I first heard this story from my aunt, when I was about fourteen or so.
We were making jam in the garden out of old plums, my aunt, my sister and me, all of us stood around the kitchen table we’d dragged out there for the afternoon, our hands stained yellow and brown, the knives slippery in our fists.
“When I was little,” she said, as if it had actually happened to her, as if it was actually true, “when I was little, not much older than you two, we lived in Mundon still, your mum and me, at your grandparents’ old house, that you probably don’t remember,” she said to my sister, “and that you definitely won’t,” she said to me, “in the months between your grandparents dying and us all having to leave. But I worked here in Maldon.
“I had to walk through the woods to get to work,” she said.
“There aren’t any woods,” I said, “not near here.”
“There were then,” she said. “They were here, here and all the way down the road, before the towns began to sprawl towards each other, and everything was thinned out a bit and made plain.
“I walked through the woods because it was quicker than the road, and it was nicer, too. And safer, I thought, away from the trucks on the road that threatened to knock you into the bushes, leaving you caught there in the branches like an old carrier bag tattered into wisps in the wind.
“What’s that? Yes, of course we had carrier bags then.”
(The way I’m telling it, and the way I remember it, was that it was me making these interjections, but it was almost certainly my sister, for she always understood that stories are a collaborative thing, dialogues rather than monologues, while I was content just to listen, to learn.)
“The path was always overgrown, in the summer, in the spring,” my aunt almost sung. “We hung a sickle on a hook by the stile at the edge of the woods, and you’d take it with you when you walked your way along the way, and you would hack away at the brambles and the branches that got in your way, and you’d leave it at the other end of the path when you’d gone all the way through, so that someone else could use it when they went back the other way.
“I don’t know if I was the only one who walked the path or the only one that had the good grace to keep the path, but the sickle was always there waiting for me, in the morning, in the evening, in the lateness of the night if I’d been out. But I was a big girl even then. Especially then,” she laughed. “All that lifting at the warehouse did wonderful things for your arms. I wielded that sickle like a bloody scythe.
“A stream ran through the woods, winding back and forth across the path so that I had to cross three bridges. And on my way home one day I met the devil on every one.
“At the first bridge he looked at me and said, ‘Let me have a kiss, and only then will I let you pass.’ And so I gave the devil a kiss and I crossed the river and continued on my way.
“At the second one he was there again. ‘Let me…’ Well,” my aunt laughed, “‘Let us,’ he said, ‘let’s fuck, and then and only then will I let you continue on your way.’ So I stood against the tree and let the devil have his way. And a very good way it was, I’ll have you know. A very good way indeed,” my aunt laughed.
And my sister blushed and so I expect did I.
“At the third bridge,” my aunt said, “there he stood again. He waited until I was near and then he said ‘We’ve kissed, you and I, and we’ve loved, so now all that’s left is for us to marry.’ ‘And then you’ll let me continue on my way?’ I asked. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Of course.’
“And I know I was young, and I know I was stupid, but really, I thought. Really. What did he take me for? So I told the devil to give me his hand, and he held it out for me to hold.
“I swung that sickle down so hard it went clean through his palm and pinned him to the bridge.”
My aunt held up a plum between her fingers and sliced it apart with her knife. She picked the stone out with the tip of her blade, then threw the halved plum into the pot.
“And,” she said, “I went on my way.”
1. Written in July, 2014__________patreon. Subscribers get not just early access to content and also the occasional gift, but also my eternal gratitude. Which I'm not sure is very useful, but is certainly very real. Thank you.