I, Ester - Shannon Sweetnam

Allow me to start from the moment I, Ester, arrived – a slippery jumble of flesh and soft cries – so to explain why I packed up and moved to the other side of the country, choosing to abandon Mother and the unborn child.

Before my birth, when her contractions grew strong, Mother headed to Father’s burial place on the outskirts of town, telling not a soul where she was headed but carrying fresh bread and a sharp knife wrapped in cotton rags. This I know because it is recorded in the spirals, the color of deer hides, college-ruled.

As I aged, I found myself more and more at odds with these hand-written records and what I took for so long to be truth. A better daughter would find a way to trust Mother’s words and intentions, yet a better daughter I was not. My disbelief came upon me so fast I wasn’t sure it was real. I was reminded of the way a snake might sneak across our trail when out riding, slither so quickly past under cover of rotting leaves that the mare’s startled reaction came a quarter mile later, when the blur she’d barely missed with her front hooves registered in the recesses of her brain. The fact was that I had turned wary of the path Mother’d chosen for me. By sixteen, I began questioning her tight control of my comings and goings, to wonder at her reclusiveness, her strange beliefs, and the tight confines she kept me in. I was growing up, and my coming of age was like a train rushing toward me which I couldn’t stop.

Let Father be the first to see his daughter, Ester. Ester, Father. Father, Ester. A “how do” all around before Mother wrapped me in the clean rag she’d pulled aside for me and carried me home. This is the story of my birth. It is the story I grew up with, which I retold it to countless people who took it as I did for truth, or at least put on a good show in front of me. The problem is children are true believers, and if I’d been born at Micheaux Women’s Hospital and come out fully attired, I’d put the fact in my pocket and run with it. The train rushed toward me, shattering the graveside birth, destroying the story of my existence, and turning my world into a muddle of scattered cardboard jigsaw pieces.

I did not inherit Mother’s auburn hair, but Father’s, which mother claims to have been dirt brown. Mother and I hardly resemble each other, except to be both tall of stature, with the square jaws and prominent brows of many who live in this area. Our shoulders are wide, not sloping like those of so many women, and there is enough meat upon us to be considered farm-worthy. We have the strength and agility to catch a flustered chicken and wring its neck without getting clawed, to chop firewood and do a man’s work in whatever weather happens along.

Mother wasn’t born deaf. She lost her hearing when an ear infection went untended. Her parents waited weeks to fetch the doctor, who arrived at the house, his black bag brimming with penicillin, but his words faltering during the ear canal inspection. Only a few months later, Mother lost her ability to speak too.

During all our time together, Mother and I lived outside town in the valley, where we could spy the church’s steeple from the second floor, just above the stand of hickories bordering our field. Our neighbor’s sheep lay to the east and north while our own field and chicken coops lay southward. The neighboring farmer tended a handful of black sheep, and a great mess of creamy ones, while the dog that helped tend them, he was a shaggy mix of both colors. If the wind was right, you could smell that dog a mile before you could see his shaggy, patched face, a smell I grew to love as it brought with it licks and rubs and tail waggings like you wouldn’t believe, even when my pockets were empty.

Our house had two stories and a good five rooms, not including the root cellar. We had a small barn, besides, where we stabled our mare and parked the wagon. We were not well-off enough to own a car, but well enough to get by.

On Saturday mornings, I wore a starched dress and my good hat to town. Riding in, I passed the sprawling graveyard cordoned off by its iron fence. As I neared, the full leaves of the trees pulled away, and the church’s white cross appeared on the horizon. I sold eggs at the market and bought weekly provisions with the little money they fetched. I was not allowed to go to town for pleasure like the other girls. Nor was I permitted to attend movies in the theater I passed on my way to the bakery, where Paul had me in charge of baguettes and croquinolles and sometimes had me prepare the milk breads before I ran to school.

But I am pulling ahead of myself. Other things happened before I began at the bakery. One was that, after the death of their two sons in the war, our neighbors moved, taking their sheep and their friendly, malodorous dog with them. This happened late in the summer of my sixteenth year. Soon after, Monsieur Small settled into the vacant house. I am speaking of the nearest house that was not so large as our own. This new neighbor was injured from the First War which occurred I suppose at good decade past, when I was but young. The war had been far away and I knew little about it. Small was middle-aged, a few years younger than Mother, and having befriended us, he dined with us often, bringing hoppin john or molasses candy which he made his own self. He had been as family to us since he arrived, and Mother spent great time wondering about his intentions. I thought at first she was keen on him and so she was, but that’s not the whole story.

Small was an expert signer because his own mother had been deaf as a stone. My friend Marie-Rose said things like this weren’t coincidence but God’s indelible hand. This new neighbor was the only human being within two dozen country miles able to speak to Mother. At dinner, we signed even when Mother left the table. She was so busy talking, she rarely ate, and her food gelled on her plate, the gravy transformed into a viscous speckled glob edged in pig fat. I had to get up again and again to stoke the firestove and percolate coffee. On the evenings Small visited, I brushed Mother’s hair and braided it myself before he was due to arrive. I rubbed in sesame oil and dabbed her neck with vanilla extract I’d brought home from work. There was no fixing my own hair as Mother preferred I keep it short and unadorned, cut straight at the bottom edge of my ear, so that my whole head resembled a burnt acorn and envy burned through me at the site of ribbons in my classmates’ long hair.

