The Way to the Tower
Words By Jennifer Pullen, Art By Daniel Reneau
She rests in bed and considers eating her fingers. Not for real, not actually chewing them off, but pulling at dry skin, calluses going to seed, and putting them in her mouth. She’s never known hunger quite like this. She turns herself over and over like a pebble on the beach, but she’s never worn any smoother. Instead her stomach keeps swelling and her skin keeps stretching until her navel radiates red angry lines. She tells her husband Jacob to go away, stop hovering, go sell something to feed the other children. He strokes her hair, calls her his sweet Margaret. She turns her head away. He goes. Her bed smells like sweat and the sheets look gray but they can’t change the linen. They don’t have any extra linen because anything they ever had two of has been sold long ago. She wants to yell at Jacob, at the other children congregating in corners, mud in the eddy of a stream. But she doesn’t yell, she just asks for some water, and the oldest, fourteen, detaches from the shadowy corners and brings her an earthenware cup full of water. She drinks and drinks but never gets full. She touches the cheek of her oldest, little Adam, in a remembered gesture of tenderness.
She wishes she didn’t feel as if genuine affection was dried up inside her. She wishes she could really feel what she used to. But all she can feel is the pregnancy and the hunger. If this one survives (if she survives) it will be her tenth living child and her sixteenth pregnancy. No more, she vows, no more. She’ll have to resign herself to Jacob visiting Julia down the road, with her dark hair and overfull bosom, like the other husbands whose wives have started saying no. No more.
Jacob eventually comes back with a bag of potatoes, and a half a wheel of cheese. The chairs were sold last winter, so the children stand in a circle around the table and suck on their bit of cheese. Jacob’s eyes look eaten out from the inside, but when he hands her a double portion of cheese she doesn’t tell him to take it back, because she feels like she’s being consumed. Secretly, she begins to hate the child, and then hate herself for doing so.
One day Margaret feels well enough to stand up. She says she’s going to walk the roads to see if any wild dandelions are growing along the verge. She envisions a salad, bright green dandelion leaves, pig-weed leaves, wild violet blossoms. Her mouth waters. Jacob, sitting on the floor, whittling a spinning-top, looks relieved. He’s a carpenter, but since the flour mill closed and the dairy went away, no one can pay him, so he whittles small things out of scrap wood: spoons, toys, and other objects he can sell by the side of the road and at the market.
“The walk will do you good,” he says.
“I suppose,” she says. She feels tired already. She wishes he would stop making things they can never sell.
Before there were so many children, she was an expert in plants, in the efficaciousness of arrow-root and nettle, which mushrooms can go in stew, which can stop a heart. She used to treat the women of the village for aches and pains, for warts, lost love, and the kind of bruises never talked about. But no one comes anymore. Ever since the last child, two years ago, one of the ones who died, it’s been all she could do to get out of bed in the morning and brush her hair. Lately Margaret hasn’t even had to turn people away who come to ask for her various herbal remedies, they’ve started going somewhere else, to someone else.
But today she walks, she picks a few sparse leaves, her breath heaves. She has to stop and lean against a tree. She wishes for a stick to help her stride. A few people pass in horse-drawn carriages and wagons. They look at her slant, at her ragged clothes, matted hair and swollen body. She imagines that they think she’s a whore down on her luck. They speed on, drivers urging horses into a trot. A little way down the road she sees the walled garden, surrounded by heavy stone reaching eight feet or more, the garden rumored to be owned by a witch. In these times, with the priests wandering through every town, cursing women’s wisdom, a witch would need a wall. She’s heard that the wall surrounds a harvest of un-imaginable bounty. She’s heard that no matter the drought, no matter the season, in that garden the earth delivers up its fruits. Ever since that wall was built, mere months after she fell, two years ago, into her post-birth malaise, she’s heard the women of the village have been going there for healing. They say the witch can make an unborn child go away without pain. They say she looks at broken bones and tells them to heal correctly, and they must. Margaret wonders how much of what the villagers say is nonsense, and how much is true.
As she gets closer to the witch’s garden, she sees that the wall has a single red door. It swims in front of her vision and she rubs her eyes. She imagines the dense stands of raspberry bushes, the apple trees, the lush clumps of lettuce, so thick they carpet the ground like grass. She takes one step toward the door and then another. She finds herself knocking. The door swings open, and a tall woman with long white hair in a braid reaching to her ankles stares down at Margaret, her face blank. Margaret reminds herself that this woman stole her customers, that she’s no natural woman, but a witch, a trafficker of the uncanny.
