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Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Page 2

Gregory Maguire

  “There will be other children.”

  She turned away so he could not see the rage in her face.

  But she couldn’t sustain the fury at him. Perhaps this was her moral failing. (She wasn’t much given to worrying about moral failings as a rule; having a minister as a husband seemed to stir enough religious thought for one couple.) She lapsed sullenly into silence. Frex nibbled at his meal.

  “It’s the devil,” said Frex, sighing. “The devil is coming.”

  “Don’t say a thing like that on a day our child is expected!”

  “I mean the temptation in Rush Margins! And you know what I mean, Melena!”

  “Words are words, and what’s said is said!” she answered. “I don’t require all your attention, Frex, but I do need some of it!” She dropped the skillet with a crash on the bench that stood against the cottage wall.

  “Well, and likewise,” he said. “What do you think I’m up against today? How can I convince my flock to turn away from the razzle-dazzle spectacle of idolatry? I will probably come back tonight having lost to a smarter attraction. You might achieve a child today. I look forward to failure.” Still, as he said this he looked proud; to fail in the cause of a high moral concern was satisfying to him. How could it compare with the flesh, blood, mess, and noise of having a baby?

  He stood at last to leave. A wind came up over the lake now, smudging the topmost reaches of the columns of kitchen smoke. They looked, thought Melena, like funnels of water swirling down drains in narrowing, focusing spirals.

  “Be well, my love,” said Frex, although he had his stern public expression on, from forehead to toes.

  “Yes.” Melena sighed. The child punched her, deep down, and she had to hurry to the outhouse again. “Be holy, and I’ll be thinking of you—my backbone, my breastplate. And also try not to be killed.”

  “The will of the Unnamed God,” said Frex.

  “My will too,” she said, blasphemously.

  “Apply your will to that which deserves it,” he answered. Now he was the minister and she the sinner, an arrangement she did not particularly enjoy.

  “Good-bye,” she said, and chose the stink and relief of the outhouse over standing to wave him out of sight as he strode along the road to Rush Margins.

  The Clock

  of the Time Dragon

  Frex was more concerned for Melena than she knew. He stopped at the first fisherman’s hut he saw and spoke with the man at the half-door. Could a woman or two spend the day and if needed the night with Melena? It would be a kindness. Frex nodded with a wince of gratitude, acknowledging without words that Melena was not a great favorite in these parts.

  Then, before continuing around the end of Illswater and over to Rush Margins, he stopped at a fallen tree and drew two letters from his sash.

  The writer was a distant cousin of Frex’s, also a minister. Weeks earlier the cousin had spent time and valuable ink on a description of what was being called the Clock of the Time Dragon. Frex prepared himself for the day’s holy campaign by rereading about the idol clock.

  I write in haste, Brother Frexspar, to catch my impressions before they fade.

  The Clock of the Time Dragon is mounted on a wagon and stands as high as a giraffe. It is nothing more than a tottering, freestanding theatre, punched on all four sides with alcoves and proscenium arches. On the flat roof is a clockwork dragon, an invention of green painted leather, silvery claws, ruby jeweled eyes. Its skin is made of hundreds of overlapping discs of copper, bronze, and iron. Beneath the flexible folds of its scales is an armature controlled by clockwork. The Time Dragon circles on its pedestal, flexes its narrow leathery wings (they make a sound like a bellows), and belches out sulfurous balls of flaming orange stink.

  Below, featured in the dozens of doorways, windows, and porches, are puppets, marionettes, figurines. Creatures of folk tale. Caricatures of peasants and royalty alike. Animals and fairies and saints—our unionist saints, Brother Frexspar, stolen out from underneath us! I get enraged. The figures move on sprockets. They wheel in and out of doorways. They bend at the waist, they dance and dawdle and dally with each other.

  Who had engendered this Time Dragon, this fake oracle, this propaganda tool for wickedness that challenged the power of unionism and of the Unnamed God? The clock’s handlers were a dwarf and some narrow-waisted minions who seemed to have only enough brain capacity among them to pass a hat. Who else was benefiting besides the dwarf and his beauty boys?

  The cousin’s second letter had warned that the clock was making its way next to Rush Margins. It had told a more specific story.

  The entertainment began with a thrum of strings and a rattle of bones. The crowd pushed close, oohing. Within the lighted window of a stage, we saw a marriage bed, with a puppet wife and husband. The husband was asleep and the wife sighed. She made a motion with her carved hands to suggest that her husband was disappointingly small. The audience shrieked with laughter. The puppet wife went to sleep herself. When she was snoring, the puppet husband sneaked out of bed.

  At this point, up above, the Dragon turned on its base, and pointed its talons into the crowd, indicating—without a doubt—a humble well digger named Grine, who has been a faithful if inattentive husband. Then the dragon reared back and stretched two fingers in a come-hither gesture, isolating a widow named Letta and her snaggle-toothed maiden daughter. The crowd hushed and fell away from Grine, Letta, and the blushing maid, as if they had suddenly been inflicted with running sores.

  The Dragon rested again but draped a wing over another archway, which lit up to reveal the puppet husband, wandering out in the night. Along came a puppet widow, with sprigged hair and high color, dragging along a protesting, flinty-toothed daughter. The widow kissed the puppet husband, and pulled off his leather trousers. He was equipped with two full sets of male goods, one in the front and another hanging off the base of his spine. The widow positioned her daughter on the abbreviated prong in the front, and herself took advantage of the more menacing arrangement in the rear. The three puppets bucked and rocked, emitting squeals of glee. When the puppet widow and her daughter were through, they dismounted and kissed the adulterous puppet husband. Then they kneed him, simultaneously, fore and aft. He swung on springs and hinges, trying to hold all his wounded parts.

  The audience roared. Grine, the actual well digger, sweated drops as big as grapes. Letta pretended to guffaw, but her daughter had already disappeared from shame. Before the evening was out, Grine was set upon by his agitated neighbors and investigated for the grotesque anomaly. Letta was shunned. Her daughter seems to have vanished entirely. We suspect the worst.

  At least Grine wasn’t killed. Yet who can say how our souls have been stamped by witnessing such a cruel drama? All souls are hostages to their human envelopes, but souls must decay and suffer at such indignity, don’t you agree?

  Sometimes it seemed to Frex that every itinerant witch and toothless gibbering seer in Oz who could perform even the most transparent of spells had seized on the outback district of Wend Hardings to scratch out a trade. He knew that folks from Rush Margins were humble. Their lives were hard and their hopes few. As the drought dragged on, their traditional unionist faith was eroding. Frex was aware that the Clock of the Time Dragon combined the appeals of ingenuity and magic—and he would have to call on his deepest reserves of religious conviction to overcome it. If his congregation should prove vulnerable to the so-called pleasure faith, succumbing to spectacle and violence—well, what next?

  He would prevail. He was their minister. He had pulled their teeth and buried their babies and blessed their kitchen pots for years now. He had abased himself in their names. He had wandered with an unkempt beard and a begging bowl from hamlet to hamlet, leaving poor Melena alone in the minister’s lodge for weeks at a time. He had sacrificed for them. They couldn’t be swayed by this Time Dragon creature. They owed him.

  He moved on, shoulders squared, jaw set, stomach in a sour uproar. The sky was brown with
flying sand and grit. The wind rushed high over the hills with the sound of a tremulous wail, as if pushing through some fissure of rock, on a ridge beyond any Frex could see.

  The Birth

  of a Witch

  It was nearly evening by the time Frex had worked up the courage to enter the ramshackle hamlet of Rush Margins. He was in a deep sweat. He hit his heels to the ground and pumped his clenched fists, and called out in a hoarse, carrying tone. “Hist, oh ye of small confidence! Gather while ye may, for temptation is abroad, to try ye sorely!” The words were archaic, even ridiculous, but they worked. Here came the sullen fishermen, dragging their empty nets up from the dock. Here came the subsistence farmers, whose hardscrabble plots had borne little during this dry year. Before he had even begun, they all looked guilty as sin.

  They followed him to the rickety steps of the canoe repair house. Frex knew that everyone expected this evil clock to arrive at any instant; gossip was as contagious as the plague. He yelled at them for their thirsty anticipation. “Ye are dull as toddlers reaching their hands to touch the pretty embers! Ye are as if spawn of dragon womb, ready to suck on teats of fire!” These were time-worn scriptural imprecations and they fell a little flat tonight; he was tired and not at his best.

  “Brother Frexspar,” said Bfee, the mayor of Rush Margins, “could you perhaps tone down your harangue until we get a chance to see what fresh new form temptation might take?”

  “You have no mettle to resist new forms,” said Frex, spitting.

  “Haven’t you been our able teacher these several years?” said Bfee. “We’ve hardly had such a good chance to prove ourselves against sin! We’re looking forward to—to the spiritual test of it all.”

  The fishermen laughed and jeered, and Frex intensified his glower, but at the sound of unfamiliar wheels in the stony ruts of the road, they all turned their heads and fell silent. He had lost their attention before he had gotten started.

  The clock was being drawn by four horses and escorted by the dwarf and his cohort of young thugs. Its broad roof was crowned by the dragon. But what a beast! It looked poised as if ready to spring, as if indeed invested with life. The skin of the house was decorated in carnival colors, burnished with gold leaf. The fishermen gaped as it drew near.

  Before the dwarf could announce the time of the performance, before the crowd of youths could draw out their clubs, Frex leaped on the lower step of the thing—a fold-down stage on hinges. “Why is this thing called a clock? The only clock face it has is flat, dull, and lost in all that distracting detail. Furthermore, the hands don’t move: Look, see for yourselves! They’re painted to remain at one minute before midnight! All you’ll see here is mechanics, my friends: I know this for a fact. You’ll see mechanical cornfields growing, moons waxing and waning, a volcano to spew a soft red cloth done up with black and red sequins. With all this tiktok-y business, why not have a pair of circulating arms on the clock face? Why not? I ask you, I’m asking you, yes, you, Gawnette, and you, Stoy, and you, Perippa. Why no real clock here?”

  They were not listening, Gawnette and Stoy and Perippa, nor were the others. They were too busy staring in anticipation.

  “The answer, of course, is that the clock isn’t meant to measure earthly time, but the time of the soul. Redemption and condemnation time. For the soul, each instant is always a minute short of judgment.

  “One minute short of judgment, my friends! If you died in the next sixty seconds, would you want to spend eternity in the suffocating depths reserved for idolaters?”

  “Awful lot of noise in the neighborhood tonight,” said someone in the shadows—and the spectators laughed. Above Frex—he whirled to see—from a little door had emerged a small, yapping puppet dog, its hair dark and as tightly curled as Frex’s own. The dog bounced on a spring, and the pitch of its chatter was annoyingly high. The laughter grew. Evening fell harder, and it was less easy for Frex to tell who was laughing, who now was shouting for him to move aside so they could see.

  He wouldn’t move, so he was bundled unceremoniously from his perch. The dwarf gave a poetic welcome. “All our lives are activity without meaning; we burrow ratlike into life and we squirm ratlike through it and ratlike we are flung into our graves at the end. Now and then, why shouldn’t we hear a voice of prophecy, or see a miracle play? Beneath the apparent sham and indignity of our ratlike lives, a humble pattern and meaning still applies! Come nearer, my good people, and watch what a little extra knowledge augurs for your lives! The Time Dragon sees before and beyond and within the truth of your sorry span of years here! Look at what it shows you!”

  The crowd pushed forward. The moon had risen, its light like the eye of an angry, vengeful god. “Give over, let me go,” Frex called; it was worse than he had thought. He had never been manhandled by his own congregation.

  The clock unfolded a story about a publicly pious man, with lamb’s wool beard and dark curly locks, who preached simplicity, poverty, and generosity while keeping a hidden coffer of gold and emeralds—in the double-hinged bosom of a weak-chinned daughter of blue blood society. The scoundrel was run through with a long iron stake in a most indelicate way and served up to his hungry flock as Roast Flank of Minister.

  “This panders to your basest instincts!” Frex yelled, his arms folded and his face magenta with fury.

