The Story of Girls
by Barbara Lock
Susan inspects the white plastic stick in her right hand, two pale blue parallel lines on the display field below the urine-soaked tip. She feels a tightness around her left ankle, something lashed to her body, tightening like spiked wire though her legs are bare.
Open up, Susan!—This from her husband through the door.
Later, says Susan. One word-sound, one thought-noise, and Susan pretends the problem is solved or that it isn’t a problem but an adjustment, merely addressed like the ties of an apron around the waist of a woman heavy with child.
Hassan raps on the door, firmly, pushes in. He sits on the closed, chrome trash can. Head down, eyes up. He grabs the stick from her hand, compares it to the printed instructions, examines the material in the toilet. It might be false, he says. I love babies, he says. He doesn’t smile.
Maybe it didn’t take, says Susan.
Still, you must comply, says Hassan. We both must.
I should have taken this test while you were at work persecuting women, says Susan.
Prosecuting, says Hassan. I’m a prosecutor, he says, and Susan nods. A beautiful thing, says Hassan, arms out. As he stands, Susan steps on the foot-lever of the trash can, tosses the home pregnancy test but Hassan reaches in to retrieve it, wipes it with a tissue, and walks out of the bathroom. Susan follows.
Do you remember when we first met? asks Hassan. At your brother’s Christmas party? He wraps his arms around Susan’s waist. The pregnancy test in his hand pokes against her flank.
Shower, says Susan. We met at a baby shower.
No, that can’t be right—it was December, says Hassan. He lets her go, runs his hands through his thinning hair.
I don’t have time for this, says Susan. She crawls onto the blue quilted bedspread, through the open window, and onto the fire escape. The iron grate presses into bare thighs, presses rectangles into her skin.
Can’t be right, says Hassan, again. It was cold out, he says. I remember thinking you weren’t wearing enough clothes. Ha, ha. He shuffles through papers on the desk near the door. Rules and order. Order and containers. Hassan finds an envelope, inserts the pregnancy test, licks and seals the flap.
What are you doing? asks Susan, through the window. Just let me throw it out, she says. I’ll put it in the dumpster behind the supermarket.
You know these tests are tracked, says Hassan. From the courtyard below, the sound of a little boy crying. A normal and sound condition, a sense of healing through release, and the cry vibrates there in the thick city air, a diffuse finitude, and oh by the way she is headed this morning to visit the witch.
You should cancel, Susan, says Hassan. Don’t need that attention right now, he says.
How do you know what I need? Susan picks dead leaves from the potted plants: sage, rosemary, thyme, all nestled together, touching gently, breathing on each other’s leaves. Do I have a story for you! Inside a metal tin behind the outdoor pots, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Susan finds them, lights up. Wait ‘till I tell you what will happen next, she tells herself. She laughs at the obviousness and the pale orange sky.
No, no, no! shouts Hassan. He waves his hands at her, but there’s a whole bed and a window between them, so she puffs, blows—predictable. The sound of traffic on the highway near the river transmits up from the avenue. Okay, last cigarette, says Hassan. And, cancel the interview, says Hassan, but she’s headed to visit the witch, or she will soon, and then she’ll be somebody, a body who has taken her body into close proximity. This is the approach. Only one way to skin a cat. Please cancel, says Hassan.
No, I’m going. I can still make it. I still have time; it’s not even noon. She takes another drag, then puts out the cigarette, crawls back through the window and onto the bed.
I won’t be party, says Hassan. He finds his phone on the desk. Taps, taps the face of the phone and there’s a beeping, some message contained in that small black box and wouldn’t she like to know what he’s doing?
Timing’s pure coincidence dear, says Susan. She takes out a khaki skirt and a white blouse, places them on the bed, begins to dress in front of the closet mirror.
You’re obsessed, Susan, says Hassan. He paces, wrings his hands.
Obsessed has a rather negative connotation, says Susan. Front body, side body.
That’s what you do when someone is a witch, Susan. You connotate them negatively.
I’m not a witch, says Susan.
Everyone will think you are one though.
