A Fairy Tale
By Rachael Smith
Many moons ago, there was a woman who squatted in a hut made of uncured hides, hidden among the dunes of white, white sand. White as bone. White as cream. The smell of the hut wafted into the village sometimes and the women with babies squeezing their ribs with pudgy legs and prying away at their hair, their lips, their blouses would say “Oh but she is alone.” And they would push the babies’ hands away from their mouths and wonder what it was like inside the hut. The men of the village sometimes would stand in a ring around the hut and watch her pull her breast from her dress and let a kid goat nuzzle and pull, its tail flipping behind it. And the blood pooled, leaving them taut and pressing toward her. The women knew where the men had been when the white dust was tracked into their houses, ground into the floor with desire and rage. For the woman of the hut only laughed when they came to stare. Her teeth sharpened into cruel points with pieces of volcanic stone. The women of the village scrubbed floors in unison on those days and wondered at the knot between their hips.
I am a wizard. A white wizard. And my ship has cut through the icy waters of the north, sending black harpoons with rope ribboning behind to pierce the bellies of whales.
Once, we brought a great mother whale onto the ship after her fighting and churning against me, against all of us. She opened her great toothed mouth and said, “killing is as killing does.” Her calf lolled and cried in the waters beside the ship, not yet fluent in the tongue of man. We cut her into pieces and ate the blubber, for our ribs rippled out from sitting so long here in the doldrums. The dead air sucking around us and the fresh water dwindling in clay pots and old barrels below us. The gulls came then. White pinpoints tearing holes in the ever-present fog, landing on the mother’s grey fluke and scraping their bloodied beaks against the water dappled hull.
Only when we threw Jasper overboard to give the sea back her lover, did the wind pick up. Jasper was the most beautiful of us, with fine features and a grin that spread white and wild when he told us about how he spun silk with emperors and kissed women who were sewn shut and bound with linen and pierced with bone needles through their eyelids.
And only then did the wind lift our sails and draw us out of the gray stillness. Whale flesh rotting on the surface. We sold the mother whale for lamps and corsets and took our fill of the villages. Women on our laps. Ale filling our mouths.
But my purpose is higher these days. I must root out witchhood and bruise it with my heel.
The village’s children fell ill with a dark fever that flooded their throats with a viscous liquid the color of mulberry wine. The women rushed around the single rooms of their cabins, dabbing at the tender brows of those that grew in them and came out of them. A great wailing rose past the flies tracking across the slick hot faces.
The men crowded on the edge of the village, tipping wine into their mouths, for the gods told them they were not to cry, they were not to hold their children, they were not to braid hair or sweep floors or smile too fondly. Gripping their axes and muskets, they watched the village and whispered amongst themselves of punishment for this sickness. Who must die for this.
One women by the name of Charity gathered her only girl-child in her arms as the sickness drew the child’s lungs closed and remembered the times she thought of others while her husband fucked her. Images of women unbraiding their hair and letting it fall around her while she kneaded their breasts and drew on their soft mouths, of strange pale-eyed men coming in from the green sea and gathering her behind her knees and around her throat until she careened into a silent bright light, all the while her husband sweated over her while the children slept. After he finished, she rubbed until the glow in her burst and prayed to Hex, the god of disaster, that another being did not enter her for nourishment and existence. Always tugging at her. Always needing.
This was her punishment for her mindly travels. The girl-child sucked at the air, bluish around the lips.
And another thought drifted up. Perhaps this was not punishment.
The men’s voices rose in unison as the wine warmed them.
This village is so quiet. Cold wind blows the white sand in curls from the tops of the dunes. What sounds are missing? I name sounds in my head. Horses, shouting, temple bells, children.
It is the sound of children that is absent. They usually rush up to us, asking for stories from the sea, clamoring to touch the great tooth around my neck. The tooth I pulled from the mouth of a leviathan that arched over our ship, attracted by the blood of whales. Only these dark southerly women are here, pushing their curls from their faces, but there is no admiration in their eyes. It is strange, for I am tall and all my teeth are in my head. I am an excellent lover. I know how to curl my fingers and press. I know that an empty womb is a faerie’s dancing ground.
Where are the men?
Black smoke humps into the air from the other side of the dunes. Women are shutting doors, pulling one another in by thin wrists. Their skin so dark. Their brows so dense. These southerly women.
Where are the children?
The leather bag around my neck tugs toward tight toward a hide-domed structure in the center of town. It finds witches. It is blood magic, for only sacrifice can detect the subtleties of witch magic, which draws from the sea and the ground. A cluster of golden beetles loll in the white sand under my feet, attracted to the ozone smell of the bag. They will clamor for a taste of it, shoveling dust over one another to feed on it.
