"Hemlock Ravine Park." Via HerbT on Flickr

Pain clawed my body and blood rushed down my leg. Crazed and mewling I crouched down. My body clenched. The ergot was working. My overalls turned red and blood puddled inside my boots. A cramp seized my belly, bent on expelling any contents. Quickly, I pulled down my pants and reached between my legs. I tried to staunch the flow with my hands, but it oozed through my fingers, staining the snow. Clots, the size of walnuts, broke open when they struck the ice. Now that it was finally happening. I was desperate to stop what I’d begun. Though I tried frantically to hold it in, the baby pushed its way out of me.   

A small warm body, weighing no more than a handful of seed corn, dropped into my hand. The warmth faded, leached by cold and death. This life, of nearly three months, was a mystery, some say a miracle, and I wanted to draw each feature on the tablet of my memory. An invisible birthmark.  

I was shocked that, even though it was as small as my palm, it was so fully formed. Teeny nails crowned small, stubby fingers and toes. The head was huge, out of proportion to the rest of the body, leaving the tiny ears adrift on the translucent skin. The umbilical cord, through which I had fed nourishment and love, now hung from my womb—my life tethered to her death. Before I could get my knife another contraction expelled the afterbirth. On our farm, stillborn calves were always buried with the afterbirth. I could not bring myself to cut the cord.  It was her last connection to me.

It was then, holding her, that all of the grief and fear I had felt for the past few months blew out some spirit in me.  I found myself rocking back and forth, crying, “No, no, no.  Please don’t let this be true.”

I held her close and whispered, “Please forgive me. But the fire…“ Sobs wracked my body.  “We would have been married. We would have been a family.” For thirty years I had wanted a baby and now, by my own hand, she was gone.  

My mind filled up with the words I couldn’t say to her. After Sean’s death, in order to keep living I had to expunge him from my mind. I stopped visiting the Joyce’s farm where he labored day and night trying to save enough for us to be wed.  I couldn’t hear his name. And I couldn’t have his baby. No reminders. I tried to wash away any trace of him.  

Shaking uncontrollably, I thought I might faint. Spent of all emotion save a deep and abiding sadness, I reached for Sean’s bundle. A hint of smoke, the searing scent of the fire that had taken him, escaped. The scene replayed in my mind.  I awoke to a room filled with an unnatural light. From the window I could see it was the Joyce’s farm. I could have driven the Model T truck, but it would have taken too long. Better to run through our pasture to theirs. The orange sky intensified as I ran toward their farm. Full-throated flames roared louder even than the screams of animals.  Just as I reached it, the barn collapsed with a whoosh. Horses, cows, wagons, and Sean were merely fuel. The sound played in the background of my waking life and nightmares were my company as I slept.  

Right here, during the summer, we laid naked, letting the shade obscure and enfold us. Although Roosevelt had tried to stay neutral, the sound of marching boots drew closer day by day.  I worried that I would lose him to bullets and bombs, but a kerosene lamp and hay devoured him.

I untied the bit of old sheet that held his possessions. Out spilled his “dress-up” shirt, bone white and starched stiff; a plaid, flannel shirt, tattered and threadbare; two pairs of socks, stained and balled up; and his pipe, bite marks etching the stem. At the bottom there was a picture of him sitting on his mother’s lap, the Irish flag behind them.

I kept the pipe and photograph. Bittersweet reminders. I know too late the impossibility of erasing love.  

My fingers, now caked with blood, traced the surface of every object. Slowly, I swaddled our baby in his clothing. I pulled on my overalls, now stiff and red. I put the bundle under my coat, a lost treasure resting between my breasts.

In the ravine that separated our farms, I had chosen an ancient hemlock as Sean’s living grave marker. Now it would hold our baby. The tree well had little snow revealing the huge root, exposed by years of spring run off. Erosion had left a hospitable hollow. The chamber, earthen floored and fibrous roofed, created a small sheltered space. I scratched through the snow and gathered leaves and soft green mosses, to make a nest for her. Only then did I entrust our baby to the tree’s embrace. At the creek’s edge, I found a large rock covered in fossils to place, like the lid of a sarcophagus, over the opening.

My hands embraced the trunk of the towering hemlock, my forehead, feverish and clammy, rested against the furrowed bark, and my lips, the lips that only Sean had known, sent a kiss to the heartwood.

“This is my final gift to you.  She is a wee thing.”  

The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner. An anthology of the series, The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers, is now available from W.W. Norton.

Patricia Kramer

Patricia Kramer is a writer, gardener, and wanderer. She earned a degree in English and Psychology from Syracuse University and a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Case Western Reserve. The mother of two daughters, she’s taught middle school English, served as the Educational Director of Head Start, and was a social worker in a hospital. At 71, she is learning to make large steel sculptures. This story is an excerpt from HEARTWOOD, a novel looking for a home. She lives with her husband in the hills of Sherburne, New York and on the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where she is working on a new novel about a female hobo.

