The first woman to live in the four-gabled house fermented her unborn children in the wine cellar. When they came to term, she broke them open on the floorboards. Her heartiest son weighed half an ounce at birth. His face, curved to the shape of the Mason jar womb where he developed, stayed pink for an hour before he died in a puddle of formaldehyde and afterbirth.
The second woman to live in the four-gabled house pulled her children from the ground like stubborn roots. They came out of the soil smelling of pollen, with faces like tulips. They were healthy until she cut their stems, and then they withered. They returned reedy and gray-faced to the earth.
The third woman in the four-gabled house said she had no children.
The fourth woman in the four-gabled house built her children from the parts of old radios and tractors. Their cries sounded like the spinning of propellers. Some of them could blink and one could even smile, but breast milk fried their motors. In their mother’s arms, they dissolved into heaps of crackling wires.
The women had been married before, to ordinary men, but no one wanted to mention that in light of what happened to the children.
The women in the four-gabled house no longer got many visitors.
All through the month of September, the women in the four-gabled house watched as a sober, clean-faced young creature walked down their street, past their house, to the end of the cul-de-sac, then turned and walked back.
The stranger would not walk in a neighborhood as unfashionable as their neighborhood if she did not want something with the four-gabled house and the women who lived there, they were sure of it.
“We should call someone,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “Get a neighborhood watch together.”
“Nonsense. She’s probably selling magazine subscriptions,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable of the four-gabled house. “Or collecting bits of metal for the war effort, or trying to interest us in a quilting bee so the orphans can have blankets. Or she’s from some society that has asked her to come by our house, but the problem is that she’s just too scared to do it.”
“Are we still frightening?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable of the four-gabled house. “I thought we’d gotten past that a few decades ago.”
“She’s a young girl in a fashionable hat,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “What could frighten her more than four old mothers with nary a man between them?”
“Well,” sniffed the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “If she ever came down to my cellar, she’d know real fright.”
September became October, October passed into November, and a damp, uncertain snow shimmered on the walks when the stranger came at last to the four-gabled house.
Her knock was hesitant, as if she feared to hurt the door.
The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house came to the door. The scent of myrrh clung to all her clothes and the damp of cellar walls clung to all her eyelids. She was the least approachable, so she always dealt with strangers.
“Please, may I come in?” said the stranger, and the woman who made her bed in the first gable thought for a moment, then nodded once, solemnly, and stepped aside.
The young woman crossed the foyer into the sitting room, where the other three women were waiting. “I’ve brought a pie for you,” she said, pushing a towel-covered dish at the most approachable person in the sitting room, which happened to be the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “I hope you like rhubarb.”
“Certainly,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, and while she smiled warmly, her hands trembled when she took the dish. “Thank you, dear.” She said dear after a long, conspicuous pause, as if correcting herself.
“My name is Marigold Hest,” said the stranger. “I wonder—do you know my husband?”
“I doubt it,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, at the same time that the woman who made her bed in the second gable said indignantly, “Should we?”
“Never mind that,” said Marigold. “In fact, I’m glad. It will make things simpler.” She sat for a moment, fidgeting with the brim of her hat, then huffed out a soft little breath and added, “I’ve heard that you have children here. I need one.”
“Do you think they fall out of the eaves?” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “What makes you believe we have a child for you? You’re a married woman—go get one off your husband.”
The young woman blushed as pink as rhubarb, but she persisted. “People talk about you. They say you used to be midwives, and now you’re witches. They say you’re descended from the women who they hung in Salem. They say you’re German and came to Amherst to seduce our men and spy on us. But I don’t care what you are. Somehow you get babies, lots of them. Please, let me have one.”
None of the women said anything for a long while. The woman who made her bed in the first gable of the four-gabled house raised her eyebrows. The woman who made her bed in the second gable stifled a laugh. The woman who made her bed in the third gable did nothing. At last, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable said, “And what sort of child is it that you’re wanting?”
