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The thin line

In the 1960s, when Slaughter Lane was dusty farmland and shotgun shacks, a commune colonized the Victorian on the hill. Women with long stringy hair that smelled of incense and weed did the work, the cooking and cleaning, the gardening and wood-chopping. They painted the porch and eaves mauve, the siding midnight blue. Their men, heavily bearded, absent-minded, had higher tasks, lay in the meadow and let tabs of acid dissolve on their tongues as the world dissolved around them.

Starr, a runaway, showed up in May 1972. Her body was awkward, all straight lines and angles, with the prominent exception of her belly, round and hard as horse flesh. The women took her in, fed her lentils and brown rice and shimmering river trout. When her time came, they swept a plastic child’s pool free of cobwebs and pulled it under the tulip tree. They ferried pots of stove-heated water from the house to the pool until the water spilled over the lip and soaked into the dust.

As she labored, they watched, dipped washcloths in ice to cool her forehead, let Starr squeeze and scratch their sun-toughed arms as her body worked to expel the child. Flower petals, brown at the edges and sharp with early rot, fell into the blood-rusted water. The sun dropped, the moon rose and the women gathered lanterns, surrounding Starr in a circle of light. Thirteen hours into it her belly rippled a final time, pushed the baby out like an afterthought. He was gone already, blue and silent. Still, a thing of beauty.

“Your son,” one of them said as she held him up in the moonlight.

The women covered Starr’s trembling shoulders with towels stiff from the clothesline, held the umbilical cord tight for the knife. Calloused hands massaged her belly. A soft voice whispered in her ear as she pushed out the placenta. They cleaned and swaddled the baby and lay him next to Starr as she slept on a pile of blankets on the sleeping porch upstairs.

The next morning, in the shade of the tulip, the women cut through roots and dug deep into the clay. They found a box. They fed Starr oatmeal with wild blueberries, supported her as she stood at the grave. She tossed in the first shovelful of dirt, and stared, stoic, as the others finished the job.

Starr disappeared a week later. She tumbled over to the next town or hitchhiked back home, no one was sure. The commune, disquieted, slowly emptied. The men got jobs, found other women. One by one, the women left, too. They styled their hair. They tossed away their jeans and tie-dyed tunics and replaced them with floppy business suits and silky disco dresses. The tulip tree grew strong and thick, its blossoms heavy, fragrant with the renewal of life. A new family moved in, three kids and a dog, a tire swing suspended over the child's unmarked grave.

He’s there still, a silent presence swaddled in grace, the boy who never was. Visitors to the house feel him as the absence of something, love or sun or words, a puzzle piece gone missing. He comes in their dreams, the stilled body, the bundle on the floor, the baby with closed eyes.

Every mid-June, an unfamiliar car drives past the house. The driver is a middle-aged woman with capable hands, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Her two girls, just as blonde and skinny as she once was, stop arguing as the car slows. The tulip tree shudders, letting loose a flurry of petals that get tossed by the wind. The woman reaches out and catches a fully intact blossom. She will put it with the others.

She remembers the silence, her son's pale form in flat water, the taut section of umbilical cord. He showed her the thin line, the permeable border, how easy it is for birth to equal death.

Nothing was ever the same again after that.

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Yet another Three-Minute Fiction entry that disappeared into the ether. The challenge this time was to write something under 600 words that started with the line "Some people swore that the house was haunted." and ended with "Nothing was ever the same again after that." The first line felt tacked on (hmm, maybe this is why it wasn't picked as a possible winner), so I've just taken it off as well as done some substantial editing.

Oh, Iowa Writers' Workshop students and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham, why do you deny me glory?

Image by
Roger B.

Tip of the pen to
Holly for alerting me to the contest a few months ago.
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