“There,” said Grinnan as we cleared the trees. “Now, you keep your counsel, Hanny-boy.”
Why, that is the mudwife’s house, I thought. Dread thudded in me. Since two days ago among the older trees when I knew we were in my father’s forest, I’d feared this.
The house looked just as it did in my memory: the crumbling, glittery yellow walls, the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud. My tongue rubbed the roof of my mouth just looking. It is crisp as wafer-biscuit on the outside, that mud. You bite through to a sweetish sand inside. You are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating.
The mudwife might be dead, I thought hopefully. So many are dead, after all, of the black.
But then came a convulsion in the house. A face passed the window-hole, and there she was at the door. Same squat body with a big face snarling above. Same clothing, even, after all these years, the dress trying for bluishness and the pinafore for brown through all the dirt. She looked just as strong. However much bigger I’d grown, it took all my strength to hold my bowels together.
“Don’t come a step nearer.” She held a red fire-banger in her hand, but it was so dusty—if I’d not known her I’d have laughed.
“Madam, I pray you,” said Grinnan. “We are clean as clean—there’s not a speck on us, not a blister. Humble travellers in need only of a pig-hut or a chicken-shed to shelter the night.”
“Touch my stock and I’ll have you,” she says to all his smoothness. “I’ll roast your head in a pot.”
I tugged Grinnan’s sleeve. It was all too sudden—one moment walking wondering, the next on the doorstep with the witch right there, talking heads in pots.
“We have pretties to trade,” said Grinnan.
“You can put your pretties up your poink-hole where they belong.”
“We have all the news of long travel. Are you not at all curious about the world and its woes?”
“Why would I live here, tuffet-head?” And she went inside and slammed her door and banged the shutter across her window.
“She is softening,” said Grinnan. “She is curious. She can’t help herself.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You watch me. Get us a fire going, boy. There on that bit of bare ground.”
“She will come and throw her bunger in it. She’ll blind us, and then—”
“Just make and shut. I tell you, this one is as good as married to me. I have her heart in my hand like a rabbit-kitten.”
I was sure he was mistaken, but I went to, because fire meant food and just the sight of the house had made me hungry. While I fed the fire its kindling I dug up a little stone from the flattened ground and sucked the dirt off it.
Grinnan had me make a smelly soup. Salt-fish, it had in it, and sea-celery and the yellow spice.
When the smell was strong, the door whumped open and there she was again. Ooh, she was so like in my dreams, with her suddenness and her ugly intentions that you can’t guess. But it was me and Grinnan this time, not me and Kirtle. Grinnan was big and smart, and he had his own purposes. And I knew there was no magic in the world, just trickery on the innocent. Grinnan would never let anyone else trick me; he wanted that privilege all for himself.
“Take your smelly smells from my garden this instant!” the mudwife shouted.
Grinnan bowed as if she’d greeted him most civilly. “Madam, if you’d join us? There is plenty of this lovely bull-a-bess for you as well.”
“I’d not touch my lips to such mess. What kind of foreign muck—”
Even I could hear the longing in her voice, that she was trying to shout down.
There before her he ladled out a bowlful—yellow, splashy, full of delicious lumps. Very humbly—he does humbleness well when he needs to, for such a big man—he took it to her. When she recoiled he placed it on the little table by the door, the one that I ran against in my clumsiness when escaping, so hard I still sometimes feel the bruise in my rib. I remember, I knocked it skittering out the door, and I flung it back meaning to trip up the mudwife. But instead I tripped up Kirtle, and the wife came out and plucked her up and bellowed after me and kicked the table onto the path, and ran out herself with Kirtle like a tortoise swimming from her fist and kicked the table aside again—
Bang! went the cottage door.
Grinnan came laughing quietly back to me.
“She is ours. Once they’ve et your food, Hanny, you’re free to eat theirs. Fish and onion pie tonight, I’d say.”
“Jealous, are we? Don’t like old Grinnan supping at other pots, hnh?”
“It’s not that!” I glared at his laughing face. “She’s so ugly, that’s all. So old. I don’t know how you can even think of—”
“Well, I am no primrose myself, golden boy,” he says. “And I’m grateful for any flower that lets me pluck her.”
