the ground outside of my pathology lecture hall, reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I never went into my pathology lecture that day. I just sat their reading for two hours.

Eventually it became clear to me that what was missing in my life was writing. And when that reality hit me, it hit hard. I couldn’t go back to the hospital for one more day. I remember one of the mornings after I’d decided not to go back, my mom took me to breakfast and was trying to convince me to just finish out my surgery rotation—if anything for the writing material. It was good advice, because I probably could have gathered all kinds of good material. But I was done and it was the first time in my life that I decided I was going to follow my heart and not listen to the advice that everyone (even those I loved and respected dearly) else was giving me.

My two years in medical school left me with a great many stories and even more layers to weave into my work. Medicine is such fertile ground for writers because it is rich with tension, disappointment, humility, and miracles.

5. What are you working on now? And, how do you balance the demands of being a mother and being an artist?

 I’ve been working on a novel about a fictitious family who lived in the toxic neighborhood called Love Canal in Niagara Falls and lost a son to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The book begins with their twenty-two-year-old daughter, Ila, born seven months after her brother died, on a quest to find out who her brother was. Through stories from her brother’s high school girlfriend, his pediatrician, and her mother, she begins to uncover the circumstances that lead up to her brother’s death, while also coming to grips with her own surprising history.

Being a mother and a writer is a balancing act. I rent a writing shed that’s about two blocks from our house and if I wake up before the sun, I can usually sneak out of the house before anyone is awake and write for an hour at the shed. But if someone is sick or had a bad dream or sad about something else, I don’t get to the shed. And that’s okay, too, because everything feeds the work. If we are constantly running from our lives to get our writing done, we miss the opportunity to be there when life happens. And being there when life happens is the very best material for writers. I will write about all of it at some point.

Hundred-Year-Old Soup

An essay by Amy Amoroso

For Duncan



I made a pot of carrot lentil soup the day before going into labor. It was big enough for dinner that night, plus two nights during the week. But instead of easy meals for my final days of pregnancy, the soup came to the hospital with us, where it would sit in glass jars on a shelf in the Labor and Delivery refrigerator for days. We never ate the rest of it. And for some reason that lentil soup is one of the details I can’t ever forget.

            Duncan came four days early. He came without crying. He came without breath. And after all of our childbirth classes and birth plans, we couldn’t have been prepared for what happened during his birth.  On the short ride to the hospital, I thought of all the things I’d left undone. There were boxes of baby clothes that needed sorting, the sixty-year-old family bassinet that needed painting, and the cloth diapers that needed another round of washing and hanging in the sun. I assumed, since Seth and I are perpetually late, that our child would fall into line and that I’d have plenty of time to get these things done. I also imagined that after a healthy and hard labor, I would welcome my child immediately into my arms and onto my chest like I’d seen in the DVD’s we watched in class. It turns out that I was wrong, and maybe I should have taken my early broken water as a sign.


 Seth and I expected to spend most of the early labor at home, but since my water broke, our midwife thought we should meet her at the hospital. At first we were giddy and excited about meeting our baby, but as the hours went by, time became warped and we stopped exchanging words. Orange leaves dropped from a maple tree outside our hospital window and the sun was high in a blue sky, but I had no real sense of how long we’d been there. Yes, there was pain, but I can’t access it anymore. Not in a concrete sense. I remember breathing like the sound of waves, loud enough to push my thoughts away and deep enough to dampen the sharp edges of my contractions.

            Before I knew it, the sun was gone. An entire day had almost passed and I was still laboring. Most of the details are fuzzy, but I remember chicken salad, a red rose on the windowsill from my sister, and Van Morrison singing Astral Weeks. I wound my way inward to a place inside my body I’d never been before. Numbers, time, even food had left my consciousness. I moaned and moved according to the rhythm of my body. I floated in a Jacuzzi, squatted over a toilet seat.

When it was finally time to push, I was on the floor. Seth and our midwife were there too. Their faces weren’t in my view, but I could feel their hands and hear their words. With my knees bent and my head bowed, I felt like an animal. It didn’t matter that I was in a hospital on the corner of State and Spring streets in Portland, Maine. I could have been in the woods on a bed of pine needles or in the middle of the ocean.


Duncan’s head came while I was there on the floor, and I felt immediate relief. But the rest of him didn’t slide out like I’d seen in the birthing DVDs. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was stuck, and our midwife had started to panic. She tried moving me to different positions and then finally decided to help me up onto the bed.  I was reluctant to heave my pregnant body, complete with a newly born head poking out, back up onto the hospital bed. It was the one place I had decided early on that I did not want to give birth. When I was squatting on the ground, I could push every one away and focus. I could imagine I was an animal birthing in the woods the way we talked about in one of our childbirth classes. Up on the bed, plastic monitors flashed digital numbers, numbers I had no concept of at that point. People in scrubs swirled around the room. And the gray institutional doors and florescent lights brought consciousness back to me. All of it lifted me from my birthing trance and I suddenly became rationally aware of what was happening.

            When I was in graduate school for writing, a professor of mine would say, If the sun and moon should doubt, they would go out. He was talking about us as writers and the natural flow of a story. It’s only when we start to doubt what we’ve written, when we stop to break down the components of the story before it’s done, that the whole magical gift of storytelling goes out like a light. Giving birth is similar. You work yourself into a trance and you flow there until the job is done, until the pain of it is over, and you have the first draft of a beautiful life. But if you stop in the middle of it and think about what it is you are actually doing, you risk putting the breaks on the whole process.

            So there I was, surrounded by nurses, by Seth and my midwife, and by the reality that it had been 22 hours since my water broke and at 24 hours it wouldn’t be as safe for the baby to be inside me anymore.  I wasn’t sure what kinds of interventions they would try, but I saw in their faces that it was time to push the baby out. Except that now I was suddenly conscious of how much time it’d been since I last slept and how utterly exhausted I was. They were all cheering me on as if I were twelve years old again and swimming in a race. That’s the one, Amy. That’s the push. I wished they would stop. I wished I was back in the middle of the ocean by myself, birthing my child. I told the midwife I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t giving in to anything yet, but for some reason I had to say the words and see what kind of power they had.

            It was then that I saw Seth’s eyes. I mean, actually saw them. Blue, blood shot, determined. He moved his head into my line of vision and somehow lifted me from the hospital room, the bed, the day that had slipped away from us, and said, “Aim, we need to get this baby out now.” He wasn’t mad or scared, just matter-of-fact, like he always is, pulling me back to the work that needs to be done. Somewhere between consciousness and dream, I pushed, and the others in the room chanted, I pushed, they chanted. It went on forever it seemed. But finally, with a nurse shoving my legs back toward my ears and the midwife pressing hard on my belly, Duncan was born.


He came into the world silent and blue. Before I could catch my breath, Duncan’s cord was cut and his slippery soul was whisked away to a plastic cart beside my bed. A nurse pressed on his tiny chest and blew air into him. For seven minutes we waited, suspended between life and death.

            Flashes of what I knew about babies in the womb came to me like tiny dreams, messages from the gods. “Go to him,” I told Seth. “Let him hear your voice.”

            My knees were heavy. My arms numb from pushing the bed, the floor, the tiles in the shower. But I held each limb with such intensity that I was almost hovering above that hospital bed.

            Our midwife yelled to call anesthesia, to get the baby intubated, but the nurse refused. She was calm. She’d been here before. “He’ll breath on his own,” she said, quietly. “He can do it.” Two fingers pumping, lips blowing. Nothing.

            Seth moved from my side to the cart. He took Duncan’s tiny fingers in his own.

            This couldn’t be happening, I thought. After all of that, he had to be okay.

            If the sun and moon should doubt… There was a space just above the light of the warmer, a space full of air and breath and the energy of all the women who’d given birth before me in that room, a space where the sun and the moon had shone, where everything merged together. It was that force, like water coming together at the mouth of a river, that I focused on during those minutes of limbo. I held it with my whole being, that God of the moment, and begged it to give me my child. To make him cry. To fill the room with the missing sound I ached in the center of my chest for. It was worse than what I imagine being starved of water or food would be like, my own flesh and blood nurtured and loved for 40 weeks, tucked safely under my heart, now limp on a plastic hospital cart that seemed miles away.

            The room was painfully quiet as Seth leaned down close to Duncan’s body. “Hey, little guy,” he whispered.

           And then I could see a foot move. Fingers curling. Then, full of the gusto of life and fight, Duncan parted his lips and screamed. He screamed a blood curdling beautiful song. And we all took a long, slow breath, as if we too were tasting air for the very first time. Even though it seemed the whole world had been in suspension a moment before, we now didn’t have time to doubt the animal instinct inherent in all of us: to simply fill our chest cavities with air and breathe.

            Hey, little guy. I still hear those words like a prayer in my mind.  



Duncan screamed for almost an hour. We cried, too, and laughed, and held him so that his little lips were pressed against our skin. Feeling the warmth of his breath was like feeling sun on my body. When it was over and we were sure he was okay, I walked down the hall to the hospital refrigerator. I was starving. There on the middle shelf in two glass jars was the lentil soup we’d brought from home. It was just as orange as it was the day before. And it reminded me of all the undone things I had on my to-do list. It reminded me of the bassinet, and the piles of clothes, our dirty bathroom and all the things that didn’t really matter. Everything had changed since I last ate that soup. I’d been out to the middle of the ocean, to the woods, to a place only the animal brain can understand. I’d hovered in limbo for what seemed like hours, waiting for my baby to come to life. And I wasn’t the same person. I would never be who I was when I made that soup again. It seemed like the soup was 100 years old as I stood there in my slippers, with my uterus shrinking. 

            That night, Seth told me he felt something different in his heart now. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It’s like waves pulsing in my chest.” He put his hand on his heart and his eyes filled with water. Perhaps he’d been to the woods and the ocean and back, too. We didn’t eat our lentil soup that night. Instead, my sister brought us sushi and champagne.

Amy Amoroso is a writer and mother of two. After leaving medical school, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing and went on to teach writing at George Mason University and the University of Southern Maine. She currently works as a ghostwriter in Portland, Maine and helps women write about their birthing experiences. Amy is working on a novel and several nonfiction essays. Her fiction is published in Alligator Juniper and Upstreet.






The Empty Cradle

Photo by Kathy Leonard

The Empty Cradle

Kathy  Leonard says, “When I photograph, I do not consciously search out particular types of images, but I find that there is a surprising similarity in many of my photographs.  There is dark and light, great contrast, or “chiaroscuro” as the Italians call it.  I find this juxtaposition of light and shadow very appealing in black and white photography, especially when it serves to highlight the angles or curves of some object. These are the elements that drew me to photograph the wooden cradle. The natural light from the window cast dramatic shadows on the hand-carved cradle and I knew that the resulting image would be stark, simple, and beautiful.”

Kathy Leonard is a professor at Iowa State University.  She studied photography at the University of California, Davis, and at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she received a degree in Fine Arts with specialty in photography. Her photographs have been published in numerous magazines, websites, online journals, and in textbooks and have been exhibited in various venues in California, Nevada, and Iowa.