During that last year at home with Mother, I enjoyed getting up early to bake. At first I complained of a belly ache and begged to be let be. I couldn’t fathom why Mother couldn’t have taken the job herself – all it took was a pair of strong hands and the ability to follow simple instructions, something I had the nerve to mention one night at dinner. I endured several hard lashes before letting loose a scream, and Small, upon hearing me across our connecting yard, ran over to investigate, grabbing hold of the leather whip and flinging it to the plank floor. Mother neither cooked me anything nor allowed me in the kitchen for three days. She locked the cellar and kept the key on a string around her thick neck. The fourth day with nothing to eat, I left early for work, a half dozen hard boiled eggs stuffed one after the other into my mouth and a wide slice of bread gripped tightly in my fist as I ran. The train was coming. I felt its rush of wind in my face, the passengers whispering for me to grow my hair long, to sneak out and attend Friday night dances or go to the movies with Marie-Rose. The train rushed toward me and I could do nothing to stop it.

Paul confided there was something wrong with Mother, besides her deafness, though he didn’t specify further. He was the first one to tell me to my face it was highly unlikely anyone in that graveyard had any relation to me at all. You’re a smart girl, Ester. Gisa tried to shush him but he wouldn’t have it. You’re old enough to know your own history. It doesn’t make you any less. But to many people, it does, and I told him so. What exactly is my history? I demanded. He merely shrugged.

Paul’s wife, Gisa, helped at the bakery, mostly by ordering Paul around. I wear the pants, he always told me, and I laughed when I heard him say it, so he said it over again every morning to please me. Remember Ester, when you get married, it’s the man that wears the pants.

Gisa said with a voice like mine I should sing in the choir with Marie-Rose. Mother always shrugged and rolled her eyes when anyone brought up something God-related, but I was of a different mind about Him. Marie-Rose had told me the good He brought, including our neighbor Small. Yet Mother more than once threatened me when I set about hitching the mare up to the wagon on a Sunday morning.

It was clear that Small had intentions toward Mother. I knew plain well she snuck into his bed during the day when I was at school. Late that autumn, Small told me in confidence that she was expecting and confided also his great affection for Mother. He said she slept with him only on the promise that he would settle down with me at the end of the day, and he’d taken it for a joke, something to liven up their relations, but she had persisted in her demand, and he stood, flat-footed and dumbstruck, in a fluster of worry. And what, pray tell, was I to do about it? I spit on the ground before him lifting my strong arms to the sky before I stormed off.

Around this same time, in the late autumn of my sixteenth year, I became all suddenly acquainted with Henry. Marie-Rose and I’d been walking home from school when we came upon him. He had hurt himself, I figured in the war, since there was a war, not the first war I spoke about earlier, but a second one. He’d fought, been injured, and now limped listlessly along on crutches, his shoulders hunched against the cold. The conductor had thought him too ill to travel further and sent him off the train with a slip of paper with the address of the veteran’s hospital, which the wind had lifted from his curled fist. When we came upon the soldier, he was limping slowly in the wrong direction, his ruddy face bruised and swollen, with no one about to ask about where he should be setting his feet. The street, you understand, was quiet that time of day. There had been not a car to flag in the while we stood with him, so I fled to hitch up the mare while Marie-Rose took keep of the soldier.

We were making good progress toward the hospital when we past home and Mother ran out of Small’s house, still buttoning her blouse, her shawl half off her shoulder. She bid me stop, and I did. She took Henry to rest in my room, slipping off his shirt and pants, wrapping him in my blanket, and sending me to heat water. By evening, we could not get him out of bed. He smiled at me but it was hard to tell if he could even see, his one eye swollen and the other sort of slanted about from a deep cut in his brow. Very sweetly, Henry asked if he couldn’t touch my face. Mother read his lips and her temper flared. I left without a word, went to the kitchen to bake croquinolles and fry sausage for dinner.

That night I slept on the kitchen floor until I heard Mother’s soft, rhythmic snore. I returned to the bed with the injured soldier. Our first snow had fallen earlier that week, and the cold had lingered. A thin layer of ice ferns spread upon the lower half of the paned windows. My breath hung in loose white clouds before me, the fire stove no match for the drafty farmhouse. Henry woke when I entered the bed and threw a bare arm around me. He smiled and said my name. Ester. I kissed him upon the mouth, tenderly, so as not to hurt him, and he moaned and I moaned back, and when he shushed me I reminded him there was no one to hear us except the chickens out back so he screamed my name as loud as anyone had ever done and I almost burst my side for laughing.

Henry stayed with us a fortnight, growing strong enough to come to the table for dinner. Small and I both had the same idea about this man, whom I’d so quickly fallen in love with. He was smart and kind and a ticket out of the mess I was in if I could get him to take me back with him to the other side of the country. Mother grew disagreeable during this time, because we all spoke without signing and talked over each other and she couldn’t read all the lips at once. Besides, she was with child, tired and annoyed to begin with, so many evenings she just got up in a tizzy and left the table.

Though she had to have been at least two months pregnant, Mother hadn’t spoken to me of the child, and I wondered what she planned on doing with it. One night, at the table with Henry and Small, as I left to stoke the fire stove, it occurred to me she planned to put the young one in my own care. She expected Small and I to register to marry around the time the infant was due, soon after I graduated, and for now, we were playing along like we would. I think at first Small had thought he could still entice Mother to marry him instead, but their relations had soured on his end, and he was only protecting me now. I explained to him that there would be threats she planned on seeing through to drown the child or smother it if I did not agree to take it for my own, and he saw that this indeed could be true. And the jigsaw pieces of my past scattered even farther apart and the train rushed toward me and I could do nothing to stop it. I could do nothing.

