Art by Li-Ya Wen

Labor of Love

A fantastical short story about over consumption and being a new mother.


A pocket full of posies 

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down

Your grandmother always said, “Love hurts.” 

I never really knew what that meant until I met you. Until I listened to your little heartbeat and had you kick so hard I felt it in my chest. I don’t mind the scars you’ll leave on my swollen stomach or the aches in my lower back. My baby girl, you’re all I’ll ever need. And when you’re born, I’ll have something to die for.

I pass cans of tomato soup and cola bottles placed in perfect rows like a Warhol print. This department store is always crowded with customers, all frantic and fleeting, who come to buy their material dreams. Please come again. This is the beating heart of our beautiful country, a landmark of our American ambition, and we can’t get enough.

I push my shopping cart on a gleaming linoleum floor, through over-air-conditioned air, down a serpentine path of never-ending aisles stocked with never-ending stuff. Fluorescent lights shine down like spotlights. Radio plays on overhead speakers like a quiet soundtrack. Brilliantly colored sale stickers make rainbows in my peripherals. New low prices. It’s everything you could need and all so sweetly cheap. Candies and computers, carcasses and carpets, cribs and canes, cradle to grave. God knows I’ll live and die in this pretty little paradise.

There’s a new shipment coming in. A kid is stacking boxes of bright white diapers, one atop the other, in a meticulous polyhedral display. Though with all the new babies, they’ll all be gone by afternoon, and the kid will have to start again. I quickly grab a pack for myself.

In the aisle over, they have discount headstones and caskets on sale. I remember gazing at the granite and running my fingers along the thin gray lines of the marble when your grandfather passed. Your grandmother wanted a proper burial, but there’s only so much space in the ground. That’s probably why they put the shovels on sale. 

I unfurl a list of items to find to get the world ready for your birth A bottle of bleach to clean up the messes, a sponge for getting the stains out, a bib to catch what splatters, a stroller for easy transport, and a glimmering twelve inch steel blade to chop things into smaller pieces. One stop shop. Hope to see you soon. I load everything into the stroller, venture into the warm spring air, and head towards your grandmother’s house to finish my preparations.

Outside, the streets are flooded. Pedestrians move in steady waves, washing over intersections. Cars inch forward in impatient gridlock. A chorus of horns. Masses of mothers carry babies and small children down sidewalks. A choir of cries. Crowds repeatedly crash into each other. Swarms of sweaty-limbed people make for tepid and humid air. There are too many people in this world. I push through the chaos.

Towering above is a mosaic of billboards that make catchy promises. When you’re born, I’ll hum their slogans to you like a nursery rhyme. After all, jingles are merely lullabies that lure us towards a blissful slumber and the American dream. And what a beautiful place that is to be.

Plastic peonies look to be in full bloom in front of the local daycare. I used to take your brother here. He loved watering those plastic peonies, water drops dripping off the petals and pooling in the rubber mulch. He’d check on them, day after day, give them names, and build makeshift twig shelters to shield them during long weeks of pouring rain. He gave so much love to those little pieces of plastic. What a stupid child. 

I marvel at the stroller of one of the mothers leaving the daycare. Adjustable leather handles, suede lining, and sterling accents with a newborn cushioned under a cashmere quilt in the center. What a caring mother. I’ve dreamt of purchasing that exact stroller imagined how beautiful I’d look strutting around the neighborhood with you in it. I push our rickety stroller forward. I only want the best for you, my baby girl. And soon, you’ll have it, I promise. 

As evening falls, streetlights sparkle like little suns over a turbulent mob. Gorgeous glowing stores stand on dirty streets not far from a landfill. And the smell is unmistakable.

I gag long before the incinerators are in sight, the stench of burning and rot hanging in the heat. It intermingles with the smell of frying meat. Black smoke slithers through the sky, leaving trails of falling ashes that choke the surrounding air. Piles of trash climb to the clouds. Decaying debris, rotting rejects, garbage caked with grease. Littered with vermin and enough flies to make it look like night. This is where old things go to die.

And I don’t dislike it. Disintegrate the decomposing heaps that accrete. Evaporate the expendable. Rise as smoke to the heavens because where else would they go? There’s only so much space, only space for our prettiest things. The cost of cheap is worth it. Because there’s always an upgrade, a shinier, newborn innovation. And I like new things.

People stand with black trash bags in snaking lines down curving streets. I remember standing in a line just like this one a few years ago when I cleared out your grandfather’s apartment. He died the day your late brother was born. I remember for a moment, everything was so quiet. So still. The light behind his eyes went out like birthday candles. I held my newborn child in one arm, and my dying father’s head in the other. I could see the fear in his eyes. He didn’t want to die. I watched his slowing breath rise and fall until he exhaled for the last time. His pale figure almost looked peaceful. Then his body was swiftly slid into a black body bag, and hauled out of the apartment. And then your brother. He was such a beautiful baby. His head, too big for his body, tiny feet, and chunky little legs. Bright, smiling, sprightly and full of life. And then he wasn’t. He died a few years after your grandfather. A mother’s hardest burden is knowing when to let her children go. Spread your wings and fly away. He had his head to the floor like he was praying. Cracked skull halo. When he was born, I never thought it would happen that way. He’d been such a beautiful baby, but grew into such a frail boy. I promise there’s nothing I could have done differently. I swear I’m not to blame! I held my struggling boy in my arms and sang him to sleep. And that day, lullabies and eulogies sounded the same.

