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Syndic Literary Journal

Syndic  Narrations


Art of the Spoken Word


Written by Clayton McMillan

Narrated by Edie Roth

BFA, Acting, University of Colorado, Boulder


Published By LeRoy Chatfield

Part One

Her husband had not yet heard of POP and had no idea of the devastating effect it would have. So, when she told him about her condition he reflexively said, “But that’s against everything we’ve fought for!”

A few days earlier Tess had been to the clinic for a routine checkup.

“There are complications,” the doctor said, wiping sweat from his brow.  The humidity outside was oppressive.

“Complications?” asked Tess, confused.

The doctor found comfort in the opaque language of medical terms.

After his lengthy explanation, Tess interjected timidly, “But what does it mean?”

He stared at the wall calendar: June 22, 2026. When had the world gone mad? There was sweat on his brow again.

“It’s serious.”

Tess turned pale.

“Very serious. Without intervention you will most likely not survive the pregnancy.”

She began to tremble. “Intervention?”


At that moment the sounds of a medical emergency came flooding into the room. A nurse stood agitated in the now open doorway. The doctor and nurse rushed out without a word.

The pregnancy was unplanned, but she embraced it. Be fruitful and multiply.

Abandoned in the examination room, Tess tried to sort out what she had just heard. When the nurse returned, she said she could not answer Tess’s questions. Please make an appointment to follow up with the doctor.

As she was driving herself home dark clouds erupted in a torrential downpour. The rain itself seemed hot. She could barely see the road through the furious wiper blades and her own tears.

When Alec came home from work, she had dinner on the table. She had been rehearsing how she would break the news to him. If he could just see that she was upset, it would be so much easier. But he didn’t see. Driblets of beer disappeared into his thick red goatee as he drank. He burped, then crushed the empty can against his forehead and chuckled, eyeing her with disappointment that she didn’t admonish him. When he stood, the buttons of his plaid shirt threatened to pop off and the red hairs on his substantial belly peeked through. He was going to watch the game on TV. As she cleaned up the kitchen, he called from the living room:

“Tess, remember I’m flying to LA tomorrow. Have you ironed my shirts yet?”

Only after he returned, and her doctor’s appointment was imminent did Tess summon the courage to tell Alec.

“Abortion?” he said incredulously. “But that’s against everything we’ve fought for.”

“I will die otherwise.”

Tess had tears in her eyes.

“How do you know?”

“That’s what the doctor said.”

“But did he say what the chances are?”

“He said I will likely die. The baby will die no matter what.”

Tess began to cry. Alec was annoyed. Why did she always have to cry? It didn’t help.

“But did he give you a number? Like is there a 40% chance of survival? A 5% chance? It seems to me we need to know that before making any choices.”

They had met years earlier at an anti-abortion rally. Tess was attending the University of Northern Colorado, UNC, in Greeley, and Alec was taking computer programming. The rural conservatism of Greeley was much more akin to Alec’s roots in the Deep South than cosmopolitan, permissive Denver. But they were in the city often, on the steps of the Capitol, protesting. Those were heady days. Christian soldiers, standing strong against the moral decline that was burning across the land, fighting for the rights of the unborn.

Tess had wanted to study art history and then pursue a law degree. One of her favorite paintings was Delacroix’s iconic depiction of the French Revolution, Liberty Leading the People. She liked how Liberty was portrayed as a woman towering in strength above the men behind her, storming a barricade in the streets of Paris, a musket in one hand, the flag of the people held high in the other. Dress torn and hanging from one shoulder, Liberty was half naked, but this somehow projected resolve. Tess saw her nakedness not as the object of male desire but as a sign of strength.

But her parents were against it. Law school?!

At their urging she had applied at UNC for the Home Economics in Homemaking Scholarship of Weld County. Applicants had to be from the area, and since her family lived in Denver, she felt safe. Owing to a lack of qualified applicants, to her consternation, it went to her. They stood in the living room, her mother peering around from behind her father’s shoulder. He seemed to read the look in Tess’s face. Without any mention of her desire to study law, he assured her in a stern voice that she would not decline the scholarship. “You have an aptitude for it. It’s God’s calling.” She lowered her eyes.

