The Demon Baby

As the dogwoods bloomed she turned inward, avoiding the other girls, let the spring fill her dress with wind, wore brightly colored scarves and a haunted look to distract the gaze of others. In her eighth month she went to the parish library just before it closed, checking out as many books as she could on the subject in question. Once home, she spread the books out on her bed and pored through them. Some girls, she discovered, swelled up like watermelons, and some like herself didn’t show a pregnancy nearly as much. She saw illustrations of babies in the womb in various stages of growth. The brain forming. Eyes opening. Fingers separating. She shook her head. Her baby was not a human, not a creature even, but a demon. A condemnation from God, an atrocity nurtured by the trimesters until it took form and weight.

This boy of three fathers.

She turned the pages. Twine was needed. The scissors or knife should be clean and sharp. When the time came she would feel a sudden cramp or the rush of warm fluid. The pain would be intense, an unmanageable pain that women had been given throughout history and then told to forget.

In early June of 1942, the season of dandelions, she went out into the woods by herself, walking very deliberately, her face red and her legs shaky. The baby moving inside her. She wore a waistcoat dress and carried a cotton feed sack. Inside the sack was a spool of twine, a sugar cane knife to sever the umbilical cord, and a garden spade to bury the creature once all was said and done.

Charlotte’s Butterfly Ambush

I need to talk to you too, Charlotte thought as she stood on the porch with the night newly damp behind her. I need to tell you about the butterflies. Once when I was a child my family drove to Oklahoma to visit my mother’s sister, and I went alone for a walk in the woods and was caught in a migration of monarch butterflies. They filled that part of the woods. Fanning themselves in bushes and in the branches of trees, waving from deep in the high grass. They lined my sleeves and clung to my hair and whirled around me like a cloud. My voice was perfect in me then, but I kept it quiet in my throat, because I did not want to disturb the perfect silence of the butterflies. They covered my chest as if my sweater’s color were some secret they had to lick and I stood there without voice or movement. The way God loves a person, Justin! When they flew away they left tiny specks of colored dust on my clothes. And the dust was my secret. And so you see, my body has known peace and war. I am seized by soldiers and by butterflies. I have more to share than bad news, Justin.

Mr. Olen’s Vision

Abandoned by his wife and aching with regret, he had come to Louisiana in the late spring of 1940 with Louise and Benjamin. Mr. Olen’s father had died and left him fifty thousand dollars, and once he arrived he immediately set to work realizing his vision to establish a house where men could live in the service of unkissed, overworked, unappreciated, tired, sad, prematurely gray, widowed, nervously single, despondently married women. Sad women, starving for love, their bodies married to labor. No longer meant to be seen, but to do. Now these women finally had a house of their own, fragrant with affection, reeking of ammonia, sitting off the dirt road and surrounded by crepe myrtle. A secret place to which they could flee and be women again, kissed and waltzed against, whispered to, touched with just the fingertips.

No charge. Just leave an optional donation in the syrup can before you tiptoe out in your only voile gown, drugged by courtly love and sleepy with forgiveness for the gender known as male.

In the interview room with Mr. Olen they were allowed to describe two characteristics of the man they desired, and these wishes were accommodated on a first come, first serve basis:

“Thin. Brown hair.”

“A gentle smile. Big hands.”

“Five-foot-ten. A broken nose.”

“Big front teeth. Glasses.”

“Green eyes. Long lashes. A straight back. A nice rear end. White feet. Hairy legs . . .” (“Stop,” Mr. Olen had said. “Ma’am, you only get two things.”)

Sometimes the women got exactly what they wanted, and sometimes they had to have a little generosity of spirit, for there was only one man with big front teeth and not a broken nose in the house. But Mr. Olen tried his best, for he had let his own wife slip through his long fingers due to his sustained and dreamy neglect, and now could sit in his office and imagine women all over his house receiving what he should have given to his wife. Enough women, enough affection, attention, compliments, and kisses, would create the magic necessary to lure back his beloved.

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