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20 Comments on “Journal Entry 1940

  1. This was such an evocative essay and so poignant in it’s peek into this mothers private torment. I thought the unfolding of this pivotal event as experienced through the privacy of a journal entry to be very compelling reading. A peak into a very personal and intimate moment. Though the event is terrible and heartbreaking, the love of this mother for her child and woman for her man, deeply resonates in the essay. It is both agonizing and healing at the same time.
    Beautiful writing.

  2. What a beautiful and wrenchingly wrought excerpt. The back story of the barn fire and the relationship is really intriguing. It’s so rare to read a depiction of abortion that reads so tender and real in the bloody details.I would love to read the novel when it’s published!

  3. “Journal Entry 1940” reminds me of the small time bombs in Ray Carver’s short stories, with the major explosion taking place in the first nine words. I look forward to seeing how this fits into the larger tale but understand that it stands completely on its own, without preface or coda. Digging into this moment of pain and fitting it into the cycle of death and rebirth that we all face in our different ways is not easy to do. I’m glad that its publication comes at this time of year, as we wait for Spring and renewal.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I, too, hope that the novel can find a home. These two women have much to reveal.

  4. This is such a sad story. The opening paragraph an assault on our senses: we smell the blood, we see the spreading stain on the snow and we hear her animal cries. We feel the (unnamed ) woman’s pain, her anguished attempt to erase the memory of Sean and kill her unborn child, and then her frantic efforts”to stop what had begun’.
    Her loss overwhelms us as we slowly piece together the events that drove her to such desperate action.

    This is powerful writing. This story will stay with me for some time to come.

    Finally….the title is a stroke of genius!

    1. Thank you for your comments. From your reaction to the story I know that I was successful in creating a world within 150 words that moved you.

  5. Thoughtful, emotionally filled story that filled me with angst. Looking forward to more of Pat’s work.

  6. I know my comments will be taken as biased as the daughter of this incredible writer, but I was so moved by my mother’s writing that I had to leave a comment nonetheless. It is such a wonderful feeling as a daughter to be so inspired by, and proud of, one’s mother. This excerpt moved me to tears and left me wanting more. I feel so honored to have such a talented and eloquent mother and I hope this is just the beginning of this story’s public journey.

    1. Thank you my sweet, amazing daughter. I feel honored to have such a passionate, socially conscious daughter.

  7. Written with such amazing descriptions, details and feeling you can put yourself in this women’s place. Heart wrenching to loose the two loves of your life and the future you had planned. One can only imagine the despair the women felt after loosing Sean that she felt she just couldn’t carry and raise their baby. A sad and emotional story which leaves me longing for then what happened….. Wonderful writing! Looking forward to reading more of Pat’s work.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words. I am pleased to know that readers felt the whole experience. I wanted it to hurt your soul to read it. I hope it captured the complexity of making such a difficult decision. Pat

  8. As she single handedly deals with her daughter’s birth, a mother contemplates the connections to her lover, their brief intimacy and the ensuing tragedy. Vividly portrayed, Journal Entry 1940, captures the complexity of life and death, as she comes to terms with her loss. Beautiful crafted and emotionally charged.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am pleased that such a short,short story was able to capture the complexity of life and death for this woman. Patricia

  9. What a beautiful and sad, sad story. I can picture it all vividly – the writing really made an impression on my senses – sight, smell, feelings. We got a good glimpse of this character in a short amount of time, but I want to know more, and will look forward to the book!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my very short story. I am glad that despite the brevity of the piece you got to know this woman who was faced with a difficult and heartbreaking choice.

  10. I was so excited to get an email with the announcement of Patricia Kramer’s publication and the title. I was intrigued. I couldn’t wait to read a bit of what has been “cooking” in this author’s brain for so long. I opened the email quickly, read the title, looked at the beautiful, peaceful picture, saw the author’s name and was filled with anticipation and pride. Then I read the sentence under the title……My mind was screaming, “What!! I can’t read this…Are you kidding me??”…so I waited and waited trying to decide if I should read it or if it was going to get me all upset. I finally gathered my courage and read it. I was totally overcome with a multitude of emotions! I loved/hated the story at different points but the final sentence undid me. I want MORE. I want the whole book HEARTWOOD. I realized during my reflecting on this small excerpt that this is what great writing does—it reaches you on many different REAL emotional and intellectual levels. It makes you argue issues with yourself and makes you FEEL. That is what Patricia Kramer has achieved with this very brief glimpse into the lives of these human beings. I would love to give her novel that is “looking for a home” a place of honor in my home!

  11. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your reactions are just what I was looking for. I wanted it to kick you in the gut, as the act described is wrenching. Pain, blood, and a longing for lost love are all part of life. I want the reader to feel intensely, to have a lasting sense of unease. I want to disturb the reader. Like life one is informed by the stories from the past that led up to the action, as well as the uncertanty of what will follow.

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