Third-Place Summer Flash Contest Winner: “Swashbucklers”

Mama taught Baby May to make god’s eyes out of sticks and yarn to distract her from climbing. But it only gave her more reasons. She would sit up in a tree like a bird of prey then glide back down and snatch a perfect stick.  She trimmed the sticks with Mama’s kitchen shears and tapered the ends with sandpaper from Daddy’s toolbox.

Baby May would pull anything apart to get more yarn. Mama’s sweater, Vera’s blanket, Daddy’s slipper socks. “That’s okay.” Daddy told Mama. “Full-timers gotta travel light.” When she found the right person, Baby May would give them a god’s eye.

Mama and Daddy ran a chainsaw carving business. They stuck a map to the RV window with a line of dots from Maine down to Florida and over to Texas. They were undefeated in the Quick Carver Competition. Once they carved a perfect Virgin Mary, but a 6-foot squirrel took the blue ribbon. Daddy sliced Mary to bits and sang a polka song as he threw her in the campfire.

I don’t want her.

You can have her.

She’s too fat for me.

Daddy refused to get cell phones. They used walkie-talkies at fairgrounds and campgrounds. Sometimes it worked. Now walkie talkie parts were spread all over the only table in the rig.  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Where do you expect us to eat?” Mama asked.

“Beautiful day.” Daddy answered without looking up.

Mama looked out at the flat dry land all the way to a line of trees hiding the Suwanee River crawling with hungry alligators.  Vera watched the sweat pool in the creases of mama’s bent elbows.

Mama said, “Never mind. Dinner can wait.” It smelled like cabbage, so Vera was glad until Mama told her, “Get the laundry room key from the manager.” Vera didn’t want to talk to the manager. His voice was high-pitched and scratchy. 

Daddy said, “I’ll open it.” Locks meant nothing to Daddy. “Throw that dress in the wash while you’re at it,” he told Vera on his way out the door.

Baby May never wore dresses. She wore the same thing every day. A two-piece swimsuit and a god’s eye necklace that hung down to her belly button.  Mama tried to get her to wear shoes, but Baby May just slipped them off.  The girls stuffed the dirty clothes in a bag.  When they got close to the laundry cabin, Baby May dropped her end and ran toward the trees by the riverbank. 

“C’mon back,” Vera yelled.

Baby May didn’t stop.  She climbed a tree and started somersaulting round and round a high branch.

 “Stop right now!” Vera shouted.

Baby May wrapped her legs around the branch and swung back and forth. Her necklace fell over her eyes and nose so Vera could only see her upside-down laughing mouth.

“I said stop,” Vera hissed.

Baby May took hold of a lower branch and flipped her bare feet to the ground. She took off running and reached the laundry cabin before Vera.

The door was open. Vera could hear Daddy’s chainsaw back at the site. She gave up on the knot in her sundress and pulled it over her head. She wadded it in a ball and chucked it in the machine. Wearing only her bathing suit and sneakers, she measured the detergent, loaded the quarters, and pushed the lever.  Before she could pull the lever out to start the wash, Baby May reached in and grabbed the dress, untied the knot, threw it back in, jumped up on the washing machine and climbed the cabin’s exposed beams until she reached the highest one where she hung upside down giggling.

Vera shouted, “Get down here you little freak.” 


Yesterday, they were messing around near the river. Vera was trying to skip stones.  Baby May was up a tree doing trapeze.  Then she stopped cold. Vera looked up. She saw her little sister’s body grow tense. Baby May trained her eyes on a spot on the ground.  Vera watched her clutch the god’s eye necklace and spring from the branch to land in a wide legged squat, holding one sharp end of her necklace out in front of her.  The dark shiny ground between her bare feet began to writhe and buckle.  It grew scales and a terrifying mouth and sent Baby May tumbling. She got to her feet and watched the gator slip back into the water. 


            “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Come down from the ceiling,” Vera pleaded. But she could only stand there in her bathing suit and sneakers, listening to the chainsaw in the distance, watching until her neck ached. As if watching could keep Baby May from falling.  She called “Daddy! Mama! Daddy!” but only the chainsaw answered. 

Vera’s legs began to tremble. She’d been standing on tiptoe, her head thrown back. Unblinking. Watching.  Vera planted her feet and locked her knees. Forced herself to hold steady as Baby May turned a cartwheel on the beam.  She stuck the landing and laughed. 

The cabin went black. Vera did not feel herself hit the floor. Now she heard the high-pitched scratchy voice. “Okay now darlin.” 

Vera opened her eyes and saw the campground manager’s face real close.  She was pinned to the floor. She held her breath, looked up to the rafters, and saw her sister sailing down, god’s eye necklace in hand. Baby May landed on the manager’s back. With one hand, she grabbed him by the hair. With the other, she stuck the god’s eye in his neck. 


About the author

Jennifer Gilley teaches English at The Gilbert School and Northwestern Connecticut Community College in Winsted, Connecticut. She considers Creative Writing an essential component of well-being.


About this story

“In the early aughts, my husband and I took our daughters on a cross country RV trip around the country. Inspired by some eerie campground experiences, an overactive imagination, and a course in Southern Gothic Literature, I wrote a short story called “Baby May”. It was a fun challenge to shave over 2000 words and reveal this flash version.”