“I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.”
—Dewey Dell from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
In the room where my baby is born, the heat is murderous. A policeman stands bed-side, nursing a cola through a straw, the negative image of his undershirt traced in sweat on his blue hide. At first, he is shy of gaping between my open legs, but then he settles into a kind of bemused ownership of the scene. He asks the doctor if it’s normal for a birth to go this way, if there should be so much struggle and blood. He asks if this is how a normal girl’s body would behave and then he suggests my sinful nature might be to blame for my pain.
She tried to kill that baby with a poison, he says. Did you know that?
Everyone knows; he knows they know. His point is that I am owed every ounce of hurt that fate has delivered upon me. And, perhaps he’s right, but that doesn’t make me want to kill him any less. Because I am a convicted criminal, my wrists are cuffed to the clinic bed. I cannot remove the sweat-slicked hair from my eyes, I cannot bring a cup of water to my lips, I cannot pull the gun from the holster on his hip and fire it into his fat heart.
In the room where my baby is born, three men confer on the correct course of action: Should they cut me open and pull the child from my belly now? Should they wait until it’s clear the baby’s life is in danger? No one asks my opinion. I have attempted to kill my baby and so have forfeited any right to decide. The policeman remarks that he has watched farm animals give birth in stalls. The animals push out the bloody sacks without so much as a groan, but I am wailing like a banshee. Is there something wrong in my brain? Do I have a screw or two loose? He leans into my ear. Are you crazy, girl? he asks.
For a while, I am gone. I pass into a light blush of color. It’s the pale pink of the curtains in my mother’s kitchen. And I’m looking through her window and into her yard. The wind moves the curtains up and into the room—a billow and a flap—and in the yard there are crocuses just opening their mouths and my aproned mother is digging with a spade and I know what she is digging is a grave for herself. It’s what I should have done in the first place, she says to no one, to the sky, and not relied upon your father to do it for me.
When I return, the baby’s shoulders lodge and then the full wet slip of him is pulled away, swatted, bundled. I have been told in advance that I will never hold him. I have forfeited that right and it’s for the best, as he will not be mine. But there is a tender-hearted nurse in the room and she defies the authorities by tipping his smeared face beneath my gaze. He doesn’t look like his father; he doesn’t look like anyone. Ain’t he beautiful? she says. You done good, girl.
FULL NAME: Dorothy M. Decker
COLOR OR RACE: White
SINGLE, MARRIED, WIDOWED, DIVORCED: Married
DATE OF BIRTH OF DECEASED: June 3, 1914
BIRTHPLACE: Jefferson, Mississippi
INDUSTRY OR BUSINESS: Home
DATE OF DEATH: January 5, 1945 at 1 p.m.
IMMEDIATE CAUSE OF DEATH: Shock
DUE TO: Attempt at criminal abortion
We heard about Dewey Dell and what she did when we were schoolgirls. It was the kind of tale an older sister passed to her wide-eyed younger sister, and then she passed it to her pigtailed friends at recess, and then the whole world of girls was suddenly abuzz. By the time kindergartners were taunting each other—Dewey Dell, Dewey Dell, you’re the next to go to hell!—on the school bus, the story had become estranged from its origins. We wondered: Was it ever true? Was there a real girl behind the name? The girls in our year, girls full in the first fumblings of love and keen to know the truth of all its gritty consequences, traced the telling to a diary found in the long-neglected negligee drawer of a spinster aunt: That prick doctor had his revenge by calling my poor dead sister a criminal. I hope the ghost of Dewey Dell haunts him until he’s mad. But this aunt was unreliable and strange. She answered most questions about her sister with questions about Bible verses.
At the annual scout retreat, a girl who’d transferred from the parochial school weaved a narrative more extreme than any we’d heard before. In her telling, Dewey Dell was a ghoul the devil sent to punish premarital transgressions. She wore a filthy hospital gown and hid in bushes and closets. Her victims smelled bleach shortly before they were jabbed in the genitals with knitting needles. Needless to say, we had questions. Why, we asked her, would Dewey Dell want to stab other girls? Why wouldn’t she want to take revenge on the police who chained her up and let her bleed?
The girl took a long sip of canteen water and then hunched into herself, as though accessing a deeper vault of internal files. Nobody’s ever asked me that before, she finally said. I guess Dewey Dell does it because she doesn’t want anyone else to have fun. We were unimpressed by this guess; it didn’t satisfy our cravings for narrative logic—or blood logic. By the end of the weekend, she was willing to offer a more Catholic rationale: She senses our guilt and comes to show us our sins, OK? And that’s when we started thinking of Dewey Dell as an extension of our parents: She does it out of love; she does it because we don’t know any better; she does it because we’d probably follow our friends off cliffs if she wasn’t there to jab us.