  But now that darkness was almost total, someone came up from behind him to silence him. An arm encircled his neck. He twisted to see which damned parishioner took such liberties, but all the faces were cloaked by hoods. He was kneed in the groin and doubled over, his face in the dirt. A foot kicked him square between the buttocks and his bowels released. The rest of the crowd, however, was not watching. They were howling with mirth at some other entertainment put on by the Clock Dragon. A sympathetic woman in a widow’s shawl grabbed his arm and led him away—he was too fouled, too much in pain to straighten up and see who it was. “I’ll put you down in the root cellar, I will, under a burlap,” crooned the goodwife, “for they’ll be after you tonight with pitchforks, the way that thing is behaving itself! They’ll look for you in your lodge, but they won’t look in my keeping room.”

  “Melena,” he croaked, “they’ll find her—”

  “She’ll be seen to,” said his neighbor. “We women can manage that much, I guess!”

  In the minister’s lodge, Melena struggled with consciousness as a pair of midwives went in and out of focus before her. One was a fishwife, the other a palsied crone; they took turns feeling her forehead, peering between her legs, and stealing glances at the few beautiful trinkets and treasures Melena had managed to bring here from Colwen Grounds.

  “You chew that paste of pinlobble leaves, duckie, you do that. You’ll be unconscious before you know it,” said the fishwife. “You’ll relax, out will pop the little sweetheart, and all will be well in the morning. Thought you would smell of rosewater and fairy dew, but you stink like the rest of us. Chew on, my duckie, chew on.”

  At the sound of a knock, the crone looked up guiltily from the chest she was kneeling before and rummaging through. She let the lid close with a bang and affected a position of prayer, eyes closed. “Enter,” she called.

  A maiden with tender skin and high color came in. “Oh, I hoped someone would be here,” she said. “How is she?”

  “Nearly out and so is the babe,” answered the fishwife. “An hour more, I reckon.”

  “Well, I’m told to warn you. The men are drunk and on the prowl. They’ve been riled up by that dragon of the magic clock, you know, and are looking for Frex to kill him. The clock said to. They’ll likely stagger out here. We’d better get the wife safely away—can she be moved?”

  No, I cannot be moved, thought Melena, and if the peasants find Frex tell them to kill him good and hard for me, for I never knew a pain so extraordinary that it made me see the blood behind my own eyes. Kill him for doing this to me. At this thought, she smiled in a moment of relief and passed out.

  “Let’s leave her here and
run for it!” said the maiden. “The clock said to kill her too, and the little dragon she’s going to give birth to. I don’t want to get caught.”

  “We’ve got our own reputations to uphold,” said the fishwife. “We can’t abandon the fancy ladything in mid-delivery. I don’t care what any clock says.”

  The crone, her head back in the chest, said, “Anyone for some real lace from Gillikin?”

  “There’s a hay cart in the lower field, but let’s do it now,” said the fishwife. “Come, help me fetch it. You, old mother hag, get your face out of the linens and come dampen this pretty pink brow. Right-o, now we go.”

  A few minutes later the crone, the wife, and the maiden were trundling the hay cart along a rarely used track through the spindles and bracken of the autumn woods. The wind had picked up. It whistled over the treeless foreheads of the Cloth Hills. Melena, sprawled in blankets, heaved and moaned in unconscious pain.

  They heard a drunken mob pass, with pitchforks and torches, and the women stood silent and terrified, listening to the slurred curses. Then they pressed on with greater urgency until they came upon a foggy copse—the edge of the graveyard for unconsecrated corpses. Within it they saw the blurred outlines of the clock. It had been left here for safekeeping by the dwarf—no fool he; he could guess this particular corner of the world was the last place jumpy villagers would seek tonight. “The dwarf and his boykins were drinking in the tavern too,” said the maiden breathlessly. “There’s no one here to stop us!”

  The crone said, “So you’ve been peering in the tavern windows at the men, you slut?” She pushed open the door in the back of the clock.

  She found a crawl space. Pendulums hung ominously in the gloom. Huge toothed wheels looked primed to slice any trespasser into sausage rounds. “Come on, drag her in,” said the crone.

  The night of torches and fog gave way, at dawn, to broad bluffs of thundercloud, dancing skeletons of lightning. Glimpses of blue sky appeared briefly, though sometimes it rained so hard that it seemed more like mud drops falling than water. The midwives, crawling on hands and knees out of the back of the clock-wagon, had their little discharge at last. They protected the infant from the dripping gutter. “Look, a rainbow,” said the senior, bobbing her head. A sickly scarf of colored light hung in the sky.