The Culling

The children dropped down to their hands and knees, scurrying from bloom to bloom — like the ants and beetles that pollinated them — voraciously culling.


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The family stood in the forest. The light filtered through the evergreens, little of it reaching the ground where the wood lilies thrived — their pale white blossoms sprinkled throughout the dark understory.

Each bloom only lasted a day, making them a poor choice for a cut flower. And in 1978, trillium were endangered. But that was what interested Walter, who otherwise couldn’t care less about beauty.

A sturdy compound bucket in his left hand, Walter raised his right. “Ready, set …”

Peter and Alice waited, poised with their little red and blue plastic pails — sand clinging to the insides from when they’d taken them to the beach.

“Go!” shouted Walter.

Mary flinched, the bruises on her face faded a mottled yellow and green.

The children dropped down to their hands and knees, scurrying from bloom to bloom — like the ants and beetles that pollinated them — voraciously culling.

Walter did not drop to his knees but instead bent over to pick, reaching, gathering by the fistful. He dropped the flowers into his caution-orange bucket, which was easy for Mary to see, even in the shadows. Quietly, she followed Walter down the hill, the baby in the sling, asleep on her chest.

The wildflowers erased from the slope behind them, the family spilled out of the woods alongside a small highway. A logging truck filled with fresh-cut pine rumbled by, swaying dangerously close. Mary caught the scent of raw greenwood as it passed. Directly opposite, on the other side of the road, was a Safeway. In the parking lot, an old woman bent over a super-sized metal shopping cart, its wheels rattling over the uneven pavement as she pushed.

Walter loaded the children’s pails and his bucket into the trunk of his 1972 Ford Mustang. He slammed the door shut, the flowers now wholly in the dark.

At home, Walter plunked his big bucket down on the dining room table. The children added their meager ones. “Looks like I won!” he announced. Peter and Alice hung their heads, deflated, likely thinking of the prizes they wouldn’t get.

Mary was pained by her children’s disappointment. But she was equally pained by their ravaging of the wildflowers. As her father had explained to her when she was a child, “Once you pick a trillium, it can no longer have children. And then their children can’t have children. So, if you care for them, it’s best to leave them be.”

Silent, Mary considered her daughter — shoulders caved, shrinking inward. Her son, on the other hand, stood tall, fists clenched.

“Couldn’t you have at least pretended to enjoy yourself today?” Walter said, going from the room, leaving Mary with all the flowers.

She recalled picking trillium with Walter the first time. The evening before their wedding, he’d shown up unexpected at her house. She was in the back bedroom, trying on her gown.

“But it’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride,” she overheard her mother protest.

“But I’ve got a surprise!” Walter said.

Excited, Mary stripped off the ivory, hand-embroidered dress. She threw on her rumpled clothes and followed him out to his car.

The night was brisk, stars winking in a cloudless sky. Walter drove, concentrating on the ribbon of asphalt. Mary gazed out the window. Following a line straight from the Big Dipper’s handle, she found Virgo — the constellation shaped like a maiden lying on her side, arms outstretched, reaching.

Walter parked alongside the road. He took Mary by the hand and led her into the woods, where white blossoms sparkled on the forest floor.

“Like the inverse of the sky!” said Mary, so moved the words caught in her throat.

Walter knelt. To Mary’s dismay, he began to pluck. “Who cares we can’t afford flowers!” he said. “There’s enough here to fill the entire church!”

Figuring he didn’t know any better, Mary hadn’t the heart to explain. She sank to her knees and joined in the culling.

After they were married, when she told him he shouldn’t pick anymore, he’d gotten angry. Worse, he insisted upon returning every spring — turning it into an annual ritual.

The least she could do now was to put the severed flowers in water. Tracking forest debris into the kitchen, she pulled the chrome and vinyl stepstool up to the cupboard. She climbed, taking a vase from the top shelf.

She filled the vase with trillium — their blooms tired, heads drooping. Disgusted, Mary carried the flowers outside, through the spitting rain. She dumped them onto the compost pile, on top of the remains of the previous night’s dinner — hamburger and green bean casserole served over mashed potatoes.