Stray Pets

An essay by Jody Keisner


Besides the frogs, fireflies, grasshoppers, and June bugs that my younger sister Debbie and I trapped in canning jars, my parents adopted seven cats, six dogs, three rabbits, two hamsters, one duck. And me. I had been adopted as a newborn, and Debbie was my parents’ biological child.  I don’t remember some dramatic moment when my parents told me they weren’t my first set of parents. It seems like I have always known. It wouldn’t have bothered me that I was another adoptee in the Keisner menagerie, except we moved to the country when I was nine, and the lives of most of our animals ended tragically. I wondered if I was next.

Our new home was on four acres in Louisville, Nebraska, a town with a population less than 2000. My bedroom faced a mowed front yard that led to dozens of dense trees. Unkempt pasture and the occasional cow bordered one side of our home, separated from us with barbed wire. The adjacent farmland gave us opportunities to stick our noses into trouble. One dog died from a gunshot wound inflicted by a half-blind farmer, one cat met death from a parasite living in cow pies, and a hamster was flattened under a truck. My mother swore an eagle plummeted from the sky to snatch a lap-dog from the snow. I found my rabbit stiff as a board one morning when I went to feed her, the death ruled a mystery. A furry gray and brown puppy we named Odie, who we liked to roll down the sides of a small hill, disappeared into the middle of the night just weeks after his birth in a cardboard box in our garage. Armed with flashlights and Dad, we walked all four acres. We never saw Odie again.

The cats that roamed our property were once kittens Mom had rescued from a farmer whose only other option was a potato sack and a lake. Our dogs were strays my father brought home from the railroad, beaten dogs that tucked tails between legs and wolfed down food in a few bites. Mom’s dog, Ladybug, was different. She had been handpicked and was our only inside pet; she slept on my parents’ bed instead of in the garage on a smelly blanket with the others. A blonde Pekinese Maltese who always had goo in the corner of her eyes, Ladybug followed Mom from room to room, her toenails clicking on the linoleum of the bathroom or kitchen floor while my mother cleaned. She tolerated my sister and me, lifting her pug nose in the air. She allowed us to briefly pet her before prancing through the house, searching for something more entertaining.

I worried about our pets’ bad luck. Was I a doomed stray that had wandered into our family? Or had I been carefully selected like Ladybug, meant for a life of luxury and coddling?  I wasn’t like Debbie, who always wanted to be around my mother, boiling the spaghetti noodles while Mom stirred sauce or cuddling with Mom and Ladybug on the couch, watching Little House on the Prairie. I preferred to be alone, reading books or exploring the neighboring land with one of the transient dogs.

One day, I studied my mother as she sat on the couch, folding laundry into a basket.  She bent awkwardly to avoid waking up Ladybug who lay curled in her lap. Even though she was only 37, half of Mom’s hair was completely gray.

“Your hair looks frosted,” I said. “Like you had it professionally done.” I knew what “frosted” hair was supposed to look like from seeing it on a magazine picture of Madonna. Mom wouldn’t let me listen to “Like a Virgin” on the radio. She claimed I was too young to know about such things, but I learned plenty from listening to the older boys up the road. The thought of my mother and Madonna sharing a hairstyle made me giggle.

“What can I say? I’m a natural beauty,” Mom said, continuing to fold the laundry.

Mom had never colored her once-black hair or even had it professionally styled. Her beauty routine consisted of a bar of Coast and Pert Plus: Shampoo and Conditioner in One. She sprayed her short “frosted” hair into a stiff, helmet shaped hairdo every morning with clouds of Aqua Net that burned my eyes and made everyone but her cough. Aqua Net was good for other things, too, and I sneaked it out from under the bathroom counter to spray bugs permanently onto the walls.

My hair was what Grandmother referred to as dirty dishwater blonde, but Debbie was a brunette, just like Mom had been when she was a child. I wondered what color of hair my other mother had.

“Why didn’t that lady want me?” I blurted.

Mom looked up at me, startled. She held a pair of Dad’s worn Wranglers, stiff from drying on the clothesline.

“Your biological mother?” she asked.

Ladybug licked her paw and yawned.

I nodded.

She set the jeans in the laundry basket by her feet and patted the couch. I sat a few inches away. 

Mom scooted close to me and hugged me hard. “You are my special gift. I chose you.”

I imagined a room full of rows of crying babies in baskets, displayed like puppies or flowers. I imagined Mom pointing to me and saying, “I want that one.” 

 “You asked me about her once before—when you were very young. I couldn’t believe a three-year old figured that out. That there was another mother,” Mom said, her eyes filling with tears, which didn’t alarm me because she was what Dad called “Sensitive.” Little House on the Prairie set her to boo-hooing, even when the episodes were reruns. Sometimes she choked up just from standing in our bedroom doorways after tucking us in, her hand on the light switch. “I just love you so much,” she’d say. “When you’re a mother you’ll understand.”

“You’re my Mom,” I said. I meant it. Mom was her name, but she wasn’t my only mother.


Thoughts about my adoption were mostly infrequent. The concept was abstract. Mom was there, in the flesh, every morning to pick out my clothes and make me scrambled eggs with flecks of ham. At bedtime, she weaved my freshly showered hair into dozens of tiny braids, so that I could have “permed” kinky hair like The Bangles. The process took hours, me complaining of a sensitive scalp the entire time. (In high school, friends would brush my hair into ponytails for track practice because I wouldn’t learn how until college—my mother did it at home!) She was, in my mind, proper—a proper mother.  Mom had worked her way up from bank teller to credit union manager all without a college degree and still quizzed me out of my history books and clipped my toe nails before sending me off to bed at night. She made sure our family attended Mass on Sunday, even Dad who sometimes fell asleep in the pew after working third shift at the railroad.

But by junior high, I started to find the idea of having another mother romantic. I spent hours on the couch with books and with my favorite band, Journey, who contributed the soundtrack to my life. Books offered me an exotic world of mothers, each one I imagined saying, “Pick me. Pick me.” I fantasized about what the other mother would be like. I imagined a beautiful and sad woman dressed in a white, flowing dress, like a character from Gone with the Wind. She would stand in an open door in a house surrounded by tall, swaying grass, watching the same sky as me, feeling the same breeze, wondering where I was. She hadn’t appeared to me, so I made her anything I wanted, a Choose Your Own Adventure mother, like the sci-fi books where I could determine the protagonist’s fate. Sometimes I envisioned the other mother as a horrible woman, unfit to raise a child: a slobbering alcoholic, a hallucinating lunatic, a slut, a bum, a madwoman ready to throw herself off the roof like Bertha in Jane Eyre.

I knew that someday I would meet the other mother and she would welcome me like my favorite Journey song, with “Open Arms.” I mostly kept this to myself, since my recent renewed interest in my adoption flustered Mom, who began claiming she had forgotten. “It doesn’t even enter my thoughts,” she said. But thoughts of my adoption had begun to enter mine all the time.

I learned from Mom that 31 days between my birth and adoption were unaccounted for. “But where was I?” I pestered. “Who took care of me then?”

“I don’t know, honey.” Mom, exasperated, ad-libbed: “Nuns? You were well cared for.”

“What about the eye infection I had when you got me? You said my eyes were a mess! I’ve had surgery on both of them because of it!”

I became certain that every shortcoming I had could be directly linked to those 31 lost days and that I had been irreparably harmed in some way. I read all the adoption books in Louisville’s small school library, many of which theorized that babies removed from their natural mothers never learned how to bond with anyone else. Another book informed me that adopted children would always fear rejection. Suddenly, every possible psychological affliction in the book seemed like it was describing me, although Mom was usually nearby to assure me how special I was.

“You saved my life,” she confided. Mom had lost three babies before they adopted me. “After those miscarriages, I thought I would die. Then you came along.” Her eyes were already misting.

Mom told me my adoption was a closed one, which meant that descriptions of my biological parents were sealed in a file until I turned 25. I decided that until then, I would become the daughter that my imaginary mother would want. I studied every night to earn straight A’s, ran track and played basketball after school (even though I was equally horrible at dribbling, passing, and shooting), stayed away from situations where classmates were sneaking beer and groping each other. The more perfect I became, the more my real mother would mourn giving me up (I didn’t think Mom was my fake mother,  but the word “real” popped into my head whenever I thought of the woman who gave birth to me).

 I often felt out of place, but every kid I knew felt the same way. Some of my friends were even envious. “God,” they’d say. “You’re so lucky. I hate my parents. I wish I had another set I could trade them in for.” My status allowed me to choose my family at whim. I told myself I was not related to Uncle Dean, who smoked pot behind Grandma’s garage during family reunions. I denied relation to a distant cousin, a woman Mom privately nicknamed Dirty Martha, who picked her scabs with grimy fingernails at the kitchen table. When, during our annual Fourth of July family get-togethers, a drunken uncle began hugging our female teenage cousins for too long, I just denied him, too.

Sometimes, though, my biological truth sprang suddenly and without my wanting it. One Christmas day, Mom and Dad, my sister, our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents gathered in the living room before opening presents. A younger cousin and I looked at the new issue of Highlights, racing to see who could find the kitchen appliances and other out of place objects poorly hidden in the drawing of a tree. It had been the best part of the magazine when I was a child, but now I was too old for it. My grandmother on Mom’s side cleared her throat. She pointed at the school picture of my sister on the wall. “You know who that picture reminds me of?” Then she looked at Debbie. “You are your mother’s spitting image, child.” She laughed, pleased and everyone nodded at the unmistakable similarities: the same dainty smile, black hair, and ice blue eyes.  I suddenly found myself swimming in a crowd of faces, but I couldn’t find my nose, my eyes, or my hands anywhere. I felt like the toaster in the Highlights tree: Can you find the item that doesn’t belong?

Debbie had been born my parents’ natural child ten months after my adoption.

“Our miracle baby,” Mom said.

I looked at my younger sister, who sat grinning by our Christmas tree in her lace-hemmed dress, and I felt my otherness wallop me in the head.


As a teenager, I relished the feeling of belonging elsewhere, mostly because I found my own parents too strict, too familiar, and too annoying. I pretended I was an uncaught character in a Nancy Drew mystery novel and that my adoption made me mysterious. I passed hours rereading the few documents my parents had recently given me (the only papers available in a closed adoption): my health statistics at my birth, a line or two about the physical condition of my extended biological family, and a succinct paragraph of description about my birth mother. It was the later I was most interested in. “The biological mother was 19 years at the birth of the baby. She has blue eyes and light blonde hair. Her complexion was listed as fair and she is of German descent. She has had two years of college and her interests are artistically inclined.” I told my friends that I was German. My biological mother and I had the same color of hair. I thought she must be a magnificent painter, her canvas capturing what she instinctively knew I looked like. She would paint my hair dirty-dishwater blonde, like hers. I would smile in her paintings, but my eyes would be sad, the loss of each other a secret between the two of us. Sometimes, when we had a hip, urban-seeming substitute in art class, wearing paint splattered slacks, I was sure it was her!