After seeing the way he smiled at me, Mother would have sent Henry off to the war hospital after that first evening, but Small gave me a gold locket to appease her, and I kept my distance from the soldier when she was around. I heard from Marie at school that the veteran’s hospital was crowded and full of disease, though it wasn’t long before a high fever caught hold of Henry and there was no other option but to send him to the long, low building on the edge of town. I took him in the wagon, where he lay prostrate, wrapped in my blanket, his breathing shallow and his face burning. The old mare trotted quickly, shaking her head in annoyance, her gait stiff and gimpy, her ears back as far as they could go without being disconnected entirely from her head. The few sheep we passed huddled with their back ends against the gale. The wind stung my face and my eyes teared so that I gave up trying to see and closed them altogether. I trusted the mare to keep on path, wondering if she, too, might be blinded by the weather and was relying on me to navigate as she lurched unevenly forward.

As we pulled up to the hospital, Henry asked me to promise to return with him on the train to the other side of the country. I felt for the first time in my life disrobed of all fear, and worried only for the fate of my crotchety girl, whom Mother would leave locked in her stall if I left, ignoring her soft whinnies, until they lessened and ceased.

Throughout autumn, the weather remained unseasonably frigid. Trees shed their leaves early and fierce winds broke limbs and uprooted dozens of trees so that many roads were for a long while impassable. Snow fell often and hard. Small visited more and more, speaking only with his hands, every now and then reassuring Mother of our agreement with her plan by pecking me on the cheek or bending his head into mine as he watched me perform equations at the kitchen table. Both Small and Marie-Rose found time to visit Henry, report to me his progress, and slip me notes which I kept hidden in my desk at school. Henry’s health improved. Small reviewed the train schedules and purchased a suitcase for me which he snuck in his cellar, while Mother, like usual, kept watch of my comings and goings. Only once was I able to sneak away to visit the veteran’s hospital, leaving school on the pretense of running an errand for the headmaster. I scrambled through the snowy fields toward Henry only to find visiting hours cancelled due to influenza. At home, I pretended to have forgotten the solider entirely. I brushed Mother’s hair at night without the usual sense of resentment, knowing my situation would soon improve. There was a train coming down the tracks and I was to hop on it.

Two weeks after Henry went into the hospital, I turned seventeen. I had a small party after school at the bakery with Small, Paul, Marie-Rose and Gisa, which Mother reluctantly allowed. How I had wished Henry could have been there! How I missed the roughness of his beard and the green flecks in his somber eyes, the way he opened his mouth upon my sex before he took me, the way he scrawled my name with his fingers upon my chest, Ester, Ester, Ester.

The day after my birthday, in homeroom, Marie-Rose leapt upon me, and while in her arms, told me of my betrothed’s death, which she’d discovered in the morning’s paper. She held my hand under our shared desk much of the day, but still could not stop crying, as if her own heart had been broken and not mine. I lent her my handkerchief and wiped my own nose upon the inside of my sleeve, while I stared at the blackboard, unable to hear anything coming out of Miss Faget’s mouth.

At home, I tended the chickens and stretched out all the chores I could think to do until it was too dark to see even a wall in front of me, until my hands were raw from scrubbing and hammering and splitting wood. I ignored Mother when she came outdoors. Once I entered the house, she set about heating water. I soaked my hands, avoiding her eyes. It was so quiet I could hear Henry’s watch count the time. He’d fastened it directly on my wrist when I dropped him off at the hospital. Surprisingly, Mother had let me keep it. It was in lieu of an engagement ring, which he had planned to purchase for me the minute we set foot off the train at the other end of the country. It’d never had a watch before, and it was hard to get used to the constant ticking, and only looking down at your own arm to discover the exact to-the-minute time.

The evening of the day I learned of Henry’s death I wound the timepiece before going to bed the same as always, tucking my watch-laden wrist underneath my pillow where the ticking boomed in my ear. I didn’t know what would happen to me now. I turned my head to smell the pillowcase. I hadn’t washed it since Henry lay upon it, but his scent was gone.

I slept fitfully, wondering what was to become of me. There was a train was rushing toward me and I felt as if I had two choices. I could run in front of it or hop on, but I couldn’t stay here in this farmhouse with my pregnant mother, watching her belly grow and fate close in upon me. I took the rosary beads Marie-Rose lent me and looped them around my fingers until they were so tangled I had to cut the string. I didn’t know the rosary or I would have said it. It seemed like the right thing to do. I wished we had had a phone so I could speak with Marie-Rose, but there weren’t phone lines that far from town. So instead, I stood in the front hall, staring out into the darkness and working to remember Henry asleep in my bed, his face bruised and cut but peaceful as a little boy’s. I felt my own tired face, crumpled with worry, my eyes like eggs cracked open, and I curled myself into a ball on the parlor sofa and fell asleep just as the head rooster began scratching in the yard, raising his voice sunward.

That last year at school the teacher had convinced me to apply to a college for women. She said I was bright enough I could become a teacher myself or even a professor or mathematician. She said the college was far off on the other side of the country. You’ll live in a heated building with other girls where you mustn’t worry about cooking or washing up, she explained, where on the weekends, men in suits to take you to dinner at restaurants with tablecloths and white candles. She explained that the girl’s dormitory was of brick and stone and well-heated, and that a house mother prepared the food each evening, a warm meal with meat, vegetables, bread, dessert, and even a little wine. Most amazing to me was that water would run hot from the tap and that there were libraries taller than the church’s spire filled with books. She told me a scholarship might well come through, as few girls from this far away apply, and she was right as rain about that.