When the Supreme Court declared there was no constitutional right to control one’s own body, the anti-abortion chapter at their church celebrated with a picnic featuring pork and beans and a marshmallow-Jell-O salad.  In the shade of a cottonwood tree, cast by the setting summer sun, Alec proposed and Tess accepted.  

Alec’s parents flew in from Eastern Mississippi for the wedding and stayed with Tess’s parents. His two brothers were unable to attend. While Tess’s father prepared cocktails, Alec’s father thumbed through her art history book, her prized possession. The progression of paintings perturbed him. The beautiful, modest depictions of Christ and the Virgin from the 15th century were replaced over the centuries by increasingly bizarre images exhibiting nudity, parts that needn’t be looked at, and in more modern times, strange figures that looked more like colored blocks than people. The book fell naturally open to the page Tess looked at most often, Delacroix’s Liberty. Alec’s father showed it to Tess’s father.

“What is this supposed to be?” he asked. “Is this what they’re teaching kids in college these days? It’s disgusting!” Tess’s father nodded and took it upon himself to make that book “disappear.”

After the wedding, Tess finished her degree. Alec found a programming position in the hot, humid South. His wealthy grandfather was approaching 100, and his family wanted Alec nearby. They left Colorado, with its huge open spaces, blue skies, and crisp, dry air. As they pulled out of the driveway they were serenaded by the song of the lark in the field behind their house. It was such a beautiful sound, so pure and free and full of the infinite possibilities of life. Tess silently wept.


When the game on TV ended, Alec found Tess sitting at the kitchen table, disconsolate. He took her hand. “I’ve been thinking. Tess,” he seemed empathetic, “if your life is in danger, then we have to set our principles aside.”

Alec accompanied Tess to the appointment. He did the talking. The doctor seemed surprised when Alec announced that they had opted for abortion.

“But that’s not possible.”

“Tess says her life is in danger,” Alec replied, “and that this is the only way to save her.”

The doctor cleared his throat and wiped his brow. The air was heavy. “That’s true.” The clouds were low and dark. Kudzu, the invasive vine prevalent across the South, choked the trees and telephone wires outside the window. Tess couldn’t breathe. “But as you must know, abortion is illegal.”

“I know, but only in certain cases, right?” asked Alec. “I mean, when there’s a heartbeat or when it’s just being used as an afterthought to bad behavior.”

“For everyone.”

“But if her life is in danger…”

“There are no exceptions.”

“No exceptions?”

“None. Not for the health of the mother. Not in cases of incest. Not in rape.”

“Tess says you said the baby will die no matter what.”

“It doesn’t matter. There are no exceptions.”

“But there’s no point if the baby will die anyway.”

“I know. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the law now.”

The color left Tess’s face. Alec looked angrily at the doctor.

“But there must be some way. Can she still travel? We could fly to Colorado, or California…”

“It’s a federal law. This is 2026, not 2020. There is no way. There is not a doctor in this country who would perform an abortion. With the new surveillance, even a miscarriage is misconstrued. It’s a dangerous time to be an obstetrician.” He cast a nervous glance out the window. “It’s a dangerous time to be a pregnant woman.”

“We could go abroad…”

The doctor shook his head. “With the new surveillance, they’d know. It’s murder. Even a single fertilized cell is as human as you or I, according to the new rules.” The room fell silent. There was a rumble of thunder outside. “If you’d like to talk to the chaplain, please tell the nurse.”

Tess and Alec clung to hope even though there was none. Doctors are sometimes wrong. Alec was optimistic. Quietly he began to pray for her.   

The doctor started Tess on an outpatient treatment at the local hospital, even though he knew it would only mitigate her discomfort. Tess immediately took to the nurse, Izzy, who administered the treatment. She seemed to understand things in a way Alec did not. They quickly became friends. Tess told Izzy about the protests she had taken part in at the Capitol in Denver.

“It was exhilarating,” she said, eyes shining. “I remember one day, it was a beautiful fall day. The autumn in Colorado is amazing. The leaves turn the most vivid yellow, orange, and red. The air there is dry, and because of the altitude we call Denver ‘the Mile High City’. In the autumn the sky turns a deep, rich blue. Everything is so crisp and clear. You fill your lungs with it, and you feel so strong. That’s what makes the trees so radiant. And the aspens, they turn a golden yellow. When there’s a bit of breeze, they twinkle like windchimes.”

