Cause Unknown
by Laura Madeline Wiseman

The sign forbid taking pictures, but not standing to watch. Sticks stood with her fellow men and women and followed each flag draped casket off the plane with her eyes. Sticks did not know the soldiers. She did not belong to any of the government’s various troop brigades, but she was continually, almost obsessively concerned with the rituals of the dead or for the dead, by the living.

Though she wasn’t supposed to, Sticks took out her new phone and feigned a call to the office. Looking away from the processional, Sticks pressed the flash-less picture button and hoped that she snapped a good shot from the level of her ear. Each image transmitted to an email account with ample storage. And most importantly, no photos would remain in her phone if she were stopped. She knew she could take at least a dozen, if only her nerves wouldn’t send her hand shaking and she could stop the nervous glances to those in charge of crowd control.

It wasn’t that Sticks was opposed to the war or a bleeding heart conscious objector. It wasn’t that she thought her government was incapable of making billion dollar decisions of matters she surely couldn’t comprehend, let alone make sense of. Rather it was all the new laws and ordinances that concerned her; after all, she did double-major in pre-law and journalism in college.

At the office, Sticks flipped through the stack of death notices and information before deciding which would be written first. Covering the obituaries wasn’t an incredibly glamorous job, even five years after college. It certainly wasn’t a hard-line and witty column, a story writer of the most gruesome murders, or a style editor in charge of the optimistic and happy band-aids of life. But Sticks did not mind. Obituaries were a steady job, someone always died and someone had to write about it. Generally, she just wrote the two inch blurb and attempted to be clever with the opening few words and basically sailed through her workday without noticing it go by.

The pile was thin today, had been getting thinner. Only six announcements to write and maybe a short story of the best and most interesting, thought Sticks. Four elderly deaths of the general body failed variety: cancer or heart problems. Why the coroner always identified the cause of death for those who were seventy plus was beyond Sticks. They were old, she figured, the body unable to repair itself any longer, the cells refusing to renew, and the toxic chemical climate of her country finally extracting its price. She wrote these four quickly.

Rosemary Green, age 86, heart complications early last night. Former housewife and librarian. Leaves behind two children, John Green 59 and Jennifer Green-Simpson, 63. Services and visitation at Winston Memorial Saturday noon to four.

The last two deaths in Sticks’ stack were a little more fascinating and would generate a story for the eight inches she was required to fill. Sticks skimmed the sparse details of a police report: a seventeen-year-old caucasian female found hemorrhaged and alone in a hotel by cleaning staff. The report did not say cause of death specifically, if she was murdered or if it was a suicide, rather it was listed as unknown.

Two years ago, this story would not be Sticks’ to write. Two years ago, after the overturn of a woman’s right to end a pregnancy, backstreet abortions made front page news as journalists attempted to reflect all aspects of the public’s outcry. But a government act was passed that forbid the reporting of unsavory deaths. The following year, the stories were still written though thinly disguised as suicides. After a few news papers were shut down and new management had been hired, these types of deaths were always listed as “unknown.”

Sticks supposed she should be thankful that she had never had to have a legal abortion, a backstreet abortion, a suicide, an unsavory death, or an unknown. She had escaped, she imagined.

Six stories and not a single beat on the army full of death she’d seen this morning. She knew better than to ask why there were only six, when years ago in college in this same city there were nearly a hundred. Or when she started working as a journalist, there were generally forty and how that forty had slowly dwindled down to less then ten since bodies started coming home. Obituary writers didn’t ask questions. They did assignments. Sticks scanned her corporate email account for a gag memo on military deaths and there it was. A short note indicating that this newspaper would no longer be covering government stories locally, rather the newspaper would pick these up from an undisclosed source.

A copy, a paste, and the text of that email was sent to the email account with the pictures. Someone had to note the changes and keep track. Bodies were gone and not a sound, like it had never happened.

Sticks sighed and wondered how much longer she’d have a job unless she one, got a job covering deaths in the military or two, started killing people herself. Picking up the last death notice, she gathered her things and headed out the door to cover the story.

The last death was of a gynecologist who had died during a third heart attack.

At his office, she interviewed all three of his staff. Two were women in their early thirties and one was in her mid-twenties. During the course of the separate interviews each confessed to having undergone lifesaving hysterectomies under his care. Cancer, they each said. They were lucky for it had never come back.

“He was the kind of man women could trust.”

“He treated all of his patients with the kindness one gives to their own children.”

In between interviews, Sticks was asked to sit in the waiting room. On the walls were adoption ads and beside the magazines were stacks of abstinence pamphlets and STD horror stories. The secretary with long straight blonde hair and perfectly painted coral lips made small talk when she wasn’t crying politely into tissues.

“Do you have children?” she asked.

“No,” Sticks said.


“No,” Sticks said, knowing it was time to leave and that she wouldn’t learn much else here. The story could be written tomorrow and she could cut out a little early from work. She stuck to professionalism. “Thank you for your time. You’ve been very helpful. And if you don’t mind, I think I’ll just take a couple of these,” she said, picking up brightly colored handouts on Chlamydia and Gonorrhea.

At home, Sticks scanned the printout for the information she expected to find. Chlamydia may become cancerous if left unchecked. Early signs are often unnoticeable. Right, she thought, and threw the pamphlet into the fire place, but didn’t light it.

A jar stood dead center of the fireplace mantel framed by a stack of magazines and a slant collection of dog-eared novels. She flipped the light switch and held up the jar. The glob of tissue swirled in the formaldehyde while spidery filaments floated up from the bottom and twisted as she held the jar in her hands. My uterus under glass, Sticks thought. It was removed because the doctor had said it was cancerous, deadly, and yet, looked to Sticks like that beige purple color of all dead things. Maybe it was Chlamydia, she thought remembering the strange discharge and the dull pain.

Setting the glass down, she went to her computer and logged into her email account. All seven photo emails were there as well as the gag email. A testimony to silence, that as a journalist today she was currently forced to keep.

Mostly, the shots were of sky, of heads, but one caught two flag covered coffins. The stern faces of men carried the boxes with hats and uniforms in precise order. And there was a young woman in a dark dress, her mouth open and face streaming with tears. She was hunched over and standing alone, positioned almost precisely in the middle of the two coffins in the processional. Her lips were pulled back as if she was sobbing or screaming. Her hands were grabbing, almost twisting the fabric of the dress around her stomach as if she were attempting to rip something from her that was too much to bear. Or maybe, she was trying to locate that void of what had already been taken.

Laura Madeline Wiseman is a freelance writer currently residing in the southwest. She has publications in several periodicals internationally including Fiction International, Spire Magazine, Colere, Clare, 42opus, On Campus with Women, Dicey Brown, Flyway Literature Review, Poetry for Survivors, The Women's Movement Today, and First Blood

Contact Laura.