When it was time to leave, she took the mare, knowing the horse sound and well-trained, though often ill tempered and a bit sassy. Small hitched up his own wagon and sent me off on the pretense of going to town to shop for things we needed for the wedding. There, in the station, he squeezed my hand hard and tears ran down both of our faces.

My name is Ester and I was born in a graveyard in front of the grave of a pauper unable to afford a carved headstone. My name is Ester and maybe I was born in a hospital. Maybe I was stolen from gypsies living on the town’s outskirts, or tossed on the side of the road by the woman who bore me because she was not able to care for me. Perhaps Mother stole me under a gibbous moon, using only a rope ladder to reach my open window and lead me away. As much as I once loved and believed in the woman who raised me and set about making up my past in a series of spiral notebooks, college ruled, I would never put anything past her.

After I left for college, I sent Mother a letter by post, providing my address and basic information. I wrote not a word of apology at leaving her alone, her child due any moment. It has been a year now and I have not heard back. I wonder if I will ever see her again. Perhaps she is relieved I have taken flight and is happy for me in her own way. Whatever happened to the baby I can’t allow myself to wonder. Even Small has not written, and I figure that he, too, has gotten up and gone.

Time alters all things, something I am reminded of when I realize how long it has been since I have used my hands to speak, or when the train blows noisily just north of campus and gets me to remembering that first step I took onto the platform into this new life, or when I close my eyes and am awakened by the loud tick of Henry’s timepiece, proof of my short love affair, proof that I, Ester, eighteen years of age, am alive. I am here, breathing and bursting into a new existence. And that is all.


Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose stories have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural EnvironmentsCrab Orchard Review, Dominion Review, and Georgetown Review. More stories are forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine and NANO FictionShe is winner of the 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize and two Illinois Arts Council grants.

Bogue Falaya - Gabrielle Hovendon

In those days, we were childless. We were attuned to our bodies’ inner mechanisms, and we knew we were empty cabinets, longcase clocks without cogs or gears. Everywhere we looked we saw ourselves: in hollow drumskins, in hurricane lamps and ladles, in beetle carcasses picked clean by ants

For years we had known our husbands, their clumsy and urgent bodies, the way they loosed themselves in thick breathless floods inside us. They came to us with smells of motor oil and coins on their hands, or they came with breath stinking of beer, or they smelled of other men’s cologne and slipped out of bed afterward to wash themselves. They took their pleasure in serving maids or in shacks along the delta, or they flipped us over like rag dolls, or they bound our wrists with silk cords and took us up against our great-grandmother’s table in the foyer.

            And still we remained empty. No quickening, no swelling, no children. It was 1907, and we were not mothers.

            Our husbands invited physicians into our homes and conferred with them behind closed doors. The doctors inserted clumsy steel instruments and incised us with scalpels. With thick fingers they applied pork grease and boric acid and instructed us to lie with our hips propped on pillows. They diagnosed excessive pleasure, moral dissipation, or irregular living; they dosed us with castor oil and brewer’s yeast. And when all their cures failed, when our husbands despaired of ever carrying on the family name, when we were bruised and trembling and still barren, we went up the bayou to be cured.


Like everyone, I came by water. At dawn I stood at the docks with their stink of fish and rust and waited for my husband to appear, beg me to come home. He did not.

            The chauffeur had brought me to the harbor, but I had insisted on carrying the valise myself, and already my arms were aching. I had packed only my oldest dresses, the ones I had worn before I married Henry, and a good luck charm from our maid Cora. I was leaving behind anything that would remind me of my husband.

            A man named Alcee was waiting to help me into a small wooden motorboat, and for a single moment I hesitated. Henry and I hadn’t passed a restful night, and his words were still with me. Imogen, this is lunacy. I wish you would listen to the doctor. And then, desperately, won’t you even miss me?

            I reached for Alcee’s hand and stepped into space. When I was seated, he started the motor and the boat lurched to life with a comfortable shiver. We pulled away from the dock, and my heart quickened at the sight of the open water. In six months I’d come back to my husband, and everything between us would be mended.

            That day we traveled across Pontchartrain, past Saint Catherine and the Rigolets, past Maurepas and up the brackish Tchefuncta to where it narrowed into the Bogue Falaya. I hadn’t eaten since dawn, but there was nowhere to stop for food and we had many hours ahead of us. Occasionally Alcee broke the silence to point out duckweed and water hyacinth and naiad. When it grew dark, he lit a lamp that served as a beacon for black flies and mosquitoes.

            We spoke little. There was little to say.

            It was well after nightfall when we docked. Alcee helped me out of the rowboat, his hands hard and lumpy as tree roots. Watch your step Miz Imogen. Careful now. He led me across the muddy yard to an ancient and enormous plantation house where a woman waited to lead me to my room. In the dark it was impossible to distinguish anything about the grounds, but the entrance hall was tidy and glowed with kerosene light.

            We ascended a flight of stairs and turned down a long corridor. I asked the woman how many people lived here, but she held a finger to her lips. Behind all the doors, women like or unlike me were sleeping.

            My room had pink wallpaper and tall windows. There was an oil painting above the bed and a washbasin decorated with roses. I saw immediately that Henry had paid for the best, and my stomach tightened. Even here, a full day upriver, he had found a way to reach me.

            The woman took her leave, closing the door behind her. I placed my hand low over my abdomen, that place where resided those things worth secrets, and then I blew out the candle and got into bed. I lay awake watching the ceiling, listening to the moths tangling in the curtains. Six months, I thought, and I did not sleep for hours.


We came to live in this house on the edge of the cypress swamp, a half dozen miles from the nearest town and a full forty miles from society. The property was receding into the water, and every year the swamp claimed a few more feet of land. There were places where the path became tangled with creepers, places where the ground forgot its firmness and where the soil turned to liquid beneath a woman’s feet.