“Any sort,” said Marigold. “Really, any one would do. As long as I can get it soon.”
“We’re not an assembly-line,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “Did someone tell you that we had… procured a baby for them?”
“No,” said Marigold, in a whisper that sounded more like yes.
“We wouldn’t,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “Ordinarily. Not out of selfishness… dear… but because we can’t.”
The others looked at her, noticing the word ordinarily and wondering if a stranger in a fashionable hat really counted as an exception. They had made an exception, once before. The exception was why the woman who made her bed in the third gable did not have children.
“But if you can try,” said Marigold. “If there’s any chance that you could get one for me, that would be better than no chance at all.”
“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “You’re young yet. Do you need a child now?”
“I’m afraid to say,” said Marigold. “Must I say?”
“No,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, before anyone else could speak. “We will try. Let us try.”
The woman who made her bed in the fourth gable was the first to take up Marigold’s cause. She took apart the ice box for its metal, marooning a bottle of milk and a package of frozen vegetables so she would have the materials to begin constructing a child. Sighing in resignation, the other women prepared a meal with all of their perishable foods. This had happened before, with the lamps and the radiator and the toaster oven. Wartime made metal hard to come by. Scrap-metal children had been rationed almost out of existence.
“This could be my last,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. She had a spoonful of warm grape jelly in her mouth, a soldering iron warming in her hand. “For a while, anyway, this could be my last.”
The probable lastness of the child did not make him any more eager to survive.
When he was complete, a small frame of plated steel and plastic with a hungry gaping buzzsaw mouth, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable called Marigold to the house and laid the child in her arms.
“Oh,” Marigold said. “Oh. What a miracle he is.” She kissed the shining smooth metal of his face, and held him in her arms. She said already he felt like hers. And then she went away.
For three days, the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable stayed there, weeping for the child she had abandoned to another woman, drinking cocoa made with curdled milk, listening to the radio: Little Orphan Annie had adventures twice daily; the president reported on the War only once, at five. On the third day Marigold brought the pile of wire and aluminum back to the four-gabled house, tucking him underneath her pea-coat to shield him from the wind. She wanted him buried properly; she wanted to go on pretending that he was a real child; she wanted to be told sorry.
The women who lived in the four-gabled house frowned and shook their heads. But they would not say sorry. They were glad to see that a young pretty stranger could not succeed where they always failed.
“A pity, that I could not make a better child,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable. “But not, I suppose, a surprise.”
“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.
“A pity,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.
The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say anything.
They let Marigold bury the child; she had already purchased a headstone for him.
“Bury him anywhere you like. Just, please,” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable, “not where water can reach him. He’ll fry if water reaches him.”
Marigold didn’t say what she thought, which was: he’s already dead, why should it matter what reaches him? She only nodded. She shifted his small body in her arms, and she handed the women a printed invitation to a wake that none of them would attend.
The woman who made her bed in the second gable felt a sort of pity for Marigold, now that the girl was grieving like the rest of them. That Marigold considered herself their superior, that she came to them in secret with her fashionable hat hiding her prim face, only made the girl more pathetic. She had not realized yet. She didn’t know. Some women simply aren’t meant for children.
The child that the woman who made her bed in the second gable made for Marigold would be a calla lily, with a decorative white face and a stem that wouldn’t wilt—at least not for a while. “Come twice a day and feed her,” she instructed Marigold, tipping a watering can over her own brood of children.
The wet soil darkened to a rich, nourished color. Marigold studied the ground attentively. “What is that you’re feeding them?”
“What does any mother feed her hungry infant?”
The girl’s eyes widened. She said, “I don’t believe I can do that, ma’am.”
“Don’t you ever call me ma’am,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. “When your child pushes her way out of the ground, when she looks at you with her hungry mouth wide-open, then you’ll believe you can do it. The milk has to be yours, understood?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Marigold, cowed but unrepentant, watching as a row of robust, root-colored children uncurled their long tendril-arms and lifted their faces to the sun.
