Angel Maker: The Short Stories of Sara Maitlandby Sara Maitland
Ms. Maitland's interests are as varied as her characters in this stunning collection of short stories about women's lives. From classical mythology and folk stories to inexplicable accidents of history and tales of the supernatural, these narratives "are infused with a feminist awareness and . . . deserve to be read out loud" ("Ms."). 288 pp. 7,500 print.
A suave, amused narrative voicesometimes first-person, sometimes omniscient, unafraid to address the reader directlyis a virtual constant in these witty, skillfully woven tales, whose variety and vitality are compromised chiefly by a recurring (and off-putting) impression of smugness. Several contemporary pieces, which tend to focus on women's erotic, marital, or maternal dilemmas, include "The Loveliness of the Long-Distance Runner," "The Eighth Planet," and the amusingly grisly "Apple Picking." The many stories inspired by history or legend are stronger, with several based on Greek myths, others on European folk tales: "Cassandra" explains how its title character received the "gift" of prophecy from her lover Apollo; the title piece presents the witch from "Hansel and Gretel" as a conscientious midwife and abortionist; and "The Wicked Stepmother's Lament" memorably justifies that character's mistreatment of Cinderella ("I just wanted her . . . to see that life is not all sweetness and light . . . that fairy godmothers are unreliable . . . and that even the most silvery of princes soon goes out hunting and fighting and drinking and whoring"). If Maitland's weaker tales display a jarring archness, her better ones may be said to succeed precisely because they embrace a variety of viewpoints and allow her readers room for choice among them. "An Edwardian Tableau," for example, which features superbly contrived period language, reveals the confusion of conflicting emotions in the suffragist movement. Even better is "The Burning Times," a complex and powerful portrayal of awakening lesbianism set in Europe during the Middle Ages and capped by a truly magnificent and disturbing final sentence.
Strong and challenging work from a highly skilled writer who, apart from a tendency toward argumentative stridency, may be counted among the best of her generation.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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- 1st ed
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- 5.83(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.12(d)
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The Short Stories of Sara Maitland
By Sara Maitland
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1996 Sara Maitland
All rights reserved.
Gretel will come through the forest again this afternoon, as she has come so many times before, since that first time.
It is a golden October day; last night I smelled for the first time this year the distant savor of frost — it was still far away in the Northlands, but hunting southwards following the swallows and pushing before it nights of jewel-bright sharpness and days of astonishing radiance — the sky dazzling blue in contrast to the soft mysterious gold yellows and flame reds of the leaves and the ground-cover grass still green, a green that is deeper now than at any time of year — the frail yellow hues of spring and the dusty density of summer both gone, washed away by the September rain. It is quiet in the forest at this time of year, not silent but a gentle, rustly quiet, except when the winds blow. Today it is not windy nor will be before evening when, if I am not too tired by the events of the afternoon, I will call up a wind and dance, crazy, ancient and unseen, along with the dying leaves whose final flourishing will amuse both them and me.
But before that Gretel will come; discerning in her need the cryptic signs of the path through the forest and walking with a firm but cautious stride. Her laced canvas boots will be the same green as the grass and the tufts of her short hair will blend with the extreme oranges and purples of the autumn wood. She has grown into a beautiful woman, as I always knew she would, and though I think her foolish now, that is not my problem but hers. I do not choose, I never have chosen, to make other women's choices my problem; I do not judge and I do not take the consequences of my refusal to judge. That is my privilege and the price that they must pay for my services. She will regret it, or not regret it, as time alone will show, and her daughter one day perhaps will seek me out in some other forest, in some other time. And in the meantime she has grown into a beautiful woman, for those who have eyes to see it.
I am waiting for her in the bright morning, while my winter doves pick seeds around the gingerbread house. Some things do not change and the windows are all still made of spun sugar, as white and clear as glass, but melting sweet. But bubblegum has solved the old problem of keeping the place together and progress is something I have always believed in. She is a grown-up now but still she prefers, as I prefer, the sugar-candy gingerbread to the chromium and steel cleanliness that some others offer. It is warmth and comfort a woman needs at such times, not hard shiny edges — them as want that can go elsewhere and good riddance to bad rubbish I say.