Once Dewey Dell had achieved ghoul status, it wasn’t long before girls started daring each other to say her name three times in the mirror before they went on dates. Dewey Dell, Dewey Dell, Dewey Dell. If their periods were late, they said old Dewey must be in the Dell. When Ronny Balick drove Sue Grossneck into a ditch at the state park one night, everybody knew it was Dewey Dell. Sue was lucky; she caught the scent of bleach early and buckled up. Ronny was less fortunate. He’d be spending the rest of the year like a downed log in a body cast. Though his jaw was wired shut, he was able to nod in the affirmative when his little sister finally got up the gumption to ask: Did you see a girl in a bloody gown before you crashed?
Why was Dewey such an obsession? Why was she the cautionary tale on the tip of every girl’s tongue? While we knew no one who’d downed a jug of bleach or thrown herself down a flight of stairs, it didn’t take much effort to imagine the impulse. Girls still disappeared as they’d always disappeared, plumping before a sudden transfer to boarding school and reappearing with a new baby sibling in tow, but abortion was now freshly legal. It was 1975. Stevie Nicks was witch-twirling, Nixon was Watergating, sexual norms were caterwauling. Dewey Dell was like a warning delivered in an old movie: a little dated, but still scary as hell and more and more pertinent by the second.
It all came to a head when, late one night, a ring of senior girls decided to abuse themselves and each other by playing Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. No one knew Carrie Moore was pregnant. Carrie Moore didn’t know Carrie Moore was pregnant—at least not on a conscious level. The news that she was in the hospital for reasons no one would explain, but our parents suggested were highly untoward, came as a legitimate shock five months later. Her parents called it a dissociative state and warned us not to press her, but we all knew the story even if her mind wouldn’t allow her to tell it: she’d been possessed by Dewey Dell. We’d been there, after all. It was we who lifted her body into the air, hot chant in our mouths, scent of Love’s Baby Soft and pizza in the air. Light as a feather, stiff as a board; light as a feather, stiff as a board; light as a feather.
I knew it was a boy when they pulled him out of me, she said, her voice high, unnatural. Only a boy would hurt his mamma that way.
We almost dropped her. She see-sawed, corpse-like in our hands.
You know me as Dewey Dell. I’m the girl they killed in the hospital bed, the one they couldn’t keep dead.
We asked her the proscribed question: What do you want, spirit?
I’m here to set the record straight.
And then she told us the whole, sad love story in one, long and fevered draught. He knew without the words, she said. She said all of it. And then the oven timer went off and we ate a giant rectangle of chocolate chip cookie without speaking another word on what had happened. But then she was in the hospital and as she sat eating the ambrosia salad we’d brought her (her favorite) with her frenetic eyes blinking away all knowledge of the baby they’d pulled from her, we knew we’d witnessed a breach that could never be addressed, could never be put right.
You guys sure are pals, she said, her pink tongue flaring her spoon before she dug back in, heavy cream globbing the thick hospital sheets in her lap.
And we nodded—like the gift of a sugary treat was enough to buy us all safe passage from this fresh horror, like it would be possible to skip back to school the very next day and cheat our trig exam together, and then maybe go to the dance party in the coordinated dresses we’d chosen. Like it would be possible to smoke those stolen Virginia Slims behind the gym, or listen to a new record with our backs deep in the deep orange shag of our collective youths. Like Dewey Dell could remain a silly, girlish ghost story instead of the cold hard fact of a birth-wounded mind. But, in the end, none of us ever said her name again.
Dear Addie Bear—
It’s been two weeks since I wrote and you know the cause on the delay. I have written L. now so many times I’ve forgotten the number. If he is alive, he does not care to respond or does not know what to say. We have had no word from the front and there is no news in the papers. If I had the death note, would that make it easier or harder, I wonder? We are stretched; I can’t handle another. I read the wartime subs and helps you sent. I whipped the evaporated milk, but that made the baby cry. She thought I was turning her drink into a cloud.
It was mother who made the arrangements. She says it’s supposed to be a real doctor. I’m to be off my feet for a day.
