“Oakland Mothers, Oakland Wives” by Corey Quinlan Taylor is the First Place-winning story in the horror category of the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the 13th Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Taylor’s winning entry.
Oakland Mothers, Oakland Wives by Corey Quinlan Taylor
I gave birth to my husband Morgan in 1863, five months after he died during the Battle of Gettysburg. The babe I held emerged as a vessel of my husband’s soul. He had told me this would occur, in the last letter he wrote, before getting shot in the leg during Pickett’s Charge. The .58 caliber bullet didn’t kill him; the infection and fever did.
Days after his delivery, my husband had no inclination to cry as most babies would. His smiles gave me solace. Though incapable of speech, his eyes expressed volumes to me. His hands, so soft and pink, could not hold a quill pen. I just assumed what his needs were. I would sit in the parlor of our home in Doylestown, with him on my lap and allowed him to see the letters and newspapers as I read them. Seeking his counsel in the form of yes and no questions, with a nod or shake of his head to guide me.
A learned man, fluent in German and Latin, he had no need for schooling during his years as a boy. He had no patience for children, though he was just as small. I grew accustomed to him recalling our courtship, or his expressions of consternation when gentlemen from our local church attempted to court me. I still held my youth and my husband had made sound financial investments. Like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, I kept the suitors at bay. Mr. Oakland was the only husband I ever had.
When he became capable of full speech, he pleaded that I keep his resurrection a secret. I asked if this ever occurred before.
“Yes. Many times.”
I asked if he always returned as a boy.
“I’ve had a woman’s form during several lifetimes. And if you’re wondering, I have dabbled in miscegenation. I didn’t live long as a mulatto – at least one of me didn’t.”
I asked if he ever had siblings.
“Yes, they were all me. We were one, minds in unison; experiencing multiple settings, multiple events, multiple encounters. Though we could never be more than three siblings of one mother or the connection would drift, become diluted. It’s madness: seeing a fourth son or daughter, and him or her completely shut down, isolated, unconnected, mentally gone. A freak. We took care of it.”
I asked my husband to explain.
“We took care of it; I will say no more.”
With the years passing, he became a man. He kept our love strong. We were discreet.
“I must take a bride, to live in a new form,” he said. “I cannot sire a child through you, my love. It’s forbidden.”
I understood; duty dictated that I’d give aid to his renewal. I invited local girls from established families for tea. Some were sweet enough, but not very savvy. I needed a young lady capable of protecting my husband when he became an infant again. There’s much horror during those months and years, of having an adult’s mind, though incapable of speech, incapable of walking, even feeding oneself. Like being buried alive in a beautiful coffin.
In 1886, my husband married a young lady named Beatrice – three years his senior, though that could not be helped. She was committed, intelligent, and dutiful. However, I decided to not tell her about my husband. Such things can never be explained between Oakland wives, they can only be experienced.
My experience? I love my husband. He died, then returned. I grew old. Now I sit on my deathbed: blind, weak. He and Beatrice visit from time to time. I still miss his face.
1927: Beatrice Oakland
We were never like those other people. The reserved people. The timid people. The morally obsessed people. It became pathology, really. The way husbands and wives declared before the world how righteous and cautious and unassuming they were, while hissing under fans and powdered cheeks about the shortcomings of others. I’m not sure who were worse, the wives of the pastors or the wives of the town councilmen. Authority has a way of tainting one’s spirit.
Mr. Oakland and I would attend picnics, recitals, and summer socials. From my periphery I could see eager lips whispering: how we held hands, or how he kissed me in tender ways unacceptable for most. My appearance often provoked their ire. Others wore their hair up with clasps and pins; I wore mine short. Others chose corsets and restrictive dresses in July; I wore blouses and pants. While most wives discussed cooking, sewing, and children, I joined my husband and the other men on the topics of politics, science, and commerce.
I fancied myself an amateur ornithologist, and I would regale summer social husbands with my mourning dove calls. I could also perform a raven’s cry, or that of a northern cardinal. The applause I received made Mr. Oakland smile. Even when the mayor’s wife, Agnes Johns, took it upon herself to ask my husband if he approved of such behavior, my beloved replied, “sunbeams don’t need approval to shine.”
