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"Letter From a Hidden Mother" by Lori Barrett


Tis I penning this missive neath a wretchedly dark and dusty blanket.

Little Arnold rests on my lap, as I endeavor to hold him still. I am uncertain he possesses the ability to fix his gaze on the camera. I picture him atop this heavy black fabric in the shape of me, cheeks flushed and eyes out of focus, lending his face the countenance of old Mrs. Biffinblotch after a goblet of gin and lemons. I can’t see him. Or the camera. No reason for mother to be in the photograph.

You must be wondering how I can write as I remain still for nearly two minutes while the tintype is produced. I saw most of you at the traveling medicine show. If you can believe snake oil is a cure for lumbago and rheumatism, you can believe I’m writing.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by Lytton’s suggestion that I sit under a blanket and hold little Arnold. When we were courting, he once asked me to duck down in the carriage while he waved to passing maidens in the street. “Twas but a jest, of course,” he said after my sister chastised him. After she noticed part of my skirt and petticoat hanging from the side of the carriage, flapping in the breeze.

They say a woman engaged in her proper duties has no time to write. I’m calling these moments under the blanket leisure, perhaps even recreation. I shant write anything serious. Perhaps a treatise on the domestic arts. The photographer’s mind and nature are much more serious, with his knowledge of chemistry, light and reflection. Were I to expect my small thoughts to be worth the ink I’m using, I could be considered utterly selfish. And I’m not selfish. My udders are, however. They’re demanding attention. It’s about time for Arnold to nurse.

Little Arnold is an unruly babe. Between the blanket and his gown, it’s difficult to hold his squirming legs. And his aroma! As the philosopher Karl Marx said, all that is solid melts into air. The digestive effusions of rutabagas under this blanket are making me so vexed my eyes are watering. It’s not just him, gentle readers. I ate the rutabagas as well.

He looks like a doll in his gown. He won’t be in breeches until the age of reason. By which I mean able to visit the privy on his own. Once in breeches, Arnold can pose for a tintype with his father. Without a blanket. I may venture to say I look forward to the day. Lytton rarely shampoos his hair or beard. Just last week he explained to me how to make stewed plover more tender and a morsel of said plover fell from his beard. Due to his embarrassment, I decided not to ask how a man who’s never made stew can provide a wordy explanation of the process.

By the by, I must take my leave. If I don’t feed little Arnold soon, the pressure in my breasts shall become unbearable. I must be brave and flip this blanket aside.

Lori Barrett (she/her) lives and writes in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Wall Street Journal, Barrelhouse, Citron Review, Laurel Review, Peatsmoke Journal, and Middle House Review, where she was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020. She serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

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