Amy Parker, "The Witch Almanac"
It was the end of February. Lean, interminable, capricious. The wife called out for lettuces every night. Night after night, in the dark, she shook her husband awake. Gaunt and sobbing, she begged him for greens he could not provide. She dreamed of lettuces, she said, dreamed of their wetness, their sharp bite. She was shriveling, while the child inside her grew, and gorged, and cried through her, she said, cried for leafy heads. It would not be denied.
Do not ask a man for what he cannot give. Any witch knows that. Ask a man for what he can’t provide, and you invite disaster in. But the wife was in no state to be wise. The craving shook her. She thrashed in bed. She threw off the coverlid and paced the room, kicking at the coals in the hearth with her bare feet. The pain, she explained, relieved her mind. But it kept her husband from sleep. He led her back to bed. He stroked her. She put off his hands, and rose, and paced, and cried. He turned his back and tried to sleep. He did not often succeed.
The puppeteer tramped out every dawn with the puppet theater on his back. He went into the frozen town and performed for passers-by who had no time for him. Shivering, and muffled to the eyes, they ignored him. The puppets, he told his wife, only served to warm his hands. Then sell them, she said, and buy me lettuces. In the spring, he promised, in fair season, these puppets will keep us alive. She only shook her head.
Late one evening the puppeteer came in out of the bitter dark to find his wife picking at the wall above her head. She had worked a small pockmark in the mortar with ragged nails. Grit littered her lap.
“Gnawing a mousehole?” he asked her. “You’re letting in the cold.”
“Our child needs a window,” she said. “Nine months dwelling in the dark is prison enough. I will be his first window. I am fashioning his second. Our child needs a window.”
In her seventh month the wife was mealy-skinned and swollen. Her navel stood out hard like a Brussels sprout. She looked at him over the seedy lapful of stone chips. A straw of light from the hole in the mortar picked up their silicate glitter. He heard a curious, tentative whistling. The coals beneath her cauldron blazed, sank, and blazed again, lit to the tune of the breeze that crept in through the hole. His wife stopped the hole with her thumb. All quiet. She released the stop, and the whistling piped in.
“So you’ve turned our house into a flute. Some piper you are,” he said, trying to be cheerful and light, though to him the hole looked like a pair of lips, pursed, grim.
“Husband, do you smell it?”
She ought not ignore his heroic levity.
“Do you smell it?”
His heart sank.
He unstrapped the puppet tower from his back and laid the puppets on the lid. A pink cheeked princess smiled emptily up into the rafters. His wife put her lips to the hole and sipped the air.
“I can taste it. It’s green.”
“My shoulders are sore and my hands are chapped. I’m hungry.”
She made no move to peel the last of their potatoes. She just sat, big bellied and sallow, tracing the cleft in her chin with ragged nails.
“I smell the witch’s rape.”
And she could smell it, pungent and hot. It made her dribble.
“My teeth are loose. My mouth itches. My gums bleed.”
“Hold out until spring. We’ll eat fiddler’s ferns and wild onions. I’ll boil pine needles for you.”
He touched her shoulder, gently, though he could have shaken her. He was hungry and cold, and her eyes, half mad, stared through him, through his hunger. She shook off his hand. Her eyes turned inward and her nose, raw and quivering, snuffed at the hole again.
“Your child is hungry for rape.”
“I’ll see to the potatoes, wife.”
Her hand rose back to the hole in the wall. She dug at it with her fingers, rooting out small pebbles.
“I must have it raw. I want it raw, as bitter as possible. Your child demands it.”
He busied his hands with paring knife and potato. He could not bring himself to tell her to wipe her lips. You try my patience, he did not say. She should notice that he did not say it. She should reward his patience with a grateful kiss.
“Do you still love me?” she asked.
“You’re my wife. Of course I…” But she turned away from his answer before he was through. Her fingers scrabbled fretfully at the wall, and she harvested bird bones and horsehair from the mortar.
Presently she spoke again, in that affected tone he’d come to hate, if he wasn’t careful he’d slice himself, her voice high and wavering, with strange strained vowels and she never met his eye when this fit was on her, she cocked her eyes up at the ceiling like a martyr, affected, that’s what it was. Water bubbled in the kettle. He dug eyes out with the point of his knife.
She said: “Days are short in winter, if you measure by the sun. Count hours by craving and you get a different measure. I ride the shadows round. I jump their length to make them fall faster, faster. I sift hours like flour, in deep sacks.”
She sighed, swallowed, gestured fitfully, still looking at a point high on the ceiling to the left of his head. Bewitched, or pretending, he no longer cared. There, he’d cut himself. He thumbed bloody bits of bruised potato into the fire. She looked directly at him.
“They say a woman in her time is content to vegetate. That this is a green, growing time in which waiting is doing. But waiting’s all we women ever do. I never knew how long the days were until these cravings, water welling in my mouth and the monster in my belly crying 'Rape! Rape!' Oh, I do not want her, or the rape she craves! It is so bitter. I hanker after sweeter fruit. If I am the apple, she is the worm. This is your doing. The two of you. You have made a puppet out of me. I cannot wait for my body to give her away!”
The puppeteer put the potatoes on.
The next night, the hole she’d made was bigger. Dilated to the size of a fist. She sat with her back to the room, with her back to him, her mouth sealed to the hole, sucking greedily. Her hands kneaded the stone breast of the wall. Her belly pressed into the chairback. He touched her pale hair, clotted as it was with sweat. She turned a face to him that was gray-mouthed, rimmed with mortar. In the moment before disgust flooded him, he saw the pain she was in. It winded him. He could do nothing for her. And so, disgust, that false and bitter antidote to sympathy, erased his love. Helpless, he hated her.
“The wall,” she said. “I smell it through the wall. If I could just have a taste, then I could rest. Just a taste. I drink it from the wind, but nothing gets in. My belly’s full of air, and howling. And my nostrils tell me, it’s there, it’s there, and I try to taste it but the wall is in the way. I must have rape.”
“Rape, day and night you call for rape. I get no sleep. Shall I show you rape? Shall I?”
He took her by the shoulders and shook her. He thrust his thumbs deep under her shoulder blades and backed her against the opposite wall and slammed her, hard, so that her head bounced. Her belly pressed against him. He felt the baby kick. He slammed her again, tears streaming out of his right eye, but only his right, it was peculiar but the left remained steady and dry, it burned and looked down at her and hated the sight.
“Go over the wall,” she said. “Go tonight. Else I will die.”
“You won’t die,” he retorted. “No one dies of a whim.”
“I will die of you, or it.”
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