I don’t look pregnant, says Susan. Sandals, hair up with a barrette, yes, and out into the hall through the living room to the front door where she rakes through her tote until she finds her press credentials, loops the identification around her neck. Where’s the envelope? asks Susan. The envelope, the envelope. Give it to me. I’ll put it in the dumpster behind the supermarket.
Please, Susan. Don’t consort with a felon.
But she plans on it.
Two avenues west and down the hill beyond the highway, the molten lead river rushes toward the sea. Greasy plumes of smoke paint faint shapes of creatures in the sky, many-limbed beings adhere to her insides, animals vacuum her breasts, grasp at her hair. Traffic rafts along the highway. Across the river and atop cliffs, a dark wall of pine forest pushes toward the light. Nothing like relief hanging there, spoken but unspeakable, floating above that far-shore forest and its thick orange sky.
I’m not a witch, says Susan to the rear-view mirror. True story, true story. Could be one though. Cubes of broken windshield crunching under her wheels, the dead metal streetlight here on the shoulder—a full twenty-two feet long. Traffic slows where the streetlight’s curved, bulbed end pokes into the road. I’m not a witch, says Susan. I’m a journalist. Nursing home, warehouse, towers. Factory, towers, townhomes. Turn signal, radio, AC.
Behind her, the city hazes out.
Oh, how important to plan for children—this is what her mother told her. Her mother told Susan this when she was sixteen, at the shore, watching her brother pretend to know how to fish. Isn’t he so earnest about it though? The wind and the tides, so confusing—why was high tide a different time every day? It’s important to plan for children, repeated her mother, but what if what she’d meant to say is that children must be accommodated? Can she think about the problem from a new angle, the make room for children perspective? Give children a place in your life. They will bring you so much joy, said her mother.
Radio, turn signal, tower. The river, less gray now.
Come to think, her mother hadn’t said anything about planning against children, though Susan enquired about this very circumstance. She watched her mother’s face intently, the faint blue lines under her eyes, the chest movement of her sigh. Well then, what do you think about abortion, Susan? her mother asked.
I don’t understand the question, said Susan. Her brother waded into the surf with an ocean rod, cast for bluefish. Oh, but he’s a good boy.
Your brother doesn’t believe in abortion, said her mother.
He’s fourteen, said Susan. And a boy. Who cares what he believes?
A good boy, and he’ll come around when he’s older. But Susan—and you must know this!—that’s the default position of all boys. Her brother settled the end of the fishing pole into the hollow cylinder he’d buried in the sand. It’s a very common opinion, Susan, said her mother. Most boys can’t identify with the girl, what happens to her. But a boy can identify with a fetus, a near-term fetus. To think they could have been scraped out of their mother’s womb and flushed down the toilet! Boys can’t abide the thought.
Abortion has nothing to do with boys, Susan insisted. Her brother’s earnest teenage body casting, reeling. Reeling, casting. Susan didn’t know what to feel, what to say. Was her mother supporting her, or telling her to drop the cause? How could she ask her? The white gulls gathered around them on the hot sand, expecting something. Monumental waves now and the taste of salt in her mouth. I can’t explain it, said Susan.
You don’t have to explain, said her mother.
I feel exposed, said Susan. No one knows how I feel.
A witch would know.
I’ve never met a witch..
My grandmother was a witch, as you well know, said her mother. Susan picked up a handful of sand, letting the grains drop into the breeze. To her left, a seagull hurled a curse.
I’m sorry, said Susan.
Susan has a headache and stops for gas. In the mart, taped to the acrylic divider next to the register, Susan reads a sign.
The Witch Law Restricts
Pregnant Women from
Other Tobacco Products
Marijuana and Derivatives
Alcohol greater than 4% by Volume
Medication Without Prescription
What if I bought a beer and a bottle of ginger ale and promised to mix the two together?
Like a shandy? asks the clerk. He scans her single-serve packet of ibuprofen. When was your last menstrual period? asks the clerk, and when Susan tells him, he taps it into the screen. Oh, you’re a week late, says the clerk. Are you pregnant? If you’re pregnant I can’t sell you this, he says.