My mother was a feminist. She worked in an office and had her own bank account. She insisted that my father perform domestic tasks for the sole purpose of demonstrating to her daughter that men were capable of running a vacuum, but he refused and so she slept on a couch in the basement for most of my childhood. It was a form of protest that etched a permanent hitch in her spine. Still, she loved him. She was on the pill. I found the pink clamshell wedged behind a stack of old glamour magazines in the bathroom vanity. When I asked her what it was and why she needed it, she paled and told me I should read Our Bodies, Ourselves, but then the library had banned it and she couldn’t afford to buy it on her paltry office salary.
My father said he’d rather see me in a convent than a whorehouse when she asked him for the extra money to buy the book. I heard him say this through the heating vent, the curling smoke of his Merit ultra lights soon to follow, and was not wholly convinced that he was wrong. I’d been hearing about contraception from the nuns in my school and they used the phrase intrinsically evil. Some girls said the pill gave you tit cancer; others said it made you fat. I told my mother to forget about it, I didn’t need the book, but she would not be defeated.
There was a progressive bookstore in the mall and it was across from a copy shop. Every day for a month she would buy the book, walk it to the copy shop, copy as many pages as she could manage during her short lunch break, walk back to the bookstore, and return the book for a full refund. The bookstore and the copy shop disapproved of this behavior, of course, but they made no move to deter her, perhaps sensing she was a woman on the brink of a major calamity of some kind. At the end of the month, she’d lost ten pounds and had paid a total of two dollars and fifty cents for Our Bodies, Ourselves, the new and updated edition. She dropped it with a triumphant flop on my bed.
You asked me a question and I wasn’t able to answer it, she said, but you deserve an answer and so that’s why I’m giving you this book. It has the answers you need.
By that point, I’d never been so eager to read a book in my life. The build up had been excruciating. I knew, on an instinctual level, that this pile of haphazardly reproduced pages would secure my place in the high school firmament forever. I’d be the go-to resource on all the private parts; I’d make a small fortune “renting” the chapters on self-stimulation. I also realized, as I witnessed my mother’s copying fury, that I might actually stand a chance of knowing what to expect when expecting to have sex—a feat I’d previously assumed was impossible for girls. Still, I gave my mother a hard time. Why? Maybe I didn’t like how she’d gone against my father. He was the only one who didn’t seem to realize he was on the chopping block. Or maybe I resented her for knowing that my question about her clamshell wasn’t as innocent as I’d pretend it to be.
This is fine, but you still haven’t answered my question, I said.
Her face tightened. What do you mean?
I asked why you, specifically, need the pill.
I think she wanted to hit me. I saw that fire in her eye. But I knew she’d read recently that hitting girls when they’re young makes them more likely to endure beatings without complaint when they’re grown and so I considered myself immune from assault.
I, specifically, need the pill because I think I’d kill myself if I had another daughter like you, she said.
It was the cruelest thing she’d ever said to me and I expected an apology, perhaps in note form. She often wrote when she needed to still her thoughts. I’m sorry for what I said to you. I didn’t mean it and it was wrong. Instead, she collected the pages of Our Bodies, Ourselves, turned on her heel, and simply wrote me off. I tried to get the book back, apologizing and cajoling, even confessing to a few sins I knew she didn’t know about. I’ll be a good daughter from now on, I said, I promise. But she was done with me. By the time I found the book in the kitchen trash, she’d been refusing to talk to me for a week. She served me meals, washed my clothes, restocked the Kotex and the acne cream in the bathroom, but would have nothing to do with me as a person. I was now merely a responsibility to which she was forced to attend, a box to check.
Indignant anger was a brief respite from heartbreak, but eventually even that faded and I resorted to turning to my father for respite. We formed an alliance of convenience. I think he liked that I was his now. I’d been his before puberty hit, throwing a ball with him in the yard, helping him repaint the fence and the picnic table, belching shamelessly at restaurants. And then impending womanhood—and my mother—had stolen me from him. He made space for me on the couch when the ball game was on, pushing stray pages of the local paper aside, and we’d sit through endless innings in near silence. I didn’t want to talk to him about my mother and he didn’t want to talk to me about her, but if I didn’t talk about her, I would die of sorrow.
When she came into the living room with a dishrag, we knew to lift our feet off the coffee table, so she could scrub away the mug rings. I envied the fact that he could still get a word out of her, even with his feet held lazily aloft while she cleaned up after him. Look at the ease with which he could request a change back to the other brand of canned beef stew! Look how she mussed his hair while leaving the room as she’d once mussed mine!
