Here’s another great story that made it to the semi-finals of our Flash Fiction Ghost Story contest. “One Less Mouth” comes to us from Dale-Harriet Rogovich of Madison, Wisconsin.
“One Less Mouth”
The general opinion was that the Pruitts were content. They were neatly turned out at worship, parents and seven daughters like stair-steps in a row. But Pruitt was a lowly clerk at the mercantile, and the Lord knew he would never advance. So his meager wage was stretched a little further with each addition to the clan. His greatest blessing was a frugal wife — only she knew that the smallest daughter wore a fragment of her mother’s wedding dress beneath her little white pinafore.
Goodwife Pruitt stood at the end of the table, ladling thin soup into the bowls before her. She distributed them to the seven girls arranged at each side and reached one to her husband. Pouring the dregs into her own cup, she sat down.
“I will be brought to childbed in September,” she said quietly. Goodman Pruitt leaned back in his chair. “Another mouth to feed.”
Nothing more was said. As Goodwife Pruitt’s apron rose over her swelling belly her friends pressed her hand and began to ply their needles, saying “Each new babe is entitled to something fresh.” For her part, Goody Pruitt dismantled another faded dress to refashion infant gowns and wee leggings.
Came one crisp September night, she was brought to bed and the eldest daughter was sent for the midwife. As Pruitt sat at the hearth watching his girls about their amusements, he gazed into the fire. Only the cry of the midwife — “Mr. Pruitt, come quick!” broke his reverie and he hurried into the bedroom.
“Cord’s around ‘is neck, come give me a hand!” Pruitt sprang to the bedside, but only one thought filled his mind: One less mouth to feed. The midwife held the blue-faced infant out toward him and he saw the thick pulsing cord wrapped twice around the tiny neck. Reaching forward, with hands as steady as logs – he found the twist… and pulled, tighter and tighter.
Only when the babe lay flaccid in the midwife’s hands did he straighten. Looking into the horror-filled eyes of his wife, he whispered “One less mouth to feed.” And he went to tell his daughters of the loss of their only brother.
At the graveside the villagers noticed that the midwife was absent. The grieving mother stood to one side surrounded by her girls; the father, on the other side, stayed only long enough to spill a handful of dust over the tiny coffin, then left.
If it seemed life returned to normal for the family and their neighbors, it did not. The mother grew silent, and she began to dream. She dreamt of her boy — but day by day he grew to the lad he should have become, this dream-son. She came to see him also in her waking hours and she talked to him. Only to him.
Her eldest daughter swore, years later, that one horrid stormy night she heard her mother say “Do unto him as was done unto you!”, as she faced only the cupboard door.
In that selfsame night, their slumbers were broken by a frantic pounding. The mother hurried to open the door, admitting some of the village men, awash in the crashing rain, carrying the cold blue body of Pruitt. They laid him on his own table and stood back, mute.
Only one of the men noticed something wrapped tight around the corpse’s neck below the collar before Widow Pruitt snatched it off and pushed it into her scrap bucket below the table.
Next day, in the confessional, the frightened witness whispered, “I swear it, Father — it was a birth-cord.”