“I need,” Margaret says, but suddenly realizes that she doesn’t know what she wanted to ask this woman. She couldn’t pay for any services or for food, so what does she expect, exactly? Margaret doesn’t even know if she wants to fall at the woman’s feet and beg or spit in her eyes and then curse her as a witch.
“I can see that,” the woman says.
She opens the door wider, and Margaret sees the garden. She feels side-swiped by the color green. Margaret steps inside. The woman (the witch?) leads her down a path between the garden beds. The earth in the garden looks dark and rich, rioting with fertility. Vines grow up trellises, small boxes contain sharp smelling herbs, and trees practically drip with fruit. Margaret feels as if she could eat the air. Her stomach and the child inside boil and seethe. The woman leads Margaret to a clear grassy area in the middle of the gigantic walled garden, a sort of meadow, and motions for her to sit down. Margaret lowers her heavy body into the grass. In the face of so much natural growing splendor she feels filthy and used. The woman tells her to wait for a moment. Margaret watches her leave, and ponders the wrinkled face, the straight back, the red skirt. This woman doesn’t fit easily into any category that she knows of. While she waits she watches a spider string a web between two tall blades of grass, tiny tensile strands, so small to hold the spider, with its delicate legs and yellow-white body. Margaret thinks of the circus she saw once as a girl, the woman balancing on the wire high in the air, limbs dancing with the breeze. In the middle of the meadow there’s a circle of bricks mortared together and a pile of unused bricks nearby. She wonders what the woman plans to build.
The woman comes back with a tin plate. On the plate is a salad of rapunzel leaves, beets, and cucumbers. Margaret can’t bring herself to eat slowly, so she devours the plate of vegetables, but despite her speed the food seems to go on and on. After she finishes, Margaret looks up at the woman (witch?) still standing and watching her. Margaret says she’s sorry. The woman smiles, flashing a full set of very white teeth, and Margaret stares, entranced.
“You used to be the healer,” the woman says.
Margaret says yes.
“I’m sorry I’ve taken your custom, but if it helps, I don’t treat grown men, only women and children.”
The woman kneels beside Margaret and puts her hand on her stomach without asking. Margaret intends to protest, but the warmth emanating from that hand holds her in place. She looks at the woman (witch?) and sees that her gray eyes are staring intently at Margaret’s swollen stomach, tracing lines with her gaze. Margaret wonders what she sees. The woman stands, and at the loss of her hand Margaret feels strangely bereft.
“Did you like the salad?”
Margaret nods mutely, suddenly afraid, she’s waiting for the bad news. She’s remembering all the stories she’s heard about accepting food from faeries or witches.
“You need food and I need a child. You have too many children. You can come here, work the garden, learn from me, and take as much food as you want. But in exchange, if your child is a girl you must give her to me.”
Margaret suddenly sees the cold gleam in the woman’s eyes, like a sheathed knife, and decides she’s definitely a witch. The witch suggests purchasing Margaret’s child as though she’s proposing a perfectly normal transaction. In a sense she is—after all, the child-buyers come to the village every year, talking about apprenticeships in the city, good homes, and easy work as ladies’ maids, or butlers, eventually. The parents get lots of money and tell themselves they assure their child’s future. But the buyers only want the most beautiful little boys and girls, the ones with un-blemished skin, soft hair and wide trusting eyes. Margaret sits in the grass and presses her hands to her stomach, and feels her baby there, rolling in its private sea.
“I can’t do that,” she says. But she doesn’t get up off the soft grass. She stares at the ground, watches an ant crawl over a tiny clod of dirt, and then another and another. She wonders if an ant feels like the whole world is a mountain it must climb whether it wants to or not.
“Women like me can’t abide men. Men can’t even come into this place. I just want to teach a child my ways, have someone to take care of me when I’m old. Nothing perverted,” the witch says, shooting a look at Margaret as if she knows what she’s thinking.
Margaret heaves herself to her feet, feels the separation from the grass like a wound, and starts to leave.
“Please,” the witch says.
Margaret moves faster than she thought she could, stumbling through the garden rows, keeping the red door in sight.
The witch shouts after her, says she can come back if she changes her mind, and that the red door will open for her.
When she arrives home, Jacob asks her what she found, and she throws down the now wilted and crumpled handful of dandelion leaves. She says she needs to go to bed. When she looks over the corner of the one room cottage where the bed used to be, she sees only a nest of blankets and a few sad pillows.
“The town store wouldn’t give me any more credit,” Jacob says.
She keeps staring at the pile of dirty bedding.
“We need to stock up for winter,” he says.
“Next I’ll wake up bald,” she says. She’s only half kidding. People will pay a good price for hair; the city is full of fine ladies wearing wigs made from the hair of desperate peasants.
Jacob tries to say something apologetic, and her children try to swarm out of the corners, but she turns to what remains of the bed and lowers herself into it. She sleeps.
She dreams of rapunzel leaves, dark green, springing fresh from the ground, more no matter how many she picks. She dreams about her days as the local healer, and in her dreams the remedy for everything is rapunzel.
Days and weeks go by. Her stomach gets larger, her breasts swell and look like melons. The bones stand out in her hands and her knees are larger than her calves. Her children look like walking twigs. Margaret keeps dreaming of rapunzel. Whenever she passes the walled garden, she sees the round brick structure getting taller and taller, much higher than the walls of the garden. She wonders what the witch could need a brick tower for, and how it’s being built without scaffolding or workers. She’s afraid she knows the answer to her questions.
No one buys Jacob’s carvings, but he keeps whittling, out of hope, desperation, or perhaps just a lack of other ideas. Soon their house is full of little wooden dolls with jointed limbs, bowls, spoons, tops, wooden ponies; an endless number of useless objects. The whole place smells like fresh pine and urine. Jacob seems to be whittling out of compulsion, as though it’s the only thing he knows how to do, as though if he stops making things, stops trying to create something someone, anyone, might buy, he’ll see his family wilting around him, and break. His carving projects get increasingly complicated, even as he loses flesh, waning as the rest of them wane. One day, she sees him fashioning a puzzle out of a knotted branch, turning it into interlocking joints, a chain to clasp, to unlock. His face creases with concentration, looking, for a moment, like her youngest son when he’s trying to solve some seemingly unsurmountable problem, like finding a beetle that disappeared between a crack in the wall.
Margaret feels a surge of pity for Jacob. She catches him in an embrace, kisses his bearded cheek. He looks surprised, but he hugs her back, wrapping his arms around her despite her growing belly and bony shoulders. She likes his smell, and she remembers when they first got married, so many years ago, the way she loved his hands, so strong and dexterous, and how he’d carve clever things on their chairs and tables, little faces, flowers, knots.
One day the child-buyer comes to town in his bright clothes and boots with shiny buckles. Margaret and her eight-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, sit on a blanket at the market, trying to sell Jacob’s carvings. The sun beats down on their heads, and Margaret thinks of the witch’s garden, of the shaded alcoves, the fresh water spring, the pear trees. Sweat makes her dress stick to her grossly swollen stomach. The baby should come any day now, and Margaret feels distracted—torn between the desire to get it out and the fear of having yet another open mouth, and so she doesn’t notice the feeling of being watched at first. But eventually she feels the weight of eyes. She looks up and sees the child-buyer looking in their direction. She darts a glance at her daughter, suddenly sees the girl has hair the color of the sun, blue eyes, and hunger has made her fey and waif-like. She fights the desire to rub dirt on the girl, to bruise her, to make her look undesirable. But the child-buyer eyes Elizabeth all the same. He strolls over. His boot heels stir up dust. He pretends to be interested in a wooden spoon. Margaret can barely breathe. He crouches down and reaches toward Elizabeth’s braid.
“What a delicate child,” he says.
“She’s simple, and mean,” Margaret says. She hopes her daughter gets the hint.
Elizabeth picks her nose and says something foul. The child-buyer steps away, wrinkling his too-smooth forehead in distaste. After he’s gone, Margaret wishes that she was still the healer, that whatever used to be in her that let her help others wasn’t desiccated and crumbling. She used to imagine teaching Elizabeth about arnica for pain, wormwood for parasites, and honey for burns, but now, what would be the point? Everyone goes to the witch for healing. A friar walks by in a brown hassock. He nods his head at her and tolls his bell. He shouts: alms for the poor, alms for the poor. He holds out a tin cup to her. She shakes her head, and he turns away, a disapproving expression on his face. She wants to laugh derisively, to tell him, I am the poor. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t have a wall.
That night, she dreams of the witch, dressed all in red, and younger, her hair as red as her dress, blowing around her. The witch looks Margaret in the eyes. Margaret hears the witch’s voice in her mind. She says, someone must be the teacher.