I wish she’d just kill me and get it over with, I said.
He cleared his throat and rearranged his legs on the wet table. What did you two argue about anyway?
I was surprised he didn’t know. I’d assumed she’d told him the whole story, perhaps even expressing the hope that we’d get past The Great Whore Pill Conundrum one day. The idea that he’d witnessed this protracted battle and could not even manage to rouse the curiosity to ask his wife what was amiss frankly shocked me. And so maybe I wanted to shock him.
I found her birth control and I asked her why she needed it—you know, since you two don’t sleep together, I said.
He laughed and sipped deeply of his beer. You girls, he said. He lifted the remote and pumped the volume on the game.
It’s a sin, you know, I said, loudly. The nuns say so at school. And you’re not immune. If she’s on the pill, you’re going to hell too because you’re married to her.
I think I’ve heard that bit, he said, equally loud. Some kind of bullshit about our moral imperative to be fruitful and multiply. The church can’t ever make up its mind. At this point in the conversation, he could have told me to drop it and I would have complied. That would have been the end of it, as I was already horrified that it had gone this far and at such a high volume. But he made a decision. And why he made that decision, I’ll never know, but make it he did, and it changed my life forever, re-arranging the hierarchies of my mind like a schedule board at a train station. If you really want to know why your mother is on the pill, ask her about her mother.
You mean grandma Margie? I asked.
No, he said. I mean her mother. He snapped off the television and tossed the remote. Watch whatever you want. I’m mowing the lawn.
My mother had been raised from infancy by the woman I’d always known as my grandmother, but the framed photo in the foyer of a woman pulling a baby version of my mother on a sled told the story of another grandmother, my grandfather’s first wife, a woman who had died while he was away at war. My mother did not often talk about her mother. She marked her birthday and dragged me along to her grave on holidays, where we rendezvoused with my menthol-rubbed great aunt, Adeline, but she didn’t talk about what her mother was like or how much she missed her. Still, she did not call her father’s second wife her mother; rather, she called her your grandmother Margie or, simply, Margie. The two got along, but the intimacy between them was always slightly less natural than it was between Margie and my mother’s siblings—three boys upon whom the old woman doted relentlessly.
When I was very little, I had asked grandma Margie why she wasn’t my real grandma and the aggressively cheery woman had cringed and reddened. You’re asking me because your mother won’t talk to you about it, she said. I nodded. She set me up with a lemon custard at the kitchen table and stroked my head. Your mother has always found it very difficult to talk about her mother because of the way she died.
Because it wasn’t a very good death. She left behind a little girl and there was no one to watch the little girl because her daddy was away in Germany. And so the little girl was left without her parents or a home for a while. It was very sad and you know how people don’t like to talk about sad things, don’t you?
Yes, I said, pointing my tiny custard spoon skyward, people like to be happy!
Sitting on the couch, now, with a television remote clinging to my chest where my father had flung it, I realized that this oft-recollected and oft-pondered conversation with my grandma Margie went beyond this place, that my grandmother Margie had gone on, in fact, to say something strange and impossible about my real grandmother, the one whose name I was always at odds to remember. Was it Dorothy? Dotty? What kind of name was Dotty? But my child mind had never known what to do with this additional information and so had halted the habitual recollection with my spoon high in the air.’
Yes, your mother likes to be happy, said grandma Margie. She doesn’t like to think about her mother and her little baby brother or sister who never had a chance to be born. But she still loves them very much and of course she loves you.
She took my custard and my spoon, wiped my chin with her dishrag, and settled me in the den with the other children. I sat stunned with a wetting Betsy doll between my legs and then I began to play with her. I poured the water into her mouth and let her soak the carpet again and again. When my mother came to pick me up, I let her assume I’d been sitting in my own urine for hours. You know how to use the toilet, my mother said as we drove away. I don’t know why you let that woman convince you you’re a baby every time we’re there. It was a long while before we visited grandma Margie again and when we did, I was given a special tour of the bathroom facilities. Yes, you know what you’re doing, don’t you? she said, guiding my hand on the flusher. You’re a smart girl.
Now, again stunned, I made my way to the foyer, to the picture of the woman pulling a baby version of my mother on a sled, the one I’d passed on the way up the stairs a half dozen times a day. The woman, a gorgeous, broad-faced brunette, is smiling, her mouth open in a laugh, the snow a thick hush on all of the surrounding cars and buildings, and the child so bundled in winter clothes that only her face is visible. It’s a perfect moment of perfect joy preserved. Was she pregnant in this picture? She must have been. I counted the days between the date scrawled in white on the corner of the photo and the date on the gravestone in the shape of a heart that I’d visited every Christmas and Easter. She’d died only two weeks later. Was my mother on birth control now because her mother had died giving birth to a second baby? Was that what my father was implying?
