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Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed


Louisiana, 1915

Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Late light on the cordgrass lifted up the red at its edges, sharpened it to spindle fingers plucking the brackish air. Winnie rode her oar low and turned along the fat curve of an island. Eight plump, silver drum shone on the flat bottom of her cypress-board pirogue. Enough of a catch that she could go off on her own business now, in that last hour before the mosquitoes and tappanoes claimed the marsh for their own night kingdom.

Winnie was Saint Malo’s bunso, the smallest, so morning and afternoon she changed the Spanish moss under the sleeping dorm, collected the eggs, and fed the chickens. They were wiry, hardy hens. Fifth-generation swamp creatures born with mud on their feet. Last night there were twelve of them, in the morning only eleven. Not strange to lose a hen to a gator in the night, but it was the third gone in a week. Most gators, they ate once a month, then lived on air. Sat out in the sun and swallowed air whole through their gaping mouths. This must then be a weird lizard, beyond the work and sleep and lost rounds of three-card monte that made up the total of Winnie’s life. She glided across the water in hope of the beast.


Some things that Winnie knew about alligators:mire03

They were lazy creatures. An active hunt was against their nature, and if a skinny young girl slipped into the water, all unknowing that an alligator lurked a spare few feet below, the gator would leave her be rather than swim the distance between to swallow her up. But if a foolhardy older man, perhaps named Francisco, were to splash up a ruckus within reach of the gator’s snout, he would for certain live the rest of his life left-handed and lucky for it.

Gators were truly unsentimental. On a young girl’s first journey through the marsh, a big bull of a gator would demonstrate this by rising up a broad, algae-crusted snout and snapping the body of a youngster of its own species into two neat bites. Welcome to Saint Malo, it would seem to say. You will live and die here.

A gator was a solitary monster. A young girl in the marshes will find no alligator cities, no gator nations or schools, no broad alligator avenues, no matter how long she may look.

They were strict heathens. God formed them not to kneel, and so they worshipped nothing but the sun. Mid-morning to noon, punctual as priests to mass, they gathered in the half-dry dirt and needlegrass and prostrated themselves before that searing orb while Christian species huddled in the shade.

They cared not for the flesh of the dead, or else despite being irreligious they held Catholic rites in some awe or respect. Winnie’s mother had been safe in her mudflat grave now for more’n a month.


mire04The bulrushes were in flower, round heads flaking into feathered cotton. Floating pollen landed on the water, in the mud, on the bow of Winnie’s pirogue, but nowhere onto the knotty hide of a gator. She turned her boat to home, the white canvas of Saint Malo’s two-sailed paraw visible as it slunk ahead of her beyond the mud bar that kept the lake from the marsh. It was then, among the high roots of the low mangrove, that Winnie saw dragging alligator prints in the mud. A mound of leaves, branches, and earth as high as her head resolved itself into a nest, with prints all about. Large prints, adult beasts, at least a dozen of them going to and from the mound.

Dark was coming on. The marsh made its warnings, and Winnie had to heed them. She headed for home, but she watched the nest for as far as her head would turn.


Winnie couldn’t sleep that night. Her bed was double-large and empty. The men in the next room rustled and shifted. The frog and mosquito choir outside droned on, encompassing. Moonlight spilled through the window netting to dusk across her skin.

Winnie dreamed, these days, of her mother. She dreamt a hot, wet cathedral stretching darkly into the distance, and a vision of the marsh barred by moon-white teeth. Being carried; gently, gently. The muddy perfume smell of her mother and her tough, scaled legs. Her mother’s voice so low that it rattled in Winnie’s skin.

In the Saint Malo night, Winnie heard the thousand, thousand mosquitoes and felt the blood hot in her body. She got up and went to the door on cat feet. The moon was nearly full, white as a fish belly. Winnie’s nose to the netting, she could feel the night outside, the hum and the hiss of it. Out in the water: a rush of movement. She thought of the chickens. Quiet as she could manage, she lit and shined a lantern.

Across from the door was Hilario’s enormous house. On stilts, like all the buildings here. Its full twenty piles cast a jumble of spiderleg shadows skittering over the water. Winnie roved the light. And then she saw, as if in a dream after all, an eye as wide around of a grown man’s hatband. Bright as the devil, shining in the dark. Her hand shook; she lost sight of the eye, then couldn’t find it again. But she would swear, despite the size, she’d swear it was the gator.


Winnie’s father, Tomás, was patching up a net across his knees. Loops and hitches, knots and diamonds. The net was hooked to the porch rail, and Winnie sat with her back to the house, her legs under the shadow of the net, her fingers seeking out gaps.