I was not old and desperate enough to laugh at that joke. I pushed his soup-bowl at him.
“Ah, bull-a-bess,” he said into the steam. “Food of gods and seducers.”
When the mudwife let us in, I looked straight to the corner, and the cage was still there! It had been repaired in places with fresh plaited withes, but it was still of the same pattern. Now there was an animal in it, but the cottage was so dim . . . a very thin cat, maybe, or a ferret. It rippled slowly around its borders, and flashed little eyes at us, and smelled as if its own piss were combed through its fur for pomade. I never smelled that bad when I lived in that cage. I ate well, I remember; I fattened. She took away my leavings in a little cup, on a little dish, but there was still plenty of me left.
So that when Kirtle freed me I lumbered away. As soon as I was out of sight of the mud-house I stopped in the forest and just stood there blowing from the effort of propelling myself, after all those weeks of sloth.
So that Grinnan when he first saw me said, Here’s a jubbly one. Here’s a cheese cake. Wherever did you get the makings of those round cheeks? And he fell on me like a starving man on a roasted mutton-leg. Before too long he had used me thin again, and thin I stayed thereafter.
He was busy at work on the mudwife now.
“Oh my, what an array of herbs! You must be a very knowledgeable woman. And hasn’t she a lot of pots, Hansel! A pot for every occasion, I think.”
Oh yes, I nearly said, including head-boiling, remember?
“Well, you are very comfortably set up here, indeed, Madam.” He looked about him as if he’d found himself inside some kind of enchanted palace, instead of in a stinking hovel with a witch in the middle of it. “Now, I’m sure you told me your name—”
“I did not. My name’s not for such as you to know.” Her mouth was all pruny and she strutted around and banged things and shot him sharp looks, but I’d seen it. We were in here, weren’t we? We’d made it this far.
“Ah, a guessing game!” says Grinnan delightedly. “Now, you’d have a good strong name, I’m sure. Bridda, maybe, or Gert. Or else something fiery and passionate, such as Rossavita, eh?”
He can afford to play her awhile. If the worst comes to the worst, he has the liquor, after all. The liquor has worked on me when nothing else would, when I’ve been ready to run, to some town’s wilds where I could hide—to such as that farm-wife with the worried face who beat off Grinnan with a broom. The liquor had softened me and made me sleepy, made me give in to the old bugger’s blandishments; next day it had stopped me thinking with its head-pain, further than to obey Grinnan’s grunts and gestures.
How does yours like it? said Gadfly’s red-haired boy viciously. I’ve heard him call you “honey,” like a girl-wife; does he do you like a girl, face-to-face and lots of kissing? Like your boy-bits, which they is so small, ain’t even there, so squashed and ground in?
He calls me Hanny, because Hanny is my name. Hansel.
Honey is your name, eh? said the black boy—a boy of black skin from naturalness, not illness. After your honey hair?
Which they commenced patting and pulling and then held me down and chopped all away with Gadfly’s good knife. When Grinnan saw me he went pale, but I’m pretty sure he was trying to cut some kind of deal with Gadfly to swap me for the red-hair (with the skin like milk, like freckled milk, he said), so the only thing it changed, he did not come after me for several nights until the hair had settled and I did not give off such an air of humiliation.
Then he whispered, You were quite handsome under that thatch, weren’t you? All along. And things were bad as ever, and the next day he tidied off the stragglier strands, as I sat on a stump with my poink-hole thumping and the other boys idled this way and that, watching, warping their faces at each other and snorting.
The first time Grinnan did me, I could imagine that it didn’t happen. I thought, I had that big dump full of so much nervous earth and stones and some of them must have had sharp corners and cut me as I passed them, and the throbbing of the cuts gave me the dream, that the old man had done that to me. Because I was so fearful, you know, frightened of everything coming straight from the mudwife, and I put fear and pain together and made it up in my sleep. The first time I could trick myself, because it was so terrible and mortifying a thing, it could not be real. It could not.
I have watched Grinnan a long time now, in success and failure, in private and on show. At first I thought he was too smart for me, that I was trapped by his cleverness. And this is true. But I have seen others laugh at him, or walk away from his efforts easily, shaking their heads. Others are cleverer.