Mom sat next to me on the couch when I called United Catholic Social Services. In a few weeks, I would move to Wayne, Nebraska, a small farming and manufacturing community, to attend classes at Wayne State College. I had told myself that before I moved, I would work up the nerve to make the call. My stomach lurched as I dialed.

A sympathetic sounding woman explained that because my adoption was closed, the state couldn’t release any information to me until I was 25, and even then, no names, only more paperwork.

“Your biological mother has to agree to meet you, honey.” Her delivering-bad-news voice was as soft as a pillow.

“Has she been in contact? I mean, has she asked how I’m doing?”

“Sweetie, it looks as if we’ve had no contact from her, but that’s to be expected. For some women, the entire process is just too overwhelming.”

“Oh.” I was heart sore. How could she not want to know about me? I looked down at what I was wearing—a Jordache T-shirt and tight jeans rolled into pink socks. Mom squeezed my leg. I felt ridiculous.

“But it looks as if your biological father has contacted us. He wanted to know that we placed you with a good family.”

I felt ambivalent towards him. I only wanted to meet my biological mother, the woman who had shared a heartbeat with me for nine months. I had a vision of her filling in where Mom left off. I imagined my birth mother and I would conduct serious talks about literature (Thanks to my American novel classes, I was already becoming a literature snob), boyfriends and sex, and the meaning of life. Mom read novels with cowboys pictured on the cover, told  me my father was the only man she had ever slept with (and only after their wedding) and she was raised Catholic, so she believed that life was a series of good deeds you performed to get into Heaven. I hoped my biological mother wouldn’t really be like a mother at all but more like a cool older sister.

“What now? Is there anything I can do? Can I write her a letter?” I had written her dozens of times, though each attempt frustrated me and eventually ended up in my wastepaper basket.

“Well, sure. You can mail it to us, and if she contacts our service, we’ll send it to her.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something. “Okay.” I set the phone in my lap.

“I’m happy for you,” Mom said, leaning in for a hug. “It’s just, I don’t think of you as being adopted.” Her eyes were welling.

“She doesn’t want to know me, anyway.” The phone receiver was warm in my hand. I held it tightly for a few minutes before setting it in its cradle.


Wadded up drafts of letters filled my trashcan, imperfect testimonies and explanations of how much I needed my biological mother. The letter I had sealed and stamped was also unsatisfactory, an overwrought story I called “The Motherless” about searching for faces in a crowd that looked like mine, finding none.  I used the same phrases one might use in a letter to a love obsession, except I kept everything in third person so my real mother wouldn’t see how fanatical I was: “thought of my mother day and night,” “wished my mother and I were near one another,” “not certain who I am without her.” I asked her if we could meet, but the Catholic Charities woman had warned me that she likely wouldn’t want to. I disagreed.  I imagined this other mother to be someone who couldn’t live without me, someone who would understand my teenage self in a way my parents couldn’t. She would never think it odd when I wrote melodramatic poetry or spent entire evenings lying in my bed feeling certain that nobody could feel the world’s pain as deeply as me. I would lie backwards on my bed, my feet draped over the headboard, and write sad sappy poetry that I signed “Clover” because of a four-leaf clover pressed in my dictionary on the page defining leprechaun.

When Mom tried to draw me into conversations like the kind we had when I was younger, when the two of us used to snuggle on the couch, I answered in one syllable words.  How was I? How was my day? Was anything on my mind? “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Leave me alone to be with my important imaginings. My parents were exasperated with the self-absorbed teenager I had become and showed me with a poster that read:  Teenagers, Leave Home While You Still Know Everything. I felt certain my birth mother would not only understand me, but find me a wise old soul full of fascinating insights into humanity. And she, unlike Mom, wouldn’t hang her nylon granny panties on the outdoor clothesline for visiting boys to see.

Amazingly, two weeks after I sent my letter, someone wrote me back. Claire Marie the letter was signed. The last name had been crossed out, just in case, I reasoned, she decided not to meet me and didn’t want a crazed lost child hunting her down. In calligraphy, Claire told me her parents had sent her to a Catholic hospital to give birth to me, a place where nuns had prayed for her forgiveness. My biological father, also a college student, moved to a different town before the pregnancy showed. He didn’t know Claire was pregnant until Catholic Charities contacted him, asking him to sign the adoption papers. Because of the silence Claire’s parents demanded, my birth became a secret that she kept through college and eventually from a husband and two young daughters.  “I will never regret my decision to have you,” she wrote. “Deep in my heart I know that you are beautiful and my contribution to this world.” She prayed and hoped that I was happy, healthy, and loved and wrote that these were gifts she couldn’t have given me then. The letter had a note of finality, of closure. She never mentioned the possibility of us meeting. I slept poorly that night, continually checking to see if the letter was still where I had tucked it under my pillow. My only proof of her existence, I was certain it would disappear.


The fall semester passed without Claire and me exchanging another letter. I didn’t forget about her, but she wasn’t exactly on my mind now that I had college classes, parties, and guys to obsess over.  One afternoon I was summoned to the dorm’s hallway phone. Over the past few months, my phone calls with Mom had become increasingly scarce. I felt annoyed at having to leave the dorm room full of laughing co-eds. I answered the phone with an exaggerated sigh, but it wasn’t Mom calling to ask if I was using my food plan and getting enough sleep. It was a woman from Catholic Charities.

“Would you like to meet your biological mother?” the woman asked.

Adrenaline shot through me. My ears started to buzz. “Yes, I want to meet her! What happens next? Have you already talked to my parents?”

 “Honey, you’re a legal adult. You can decide for yourself.”

I forgot. I wasn’t in high school with permission slips jammed into my backpack. I didn’t need to ask Mom before doing something.

“When do I meet her?” I asked; the words were surreal.

Without my ever having spoken with my biological mother on the phone, Catholic Charities acted as the mediator, planning a reunion at Riley’s, a local restaurant in Wayne. I felt like I was about to win a major writing prize or a state track medal (Other than a sixth grade Young Authors Award, I hadn’t won either).

At my request, Mom drove three hours to be with me, to meet the other mother and hold my hand. She picked me up at my dorm room. We drove in silence. My withdrawal into college life was hurting her feelings, yet here she was beside me, humming to an easy-listening radio station.

I stared at the fast food restaurants and the college kids bundled in their winter coats. I hoped meeting Claire would live up to my expectations. I felt a little guilty for so badly wanting another mother, in addition to the perfectly good one I already had. I pictured Mom plugging giant headphones—my sister and I called them her earmuffs—into her Sony stereo and sitting cross-legged on the floor, singing off key to Lionel Richie and Barry Manilow when she thought she was alone in the house, her hair matted down by the band of her earphones. Eyes closed, she swayed and cried when the music really moved her. Watching from the doorway, I muffled my laughter with my hand, but these stolen moments also made me feel safe. Mom would never hurt me. But the other mother might.

Riley’s moonlighted as a dance club on weekends. I had been there with my friends, usually after we drank bottles of Bud Light in my best friend’s dorm room or at one of the known party houses. By the time we arrived at Riley’s on those nights, hoping for someone to ask us to dance, the floor was packed with bodies swaying and grinding. Mom and I were meeting Claire in the restaurant, which was separated from the dance floor, but it was hard for me to dismiss the images of college students, dancing hip to hip, from my mind. I wondered if Claire and my biological father had ever danced, full of a yearning for each other that would produce a love child.  In my mind, a relationship was not worth having unless it was first full of pain. I cried hardest at the movie love stories where the couple had to overcome some self-inflicted misery in order to be together, like in Urban Cowboy when Sissy and Bud tried to make each other jealous because they weren’t mature enough to admit how they truly felt. Couples who made juvenile, passionate mistakes and risked losing each other understood my heart. I wondered if my biological father still loved Claire. How could he not?

Mom parked the car and looked at me. “Are you ready to see who’s behind the door?”

 “I’m ready,” I said. We got out of the car. I grabbed Mom’s arm before she could open the restaurant door.

“I can’t,” I said.  I started to cry.

“You’ve waited so long for this, Jody.” Mom wore one of her work outfits, a navy vest and matching slacks, navy flats. She wore a strand of pearls around her neck; she had even put on mascara and lipstick for the occasion, flare she only wore for funerals or weddings. Her hair had turned from its natural “frosted” look to all-white years ago. Mom suddenly looked older and frail, though I knew she and Dad were in the midst of a remodeling project, and she would carry two-by-fours and aim a nail gun. Mom was tough when she needed to be.

I pulled my winter coat up to my chin and withdrew my hands into my coat sleeves, though I had read in an article on body language that this gesture showed insecurity.

“I’m scared,” I said. What if she didn’t like me? I wanted Claire to be impressed. Didn’t she regret letting me go? Hadn’t I turned out well? I wanted her to think so, even though I felt nerdy. I was more comfortable with books than with college boys.

“We don’t have to go in,” Mom said. She was unusually calm and unemotional.

“No. I’m okay.” I wiped my nose on my coat sleeve. “I want this.”

I stood in the entrance and let my mother enter ahead of me. I could see empty tables. “This is a special meeting,” Mom had said when she called to make reservations. “Can we arrive a little before the restaurant opens?”

Mom saw her first, inhaled and turned to me. “She doesn’t look very much like you,” she said. It was a comment I would think about later, considering how much we looked alike. I felt as nervous as I used to at the start line during a high school track meet, when for a millisecond, I thought how much easier it would be to flee to the school bus. I took a deep breath and pushed past Mom into the restaurant where all of the tables sat empty except for one, where a fair-haired woman sat with a man. I knew who she was immediately. She stood. We were the exact same height. I walked over to her and hugged her stiffly without really looking at her. I didn’t want to cry again, so I went numb inside, a trick I learned to use when my first cat died.

Mom hugged Claire. Even though Claire was only a few years younger than Mom, she seemed like a child in her embrace. Mom patted Claire’s back before she sat down. I sat down between them.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” Mom said when no one else spoke.

I first stole glimpses of Claire’s face while Mom talked about the drive to Wayne. Just the tip of her nose. Then her eyelash, her eyebrow, the curve of her lips. I stared at her hands, which were visibly shaking. Her hair was reddish blonde. Claire wore city attire, a long form-fitting dress, black knee-high boots, hand-crafted jewelry. I was used to seeing my Mom and other Nebraska Moms in Midwestern mom attire: jeans with elastic waistband, oversized T-shirts with pictures of furry animals or a Huskers football logo, and dirty tennis shoes. Claire was an eccentric sort of pretty, more exotic than Mom and more attractive than me. I suddenly felt frumpy in my oversized sweater and jeans. The tanning salon near the campus sold dollar tans, and my face was unnaturally orange. With my inch-high hair sprayed bangs and winter fake-bake, I looked like every other college girl in Wayne. Ordinary. I was sure Claire would know it.

“This is Rick. My friend,” Claire said. “He’s here for moral support. I don’t know that I would have come without him.” Her voice surprised me. Unlike her shaky hands, it was sturdy and low, the way I imagined the matriarchs of my British Literature novels sounding.

“Jody, you can’t possibly imagine how happy Claire is to see you,” Rick said, “Or how much she has thought about you.” Rick’s voice was full of saliva. He spoke each word slowly. I stared at his thinning hair and his wide forehead. His glasses slipped down his greasy nose.