The only time Mr. Oakland became insistent was on the matter of children. I understood when his mother invited me over for tea; it was with the possibility of becoming a bride for her son. I always found it odd that when he showed me affection she held an expression of resignation and duty, instead of joy. I chalked it up to a mother’s love, at first. Years later, I finally understood. I sobbed before Elizabeth, as she lay on her deathbed. She truly loved her husband, even when bound in the body of her son.
Years before that, he fascinated me. As he courted me, I grew to appreciate him … as a friend. My heart could not produce more. But in the most unusual way, I think he understood. And he began, almost intuitively, to treat me as an equal. To love me with a woman’s heart, and not a man’s assertion. With that, I accepted his proposal and we became as one. I even gave birth to his son and daughter. Twins.
The acts of an Oakland can rarely be explained without being witnessed. He wanted his son and daughter named after him, as he took on his departed father’s name: Morgan Oakland. After the first few days of their births, my son and daughter rarely cried. They spent their moments observing: the room, visitors, my actions, and hanging on every word spoken in their presence.
Mr. Oakland would ask about a neighbor who visited during his departure on a business trip. He would inquire about treatment for a bruise our daughter experienced after stumbling to the ground, or a cold our son caught from a local boy’s cough. When our children began speaking with his cadence, his mannerisms, I felt a streak of panic: my family sees the world through each other’s eyes. My five-year-old daughter had to rest my fears and inform me of her true self.
“I’m Morgan; we all are, Beatrice.”
I attended church, during my youth. In my realization of my husband and children, I recalled the biblical verse of Mark: the fifth chapter and the ninth verse, “And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion for we are many.’”
In this case, I was not in the company of a New Testament demon. My family wasn’t – isn’t evil. They’re different forms, ages, and genders, all of the same spirit or personality.
My little girl pled to me, tearful, not to tell anyone. She trembled in my arms.
Why would I? It was 1896; people hadn’t been burned at the stake for hundreds of years, but I understood all the same. Sanitariums were just as horrific as the fires of inquisitors. And having one Oakland bound and hospitalized for insanity would become a prison for the other two – or how many more there are in the world.
So I acquiesced and raised our children – my husband.
On occasion, I needed a respite from the ambiguity of identity and familial roles. I knew a teacher, just outside of town, named Joan: a wonderful friend and a patient listener. I told her everything except our family’s secret, which still lifted such a weight from my heart.
Oaklands, being as they are, found out about my visits. Mr. Oakland insisted on having Joan join us for Sunday dinners, which soon included Friday dinners, and Saturdays as well. He never asked about my time with Joan. He never asked me to define my relationship with Joan. Perhaps it was his way of permitting my true self and maybe thanking me for never pushing back on having children, getting married to him, being courted. His mother – his wife before – was intuitive enough to know my heart. That didn’t matter, as long as I was strong willed.
Mr. Oakland died while reading the evening newspaper in 1918. An article about the Great War worked him into a rage. He was 55; our doctor said he had a heart attack. Our children experienced that sensation of death as well, through the emotional trauma. It took weeks to console my daughter, but my son Morgan was a 27-year-old lieutenant, stationed in Europe. Beyond my comfort and assurance.
Mr. Oakland left a stipend to hire Joan as an assistant in our Doylestown mansion. At least that was the official justification. Even in death, he understood me. And I continued to raise Morgan the best I could, despite her brother’s slaughter in a muddied trench in France. We are still a family, smashed and reassembled. We are whole.
1943: Isabelle Oakland
Some listen to American jazz for entertainment. The Résistance listens for messages about the Nazi officers, fuel deliveries, downed Allied pilots, and where to lay explosives for SS patrols. Each artist represents a scenario, each song a call for action. Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Jelly Roll Morton, Billie Holiday, and others, are like a spectrum of activities. Magnifying a mood, telling a story.
What better vehicle to convey our message to French brothers and sisters in arms. The idea and the albums belong to my son, Morgan Yves Oakland.
Spies and collaborators are never able to break our code … if one could call it that. Nor are they able to identify which radio station, at least among the pirated stations, is sending the information.