No way, says Susan. Believe you me.
Turn signal, ramp, turn signal. Look at the sky, how bright up here, like snow. Rhododendron blooms the size of dinner plates. The tiny, muffled noises from the treetops.
She was in her mother’s kitchen just after the Witch Law passed. On the wall above the corded, black telephone hung a sepia photograph of a light-eyed adolescent girl framed by the branches of a birch. How bad will things get, said Susan, nodding to the photo. Warm wind blew up from the water, carried the low, undefined chirp of plant and animal life through the screened window and into the kitchen sink. Your grandmother spins in her grave, said Susan.
No sense in worrying about politics, said her mother. Birdlike, stern woman in the end. Coral stain seeping through the fissures of her lips. Strict ideas about cleanliness, music, memorization of poetry and songs. Loosely now, a multicolored tree on a brown field, branches intertwining skyward like braided rope. Here you are, mother. I protest my assignment, mother. Her mother took two cut glass lowballs from the cabinet, poured gin and tonics.
This prohibition of employment, said Susan. What’s that about? She shivered, pulled her cotton sweater from around her waist, donned it, buttoned it at the neck. Whole juniper berries swirled around the bottom of the pretty blue gin bottle in her mother’s hands. I mean, how will these women support themselves if they can’t get a job?
These women? said her mother. She capped off the gin, handed a drink to Susan, The smell of the drink dark, medicinal. You could be one. One of these.
Not me, said Susan. I like my job. I don’t want to be confined north of the city in a musty, sagging bungalow, or its yard. Cops barreling up the hill when I step out of bounds. That’s not living.
People find a way, said her mother. Are you pregnant now? Susan shook her head then, as she shakes it now, in the car, alone, on the way to visit the witch. I’m not pregnant, she practices saying. Try to remember how to gesture a truth that is actually a lie desperate to become a truth—it’s a type of sympathy to listen to lies, yes? To say, I understand what you want, and I want it for you, too, so that you may feel relief, peace. Her mother, handing her a gin and tonic. Juniper and quinine don’t mix with pregnancy, her mother told her.
As you well know.
Ninety minutes north of the city, the white sky blooms the palest of blues. The river widens, swells, pushes its way onto a grassy shore. Hard by the village’s train station is a sweet park and playground with the usual assortment of swings and spinning metal devices. In the lot next to a riverfront park, an old woman with flyaway white hair unloads a black plastic folding table from the backseat of a sedan, sets it up where the grass slopes to the river’s edge. She arranges pots of a yellow-flowered plant in a three-by-five pattern on the table, a half-apron around her waist, counting cash. She hand-letters a sign on the blank inside face of a printed, brown paper bag:
At the river’s edge, on the black rocks underneath the drooping branches of a red-stemmed tree heavy with seed pods, a raptor rips at the flesh of a trapped fish. Through the Tree of Heaven’s branches comes the slight movement of shadow—an animal? The raptor startles, takes flight, drops the stripped fish carcass into black water. From around the backside of the Tree of Heaven comes an adolescent girl—a little tan thing in a mud-stained white skirt. She picks her way among the rocks, peers into the water. The crone at the plant table turns to watch the girl lean forward, remove some small item out of the water. The girl steps off the rocks, wades. When she reaches to where the water hits mid-calf, the girl turns and raises her hand.
Katya, don’t go in there! calls the crone. The girl, open mouthed, takes another step. It’s contaminated! calls the crone. The girl tugs at the lid of a submerged rubber trash can, pulls and twists with little claw hands. The surface skims her chest.
A man comes from upriver, walking along the river’s edge. He stops next to the Tree of Heaven to watch the girl, hands in pockets.
Susan pulls into the car park, and the white-haired lady selling plants motions to leave the car at the far end. Her cervix is an hourglass heavy with time.
You’re looking for the witch, says the crone.
No, I have her address, says Susan. I want to see the river, she says. The river appears lighter now, a deep tea. Among the submerged branches of a tree, Susan spots floating plastic rings, coils of copper wire, fishing line heavy with resin sinkers. Minnows flit among floating detritus, shadowing the soft sand beneath.