I had thought of meeting my other mother for years, rehearsing reunions in my head where years of experiences would finally be shared. I was unable to say any of those things. Unwilling to face possible rejection, I went mute. Mom filled our silence by presenting the best version of me, how I wrote for The Wayne Stater, my high GPA, the time I placed third in a cross-country meet, my braces in junior high and perfect teeth now. She left out the recent arguments we had been having about my college partying (in my freshman photo album, I held a beer in every picture). I was glad Mom was there to take the pressure off of me. While Mom talked, Claire remained silent and aloof. It surprised me that her demeanor seemed restrained, unlike the warmth of Mom’s.

“The two of you,” Rick said looking at Claire and then me, “just need to snuggle.” Rick reminded me of a salesman in a New Age Store. Everything out of his mouth was sappy and intrusive. I wondered if he had read my letters to Claire. I felt pathetic and needy. I hated him. Rick leaned across the table and put Claire’s hand on top of mine. We all looked at each other. Claire’s hand was cold and rigid. I slowly slid my hand out from under hers and fiddled with my napkin.

“I didn’t want to give you up,” Claire said. Mom looked surprised that Claire was addressing me. “My parents are Catholic. My mother, well, she thought it was so shameful for me to find myself with child. Out of wedlock.” She looked at Mom when she said this, and at Rick, who was smiling and nodding. Then she turned to me. “I didn’t know what else to do. Or how I would take care of you.”

I didn’t know anything about taking care of babies. I didn’t have a boyfriend. Having a child seemed like decades away.  I couldn’t relate to what Claire was telling me even though it was about me. So far the evening had been a conversation between my two mothers. I wanted to say something, but my words really needed to matter when I finally opened my mouth. Did Claire think I was insecure? When I looked at Rick, he winked.

“You and Claire need to spend time alone together,” Rick said. “In order to have those feelings, to really unearth them.” He leaned in towards me. The pores on his nose were enormous.

Mom shifted uncomfortably in her seat and cleared her throat.

“Did she have brown hair?” Claire asked.

“What?” The waiter had brought our salads and my mother had a speared baby carrot on her fork.

“The nurses wouldn’t let me see her. They didn’t even let me hold her.” I thought Claire might cry, but she sat straight up and regained her composure. “When I went down to the nursery, I saw this baby, with this beautiful brown hair. I felt something. I felt like it was my baby.”

Mom winced at Claire’s words: my baby.

“Was it her?” Claire asked.

“Yes.” Mom started whimpering. It amazed me she had lasted so long. “She had a head of brown hair. All of this hair.”

 “Our hands look exactly alike,” I blurted. I’d often thought my hands looked like my father’s. It was a small way I looked like my adoptive family, but now I could see it wasn’t true.

Claire’s eyes met mine. “You remind me of your biological father. You look so much like him.” She placed her hand next to mine on the white linen tablecloth. I looked at our identical hands together. My pinky touched her thumb.

“It’s hard for me to look at you,” Claire said.


I knew Claire even less after meeting her. She wasn’t anything like I had imagined. We were still strangers, and it surprised me. I had expected we would have some instant, intuitive connection like a couple who fall in love at first sight. I wanted to see my friends so we could scrutinize everything Claire had said, like we did after first dates. Will she want to see me again?  Did she think I was smart? Pretty? What will she tell her friends about me? Why didn’t I talk more? My English professors could never shut me up, but tonight when it really counted, I just froze. I wanted to look at my hair sprayed bangs in a mirror to see if they looked stupid.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said to Mom. We sat in her car outside of my dorm.

“If you want, call me tomorrow. We’ll talk about it.” Mom leaned across the car and hugged me. She was still belted in. When she pulled away from me, her face dissolved in tears.  “It’s just…” She rummaged in her purse for a wadded tissue. “I just think of you as my own.” Mom was driving back to Omaha, a total of six hours in the car for two hours of dinner. Her mascara was smeared from crying, and her lipstick had worn off during dinner.

It had hurt her to meet Claire. Claire was intriguing, and I wanted to know everything about her because I wanted insight into myself. I liked to imagine a fantasy mother and Mom liked to imagine she had given birth to me. Claire had ended both of our fantasies.

“I guess I’m Claire’s daughter now, too,” I said, but I didn’t really feel like anyone else’s daughter. I got out of the car.

“Yes, I guess so,” Mom said.

Mom lifted up a hand, wiped her eyes with a tissue and waved her signature wave. Debbie and I called it her ‘tootles’ wave: index finger, middle finger, ring finger. She left for home.

That night I lay awake in my twin bed, my roommate snoring in her twin bed across the room. I thought of all the clever things I didn’t say when I had met Claire. I replayed the night in my head with Wynonna Ryder as myself in the starring role of a sophisticated, beautiful, long-lost daughter and Claire as the gracious, loving long-lost mother. In my edited version, we hugged and cried and spoke years of emotions with our eyes.  We were a Lifetime movie. Mom was merely backdrop, the unremarkable but sturdy character who sets up the key lines. I had great hopes for how things might turn out for me and Claire. The next morning I called Mom to tell her all about them. She was in the middle of mixing a dish of dried cat food and milk for her newest drifter. I could hear the persistent “mew, mew, mew” in the background. Mom had named the fluffy white cat Snowball, a sign that she had opened her home to the small traveler and probably her lap.

Other than me, the longest living Keisner-stray—a mixed-breed dog with soulful brown eyes—was nearly ten years-old. None of the others, though, had made it longer than a handful of years.

 “Don’t get too attached to Snowball,” I teased Mom. “We both know your track record.”

 “I know,” Mom said. “I just can’t help myself. What if she doesn’t have anyone else to care for her?”

“She might have a family somewhere, wondering where she is,” I said. When Mom didn’t say anything, I added: “Maybe she’s been abandoned.”

“It just breaks my heart. That someone would abandon such a little thing.”

“I’m glad she has you,” I said.

“Me, too,” Mom said with a sniffle.

I couldn’t predict how the story would end: Snowball might wander off the next week and find the family she last lived with, she might meet an odd and early death, or she might stay with my mother until old cat-age. I was hoping for the latter. We were lucky to have my mother, the other strays and I, however we came to her, however long we stayed. 



Jody Keisner is a full-time writing instructor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a weight-lifter, and a Real Housewives junkie (the latter for academic reasons, of course). She lives with her husband and young daughter, Lily. She has publications in SNReview, Left Hand Waving, Women’s Studies, Third Coast, Studies in the Humanities, Modern English Teacher, and NEBRASKAland. She is busy on her first memoir, The Runaway Daughter.


Birds and Egs

Fiction by Don Kunz

Wendy awoke in the master bedroom of the restored Victorian on Prospect Street.  She lay listening to the lovebirds shredding newspaper in their cage next to the bay window and her husband making breakfast in their downstairs kitchen.  She stared at the ceiling.  The new light of an August morning had streamed through the stained glass to cover the cracked plaster with sky-blue and blood-red streaks resembling a child’s finger painting.  She thought of a shiny white egg the size of a marble.  She thought of nesting.  At almost five months she was definitely showing.  Beneath her flannel nightgown Wendy’s stomach was no longer flat and hard from years of abdominal crunches and five-mile runs along Blackstone Boulevard on the east side of Providence.  She heard Bill breaking eggs into a ceramic bowl, whisking them with a fork, pouring them spattering into the cast iron skillet.  The skillet had belonged to Wendy’s mother who had died of colon cancer on Valentine’s Day.  She remembered her mother’s distended belly rising beneath the sheet of her hospital deathbed and imagined she would look like that herself before she delivered in December.  Wendy found it disturbing that on the surface life and death should look so much alike.  She wished her mother had lived long enough to share the mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth with her, especially because this would be a Christmas baby, a miracle.  Then, Wendy smelled freshly brewed coffee and felt the familiar first wave of morning sickness.

Bill dropped four slices of whole wheat into the toaster then turned back to stir their eggs in the skillet.  He sang the chorus of a top-forty tune he remembered from his younger years, “Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on.”  After a miscarriage during the second month of Wendy’s first pregnancy, this had become their theme song.  Bill could almost picture this second fetus adrift in amniotic fluid trying to find a grip on the uterine wall with its newly formed hands.  If Sloopy could just hang on, then, what?  Bill would be a father for the first time at age sixty-one.  At a time when his colleagues would be looking forward to retirement, Bill would be heating formula and planning his schedule around day care.  He was still not certain how to feel about that.  But he was trying to stay positive.  From the beginning of fertility treatments he had told himself that becoming a father would make him young again.  Bill wanted to believe that at seventy-five he would have a dark tan, ropy muscles, and lungs like a Sherpa.  He tried to imagine playing one-on-one basketball in the driveway, making a fade away jump shot against his taller teenage son while his retired colleagues across town shuffled about in walkers, dithering over long-term care policies and bingo schedules in nursing homes.  Bill turned into the hallway, carrying two full plates toward the dining room.  He paused at the foot of the stairs.  “Breakfast,” he hollered.  “Eggs and toast.  Breakfast for Wendy and Sloopy.”  No answer.  From the bathroom at the top of the stairs came the sound of his wife retching.  Bill walked slowly into the dining room and set the plates on the table.

Wendy rested her forehead on the forward edge of the white porcelain toilet bowl, reached up and flushed.  “Coming,” she hollered.  “I’m coming, for Christ’s sake!”  She heaved herself up and reached for the Aquafresh on the pedestal sink.  The bristles on her toothbrush were splayed out like the legs of an old dog trying to stay upright.  Her voice tumbled down the stairs toward Bill.  “I’m not too sure about Sloopy.  I may have barfed him up.  I couldn’t bear to look.”

Christmas baby or not she thought as she brushed her teeth, no one could call her the Virgin Wendy anymore; that’s for sure.  At work, Joe Early had christened her with that nickname when they were dating, because she was holding out on him.  She glanced into the speckled mirror over the sink.  She was foaming at the mouth.  Rabid bitch she thought.  She remembered snapping and growling at poor Joe, formerly her would-be lover, now barely a colleague.  Joe Early, one of four senior partners at Robinson, Bender, Early & Touché, Attorneys at Law had spent four months after his third divorce trying to get into her pants.  Back then she was in her fifth year at the firm and had wondered if giving into sexual intimacy would be a quid pro quo for making partner in the firm.  So Wendy, who hadn’t been a virgin since she was seventeen, decided to keep their relationship platonic as a test.  A week after the vote which made her a partner and head of the firm’s workman’s compensation division, Wendy dumped Joe when he tried to grope her in the small kitchen off the second-floor conference room at the end of the hall.  Mooning about with unrequited love was unprofessional but, nevertheless, flattering; feeling her up at work was not.