“Francisco asked after you again,” she said. Her father winced at the name.

mire02“Mm,” he said, and tugged at the net. She let him drag it his way.

“At the card table,” she said.

“You shouldn’t be there.”

“I’m old enough,” she said.

“No. Susmaryosep!” He shook his small head. “Only men there.”

“Of course there are men, I’m the only woman here.” Winnie found a gap in the net and marked it with a yellow ribbon.

“You are a girl. You are a young girl.”

“I’m a Manilaman,” she said, and he jerked with laughter. His face stretched wider to expel it. The noise cut into Winnie. “That’s what they said when we went into the city.”

“Where was your mamá from?”

Winnie shrugged. “Up Proctorville way?”

“Hm,” he said. It was the most he’d said about her mother since she’d died. “And ako, where was I from?” She shrugged again. “Batangas. So where you going to be a Manila Man?”

Some silence, and the breeze buzzing through the reedgrass. Then she asked, “What’s it like in Batangas?” And she knew she said the name all wrong.


“Like here?”

“No. Hot, with a different sun. Flat as a foot, but for the mountain watching. A river, no marsh. Big mango trees and coconut. The rice. The priests. Very many priests.”

He ran out of language to explain, or memory to spare, and left her craving. She passed her eyes over the flat expanse of the marsh and the raised outlines of Saint Malo houses. She’d never seen a mountain or known the shape of a mango. A curl of her mestiza-brown hair fell into her eyes. She blew it up and away.

“Papa, you been to Proctorville? Where mama grew up?”

“No.” His fingers and knife threaded through the net without hurry. “She came to the marsh. Swam to Saint Malo, met me. Never went back.”

“Swam to Saint Malo?”

“Sailed,” he corrected, although it was the rare sailboat that could make the journey.

She wanted to tell him about her dreams, the dreams she’d had in her mother’s arms and out, but she didn’t have words that he’d understand. He didn’t care for her dreams the way her mother had. Alligator scales solid as Spanish tiles. Teeth as thick as the piles that held up Saint Malo, sharp as salt, lowering over her heavy as grief. She bit her tongue and searched out the gaps.


Winnie’s mamá had been a strong swimmer, that much was certain. The two of them in the pirogue, she’d slipped over the side and into the lake. From the still air into the still water, her hair uncoiling, her eyes wide with pleasure as she dipped low so only her face was above the surface. She’d wanted Winnie to come in after her, to abandon the boat, to slip overboard and sink with her. Winnie never did.


Another hen gone. To the mud bar again, to the gator nest. Winnie floated past on the lake side, where the pile of muck and grass intermingled with thick mangrove roots to form a thick wall. In the warm of the day there was a greater warmth emanating from the nest. A cloying heaviness that drew Winnie in like a memory. The smell was mud and rot, and familiar.

Winnie poled her pirogue over the bar and into the marsh, around the other side of the nest. Here it poured itself out into the water. Here there were lizards waiting for her. Three gators with wide mouths agape. Young, striped black and gold. They surrounded the nest entrance, sitting with that gator-stillness that no other creature could match.

She took ahold of the fattest crappie from between her feet and tossed it among the alligators, an offering. Its silver tail flapped twice, then lay quiet. It was a long time Winnie sat there, the water between them, while the beasts didn’t shift and the fish died. Beyond the brim of her hat, sunlight hardened into afternoon.

mire05Finally, the smallest of them made a move. Delicate as fingertips, its jaws scooped up the crappie. Shuffling and dragging, it ascended the nest and disappeared. From the water, Winnie couldn’t see all the way to the top, but there was movement there. A bump that she’d thought was a rotted log bobbed up and down. Then the small gator again, only as long as Winnie was tall, slid its way back out of the nest and into its old spot. It clawed at the dirt before settling. It turned one algae-dark eye on Winnie and, slow as the moon slipping behind a cloud, the creature winked at her.

The downhill tilt took her. Winnie slipped one leg, then another from her pirogue. Her feet found mud under the water and she sank to her ankles. Shallow, still. Her fingers trailed the surface. Raising as few ripples as she could, she advanced on the nest.

The lizards moved with sudden speed. They formed a barrier of their bodies, barring her from the entrance. Winnie stood in the marsh, mud advancing up her legs, and wondered what offering would be sufficient.


Card games were held in Hilario’s front room, lit by lamplight that swayed to the steady rhythm of the men’s hisses and hollers. Winnie hooted and wailed with them, going from end to end of the long, low table to the other and making faces at the cards, elbowing between elbows to see the action. This is where they called her bunso, the littlest lizard darting among them. Or buntot, for the way her long braid wagged behind her head.