The woman who made her bed in the second gable had garden clippers that she kept in perfect condition. She polished them before and after use, kept them from rust, and removed them from their leather case for one reason only: to cut loose those children who had come to term. It was with great reluctance that she handed the clippers to Marigold, who cut her child out of the ground and then, minutes later, sent her back to it.
“It seems wrong to bury her where she grew,” Marigold whispered.
The clippers rested in the pocket of Marigold’s flannel skirt. With uncharacteristic gentleness, the woman who made her bed in the second gable took them and returned them to their leather case.
“We could try again,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable, but she said the words so Marigold would know she didn’t mean them. And Marigold, sniffling, obediently shook her head no.
“I think my husband suspected, after the first child,” she said. “Perhaps it’s a blessing that this one died so soon. It would be wrong to try again. Wouldn’t it?”
She wanted to be told: no, it’s not wrong. Let’s try. This time your child will not be fed on borrowed breast milk. This time you will not make a diagonal cut down your child’s stem, as if she is a flower you are preparing for a vase. This time you will be better.
“Years ago, I let them grow too long, and they hurt me,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable. How many years, the girl would not know. “They made my insides ache. But I wanted them to stay with me longer, that’s why I did it. You don’t yet know what it feels like, to lose them again and again.”
“It must be dreadful,” said Marigold.
Later, she baked an apple tart. She smudged all the lipstick from her mouth and let her fashionable hat sit crooked on her head, and she sought the woman who made her bed in the third gable.
The women who lived in the four-gabled house found each other in tabloids, then in Sunday papers, then finally in a medical journal that three times failed to pass a peer review. But before then, the woman who made her bed in the third gable had lived alone. And the house had only one gable, and she could bear no children.
To the woman who made her bed in the third gable, this was a tragedy.
To the rest of the world, it was a great relief.
The woman who made her bed in the third gable gasped in fright when Marigold came to her door. Visitors, when they came to the four-gabled house at all, never climbed the staircase to the rooms where the women made their beds. When the woman peeked around her bedroom door, she sighed softly in relief and stepped aside. Marigold removed her hat, then stepped over the threshold.
“Is that apple?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.
“Yes—a tart.” Marigold handed over the steaming dish as if she could not wait to be rid of it. The woman who made her bed in the third gable set the dish aside, and did not look in its direction again.
“I suppose you heard what happened to the last baby,” Marigold said, after a moment.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, her voice quivering on the final word. “That must have been very hard for you.”
“Yes,” said Marigold. Then, steeling herself, she added, “I want to try again.”
“I’m afraid that’s how all her children come out… dear. They simply cannot survive without the earth to nourish them.”
“Not from her,” Marigold said. “From you. Please. It would mean the world to me.”
“How much is the world?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, frowning. She studied Marigold. “I’m not sure you’re ready to bear and bring up the sort of child I would make, dear.”
“When will I be ready?”
“There is one other woman in this household you have not asked for a child.”
“I had not thought she would say yes to me,” said Marigold. “I rather thought she disapproved of the whole thing.”
“She said no to you when you were young and childless. She did not want you to be happy. Now you have lost two children, and you ask her only for the chance to lose another.”
“So I will lose her child too?”
The woman who made her bed in the third gable would not say.
In the cellar, the air smelled like rust and formaldehyde and old gardenia petals. The temperature was many degrees lower than it was in the rest of the four-gabled house, and Marigold wrapped her coat tightly around herself as she descended the stairs. She had no tart or cake for the woman who made her bed in the first gable, for she suspected that nothing baked or roasted would satisfy such a woman, and she was right. The woman who made her bed in the first gable liked pickled things, things crunchy with salt and long-preserved, and she hated how fresh dough collapsed on her tongue. When she saw Marigold, she always thought of that fresh-dough feeling.
“I know already what you are coming to ask me,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable.
Marigold stepped down off the last step, making it squeak. “What will you say?”