Wendy took a gulp of tap water, grimaced at the taste of chlorine, thought again about buying a filter for the tap, and rinsed her mouth but did not swallow.  She recalled she had not been able to read anything but embarrassment in Joe’s face, like when he had received a Victoria’s Secret Catalog at work.  She was hoping for disappointment.  She would have preferred epic heart break.  But Joe just blushed briefly.  Then he reached past her, poured himself a coffee (no sugar) and turned away.  She had been tempted to ask if he knew anything about sexual harassment statutes but decided not to rub it in.  Three weeks later Wendy had tried to imagine what Joe would think about her having intercourse with an economist she had met through a dating service.  At first it had amazed her, but later Wendy figured she was overdue.  At age thirty-seven having committed all her energy to marathon training and a seventy-hour workweek at the law firm, she decided it was time to stop acting like a cloistered nun.  What could she have told Joe if he had asked why him and not me, especially when Bill was almost twenty years older than either of them?  Bill just smelled right?  Wendy believed in the science of pheromones.  Now she was pregnant at forty, trying to believe in miracles.

Bill ascended the stairs wearing a red T-shirt, khaki slacks, and a denim apron that read, “If you laid all the economists end to end, they still couldn’t reach a conclusion.”  He shoved both hands into his front pockets beneath the apron and stared at Wendy in the bathroom mirror, admiring her brown eyes, perfectly oval face, and short auburn curls.  Bill watched Wendy wipe her mouth with the green guest towel.  “You were just kidding about Sloopy, right?  Because I’ve got his breakfast ready.  He needs to eat to hang on.”

Wendy brushed her fingertips across the dark circles beneath her eyes as if to erase them.  She wondered when she would see the glow that younger women seemed to get when they were pregnant.  Since marrying Bill three years earlier, she had wondered if starting a family this late was an unrealistic prospect.  Now she tried to push doubt aside.  She told herself it was like hitting the wall at mile eighteen in a marathon when the body had used up all its glycogen; if she kept pushing, she could do it.  And so could her husband she thought; he was a tough, old bird who looked and acted younger than his years.   Bill’s reflection appeared beside hers in the mirror, a square chiseled face with scar tissue around the eyes.  Wendy spoke to his image.  “I’ve got to believe this one’s got a grip.  This baby’s a keeper.”

Bill bowed his head, rested his chin lightly on Wendy’s shoulder, and wrapped his arms around her.  He wanted to hold on more tightly but feared he might break something.  “It had better be.  I don’t think there are many more where he came from.”

Wendy rotated inside the circle of Bill’s arms and gave him a peck on the cheek.  “Thanks for fixing breakfast.”  She wrinkled her nose.  “Oh, God.  I think I’m going to be sick again.”  She pushed Bill away, put both hands on her knees, and leaned over the toilet.  Her hands turned into fists as if she could fight off the nausea.  “Morning sickness is supposed to go away by the third month.  It’s too late for this.”

“It’s probably the damned eggs,” Bill said.  I should have fixed oatmeal.”

Wendy straightened up.  “Yeah, probably just the eggs.  But I ought to be able to keep something as simple as an egg down.  Eggs are supposed to be good for you.”

“Why don’t you save a step, leave the toilet seat up just in case?”

“Don’t be a damned pessimist!” she snapped.   “I refuse to be sick any more.  I’m going to take a seat at the table, and I’m going to finish everything you put on my plate.”

Wendy waited for Bill to get out of her way.  But he reached out and placed both hands on her belly.  His knuckles were heavy, thick, and scarred.  Sloopy wasn’t kicking.  Wendy reached up to brush toast crumbs from Bill’s lips.


That evening Wendy and Bill lay in bed with their heads propped up on pillows and watched a rerun of “The Best of Johnny Carson.”  Wendy was nibbling on soda crackers to settle her stomach.  Beneath the sheet Bill’s feet framed the screen on the twenty-one inch Sony at the foot of the bed.  When he forced his toes together, Johnny disappeared; when he let them flop to the side, Johnny reappeared.  Now Johnny was wearing a black velvet turban and holding an envelope to his forehead; he was playing the Great Carnac, solver of riddles.  The routine reminded Bill of “Jeopardy,” but every answer was a joke.  Johnny closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and let the suspense build.  “Sis boom bah,” he proclaimed.  Then Johnny tore the end from the envelope and blew into it.  The envelope bellied out, Johnny extracted a piece of paper, unfolded it and read:  “What is the sound of a sheep exploding?”

Seated on the sofa to Johnny’s right, Ed McMahon burst into gales of hearty laughter.  “Yes, oh Great Carnac, The Magnificent.”

Bill brought his toes together and erased Johnny.  “Looks like we didn’t miss much the first time around.  If this is the best of Carson, I wouldn’t want to see the worst.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Wendy said, “maybe that would be more entertaining.  You know, less scripted, more spontaneous.”

Bill moved his feet apart.  Johnny popped up on the screen again.  Bill wondered if that was true about being funny.  He thought it was true about sex.  Now that sex was a regular part of his life, he was relieved and grateful.  But it seemed less exciting.  He remembered the thrill of picking up chicks in bars and bookstores down city when he was fresh out of Providence College with a graduate degree in economics.  It had helped that he looked like a body builder, that he had trained in gyms from the age of thirteen, and that at seventeen he had become New England Welter-Weight Champion in the Golden Gloves.  Whenever some flighty woman in a bar reached up to trace the scar tissue beneath his left eye or paused to focus on his twice broken nose or asked about the callous on his knuckles, Bill knew he had her.  If he wanted her.  But after hitting forty-five, suddenly all the knockout women close to his age were taken.  On weekends he saw them in minivans driving their kids to the Roger Williams’ Park Zoo or swimming lessons at the Barrington Y.  By the time he was fifty, Bill had gotten used to going a year or more without getting lucky.  Eventually, he found the women in bars divided into two types:  Young and giggly or old and desperate.  They were either caught up in trivial details of undergraduate work or seething with anger about divorces.  They all were obsessive about gaining weight.  Inviting them out to dinner was like asking them to step into the ring.

In hindsight Bill knew his sexual exploits had been a crazy game, the worst-case scenario being AIDS.  Meanwhile the sexual climate had changed.  Pretending to love and to be loved by a stranger no longer seemed possible.  When he had stopped scoring regularly, he told himself that he was being prudent.  The newspapers were filled with cautionary tales:  Sexual harassment law suits filed against CEOs; college administrations issuing strict guidelines governing relations between students and faculty; a picture in the Providence Journal of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s Chief Justice zipping up his pants while emerging from a liaison with a prostitute at Johnston motel.  At First Federal Trust, where Bill worked, sexual harassment training became mandatory, and officiously scripted dialog replaced flirting.   Being a lapsed New England Catholic, Bill diagnosed these symptoms as resurgent Puritanism.  Once again the culture seemed determined to take the fun out of sex by handing out scarlet “A’s, but this time around it would be to men for exploiting women in a rigged economy.  So, at fifty five, William Williams, now Chief Economist at First Federal with offices throughout New England, began to talk openly of looking for a wife and perhaps starting a family.  Bill’s male colleagues, who had been entertained by his earlier sexual exploits, were amused by his transformation.  Privately they began to refer to him as Bill Squared.

Bill found a wife two years later through a dating service called ForPlay, which operated out of a former fitness club and karate studio on Broadway.  It catered to athletes, arranging dates around workouts and sports—skiing, tennis, swimming, even swing dancing. This appealed to Bill.  As a boxer, he had done a lot of roadwork and weight training.  To stay youthful looking he had continued working out long after he stopped fighting.  So, when Bill read a feature article on dating services in the Providence Sunday Journal, he canceled his health club membership at Gold’s Gym on Bald Hill Road and signed up with ForPlay.  He liked their policy of no embarrassing interviews (“Well, after graduate school at NYU…”) or videotapes (“Hi—SMILE—my name is_______”) or newspaper ads (“SDWM loves walking on the beach, candlelit dinners, and stimulating conversation”).  ForPlay was just a chance to find a healthy mate.  In that way Bill met Wendy on a fun run, scrambling along Blackstone Boulevard on a Sunday afternoon in late April, passing five younger men to catch up to her because he liked what he saw from behind.  He was pleased she was a marathoner.  He wanted a woman who could go the distance.  They began to work out together—five mile runs and resistance training.  By the following January they were married.  She was thirty-seven and wanted children before it was too late.  Bill was fifty-eight and wanted to give Wendy anything that would make her love him.  Now at sixty-one he was trying to become a father.  And now Johnny Carson was razzing Doc Severson about his sportscoat looking like something a pimp would wear to an Easter egg hunt.  Johnny was saying “Where’s the hat with the Peacock feather?  What’s up, Doc?”  Ed McMahon was hysterical.  He cackled and hooted.  His head snapped back, then slumped between his knees as he fought to control his joy.  Finally Ed straightened up, wiped tears from his eyes and cut to a commercial for Tidy Bowl.

“Uh oh,” Wendy said.  “I’m bleeding.”


Wendy closed her eyes, leaned back in the passenger seat of their Saab station wagon, and pressed a supersize maxipad between her legs.  Bill drove through rain slick streets and swiped at the foggy windshield with a white towel.  The defroster had died several Sundays ago on their way to the United Church of Christ on Angell, and, although the car was still under warranty, they hadn’t found the time to get it to the dealer’s in Pawtucket yet.  Down Prospect and up Waterman there was almost no traffic.  But as Bill passed Hope, he realized that he was going the wrong direction from habit.  Accustomed to driving Wendy to the Ob-Gyn suite in Wayland Square for fertility treatments and monthly checkups, he had driven her away from the hospital not toward it.   There was no traffic, so he ran the light at Brooke, doubling back toward Hope, then Wickendon and the Point Street Bridge.  He checked his rearview mirror and listened for sirens.  The night was very dark.  Rain sluiced in the gutters and swept twigs and scraps of newspaper into storm sewers.  A Basset Hound frowned wrinkles as it lapped water from a puddle on the broken sidewalk under a streetlight.  The headlights cast small pale yellow pools on the pavement.  They reminded Bill of broken egg yolks.  As he passed beneath the freeway and approached Dudley, he could see the sickly green mercury vapor lights that marked the entrance to Women and Infant’s Hospital.  They made Bill want to vomit.  Hang on, Sloopy, Bill thought.  Hang on. 

The car felt like a cinderblock on wheels; he wondered if he was losing the steering as well as the defroster; Bill wrestled it into the space in front of the glass double doors marked EMERGENCY ROOM.  The asphalt was crosshatched with yellow lines, and a red neon sign read AMBULANCE ONLY.  Bill put on his hazard lights and leaned on the horn until he could see a blur of white coats and stethoscopes appear through the wavy path of the windshield wipers.  The Emergency Room doors burst open, and the water cascading off the roof broke all around them as EMTs pulled Wendy from the car, put her on a gurney, and wheeled her into the hospital with a blood pressure cuff already inflating around her left arm and Wendy holding up the blood soaked pad with her right hand and an EMT pressing Wendy’s hand back down against her crotch and hollering for her to just keep the pressure right on it.

