Johann Grund, Marguerite in Prison, 1863-1867, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Laura Dreyfus Barney and Natalie Clifford Barney in memory of their mother, Alice Pike Barney.

CORRESPONDENCE

Every two weeks, V may write one letter to her family. 

Every week, V’s family may send one letter in return. 

For V, the state provides the stamps. 

All state school correspondence, written and received, is inspected by the officers because naturally V’s welfare must come first. 

There is no truth that censored V can tell. An honest letter from her time will never be discovered. I’m getting by just fine, she writes her mother. The girls here sure can cook. We get a nice breeze off the lake. 

One wrong word to Minneapolis, and her mail privileges will be lost.

 

 

 

[And eighteen years beyond Miss Fannie French Morse’s rousing 1919 speech, the Minnesota Home School for Girls, Sauk Centre holds true to her bright dream. America’s ambitions for reformed girls remarkably consistent.] 

 

“Because the girls of today become the wives and mothers of tomorrow, the emphasis in training in the school is placed upon home making and home management.”

—Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre, “Biennial Report to the Minnesota State Board of Control,” 1936

 

 

 

THE WIVES AND MOTHERS OF TOMORROW

Like every other prisoner, pregnant V survives on dreams. First, the baby miraculously gone. Then, on a highway white with sunshine, Mr. C suddenly appears, calls V to his Ford and they escape, start over in New York where V’s a star. The law won’t ever find V in New York. 

At eighteen, without anyone’s permission, V will be his lawful wife. She sees their fancy brick apartment, the spire of the Empire State Building just out their bedroom window, their rumpled bed, the marble basin she wipes clean of his black whiskers, the glass table where she serves him two poached eggs. White roses on the table, Mr. C bought as a gift. Mr. C dressed in his classic tie and emerald cufflinks, a starched white shirt that V knows how to mend and launder now. Mr. C happy to be far from Minnesota with his star. 

The baby gone. 

The baby always gone. 

 

 

 

THE FIRST ESCAPE

Baby August eight days old, Gazelle is gone. 

V can’t say how or where. The windows locked at night; cottage doors bolted before dinner. Somehow Gazelle has made her way across the miles of open field, hiding in the corn, moving between clusters of thick trees like a coyote. 

The things she’s left for V: Her courage. Proof V can escape. A stolen key behind the puzzle V will never find. Baby August. Without a mother to attend him, he’s the school’s problem now. 

August thrashing at the bottle, squalling for the breast. They’ll only keep a baby if the mother is retrieved, otherwise the state will find a proper home. They can’t afford to feed a lost girl’s son.

V tries to force the nipple in his mouth to make him drink, to stop his desperate crying, which is more than V can bear. If it wasn’t for Gazelle she’d kill him now. 

Don’t cry, she pleads in whispers. Gazelle would want her son to eat. Gazelle, running toward a forest where she’ll sleep under pine and spruce. Forest after forest, living off of farmers’ vegetables and berries, moving in the darkness, hiding in the day. A method she taught V, so V can follow. Gazelle, a girl at home with brothers, if her brothers were the trees. Her muscles strong and angry, just like August’s.

Your mother isn’t coming, V whispers to his cheek. And she wouldn’t want us crying; she’d want us to be strong. 

Be strong now, she repeats. Then finally he is latching on the bottle, guzzling toward strength in V’s reluctant arms. August, already no one’s baby; Gazelle running for her life. 

 

 

 

THIRD TRIMESTER

At first it was a pale shrimp curled pink inside V’s belly; now it is a mammal the size of a small cat. V feels its gnawing paws claw at her ribs, feels the burrow of its skull between her legs, a thrashing angry animal fighting at the cave where it’s been kept. 

Assigned a second day of harvest, V’s back bent and aching from the weight. Palms blistered from the work, she prays for death to take them both. The dead cat buried in a hatbox, the two of them finally cool beside V’s father in the dirt. Hello hon, you’re here! Why don’t you sing a song for Daddy? 

Mr. C visiting their graves to weep with guilt. 

Let him weep. 

At night the cemetery watchman passes with a lantern, pauses at V’s grave to read the dead girl’s name and date. Too young, he thinks. (V imagines this the headline in the story of her life. Or carved into a marble gravestone Mr. C will buy. Didn’t she keep his secret? Didn’t she end up here?)

Too Young, the watchman reads, but he moves on.

 

 

 

COMPLIANCE

Once Gazelle and Bun are gone, once Tress betrays their pact and names her baby George, once the power of The Dames has disappeared, V decides to feign compliance, knits like other girls in Recreation, endures their constant chatter—how skinny they once were, how much they miss their figures—another version of the babble V and Em abhorred at junior high. Why V had to quit the Glee Club. The after-school choir. (“Under the supervision of the school personnel, they learn to behave like average girls.”) V doesn’t want to be an average girl. Average is a rock along the road. Potato dull. A brain as blank as squash. As dreary as V lives now, she might as well be dead. Knit one, purl two. 

But bathing in the tub or brushing out her hair before the mirror at the sink, V tells herself she’s someone special still; a girl with secret talents, a girl imprisoned in a tower like Rapunzel. A girl destined to be greater than these yellow boots she’s knitting for the birth.

 

 

 

VISITATION SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 1936

The first time Mr. C arrives he’s V’s thoughtful “Cousin Harold,” chauffeuring V’s sisters in his beautiful black Ford. (A secret hint smart V is quick to catch—Cousin Harold doesn’t drive.) Cousin Harold delivering V’s beloved older sisters: Lydia and Rose. (Ida far away with Baby Wesley in Cheyenne.) Proper Lydia pregnant just like V, but so much prettier in a Swiss dot dress their mother made last week. Sweet Rose in V’s old skirt. She’s home now from Milwaukee, and secretly divorced. A barely one-year marriage that Rose has managed to erase. 