Her father didn’t come to the table often, one of the reasons Winnie did, but he was there that night, lit up, winning hand after hand. Smiling at everyone, even at her. He paid Francisco back the five dollars he’d been asking after for weeks, and threw in a nickel on top.

“Get you an ice cream cone,” he said. “Down at the hokey-pokey store!” The closest being a day’s journey away. Francisco laughed, though he’d wanted to win the money off him. He slapped Tomás on the back and dealt him into another round.

Outside the window netting was the living night, but it didn’t encroach here, it could not touch them. Winnie and the Manila Men were yellow in the lamplight, from their sun-brown faces to the whites of their eyes. The flowing rum was a virile red. Hilario’s boy Augusto let Winnie sip from his glass. She felt vibrational as a mosquito. She could have walked onto the marsh right then; she could have found her mother and danced into the bottom of the lake.

Money is money, but at the turn of the night it was time to bet on things that couldn’t be bought. Francisco wanted Winnie’s father to put up his pirogue, the one that was named Valentine after her brother who’d died a baby. Tomás said no, no, but he’s got just the thing. He stepped into Hilario’s back room that served as Saint Malo’s safe deposit, and came back carrying a shallow chest. Everyone got up and crowded around to see him open it. Winnie wended among their jutting hips to the front.

She’d never seen this chest, didn’t know her father had it, or anything at all in Hilario’s bank. It was a very fine chest, fitted with brass, the leather top gone a bit moldy from the weather, as everything did. Tomás made a leisurely show of unbuckling the straps, then running his hands across the top. He met Winnie’s eyes with a funny little twinkle. Then he flipped the lid.

Like Spanish tiles, or cracked mud. Black like a rotted log, and smelling old and sweet, it was an alligator skin. Tomás lifted it from the chest and held it high above his head, but still couldn’t unfold the full length of it. Augusto took hold of the other end and between them they stretched it near across the room. Fifteen, maybe seventeen feet. Wide as Winnie was tall. It was the grandest, blackest, most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. The men were afire with wanting it.

Winnie went to her father.

“No,” she said. “Don’t bet it away.” And she knew he would, as nearly every man there was getting dealt in. Tomás laughed and squeezed her about the neck.

“It was your mother’s,” he said. “No need for it anymore.” And he did lose the skin, lost it to Marcelo, who took it to drape like a hammock across his sleeping dorm.


In the crowd of pirogues heading out of Saint Malo the next morning, Marcelo crowed.

“Oh, that lizard, my lizard,” said Marcelo. “She’s fat like the belly of galleon! Creaks in the night like one too.”

Winnie couldn’t speak. Her father rowed along in his Valentine with a smile. The bulrushes were heavy with summer bulbs and leaned arches over their path through the marsh. All breeze dropped out of the air, and even their movement against the water barely brought a wind to their faces.

“Storm coming,” said Augusto.

“When the storm comes,” said Marcelo, “I’ll crawl up inside my great big lizard! Come out with the sun, bone dry!” A thoughtless rage opened inside Winnie at his words.

Just like that, all the way onto the lake. There, the group scattered itself and cast their nets. Pulled in, cast again. This, more than any stilt house, card game, or line of drying fish, this was Saint Malo: the casting and the pulling. The whiz of the net through the air and the pish of it slicing the water. The flit of fiber through Winnie’s hands when she pulled it back and sifted it for prey. The dotted line of men and Winnie spread over the western edge of the lake, marsh air and marsh sounds hard at their backs. For this, her father and the rest had fled the Spanish whip, for this they’d lost Batangas, Manila, the Visayas, and a dozen other homes. For this heavy air and these low pirogues. For Winnie, perhaps, though they hadn’t known it. For that she could be born to the marsh with her muddy eyes.

Winnie cast and pulled and daydreamed tough alligator hide like a gnarled crowd of overlapping hands. White alligator night-eyes and deep alligator voices. The nest and the monster she’d fed. The downhill pull of that uphill slope.

By late afternoon the air hollowed out and the birds fled north. A pair of egrets cut a silent path right above Winnie’s head. The spread of boats cinched towards the mud bar and the marsh. Tomás drew up alongside her. His boat sagged with the catch. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“A hard wind tonight,” he said. “You sleep in the men’s dorm.”


mire04The rattling walls, the jumping floor, the hot rip of the wind and rain at the shutters and the wet smell of the thatch roof. Winnie lay curled on a pallet in the middle of the room, the men unsleeping around her in their bunks. In the corner: the gator skin. It shuddered and swayed, its thick tail lashing. When the wind began there were prayers and singing, but now just the storm around them and Marcelo’s gasps as the gator swung from its hanging place above him.