“I don’t know yet,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “You’re not much of a mother so far, with your hat on straight and only two children in the ground. You don’t deserve my child.”
“And how many children do you have in the ground?” said Marigold.
“Two thousand, four hundred, and eighty-one,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “Some were twins,” she added.
“None lived?” Marigold said.
“None,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, with a touch of pride.
“Then I don’t think I want one of your children,” said Marigold.
“I don’t think you do,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, “I shall give you one.”
The woman who made her bed in the first gable no longer made her bed there. She holed up in the cellar with a block of brie and a feather-stuffed duvet, and she emerged only to wash her wine glass or collect the lukewarm cup of Earl Grey that the woman who made her bed in the third gable left out for her each afternoon.
The women did not like to interfere in each other’s creative processes, so none of them peeked down into the cellar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not care to discuss the child she was fermenting, though if she had, she would have told them that he was fashioned from the heart of a white rabbit, four dollars at the pet shop around the corner, and twice embalmed in myrrh and soda ash.
He had to grow in his mother’s womb, so she washed out the pie pan that Marigold had brought and sealed it with a glass cover.
Inside his tin womb, the child soaked and swelled and slowly became animate.
Inside her duvet, the woman who made her bed in the cellar dreamt of all the children she had lost inside her wombs.
The child reached such a size that he no longer fit inside the pie pan, then such a size that he no longer fit in a three-gallon pickle jar. The woman who made her bed in the cellar was stubborn, she wanted to see Marigold mourn, so she dug a hole, four feet deep, in the cellar’s dirt floor. When she was finished, she padded the floor with rock salt and lowered the child into the hole. February was halfway over, the temperatures were still low, and the cold and the salt would preserve the child for a few days more—long enough to make the girl believe, long enough to make her miserable when he rotted.
The woman who made her bed in the cellar did not always produce beautiful children, but this one was exquisite, a wet blood-colored salamander-like creature whose arteries worked like legs and whose eyes could see even in the depths of the cellar. In the womb of the earth he grew to three feet in length before he cried for release.
The woman who made her bed in the cellar telephoned Marigold to announce the child’s birth, knowing at half-past five her husband would be home, knowing that Marigold herself would be away at one of a dozen equally useless ladies’ society meetings and thus unable to intercept the call.
“Your son is crying for you,” said the woman who made her bed in the cellar, when a man answered.
She laid the phone down, waiting to feel satisfied, instead feeling hungry.
Before they had been women who lived in the four-gabled house, they had been:
A maiden aunt.
A minister’s wife.
A washed-up stage actress.
They did not resemble themselves anymore.
When Marigold came to the cellar, the woman who made her bed there had already left. The feather-stuffed duvet and frozen block of brie were gone; fourteen cups with shallow pools of Earl Gray in their bottoms remained. Marigold looked at each of the teacups, listened for her child’s cries, and felt reluctant to walk any closer to the dark end of the cellar.
Upstairs, the women who made their beds in the four-gabled house were making dinner.
Damp, rich sounds came from the dark end of the cellar and echoed off the brick walls until Marigold could not hear the banging of pots and pans upstairs, nor the record spinning on the player, nor even the sounds of the women’s voices.
She was afraid, but she would not leave the cellar without a son. She took up the iron bar propped up against the wall—she did not think, “someone might have put this bar there”; she thought very little—and walked forward until her child leapt up from the grave where he was born, four feet tall, hungry, hissing wetly at his mother.
Marigold swung the iron bar and struck the child in his moist, blood-colored forehead, then struck him again. She flew at him in such a fury that she did not stop to wonder what or who he was until he was already dead.
“Bury him yourself,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable when she heard. “Didn’t I already dig a suitable grave?”
“Won’t you have some shepherd’s pie before you go back down there, dear?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.
Buttered baguette slices, tin cups of milk, heaping cuts of pie: a good meal by ration standards, a good meal even by pre-war standards, and they had ruined it for her. The women smiled proudly at their visitor.
