Skip to main content

Dirty Little Secrets

Marsha Brantley of Cleveland , Tenn., took second place in The 8th-Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition.

Daddy always said that seeing a crow first thing in the morning was bad luck. The morning Gladys Hodge came to our house; the power lines were full of crows.

The sun rose above the kudzu covered trees as I swept the house and chased the dust out the front door and across the porch with the broom. When I
looked up, there she was waddling down the dirt road in front of our house.
Her big belly pushed at the fabric of her faded dress and caused gaps
between the buttons. In one hand she carried a brown paper bag and I watched
as she dipped her free hand into it. She brought the contents out in a four
finger pinch, tipped her head back and sifted it into her mouth. It reminded
me of the way Mama sifted salt onto a ham when she cured it. What Gladys had
in her hand wasn’t salt though, it was dirt.

Gladys Hodge was my age and so pregnant she looked like she could blow at any minute. The scuttlebutt around the Holler was that the baby probably belonged to one of her older brothers. Her Mama died years ago and she was the only girl. Gladys and me were both sixteen.

I stood on the porch and watched her dip her hand back into the bag. Her eyes darted to the side and met mine. She stopped and gave me a nod as her tongue slipped through her lips and made a muddy path around her mouth.

Hi, she said. When she spoke, I saw that her teeth and the inside of her lips were black from the dirt.

I waved because you don’t want any of the Hodges mad at you.

She picked back up waddling down the road, dipping into her dirt bag. I turned to go inside when I heard a throaty moan. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Gladys standing there in a half-squat, hands on her knees, chin down.
Her hunkered form stayed that way for a few seconds before straightening back up. She sucked in a deep breath, put her hands on her lower back and shuffled into our yard.

I think somethings wrong, she said. The dirt had been washed off of her teeth, but it stayed in the spaces between them and crusted on her lips. I think this baby might be coming.

Oh. Well, come on in, I guess. I flattened my back against the open door and let her walk past me into the house and told her to have a seat while I went to get Mama.

Out in the barn, I found Mama tending to a new calf and told her Gladys was in the house moaning that she thought the baby was coming.

Mama tightened her lips, shook her head and said, Good lord. Come on, you might as well find out how to birth a baby now as later. She patted the calf and wiped her hands on a towel. Maybe seeing this will make you want to wait about having any babies till you’re old enough.

I really didn’t want anything to do with it, but Mama wasn’t asking, she was telling.

Inside, we found Gladys sprawled out on the threadbare couch, one arm over her forehead the other hanging off the side.

Is she dead? I whispered.

No, Mama said. Help me get her into your bed.

My bed?

Come on, Gladys, honey. Lets get you into May Ann’s bed.

I didn’t much like the idea of her having a baby in my bed, but Mama didn’t leave me any room to argue. I hooked her under one of her shoulders and Mama hooked her under the other, and we took her to my room.

We lowered her onto the bed and Mama put her hand on Gladys forehead. How long you been having these pains?

Just started.

Mama rummaged around in the trunk at the end of my bed and pulled out an old nightgown. Here, Gladys, put this on. May Ann, come with me to gather up supplies.

I followed Mama from the room.

She’s so young and slight in build, it’s likely to be a hard birth for her, Mama said. A heavy sigh passed through her lips. She’s been eating dirt I see. That child’s been forced to eat dirt all her life in one way or the other. Mama put her finger on her chin the way she always did when she was making a list in her head. May Ann, go get some scissors and put them under the mattress, and then tie a knot in the corner of the sheet.

Why, Mama?

The scissors will help cut the pain and tying a knot in the sheet will help tie it off. Mama scurried around the kitchen gathering pans and cloths. This girls going to need all the help she can get. Now, go on, do as I say.

Gladys bellowed out in pain. I opened the drawer and pulled the scissors out. Gladys squirmed around on the bed. Her fists clutched at the bed sheets and tears rolled from her closed eyes. She looked miserable.

I slipped to the end of the bed and slid the scissors under the mattress, and then I tied a knot in the corner of the sheet just like Mama said.

Oh, it’s coming! Gladys screamed. It hurts; get this baby out of me!

Tears sprang to my eyes and my insides pinched up.

It’s okay, Gladys. I put my hand on her sweaty forehead.

Don’t touch me!

I jerked my hand back as Mama hurried into the room.

Gladys, Mama said in the same soft voice she used when one of us younguns was sick. Try to relax and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. It’ll help.

I made a mental note so I would already know that if I ever had a baby.

Gladys looked at Mama through wild eyes, but did what she said.

We took turns wiping her forehead and doing what we could for the pain. I wondered when the scissors and the knot in the sheet would start working.

Gladys moaned and wailed off and on all day. Mama left me with her from time to time while she tended to things around the house. Once, when Gladys was between contractions, I asked her, Are you happy about having a baby?


I didn’t ask her anything else.

Afternoon faded into evening and the contractions started coming faster. I brought an empty pan to the kitchen to refill with water and sat down at the table with Mama, exhausted.

Mama, I don’t ever want a baby. Gladys says she’s not happy about having hers.

Mama patted my arm and smiled. It’ll be different for you.

Gladys screamed and Mama and me hurried into the room together. Mama took a look under Gladys gown and said, Good lord, this baby’s coming right now.

May Ann, hand me some clean towels quick.

I gathered a pile of towels and handed them to Mama. Gladys propped her legs up and started straining. My heartbeat pounded in my ears.