            The women who ran the home were healers, Acadian traiteurs with unknown pasts. When they left the room, we exchanged what little we knew about them. They hailed from a defunct convent; they had been nurses in the Spanish-American War; they were distant relatives of each other and their great-grandfather had built the plantation home back when Farragut was blockading the city delta. Privately, we called them Sister-with-the-Long-Nose, Sister-Who-Wears-a-Blue-Rosary, Sister-Who-Never-Stops-Smiling.

            For a steep price they ministered to us. They mixed concoctions of mare’s milk and rabbit blood and linden flowers; they anointed the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet with cypress ash. They gave us bee pollen to wear in vials around our necks like crumbs of gold. They prayed to saints old and unfamiliar, and they cast pigeon bones, and they burned dark candles and consulted stars. They prepared us to receive children.


In the morning I smoothed out my dress, splashed water on my face, and went downstairs for breakfast. Nearly two dozen women were already seated in the dining room. I sat down next to one, a woman with tiny diamond earrings, and introduced myself.

            Josephine, she replied. From Royal Street.

            Another woman leaned over.

            Your husband is Henry Delahoussaye?

            A frisson ran through the room. I nodded and dropped my eyes to the table. Of course they would have heard of Henry. He was the wealthiest man on St. Charles Avenue, famous grandson of a famous general. His family’s shipping empire extended from Baltimore to Bermuda.

            At the table, the women were quiet. There was a rustling of muslin and an uncomfortable clearing of throats. They would have heard about Henry’s cold wife, too, the woman with the new money and the unhappy eyes. They would have heard of her beauty and of her childlessness.

            I did not imagine they would pity such a wife.

            When their chatter resumed I kept my eyes fixed on my plate. Be friendly, Henry would have told me – did tell me, every time we hosted a gala and I stood in the corner regarding my own gloves, talking to no one. He didn’t know I was watching him watch the other wives, the ones with children. He didn’t know I saw him wondering what those women were doing differently, saw him longing for a whole house of tiny Delahoussayes to carry on his name. The depth of his desire was crushing, was something hot and furred and prickly at the back of my throat.

            So I shrank from Henry’s hand on my arm, and I kept my crucial secret from everyone but Cora, and when he suspected nothing I withdrew further from the one person I wished most to confide in.


At first we were anxious. We bit our nails, jiggled our legs, and combed our fingers incessantly through our hair. We tapped rhythms on tabletops, aimless beats of waiting, waiting, waiting. Here we had no husbands to serve or households to oversee. Our isolation settled around us like a fine layer of dust, disturbed only by the occasional put-put-put of Alcee’s rowboat and the arrival of new women.

            When the stillness became too much to bear we gathered our skirts and fled toward the cypress, across the cut lawn and into the swampy thickets of ferns and wax myrtle that bordered the water. No one bid us come back, but our scalps prickled before we’d taken a hundred steps. We felt as if we were being watched, and rumors abounded: of boat-people who lived deep in the cypress, of lawless upcountry Cajun who drank all day and cast unwanted children from their wombs and their boats with potions and sculling oars.

            We returned to the home, spooked by the sound of the cranes and the fat, dark spiders that clung to all the trees. Confinement was more comfortable than this wildness, and soon we stopped leaving the house altogether. We knitted and we stitched samplers and we sat for hours on the long shadowed porch, mosquitos ferrying our thin blood from woman to woman. Guarding against malaria and yellow fever, the traiteurs burned sage along the perimeter of the house and smeared calamine on our bites.


In a room at the back of the house, I lay naked beneath a thin muslin sheet. The traiteurs stood above me, their hands outstretched, not yet touching me. They closed their eyes and chanted prayers to St. Philomena and St. Collette, their lips moving in unison. They lit dark candles to the spirits of the cypress forest and blessed me with water from an aspergillum.

            When they finished praying, they pressed their hands along my collarbone, across the smoothness of my stomach, between my legs. Their touch was not unpleasant, but it reminded me of Henry’s hands and I shivered. When they were finished, they had me sit up and drink a tea of bloodroot, wild ginger, and jack-in-the-pulpit.

            The tea tasted like metal, and I made a face. The first traiteur laughed, but the second frowned.

            You are not like the other women, she said. You are here to be cured of something different.

            A chill washed over me. The first traiteur saw my expression and shook her head.

            It is no matter, she said, kindness in her eyes. This is a safe place. It’s only that you may not find the thing you need here.

            When the traiteurs left the room, I fell back onto the sofa. I let the muslin puddle over my ribs and hips and I stared at the ceiling. They had known with their fingertips and their prayers, known somehow about my arrangement with Cora. How every Sunday she would go to the outskirts of the city and come back with herbs wrapped neatly in twists of cloth and paper. How another maid might have threatened to tell my husband, might have said Miss Imogen you oughtn’t be doing this, but Cora had known me since I was little, and she had eight children of her own. While Henry made his weekly visit to his mother, I brewed the black and muddy tea and she burned the receipts in the stove.

            Slippery elm, sixty cents.

            Blue cohosh, thirty cents.

            Pennyroyal, powdered, forty-five cents.

            And month after month, the relief of blood.


Privately, each knew she was the one most deserving of a son or daughter. We compared the indignities we had suffered at the hands of our physicians, trying to outdo each other. We compared our families, the mothers-in-law who likened us to the daughters already on their second or third child and the fathers-in-law who pinched our bottoms. The spinster aunts who cornered us in the larder, breaths sweet with sherry, and bemoaned the fate of childless women. Each of us was convinced she had suffered the most.