“I suppose I might have a little,” Marigold said, polite in her fashionable hat, black blood drying on her hands.
When all five plates were empty, the other women retired to their gables. The woman who made her bed in the third gable washed each plate, carefully, methodically, while her guest waited at the table.
Then she said, “It hurt to lose that one, didn’t it, dear?”
“Yes,” Marigold whispered. “It was my fault, this time.”
“You’re ready now,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable, “for the sort of child I could give you.”
“I don’t know if I can bear the pain of another child,” said Marigold.
“I know,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. She dried the final plate and wiped her hands clean on her apron, then made for the staircase. “Come along now, dear.”
“Where are we going?” said Marigold.
“The fifth gable,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable of the four-gabled house. “We’ll need privacy.”
Marigold’s husband waited at home for the arrival of their adopted son. Marigold could not leave empty-handed. Marigold was unaccustomed to wanting something that once lost could not be regained. She followed the woman who made her bed in the third gable.
The fifth gable was smaller than the others, drafty, the walls windowless. A vase of dying gardenias rested on a small end table in the corner. The gardenias had been wilting for longer than Marigold had been alive, which comforted the woman who made her bed in the third gable.
“Sit down,” the woman said, motioning to the armchair in the middle of the room. A thin layer of dust covered its seat and arms and high, narrow back. Marigold settled into the chair and held her crumpled hat in her lap like it was a small and ill-behaved dog.
“Do you expect you’ll have to be tied down for this bit?” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable.
“What are you going to do?” said Marigold.
“Oh, I do very little, dear,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You said you wanted a child, any child, isn’t that right?”
“Ye-es,” said Marigold, in a lilting voice that sounded more like no.
The woman who made her bed in the third gable got to her knees and rested her clasped hands in Marigold’s lap, as if comforting, as if pleading. “Whatever else you do, dear, remember to blame yourself.”
She rose to her feet and turned and left, locking the door from the outside.
Inside the fifth gable of the four-gabled house, dampness became cold and dimness became darkness, and Marigold’s skin felt like wax beneath her fingers when she tried to rub her gooseflesh off.
The women who lived in the four-gabled house buried Marigold’s cellar child together, all but the woman who made her bed in the first gable, because she could not make herself look at the mangled body of the child she had made.
“We should sing a hymn,” said the woman who made her bed in the second gable.
“Why?” said the woman who made her bed in the fourth gable.
“It’s conventional. She’d like that.”
The women contemplated the idea of being conventional for a while. Their eyes lost focus as they studied the raised mound of earth with the cellar child inside.
“He was such a fine boy,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “But I’m glad she hurt him, I must admit.”
The woman who made her bed in the third gable could only bear children in the womb of another woman’s suffering.
Marigold came from the fifth gable of the four-gabled house looking smaller, with hair like straw. The women had a luxurious breakfast prepared for her, butter on the toast and sugar for the coffee. Marigold stirred cream into her coffee with one hand and supported her squalling, red-faced child in the other.
“A hideous creature,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable, after Marigold and the child had gone. “No offense.”
“None taken,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “He wasn’t really mine. None of them have been.”
“If you made me one, he would be different,” said the woman who made her bed in the first gable. “My hurt would be the furthest thing from hers, and the child who came from it would be strong and strange and proud.”
“Perhaps in a few years,” said the woman who made her bed in the third gable. “You haven’t felt enough yet. I couldn’t be sure of the outcome if you hadn’t felt enough yet.”
And the woman who made her bed in the first gable knew this to be true, having seen many dozens of the small dead fish-like things that came from half-felt suffering. She could not rush suffering, so she returned to her cellar and shut her door and set to work on her next child. This time, she thought, perhaps she would love them enough. Perhaps they would hurt her so deeply that she could at last ascend to the fifth gable and bear a child that would live.
Kay Chronister ‘s fiction has appeared in
Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld.
She lives in Seattle with her miniature
dachshund, Victor Hugo.
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