Murder Ballards


by Dylan Brethour

There are no words for the holding of shadows. Now, she knows with her body when the children are near, the sensation closer to memory than touch. Each one signals their presence differently: the sudden smell of citrus or piss on a damp inner thigh.

What they have in common is this instinct for remaining hidden, their shadows so subtle she once imagined they were not there at all.


Soon, she discovers they are everywhere, caught in teeth and rolling down suburban streets. She pulls children from gardens, crisp and sharp as radishes. Only their names are too small to hold, lost forever on the back of the wind.

Her own name remains tethered somewhere at a distance. When she tries to remember, the feeling reminds her of pulling a boat into shore through choppy water. Nearly everything is like that here. Held together, but only just.


She avoids the other collectors, their bags full of bird shit and boy’s names set aside when girls are born. There are men wrapped tight in fishnet stockings and old women bent double, their backs piled high with English kings.

Once, before she came to this place, she saw the model of a body with its parts proportionate to their area in the brain: the cortical homunculus. Looking at its exaggerated tongue and hands, she’d thought how the living know themselves through touch, taste, and speech. How the dead know themselves, she cannot say.


Her memories are rounded here. They roll and knock together like marbles, each one a collision followed by loss. There is the crunch of snow on winter Sundays, the goose pimpled flesh as she sits through church. But, most clearly out of everything, she remembers a fairy tale her mother told.

“Once upon a time, women went digging in the earth for their children. Those who dug shallow got daughters and those who dug deeply got sons. But one woman, no matter how long or how deep she dug, she got no children at all.”


As a woman she goes digging but the earth is dry. Her husband blames the countries where they preach: hot weather, bad water, and soon her age. To find a cure, they clasp their hands and repeat the songs of praise for future life.

In her 41st year, these hymns become murder ballads. She buries a daughter with unopened eyes, this girl like mercury, who slips away before she’s born. She would like to howl at the other mourners, to become the kind of woman that her mother warned about. Instead, she and her husband join the choir and sing that God was right to take their child.


She will sing these same hymns as she parades outside clinics, grasping photos of dead infants. Where do they go, these almost-children? She imagines a heaven wide enough to fill with nothing: near misses, lost chances, the mother that she could have been.

It’s her sister who tells her she needs to let go, who claims that it is cruel to join these protests. But even at the very end she does not stop, tangling her sign in a loop of oxygen tube. It’s important that these women learn how loss is intolerable. How in the Lord, all things abide.


She takes the needle and thrusts it through the children’s skin, sewing their shadows to her body. Her needle is made from all the promises mothers have broken to their daughters. Sharpness, she thinks, is a feminine shape.

Sometimes, she wonders whether heaven and hell are really so different. Whether she will ever understand if this is a reward or punishment, to rescue what is nearly nothing from itself.

Image from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake, 1795

About the Author:

Dylan Brethour is a freelance journalist and editor. Her essays have appeared in places like Ploughshares and Litro, with fiction in the London Short Story Prize Anthology. Find her on Twitter @DylanBrethour.