The two of them worked together till that little girl was born. Mama swiped a finger through her mouth, held her upside down by her tiny ankles and gave her a swat. Boy, did she wail.

Mama wrapped her in a towel and laid her on Gladys stomach.

I don’t want her, you keep her, Gladys said. Something bad will come of her if I take her.

Gladys Hodge, you did not just say that you don’t want your own baby, Mama said.

I did say it. You keep her.

May Ann, take these towels and start washing them, Mama said.

I was glad to get out of there.

Mama stayed and talked to Gladys for a long time. When she came out of my room, she went into the kitchen without saying a word and fried up some eggs and bacon.

Gladys was sitting up in bed nursing the baby when I took the food to her.
She slapped at the tears running down her face.

What are you going to name her?

Gladys shrugged. Pearl, I reckon.

My mind flashed on a Bible verse I’d memorized in Sunday school: Cast not your pearls before swine. My stomach squirmed.

When Daddy came home later that evening, Mama took a ham biscuit to the truck before he even got out and made him take Gladys home.

Gladys and the baby were both crying when they left.

We never saw Pearl again. I saw Gladys walking at dusk not long after that and followed her. A mile up the road, she stopped at a clearing, picked a handful of daisies and walked into the woods. Hiding behind an oak tree, I watched her place the daisies on a tiny pile of dirt.


Enter your bold, brilliant and brief fiction in the 9th-Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Send us your best in 1,500 words or fewer. The deadline is Dec. 1, 2008, and the entry fee is $12 a story. Mail your entry to: Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition, 700 East State St., Iola, WI 54990. For more information on the contest or to enter online, visit


The 8th-Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition attracted 6,805 entries. Judges Gina Ochsner, Debby Mayne and J.A. Konrath helped narrow the field. Finalists were judged and ranked by Writer’s Digest editors. Click below to read the top five stories (coming soon).

1 Robert Brandt, Saginaw, Mich., "The Procedure"
2 Marsha Brantley, Cleveland, Tenn., “Dirty Little Secrets”
3 Kirk Barrett, Evanston, Ill., “Sarajevo Roses”
4 Kara Graham, Lethbridge, AB, Canada, “The Last Dance”
5 Rekha Rao, Pisa, Italy, “Kite Maker”
6 Richard Holeton, Montara, Calif., “Year of the Pig”
7 Carl L. Williams, Houston, Texas, “One Last Taste Of Home”
8 Holly Current, Cincinnati, Ohio, “Burnt Offering”
9 Marsha Brubaker, Warren, Mich., “Jerry”
10 Ryan Edel, Raleigh, N.C., “My Brother the Hero”
11 Quirino Valdez Garza, Jr., Pearland, Texas, “Coyote: A Family’s Journey”
12 Hannah Rogers, Milford, Ohio, “Batman Band-Aids”
13 Alicia Stankay, Ambridge, Pa., “Reflections”
14 Grant Flint, Richmond, Calif., “Aunt Effie and the Great Depression”
15 Stephen Woodfin, Kilgore, Texas, “He Ain’t Leaving; He’s Gone”
16 Richard Goyette, Jasper, Ga., “The Dragon Hunter”
17 Rebecca LuElla Miller, Whittier, Calif., “Haj”
18 Johnny Skrabala, Richmond, Va., “Typecasting”
19 Samantha Johnson, Mililani, Hawaii, “The Child”
20 Lisa Eisenbrey, Austin, Texas, “Bob”
21 Robert Norton, Portland, Ore., “Marie’s Lovely Picture”
22 Kate Simonsen, Richmond, Va., “Employee Benefits”
23 Rebecca Benston, Springfield, Ohio, “The End”
24 Robert Couture, Boston, Mass., “To Swing”
25 William Long, State College, Pa., “On The Night That John James Shot The Dog”

NOTE: To receive a book containing the full manuscripts of the top 25 winners, send a check or money order for $6 to the 8th-Annual WD Short Short Story Collection, 700 East State St., Iola, WI 54990.

10 Tips on Covering Events as a Freelance Journalist

10 Tips on Covering Events as a Freelance Journalist

From planning ahead to staying late, Alison Hill shares 10 tips for journalists while covering events as a freelancer.

From Script

Character Studies, Writing the Immigrant Experience, and Six Adaptation Steps Before You Adapt a Book (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, navigate different character study approaches in your writing, and tracking emotional journeys.

Lora Senf: On Trusting Children With Middle Grade Fiction

Lora Senf: On Trusting Children With Middle Grade Fiction

Author Lora Senf discusses how one chilling text message led her to writing her new middle grade horror novel, The Clackity.

Katrina Leno: On Writing Around an Idea

Katrina Leno: On Writing Around an Idea

Critically acclaimed novelist Katrina Leno discusses the process of bringing her childhood memories to magical life in her new young adult novel, Sometime in Summer.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: A New Podcast Episode, "Your Story" Prompt, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our latest episode of "Writer's Digest Presents," the new "Your Story" prompt, and more!

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Here are the top live streams, podcasts, and YouTube channels as identified in the 24th Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

You might have heard the term, especially if you’re in online fandoms, but what exactly is fan fiction? Managing Editor Moriah Richard explains.

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

Short story writing can be a gateway to writing your novel—but they’re also fun and worthy stories in their own right. Here, author Dallas Woodburn shares 5 ways to use short stories to grow as a writer.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.