Clean slate, Rose smiles. Mother says five years from now, no one will remember. Sweet Rose always on the bright side. I’m home with Mom and Ray; sleeping in your room. 

V so shocked to see her sisters that she cries. I can’t believe you’re here, she says, embarrassed by her great balloon of belly, her greasy pimpled forehead, her cracked hands calloused from the work. 

Thanks to Cousin Harold, Rose says with a wink. He’s parked down the road with all the other men. Too far away for V to even steal a glimpse. Female family members only at the school. 

And Mother? V asks, worried. She didn’t want to visit, too? 

Worn thin, like always, Lydia says, taking in the Morse Hall fancy parlor where the girls may greet their guests. Gleaming hard wood floors. Vases of fresh flowers, the girls cut and arranged. You know how hard she works. And all your troubles haven’t helped her health. 

Cousin Harold says he’s sorry he can’t see you, Rose says to change the subject. But he sent you a few things. She hands V a fancy Dayton’s bag of tissue-papered gifts: silk stockings, lemon drops, an expensive ruby pin. Nothing V can wear or eat or keep and so the bag goes back to Rose. 

I can’t, she says, more tears hot on her cheeks. 

Oh sweet little V, Rose soothes, twisting V’s limp hair into a curl, wiping off V’s tears with her soft thumb. Cousin Harold hopes you’re singing. Is radio allowed? Have you heard Amateur Hour? Cousin Harold says you’ll be singing on that someday, and you’ll win. He says he’s never seen such talent. Never once. And I guess he’s a good judge—

He did? V asks, unsure of fact or fiction. Mr. C, a family stranger, told all of that to Rose? 

Ah yes, dear Cousin Harold. Proper Lydia’s sharp sigh a scissor of suspicion. Did you know he bought Mother a brand new Philco? A radio when she and Ray can barely make their rent? Does that make sense to you, V? 

V shakes her head. It doesn’t. None of this makes sense. Her sisters’ sudden visit. A radio from Mr. C. Did he go to her apartment? Tell her mother who he was? The owner of the Cascade? The man who named their daughter Little Fox? The father of this baby? V doubts he told them that. And then to drive her sisters—

He knew Mother would be lonely with V gone, Rose says, like all of Lydia’s suspicions should end with those few words.

And is she? V dares, hoping for a yes. Does her mother truly miss V? Does she wish that V were home? 

I just find his generosity— Lydia says, her hands on her round belly while she’s staring hard at V’s. Well don’t you find it odd, V? 

I guess, V says. Wishing she could see her man of minor honor. Her man who kept his word. 

 

[The inheritance of fiction.

Fiction as survival.] 

 

 

 

“It cannot be said the labor of the girls is exploited.”

—Handbook of American Institutions for Delinquent Juveniles, Vol. 1: West North Central States, 1938

 

“Labor: 

 

Persistent exertion of body or mind; bodily toil for the sake of gain or economic production; those engaged in such toil considered as a group or class; 

 

Work or a task done or to be done; the product or result of toil; the process of childbirth.

 

To perform labor; exert one’s power of body or mind; work; toil; to move with effort or difficulty; roll or pitch heavily as a ship; to be burdened, troubled, or distressed; to be in travail or childbirth.”

 

—New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, 1980

[Excerpted here from the rare gift that June bought me. College graduation. 1982.]

 

 

 

[Examples of Labor]

  1. The girls’ labor was undocumented.
  2. To maintain the school, the farm, the fields, the girls’ (unexploited) labor was required.
  3. V went into labor this morning.
  4. Will V’s labor ever end?
  5. V had a difficult labor.
  6. The doctor rested from his labor.

 

 

 

A DIFFICULT LABOR

1.

The first pain hits V during laundry. V working the soap along the scrub board leans against the iron tub and howls. A river of hot liquid rushes down her leg, pools like pee around her leather boots. November 3. Ten days overdue, but now this stubborn baby will be born. 


2.

So much worse than V imagined. Could imagine. Could not. 


3.

V has no words, just moments moving into moans. Wet washcloth on her forehead. A room at Higbee Hospital. A gag over her mouth to silence screams.


4.

Someone squeezing her small hand.

Someone scolding,

someone saying,

You’ll survive.

You’re not the first or last.


5.

Crushing waves of pain strangling V’s abdomen and back. A boulder. The baby is a giant boulder now. 


6.

V just ninety pounds when this baby was conceived. Not even five-feet tall.


7.

Fifteen.


8.

Next time she’ll think twice, the doctor says. 


9.

Eighteen hours later V howls into the night, feels the boulder smash her pelvis, her tailbone, her back. Push, the doctor orders. This baby isn’t going to get here on its own


10.

Things inside V now: 

Forceps. Scissors. Hands. 

This baby.

This baby not wanting to be born.


11.

The animal of pain that is V’s body. Living, breathing anguish V will not forget.


12.

Next time she will think twice.


13.

What she knows is finished. 

Done.

Delivered.

The sound of someone crying with her now. 

That thing.

That thing. 


14.

A girl, the doctor says. Another god-damn girl. 


15.

He rested from his labors.

Sheila O’Connor

Sheila O’Connor is the author of six award-winning novels for adults and young people, including, most recently, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions (Rose Metal Press, 2019). Her book Where No Gods Came won the Minnesota Book Award and the Michigan Prize for Literary Fiction, and Sparrow Road received the International Reading Award. O’Connor received her MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is a professor in the creative writing programs at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review.

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