She will come alone this time.
That is something; something gained in so many centuries.
Of course, the first time she came, all neat and pretty in her cotton skirts and tidy pinny, she was so young that she had to bring him with her — Hansel, I mean; they were not old enough to be separated, she could not go out and about without the boy-child. I saw them come through the forest and they seemed like any two little children to me then, tasty enough and milky sweet, and their eyes huge and round under those thick little fringes, lighting with joy at the sight of the sweety sticky house. But I did not recognize her, even though I could not but admire the abandoned greed with which she tucked into the sweet things on offer, licking at my window till the panes melted and ran down her chin in runnels of sweetness.
I called to her in a whisper,
Nibble, nibble, nibble mouse,
Who is nibbling at my little house?
I should have known her from her answer but I had been alone too long. She smiled and sang,
The wind, the wind,
The heaven-born wind.
Ah, but she was a lucky one then, she had not sought me out knowingly, though without needy desire I cannot be found; the desire was there — the need to be comforted for the loss of her mother, the desire to be comforted for the betrayal by her father. She needed no special magic that time, just showing. So I locked him up, and fattened him up, and let her see that she could be without him, that she was strong and wise and could decide for herself. It worked, though I scared her so badly that she thrust me into the oven and burned me to death and went home and told them that I ate little children.
Well, every sane witch fears fire, it would be folly not to. It was my fault, I thought she was so young that I could decide for her. But it is not permitted; she chose him over me and all I could do was help them find their way back to Daddy afterwards. Now I never choose on their behalf. I wait. I wait. As I wait for her now.
* * *
I waited that time ten years and several centuries. She came back when she needed to. She came through the forest, a long swirling skirt spreading its Indian patterns around her, her hair long, its tendrils twisting in and out of the sunlight and adorned with ribbons; her feet were bare on the grass; her breasts were full and her hips sinuous. Her lips looked like those of a woman fulfilled, but her eyes like those of a woman betrayed. Betrayed again.
She stood on the edge of the clearing, and that greed had disappeared under an anxiety. She did not even smile to see the gingerbread and sugar cottage. She looked at me as though she hated me.
I smiled a little, and said,
Nibble, nibble, nibble mouse.
Who is nibbling at my little house?
I thought it might remind her and comfort her.
She said, almost reluctantly, "They say you can help me."
"Love potions?" I reply. "Charms for safety at sea? For murrain among cows, and zits on your rival's nose? Eye of newt and toe of dog."
I know she has not come for these, but I never decide for my women; they must ask me. It is not my problem.
Slowly she leaves the protection of the tall trees and crosses into the sunlight of my clearing; the chickens cheep and the doves coo; I reach up and break a soft piece of gingerbread, sparkly with sugar, off the eave above my head, and hold it out to her. She takes it almost fiercely and chews. There is a pause and then she says, "I'm pregnant."
"I know," I say, and we wait in a long silence while she masticates the cake in her mouth, her long beady earrings joggling about. I know she is waiting for me to offer, but I am an old witch woman and I say nothing. The silence lengthens, even the trees seem hushed and the scratching of the birds fades away. I cannot help her if she cannot ask. After a while, I shuffle inside and get on with things. I think what a tough and joyous child she was all those years ago, shrieking and complaining, and I am angry. I do the washing up, trying not to bang the pots too loudly. I heat the oven and spray on the foam oven-cleaner; when I look out through the sugar-spun windows she is still standing in the clearing, her outline wavery and out of focus from the impurities in the sugar.
At length, she comes to the doorway, and looks in.
"Remember?" I ask, but she shakes her head.
I think she does remember, though, because after only a tiny pause she says, "I want it got rid of."
"All right," I say.
"It's against the law," she mutters; I don't mind being checked out, it seems sensible to me.
"Not my law," I tell her. "Your law?"
Suddenly she becomes verbose, "It's like this, you see, it's not that I don't like babies, it's just that he ..."
"No," I say, quite stern. "Don't tell me, I don't want to know. I won't blame and I won't praise. There is only one reason: you want it. Nothing else. I'm not interested."
Suddenly she smiles, shy and illuminated. "OK," she says, "let's do it."