“This was an anti-abortion rally?” asked Izzy.

“Pro-life. But yes. It was all very festive,” replied Tess.

Izzy looked contemplative. “I wonder,” she said, “if things maybe have gone too far.”

“What do you mean?” asked Tess.

“I mean on that fall day, were you protesting to take away the doctor’s right to save a woman’s life?”


“Or force a 12-year-old girl to give birth to her rapist’s baby?”

“That’s disgusting!” exclaimed Tess. “Good God, no.” She sat quietly. “It was a rally,” she said finally. “Our whole church was there.” She stared off into space, as if she were recalling the details of that day. “Something did upset me, though.”

“What?” asked Izzy.

“One of the speakers. He said, ‘If we allow exceptions, women seeking abortion will suddenly discover they have been raped. Or they will say they have a life-threatening medical condition.’”

Izzy replied with disgust, “rather insulting, don’t you think? It’s misogyny, pure and simple.”

Tess could feel Izzy’s anger. “Izzy, what is it?” She took her hand.  Izzy fixed her eyes on the floor for what seemed an interminable silence.

“I was fifteen,” she said slowly. She swallowed and wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand. “Strange, isn’t it? Back then a teenager couldn’t get birth control, but she could get an abortion.”

Now Tess was choked up. She looked out the window for a long time. She did not want to die. Finally, in almost a whisper, she said, “The funny thing is, in Colorado, you can have a beautiful fall day and then the next day there is a blizzard.”

“Did it snow the day after the rally?” Asked Izzy.

“Yes,” said Tess.

A few weeks later Tess asked Alec, as if talking to herself, “Why do they call it ‘pro-life’?”


“Why ‘pro-life’? Isn’t everyone pro-life? Is there anyone against life?”

“I don’t understand,” replied Alec.

“If you think about it, does any woman get pregnant so she can end her pregnancy?”

“Of course not,” said Alec.

“Abortion… even for women who believe it’s just a medical procedure, it must be horrible. It’s the last option. Why not just make it easy to prevent pregnancy in the first place? Wouldn’t that solve the problem? Like a vitamin every morning? Izzy says it could be done today, but men don’t want that.”

 “Who the hell is Izzy?”

“The nurse. At the hospital. You’ve met her.” said Tess.

“No, I haven’t.”

Tess ignored him. “We were wondering if maybe things have gone too far. I am going to die because things have gone too far. I have no choice now.”

He grimaced and thought he would talk to the doctor about finding a different nurse. Then his face softened, and he took both Tess’s hands in his. “Don’t you think it’s up to God to choose?”

Alec accompanied Tess to the checkups when he could. On one such visit the doctor was leaving when he turned to Alec and said,  Oh… “ there was embarrassment in his voice, “I’m sorry, the timing is not good, but I’m required by law to ask you… if you’ve had your POP treatment.”

“My what?”

“POP. Pleasure of Pregnancy. I’ll have to record that as a ‘no’. You need to get it right away. Call and make an appointment for next week.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” said Alec, confused.

“It’s not well known. Most men would object if they knew.”


Part Two

Once the right to control one’s own body ended, abortion had become illegal. Many activists also wanted to ban birth control. Birth control led to more abortions, they reasoned. Birth control was behind the current societal malaise: people having sex outside of marriage, resulting in unwanted pregnancies, people having sex with their own gender—a sin—drugs, Communism, the New York Times. Another faction, however, recognized that even if illegal there would still be abortions, and birth control would help reduce these. They also observed that a woman could get pregnant only with the help of a man, and he often took little responsibility after having his fun. They argued that if men suffered like women when pregnant, they would be more careful. Ironically this view was shared by the pro-choice side. Why should men get off scot-free? If women were going to be forced to carry a baby to term, the man should suffer along with them. The factions teamed up with pharmaceutical companies and a drug was developed that simulated in a man the effects of pregnancy. What would have been considered science fiction a few years earlier was now reality. This was POP.