I motion for my men to follow. They tear their eyes from the dark wildness of the women and touch the knives at their belts. They are restless from being seabound for so long. Their beards are frosted with salt and their hands, toughened and brown, shine with scar tissue.
The children and the old died one by one. The fever creeping through their blood and roiling under the surface. The women dragged wet cloths over the faces and filled the dead’s pockets with whalebone needles and gut thread to give to the she-demon who guarded the tunnel to The Not Coast.
The she- demon once had a name, but the villagers forgot it when the forest changed from white to green and then to gray and then to nothing.
The men grumbled amongst themselves. The women were the ones closest to the children. The women were the ones who bathed the old ones, lifting their frail arms to wipe warm water across their wrinkled skin. The women prepared the food. The women fed the children from their bosom. The women. The women. Which woman? Witch. Witch. Witch.
Their eyes all turned toward the woman in the skin hut.
She turned to them as they gathered around her soap pot. A thin black dog sat back to scratch at its frayed ear. Torn by another dog. Bitten and ripped; the dog’s face looked almost human in its hairless scarification.
The men pushed in closer to her, the disease bringer, this strange creature. They weighed their hatchets and cracked their knuckles. She put down a hunk of fat and wiped her hands on her apron. Sweat gathered dark under her arms. The earth under their feet trembled and sank as she loosed her silver-laced hair and spat.
The men wanted her body. They were engorged and thick with violence. Their hearts beat with the need to seek her, to penetrate, to be loved by her. She rose above them, vast and terrible. She wound her hands around the tree branches high above and tore them down, sending them crashing among the men, who looked on in awe, never daring to remove themselves from her. She crouched down, her knees reaching the tops of their heads now and kissed each of them, her lips enveloping their faces entirely, her pointed teeth the size of a king’s goblet.
The white moon rose over her hunched shoulders.
I need a place where my feet are on the earth to perform my services for this village.
We find a tavern, but there are only women huddled around tables, stroking each other’s fingers and whispering. Their black eyes flick over my men and then they go back to swilling spirits. The color in their cheeks is rising and they pulse their jaws at us. Like suspicious wives. Like uneasy mothers.
The bar maid has a silver whistle around her neck that dangles and bumps over her heavy breasts. A white cat the size of a man lolls on the floor in a patch of sunshine, blinking its great golden eyes. I approach a woman with green eyes and smoke tattoos, who has her finger wrapped around a plump woman’s curl. They talk softly and smile into each other.
I am a white wizard. Where are your men?
They talk over me. They act as if I am not here. Right in front of them. I grab a clay flagon on their table and hurl it across the room. It bursts sweet honeyed mead across the far wall, flicking froth on the women at the table closest to it. The white cat hisses and skitters under a table. Now they are listening to me. A swell of satisfaction rises in me and I brush my knuckle against the green-eyed woman’s cheek. I am in control.
I clear my throat.
Where are your men?
My men eye the women like gulls on a carcass. The green-eyed woman stands up and nods at the barkeep. She carries a void around her neck. I have only seen one other void like it, far away in the ice deserts of the north, where the seas turn to white slush. A heathen woman shaman had it. I wanted it, but she disappeared into its infinity before I could snatch it off her neck.
Before I can speak again, loops of raw white silk are drawn around my wrists. The heels of boots thunk against the rough-hewn wood of the floor. And I am falling backwards into the void. Small teeth shining above me.
The witch woman came bearing gifts to the women in the village when the men did not return. Her close-cropped hair spiked with sweat that rolled down her cheeks. Her breasts were bare and tattooed with lines that dipped and swerved up her throat and into endless pattern. Heaps of scrolls crushed against one another in her bearskin pack. The early morning sun washed everything in white dapples and the sea dragged in slow brownish foam, littering the beach with thousands of red-gilled fish that gasped and flipped over in the receding surf. The women rushed in with baskets woven from palm and horsehair and scooped up the fish, forgetting the dead children for a moment. Baskets of salt glittered in the sun.
Charity stood at the edge of the crowd, her skin wet from the surf. The witch woman bent to hand out another scroll from her dogskin pack. A wooden tail lashed back and forth from under her woolen breeches. The scrolls unfurled, whispering against one another as the women drank in the images of the great demoness gatekeepers sewing the void to let man pass onto the mainland. Stories that shifted and morphed according to the preacher who lived on the island by himself, dousing himself in hog urine and fasting until Hex blessed him with sight.
The women of the village spread the scrolls on the sand and lay on their bellies tracing their fingers along the images and text, baskets of fish forgotten in the cool surf. The witch woman reached into the back of her own mouth, drippling saliva as she gagged and drew out an amulet with a center blacker than black that clacked against her teeth as she drew it out in front of Charity. It spun on a thread thinner than hair. The witch woman spread the thread with her fingers and draped the amulet over Charity’s thick curls and around her throat. A void. Voids were rarer than the second sun’s rise.