What he does to me, he waits till I am weak. Half-asleep, he waits till. I never have much fight in me, but dozing off I have even less.
Then what he does—it’s so simple I’m ashamed. He bares the flesh of my back. He strokes my back as if that is all he is going to do. He goes straight to the very oldest memory I have—which, me never having told him, how does he know it?—of being sickly, of my first mother bringing me through the night, singing and stroking my back, the oldest and safest piece of my mind, and he puts me there, so that I am sodden with sweetness and longing and nearly-being-back-to-a-baby.
And then he proceeds. It often hurts—it mostly hurts. I often weep. But there is a kind of bargain goes on between us, you see. I pay for the first part with the second. The price of the journey to that safe, sweet-sodden place is being spiked in the arse and dragged kicking and biting my blanket back to the real and dangerous one.
Show me your boy-thing, the mudwife would say. Put it through the bars.
You will bite it off. You will cut it off with one of your knives. You will chop it with your axe.
Put it out. I will do no such thing. I only want to wash it.
Wash it when Kirtle is awake, if you so want me clean.
It will be nice, I promise you. I will give you a nice feeling, so warm, so wet. You’ll feel good.
But when I put it out, she exclaimed, What am I supposed to do with that?
Wash it, like you said.
There’s not enough of it even to wash! How would one get that little peepette dirty?
I put it away, little shred, little scrap I was ashamed of.
And she flung around the room awhile, and then she sat, her face all red crags in the last little light of the banked-up fire. I am going to have to keep you forever! she said. For years before you are any use to me. And you are expensive! You eat like a pig! I should just cook you up now and enjoy you while you are tender.
I was all wounded pride and stupid. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I can do anything my sister can do, if you just let me out of this cage. And I’m a better wood-chopper.
Wood-chopper! she said disgustedly. As if I needed a wood-chopper! And she went to the door and took the axe off the wall there, and tested the edge with one of her horny fingertips, and looked at me in a very thoughtful way that I did not much like.
Sometimes he speaks as he strokes. My Hanny, he says, very gentle and loving like my mother, my goosle, my gosling, sweet as apple, salt as sea. And it feels as if we are united in yearning for my mother and her touch and voice.
She cannot have gone forever, can she, if I can remember this feeling so clearly? But, ah, to get back to her, so much would have to be undone! So much would have to un-happen: all of Grinnan’s and my wanderings, all the witch-time, all the time of our second mother. That last night of our first mother, our real mother, and her awful writhing and the noises and our father begging, and Kirtle weeping and needing to be taken away—that would have to become a nightmare, from which my father would shake me awake with the news that the baby came out just as Kirtle and I did, just as easily. And our mother would rise from her bed with the baby; we would all rise into the baby’s first morning, and begin.
It is very deep in the night. I have done my best to be invisible, to make no noise, but now the mudwife pants, He’s not asleep.
Of course he’s asleep. Listen to his breathing.
I do the asleep-breathing.
Come, says Grinnan. I’ve done with these, bounteous as they are. I want to go below. He has his ardent voice on now. He makes you think he is barely in control of himself, and somehow that makes you, somehow that flatters you enough to let him do what he wants.
After some uffing and puffing, No, she says, very firm, and there’s a slap. I want that boy out of here.
What, wake him so he can go and listen at the window?
Get him out, she says. Send him beyond the pigs and tell him to stay.
You’re a nuisance, he says. You’re a sexy nuisance. Look at this! I’m all misshapen and you want me herding children.
You do it, she says, rearranging her clothing, or you’ll stay that shape.
So he comes to me and I affect to be woken up and to resist being hauled out the door, but really it’s a relief of course. I don’t want to hear or see or know. None of that stuff I understand, why people want to sweat and pant and poke bits of themselves into each other, why anyone would want to do more than hold each other for comfort and stroke each other’s backs.
Moonlight. Pigs like slabs of moon, like long, fat fruit fallen off a moon-vine. The trees tall and brainy all around and above—they never sweat and pork; the most they do is sway in a breeze, or crash to the ground to make useful wood. The damp smell of night forest. My friends in the firmament, telling me where I am: two and a half days north of the ford with the knotty rope; four and a half days north and a bit west of “Devilstown,” which Grinnan called it because someone made off in the night with all the spoils we’d made off with the night before.
