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The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County
By Tina Connolly
There were two things we girls all knew that summer.
One, that Tony Latham had turned into the finest drink of water ever to strut this two-bit one-horse no-account town.
And two, that Suzie Appleby was gonna have a stone-baby.
Suzie never was one for chasing the boys, that was the funny thing. She told me later she’d been sent to get a packet of tobacco for her da at the general store. And there was Tony, sorting out the threepenny nails from the fourpenny screws, and their eyes met over the hogshead fulla metal and that was that.
There’s only two choices if you’re gonna have a stone-baby, a course.
The first one, and best one, is you get the daddy to marry you, and if you’re quick enough, you can catch most of it in time. Sure, the baby’s born with a little flint toe, or a patcha marble back of her left elbow, but that ain’t too uncommon in this town. Mildred Percy’s got a whole swatch of granite on her skull, where the hair don’t grow. She combs it over and we pretend we don’t notice. Our fathers maybe give Mildred’s mother an extra wink in the grocery store, and we pretend we don’t notice that too.
You get good at pretending things here, and we got real good that summer.
Because, thing was, Tony Latham knew he’d turned into the finest drink of water, et cetera.
And he didn’t have no interest in tying himself down to poor Suzie Appleby.
The hot summer rolled on, the air heavy and wet. The boys worked in the fields and swam in the watering hole on their days off. We girls picked the gooseberries from the thorny bushes nearby, our arms scratched through our tight sleeves, and tried not to watch the boys dive into the cold, enticing depths.
We jammed the berries and put up the plums and we watched poor Suzie get hotter and heavier day by day, weighed down by her stone-baby. And finally her da came home from the haying, and he saw it too.
There are two things a parent can do when they find out their daughter’s rocked up.
One, you go hunt down the stone-daddy and you make him marry your daughter, and that right quick.
Suzie’s father chose the other way.
I guess I’d been nicer to Suzie than I oughta be, cause when he turned her out, she came to me. It was thundering, too, lightning fit to crack the skies, and Suzie all drenched, the cotton wrap she’d let out twice clinging to her rock-hard belly.
There are two choices for a girl in my situation.
One, ask her in, and have my da turn me out, too.
Two, turn Suzie away, and go back to embroidering pillowcases that say His and Hers in real fancy writing.
But I looked at Suzie’s eyes and I listened to that rain and somehow I went off-script.
I hollered to Ma, “Hog’s out again,” and off I went into the downpour with Suzie to find the witch.
The witch lived out past the watering hole. Her place was nothing special, just a one-room cabin going all mossy.
She scolded Suzie for being soaked, and then she looked at me like I oughta have stopped the rain somehow, got Suzie here dry. I didn’t have any experience of what my choices were to say to that. We’d run right off the map. The witch’s sharp eyes measured me, then she told me to go pick some peppermint by the third willow past the oak.
You try picking peppermint by the third willow past the oak in a thundering downpour. I was soaked in rain and mud by the time I got back, which I expect was what she wanted. She’d pulled the whole story out of a hiccuping Suzie, who by now was snuggled in a nice-looking wool blanket, the kind Mildred’s ma makes.
The witch shook her head and said stuff about how Suzie oughta have come before the stone-baby started, but it’s hard to imagine how a girl would be desperate enough to do that before it happened, you know? One visit to the witch’s house and you might as well be carrying a stone-baby. I shifted uneasily, knowing what choice I’d already made tonight.
The witch said to Suzie, “You got two choices.” She laid them out real quiet-like, but I guess we already knew them.
One, keep that stone-baby. Keep it all yourself and keep it forever. That’s the sorta choice that ain’t much choice at all, lessen you wanna be an outcast witch yourself, and I expect she knew it.
Two, you go to the watering hole. You take this particular mix of herbs. After a lotta pain and suffering, that stone-baby will slide outta ya, right down into the watering hole, and be just another rock in the mud.
Suzie paid the witch with her favorite dress of Liberty-print violets, and we went through the mud-slick rain back to the watering hole. The rage of the storm had passed but it was still trickling down, and the path was slimy beneath our feet.
We stood on the edge of the water. It was black as night.
Suzie said, “You think it would be bad? To keep it?”
“Awful lonesome,” I said.
“Would you come visit me?”
That ain’t the sort of choice I really had either, but once you get off-script you don’t exactly stop, and I said, “Yeah.”
I reached out my hand and her fingers gripped mine and I thought that maybe going off-script wasn’t all bad if I could lighten her burden.
She stared at the herbs in her other hand.
That’s when Tony appeared on the other side of the hole.
“Easy, easy,” he said to Suzie, like he was gentling a calf. “Don’t you go do nothing foolish. We can fix this.”
“You’re—you’re coming back to me?” Her eyes lit with hope.
“Guess so. Your da’s pretty insistent.” He rubbed his chin where a purple-blue bruise was spreading.
Guess her father decided it wasn’t too late to make the other choice after all.
The light dimmed in Suzie’s eyes. The moon lit the watering hole as her chin set, hard as granite. “I ain’t coming back to you,” she said. She pulled away from me, cast the witch’s herbs into the water. Gone.
I knew her future then. Living alone at the edge of the woods, with a quartz-edged girl by her side. And I would go back and forth to see her, each visit a crack, a chink in my wall. Each visit lifting her burden but weighing me down, for the weight of shame is a fixed price, leastways in a two-bit no-choice place like this. Ain’t no way to lighten it for everyone, and it suddenly made me mad I couldn’t.
Suzie turned to go, and her foot slipped in the mud. Heavy with the stone-baby, she slid down the lip, straight into the pool. I grabbed for her—got nothing.
Tony did dive for her, I give him credit for that. Or he didn’t want to carry that guilt, heavy as stones. But ten minutes passed and even if he had found her she wouldn’t have been there to be found.
I helped haul him up the mud, and he panted on the side of the rocks. Even through his guilt he looked at where my dress was plastered to me, and I saw then how stone-babies could spread. That Tony would wink at me in the store like our fathers did at Mildred’s ma, and everyone would look the other way and be certain I was no better than I oughta be.
I backed away from Tony. Crossed my arms and glared at him till he left.
I stayed there till dawn, long after Tony had gone. Mourning Suzie, and something else I didn’t have a name for.
But those who stick around see things, and so I saw it.
The stones like birds, rising from the water.
Little stone figures, no bigger than a hard round belly. And a massive mother-shaped one at the front, rising on invisible wings.
They rose slowly, gaining their bearings. They spread out into a V. And then they went south, a migration like none had ever seen.
There are two things you can do if you see something that’s never been seen before.
One, you go back to Ma and Da, your hem-stitched pillowcases and your uneasy dreams of stone geese. Stay silent when they say they dredged the watering hole and found nothing.
Or two, you rise one morning, your feet light as biscuits. Fill one of those pillowcases with everything you think you might need.
It’s a long walk to the south. But it’s worth it, if you find a city of women living there, hard
About the Author
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. Find Tina at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Narrator
Julie Hoverson is a woman of mystery. And Horror. And occasionally sci-fi. She writes, produces and acts in the audio drama series 19 Nocturne Boulevard, as well as appearing in many other shows. She also is working hard to promote all scripted audio dramas through the twitter feed @A_D_Infinitum, and hopes one day to take over the world.