Bill lowered his head to the steering wheel.  The windshield wipers thumped, thumped, thumped like an endless succession of barred doors closing.  Even with his eyes shut the sign’s red glow colored his thoughts.  Without this baby to keep him young, how could Wendy still love him?  He thought, who am I kidding?   I must have been dreaming!  For the first time he could picture himself alone, toothless, hooked up to an IV drip, lying in a nursing home like the one where he had visited his father when the old man was dying of heart trouble.  And like a split screen in a movie, he could see Wendy, seemingly ageless, standing in a navy blue power suit offering her summation to a jury.  This image dissolved into one of their two lovebirds, Anna and Fritz, stretching their clipped wings and singing to the mirror in their cage.  Tonight he knew Anna was sitting on the small white marble that he and Wendy had substituted for the real egg, which they had destroyed after reading about the mortality rate of lovebird chicks in captivity.  Bill imagined Anna and Fritz together now wrapped in silence and darkness by the night curtain.  Then his throat tightened and his eyes watered.  Bill shifted into reverse, backed out of the restricted area, and hunted for a place where he could park the Saab.


The voice came from behind the brilliant white light above her.  “Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you ever had.”

Wendy lay swaddled in a gray blanket on the sterile examination table inside the emergency-room cubicle.  Her feet were in stirrups, and a doctor was probing between her legs.  “Oh.  Two.  I think.  You know.  Like cramps, maybe.”

“When did the bleeding start?

“About twenty minutes ago.  We were watching Johnny Carson.  I felt this wetness between my legs.”

“Did you do anything strenuous today?  Lift anything?”

“No, I’ve cut way back on my running.  I stretched a little.  My husband and I had sex this morning after breakfast.  You think that could trigger it?”

“Did intercourse hurt?”

“No.  To tell you the truth, it felt terrific.  Better than usual.

“Good.  Just what Mother Nature intended.  That way, you’ll probably do it again.  If sexual activity isn’t painful, and it’s not too . . .ah . . . . athletic, it can actually be beneficial up until about the eighth month.  It usually keeps the parents happy, and if they’re happy. . .”

Wendy shifted on the examination table, recoiling from the pressure of the cold instruments against her pelvis.  The sanitary paper crinkled under her.  Her voice was suddenly husky.  “I lost the first one.  I don’t want to lose this one.”  She cleared her throat.  “I gave up biking.  And I’ll give up running altogether if I have to.  Just tell me.  I mean, I’ve cut back to six miles a week anyway, you know, like three two-mile runs?  And I swim laps when I can get to the pool at the Y.”

The doctor slipped Wendy’s feet from the stirrups and set them down gently.  She pulled Wendy’s green hospital Johnny down.  “It’s better to stay active if you can.  But walk, don’t run.  Swimming’s okay.  Most women know not to overdo.  However, the bleeding is a concern.  It isn’t just spotting.  On the other hand, it’s just about stopped now.”  The doctor turned off the examination light, and pulled her mask off.  “Some bleeding during early stage pregnancy is not uncommon.  But you’re, what now?  Four months?  Five?”

Wendy tried to blink away the dark spot in her eyes left by the examination light.  She could barely read the physician’s face, just making out a woman of about fifty in green scrubs, short blond hair protruding beneath a paper cap, no makeup.  “Almost five.”

The doctor nodded.  “Yeah, okay.  So, I want an ultrasound.  It won’t hurt anything, and it might tell us something.”

Wendy turned her head to follow the doctor as she edged around the foot of the examination table and held out a hand to help her sit up.  Wendy felt lightheaded.  “I’m not sure I want to know.”

Abruptly, the doctor crossed the cubicle, picked up a second blanket, returned, and draped it around Wendy’s shoulders.  “It’s always better to know.  That’s the only way we can help you have a healthy baby.  I think you’d be surprised how much the medical profession does know.  We’ve got so many options now.”  She glanced again at Wendy’s chart.  “Anyway, I’ll make sure this episode gets into your file so you can go over it with your regular Ob-Gyn, who is Dr. . . . ah . . .oh, looks you’ve got a whole team working on this.  A year and a half of fertility treatments with Wayland Gynecological Associates.  You’re in good hands.  Those guys have childbearing down to a science.”

“We’ll I’m forty, and I guess science got me this far.  But it seems more like a miracle.”

The doctor took a pen from her breast pocket and began writing on the patient chart.  She glanced up.  “Yeah.  We see those, too.  Now let’s get that ultrasound.”


Bill punched in the security code, shutting off the alarm system in their Prospect Street home.  He glanced at the darkened stairwell leading up to the master bedroom as he helped Wendy out of her wet raincoat.  He hung it up with his own double-breasted trench coat in the hall closet and shut the door.  He threw the keys down on the dining room table, pulled out an end chair, and collapsed into it.  “I’m beat,” he sighed.  “And I wasn’t even the one doing the bleeding.”

Wendy slipped up behind Bill and placed a large envelope on the table.  Then she bent and put her arms around his neck.  She kissed him on the ear.  “Oh, I don’t know.  You looked pretty white in the face.”  She straightened up and massaged his neck with both hands, digging her fingers in deep like a boxer’s corner man loosening him up for the next round.  His muscles were rigid.  Wendy sighed.  “You know what?”

Bill tipped his head back against Wendy’s belly, hoping to feel movement.  Instead he felt the rising and falling of her breath on the top of his head.  He wondered if he was getting a little bald.  The need to feel his son had become an ache too profound to be massaged away.  It made him weak.  He thought, give me a poke, kid.  Give me a kick in the head.  Your old man is out here waiting.  Finally, Bill grunted, “No, what?”

“I’m starving.  I wish Johnny Rockets up on Thayer Street were open.  I’d get a deluxe hamburger with lots of onions, French fries, a frosty chocolate malt.”

“Yeah, but it’s closed.  It’s, what?”  Bill looked at his Swiss Army watch; there was a Red Cross embossed beneath the numbers.  “A little after midnight.  Nothing’s open.  Nothing but emergency rooms and bars.”  He turned and looked up at Wendy.  “Is this an emergency?  I could pop some corn.”

“That sounds good.  Pop the good stuff, the Orville whatshisface.  The kind where all the kernels pop.  You know, no old maids.”

Bill heaved himself up and took Wendy’s hands in his.  He pushed fatigue aside, forcing himself to speak.  “There are always going to be a few lonely old maids,” he said.  “But you’re not going to be one of them.  I won’t let that happen.”

Wendy stood on her tiptoes and pressed her forehead against Bill’s.  She thought of a lovebird staring at its own reflection in a mirror.  “I know,” she said.  “But it’s not entirely up to you.  I don’t care how tough you are.  That’s too big a responsibility for anybody.  We can’t control everything.”

“So what do we do?”

“We hope.”

“What if we lose this one, too?”

“Cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“It might be too late for me.”

“It might be too late for both of us.”

“So what do we do?”

“What we can.  Let’s look at it one more time.”

Bill let go of Wendy, then, turned toward the table, and slid the grainy black and white image from its beige envelope as if he were the one giving birth.  There it was on the table.  Together they stood, heads bowed, staring at the 8 1/2 X 11 Polaroid enlargement of the ultrasound monitor.  It seemed like a miracle, this projecting sound through flesh and blood to create a shadowy image of more flesh and blood.  There was Sloopy, one hand clutching his umbilical cord, the other raised as if waving to his parents.  Bill’s voice was a hoarse whisper.  “I don’t know if he’s waving hello or goodbye.”

Wendy ran an index finger over the image of her son’s upraised hand, then turned to Bill.  “Damnit, don’t!  Don’t you dare do that to us!”  She paused, fighting for control.  “We’ve got to believe it’s hello.  If you love me, give me that much.”

Bill placed his hand on top of hers.  “Jesus, Wendy, it’s all about probabilities!  When I look at the numbers, it’s hard not to be pessimistic.”  He squeezed his wife’s hand.  “I do love you.  I love you no matter what.”

Wendy swallowed.  Her voice was hoarse.  “This is family were talking about now, not some abstraction.  This is as personal as it can get.  Both of us have got to believe we’re going to be parents.  Both, okay?  All I’ve seen of our son is this crummy looking Polaroid, and I already love him more than I’ve ever loved anything.”

Bill raised Wendy’s fist, unclenched it, and kissed the palm.  “Me, too.  I think we have to show him.  Let’s give him a sign.”  Slowly Bill went down on one knee at Wendy’s feet, like a boxer knocked halfway to the canvas and waiting for the count.  He began to hum “Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy, Hang on,” resting his face against her belly so that their son might hear.  Wendy joined in on the second chorus, singing the lyrics softly.  Over the sound of their voices they could hear the lovebirds in the darkness hanging over them.  Anna shredding more newspaper for the nest and Fritz pecking against the bars.

Don Kunz taught literature, creative writing, and film studies at the University of Rhode Island for 36 years.  His essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in over sixty literary journals.  Don has retired to Bend, Oregon, where he writes fiction and poetry, volunteers, studies Spanish, and is learning to play the Native American Flute.

After Pastor Barabbas Died

Ed. Note: This latest fiction, from Nigerian journalist Adetokunbo Abiola, is part of the Fertile Source’s commitment to publishing work by international writers. We’d like to invite writers from around the world to submit original and translated works to The Fertile Source.

Fiction by Adetokunbo Abiola


Pastor Barabbas, the man who made a vocation of providing Arigidi women with miracle babies, is dead. He died after a heart attack on the pulpit during a seven-day revival service titled “Get Your Miracle Baby Today.” He blew air into the face of Madam Veronica, sending her into a brief trance. He clutched his chest a few seconds after, slumped to the floor, and died.

Pandemonium broke out in the church. Many of the women ran to the door, shouting at the top of their voice. A few ‘prayer warriors’ gathered round Pastor Barabbas, praying, trying to cast out the demon attacking the ‘demon destroyer’. A few of the women chanted incantation near the pulpit, hoping to ward off the spell cast by witches and wizards, who had at last got the better of their enemy. But the efforts did not wake the man of God from the dead. 

Arigidi, a town partly surrounded by brooding hills, quivered with rage and grief, and not a small amount of apprehension. Pastor Barabbas was the hero of the people. He placed his hands on the brows of women, blew air into their faces, and they fell into a brief trance. They became pregnant a month later. He opened the pages of the bible, told the women to select a name in it, and prayed they should have a child having the qualities of the person they chose. Nine months later, they delivered such a baby. He gave single girls holy water, commanded them to gulp it down; and when they did, they got a husband. Pastor Barabbas had chased the demons, witches, and wizards from Arigidi. The town would never be the same with his death.

Women fainted and howled at his funeral, and their voices went as far as Ashigidi hills. Madam Veronica unwound her wrapper, threw it into his grave, and wanted to jump inside it; but someone held her. Many women brought their miracle babies, speaking to the dead Pastor Barabbas, asking him how they would protect their children now he was gone. Barren women said hope was lost with the demise of the pastor. Tears fell from the women, nearly creating a river in the town.

As he witnessed this, Papa Aturamumu, the Chairman Board of elders in the church and headmaster of one of the local schools, knew trouble brewed in the town. After the funeral ended, he saw Mama Benji, her eyes red with tears, stand by the door, carrying her baby. She gave birth to the boy three months earlier, but the baby was sickly. The doctors at the local clinic, not knowing the precise ailment, said the baby suffered from an ailment Papa Aturamumu could not pronounce. To prevent his death, Mama Benji brought her child to Pastor Barabbas for blessing and protection. Now the pastor was dead, Papa Aturamumu wondered what Mama Benji would do.