I’d thought we were the only ones not back in their beds! he’d stormed on the road.
They must have come very quiet, I said. They must have been accomplished thieves.
They must have been sprites or devils, he spat, that I didn’t hear them, with my ears.
We were seven and a half days north and very very west of Gadfly’s camp, where we had, as Grinnan put it, tried the cooperative life for a while. But those boys, they were a gang of no-goods, Grinnan says now. Whatever deal he had tried to make for Freckled-Milk, they laughed him off, and Grinnan could not stand it there having been laughed at. He took me away before dawn one morning, and when we stopped by a stream in the first light he showed me the brass candlesticks that Gadfly had kept in a sack and been so proud of.
And what’ll you use those for? I said foolishly, for we had managed up until then with moon and stars and our own wee fire.
I did not take them to use them, Hanny-pot, he said with glee. I took them because he loved and polished them so. And he flung them into the stream, and I gasped—and Grinnan laughed to hear me gasp—at the sight of them cutting through the foam and then gone into the dark cold irretrievable.
Anyway, it was new for me still, there beyond the mudwife’s pigs, this knowing where we were—though I had lost count of the days since Ardblarthen when it had come to me how Grinnan looked up to find his way, not down among a million tree-roots that all looked the same, among twenty million grass-stalks, among twenty million million stones or sand-grains. It was even newer how the star-pattern and the moon movements had steadied out of their meaningless whirling and begun to tell me whereabouts I was in the wide world. All my life I had been stupid, trying to mark the things around me on the ground, leaving myself trails to get home by because every tree looked the same to me, every knoll and declivity, when all the time the directions were hammered hard into their system up there, pointing and changing-but-never-completely-changing.
So if we came at the cottage from this angle, whereas Kirtle and I came from the front, that means . . . but Kirtle and I wandered so many days, didn’t we? I filled my stomach with earths, but Kirtle was piteous weeping all the way, so hungry. She would not touch the earth; she watched me eating it and wept. I remember, I told her, No wonder you are thirsty! Look how much water you’re wasting on those tears! She had brown hair, I remember. I remember her pushing it out of her eyes so that she could see to sweep in the dark cottage—the cottage where the mudwife’s voice is rising, like a saw through wood.
The house stands glittering and the sound comes out of it. My mouth waters; they wouldn’t hear me over that noise, would they?
I creep in past the pigs to where the blobby roof-edge comes low. I break off a blob bigger than my hand; the wooden shingle it was holding slides off, and my other hand catches it soundlessly and leans it against the house. The mudwife howls; something is knocked over in there; she howls again and Grinnan is grunting with the effort of something. I run away from all those noises, the white mud in my hand like a hunk of cake. I run back to the trees where Grinnan told me to stay, where the woman’s howls are like mouse-squeaks and I can’t hear Grinnan, and I sit between two high roots and I bite in.
Once I’ve eaten the mud I’m ready to sleep. I try dozing, but it’s not comfortable among the roots there, and there is still noise from the cottage—now it is Grinnan working himself up, calling her all the things he calls me, all the insults. You love it, he says, with such deep disgust. You filth, you filthy cunt. And she oh’s below, not at all like me, but as if she really does love it. I lie quiet, thinking, Is it true, that she loves it? That I do? And if it’s true, how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t? She makes noise, she agrees with whatever he says. Harder, harder, she says. Bang me till I burst. Harder! On and on they go, until I give up waiting—they will never finish!
I get up and go around the pigsty and behind the chicken house. There is a poor field there, pumpkins gone wild in it, blackberry bushes foaming dark around the edges. At least the earth might be softer here. If I pile up enough of this floppy vine, if I gather enough pumpkins around me—
And then I am holding, not a pale baby pumpkin in my hand but a pale baby skull.
Grinnan and the mudwife bellow together in the house, and something else crashes broken.
The skull is the colour of white-mud, but hard, inedible—although when I turn it in the moonlight I find tooth-marks where someone has tried.
The shouts go up high—the witch’s loud, Grinnan’s whimpering.
I grab up a handful of earth to eat, but a bone comes with it, long, white, dry. I let the earth fall away from it.