The next morning Jacob comes inside carrying a basket stuffed full of rapunzel leaves.
“Look what someone left by the front door,” he says.
He’s smiling, excited, as though he feels that the world has kindness in it after all. Margaret, lying on the pile of fabric, holds her hands at the base of her stomach. She knows the basket for what it is: a message. She goes through the day, thinking, trying to make the house presentable. She sweeps the raw boards, stopping to rest every five minutes as her belly shifts and her back begins to ache in spasms. She makes the beds, such as they are. She kisses her children, and smiles, even though her face feels stiff and unwilling. She tells a story. She makes a salad out of the rapunzel and boils a few sad potatoes. She looks at the nearly empty cupboard and the house devoid of anything anyone will buy. Well, nothing except her children. She looks at her children, all nine, and despite her exhaustion, her hunger, her alienation, she knows they are beautiful. She thinks of the child-buyer. She thinks of taking a cleaver to his face. And yet, she knows how children get sold. For a moment she can almost see the future.
Jacob comes home with a handful of scavenged wood. He says he’s going to carve something beautiful, something someone will surely want. He chatters away, inane hopeful chatter. Margaret tries to close her ears to his hope, his foolish, wasteful hope.
When night comes she cleans the children’s faces, and hugs each and every one, and then sends them to bed. She goes to her corner of their tiny home and makes the straw pallet and pile of blankets extra carefully, smoothing them out, scattering the last petals of the previous summer’s wild roses on the sheets. They crumble into dust but still leave a faint hint of sweetness. She knows she’s trying to make herself feel better, to balm her guilt for what she’s about to do, to leave a moment of softness behind. Jacob lowers himself gingerly into bed, as though his entire body aches, as though age has stalked like a beast. She looks at him, really looks at him, for the first time in what feels like years. It’s as though she can see tired and aching Jacob (lined brow, hair graying at his temples, cheekbones stark from hunger, hands rough with calluses and scars) overlaid with the Jacob she married, the laughing young man with hair like a crow’s wing, who made her a wedding ring out of applewood (it smelled like springtime and honey) and who, when they hid from their families, coupling in a barn, kissed her eyelids, her nose, and her lips, before kissing her breasts.
Jacob notices her standing above him, watching him get into bed, and smiles at her. He’s missing one tooth. Lost to hunger.
“Do you need help getting on the ground?” he asks, holding out his hands.
She remembers when she gave birth to their first child, the one who they named Sara, who lived for only two short years. He used to fall asleep with Sara on his chest after a long day working. Their mouths open, breathing deeply, child and man a mirror.
“Yes,” she says, even though she doesn’t, really.
He takes her arms and helps her into bed.
He notices the rose petals.
“What’s this then?” he asks. His eyes gleam with knowledge, with memory of other nights she put dried flower petals in their bed. He doesn’t know she’s trying to say goodbye.
He puts his hand on her enormous stomach, feels the baby moving there, and kisses the spot he touched. She takes his hand and moves it to her breasts, swollen with milk in waiting, and pulls his head down for a kiss. His pleased chuckle against her lips makes her want to weep.
“Oh, my lass, all will be well,” he says.
She quiets him with her mouth.
If she lets him talk anymore, he’ll derail her intentions, he’ll make her remember other days, other nights, the reasons they have ended up with so many children in the first place.
She thinks of her children’s empty bellies and hollow cheeks. She thinks of the child-buyer eyeing Elizabeth. She opens her nightgown and slides one leg down Jacob’s.
She waits until he starts to snore and then gets up. With a piece of charcoal from the fire she scratches a note on the wall to Jacob. Come to the walled garden. Then, not taking anything with her (what would she take?), she leaves. She walks down the road in the dark, the stars distant pricks of light, bugs chirping secrets to each other. She searches in herself for regret and finds none. Her stomach contracts, her legs feel hot and wet, but she keeps walking. She tries the knob on the red door and it swings open at her touch. The witch waits in the meadow. The brick circle has turned into a tower with a red door too, at the very base, with a giant wrought-iron lock. Margaret tries not to look at it. She nearly collapses at the feet of the witch.
“I’ve come,” she says.
“Yes,” says the witch.
“Why do you want my child?”
“I told you.”
Margaret hugs her belly, wants to hold the infant in, and she remembers her dream.
“I’m afraid of what you can do,” she says.
The witch stares down at Margaret, at her dress covered in birthing fluid, now caked with the dirt of the ground.
