Valley Haggard

Names of Exotic Gods and Children

I knew I was pregnant for the first time when I found Hooker decomposing in the far pasture. I sat on a rock next to her corpse and cracked open the beer I’d stashed in my apron for the journey to find her body. Above us the sky threatened to split open, clouds gathering in their own dark herd. Hooker’s rib cage looked like exposed rafter beams in a high ceilinged barn. Surrounded by wildflowers and aspen trees, I wept for the both of us. Big Will the Wrangler had taught me how to ride her, how to hold on tight and grip her enormous body with all of the power in my belly and thighs. She’d taught me it was possible to fly across fields and up mountains and through valleys. She taught me it was possible to be beautiful and strong and still surrender when it was time to die.

Big Will the Wrangler and I were engaged, or at least I wore his old wedding ring wrapped with tape so it would stay on my finger. We found a different cabin to sleep in each night – whichever wasn’t occupied by guests at the time. Once, one of the wood stoves caught fire with us in it. My denim and velvet dress and extra bra burned to ash. The only thing left of our pile of clothing was his silver belt buckle which he saved like a trophy.

I loved him but he still couldn’t spell my name right and I didn’t want to have his baby. I knew I wanted to be a mother, but not yet. I still had to drink and smoke and fuck my way across the country. I still had to grow up, myself.

Big Will took me to Planned Parenthood on one of our days off to confirm what I already knew. “Congratulations!” beamed the nurse and I thought she must be talking to someone else, or crazy. This was not good news at all. In fact, I couldn’t imagine anything worse. My idyllic cabin girl in the wild west fantasy shattered around me, replaced by morning sickness, exhaustion, and nausea.

We scheduled an appointment to come back to the clinic, but, in the meantime, it was hunting season and getting colder. I saw less of the horses and more of the kitchen. I moved into Big Will’s top bunk in the bunkhouse, dragging my few belongings behind me. A beast at 6′ 5″, there wasn’t much space for me in his room full of dogs and men. No more poker nights and singing around bonfires. No more galloping across fields or down the sides of mountains blanketed with wildflowers of every color with names like exotic gods or children.

In the parking lot, there were protesters everywhere. I hated them. How dare they make something so hard so much harder? I’d never really felt the need to wear armor, but I wanted it then. To be shielded, invisible, invincible. To have the privacy of my own pain. There were a lot of forms to fill out and papers to sign. Big Will and I split the price 50-50 from our tips from the ranch, a big chunk of the money we’d planned to travel with when we were free. I scanned a list of horribles as I signed my name. Bleeding, cramping, fatigue, and then the worst of all: continued pregnancy. I thought that possible outcome worse than the possibility beneath: death.

I hyperventilated on the table with the doctor’s hands and heavy metal tools crammed into my body. “Keep looking at my beautiful face,” the nurse said again and again, squeezing my hand as I tried to breathe, pain and fear and blinding lights tight and clamping down on the black hole between my legs. Finally it was over, and somehow they sat me up and put me back together as best they could. When Big Will pulled out of the parking lot, I mouthed fuck you to the protesters shouting in our wake, but the truth was, I didn’t know who I hated more. Me or him or them.

We returned to the ranch up Coffee Pot Road, leaving government land behind, zigzagging up the bumpy, impossible deep grooves in the earth. I returned to the kitchen and the wringer-washer washing machine and the dishes and laundry as best I could. But I didn’t feel like singing along to the country songs on our little FM radio anymore. On my afternoon break, instead of exploring or hiking or writing, I wrapped myself in quilts and curled up like a baby.

It was one week later that I got a call from my mother. The singular phone on the ranch was in a little alcove next to the kitchen and worked rarely. Phone calls were uncommon, if not unheard of. My mother‘s voice came through the crackling static on the other end of the phone, reached through the line, and homesickness ached through my bones. “Valley!” my mom shouted. “The clinic’s been trying to reach you. They couldn’t get through.” I’d given my mom‘s number as my emergency contact. I’d gotten into the habit of living places one could not call.

“Oh?” I yelled back. The wranglers were starting to mill about, gathering for dinner. I tried to pretend I was alone in the room. “The procedure didn’t work,” I heard my mother‘s voice say. The news bounced off and then thunked into my belly like a heavy stone. There was still a baby alive inside of me. “Mom,” I said. “I want to come home.”

She sent me a plane ticket and by the next week I had packed up my canvas Army-Navy bag and was gone. It was too much to say goodbye to those mountains, to that valley, to the cabins and the lodge and Hooker and the horses and the flowers and my fiancé and all of the other wranglers I’d grown not to like but to love. I said this lie, see you soon, and returned to the clinic before getting on the plane so they could redo the job that had failed before. I cried the whole plane ride home, suspended in the sky above our country, freed from the cluster of molecules, the magical cells, the holy organism in my body that had refused to die.

My mother picked me up from the airport and moved me into her Queen-sized bed back home. I was bleeding and cramping and full of rage and sorrow and grief. Pain took hold of my guts and squeezed hard like those cold metal clamps were still there, as if they always would be.

The hydrocodone and valium did not take away the pain but wrapped it in a flimsy layer of gauze. I lay in the fetal position, twisted up in blankets on my mother’s bed for a week as she nursed me back to health with broth and tea and love. Sometimes I still turn over names for the child that could have been, but I never come up with one that is good.


Valley Haggard is a creative nonfiction teacher and the founder of the online literary magazine She is the author of “The Halfway House for Writers” and co-editor of “Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology.” In the past she has been a Waffle House waitress on Broad Street, a cabin girl at a dude ranch in Colorado, a stewardess on a cruise ship in Alaska and the Book Editor for Style Weekly. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her handsome husband, brilliant son, and a small zoo of animals.