I crouch there looking at the skull and the bone, as those two finish themselves off in the cottage.
They will sleep now—but I’m not sleepy any more. The stars in their map are nailed to the inside of my skull; my head is filled with dark clarity. When I am sure they are asleep, I scoop up a mouthful of earth, and start digging.
Let me go and get the mudwife, our father murmured. Just for this once.
I’ve done it twice and I’ll do it again. Don’t you bring that woman here! Our mother’s voice was all constricted, as if the baby were trying to come up her throat, not out her nethers.
But this is not like the others! he said, desperate after the following pain. They say she knows all about children. Delivers them all the time.
Delivers them? She eats them! said our mother. It’s not just this one. I’ve two others might catch her eye, while I feed and doze. I’d rather die than have her near my house, that filthy hag.
So die she did, and our new brother or sister died as well, still inside her. We didn’t know whichever it was. Will it be another little Kirtle-child? our father had asked us, bright-eyed by the fire at night. Or another baby woodcutter, like our Hans? It had seemed so important to know. Even when the baby was dead, I wanted to know.
But the whole reason! our father sobbed. Is that it could not come out, for us to see! Which had shamed me quiet.
And then later, going into blackened towns where the only way you could tell man from woman was by the style of a cap, or a hair-ribbon draggling into the dirt beneath them, or a rotted pinafore, or worst by the amount of shrunken scrag between an unclothed person’s legs—why, then I could see how small a thing it was not to know the little one’s sex. I could see that it was not important at all.
When I wake up, they are at it again with their sexing. My teeth are stuck to the inside of my cheeks and lips by two ridges of earth. I have to break the dirt away with my finger.
What was I thinking, last night? I sit up. The bones are in a pile beside me; the skulls are in a separate pile—for counting, I remember. What I thought was: Where did she find all these children? Kirtle and I walked for days, I’m sure. There was nothing in the world but trees and owls and foxes and that one deer. Kirtle was afraid of bats at night, but I never saw even one. And we never saw people—which was what we were looking for, which was why we were so unwise when we came upon the mudwife’s house.
But what am I going to do? What was I planning, piling these up? I thought I was only looking for all Kirtle’s bits. But then another skull turned up and I thought, Well, maybe this one is more Kirtle’s size, and then skull after skull—I dug on, crunching earth and drooling and breathing through my nose, and the bones seemed to rise out of the earth at me, seeking out the moon the way a tree reaches for the light, pushing up thinly among the other trees until it finds light enough to spread into, seeking out me, as if they were thinking, Here, finally, is someone who can do something for us.
I pick up the nearest skull. Which of these is my sister’s? Even if there were just a way to tell girls’ skulls from boys’! Is hers even here? Maybe she’s still buried, under the blackberries where I couldn’t go for thorns.
Now I have a skull in either hand, like someone at a market weighing one cabbage against another. And the thought comes to me: Something is different. Listen.
The pigs. The mudwife, her noises very like the pigs’. There is no rhythm to them; they are random grunting and gasping. And I—
Silently I replace the skulls on the pile.
I haven’t heard Grinnan this morning. Not a word, not a groan. Just the woman. The woman and the pigs.
The sunshine shows the cottage as the hovel it is, its saggy sides propped, its sloppy roofing patched with mud-splats simply thrown from the ground. The back door stands wide, and I creep up and stand right next to it, my back to the wall.
Wet slaps and stirrings sound inside. The mudwife grunts—she sounds muffled, desperate. Has he tied her up? Is he strangling her? There’s not a gasp or word from him. That thing in the cage gives off a noise, though, a kind of low baying. It never stops to breathe. There is a strong smell of shit. Dawn is warming everything up; flies zoom in and out the doorway.
I press myself to the wall. There is a dip in the doorstep. Were I brave enough to walk in, that’s where I would put my foot. And right at that place appears a drop of blood, running from inside. It slides into the dip, pauses modestly at being seen, then shyly hurries across the step and dives into hiding in the weeds below.
How long do I stand there, looking out over the pigsty and the chicken house to the forest, wishing I were there among the trees instead of here clamped to the house wall like one of those gargoyles on the monks’ house in Devilstown, with each sound opening a new pocket of fear in my bowels? A fly flies into my gaping mouth and out again. A pebble in the wall digs a little chink in the back of my head, I’m pressed so hard there.