“This is bullshit, Goddammit!” Alec’s face was flush, and the veins pulsating on his forehead.

“Alec!” Said Tess. “Please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!”

They had gone to a lawyer, a prominent woman attorney. There must be a legal way out. They had researched POP. Every man who had gotten a woman pregnant was now required by law to take the therapy. Penalties were severe. There were no exceptions, not even in the case of rape, though in practice few rapists reported for treatment. Actually, none.

“I’m sorry Sir, it’s not my fault,” said the lawyer calmly.

“But it’s my body! How can they tell me what to do with my own body? That’s my choice!”

“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice,” replied the lawyer. “The courts have made it clear that the government can decide for you. There is precedence. Lobotomies are still legal in most states. And forced sterilization. Though it’s not done much these days… imposing a treatment on the individual, almost always against their will. Forcing a woman to carry a baby. It’s really the same thing, isn’t it?”

“But I’m a man!”

“It doesn’t matter. Really, there’s no way out. It would be unethical for me to tell you otherwise. It’s being challenged in court, but given the new way of thinking, it is unlikely to be thrown out, and certainly not in time for you. It’s absurd. But these are absurd times.”

Alec scoffed. Tess looked on with a blank expression.

“Anyway,” continued the lawyer, “apparently, it’s not so bad for most men. You only need the one shot and then for the rest of your wife’s pregnancy you may feel a little ill in the morning; you might even throw up. You may have mood swings, you may feel your heart is racing, you may feel out of breath, you may have back pains. Your favorite foods may suddenly seem repulsive, you may feel your stomach is heavy and you are off balance when you walk. You may begin to walk like a duck. You may feel some depression. You won’t be able to drink alcohol. But you skip the pain of childbirth, and that’s big. It’s doable.”

Alec looked at the lawyer. “You seem to be enjoying this.”

“Not at all Sir, I’m just stating the facts.”

“Is there a male lawyer in your practice I could see?”

“Alec!” Admonished Tess.

The lawyer was unfazed. “Of course, I’d be happy to have one of my colleagues come in. But he will tell you the same thing. And there will be an additional fee.”

The lawyer’s predictions were accurate. But unlike for most men, POP was extremely unpleasant for Alec.  It was only doable in the way chemotherapy might be doable; because there is no other choice. He felt sick all the time. Even if he had been allowed to drink beer, the smell of it suddenly made him choke. His stomach felt heavier than ever, and it seemed to be getting bigger. He had to get new clothing. And it was enraging that he had to go through all of this because of the government. This was America! How had saving the unborn led to the loss of his rights? Every time he thought about it his blood pressure skyrocketed.

Alec and Tess were arguing all the time. Alec said it was Tess’s fault; she was the one who wanted to have a baby. She said, no, it was unplanned. You know you wanted it, he said. But he meant the sex, not the baby.

“I did not. You forced yourself on me,” she replied. They were both stunned she would say such a thing. Tess cast her eyes to the floor and there was a long silence. “I didn’t mean that,” she said finally.

She didn’t know exactly when she had gotten pregnant. But for some time, each of their encounters had felt like an almost unbearable heaviness in which she could hardly breath, a painful mixture of sweat and exhaling sounds and coarse facial hairs rubbing against her, followed by dark silence, aloneness.

Alec replied later, “Anyway, I couldn’t have.”

“Couldn’t have what?” asked Tess.

“Couldn’t have forced myself on you. You know the Bible says the wife is to obey the husband. There’s no forcing. Only obeying.”


The POP treatment called for regular visits to the hospital, just as Tess’s real pregnancy did. They went together. Each time Tess’s doctor looked grimmer. Despite her cheerful nature the complications were beginning to weigh her down. To make matters worse, Alec’s grandfather had fallen ill. They had visited him in the nursing home. He was on his way out. One day the full realization hit Alec that while POP would be over in a few months, Tess was dying. She took him in her arms and comforted him. He wept uncontrollably like a little boy.

A few days later they were getting their checkups.

“There are complications,” said Alec’s doctor, whose face was red from the heat. Alec thought he was talking about Tess. The doctor adjusted his tie, which seemed to be strangling him.