Water oozed inside her sneakers and between her toes. She kicked the shoes off, glad to be free of them. The grass was spongy, squishing under her bare feet as she made her way back to the house. She entered the dining room, leaving the screen door wide open. The cold air blasted in, clearing away the greasy smell of lingering hamburger. She walked across the vinyl floor, treading over the forest debris into the living room.

“Mom, close the door! It’s cold!” objected Peter, who was racing Hot Wheels down a long stretch of plastic track, the little metal cars shooting out the other end.

Keeping his eyes on the TV, not missing a moment of the game, Walter said, “For God’s sake, put on some dry clothes or you’ll catch cold.”

Mary continued through the living room and out the front door, as the baby wailed in his crib. She got into her car — a dung-colored Pinto station wagon that smelled of sour milk — the gas pedal gritty against the sole of her bare foot.

She drove to Safeway, where she padded through the aisles, filling her cart with packages of cellophane-wrapped ground meat. Boxes of sugary cereal with prizes inside. Triple-ply, extra-soft toilet paper. Lemon- and pine-scented cleaning products. Blocks of cheddar, sliced American, and cheese that squirted out of a can like shaving cream.

After checking out, she stuffed the change — two crisp, new dollar bills and a handful of coins — into her purse. She pushed her overflowing cart through the automatic double doors. A woman wearing the grocery store’s blue uniform sat outside on a bench smoking. Mary sat beside her, opposite the woods where her family had picked the flowers.

The woman offered Mary a cigarette. Mary declined, instead popping open a can of orange soda — the pinprick of bubbles assaulting her sinuses. When she was finished drinking, she threw the can away. She pushed the cart over the uneven pavement and loaded her groceries into her car.

At home, she put everything away where it belonged. She mopped up the mud and pine needles. She retrieved the dollar bills, smelling of fresh ink, from her purse. Stuffing the money into a jar, she put it in the cupboard — sliding it to the back, behind the orange fondue pot.

Hand extended, Walter walked into the room. Mary deposited the coins into his open palm.

“Out of everything I gave you, that’s all that’s left?” he asked.

“That’s it,” said Mary.


The next day, balancing the baby on her hip, Mary pulled Alice by the hand, down the hall. Peter trotted close behind. By the time Mary burst through the front door of the school, the children were running to keep up with her. She flew down the steps to the car, where she plunked the baby in his seat; shoving the prong into the buckle, she struggled with the five-point-hitch.

“Get in!” she yelled to Peter who, for once, was standing perfectly still. After he slid into the back seat, Mary slammed the door shut.

Speeding off, she could barely see out the back. The Pinto was filled to the brim. There was a suitcase for each child. A box of photos. The Singer sewing machine in its bentwood case. Alice’s one-eyed doll. A handful of Peter’s action figures, including a bow-legged Evil Knievel conspicuously missing its motorcycle.

“Why’d you pull us out of class?” Peter asked.

“Not now,” said Mary, teeth clenched.

On his knees, Peter turned around in his seat and investigated the load in the back. “Whoa, look at all the money!” he said, no doubt discovering the jar of bills. “Whatja do? Rob a bank?”

A siren wailed in the distance. Making off like Patty Hearst after a bank robbery, Mary pressed the gas pedal. She held her breath as the police car neared and didn’t exhale until it passed.

She flew through Main Street, past the shop where she and Walter had purchased their enormous couch. The bubblegum pink hospital lurked on the hill. Twin smokestacks, at the mill where Walter worked, chugged in time with her rapidly beating heart.

“Are we going to the dentist?” Peter asked nervously.

“Or shopping for school clothes?” asked Alice, sounding more hopeful.

Mary didn’t answer. Shoulders bent, she gripped the wheel.

They reached the baseball stadium on the outskirts of town. The neighborhood thinned. Houses soon gave way to timber land.

Overshadowed by ancient trees, they moved through the dark woods in silence — the children apparently muted by Mary’s tension. With their family unit diminished, four somehow seemed more intimate than five.

The dung-brown Pinto, as if a caterpillar on the branch of a gnarly tree, scaled the peaks and valleys. Tiny in comparison to the vast landscape, the station wagon’s progress appeared inconsequential.