Turning, Papa Aturamumu looked into the church, saw his wife, and sighed. His wife would certainly pose problems with the pastor’s death. They had nine daughters, but Papa Aturamumu’s old mother wondered what he was doing with nine daughters. Was it not time he found a woman who would give him a son? Mama Aturamumu overheard the conversation and vowed to give birth to a son. To achieve this, she frequented the pastor’s home, anointed her body with holy oil, and asked him to persuade Papa Aturamumu they should try for a son. Her husband refused. Since the pastor died, Papa Aturamumu noted his wife’s paranoia for a son increased. He heard her asking her friend, Mama Benji, about the baby market in Lagos. Desperate women went to the place to purchase the children they wanted. Though his wife did not tell him she wanted to purchase a son from the market, Papa Aturamumu knew if she became too desperate she would do anything to get a son.

Sighing, he turned from his wife, looked behind him, and saw Madam Veronica. Though she had been married for fifteen years, she could not give birth to a child. Before she started visiting the pastor, she patronized native doctors, babalawos, for solutions to her problem. They made her sleep with as many as six mad men, Papa Aturamumu learned, yet she did not become pregnant. An irate mother-in-law chased her from her matrimonial home, and she was prevented from joining the women’s union so as not to infect others with her barrenness. What would she – and hundreds of other women – do when their last hope was dead?

Already, Aturamumu learned a few women had changed due to  the death of the miracle pastor. They took their new-born babies to other churches even for minor cold, seeking solutions. It was rumored many visited native doctors for concoctions making them pregnant. Other traveled out of town, visiting prophets reputed to have the ability of praying so women could have miracle babies.

Deep down, Papa Aturamumu did not believe it was possible for women to deliver miracle babies. Even though he believed in God, he was a skeptic who held onto his anti-miracle  ideas. But he knew members of the church believed in miracles. After many years of observation, he concluded it was food for their soul. The issue would come up when Barabbas successor was to be named. Aturamumu wondered what it would take him to revert his ideas and whether he could do so when installing a new miracle pastor.

Thinking about all this, Papa Aturamumu walked toward his home, located four hundred meters from the church. Papa Aturamumu did not usually go home after service but he needed to think. Besides, he had to attend a meeting of the church council at home. When he entered his sitting room, the members waited for him. Papa Aturamumu knew they wondered the next step now Pastor Barabbas, the ‘demon destroyer’, was dead and buried.

“The women would be most affected,” Papa Moni, the town banker, said. “And when they are affected, no one will have peace.”

During an earlier meeting, the members of the council debated what a post-Barabbas’s future held for church members. Men would no longer have the opportunity of haggling over tithes and offerings, and thanksgiving money would plunge because the congregation would fall. The number of women coming to Arigidi for miracle babies would reduce, and men would lack nubile girls to bed for babies. But it was their wives that troubled them. When Pastor Barabbas was alive, he satisfied their hunger for more and more babies. Now he was dead, and there were no more miracle babies, their eyes would stray to where they could find them. The men knew they would derail, just as women from surrounding towns derailed when they came to Arigidi for miracle babies. Serious problems loomed with the passage of Pastor Barabbas.

“We must begin the process of choosing a new pastor,” Papa Aturamumu said. “Our women are going astray.”

“How does the church choose a successor?” asked Papa Boluwade, a school teacher and the newest member of the board of elders. “Is it through seniority or hard work?”

Mama Olowomeye hesitated and then coughed. She was a dark complexioned woman who had a reputation for having a fertile imagination. She also frequented native doctors and other spiritualists in town. She would not have been made a council member but was for her contribution to harvest and thanksgiving fund.

“You become a pastor if you show signs of performing miracles,” she said, “or if a little black bird gives signal you can be one.” The women with her nodded with approval. Many of them knew this, and those who did not made mental note of it.

However, Mama Gbenga sighed and said, “A little black bird is said to give a signal. It names the person who will be pastor.” Silence fell in the room.

“But birds don’t talk,” Papa Boluwade said. 

“Nonsense!” said one middle-aged woman sitting beside him. “Birds talk everywhere. Come to my farm.”

“Can’t the process be made simpler?” Papa Boluwade looked doubtful. “Birds can’t talk.” 

“Come to my farm,” said another woman. “I’ll show you birds talking.” 

“My two-year old grandson says this every time. I’m always amused. And this talk about miracles. What …” 

Papa Aturamumu felt he should say something and he stood up. “Elders! Mothers!” he shouted, “People said Pastor Barabbas could perform miracles. To be honest, I don’t think Arigidi can be peaceful if women don’t have someone whom they think can  give them miracles.” Taking a deep breathe, he looked at Mama Olowomeye, who wanted to speak. “Yes, Elder Olowomeye, what do you want to say?” 

“I think we should pray,” Mama Olowomeye said. “We need to wait on the lord.”

“Wait on the lord when thunder wants to blow away our roofs?” Papa Aturamumu countered. “You must be joking.” The meeting ended without the elders reaching a compromise. That was two days ago.

As he now joined the discussion in his sitting-room, Papa Aturamumu knew no solution was in sight. After a long moment, one old man with rough beard called Papa Obayan hammered on the table and coughed. “Let’s do this thing like a team,” he said. “If we stand together we’ll find a successor to Pastor Barabbas.” The elders nodded their heads. Papa Obayan said no suggestion was ridiculous if it would lead to getting the next miracle pastor and bringing peace and stability to Arigidi. Some of the men nodded their heads at this and decided to use their heads to solve the problem. They agreed to make Papa Aturamumu’s sitting room their operational headquarters

They also agreed on a few other things. A little black bird must name the successor to Pastor Barabbas. If it called any assistant pastor’s name he became the new pastor. All assistant pastors stood the chance of replacing Barabbas. All board members of the church would monitor the assistant pastors. Every information would be brought back to Papa Aturamumu’s house for analysis. The facts would be debated and a decision would be reached about Barabbas’ successor. Any decision reached would be binding on all and would be forwarded to the congregation for ratification.

Since it was early May, the rains fell in the evening so all church elders stayed at home. Papa Aturamumu sat in his sitting room while his wife sat opposite him. She hinted she might go to Lagos to make some arrangements. Papa Aturamumu asked her what the arrangements were about, but she did not tell him, saying it was a woman’s business. He suspected she wanted to visit the baby market and make inquiries about how to purchase a boy. However, he did not bother to confront her since he knew she would deny it. The next day, however, sun bathed Arigidi, and the elders knew the search for a successor to Barabbas had started.

Papa Aturamumu was assigned to monitor an assistant pastor called Ijabiyi. Since Ijabiyi began duties at the church a year ago, Papa Aturamumu never attended his service because his head was long and shaped like a hammer. Rather than focus his attention on his sermons, Papa Aturamumu found himself staring at the head and wondering how one could have a hammer-shaped head. Consequently, he never made anything of Ijabiyi’s sermon or notice anything about him. On getting home after monitoring Ijabiyi’s sermon , he took his wife aside and asked her about her views on it. Did the women in the church like Ijabiyi’s preaching? Mama Aturamumu had been keeping malice with her husband for not giving accent to her Lagos visit. She saw his question as an opportunity to take revenge. “Old man,” she said, “Since when has women’s business become your business?” Not knowing how to answer her, Papa Aturamumu took his walking stick from the corner of the room and went out the house.

In the evening, he bought a finger of roasted banana and groundnut, her favorite snacks. Making sure she saw where he placed them on the center table, he asked her again whether women enjoyed Ijabiyi’s sermon in the afternoon. Softened by the sight of the banana and groundnut, his wife said in a harsh voice: “Ijabiyi cannot see vision. He cannot perform miracles. He’s not like Barabbas and Ifeoluwa.”  Nodding, Papa Aturamumu asked whether she saw any bird during the service. His wife nodded her head as though her suspicions had been confirmed. “I suspected something has been wrong with you these past few days,” she said. “Now I’m sure about it. Haven’t you always seen birds in the church?” She hissed, grabbed the banana and groundnut, and left the room. 

Papa Bolanle Mobolanle, a retired  clerk, rubbed his jaw, adjusted his ancient spectacles, and said: “If she saw a bird, what are we waiting for? Ijabiyi must be the man.”

Mama Olowomeye shook her head. “She saw a bird,” she told him. “She did not see a little black bird. It has to be a little black bird.”

The church elders began their work from there, monitoring the assistant pastors for their ability to perform miracles. They attended every sermon, questioned their wives, and looked for little black birds. As they did this, men also monitored their wives. Many of them attended services, but others took taxis and went to neighboring towns in search of pastors who could perform signs and wonders. These pastors were thought to be useful to women looking for the fruit of the womb. Papa Aturamumu watched his wife with growing concern. She wanted to travel to Ikare, a nearby town, to visit her family, but he forbade her. He suspected she wanted to travel to the baby market in Lagos.

Back in his sitting room a week later, the members of the council looked sad. Their search had yielded no lead. “We have to bring up new ideas to solve this problem,” Papa Aturamumu told them, tapping his walking stick on the table. “Women are no longer coming to service. Papa Moni, you were supposed to monitor Ifeoluwa. What did you observe?”

Papa Moni sat straight in his chair, pulled up the collar of his shirt, and shook his head. “I didn’t see any sign of miracle during his services,” he said.

“No little black bird?” Mama Olowomeye asked.

“Not even a single bird” The elders sighed. It would be difficult to find a replacement for Pastor Barabbas.

“How did the women react to Ifeoluwa?” he asked. “Will he be able to keep them in line?”

Papa Moni nodded, touched his collars, and came alive.

“I don’t see any problems here,” he said. “He’s good with women. I did see one of the choristers wink at him. It doesn’t mean he’ll take our wives, but that he’ll be able to communicate with them.” 

Papa Aturamumu frowned at the reference made to wives but persisted with his questions.

“Do you think he’ll ever develop the spirit to perform miracles?” he asked. 

“Thank you, Elder,” Papa Moni said. “I can say knowing whether he’ll be a miracle pastor is tricky. I’m not God, and I can’t tell the future. I know people say miracle pastors can be found through dreams, but I didn’t dream about him during the week. I thought I could define his character by the way we assess people in the bank. When people wear good shoes we feel they’re trustworthy and will build a good portfolio. But I don’t know whether we can judge miracle pastors by looking at what shoes they wear.” 

To prevent laughter, Papa Aturamumu wore a blank expression on his face.

“And what did you see when you looked at Ifeoluwa’s shoes?”

Papa Moni pulled at the collar of his shirt and looked at the elders.

“Elders, he has changed his shoes,” he said. “He used to wear old shoes, but he’s now wearing brand-new ones. Of course, I don’t know whether this can be used as a criterion to judge a future miracle pastor.” 

Papa Aturamumu was brusque.