At first, I believed he had his father’s spirit – figuratively. For it’s rare to see creativity and toughness live harmoniously within a soldier, especially one from The Great War. I remember first meeting his father at a piano bar in 1918, so skinny in his brown uniform. His charisma filled in spaces his muscles could not. Yet, I fell in love and we shared much in our brief year and a half.
These memories had provided me peace when I gave birth to our son, not long after his father was killed in action. And then fear and disgust festered within me when I understood the truth. A truth I could not even confess to our village priest. Ironically, it was the Nazis that brought us together, again. In our darkest times, I could not deny my son.
Though we were poor, his other self – an American cousin of great kindness wired us funds, which we used to buy weapons. She even mailed us albums, to find some respite.
One night, while hiding from the Vichy police, Morgan had the idea about how Rhapsody in Blue, could be a musical piece to signal an attack. At first our friends considered it impossible, but someone in the upper echelons of the Maquis thought it was a superb idea. We just needed radio equipment, and two trucks to broadcast.
“Can you telegram your … cousin-self to send us the funds, Morgan?” I had asked.
My beloved’s soul spoke through my son, “No need, ma petite, she sees our conversation through my eyes. I am Oakland.”
Our strategy gained us many triumphs: officers killed, soldiers rescued, and more importantly information sent to the British and Americans. I was so proud of my boy, though I knew with the look he gave me; this was not his first war. Wisdom and innocence cannot inhabit the same heart.
One evening while broadcasting Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday, a patrol had found one of our trucks – Morgan manned the vehicle. The scuffle and arrest could be heard over the radio. The brutes didn’t even have the courtesy to permit such a beautiful song to finish.
My son knew what would happen if he were arrested. He chose to detonate the potato masher on one of the soldiers’ belts. I lost my husband twice, but I lacked the moral courage to tell him I loved him, because of old taboos preached by old men.
And now I play the songs my boy once played. He, in the form of his female American cousin, sends fewer letters, but still wires cash through the Red Cross or missionary groups beyond the suspicions of the Vichy and the Nazis.
France will find liberty once again, and if possible, I would like to visit and embrace this cousin. Just to reunite once more with the son and husband I lost. I, too, bore a strange fruit.
1986: Morgan Kate Oakland
My mother was born a twin in 1891; she gave birth to me in 1921, though out of wedlock. Illegitimate acts occur for legitimate reasons. In my case, for survival and to prevent our … my family fortune from falling into the hands of some suitor unsuited for the burden of responsibilities that come in sharing my history, my state of mind, or the synecdoche nature of what it means to be an Oakland.
Oh, I’ve been a woman before – multiple times. But in different centuries, consequences occurred from taking on some sympathetic husband with good intentions, or a spouse compelled to dominate my thinking, my opinions, and my sensibilities. Each time, whether for the best or not, we – I – we lost control.
Having more than three children, with the fourth or fifth completely lost to my pan-cerebral thought and being. Numb to us. Abominations. They would have been empty vessels, devoid of senses. Devoid of a mind – completely. With their brainstems providing barely enough motivation to wail for food and drag across the floor like a crippled pup.
I can tolerate much, but not disconnected Oaklands. I took no joy in correcting those errors. Yes, I lied each time. If a baby didn’t catch consumption, she or he would be exposed to plague, or smallpox, or perhaps they turned the wrong way in their crib and could not breath. Afterwards, I would claim that my womb could bear no more. Few men truly understand a woman’s biology, so they would acquiesce.
That is, until those cold nights; those nights of heavy drink and boredom. When a man attempts to treat a wife like someone less than the person he committed vows to during the wedding ceremony. I’ve been a warrior and a soldier in enough men’s bodies across the centuries to easily subdue a drunkard husband while I reside in a woman’s body. The first time results in a bruise and a warning. The second time, I explain to a village constable how my departed husband fell and struck his skull on a stone stair. I will not be subjugated in any form. I am Oakland.
After America’s war with the Axis Powers, I felt it best to follow my departed mother’s path and bring children into this world. I had a cousin and aunt in France, resistance fighters, but they were both eventually killed. I also have a Negro extended cousin, from an Oakland branch going back more than a century ago. But in the mid-20th century, his autonomy was limited; significantly more than this brunette white woman in Pennsylvania. In my mind and heart, I live his life to this day, as he simultaneously lives mine. I know what I speak of, completely.
