Tale #36: The Old Woman’s Tale

I tell you this tale not because I expect you to believe it but because it is true.

I was born in this house and, God-willing, I shall die in this house. And when I die I hope you shall bury me here under the kitchen table so the devil won’t get me.

I am an old woman now but of course I was not always so. When I was young girl I was beautiful, no matter what you might think to look at me now. Nor no matter how often I was told back then I wasn’t, either. For the proof of your beauty lies in your belly, the old mothers round here used to say, and no sooner had I left the woods and gone to town for the first time my belly began to swell and before I knew it I was as pregnant as could be.

When it came time to give birth I hauled myself into the kitchen and laid myself down on the table there, because my bed was full of my sisters and I did not want to wake them.

And as I was lying there the devil walked in through the front door. He placed his hands on my belly and a chill went through me and when my baby was born it was as cold and dead as a plucked pigeon. And the devil was nowhere to be seen, because he had already taken what he wanted.

I buried that child under the front door step to keep the devil from coming back in and then I went back to bed with my sisters and slept all through the day.

Now in good time I went to town again, and soon enough for sure my belly was bearing the fruits of my beauty once more. And when it came time to give birth I hauled myself into the kitchen and laid myself down on the table again, for my bed was still full of my sisters and I did not wish to wake them.

And as I was lying there the devil came to the front door, but he couldn’t come in. I thought then he was gone but soon enough I heard him up on the roof, and down the chimney he came and he walked over to me with not a touch of soot on him, and he pressed his bony hands against my belly and a chill went through me. When those twins were finally born they were as cold and dead as plucked hens, and the devil was nowhere to be seen, because he had already taken what he wanted.

I buried those children under the fireplace to keep the devil from coming back in, and then I went back to bed with my sisters and slept all through the week.

Now, by and by, I got pregnant a third time. And once again when the day came I sneaked out of my bed so as not to wake my sisters and climbed up onto the kitchen table and laid myself down upon it.

I saw the devil at the front door, but he couldn’t come in. And then I heard the devil on the roof, but he could not come down the chimney. And then I saw the devil at the kitchen window, and he smiled at me. Smiled that smile of his I always saw in the city, the smile that made you know that he was going to get what he wanted come what may, and there was nothing you nor your hope could do about.

He was just about to climb through the window when I felt my children stir inside of me, and all of a sudden out from between my legs burst three hawks, their feathers as white as snow and their wings as loud as the wind, and not a single speck of blood upon them. And they flew round and round the room for what seemed like a lifetime and I looked at them in wonder and I looked at them with love.

And just as the devil was about to get in through the window the first one flew at the devil and scratched at his face and pecked out his eyes. The devil stumbled back, and he swept his arms around in a blind rage, and one of his hands touched the hawk and the hawk fell down dead upon the windowsill. And the devil in his pain and his frustration shrank back from the window and howled away into the woods and into the night, and I never saw him again in all my life.

The other two birds still flew around the kitchen table, and one swooped down and pulled the hair from my head and flew out the front door with it hanging from its claws like rat’s tails. And the other settled down beside me and plucked the teeth from my mouth, one by one, before flying up the chimney with them all held in its beak like a row of tiny white berries.

And I never saw them again, either, not in all my life.

I buried the dead bird beneath the window and I went back to bed with my sisters and they hugged me tight and I slept all through the year.

My sisters grew up and I grew old and in all the times my sisters gave birth (and there were many times, because my sisters were much more beautiful than I, as their bellies proudly showed) not once did we see the devil at the door, and not once did we hear the devil on the roof, and not once did the devil climb in through the window.

And not once did my sisters give birth to birds, nor ever did they have to.

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Notes:

1. Written August 2016

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The Things I Found Beneath My Skin

The left side of my body was dead to me. I never used it anyway. I stopped the bloodflow to my left arm and rested it on the table in front of me. As I pushed the razor’s blade into the vein at the wrist, my hand shuddered instinctively, a residue of feeling in the nerves that caused the flesh to respond but sent no signal to my brain.

Dead blood welled up at the point of incision, no longer being pumped in but still as eager as ever to escape. I pulled the knife along the course of the vein, opening up the forearm from wrist to elbow. I peeled the skin apart, pinning it down to the tabletop on each side. I wiped the blood away from the bones with a tea-towel that was still damp from dinner.

The etchings on the ulna were more beautiful than I had hoped. I started to remove it, sawing through the bone; first, just before the wrist, then just below the elbow. The breadknife was barely up to the job but I struggled through. Once I had finished I put the knife aside and then pulled the bone free from its pit.

I wiped it clean. I rotated it before me, a movement surprisingly awkward with a only a single hand available for the task. The picture carved into it extended all the way round. It was more than a picture really. A story told in delicate lines, circular and unending round the cylinder of bone, no beginning or end, a constant loop of unsettling depravity. Consumption and expulsion, death and re-death, all that the universe holds reduced to so little. And in its brevity, implications beyond measure.

It was hard to let it go, but I forced myself to set it aside. Underneath where the bone had lain, at the bottom of the valley of my hollowed out arm, in the clotted blood and the seeping marrow, unfurling now in the light that had been let it, my children were beginning to stir. Their translucent skin and formless faces turned towards the heat of the lamp. I picked them out as delicately as I could, my fingertips twice the size of their brittle skulls. One of them cracked between my fingers, but the other two survived. I placed them together on a saucer, and baptised them with my milk.

I took the blackbird from its cage. It froze in my hand, shock and fear stilling its wings, yet its heart beating so hard against my palm it felt like it might burst forth from its chest. I laid it down in the tomb of my arm, and began to seal it in, pulling the pins from the desk and folding the skin back together. I sealed the wound with masking tape, one piece along the line of the cut, then several looped around my arm. I loosened the tourniquets and let the flood flow back in.

As I rolled my sleeve back down I could feel the beat of her wings inside.

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Notes:

1. Written on April 14th, 2010

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