I go to the back of the cottage and fetch the cauldron; I swing it up on to the hook over the fire. I tell her to lie down. I fill the cauldron and start the long spell.
"Will it hurt?" she asks. "Wait and see," I answer.
The smoke rises and swirls about the room, and I take her hand and we go together into another place, a dark and magical room where women go to take charge over destiny, over forests and growing time and small birds and sugar-candy windows, because we choose to. It is a place of risk. It is not a good place, but we go, not because we must, but because we will.
Hours later, we come back and it is dark. It is cold and drafty, because the fire has melted the window panes and the night winds are coming in. I wrap her in a quilt stitched of all the good things in the forest and in the tales of childhood, and then although I am tired I melt more sugar and remake my windows.
In the morning I make her a nice cup of tea and give her a sugar bun plucked from beside the bathroom down-drain. While she gets dressed I sew the scarlet flowering pimpernels which have bloomed on her undersheet into the quilt for the next woman. When she comes down I think that she will leave in silence, but at the last moment she turns to me and says, "Will she be all right, my daughter?"
I should refuse to answer, I should keep my own rules, but it is she, it is Gretel, the little child who came to me in great loss and fear all those years ago, and I love her. So I answer, "They don't call me the Angel Maker for nothing."
It takes her a moment or two to work it out; it is, after all, very early in the morning. Suddenly she grins an enormous evil grin, full of dislike of me, of herself, of the world; also full of irony, and joy and freedom and knowledge. She bunches her fingers into a fist and without warning smashes into one of my newly set windows. She takes a huge chunk of sugar in her hand and sucks it voluptuously. Then she turns, crosses the clearing and goes back into the forest. I think I have seen the last of her, and stand recovering my energy from the gentle warmth of the morning sun, but after a few moments she reappears from behind a tree; she waves her sugar-candy shard at me and shouts, "Sod the bastards, just sod the lot of them. Including Him." And she goes away leaving me cackling in my clearing, with yet another window to cook. And another long wait.
* * *
I waited again. Understand, she came a thousand times; she came a thousand times as the little child with her brother who did not understand her mother's withdrawal, who did not understand her father's betrayal; she came a thousand times as the young woman with some man's child, with her own child in her belly. And yet I still waited for her to come again. I waited in almost perfect patience. I waited until last month, a wet morning after the turn of the moon, and she came again. I knew she would.
During the waiting time, business had changed. Little call now for love potions and cures for the murrain and kettle mending and fire tending and the little spells of yesteryear. They have Dating Agencies and Inoculations and Hire Purchase and Calor Gas: all of which I might say are strong magics, stronger than mine, and cheaper, and more secret. I have always favored progress. In the end they took even the deep magic; they changed their laws and called mine quackery. I still hold that a woman needs another woman's hand to clasp and a little sugar splinter to suck on when she goes into the dark place and takes control of the spinning of her own destiny; they say she needs hygiene and counseling and medical attention and I say I never lost one who could be saved, and when they were done with me they knew that they had chosen and were responsible for that. I never questioned that they sucked by the wind, the heaven-born wind, and that those who needed me could find me always. But there is always magic business for a self-respecting old witch to live off. I move with the times, I invested in an oxygen-cooled thermos-flask, and went out and charmed the men they needed, and I waited for her to come.
She was thirty-eight now and could not wait much longer. Stupid, though. In the end I had to go to the town and lay down clues. It was breaking my own rules, of course, and I knew it. It was a long time since I had walked on streets that had hard surfaces and bright neon lights; there were fireworks in every puddle, magic fireworks mothered by the brightness of the lights, golden and sparkly in the wind. But though I had gone with intent, when I saw the first of the children I was innocent and delighted. A darling little thing, wrapped not in a blanket but in a sensible progressive snowsuit, her dark eyes poking up over the edge of a red and green padded snowsuit, and bright with the joy of being a wanted child. Her mother, stiff with pride and tiredness, pushed her in a little open wheeled chair, more frail and fairy than any pumpkin carriage.
