The Abortion Clinic for People Caught in Folk Tales

Pauline Holdsworth


Conception from wind. That was my first. She was 17, thin wrists, flabbergasted eyes. When she told me, I half-believed her. She looked like she’d swallowed a gust of wind that got infected. But I was 26, just out of residency, a fresh coat of cynicism slapped on me. When she swore she’d never touched a man, I settled back into my skepticism. I knew how wind worked. I knew how teenagers worked.

But after the abortion, I swear I saw her body deflate. Her exhale was joyous, total. That night I woke up to the wind hammering at my windows, an invisible giant trying to wrench my house from the ground. In the morning I buttoned my shirt carefully and looked twice before I crossed the street. I couldn’t quite trust that sidewalks were sidewalks anymore. Blue could be lemons. Left could be Hades. Bodies could be lessons. For who, I wasn’t sure.

Conception from smelling bonedust. They came to me shaken, their cheeks sunken, glancing back over their left shoulder. For weeks, they said, their apartment had smelled like death. They cleaned out the fridge, scrubbed the mold they’d let creep up the grout. But then they met their ex for coffee, to hand over the last of his belongings, and his smile was too wide. He left chalky fingerprints on the sleek walnut table. They came back from the bathroom to a fine layer of dust floating on their coffee. That night they started to throw up. They dreamed only of dead and dying things. “I feel like he made me into a coffin,” they said. After they took the first pill I slipped out of the clinic and sat with them until the sky opened. We waited for the air to clear their nostrils, for the first inhale that tasted like spring.

Conception from eating peppercorn. A grad student, determined to be rational. She came with a notebook. “I want to know how to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said, ready to list the foods she should never eat. I flipped back through my patient notes. Conception from eating rose. Conception from eating spinach. Conception from eating mango. Conception from eating watercress. She was already so skinny. “Just come back,” I told her, “if you need me.”

Conception from plucking flowers. She was three months out from her second C-section, still wincing when she sat. Beauty and the Beast was her daughter’s favorite story, but she thought clipping a lilac from her own garden wouldn’t hurt. “I should have left the flowers where they were,” she said. I told her I had seen a patient the week before who proved the world was more cunning than that. Conception from smelling flowers. When a story decided to grab hold of you, to make you a punishment, a vessel, a parable, there was very little you could do. Except for this.

A week after her appointment, she brought me a clipping of lilac.

Conception from drinking holy water. At first he thought it was a gift. The pastor who rebaptized him swore this was the best way for him to get pregnant. “You won’t even have to stop taking testosterone,” the pastor said. “God’s love is that powerful.” But then the scans came back. The pastor insisted this was God’s will, that he had to let dust turn back to dust inside him. I bent my head while he prayed before the abortion. I promised him this was another kind of sacrament.

Conception from fruit thrown against the breast. When it finally happens to me I am not surprised. Every day I squeeze past people who want to make me the moral of the story. “See,” they want to tell their children, “see what happens to people who do this.” I have always known I am vulnerable. Conception from spittle. Conception from wish. Conception from blood. Conception from the hiss of a cobra.

When it is my turn I find my colleague in the kitchen and she holds my hand. For years I have hacked away the stories sprouting in other people’s bodies, eager to make them fertile ground. Now my colleague smiles at me through a haze of green. Tendrils of stories wrap around my throat. As I lie down on the examination table, I tell myself what I have told my patients. A story can be infiltrated. An ending can mean anything. They squeeze their eyes shut, half-believing. A body is just a body, I insist. A pen is just a pen. Here. I give them one, so they have something real to hang on to, something sharp as a scythe. Cut your way out. 


Pauline Holdsworth is a writer and public radio producer who grew up in central Pennsylvania and now lives in Toronto, Canada. Her fiction has appeared in Bat City Review, Necessary Fiction, The Forge, and elsewhere. Her work has been shortlisted for The Masters Review 2021 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers and longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50. This story was inspired by the pregnancy-related motifs in Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature.