Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Page 5

Catherynne M. Valente

  The demon didn’t fight when they bound her and gagged her mouth—to keep her from bewitching them with her devil’s psalms. It did not actually occur to her to use her devil’s psalms. She was curious. She did not yet know if she could die. The men of Sauve-Majeure carried Gemegishkirihallat in their wagon down through the slushy March snow to stand trial. She only looked at them, her gaze mild and interested. Their guts twisted under those hollow eyes, and this was further proof.

  It took much longer than anticipated. The two Sauve-Majeures had never agreed on much, and they sure as spring couldn’t agree on the proper execution of a witch’s trial. Hanging, said Dryland and Pole. Burning, insisted Sazarin and le Clerq. One judge or a whole bench, testimony from the children or a simple quiet judgement after the charges were read? A water test or a needle test? Who would question her and what questions would they ask? Would Dr. Pelerin examine her, who had been sent down for schooling in Massachusetts, where they knew about such dark medicine, or the midwife Sarah Wadham? Who would have the credit of ferreting out the devil in their midst, the Church in Rome or their own stalwart Pastor Pole? What name would the town bear on the warrants, Sauve-Majeure (nest of snakes and Papistry) or Help-on-High (den of jackals and schismatics)? Most importantly, who would have the caring of her garden now and when she was gone? Who would have her house?

  The demon waited. She waited for her girls to come to her—and they did, first the slower studies who craved her approval, then finally Basile and Weep-Not and Lizzie Wadham and Bess Chedderley and the other names listed on the writ though no one had asked them much about it. The demon slipped her chains easily and put her hands to their little heads.

  “Go and do as I have done,” Sister Agnes said. “Go and make your gardens grow, make your men double over with desire, go and dance until you are full up of the moon.”

  “Are you really a witch?” ventured Basile Sazarin, who would be the most beautiful woman Sauve-Majeure would ever reap, all the way up til now and further still.

  “No,” said the demon. “A witch is just a girl who knows her mind. I am better than a witch. But look at the great orgy coming up like a rose around me. No night in Hell could be as bright.”

  And Sister Agnes took off her black wool gown before the young maids. They saw her four-spoked seals and her wheels of banishment and the seven burnt psalms on her skin. They saw that she had no sex. They saw her long name writ upon her thighs. They knew awe in that barn, and they danced with their teacher in the starlight sifting through the mouldering hay.

  A certain minister came to visit the demon while she waited for her trail. Pastor Pole managed not to wholly prostrate himself before the famous man, but took him immediately to speak with the condemned woman, whom that illustrious soul had heard of all the way down in Salem: a confirmed demoness, beyond any doubt.

  Pastor Pole’s own wife Mary-in-the-Manger brought a chair to seat the honored minister upon, and what cider and cheese they had to spare (in truth the Poles had used up the demon’s apples to make it, and the demon’s milk besides). The great man looked upon the black-clad woman chained in her barn-prison. Her gaze sounded upon his soul and boomed there, deafening.

  “Art thee a witch, then?” he whispered.

  “No,” said the demon.

  “But not a Christian lady, neither,” said he.

  “No,” said the demon.

  “How came you to grow such bounty on your land without the help of God?”

  The demon closed her hands in her lap. Her long hair hung around her like an animal’s skin.

  “My dear Goodman Mather, there is not a demon in Hell who was not once something quite other, and more interesting. In the land where the Euphrates runs green and sweet, I was a grain-god with the head of a bull. In the rough valley of the Tyne I was a god of fertility and war, with the head of a crow. I was a fish-headed lord of plenty in the depths of the Tigris. Before language I was she-who-makes-the-harvest-come, and I rode a red boar. The earth answers when I call it by name. I know its name because we are family.”

  “You admit your demonic nature?”

  “I would have admitted it before now if anyone had asked. They ask only if I am a witch, and a witch is small pennies to me. I am what I am, as you are what you are. I want to live, as all creatures do. I cannot sin, so I have done no wrong.”

  The minister wet his throat with the demon’s cider. His hand shook upon the tankard. When he had mastered himself he spoke quickly and softly, in the most wretched tones. He poured out onto the ground between him all his doubt and misery, all his grief and guilt. He gave her those things because she proved his whole heart, his invisible world, she proved him a good man, despite the hanging hill in his heart.

  “Tell me,” he rasped finally, as the dawn came on white and pitiless, “tell me that I will know the Kingdom of God in my lifetime. Tell me the end of days is near—for you must be the harbinger of it, you must be its messenger and its handmaiden. Tell me the dead will rise and we will shed out bodies like the shells of beautiful snails, that I will leave behind this horror that is flesh and become as light. Tell me I need never again be a man, that I need never err more, nor dwell in the curse of this life. Tell me you have come to murder this world, so that the new one might swallow us all.”

  The demon looked on him with infernal pity, which is, in the end, not worth the tears it sheds. Demons may pity men every hour of the day, but that pity never moves.

  “No,” the demon said.

  And, slipping her chains, Gemegishkirihallat shed her gown once more before the famous man, showing the black obliteration of her skin. She folded her arms around him like wings and brought down the scythe of her mouth on his. Straddling his doubt, the demon made plain the reality of his flesh, and the arrow of his need.

  They burned her at sunrise, before the Free Gathered Church could say anything about it. Bad enough they had brought that man to their town, the better people of Sauve-Majeure would not stand to let a Protestant nobody pass judgment on her. There were few witnesses: Father Audrien, who made his apologies to Father Simon in Heaven, Sébastienne and Hierosme Sazarin with young Basile clutched between them, Marguerite le Clerq and her husband Isaac. The Church would handle their witch and the schismatics, to be bold, could lump it. They had all those girls down south—Rome had to have its due in the virtuous north.

  Father Audrien tied the demon to a pine trunk and read her last rites. She did not spit or howl, but only stared down the priest with a stare like dying. She said one word before the end, and no one understood it. Each of the witnesses lit the flames so that none alone would have to bear the weight of the sin. A year later, Sébastienne Sazarin would insist, drunk and half-toothless, hiding sores on her breast and losing her voice, would rasp to her daughter, insisting that as Sister Agnes burned she saw a bull’s head glowing through the pyre, its horns molten gold, and garlanded in black wheat. Marguerite le Clerq, half-mad with syphilis her husband brought home from Virginia, would weep to her priest that she had seen a red boar in the flames, its tusks made of diamond, its head crowned with millet and barley. Hierosme Sazarin, shipwrecked three years hence in Nova Scotia, his cargo of Madeira spilling out into the icy sea, would tell his blue-mouthed, doomed sailors that once he had seen a saint burn, and in the conflagration a white crow, its beak wet with blood, had flown up to Heaven, its wings seared black.

  Father Audrien dreamed of the demon’s burning body every night until he died, and the moment her bones shattered into a thousand fiery fish, he woke up reaching for his Bible and finding nothing in the dark.

  The demon’s house stood empty for a long while. Daisies grew in her stove. Moss thickened her great Bible. The girls she had drawn close around her grew up—Basile Sazarin so lovely men winced to look at her, so lovely she married a Parisian banker and never returned to Sauve-Majeure. Weep-Not Dryland bore eight daughters without pain or even much blood, and every autumn took them up to the top of the Bald Moose while her husband
slept in his comfort. Lizzie Wadham’s cloth wove so fine she could sell it in Boston and even New York for enough money to build a school, where she insisted on teaching the young ladies’ lessons, the content of which no male was ever able to spy out.

  And whenever Basile and Weep-Not went up to Sister Agnes’s house to shoo out the foxes and raccoons and keep the garden weeded, they saw a crow perched on the chimney or pecking at an old apple, or a boney old cow peering at them with a rheumy eye, or a fat piglet with black spots scampering off into the forest as soon as they called after it.

  The cod went scarce in the bays. The textile men came up from Portland and Augusta, with bolts of linen and money to build a mill on the river, finding ready buyers in Remembrance Dryland and Walter Chedderley. The few Penobscot and Passamaquoddy left found themselves corralled into bare land not far from where a little girl had once ran crying from a strange doorstep in the snow. The Free Gathered Church declined into Presbyterianism and the Cathedral of St. Geraud and St. Adelard remained a chapel, despite obtaining a door and its own relic—the kneecap of St. Geraud himself—before the Sazarin fortune wrecked on the New York market and scattered like so much seafoam. And the demon waited.

  She had found burning to be much less painful than expulsion from Hell, and somewhat fortifying, given the sudden warmth in the March chill. When they buried the charred stumps of her bones, she was grateful, to be in the earth, to be closed up and safe. She thought of Prince Sitri, Lord of Naked Need, and how his leopard-skin and griffin-wings had burnt up every night, leaving his bare black bones to dance before the supper table of the upper Kings. His flesh always returned, so that it could burn again. When she thought about it, he looked a little like Thomas Dryland, with his stern golden face. And Countess Gremory—she’d had a body like Basile Sazarin hid under those dingy aprons, riding her camel naked through the boiling fields to her door, when she’d had a door. When the shards of the demon dreamed, she dreamed of them all eating her bread together, in one house or another, Agares and Lamentation Pole and Amdusias and Sebastienne Sazarin and lovely old Akalamdug and Ekur serving them.

  Gemegishkirihallat slowly fell apart into the dirt of Sauve-Majeure.

  Sometimes a crow or a dog would dig up a bone and dash off with it, or a cow would drag a knuckle up with her cud. They would slip their pens or wing north suddenly, as if possessed, and before being coaxed home, would drop their prize in a certain garden, near a certain dark, empty house.

  The lobster trade picked up, and every household had their pots. Schism Street got its first cobblestones, and cherry trees planted along its route. Something rumbled down south and the Minouflet boys were all killed in some lonely field in Pennsylvania, ending their name. In the name of the war dead, Pastor Veritas Pole and Father Jude dug up the strip of grass and holly hedges between Faith-My-Joy Square and Adelard-in-the-Garden Square and joined them into Memorial Square. The Dryland girls married French boys and buried whatever hatchet they still had biting at the tree. Raulguin Sazarin and his Bangor business partner Lucas Battersby found tourmaline up in Bald Moose, brilliant pink and green and for a moment it seemed Sauve-Majeure really would be something, would present a pretty little ring to the state of Maine and become its best bride, hoping for better days, for bigger stones sometime down the way—but no. The seam was shallow, the mine closed down as quickly as it came, and that was all the town would ever have of boomand bustle.