Finally, I have to know. I have to take one look before I run, otherwise I’ll dream all the possibilities for nights to come. She’s not a witch; she can’t spell me back; I’m thin now and nimble; I can easily get away from her.
So I loosen my head, and the rest of me, from the wall. I bend one knee and straighten the other, pushing my big head, my popping eyes, around the doorpost.
I only meant to glimpse and run. So ready am I for the running, I tip outward even when I see there’s no need. I put out my foot to catch myself, and I stare.
She has her back to me, her bare, dirty white back, her baggy arse and thighs. If she weren’t doing what she’s doing, that would be horror enough, how everything is wet and withered and hung with hair, how everything shakes.
Grinnan is dead on the table. She has opened his legs wide and eaten a hole in him, in through his soft parts. She has pulled all his innards out onto the floor, and her bare bloody feet are trampling the shit out of them, her bare shaking legs are trying to brace themselves on the slippery carpet of them. I can smell the salt-fish in the shit; I can smell the yellow spice.
That devilish moan, up and down it wavers, somewhere between purr and battle-yowl. I thought it was me, but it’s that shadow in the cage, curling over and over itself like a ruffle of black water, its eyes fixed on the mess, hungry, hungry.
The witch pulls her head out of Grinnan for air. Her head and shoulders are shiny red; her soaked hair drips; her purple-brown nipples point down into two hanging rubies. She snatches some air between her red teeth and plunges in again, her head inside Grinnan like the bulge of a dead baby, but higher, forcing higher, pummelling up inside him, fighting to be un-born.
In my travels I have seen many wrongnesses done, and heard many others told of with laughter or with awe around a fire. I have come upon horrors of all kinds, for these are horrible times. But never has a thing been laid out so obvious and ongoing in its evil before my eyes and under my nose and with the flies feasting even as it happens. And never has the means to end it hung as clearly in front of me as it hangs now, on the wall, in the smile of the mudwife’s axe-edge, fine as the finest nail-paring, bright as the dawn sky, the only clean thing in this foul cottage.
I reach my father’s house late in the afternoon. How I knew the way, when years ago you could put me twenty paces into the trees and I’d wander lost all day, I don’t know; it just came to me. All the loops I took, all the mistakes I made, all laid themselves down in their places on the world, and I took the right way past them and came here straight, one sack on my back, the other in my arms.
When I dreamed of this house it was big and full of comforts; it hummed with safety; the spirit of my mother lit it from inside like a sacred candle. Kirtle was always here, running out to greet me all delight.
Now I can see the poor place for what it is, a plague-ruin like so many that Grinnan and I have found and plundered. And tiny—not even as big as the witch’s cottage. It sits in its weedy quiet and the forest chirps around it. The only thing remarkable about it is that I am the first here; no one has touched the place. I note it on my star map—there is safety here, the safety of a distance greater than most robbers will venture.
A blackened boy-child sits on the step, his head against the doorpost as if only very tired. Inside, a second child lies in a cradle. My father and second-mother are in their bed, side by side just like that lord and lady on the stone tomb in Ardblarthen, only not so neatly carved or richly dressed. Everything else is exactly the same as Kirtle and I left it. So sparse and spare! There is nothing of value here. Grinnan would be angry. Burn these bodies and beds, boy! he’d say. We’ll take their rotten roof if that’s all they have.
“But Grinnan is not here, is he?” I say to the boy on the step, carrying the mattock out past him. “Grinnan is in the ground with his lady-love, under the pumpkins. And with a great big pumpkin inside him, too. And Mrs Pumpkin-Head in his arms, so that they can sex there underground forever.”
I take a stick and mark out the graves: Father, Second-Mother, Brother, Sister—and a last big one for the two sacks of Kirtle-bones. There’s plenty of time before sundown, and the moon is bright these nights, don’t I know it. I can work all night if I have to; I am strong enough, and full enough still of disgust. I will dig and dig until this is done.
I tear off my shirt.
I spit in my hands and rub them together.
The mattock bites into the earth.
© 2008 by Margo Lanagan.
First published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy,
edited by Ellen Datlow.
Reprinted by permission of the author.