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Monstrous Femme

He pressed his face into the hollow place between her shoulders and breathed in the scent of cold, dark earth. He sometimes imagined how that empty space in her back had come to be. Had her skin split as an infant, the fissure slowly growing larger and larger until it opened her up? Had something else, something unknowable, carved it out of her flesh centuries before he had been born? Or was it that she was something formed in the shape of a woman, grown around the gnarled parts of a long-forgotten tree?

He didn’t ask her. He held his arm around her hips and he kissed the space where skin gave way to emptiness. He pressed his head into that empty space and listened to the deep sounds of her.

“Most men,” she had told him the evening he had discovered what she was, “do not want to know the truth about their wives.”

“You are not like most wives.”

“I am not.”

She had watched him warily as he had looked at her body as if he was seeing it for the first time. He hadn’t seen her, on their wedding night, or any of the nights since they had gotten married. Not like this. He had looked at the wildness of her, held her thin, cow-like tail in his hands. He had run a finger down the edge of the fissure that opened up her back. Then he had kissed her and asked her to come back to bed. He had taken her hand and led her back inside, as if he were not leading a monster by its delicate and pale fingers.

It was, after all, their home. They had built it together after their wedding night. He had not questioned the strength of his wife, watching her carry beams that he couldn’t lift on his own.

He had simply thought of himself as fortunate.

She didn’t ask much of him, only that he treat her well and never look at her while she was bathing. It was easy to treat her well. He loved her, after all. He had loved her from the moment he had seen her picking flowers in the woods. She bathed herself in the rush of the river and he never looked at her.

Until he did. It had been an accident, not something that he had arranged or sought to do. She had gone to the river to bathe and he had stepped out to hunt rabbit for their supper. They had kissed before they had parted, perfectly trusting one another to do exactly as they said they were doing. She would bathe. He would hunt.

The rabbit he had found would be a tender meal, basted in butter and rosemary. He had been thinking about sprinkling salt on his dinner as he followed it through the brush. He hadn’t even realized that it was darting from shadow to shadow and leading him to the river.

There was nothing horrifying about her, when he looked at her. She was his wife. He led her back to the house and forgot about the rabbit.

Years passed. He whispered prayers into her in the dark of their room, thanking the woods and the earth for the weight of her in his arms. He dreamed about flowers spilling from the hollow in her back, filling up their home.

They always had flowers but they never had children. There was no space in her for a child, hollowed out as she was.

“And besides . . . it would be a monster,” she said.

“It would be ours.”

They made love and they didn’t talk about it again.

He knew that the people in the village would kill her if they saw her for what she was. They had no reverence for the wild things of the woods. Only a fear of monsters. Monsters were shaped in the mouths of men, formed by the hushed stories that were told by the light of a fire. Those stories had told him to be afraid of the thing that his wife was. They’d warned him that she’d kill him.

He would let her if that was what she wanted. There was a comfortable certainty in that. His life was in her hands and he was going to continue to live so long as she wished it. She loved him as deeply as he loved her, so the years passed. The villagers died and left behind their descendants. They told stories of him, whispering about him around the fire, until he wasn’t a man anymore.

She told him that they were coming and of course she was right. They arrived on his doorstep and told him what he was now that they’d told their stories. He listened, letting the width of his shoulders fill his doorway. He looked at the torches that they were holding in their hands and believed them. At some point, he had become something other than a man, something that grew around the shape of him and had taken on his form.

That was all right. He didn’t mind being a monster. Not when he could enjoy the quiet of the forest and the warmth of his wife. It was possible that she was the thing that had grown around him and made him into what he was now.

The thatched roof of their home hissed when the villagers threw a torch on it. He watched the smoke spiral up into the air and turned to go inside. Little cinders were already falling onto the floor. He picked up his wife and carried her with him back outside and she slipped her willow-thin arm around his shoulders. She was stronger than all of them. Stronger than him. She was as light as a child as he carried her away from their flames and stories of monsters.

“You can’t go back,” she said.

“I don’t want to.”

He crawled into the space between her shoulders and she lifted her arms above her head, her fingers spread to the sky. Her skin darkened and roughened and his grew sticky and sweet.

The villagers walked past them, carrying their spent torches and talking about how they had triumphed. They had defeated the monsters, chased them back into the dark corners of their imaginations. He watched them leaving through the knot-hole eyes in her bark. His blood flowed through her, slow as sap.

He dreamed of flowers held in their outstretched arms and the feeling of squirrels leaping between their fingers. The villagers had not triumphed or defeated the monsters they’d made¬†with the twists of their tongues. They’d allowed themselves to believe that their stories were the truth of the world.

They’d forgotten how to see the things that the trees held in their hearts.