"Oh, the little angel," I cried, and fell upon her with an improper kiss. Perhaps we make rules only for the strange and painful pleasure of breaking them. Her mother recognized me, of course, and was appalled. I saw her stiffen with embarrassment and turn aside with a charm to ward off evil. "'Aroint thee, witch,'" the rump-fed runnion cried (her girlfriend's to Aleppo gone, mistress of a Channel 4 documentary, but in a sieve I'll thither sail and like a rat without a tail I'll do, I'll do and I'll do) — does she take responsibility for what she does, despite my best efforts? I wonder. But I saw that Gretel was there and her eyes widened and her wonder deepened. I knew that she would come. And she did. And We talked women talk and agreed that today is the day that she must come. I will do for her what she cannot bring herself to do for herself. I ask no questions and make no judgments, that is not my task. I taught her so long ago that she had to find her own strength and draw upon it, so I can scarcely complain if she draws upon mine.
* * *
Last night it was cold; riding upon my broomstick I smelled for the first time this year the distant savor of frost — it was still far away in the Northlands, but hunting southwards following the swallows and pushing before it nights of jewel-bright sharpness and days of astonishing radiance — the moon, so round as to spin the whole cosmos, rode out the darkness anchored to the lee of a ragged cloud, frilled and furbelowed in reflected silver.
He is handsome, the miller's wife's dark son, and his father astute and sturdy; they do not take fever, those children, and they grow beside the weir wide-eyed and hopeful, the rushing water stirring something in them that this child of Gretel's will need. Five centuries ago I would have sent her to him in the gloaming time and given her a little magic potion just in the unlikely case that he was unwilling, but I have taught her to stand firmer to her dignity even than that. Five centuries ago I might have burned for it, but I do not think of that. I may be old and ugly, but he is young and beautiful, and flattery will get one anywhere. Just now he loves a handsome piper from the king's castle keep and loves himself enough to love his own sperm and rejoice that he can spread it here and there without having either effort or responsibility. He will do perfectly for Gretel, and he gives me the ingredient of my magic and feels flattered to do so. At home I spin the crawling fluid in my centrifuge: I make only girl babies, but that is my secret, my power, the one thing I do not let my women choose for themselves — I have some professional dignity. Then I return the fluid to the vial and place it in the refrigerating thermos. I boil the cauldron and wait. Gretel will come through the forest again this afternoon, as she has come so many times before, since that first time.
And she comes, discerning in her need the cryptic signs of the path through the forest and walking with a firm but cautious stride. Her laced canvas boots are the same green as the grass and the tufts of her short hair blend with the extreme oranges and purples of the autumn wood. She has grown into a beautiful woman, as I always knew she would, and though I think her foolish now, that is not my problem but hers. She barely greets me, intent on her own journey and needing. I take her hand and lead her inside the cottage; for the first time I do not bother to break off any titbit for her, knowing that she does not really desire anything except the vial and its magic potency.
I give it to her without further ado. The glass twinkles more clearly than my spun-sugar windows, but I pass no comment upon this. I say only, "Do you know what to do?" I watch as her square strong knuckles close around the magic potion. "Yes, alas," she says, and it is a new grin of self-knowing and a deep irony. "Go in there," I tell her, and point towards the door of the bedroom. "The quilt is on the bed. Make yourself at home." I swear I meant no joke, but she grinned again and said, "Do you trust me? Don't you want to come too?" Her irony dissolves and she says, like a little child, "Please come and help me." And I, clinging to my own rules like a woman who expects to be saved by good conduct, say, "No."
I go out of the house and into the clearing. The grass is green and bright; only a little way away the trees of the forest flaunt their autumn coloring; when, after the winter, the summer comes again, Gretel will have a little girl child nursing at her breast. It is what she wants and what I have given her. And though I think her foolish, that is not my problem but hers. I do not choose, I have never chosen, to make other women's choices my problem; I do not judge and I do not take the consequences of my refusal to judge. That is my privilege and the price that they must pay for my services. She will regret it, or not regret it, as time alone will show, and her daughter one day perhaps will seek me out in some other forest, in some other time. And in the meantime she has grown into a beautiful woman, for those who have eyes to see it.
Excerpted from Angel Maker by Sara Maitland. Copyright © 1996 Sara Maitland. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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