“The fact he’s now wearing new shoes doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. “A devil can wear new shoes and claim to be a saint.” He looked at the other elders in room. “Any observations? Any miracles from the assistant pastors?” The elders stared at him, not saying anything because they did not witness any miracle or see the little black bird. Things were going from bad to worse, Papa Aturamumu thought, then said, “Many of our women are going to other towns in search of miracle babies and pastors. Others are thinking of going to the baby markets in Lagos. Husbands and wives are quarreling over babies everyday. Elders, Arigidi is in serious trouble.” He looked at the elders once more and shook his head with sadness.  “Are we saying we didn’t notice anything in the past one week? Are there no new ideas apart from the miracle ones?” Mama Olowomeye sighed and Papa Aturamumu recognized her. “Yes, Mama, what do you have to say?”

“I’m not quite sure what I want to say is right,” Mama Olowomeye began, “but I think the situation demands it.”

“What do you have to say?” Papa Aturamumu said.

“As you know, I was assigned to Arogundade,” Mama Olowomeye said, “but after I attended his service, I found out something very important.”

“What is it?”

“Well, no bird spoke during Arogundade’s service, and there were no signs of miracles. However, I met a friend after church who told me about a miracle prophet in Ibadan. He prophesies the future by simply looking into water put in a spiritual pot. After looking into the water, the prophet tells people what will happen in future. What babalowos cannot do this prophet can do it. Some women drink cow milk for nine months before they learn anything about their future. This prophet does the work in only five minutes, and his prophecy works. Some women sleep with toothless mad men for months so their future can be revealed. This prophet will do the same thing in three minutes. And his prophecy comes true. Everybody speaks well of him. I think we should consult him so he can tell us where we can find this little bird.”

The elders burst into cheers. Papa Moni stood up, crossed the room, and patted Mama Olowomeye on the head. Papa Bolanle shook her hand as though she won a lottery and solved the riddle confronting them.

Papa Aturamumu tapped the walking stick on the center table.

“Mama Olowomeye,” he said, “Did you get this information from the village native doctor?”

“If I did I wouldn’t have told anyone about it.”

Papa Aturamumu nodded, pleased. “This is a way forward,” he said. “Who can tell a miracle pastor better if not a miracle prophet.” The elders decided they would visit the miracle prophet. They selected Mama Olowomeye and Aturamumu for the journey. The miracle prophet would only be questioned about where the elders could find the little black bird. He would not be asked to divine Pastor Barabbas’s successor. That evening, the elders went to their various homes with the confidence they would find a new miracle pastor. The problems of Arigidi women would be solved.

The prophet’s church was a large hall surrounded by oil palm trees. Shacks built of wood stood in front of it. Members of the church wore red gowns and walked about in white shoes. Men and women sat on white plastic chairs and waited for the prophet. A thick scent of incense hung in the air.

After waiting for two hours, a male usher took Papa Aturamumu and Mama Olowomeye to the presence of the prophet, commanding them to prostrate on the ground. After he was briefed about the purpose of their mission, the prophet took them to a pot placed at the corner of the room. Its water was black and still. The prophet began to chant incantations and dance. Spraying incense to the four corners of the room, he pranced about the place. Finally, he stopped and told his visitors to look into the pot. The water in it swirled and looked green.

“Can’t you see the bushes?” the prophet asked.

Papa Aturamumu did not see anything but said he could. “Yes, yes, I can see it.”

The prophet looked at Mama Olowomeye. “And can you see the hills?” he asked.

Mama Olowomeye did not see any hill but said she could.

“The little black bird would appear next tomorrow by the bush behind the hill beside the church,” the prophet pronounced.

The elders stayed by the bush behind the hill beside the church on the appointed day but no little black bird appeared. Angry, Papa Aturamumu said Mama Olowomeye must have got her information about the prophet from the village native doctor. Papa Moni said the church must screen out people who patronized soothsayers when it wanted to appoint new council members.

Meanwhile, the women continued to travel out of town in search of miracle pastors and babies. Husbands quarreled with their over the incessant journeys. Mama Aturamumu quarreled with her husband for not wanting a tenth baby and preventing her journey to Lagos. On Monday, while Papa Aturamumu strolled to the church to monitor, once again, Assistant Pastor Ijabiyi, he saw people trooping to the street as though a spectacle had occurred. Men, women, and children spoke in an animated manner. Something strange had happened in the town and Papa Aturamumu wondered what it was.

However, he considered it bad manners to poke his nose into matters that did not concern him, so he continued his stroll toward the church. But he noticed women in the throng were in a jubilant mood. He had not seen them looking so bright since Pastor Barabbas, the miracle baby pastor, died a few weeks ago. Intrigued now, he stopped and looked at them.

The women, with big smiles planted on their faces, headed for an orchard of mango trees standing beside the church premises. Many backed their children, while others held the hands of their sons and daughters and moved into the orchard. They walked as though they could hardly wait to discover the secret awaiting them beside the church. They shouted and clapped their hands.

Following them, Papa Aturamumu entered the orchard. He saw women and children looking at a giant mango tree in the center of the orchard. Some of the women brought chairs and sat on them, while others stood under the tree. Flies buzzed in the enclosure, and the air was hot.

Papa Aturamumu noticed his wife standing twenty meters in front of him. She folded her arms across her breasts and stood next to Mama Benji. They spoke to each other in whispers, then clapped their hands as their eyes riveted to the top of the tree. As he watched them, he noticed a stir rise in the crowd , and everyone looked at the branches of the mango tree. Papa Aturamumu saw disappointment on their faces a moment later as they moaned. 

Now completely interested in discovering the reason for the big crowd, Papa Aturamumu inched his way toward his wife. He stood a few meters from her so he could hear what she said without arousing her attention.

“Yes,” Mama Aturamumu said, “I’m sure it’ll appear again.” 

“Now you mention it,” said Mama Benji, “the church elders should hear about it. Miracles like this don’t happen every time.” 

“Didn’t the boy say the bird called an assistant pastor’s name?” Mama Aturamumu asked. 

“He said so,” Mama Benji said. “He said he had been going to pluck mango from the tree. The little black bird perched on the branch with the mango. The boy said the bird started speaking to him, calling a name. The boy said he was so frightened he almost jumped down the tree.”

“Where’s the boy?” 

Mama Benjo pointed at a scrawny looking boy sitting on a tread-bare mat a few meters away. Papa Aturamumu sighed, pushed two women standing in his way to a side, and marched to the boy. He was one of the boys Papa Aturamumu chased from the orchard with a stick anytime he came to steal mango. He bent down to his haunches and stared at the boy.

“Did you say you saw a little black bird on that mango tree?” he asked.

The boy was too frightened to speak.

“Don’t worry,” Papa Aturamumu told him. “I won’t beat you for trying to steal our mango. I just want to know what happened. What did the little black bird say?” 

“It said Ifeoluwa many time over.”

Papa Aturamumu decided the little black bird could not have spoken to him. God could not choose a man who wore old shoes as pastor. It was bad enough believing a little black bird could speak to people.

Another thought occurred to him. Ifeoluwa may have paid the boy to stage this spectacle so he could be made the pastor. Papa Aturamumu decided to keep the issue from the hearing of his fellow elders. If they did hear, Papa Aturamumu vowed to say Ifeoluwa bribed the boy to stage the charade. Having come to this decision, Papa Aturamumu left the orchard, heading for the church.

As he trudged down the street, another thought occurred to him. Pastor Barabbas preached anyone lying against the spirit got destroyed by lightning and thunder. Papa Aturamumu looked at the sky and did not see any sign of the agents of doom. Pastor Barabbas could not be telling the truth, he thought. He decided to keep quiet about the incident at the orchard.

But when he got home in the evening, a mysterious wind began to blow in the town. Papa Aturamumu heard a crash at his backyard and ran out the house. His treasured paw paw tree lay flat on the ground, blown down by the wind. As Papa Aturamumu mused about this, he felt pain pound his head and groaned. Suddenly, he felt the world spinning around him, and he crashed to the floor. As he got up, he fell against the tree as the wind buffeted him.

He ran into the house, amazed by the quick turnaround of events. What could have caused it? he asked himself. Could God be punishing him for not wanting to disclose what he heard and saw at the orchard to fellow elders. Before he answered the question, thunder crashed in the evening and he heard the sound of the turbulent wind as it buffeted the roof of his house. The wind wanted to pull it away  and fling it into the street. Papa Aturamumu quickly decided his refusal to alert the elders about the orchard episode could be responsible – spiritual issues could be so mysterious. As soon as the storm subsided a little, he ran out his house to summon an elders meeting for the next evening. 

In his sitting room twenty four hours later, the elders were in a jubilant mood. A replacement for Pastor Barabbas had been found. They did not question whether birds could talk to people.

“Okay, Papa Aturamumu, where is the boy? Let him tell us what the bird told him,” one of them said. Their eyes moved to the frightened boy, still not convinced they would not punish him for stealing mango from the orchard.

Immediately he saw him, Papa Moni frowned.

“I know this boy,” he said. “He’s fond of stealing mango in the orchard. Is he reliable?” 

Papa Aturamumu coughed and stood up. “Good talk, Elder,” he said. “I myself have seen him stealing mango many times. I didn’t believe his story until God sent thunder to blow  off my roof and I almost got killed. We must remember the spirit moves in mysterious ways. Look at Paul in the bible. The woman whom the bird told that Barabbas should be our pastor, was she not an old woman without teeth?” 

Mama Olowomeye turned to the boy.

“Boy, what did the little black bird say?”

“He kept on saying Ifeoluwa,” the boy replied.

After a little argument, the elders decided Ifeoluwa should be appointed the pastor of the church. The church members should be summoned and informed of the decision of the elders. Mention must be made the choice came after a miraculous revelation by the little black bird. It was a sign Arigidi would continue to have miracle babies. But Papa Moni raised an objection.

“What is it?” asked Papa Aturamumu, irritated.

“Pastor Ifeoluwa should be told not to wear his old shoes again.”

“Your advice is noted”

By next Sunday, the announcement was made. The elders and the congregation wore satisfied smiles on their faces. Once Ifeoluwa assumed duties, the women brought their babies to him for blessing. Madam Veronica, instead of visiting babalawos, returned to the church in the search of the fruit of the womb. Mama Benji stopped traveling in search of miracle pastors to save her baby. Mama Aturamumu suspended her trip to the baby market and decided to appeal to the new miracle pastor to persuade her husband so they could try for the tenth child. As for Papa Aturamumu, he smiled at the peace that returned to the church even though he still did not believe in miracle pastors.

Adetokunbo Abiola is a Nigerian journalist and writer. He has published LABULABU MASK, a novel (Macmillan Nigeria). He has also published in print and online magazines such as Rake Journal, BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, Flask Review, Zapata!, Liberation Lit, Sage of Consciousness Review, Africa Writer.Com , Big Pulp, the One World anthology, The November 3rd Club, Mobius – A Journal for Social Change, Tres Crow World, 5923 Quarterly, Contemporary World Literature Journal, Bicycle Review, May Day Magazine, Saraba, Pulse Literary Review and the Mainstay Press Anthology. He has stories about to be published in Wilderness House Literary Review.

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