            We competed in our treatments as well. When the traiteurs recommended more milk in our diets, we asked for second and third glasses. We said hundreds of Hail Mary’s on our knees; we massaged our skin with mandrake oil and the blood of black chickens. It was rumored that Hattie had sent for her mother’s ruby ring and drunk the stone powdered in water.

            Sometimes we gossiped. Minnie eats candied violets. Ida goes for days without a corset, how on earth does she expect her organs to stay in place? Florence perfumes herself with rose oil, which everyone knows is for unmarried women. Little wonder about her, then. Little wonder that one’s barren.


That evening, I left the house and crossed the long yard to the river. I stood on the dock and looked out at the trees, the overcup oak and bitter pecan and buttonbush. All along the water were little ripples where fish broke the surface to eat insects. Upstream lay unknown territory, the pale gray strangeness of the cypress and the stilt houses of the Cajun. I saw that Alcee’s boat was gone and there were no others at the dock. I had been soothed by the sight of that rusting, empty boat, its insides bare of everything but a motor and bilge water.

            I felt a cool amazement to be standing here at all. When a mutual acquaintance had whispered the name of the bayou home to me, I’d scoffed. The last thing I wanted was help conceiving. But the more I thought about it, the more I’d realized what a gift it would be. Three years ago we’d received a crystal chandelier and a silver service as wedding gifts, but they were hardly the equal of this house. For a half year, there would be no foul smelling teas. No meeting Henry’s eyes and swallowing hard. No pushing clumsy hands from my hips at night, hating him, loving him, hating myself.

            Because I knew the nightmare of babies. I saw how they came out clutching pieces of your heart and your brain and how they never returned them. I saw my sisters and my friends reduced to turtledoves, unable to carry on a conversation without cooing.

            A cloud of flies swarmed my head and I allowed a daydream to overtake me. The curve of the river faded and I saw myself giving birth to a tiny flock of birds. They would rise around me, a thousand wings beating my skin, their tiny feathers drawing blood. They would lift me into the air and carry me north into a place without compromise or disappointment.

            The sun was sinking. I was about to return to the house when I heard a giggle across the river. I squinted at the opposite bank, my heart speeding and fluttering. Two small faces peered out from the sedges. Dark eyes, foxlike pointed jaws. There was another giggle, then a splash, and the faces disappeared.

            Hello? I called. Is someone out there? But there was only silence.


When we first felt the signs, we did not allow ourselves to hope. We were nauseated, and we drank ginger water. We were tired, and we stayed in bed till noon. We had eaten spoiled meat, or the swamp air had affected our dispositions, or we had been stricken with a blood fever.

            But our symptoms continued. It had been months since we left our husbands, and yet our nipples wept yellow milk, our abdomens distended, our breasts grew so sore we couldn’t stand the weight of cotton shifts. We cried with no provocation. We felt quick fluttering movements low in our bodies. We intuited the transformation of pelvis to cradle.

            Those to whom the symptoms did not appear whispered slut in the halls and refused to pass the fruit compote at supper. But soon nearly everyone’s bleeding had ceased. Soon nearly all of us were with child.

            At night the curtains grew heavy with water and dripped our exhaled breath onto the floor. Our dreams roamed the house, permeated by the ebb and flow of the river. They congregated in the halls and pooled in shadows along the porch and returned to us with visions of each other’s babies. In the hours before dawn we saw them, tiny and translucent and pink and gold. One curled a tiny fist. One pursed its lips as if it had just been told a secret. Twins squirmed constantly in their bag of waters. Each was impossibly small and flawless.


Something was happening in the house, but I didn’t know what. All week the women sat on the porch, straight and severe as needles, and wrote long letters to their husbands and friends. There was a faint sweet scent around them – desperation and vomit. Their languor had vanished and they looked like startled rabbits in the moment before they begin running.

            Josephine seemed calmer than the rest, and she could occasionally be persuaded to take walks with me. She slipped her arm through mine and led us around the edge of the property, from the river in front to the deep tangles of vegetation in back. We came so close to the trees that we could reach out and touch their beards of Spanish moss. She would not tell me about what was happening in the house, though, and I had to be content with other gossip.

            While our skirt hems grew dark with mud, we exchanged stories about the oddest women, about Lily stealing lumps of dough from the windowsill and eating them raw, about Hattie cradling balls of yarn when she thought no one was looking. When I mentioned the children I had seen on my second night, Josephine said she once saw a little girl swimming across the river in the dead of night. It was the strangest dream, she said, but I could imagine even odder visions, eels with glass skin and caves full of moon-colored fish. We watched cranes stalk through the marsh grass with their backward knees, and I was glad of the company.

            But soon even Josephine retreated to her room and I was left alone. I spent the afternoons lying on the floor in the parlor, tracing patterns in the dust while sunshine fell in long bars across my skin. There were alligators in the river and a toad bug in my washbasin, and something marvelous was happening to everyone but me.


We watched for small signs of lunacy. We laid out buttons to see if they moved or multiplied in the night. We pricked our fingers with sewing needles to make sure we could still feel pain.

            The first traiteur to find out was the woman with the blue rosary. She bent over Dora, beads clicking faintly at her hip, and felt a fluttering beneath her fingers.

            Wide eyes. A slow, brimming smile. It was true. We were pregnant.

            The traiteurs were ecstatic. The word miracle hung on their lips. The air in the house was thick with prayers and burnt offerings and a joy so fierce it nearly suffocated us.