So I needed a male heir – a vessel. I asked a loyal friend, Melvin, to drive me to a summer resort in the Adirondacks. We purchased a room, and spent the week watching married couples, or families with smart, strong sons. Young men of good breeding.
I would spend my time reading by the lakes in my bathing suit, or taking sailing tutorials in dinghies with tall bright sails. Several men approached me on the sly, beyond the eyes of their wives or attentive mothers. We’d talk news, politics, and literature: some were exceptionally dull, while others were arrogant. I noticed a somber man, nursing his bourbon on the rocks, for an hour or so each afternoon. He noticed me noticing him, yet remained. I approached. His name was George.
He was a professor before the war, and afterward, he felt his nerves exposed. A draining sensation, which alienated him from his wife and daughter. I understood. We talked for hours.
“Life is a series of moments, sometimes they can last seventy years and other times they can last a few wonderful hours. Just because the good moments are fleeting doesn’t mean it’s wrong to deny ourselves. Share a moment with me, George. Only a moment.”
The following day, Melvin drove me back to Pennsylvania. On March 9th, 1946 Morgan George Oakland was born. A Morgan Oakland can give birth to another Morgan Oakland, the pan-cerebral links are still maintained. However, a Morgan Oakland should never have sex with a Morgan Oakland, and then produce offspring. … Why? Because I fear the consequences. In my nearly 800 years of existence, there are levels of experimentation in human husbandry that even I would prefer to avoid.
Having a son in the house brought a new era of lively activities and friends. My mother Beatrice and her friend Joan were a bit more insular, for understandable reasons. But as Morgan George entered his teen years, he and his friends would spend afternoons on the veranda, listening to rock and roll albums and drinking bottles of chilled Coke.
I must say, I did enjoy those moments: peaceful, simple. I’ve died on battlefields of mud and vomit; I’ve owned men and forced myself on women purchased as my property. I’ve fled provinces for fear of being burned as a witch, or a heretic, or a protestant, or at least a half dozen excuses screamed by mankind. I’ve even killed my children to spare them pain.
My odyssey began as a 12th century Crusader who gained eternal life after finding forbidden holy men in Jerusalem, then dying in the Battle of Azaz, pissing in my own chainmail as I spoke the holy words and drank the elixir to renew my soul. And in a cruel joke, my soul became a vine wrapped around a long host of flesh. My ancestors, as shells for my exploitation. And in 1961, I was making sandwiches for high school students; dancing in their socks, on my porch, to Chubby Checker. It was a fun life. Too bad it wouldn’t last. A couple of years later, my boy received a college deferment, thus avoiding Vietnam; yet, found another war – Civil Rights, taking him to Southern states that were just as foreign to him as Southeast Asia. If anything, Oaklands are never innocent to the world.
2016: Morgan Terrell Oakland
I sit through the commencement ceremony, listening to our university’s president. He’s about to introduce Barack Obama; everyone is eager to hear this president’s advice on life in the real world. It’s remarkable to see so much change. Sixty years ago, I wouldn’t even have had access to a lunch counter in a Woolworth’s, or equal access to a white man’s bathroom. Now we have this man as our nation’s leader. I smile.
Among the audience in the graduate student commencement, I see me in the form of Morgan George Oakland, a man in his late seventies with gray eyes and trimmed white hair. I also see me in the form of Morgan Samantha Oakland, my mother and my brother Morgan Robert. Seeing so much from numerous perspectives is a treasure that I never take for granted. It’ll be even more helpful when I begin my residency in New York.
I do wonder if there’ll ever be a day when I decide to stop. No more children who aren’t really children but a means of passage. No more strained relationships defining what it means to love beyond the constraints of the physical. It’s just my decision and technically not just mine. At any given moment, my soul rests in five to twelve bodies across the planet. For the restriction of births are relevant only per mother – three, no more. But the number of families hovers somewhere around a dozen or less. That’s a lot of heartache to end myself … to end us, all at once. So I will stay, and try to become a better person in each incarnation. White, black, brown, or yellow; male or female, American or other; I and we are Oakland.