Art by Li-Ya Wen

The king has sent his daughter 

To fetch a pail of water

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down

I swear it wasn’t my fault. I swear I’m a good mother! What was I supposed to do? He died, but that’s part of the cycle of life. I promise he barely cried. I hug my belly to soothe the pain from kicking. My baby, don’t worry. You’ll never end up like your brother. Besides, I always wanted a girl.

I turn the corner onto your grandmother’s street and begin preparing for what comes next. I snap the bib onto my neck, take the knife in hand, and compose myself to expedite a god-given rhythm. My baby girl, I love you more than life. I would do anything for you. Out with the old, in with the new. This is how I make space for you. Hush, don’t you worry, baby. You see, people, really, are just a commodity. We’re brand new, and then all of a sudden aged, and die to make room for the latest model. Only death can counterbalance our production. Replacement is a natural cycle, and you are the new beginning. The beaming, young, golden child. My baby girl, you are my everything, and this is my labor of love.

I arrive at the entrance. The property is dying of old age just like your grandmother. A falling white picket fence, overgrown grass, a crumbling house, an old stone path. A dying garden surrounds the house, but wilting posies don’t ward off destiny. I’ll bring this cycle full circle.

I pound on the door. Clench my fists, fingernails drawing blood from my palm, a single bead of sweat adorning my forehead. I feel dressed for the occasion. I knock harder. I’ve never liked doing chores, but your grandmother said I should learn to roll up my sleeves and do them anyway. She finally opens the door, and she’s already a ghost. Her skin, a peeling coat over shattered glass bones. I greet her with a shining smile as fear creeps across her face. I wonder if she loved me like I love my baby girl. Your grandmother always said love hurts.

I back her into the house, corner her in the kitchen. The brand-new shimmering steel knife reflects light onto her shaking frame. And it’s all so easy. My baby girl, it’s all so picturesque. I close the space between us, reach towards her like I’m Adam and this is a Michelangelo painting. She’s going to give me life. And as she lets out one final shriek through yellowing teeth, I plunge the knife bone-deep. She breathes out. She bleeds out. Her blood betrays her. Falls to the ground and bears a crimson crown. One final slash. It’s done in a flash. I cradle my stomach and whisper a lullaby. Hush honey, don’t you think about your grandmother’s dead body. 

The wedding bells are ringing 

The boys and girls are singing 

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down


I sit in the aftermath, and clean up the mess scrubbing the blood out of the neon shag rug and cracked television set. I mop over the mustard tiles, sponge the peeling, floral wallpaper, and toss the splintered porcelain. Scrunching my nose, I use dots of bleach to wipe away the last specks of red. Feeling a deep sense of satisfaction at the spotless floor, I remove the soiled bib, kill the lights, and gather everything into the black bag to be loaded into the stroller. All done. I take out the trash.

I drag it behind me, and it’s so heavy it skids across the street as I head back to the landfill. The scraping sounds like a broken record. The sun is setting. I walk into the future towards the sky’s multicolored glory. So wide. So expansive. And I feel like anything is possible. My baby girl, you’ll love it. There’s finally room for the both of us. It’s all yours. The soil, the sea, the sky and its stars. You’re the light of my life. All mine. And I’d do anything for you.

I haul my heavy load down several more city blocks, staining the sidewalk with streaks of red, decorating the streets with crimson chalk art. I exhale a sigh of relief as I reach the road’s end and arrive at the incinerator.

A celebration of life unfolds at the landfill. Thousands of glowing pregnant women and new mothers assemble in a congregation. White teeth gleaming. The crowd pregnant with excitement and anticipation. They hold black trash bags, and wait their turn to throw their junk away. A bell reverberates through the air and another woman dumps waste into the incinerator. The wedding bells are ringing. And the whole crowd cheers.

Children as pretty and pristine as plastic flowers hold hands in a circle around the landfill. They lie down and turn freshly fallen ashes to snow angels. Cloud-gaze at the smoke. Throw old bones over the hill like hopscotch stones. They climb over piles of trash like a playground. The pregnant women hold their round stomachs, grinning. And brand new babies cry all around. The boys and girls are singing.

Soon, your grandmother will join your grandfather and brother. Rise like smoke to the heavens because where else would they go? There’s not enough space. They were all disappointingly outdated anyways. I did them a favor! Put them out of their monotonous misery. I made their aging, ailing bodies angels. Traded rot for radiance, garbage for gold, I gave their expired souls salvation. These days, killing and creating are one in the same. We found a way to preserve our production. The solution to our modern Malthusian prophecy. Sacrificial lambs for this American dream.

And it’s time. The bell rings through the sky. I stand first in line. Toss the trash as far as I can into the raging fire. It grows as mightily as a conflagration reaching out to the shimmering stars. And isn’t it wonderful! Her body burns in a brilliant blaze and I smile. Ashes ashes. We all fall down. The flames illuminate our glorious future. My baby girl, it’s here. All shiny and new. And you are worth everything.