The Witch Woman’s Husband
He is older than I am, by a year, and yet his face seems childish to me after his father’s. It is smooth, oval, olive, round, dark, his eyes stirred with an anger that reminds me of his mother. There is nothing in that moment but the snapping of the bracken and the roll of the wind beyond the door.
He watches me coldly, drinking in the figure of his father’s woman. He is raw with youth and my response seems overly maternal in my concerned smile. Foolish. There is hatred in the shape of his mouth.
In an instant, he imagines choking me hard against the fireplace, the fear in my eyes as I reflexively clasp his fists with my thin webbed fingers and gasp as my feet kick hard against the brick. For a moment, he questions whether he’d kill me there, or let me go. I had dishonoured his mother, sullied her kitchen shrine with my presence, and my youth against his own left him raging.
"It wouldn't be worth it," I say calmly, untying my apron strings and pulling the iron from the stove. He glowers over the table, ripe with irritation.
"Choking me against that wall. They'd hang you, once you had calmed down, and I'm not sure I'm worth that to you."
He turns white, white than the walls, the ash, the hail on the prairie. "How could you-"
"I'm good at reading people, Samuel. Don't look so flustered. I won't tell."
"You’re a damned witch," he spits. "My mother used to say you were. The whole village did. They warned him."
"Your father knows I do no harm. And if you had any sense, you’d know I would have done away with you too if I had meant to by now." My words are cold, pragmatic, but he’s the sort of boy who needs the mathematics to believe anything. There’s a brief pause, and I see a question flicker back and forth between his pupils.
"No, Samuel." I say, truthfully. "Your mother died of scarlet fever. I never liked her, that is true, but you’ll find no blood on these hands."
"Could you have saved her?"
"Not here. No. I would have done."
I want to tell him that I’d thought of saving her. Not at first. I’d wanted her corpse in the ground with the spring and the warmth of her husband by the summer. But then I saw he loved her, in those low candlelit evenings spent sobbing and sweating over her fading body. He’d begged at my door in his nightgown to save her. I knew, then, that I’d always be a shadow in his soul to her, that the burning hot red rash that swelled within me for him would mean nothing against the callow bones of his first bride in some foreign field.
So I had comforted her, in the low rise of the green morning sun as the fever gripped at the last of her lungs. I almost saved her, then, I almost slipped away and left her living. But the past is a knot, a great loom of too many lives lost and made in the great heaving human tide, and I knew that saving Mistress Howard would cause too many a string to be plucked in the making of the next day. So I held the hand of the woman I hated, and for that last long night and early morning, loved her.
"Do you love him?" Samuel asks suddenly, interrupting my thoughts. I laugh, suddenly bitter.
"I see, I must be the wicked stepmother here for no reason than to torment you. Of course I do. Why else would I wed a man in this village so soon after his wife dies? With the way they speak already of my nature? Foolishness."
"My father's wealthy."
"Six daughters and a son!" I shrug at him. "If I'm a witch as you say, surely I'd choose a king or a captain who could provide me with more than a farm and seven mouths to feed? Would I be standing over your shirts if I married him for money?"
That silences him. I fold the cloth, not meeting his gaze. "I am sorry about your mother, truly. I would not have wed him so soon if it has been my preference. I know you must despise my presence a great deal."
"Where are you from?"
"Massachusetts. Before then, Ely."
"No you aren't."
I look up at him. "What do you mean?"
"You act different to any women from Massachusetts. Sound different, too. You say words no one has ever spoken. You do the strangest things in church. So where are you really from?"
I stare at him. "I was brought up in the governor’s house after my mother died in Georgetown. So I suppose I may act a little more liberally, at times. And sound a little less common, if I may say."
"None of that is true, Mary. You'd do well not to lie to a man you need as an ally in this village."
I swallowed. The truth stirs before sense.