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Mathew Slade


Dead grass rustled under the tramping of rushed feet, whispered breathless rumors through the soil, whispered to the roots of the trees, whispered panic under the moon. The woman’s feet were staccato scratches against the grass, crushing twigs and pounding rocks into patches of bare earth. Brambles snagged at her dress, cut into her skin, and her legs pushed forward, stumbled, slid, forward, forward. A sensation bloomed in her stomach, so unpleasant--but not pain, not an ache. It was like she was being filled up with turpentine and felt it sloshing around in her gut. She collapsed at the base of a tree, heaving and gurgling sins through the sweaty strands of hair that clung to her face like leeches. The sensation in her kept growing, growing, until she felt it pushing just so slightly out of her, and she screamed again, wildly, hysterically, a scream that devolved into terrible laughter. The feeling was too solid now, too corporeal just to be a feeling, and she felt the rough edges of it on the insides of her thighs. It scraped against her tender skin slowly and then all at once and left behind it a cavity, a void, inside her abdomen. The sudden emptiness weighed more than the feeling had, some harbinger for drastic change and everything widdershins. It meant it was here. The woman looked at the feeling between her legs, the one that had taken form in a mass of organized flesh whose resemblance to her she refused to acknowledge, and nudged it away with the heel of her trembling foot. The feeling--she couldn't call it that anymore--sagged with the harsh gravity of the Earth, still as a stone. She buried it in the dirt, there, buried the not-feeling and crawled away on her hands and knees.

And suddenly the screaming of her baby boy (in harmony with the shrieks of her new daughter), dragged her back to the hospital room, and for a split second she forgot to revel in the expected maternal ecstasy. Her heaving chest mellowed, her quivering legs steadied, her fluttering heart softened. And she wept for beauty and for relief. But she couldn't forget it, not then.

Years later, it clung to the hem of her skirt, hitching itself to her very firmament. Still, the hollow notes groaned from the old piano, wriggling through the gaps in the structure and filling up the room like a gray mist. Today it was Pachelbel's Canon in D, though bastardized by the hesitant hiccup of the woman's gnarled fingers. Her hands moved slowly up and down the ivory keys and occasionally played a wrong note, the consequence of bungling inexpertise. She quickly corrected her errors with an immediate fumbling of the keys, playing a frantic trill that would maybe, maybe, include the right noise. But she didn’t play it how it was written, not in the major key; she’d scribbled out certain notes, replaced them with others, forged a more somber song to match the one she felt was truer. Her fingernails were caked with mud, staining her fingers and the keys black with dirt. She smeared the dirt across the keys with the flourish of each chord and let it dry.

“Mommy, why are your fingers dirty?” her son said, curious. He’d walked up to her to watch her play, like he usually did.

“Mommy’s been digging,” she said, not taking her eyes off of the piano keys in front of her.

“What for?”

She didn’t have an answer for him--she never did when he asked that question. So she just stared ahead, kept playing.

“Go play with your sister.”

And when he left, the woman ran back to the garden and flung herself to the marigolds, sobbing, sobbing until her mind could do nothing but forget the tale it told itself.

The Sawdust Children

Look at how ugly they are! they said. I stared at them (the ugly ones) curiously, my mercurial gaze rapidly scanning them, up-down-side-to-side-and-everything-in-between. They were right--the children were ugly. They were mismatched. Some body parts were the wrong size or screwed on the wrong way. One little girl had two left feet. I bet nobody was going to ask her to dance at prom.

Oh, yes. These children were ugly. They were all the wrong colors, all the wrong shades. It certainly was no good for a child to look like that, I decided. I looked at my own hands. Sure, my thumb was on backwards and actually forty-percent darker than the rest of me, and my left palm was actually part of a thigh. Everyone had some flaws. But, these kids were ugly.

Another thing about them--oh, it was the strangest thing--each of them had little flecks of sawdust all over their faces, as if they were clowns in a lumber camp! As if they ate a bowl of sawdust for breakfast each morning! It was a fine coat, just like a peach’s endearing fuzz.

Incredible! Everyone knew that sawdust had absolutely no business on anyone’s face. Why, it certainly had all of its business on the forearms and in between the toes. But as I moved my eyes around, up-down-side-to-side-and-everything-in-between-again, I noticed something peculiar. The sawdust wasn’t entirely on my forearms, per se. I guessed it covered more of my wrists. But, these children were ugly.

It amazed me how these children didn’t even realize how ugly they were, or even that we thought them so. Did they not see us circling around them like bipedal vultures? I blamed this shortcoming on their poorly-installed eyeballs. It was a shame that the manufacturers these days were losing their touch. See, in my day, one needed a license to manufacture them. And now they’re turning out all wrong, with sawdust on their faces instead of their forearms! Or, or their wrists. I decided that the wrists, too, were acceptable. But absolutely not their faces.

We left those ugly children alone. It was time for us to leave, for we had more important things to do. However, just as I turned to leave, I saw a boy and girl point at my sawdust-covered wrists and my thumb and my palm that was actually a thigh. They had sawdust lips, and they laughed at me with them. Oh, I was mad. I was so mad, because at the same time, all of us said the same thing!:

Look at how ugly they are!

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