  One day Constance Chedderley and Catherine le Clerq came home from gathering blackberries in the hills and told their mother that they’d seen chimney smoke up there. Wasn’t that funny? Thankful Dryland and Restitue Sazarin, best friends from the moment one had stolen a black-gowned, black-haired doll from the other, started sneaking up past the town line, coming home with muffins and shortbread in their school satchels. When questioned, they said they’d found a nunnery in the mountains, and one of the sisters had given them the treats as presents, admonishing them not to tell.

  The mill went bust before most of the others, a canary singing in the textile mine of New England. The fisherman trade picked up, though, and soon enough even Peter Mommacque had a scallop boat going, despite having the work ethic of a fat housecat. A statue of Minerva made an honest woman of Memorial Square, with a single bright tourmaline set into her shield, which was promptly stolen by Bernard and Richie Loliot. First Presbyterian Church crumpled up into Second Methodist, and the first Pastor not named Pole, though rather predictably called Dryland instead, spoke Sundays about the dangers of drink. And you know, old Agnes has just always lived up there, making her pies and candies and muffins. A nicer old lady you couldn’t hope to meet. Right modest, always wearing her buttoned-up old-fashioned frocks even in summer. Why, Marie Pelerin spends every Sunday up there digging in the potatoes and learning to spin wool like the wives in Sauve-Majeure did before the mill. Janette Loliot got her cider recipe but she won’t share it round. We’re thinking of sending Maude and Harriet along as well. Young ladies these days can never learn too much when it comes to the quiet industries of home.

  Far up into the hills above the stretch of land between Cobscook and Passamaquoddy Bay, if you go looking for it, you’ll find a house all by itself in the middle of a brambly field of good straight corn and green garlic. It’s an old place, but kept up, the whitewash fresh and the windows clean. The roof needs mending, it groans under the weight of hensbane and mustard and rue. There’s tomatoes coming in under the kitchen sill in the kitchen, a basil plant that may or may not come back next year.

  Jenny Sazarin comes by Sunday afternoons for Latin lessons and to trade a basket of cranberries from her uncle’s bog down in Lincolnville for a loaf of bread with a sugar-crust that makes her heart beat faster when she eats it. She looks forward to it all week. It’s quiet up there. You can hear the potatoes growing down in the dark earth. When October acorns drop down into the old lady’s soot-colored wheelbarrow, they make a sound like guns firing. Agnes starts the preserves right away, boiling the bright, sour berries in her great huge pot until they pop.

  “D’you know they used to burn witches here? I read about it last week,” she says while she munches on a trifle piled up with cream.

  “No,” the demon says. “I’ve never heard that.”

  “They did. It must have been awful. I wonder if there really are witches? Pastor Dryland says there’s demons, but that seems wrong to me. Demons live in Hell. Why would they leave and come here? Surely there’s work enough for them to do with all the damned souls and pagans and gluttons and such.”

  “Perhaps they get punished, from time to time, and have to come into this world,” the demon says, and stirs the wrinkling cranberries. The house smells of red fruit.

  “What would a demon have to do to get kicked out of Hell?” wonders little Jenny, her schoolbooks at her feet, the warm autumn sun lighting up her face so that she looks so much like Hubert Sazarin and Thomas Dryland, both of whom can claim a fair portion of this bookish, gentle girl, that Gemegishkirihallat tightens her grip on her wooden spoon, stained crimson by the bloody sugar it tends.

  The demon shuts her eyes. The orange coal of the sun lights up the skin and the bones of her skull show through. “Perhaps, for one moment, only one, so quick it might pass between two beats of a sparrow’s wings, she had all her folk around her, and they ate of her table, and called her by her own name, and did not vie against the other, and for that one moment, she was joyful, and did not mourn her separation from a God she had never seen.”

  Cranberries pop and steam in the iron pot; Jenny swallows her achingly sweet bread. The sun goes down over Bald Moose mountain, and the lights come on down in the soft black valley of Sauve-Majeure.

  The Melancholy of Mechagirl

  for Dmitri and Jeannine

  Prefecture drive time radio

  trills and pops

  its pink rhinestone bubble tunes—

  pipe that sound into my copper-riveted heart,

  that softgirl/brightgirl/cand
ygirl electrocheer gigglenoise

  right down through the steelfrown tunnels of my

  all-hearing head.

  Best stay

  out of my way

  when I’ve got my groovewalk going. It’s a rhythm

  you learn:

  move those ironzilla legs

  to the cherry-berry vanillacream sparklepop

  and your pneumafuel efficiency will increase

  according to the Yakihatsu formula (sigma3, 9 to the power of four)

  Robots are like Mars: they need


  Boys won’t do;

  the memesoup is all wrong. They stomp

  when they should kiss

  and they’re none too keen

  on having things shoved inside them.

  You can’t convince them

  there’s nothing kinky going on:

  you can’t move the machine without IV interface