The person you’re looking for is Katherine Konig, not me, calls the crone. I’m just sales.
I know who you are, Susan calls back, though she doesn’t. Downstream, Susan finds the girl in the water; she walks around the tree to get a better view. The girl bends over the water, pulls out a length of stiff metal wire, turns to show the man standing on shore. The man’s hands are in his pockets, still.
Is she yours? Susan asks. The man shakes his head, puts his finger to his lips. Why is that girl in the water? asks Susan. Does she belong to someone?
In the river, the girl loses her footing, grasps at water, submerges. The man inspects his hands, tugs down his shirt, ambles downriver. Soon, the girl’s head pops up out of the water.
Oh! says Susan. The girl sputters, twists the water out of her hair.
Don’t worry about that girl! calls the old lady from the plant table. Susan turns to see wind rippling through the yellow, potted flowers. A raptor watches from the top of the pine. The old woman shuffles around the table and onto the grass next to Susan who folds her arms across her chest. Am I seeing this? Can you see what I see?
The man who has been watching the girl walks out of earshot.
I don’t understand why that man didn’t help her, says Susan.
Who? asks the crone, cupping her ear. The wind picks up; a pair of thick, long metal pins tames the old lady’s flyaway, straight, white hair. A man saw you? What did he look like?
He looked like a man, said Susan.
Anyone you know?
He could have been any number of men.
Not to worry, says the crone. I watch over Katya.
Here Susan recalls a sentence the old lady seems to have once said: on learning it’s night, creatures emerge from the water. Or is it: once creatures emerge from the water, night begins. The sky revolves white to orange, but it’s midday. Susan feels a certain type of distress, a vision that the earth will never give her the joy she was promised.
I had a dream once, she tells the crone. I was on a flight from Miami and a man with a buzz cut and fancy aviator sunglasses came out of the bathroom, started talking to strangers. Little old ladies, men in business suits, teenage girls, all of them. He was talking forcefully to each of them on his way up the aisle, wiping his nose from time to time. His eyes darted around, looking for threats. He put his hands on the shoulders of strangers, stroked the roundness of them. You know the type?
These people are not to be overlooked, says the crone. Come. She leads Susan to the plant table, selecting a vigorous-looking specimen. It’s a gift, she says.
I wonder what kind of a person the man was, says Susan. The man from my dream. Does he know how to hold a baby with love, to look deeply into its eyes, create space for a girl to become herself?
Men are afraid of girls, says the crone.
My brother’s baby girl died, says Susan. He let his wife drink gin and tonic and then his baby died.
The crone nods sympathetically. She settles the potted rue into a white plastic bag. Do you know how to use it? asks the crone. The wet girl from the river wanders closer.
There’s nothing more exciting than a new plant, says Susan to the crone. The girl takes off her wet shirt, wrings it out in her hands. Underneath her shirt, her shoulders and midriff are bare, her breasts covered in a plain black bralette.
Katya, this lady’s come to visit the witch, says the crone.
The witch is my great granddaughter, says Katya.
I’m one too, says Katya. Everything the witch knows is because of me.
You mean she’s your great grandmother, says Susan—but that can’t be right, can it? Childhood stories whirl in her mind: in a dark wood, a king finds a wild animal in the crook of a tree, takes it for a wife; a virgin touches forbidden light through a keyhole, after which her finger emits a telltale shine; a father thoughtlessly trades his daughter to the Devil incarnate, who cuts off her hands. Please, can you tell me a happy story?
You mean you’re her great granddaughter, says Susan, struggling to understand.
That’s not what I said, says Katya. The raptor launches into the sky, screeches.
I know you from somewhere, says Susan.
You taught me a rimble once. In my sleep, is when I heard it, says Susan. She singsongs:
One week early, one day late
If you want a visitor, do not wait
Lemons, oranges, vitamin C
Ready for your guest in one, two, three.
That’s not my song, says the girl, taking off her skirt and shirt. Susan looks around for support from the crone, but she is back at the plant table, helping a customer, selling potted rue to a woman with cropped, brown hair.