Perhaps, if I’d had the whole story when I ran through the house to find my mother and arrowed my head into her middle, we might have found a way to move past this entire sad history together, but I was still missing a crucial piece. And though she grudgingly released me from exile that day, excused my teenaged insolence, and bought me my own stock of clamshells without argument, I don’t think she ever fully forgave me for forcing her to say the words aloud. Your grandmother didn’t die giving birth to a baby, she said, her hands shaking on her face. Your grandmother died because she didn’t want to have another baby. And I don’t want that to happen to me, you, or any other girl in this god-damned fucked up world.
Dewey Dell, woodsman’s belle,
How does your love betray you?
With shining rings and pretty things,
Or a word spoken sweet in the aster?
Dewey Dell, whom fate befell,
What will you do with your darling?
Poison drafts, boiling baths,
Or will you let him waddle about a bastard?
Dewey Dell, ghost from hell,
You’re the one they made the example.
No girl is free of the whipping tree,
But the pigs roam free in the pasture.
In the room where my baby is born, the doctors decide I am dead. I hear them discussing the cause and one of them suggests the other dealt too roughly with me. It’s like you were punishing her for causing you so much trouble getting that baby out, he says. And perhaps, because of the tussle that ensues between the two of them, I am wheeled away, sheet draped over my head, without a final determination made. Am I dead? Did that man kill me? For certain, a sizable portion of me has passed away. But I surprise myself by gasping deep, like coming up from river water, and reaching to pull the cloth from my eyes with mercifully free hands.
There is a nurse in the room and she’s writing on a clipboard with her back to me, but I see in her tensed shoulders that she has heard my air and has not decided if she wants to confirm her suspicions. I ask her for water. I am so thirsty I could drink my own blood.
She does not turn. You’re dead, she says. Everyone knows you’re dead.
It’s the word everyone that makes me realize my own possibilities. Yes, I say, I am dead. I’m a ghost. And if you look at me, you’ll die too.
Her shoulders tense again.
It’s not that I’m without pain, but the larger burden of it is gone. I can live and my body seems to know this. My feet are like plumped slabs of meat on the cold floor. I know there is blood getting down my legs and the gash where my son has split me open is liable to heal improperly or not at all if I run away, but that is precisely what I endeavor to do. When the nurse finally dares to turn and look at me I say this: OK, I’m not a ghost, but I want to be. And you’re the only one who can help me.
She stares me in the eye a long while and asks, What do you need?
Clothes, I need clothes. That’s all I need. Some money if you have it.
She reviews me in full now, my blood-soaked middle, marks from the cuffs still red-ringing my wrists.
Them doctors did you wrong, you know, she says. I don’t care about your crimes. They did you wrong. And that pig cop too. I could have spit on him for paining you like that.
She pulls a large pair of men’s underwear from a nearby corpse, packs it with gauze pads and makes me step inside it. While I’m holding her bone shoulder to steady myself, I realize she’s only a girl. Same age as me. Probably just out of school. Maybe we knew each other once, or maybe we didn’t. Probably she’s heard of me because of what I did—or tried and failed to do.
I’ve got three dollars of grocery money and my ma’s going to kill me for losing it, but at least I’ll know I didn’t kill you when they find you dead.
She shoves the money into my hands and wraps me in a white lab coat she finds hanging on the back of a door.
That’s all I need, the words of release that will free me of my sentence and my grief, but I stay because I want to tell her something: I tried to take care of it in the responsible way, but the pharmacy man took advantage of me.
She does not seem surprised. I’ve heard of things like that. Working here, you see all kind of girls. You can tell the rich ones because their nails and hair are still done.
What are you going to tell them when they find my body gone?
She shrugs. I’ll tell them it up and walked away.
When I make it to the woods, I know I’ll be fine. I know the trails the horses have cleaved into the soil and they’re easy to make in the moonlight. Inside my awful house, the radio is on and my father and his new wife are listening to a story about what the president is going to do next with the new illegals. They pay me no mind, rapt with blood lust as they are. I take only what I need to make it on my own and then I become a ghost, a wet seed hot in the earth.
—winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 28