“Why not you?"
In the void, I remember screams and the smell of cooking people. Crouching in holes that filled with icy rain, waiting, while generals jerked at the mouths of their great gray horses. Clutching at each other as fragile glass balls rolled toward us from the enemy lines, filled with pure white powder that burst through skin, bubbling it into fluid-filled mounds around all the moist parts of us. Horses collapsing under the curved blade of the enemy. The mud thickened black with blood.
Our witch healer lifting my twin sister, still clinging to her dead horse’s reins, her armor melded to her ribs, and smoothing her eyelids closed. Gouts of rain pressing us into the muck. But mostly I remember the long drags of nothingness before the battles. The bag around my neck, charged with magic from our mother, tugging toward the earth. My friends cupping their hands around rolled sticks of fragrant herbs and drawing the embers to life with their warm breath. The sun peeking but never breaking. The enemy sometimes hurling bags filled with bits of food or ink sketches of naked men and women clutching one another. And us hurling bags filled with smoke sticks and herbs and we all laughed until the horns blew us up against one another with swords and singeing spells. I look toward the suns here and know that I am not here again, but simply a spectator. And the void releases me.
I am tied to an immense pole, my wrists lashed to my men’s, jostling with each step of the great black killhearths we are strapped to. The killhearths snuffle at the women leading them, nudging them with labial slits and slinging their claw tipped tongues back against the flies. The green-eyed woman rubs under the killhearth’s chin flaps and laughs as I tell her that I am here to help her and hers.
I can release you from the spell.
The women look at me and laugh all at once, together, nudging and leaning against one another. A dog skeleton raises from the sand dunes for a moment and lopes around us, chasing its tail.
What spell? We are under no spell.
The women fell in love with their freedom. Some missed their husbands and lit clay plates of dried herbs to help them find their ways home. Some took up with one another, working together to build up their farmsteads. They chopped up the stocks in the center of the town and built coops for chickens. They spun Killhearth wool into yarn and yarn into black, black blankets. They fed the preacher from isle eggs and purple tubers when he rowed ashore, his eyes blackened by pupil and nose dusted with golden fungus. Sometimes the women took him to bed with them and traced his tattoos with their cool fingertips. He dared not curse them for this was Hex’s will.
Charity wore the void against her heart and it sipped away at her nightmares, drawing them further from her. She was wed to a woman with dimples so deep they creased her cheeks when she laughed. The witch woman left the village with her hairless pack dog and a warm killhearth shawl. The women burned an effigy made of a thousand rag dolls to mourn her leaving.
In the cycle of the third moon, men came from the sea.
I was certain of my love for others until this moment. The women tie us all to one lightening-scarred tree, binding our wrists together. My fingertips brush Orel’s forearm and he wraps his fingers under mine. And I remember holding him and him holding me some time ago, but only for a moment when the waves slapped down on our boat and the sky swirled black.
Clouds are gathering over the horizon, purple and gray, lightening flashing through them. The green-eyed woman looks at me. The reins from the killhearth are draped over her arm. She is as handsome as our goddess here. The void absorbs the shadows from her face so that her skin seems without flaw. The white of her eyes are inescapable. She is pushing the void into a sand dune by the tree, her hands motioning over it. Witchhood to consume us. Witchhood to take from us.
A great vast blackness opens beneath her hands and spreads over our boots. It is so cold. Colder than the mist from the frozen seas. She lifts the blackness like a shield and turns it in the air before us. It has the breadth of the belly of a ship and the height of two men. She pushes it toward us. The other women are laughing, leaning on one another, some pointing at us. The voids closes around us and we are. We are.
There is no light here. We are floating bodies drifting in the endless slog until the stars churn into view, draped in green gauze. Stones bigger than icebergs hurdle past us and a single sun careens over a blue-green sphere.
I remember my father striking me down when I was boy and then lifting me to his chest, cradling me. I cannot remember why he struck me.
The women stood around the tree, clasping hands and marveling at the empty ropes that unfurled around the based of the tree. Only bits of clothing remained. Some of the women picked at the residue around the tree finding letters to children, identification bands from the Great War, whittled figures of dogs and whales. Some fingered these items and saw in them little brothers stacking stones by the sea. Some saw drunken fathers bruising and pinching skin.
The women turned to Charity, Owner of The Void.
Where did they go?
Where Hex willed them to go.
Will they come back?
If Hex wills their return.
And Charity thought of her own boy-child, wrapping himself in wool as she spun, cradling the old dog’s face until she growled, chasing frogs, crushing bugs, pressing against her hip while she cut bread, pulling his sister’s hair, laughing at the shapes of the moons as they passed over one another, suckling at her breast until her nipples cracked and her spine ached.