Winnie spared a thought for the chickens, transported to Hilario’s living room and likely head-tucked and shivering. She spared a thought for her mother in her grave, drowning. The dorm went side to side. She closed her eyes and tried to sink. Heavy bones and thick skin, mud crusted over her eyes and salt sharp on her teeth.

A howl outside, a howl that didn’t end, but pitched up and up like the bow of a sinking ship. The noise of somethings flying through the air and smacking the walls of Saint Malo. The walls of the dorm, hit and hit again by the objects of her imagination. Turtles, crappie, trout, drum, uprooted mangroves, and unmoored rafts. The roof whined. The men muttered, but there was nowhere safer to flee.

There had been storms on the marsh before. Winnie had laid awake through them and poled through their debris on gray mornings. She’d tucked her head into her mother’s side and slept through the wind. She’d lost rounds of three-card Monte with the weather menacing among the stilts of their houses, pressing at their bellies and slipping through their boards. She was a marsh creature, born with mud on her feet and salt in her hair.

All this, and still when the back wall fell in and men and bunks and the gator skin tumbled onto Winnie’s pallet, she screamed. Limbs and the tail, bodies and the snout, a slick mess of swamp-stuff suffocating her. And the wind now free among them drove rain into their hides.

Drier arms reached into the jumble and pulled apart the wrecked bunks. They extracted Marcelo, Francisco, Bambol, and Florenzo.

“Winnie!” Tomás shouted. The others were at the door, making to fight their way to Hilario’s intact house. “Where’s my Winnie?”

They pulled apart the fallen wall, dragged away the wrecked netting, the ruined sheets and moss mattress stuffing. They accounted for every man. They flipped the gator skin onto its wide, white belly. Tomás called for his daughter. Winnie blinked her double-lidded eyes and took him gently between her jaws.


The night path was lit for her. Everything alive, everything alight. Movement all around, sensed through the skin of her snout. The smell of home and of earth. The storm’s violence was muted and slowed underwater. Impacts rolled through the liquid and against her, inconsequential. Behind her, the dorm house collapsed entirely. Men sloshed into the water and mud. They were tempting, but her mouth was full of her father. He did not fit entirely, but his arms were pinned, and his head was tucked against her tongue. She could feel him struggling and screaming, but it was nothing to the power of her wide and sure mouth.

A power was upon her like an embrace. A quiet, uncomplicated power something like anger but more like an inevitable victory. She had slid downhill every moment of her life, and now was in the sure trench, the awaited valley, the lush prize. She was done with mourning.

Her body was her body and her body was her tail: a muscle stronger and more able than she had ever felt before. Movement smooth and quick despite her bulk. Skin like a crust, so thick that the world could not touch her. With one set of eyelids closed, the wind was nothing to her. Winnie tucked her legs close in to her belly and jackknifed through the marsh.

Reedgrass and fimbry were battered flat and sputtering. The mangroves stood stolid while they were stripped of their leaves. The bulrush bulbs that had so dominated the skyline flew here and there. Between Winnie’s teeth, the water seeped. She kept her head up, aware that Tomás must breathe frequently.

There were other gators in the water around her, heading in the same direction. A crowd, an alligator boulevard through the marsh, a procession to their only destination.

The mud bar had disappeared beneath the flood, but the nest still rose, a tower of detritus. The marshward approach was cut by a pitched glacier of mud. Winnie drew herself out of the water and up the slope. She found herself more awkward on land. She felt the weight of the offering in her mouth. She was flanked and preceded by other, smaller alligators. Young beasts half her size who rushed around her and over her. She clambered among them on her slick belly.

Up, up into the nest where waited a mouth more vast than even her own. A mouth that gaped like the doors of a cathedral and into which her sisters and brothers rush in a black stream of leathery bodies. Outside: the wind and the rain, the storm taking the marsh to pieces, Saint Malo in splinters behind them. Inside: a humid, cavernous hall with a fleshy scent that Winnie could taste through her skin.

She knew this place, this scent and this heat, this moist and crowded abattoir. Deep within was a pounding drumbeat that she recognized as intimately as the taste of her own breath. Her mother, her skin: This was their place. This was her place. She clambered deep inside, opened her mouth, and gave up her father’s struggling body to the family of her mother.


Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Comma Press, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Liminality, Inkscrawl and Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. A member of the Queer Asian SF/F/H Illuminati, Nicasio currently resides in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.


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The Fifth Gable, by Kay Chronister

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.

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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.

A nurse.

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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