Writing Contest Winner: The Dead Girl

Honorable Mention


I have thought of the dead girl many times since the day I stood at the head of the coffin, slightly nauseated by the incense wafting around me.  I was nine years old and I had never seen a dead person before.  Unknown to me – I didn’t even know her name – she appeared to be about twelve or thirteen years old.  Her blond hair was short and curly and shiny.  Her skin was waxy with a strange yellowish tint and I could see a little piece of cotton protruding from one nostril.  She looked peaceful, but she looked dead.  She was wearing a beautiful pink dress with lace around the collar.  The inside of the small coffin was quilted white satin.  It looked soft and comfortable.  Her eyes were closed but I was sure that they were blue.  A very pale blue, I decided.

There were six of us, the altar boys.  Two of us were girls because there were not enough boys, but we were all called altar boys.  We wore the traditional Episcopalian garb of altar boys, long black skirts and white surplices with three-quarter-length wide sleeves trimmed with lace.  Friar Willis had called my mother the day before and told her that he needed the altar boys at the church at 11 o’clock.  I don’t know if he told her why we were needed.  In fact, I doubt that he did because I don’t think my mother would have sent me had she known it was a funeral for a little girl who had died of polio in the local hospital for crippled children.  It was the mid 1930s.  Everyone, especially parents with young children, was terrified of polio. At times communities closed public facilities like swimming pools, movie theaters, schools and camps.  Victims were quarantined. It was not known how polio spread, but the paralyzing effects and frequent death of those infected was well known.

The Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children, the state-of-the-art, gleaming white facility was built only a couple of years earlier in our small New Mexico town, Hot Springs.  The hospital accepted polio victims from all over the country.  Along with everyone else in town, I had watched the hospital being built, had gone with my parents to the grand opening, and had even been swimming in the indoor warm-water therapy pool before the first patients arrived.  I was greatly impressed with everything about the facility, especially the pool.   It was the first indoor pool I had ever seen.  I remember thinking how lucky they were, the crippled children who would use the pool.  It wasn’t until long after the service when I learned that the dead girl was from the Carrie Tingley Hospital that I realized the children weren’t lucky at all.  Apart from the Friar and the six altar boys, there was only one other person in the little church.  It was an older man—a grandfather, I guessed—who had a huge white handkerchief he kept blowing his nose into.

That summer day of the funeral was hot, very hot. The church had no cooling system and the incense seemed to make it even hotter.  Our instructions, except for the oldest boy who handled the incense, were to stand with our hands folded as in prayer and our heads bowed.  Unless I closed my eyes, I was looking right into the face of the dead girl and I was afraid to close my eyes because I already felt dizzy from the heat and the incense.  I saw the fly land on the dead girl’s face and crawl up to the corner of her eye.  I was frantic.  I tried blowing on it, but that didn’t work.  I tried not to look at the fly, but that didn’t work either.  I wondered if I dared break my pose to shoo the fly away.  Finally, when I thought the Friar wasn’t looking, I managed a quick sweep of my hand over the fly causing him to briefly flit off.  The altar boy next to me, a ten-year-old named Walter, kicked me and the Friar glared at me.  The fly returned and continued his crawl around the face of the dead girl.

I didn’t throw up until I got home.  I told my mother the incense had made me sick.

I didn’t cry until almost twenty years later when news of the Salk vaccine hit newspapers all over the world.  I had children of my own then and our family had lived in fear since a neighbor girl came down with polio and would spend the rest of her life in an iron lung.  I wept when I read of the miracle of the new vaccine.  I wept for the long-ago dead girl and for the neighbor girl in the iron lung.  But in truth, I wept mostly in relief that my children would be spared the cruel disease of infantile paralysis.


A few years after the Salk vaccine was developed, the population of the Carrie Tingley Hospital began to dwindle and continued to drop until there were no more crippled children and the hospital closed. Today, it is a home for aging veterans.  The beautiful, white building on the hill still overlooks the town of Hot Springs, now called Truth or Consequences.