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I Never

I’ve never harmed a living creature. I’ve never tied thread to a butterfly’s wings or pulled a daddy longlegs’ center from his wriggling legs.

Thirty years ago, Ma gave birth to me on a rotting cloth cot strung up in a leaking tar paper shack in the Tennessee hill country. Two were born on our hill that night under a thunderstorm that bent trees to the ground as it rolled west from Mt. Juliet. There was only one midwife this far west from Lebanon and she didn’t come our way. She was busy with the Hart’s baby. They were her cousins. We were no relation.

My pa delivered me. Pa’s hands were over big for the task, and he panicked when he felt my ma slipping away. His fingers pressed into my soft skull like pincers to get me out fast so he could see to her. Eight fingerprints hide in my hair, but nothing covers the two sunken troughs his thumbs stamped into my forehead.

Ma named me John. Pa always felt more guilty than ashamed of me. We had a bond. He’d shaped my head. That’s why he left the truck to me instead of his brother Hap.

I loved the truck and going off by myself on the rutted dirt roads and feeling the horsepower under the seat. I loved seeing the bald cypress with their knobby knees protruding above the brownish-gray water and the black walnut with their drooping leaves and furrowed bark. I liked breathing the sweet smell of wet swamp grass and lily pads and every now and again catching a glimpse of a slithering alligator.

The drive that changed my life forever came on a humid, stale summer day when I drove through a swamp noisy with insects. I’d just seen a blue grosbeak launch up from the cattails when I saw a still, pale form lying by the side of the road.

This is the beginning of a short story, the heart of which “After Dinner Conversation” published in July 2022