“Complications?” Asked Alec, confused.

“It’s a safe treatment,” Continued the doctor. “POP is. It’s safe. It’s been approved, and been used by thousands of men, hundreds of thousands maybe, I don’t know.”

Alec began to tremble.

The doctor continued, “But, as with all medications, there are side effects.”

“What side effects?”

“Usually, they are benign. A little bleeding, perhaps, extra fatigue. But in your case, I… I’m sorry to tell you…”

“What side effects?” Repeated Alec.

“It’s really one in a million chance that this would happen to you.”

“What side effects?”

“It’s serious.”

Alec turned pale. Tess stared.

“Very serious. You are probably going to get a lot worse. You may not survive the pregnancy.”

They were stunned. A long, uncomfortable silence ensued. The doctor explained the unlikely and unforeseen circumstances under which this simple treatment could align with other health factors in such a negative way. It was so unusual that he was only speculating. Medicine is not an exact science. They could not comprehend and left, too confused to be angry.

The doctor’s predictions were accurate. At first Alec’s condition was stable and it seemed the prognosis wasn’t so bad. It was Tess who noticed the decline. She didn’t say anything, and it wasn’t until things began to get serious that Alec himself felt the change. Naturally, Alec’s doctor tried various treatments to reverse the condition, but each time he was able to temper the symptoms, new ones appeared. The underlying health indicators only grew worse.

They went through several phases of coping together. First disbelief, then anger, then grief, and finally, acceptance. The mutual adversity drew them together in a way they hadn’t experienced since early in their marriage. Despite his own discomfort Alec began doting on Tess. He opened the door for her. He fixed dinner. He held her in his arms without any expectations. He had lost a lot of weight. He looked healthy, even if he was not. Tess suddenly found him quite charming.

Sitting side-by-side on the sofa one evening, Alec took Tess’s hand. It was raining.  “I love you, Tess. You are such a good person. You are too good for me.”

“Hush,” she said tenderly, stroking his face. “I love you too.”

Alec was pondering. “I wonder,” he said slowly, “if things have gone too far.”

“Yes.” answered Tess. “They have. We both know it, don’t we?”

Alec said, “The goal is good. But the end doesn’t justify the means… no, I think making it easy to avoid unwanted pregnancy is the way to go.”

 “The daily vitamin?” Tess reflected. “If men got pregnant instead of women…”

Alec completed her thought. “It would be available for free to anyone who wanted it.”

Tess laughed, “You’re sounding like Izzy now.”

“Lord, I hope not!”

He seemed to be dozing off, then he said slowly, “we chose the wrong fight. There’s a good fight. We should have chosen it.” He closed his eyes for several minutes, then suddenly said with conviction, “If I don’t make it, I know you will have the courage to do the right thing. You do what’s right, no matter what we may have thought in the past.”

“You’ll be fine,” Tess said soothingly. “We’ll both be fine.”


A few weeks later in the intensive care unit at the hospital, Tess slipped in an out of consciousness. She looked at Alec in the next bed. He was breathing heavily. She reached out and took his hand in hers. He woke up. He looked at her and smiled weakly.

She began to hallucinate.

Rising out of her body towards a bright, soothing light, she floated, looking down upon Alec and her other self. Some people came in, Alec’s father, and his two brothers. His mother stood at the door hands folded, eyes lowered.

“Alec,” said the brother, “Grandpa has died.”

The father leaned towards Alec. “You know what that means.” The father seemed to look over at Tess, contemplating. “Alec, we need you to sign some documents. Until you’re better, we need to look after your affairs for you. There’s no one else.” He looked again at Tess. The brother handed some papers to the father. They helped Alec sit up.

“You’re OK with that, right?”

Alec nodded slowly. His eyelids were heavy. The brothers supported him while the father slipped a pen into Alec’s hand. He tried to sign but was struggling. His eyes closed.

“You’re going to be a wealthy man,” the father encouraged Alec. “Grandpa lived a long and good life and now we will all enjoy the fruits of his Christian virtue.” He gently separated Alec’s other hand from Tess’s and let hers fall to the side of the bed.  Alec’s head fell back, his eyes closed.