            The weather grew hotter. Days dripped by. All along the swollen river, nature was bursting. In the undergrowth, birds fought with sharp, primeval cries. Small hooved creatures scurried and swam at the edge of the swamp. Inside the home, spiders the size of playing cards clung to the ceilings.

            Our bodies were bursting as well. Our hair grew glossy and fell to our waist, our skin shone, our areolas grew to the size of saucers. Our stomachs became streaked with tiny white lightning as if we were gestating thunderstorms.

            At last we emerged from our rooms, proud and unashamed. We were radiant.


Summer crashed down on the bayou. The last sweetness of spring burned off, and the house was full of women praying, women beaming, women holding their rounded bellies like relics. It was astounding, and sickening, and I found myself hard pressed to carry on conversation with them.

            The traiteurs were beside themselves to explain what was happening. They asked why I was not pregnant like the rest, why I was the only one still empty, hollow, flat. I told them I didn’t know, but secretly I was pleased. I held at bay the painful twisting part of me that missed Henry, and I told myself that when the six months were over he would be so glad to see me that he would not ask for a child again.

            I allowed myself to believe this until the day his letter arrived.

            Dear Imogen, I hope this letter finds you well. Since your departure I have kept busy reviewing accounts at the office. There is a man who wishes to transport diamonds from the far reaches of Africa, I daresay he is somewhat mad.

            I regret the words spoken in anger before you left. Please return quickly to your husband who misses you dearly. I see no need for you to remain in that horrible place a minute longer, as Dr. Hamilton has some new treatments and he is confident in their efficacy.

            The weather here has been warm but not intolerable. I think of you often and hope for your return daily. Yours, Henry.

            I read it through three times at the edge of the dock. Turtles sunned themselves on the opposite shore. I imagined Henry sitting in our cool mansion and composing the letter at his desk. I imagined Dr. Hamilton with his hairy ears and cold, dry hands.

            I tore up the letter and threw the pieces in the water.

            Dear Henry there is an ache in my chest whenever I think of you. Dear Henry why can’t you let me tell you the truth? Dear Henry, listen carefully. I do not want to bear your children even when I close my eyes and think of nothing else.

            Night came. I would have lain awake for hours but for a strange noise that rose from the yard. I took my wrap from the chair and hurried down to the porch.

            In the dark moonlight, I watched a pair of dirty feet descend from the bottom of the pigeonnier. A child emerged, followed by another. They carried a pair of plump little birds each, and they ran laughing across the yard and into the cypress.

            From the porch I listened to them splash through the water and mud. I could smell the pure and decaying scent of the swamp, hear the quiet thirring of its frogs and night hunters. Bats crossed darkly above me.

            Dear Henry, I don’t know what to do.


Exhaustion: thick and heavy, lead, stone.

            We were growing quickly, a week for every month. Our stomachs swelled and swelled and swelled. The babies pressed on us painfully from within, keeping us awake long past dark. We abandoned our whalebone corsets and stays, our dainty shoes and our elaborate hairstyles. We bathed only the parts of our bodies we could reach. We were so tired we could barely talk.

            We grew hungry and we inhabited our hunger like monsters. We compared cravings, whispered the foods we wanted and the crimes we would commit for a bite of them, salt and honey and cabbage. We ate everything we could find, bluegill and catfish and okra and onions and carrots and roast birds from the pigeonnier at the edge of the yard. We hoarded bread and cheese, licked marmalade from our fingers. We sucked on sugarcane we wheedled from Alcee and drank milk by the pint. We ate eggs, dozens of eggs, scooping them from the pan before they were fully cooked and burning ourselves. We ate and ate and somehow we were never filled.

            From time to time we envied the rich barren girl her figure, though we pitied her for everything else. Slender, yes, but what awful sin must she have committed to be the only one not touched by this miracle? We speculated, and we slept, and our bodies grew.

            We did not write to our husbands. We had transcended words. Our bodies hummed a quiet beesong, exuded honeysuckle-scent, became smooth and hard as varnished casks. When we walked from room to room, we swayed. The whole world was amniotic, waiting.


Days passed, and I did not see the children again. When I asked the traiteurs if any locals lived nearby, one gave me a concerned look and brought me cool cloths soaked in witch hazel. Another, though, spoke of Cajun spirits, of milk spoiling too quickly, women waking with their hair cut or braided, things going missing and turning up inside armchair cushions or wheels of cheese.

            I contemplated sending to Henry for opera glasses, the better to peer into the underbrush, but I could not explain – to him or myself – why I wanted them. I thought of broaching the subject again with Josephine, too, but she had taken to tatting bonnets and humming lullabies under her breath.

            Instead, I wrote to Cora, filling the fronts and backs of four pages. I told her about the other women and about the children I had seen in the yard. Is this what you feel when you look at your daughters? I wrote. Awe at their very existence? Cora was born in a pig slaughtering town and grew up in air that smelled of blood, and she swore so often that my mother once threatened to whip her tongue with a willow twig. I knew she would speak her mind.

            That same afternoon, I found myself wandering the yard again. Lately the afternoon heat was like a thick wall you had to push through to move anywhere, and I was sweating by the time I reached the pigeonnier. There was a little trapdoor for the traiteurs to collect eggs, and the grass between the stilts was white with droppings.

            When I was sure no one from the house was watching, I lay on the ground in the shade of the pigeonnier and breathed the ammonia smell of the birds. This was what I knew: I wanted my marriage to survive and not in the way my parents’ had, everything cool, civil, please pass the sole almondine. I wanted my husband to snake an arm around my waist and look at me the way he did when we were courting. I wanted him to stop making me turn away.