Mary floated through the forest in a deathlike intermission. Like a pupating caterpillar — present self dissolved, yet equipped with genetic instruction for metamorphosis — she left one life behind and headed for the new.

Big weeping hemlocks gave way to clear-cut. While some devastation was in plain sight, vast stretches were disguised by a shallow line of evergreens; like film running through a projector, the sun blinked through the trees.

Nearing Olympia, the architecture grew more imposing. The legislative building appeared stern as they slid on past. Though the capital city was small, it was ten times the size of Mary’s hometown.

On the other side of Olympia, the traffic increased, eagerly nosing forward. To the right, the road forked to Seattle. Breaking away from the pack, Mary turned left, where the sign said: Port Orchard, 60 miles.

As they merged onto Highway 101, Peter, clearly excited, declared, “We’re going to Grandma’s!”

For the first time since beginning the journey, the children visibly relaxed — images of their grandmother’s strawberry shortcake and hash with eggs sunny side up no doubt in mind.

Mary glimpsed, in the rearview mirror, the pair’s furtive game. Passing a Volkswagen Beetle, Peter mouthed some words and poked Alice in the ribs. They devised a point system — elusive two-tone Beatles worth the most.

Escalating as usual, Peter yelled “Slug Bug!” and punched Alice in the arm.

“Ow! That hurt!” she said.

“Today,” said Mary, keeping her voice tightly controlled, “I need you both to behave.”

Reaching Gorst, she turned right at the inlet, the Pinto flying like a brown water bird alongside the narrow finger of water. The main street of Port Orchard was styled after a 19th-century Western town, and the wooden clapboard buildings had false fronts.

The Pinto climbed a steep slope, where the road was cut into the hillside, zig-zagging through the neighborhood. Across the bay, in the Navy yard, there was a row of battleships — an archipelago of steel-riveted islands. The sun was sinking below the USS Missouri, upon which, Mary knew, the Japanese had surrendered.

Reaching the top of the hill, the Pinto paused on the fulcrum. Instead of turning right, in the direction of her mother’s current home, Mary plunged down the other side, descending into twilight — the north side of the hill already dark.

The pavement gave way to dirt; to Mary’s right, the woodland was half-heartedly terraced for 20 yards or so before plunging into a gully.

To her left was a smattering of small, apologetic houses covered in asbestos shingles and tar paper roofs. The Pinto thudded through the potholes to the end, where she pulled up to a flesh-colored house streaked with black mold — like a rosy-cheeked woman wearing mascara melted by her tears.

The car idled. Mary, as if a bird stunned from hitting a window, sat very still. The children were quiet, no doubt waiting for their mother to come back to life. For her to go inside the house where she had grown up. For Mary to return right back where she had started.


Dawn Hathaway is the 2023 recipient of The Kathryn Gurfein Fellowship at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. After earning her undergraduate degree at Vassar College, the author spent her early career working in television and is currently working on her first novel. For more, visit

This article is featured in the May/June 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. That was NOT a very enjoyable story. I don’t like a story that has no ending. I got the meaning, the way she was fed up with the husband. But, didn’t enjoy it!

  2. This is a unique, well written, descriptive story, Ms. Hathaway. Despite having a rather excellent vocabulary, I did need to look up the word ‘culling’ to get the full meaning aside from just the context otherwise. Mary had finally had it with her husband and his continued destructive culling of nature, and felt she had to flee to get away from him with their 3 children.

    Having the story set in 1978 (45 years ago) with the auto and a cultural reference, made it easy enough to picture what was happening, reading along. You took us as passengers too, in that old Pinto wagon during a pretty scary ride.

    I like the fact there is no ‘ending’ (as such) here other than speculation. Real life is a mess, and you reflect that here. She’s back at her parent’s house, but in a very precarious situation. It won’t be too long (I imagine) before her husband shows up there in his ’72 Mustang, and things will likely get worse before they get better for this family.

    To crystal ball it honestly/personally, I see a divorce finalized in 1979 for ‘irreconcilable differences’ due to other serious cracks in their marriage aside from the culling.


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