“Father,” pleaded the mother in a quiet voice. “He can’t right now. Let him rest.”

The floating Tess watched the father turn towards Tess the patient. “Tess, can you hear me?” He placed the pen in her hand and helped her sit up. “I need you to sign here,” he said in a commanding voice. Tess’s eyelids fluttered and she seemed to acquiesce. Her hand approached the page.

“Here,”  repeated the father with impatience. Suddenly, as the pen touched the paper, her eyes flashed open, and she sat up with astonishing vigor. The father and the brothers stepped back in surprise. Tess seemed to grow in strength and stature and the men cowered as she threw back the covers and leapt out of the bed.  She raised the pen above her head such that her loosely tied hospital gown opened, hanging from one shoulder, exposing her breasts, as in Delacroix’s painting. Alec’s mother gasped and the men stared. Throwing the pen to the floor Tess shouted, “No!” They turned and quickly shuffled out, fear in their eyes, the brothers taking a last look at Tess’s nakedness before slipping past their mother through the door.

Tess descended back into her body and her mind cleared. She awoke. She didn’t know how long she had been dreaming.

She looked over towards Alec, but he was not there. The bed was empty. She was alone. Izzy entered and from their exchanged glances Tess knew that he was gone. She wept. Izzy took her hand and comforted her. After several days Tess began to feel stronger. A doctor came in.

“You are going to make it,” she said with satisfaction, indeed, admiration. “To survive this condition is unheard of, but you are as strong as an ox.”

“I don’t feel strong,” replied Tess.

“You must look inward, and I think you will see that strength. No doubt it’s always been there, just waiting for you to use it.”

Tess had miscarried. It was the way of things. The body had the means to reject what can’t survive anyway.

Alec’s family came to see Tess. There was an afternoon thunderstorm; it was quite dark. There was lightning and thunder. Illuminated by a lamp on the nightstand was Tess’s art history book, which her parents had sent to cheer her up. A note in her father’s handwriting said simply, “Look what I found in the attic!” Alec’s father recognized it and looked disapprovingly.

“Tess, we need you to sign something.” He explained that just one day before Alec died, he had inherited money from his grandfather. If Alec had died before his grandfather, the money would have gone to Alec’s brothers, but since it happened this way, it would go to Tess. That’s not really fair, is it? One of the brothers licked his lips nervously. He had always fancied Tess. Now perhaps he could have her. She would need help managing it all, it was really quite a lot of money. They were there to help. They would manage the money. “You just need to sign here, and we will take care of everything.”

Tess looked at the storm clouds. She had had a lot of time to think, sitting alone in this bed looking out that window. She had loved Alec, and he had been taken away from her. The baby had been taken away. Maybe this was God’s will. Her whole life she had been swept up in the patriarchal imperative. Now she felt in her bones she should use what God had given her, strength, the ability to think for herself.

“Sign right here and then we can let you rest,” Alec’s father said in a patronizing tone.

“No,” Tess said emphatically.

They were stunned. After a lengthy silence, they argued with her. She was polite but steadfast. “No!”

“But you can’t handle all this yourself,” they insisted.

“I am going back to Denver.”

“What has happened to you, Tess? You used to be so good. You can trust us. This is what Alec would want.”

“Alec told me what he wanted. I am going to study law.”

“Your father will never speak to you again,” said Alec’s father.

“He already knows of my plans. They both know. They support me.”

They were angry. The brother licked his lips again. He said, “Don’t be a bitch.” The father scowled and raised his hand. Alec’s mother gasped.

“You may go now,” said Tess.

Eventually, when there was no point, they did go. Alec’s mother cast Tess what seemed to be an approving smile.

The storm quickly passed, and the sky was blue. Izzy entered. “The doctor tells me you can check out tomorrow. You are going to be fine.”

She opened the window.

“I didn’t know that window opened,” said Tess with surprise. “I would have opened it if I had known.”

“Yes,” replied Izzy, “but this time of year it’s mostly closed. Because of the heat.”

Fresh air flooded the room, surprisingly cooled by the storm. A bird was singing.

“What bird is that?” Asked Tess.

“The lark,” replied Izzy. “Strange, you don’t often hear them.”



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