            Birds cooing in the afternoon heat, and clear high giggles in the underbrush.


We awoke to groaning. Labor had come on Anthea quickly, and we ran to her. She was lying on her bed, the sheets soaked, her eyes wide and glassy.

            Two traiteurs pushed past into the room. For heavens sake go back to your rooms everyone.

            But we ignored them, jostling for a sight of the baby. We were noticing everything with a crystalline precision: the smell of hot blood, the clear glass of a kerosene lamp, the way her body clenched in waves of pain. We wanted to preserve these details and dissect them later, looking for knowledge about our own labors.

            There was a lazy somersaulting low in our bellies. Anthea began pushing and an answering tightness gripped our own bodies. She pushed and pushed and her muscles united all through her body to become the push and outside a wind raised through the trees. There was a great sighing in the room. A thin line of blood trickled onto the sheets.

            We released our breath. There was no child to see. There was nothing at all.


I slept poorly. One of the women had gone into labor, and her screaming must have permeated my sleep. I dreamed I was pregnant with horses, foals thrumming through my blood, whole herds of them, and appaloosas with dusty coats, and ferocious black stallions, and a filly with a perfect white star on her nose. Then the image shifted and I dreamed I was gestating shoals of fish, chittering raccoons, crocodiles that rose through my skin in a slow, wicked buoyancy. I woke sweating and feverish.

            The next morning, the traiteur with the kind eyes summoned me to the drawing room. She had a frown on her face and a letter in her hand.

            Imogen, your husband wants you to come home, she said. He wrote us regarding a letter you sent, something about the other women’s condition. He said it was clear the treatments were not working and you should return to the city immediately.

            I stared at the traiteur. My letter to Cora. Henry had seen what I wrote.

            I need more time, I began, but the traiteur shook her head.

            I’m sorry, she said. He’ll be here Friday.

            When the traiteur left the drawing room, I went down to the dock. I watched a piece of driftwood fret in the current and considered how I had spent an entire marriage saying yes. Yes I will marry you. Yes I will be a dutiful wife. Yes I will come home.

            The night before I’d come to the bayou, Henry tried one last time. I rolled away from him in bed, but he turned me back and pinned my shoulders and began. I had never fought him before, but that night I bit and kicked and thrashed until he couldn’t finish. Finally he tucked himself away, fuming.

            That swamp voodoo isn’t what you need, he said. It’s a goddamn muzzle. But in the morning he’d gone out and come back with a vase of forget-me-nots.

            Four days. I would see him in four days. I felt as if I was breathing through a pound of cheesecloth, as if someone was cranking my insides through a clothes wringer. I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know if I had anything to say at all.

            A sound came upriver, but I ignored it. I picked at the hem of my dress, tore the threads into nothingness. Four days.

            The sound came again. A peeling rowboat was nosing around the bend. Two small faces peered over the bow. Silent, watching.

            I met their eyes, and then I knew. Some deeper force was driving my body, parting my lips and forming the words between my teeth:

            Take me with you.


One by one we were diagnosed. Hysterical pregnancies. Figments of our imaginations. No real children in our wombs.

            But we had abandoned the capacity for disappointment. Whatever bayou strangeness had impregnated us, it left no room for doubt. After Anthea, none of us went into labor, but none of us lost our shapes. We were static, glowing, still pregnant.

            In time some of us returned to our husbands, but nearly a dozen of us stayed. Other women came and went, and in time we settled into ourselves and forgot everything we had known before pregnancy.

            We would be mothers to greatness. We would give birth to extraordinary humans, kings and queens and holy vagabonds. There would be violence and sweetness in their aspect, and they would remake our lives with unimaginable force. Some days we could barely contain our excitement. They were coming. Any day now, our children were coming.


Except for the sound of the motor, the world was quiet. I sat in the boat with the children, knees tucked to my chest. The older one, a boy, was shirtless and silent. Beside him, the girl held a trap baited with flossy white fish bones. In the bottom of the boat lay a tangle of fishing nets, stones, dried flowers, a dead crappie with flies picking at its eyes.

            Inside the cypress, it was a different world. The light filtering down through the tops of the trees reminded me of ice, cold and clear and fragile. We were traveling on a slow current, slipping through the water as easily as a snake, and from time to time the bow bumped gently into the flared bases of trees. Occasionally we passed a listing houseboat, its sides gray and faded and hung all over with moss.

            Between the trunks, the water was overlain with a green scum so thick it looked like grass. I imagined stepping over the edge of the boat and walking across the swamp. I imagined that the spars and hulls of the half-submerged boats were the ribs and shells of water monsters, and I imagined my poor husband traveling forty miles up the bayou to an empty bedroom.

            I did not ask where we were going. I did not speak at all.

            Instead I studied the children. We could be in the boat for days, and I wanted to know them. I wanted to know childhood, all raw and ragged and full of possibility. This was the way they all began, after all, these people who loved and hated you and sank into your body and stroked your forehead when you had a fever, these people who once contained all possible iterations of themselves.

            The boy spit over the side of the boat. The girl toyed with the fish bones. Soon I would need to brush back my hair and smooth my dress and prepare to meet the unknown I had chosen. But first, just for one atavistic moment, I prayed for a part of me to survive, to outlive the rest, winding on and on in gray forests, marching through time, slipping upstream or downstream or floating perfectly still among the dark inscrutable branches.


A graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, Gabrielle Hovendon teaches English in Galicia, Spain. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Southwest Review, Redivider, Tupelo Quarterly, Ninth Letter, and Tin House’s Open Bar. She is currently at work on a novel about two nineteenth-century mathematicians.