It was last night that you gave me the song, says Susan. In the dark night of dreams, you sang it in my ear.
That’s your song, not mine, says Katya. Don’t put words in my mouth. She strips bare then fades into a pure, thin miasma which hovers briefly then flies out over the water, dissipating.
Katherine Konig waits for Susan on the front lawn of her sagging bungalow a half-mile uphill from the river. Thick brown hair in a rough twist; soft, unlined skin—she appears younger than Susan, happy and calm. When Susan proffers the yellow flowers, the witch holds up her palm.
I was hoping for something from the drugstore this time, says the witch, shaking her head. They have two-for-one specials on supplements at the end of each month, says the witch. The witch leaves the potted plant on the flagstone walk near Susan’s parked car. Around the corner in the side yard are row upon row of the very same potted plant. Susan shudders.
You’re nervous, says the witch.
I don’t know why you would say something like that.
Call me by my name, Katherine, says the witch. And tell me what you need.
I’m not looking for anything—it’s just the feature article, like we arranged, says Susan.
Katherine crosses and uncrosses her long, pale legs from her seated position in a nylon-strapped folding chair. A natural linen tunic opens to a pale chest and a heavy cross on a silver chain. Dark jean skirt, legs always in motion. A large plastic monitor grips the witch’s left ankle; the monitor is the shape of a fetus—its head larger than its body, streaked red. On her right ankle is a red mark smaller than a dime.
How long do you have to wear that thing? Susan asks, pointing to the monitor.
At least through the appeal, says Katherine. If we lose, it could be until…the witch trails off. Susan looks at the ground, the dimpled concrete walk, up over the gambrel and craftsman roofs to some distant trees on the crest of the hill, then back to meet the witch’s eyes. The witch takes a sip of hibiscus iced tea.
I know the answer, says Susan. You know it too. 18 years.
Is that all? asks Katherine. She taps her temple absentmindedly. In bloom under the bay window: blessed thistle, oregano, rosemary, chamomile. Pollinators flit among black peppermint plants. The dusky blue of berries peep through the protective branches of an eastern red cedar. Katherine stands, dead-heads goldenseal.
What’s this one? asks Susan. She points to a hip-high plant reminiscent in appearance and odor to celery.
Lovage, says the witch. Also called love-ache. Delicious in salad. The seed and root are strongest. Taste? She takes out a small pocketknife, slices through a stalk. Her rough thumbs nearly black along the nailbeds.
I’m pregnant, says Susan, and then laughs at the thought of it. One word-sound. One thought-noise. What does it mean? What does it signify? The capacity for indwelling reproduction? Some multi-decade commitment to a life other than her own?
How far along? Katherine asks. About five weeks?
I didn’t think I was showing, says Susan.
You’re not, says Katherine. She hands Susan the stalk of lovage.
Can I eat this? asks Susan, sniffing, but the witch has turned her attention to bee balm, sage, tarragon. The monitor deforms her figure like a tumor. What happens if you remove the baby? asks Susan.
A lot of trouble.
It looks heavy.
Seven pounds, says Katherine.
How do you bathe?
I’ve learned to maneuver, says Katherine. But sex is something else—men don’t like my plastic fetus; it gets in the way of where they want to put their legs.
Can that be on the record? asks Susan. She pulls out a pen and notebook, sets her laptop on the small lawn table, plugs in a microphone. I’m going to write that your punishment interferes with sex, is that okay? asks Susan, and the witch smiles—go ahead.
A man in a white polo shirt and red club pants emerges from the bungalow. He strides past the women and up the hill to a car parked two houses away.
Who was that? asks Susan.
Just a man. He could be any man at all, says Katherine.
He looks like my husband, except taller and fitter, says Susan.
Next time bring scallion pancakes! Katherine calls after him. The man climbs into his SUV, pulls out. They’re on special every Tuesday, Katherine explains.
Is that your favorite offering? asks Susan. In her notebook, she writes scallion pancakes on Tuesdays.
A dark green pickup truck rolls down the hill, pauses in front of the bungalow. Down comes the window, and a man in the passenger seat holds out his phone to make a video.
I’m press! Susan shouts. She stands, holds up her credentials, runs to the truck.
You’re a witch! cackles the driver. She recognizes something in his words as true, though there is something divine about the implication, a divine commission, as if the very idea of a witch was birthed from the mind of God. So what if I am? thinks Susan.
Good looking witches! says the passenger. And then, We got a tip you’d be here. You doing hours? asks the passenger and they both laugh as the truck peels away.
Susan feels misshapen, defective, like she’ll soon be on display under a glass bell in a museum of small horrors.
Don’t be afraid of them, says Katherine. You can’t afford the fear. She looks relaxed, sitting there in her garden on a lawn chair. Katherine uses her pocketknife to pry the dirt from the fingernails of her left hand, and Susan slouches back to sit next to her.
One day I’ll be an ugly old woman, says Susan. Maybe I should have a child.
Or you could be a beautiful old woman, says Katherine. Don’t be afraid to be beautiful.
These people who want to be my enemy, they are not to be overlooked, says Susan. Her feet feel small, cold. She wants to run across the summertime lawn catching winged creatures of undetermined genera. The sky threatens to snow, though it does not—all darkness is for later, when the earth spins in its grave, retelling wars and death and incomplete births. An indeterminacy that defies classification.
A high-pitched alarm sounds, and Katherine unstraps the monitor from her left ankle. A dark red mark smaller than a dime remains on her left ankle where the monitor has been, symmetrical with the right. Katherine attaches the plastic fetus to her right ankle, winces briefly.
There are probably ways, Susan begins.
No. There’s no way, says Katherine. I’ve tried them all. Once I cut off a piece of flesh from my own belly. It wasn’t big—the size of a quarter. I taped it to the leg of a john. He asked me to do it; he was in love with me, wanted to wear my fetus for a while, give me a rest. Police arrived within six minutes. Thing knows who its mother is. She taps the monitor.
What happened to the john?
Nothing. Nothing ever happens to men, says Katherine.
This is wrong, says Susan. This is sickness, evil, poison. I’m going to write that in the article, she says. People will be sympathetic, I promise. We’ll get things changed, says Susan.
I’m glad you think so, says Katherine. But people don’t want to know how I feel. The knowledge would disrupt their worldview. People want contracts for love and a predictable unfolding of human development. Don’t go changing their minds—they’ll hate you for it, says Katherine.
Susan feels her eyes rise to the pale blue sky. The clouds are fires burning up a secret. The light is diffuse, inexact. The sound of her thoughts is a cold river in her ears. Why shouldn’t things happen to men? Here, Susan recalls a sentence the witch seems to have once said: what is taboo will seek you out.
You’re very generous to give me the interview, says Susan.
What’s the alternative? How ungenerous to refuse.
I met a girl this morning, says Susan. Katya was her name. An adolescent girl who fell in the river.
Girls are always falling in the river.
She said she knows you, that you’re related.
All girls are related.
Said she’s your great grandmother, and a witch. Said I put words in her mouth, but it was she who put words in mine! says Susan. I know this, but I don’t know how.
All knowledge is secret, says Katherine.
They sit, listen to the clouds, imagine the deep night of dreams. After a time, the air turns blue, becomes cool. Susan begins again: Your great grandmother was knee-deep in the river, looking for something, and she fell all the way in. Her head was underwater. And there was this man with her, but he didn’t help. He kept his hands in his pockets and walked away. How come he didn’t help her?
Girls are always getting wet, says Katherine. Girls are always sneaking in and out of closets, sitting in trees, hiding behind doors. Looking for the light, the secret, the answer. That’s the story of girls. Don’t act so surprised, says Katherine. She snaps the pocketknife closed.
Do you have a cigarette? asks Susan.
The witch hands her the pocketknife, says, take this. It’s all I have.
Barbara Lock is a writer, editor, teacher, and physician. Her writing appears in STORY, The Forge, Superstition Review, X-R-A-Y Lit, and elsewhere. There’s more about her at barbaralock.com.