“Please,” she says. Her face is blank, as though from tightly controlled feeling, and she stares through Margaret.
Margaret realizes, through the quakes surging through her body, that in her own way the witch is as desperate as she is. She needs this baby.
“You want to it to be like you,” she says, her breath catching as a contraction roils across her belly. This isn’t the time for bargaining, but she must.
The witch nods.
“If I say yes, if she’s a girl, you must let me stay, let me learn from you too.” Margaret couldn’t stand to go back to Jacob without the baby. Explaining would be unbearable. She tries not to look as desperate as she feels, tries to look strong, and hopes the witch’s own naked need will make her accept the bargain.
The witch replies quickly. “Yes, I’ll teach you what I can. But, she’ll never know you, she must know and love only me.” She nods toward the tower.
Margaret wonders how many times the witch has tried to make this bargain, how many times has she moved into a village, put up her wall, and waited for a woman without options to come to her. She tries not to look at the tower. She doesn’t like the implications of it, but she doesn’t know what other choices she has. She’d like her child to have such power, to build walls on command, to keep out the child-buyers, the priests, the duties of being a wife.
“May I send food to my other children?”
“As much as you like.”
Margaret nods and the witch shakes her hand. A bargain made. Margaret relaxes just a bit and feels her womb begin to release. She clutches at the witch as her legs lose strength.
The witch makes her a bed in the grass. It feels soft and its freshness fills Margaret’s nostrils, makes her think of spring. The witch sits behind her, and puts Margaret between her knees, and holds her hands. She helps her through her labor, tells her when to push, won’t let her lie down, says such things are nonsense. It puts the pelvis in the wrong place.
“Teaching me already?” Margaret says, gritting her teeth.
The witch snorts and tells her to concentrate.
Margaret remembers this feeling, as though all the gravity of the world has chosen to congregate in her pelvis, an irresistible weight. She’s done this too many times. For a moment all of her labors, all of her births, merge into one gush of blood, infant cries merging with infant silences, red squalling faces merging with blue silent ones. She weeps as she pushes, and says goodbye, in her mind, to all her children, alive and dead. She will never do this again.
Then everything is over, and the witch pulls the baby, a girl, out from between her legs. She cuts the cord with a silver knife, wipes her clean, and wraps her in a snowy white cloth. She lets Margaret hold the baby just once, look at her, and nurse her. As Margaret watches her daughter nurse she feels the familiar tug on her nipple, the release, and the witch says the child must be named Rapunzel. Then she takes her and goes inside the tower. Margaret wants to cry, but her eyes are dry. She’s cried all she can and she can’t help but feel as though she’s made the best bargain she could.
Margaret’s husband shows up at the garden, bangs on the door, but she can’t seem to get herself to move. The witch gathers a basket of vegetables and goes to the door herself. The witch says something to Jacob, but Margaret can’t hear specifics, only the murmur of voice answering voice. The witch comes back to Margaret, fluffs her pillow, and gives her a few slices of ripe pear. She says that he’ll send the oldest daughter from now on.
So every day Elizabeth comes to the door and Margaret gives her a basket and hugs her. They both cry, but Margaret will not leave the garden, says she’s made her bargain and means to keep it. She doesn’t tell Elizabeth, but she can’t bear the thought of hands tugging on her, begging her, needing her. She doesn’t want to have to tell Jacob no, no more.
After a few weeks, Elizabeth’s cheeks start to look plump, and her hair bright, and Margaret feels her guilt waning. At least once a day, casually, as though it’s nothing, the witch (the woman?) will come to her, sit beside her, and tell her things. She’ll pinch a leaf off a plant and talk about its uses, not just in medicine, but in other, more secret practices. Sometimes, she’ll brush Margaret’s hair.
Sometimes Margaret thinks the witch has been lonely, watching her hair turn from red to gray and fearing solitude was the price for her power. Sometimes Margaret wonders about the world out there, but not enough to leave the garden. She’s seen enough. Every few hours when her breasts start to ache, and she hears her baby cry, she goes into a corner and massages milk out of her breasts like she would a goat’s teats. Then she puts that milk into an earthenware jar and gives it to the witch. The witch takes the jar and goes into the tower. Margaret can hear her singing lullabies, and the notes drift down from the tower, sweet but distant. At those moments she takes a break from gardening and sits in the grass, listening, and imagines she’s holding that little girl. Sometimes at night she dreams of Jacob’s hands.