In the spring the marsh cattle return to the drained fields. Repairs are carried out on dikes and broken sluice gates. Huge flocks of migrant birds come back from their wintering grounds, argue over territory and resources for days.
In the covered wagon the man and the girl and the giant woman follow their noses east. On the raised roads running parallel to the ditches and canals that quarter the country, everyone is on the move. Medicine sellers, itinerant labourers, repairmen, field workers, travelling storytellers. Glasswort and cord grass and reeds grow along the creeks and inlets, on unreliable islands that have yet to be reclaimed from the water. Under the monstrous sky the world is flat as the sea. The man imagines the wagon is a ship and he is its captain. He believes that everyone has their place on earth and this is his.
Everywhere they stop they put on demonstrations and the giant woman performs feats of strength. She lifts saddleback sows over her head and drags boats ashore from the mud. She holds back waterwheels and the vanes of windmills. Children swing from her arms in threes and fours. And then she fights anyone who can afford the price of entry (“Step right up, lads, three-penny a go and treble your stake if you can put her down!”).
She fights old men and young men, drunk men and priests. She fights beggars and working men, engineers and farmers, sailors and escaped prisoners. She fights amateurs and professionals, sick and desperate men, men with everything and nothing to lose. She fights brave men and men who piss themselves before the first punch is thrown. She fights women, sometimes, too, but it’s a rare occurrence. On occasion, if the price is right, she fights two, three men at once. She fights in tents and in barns, in the back rooms of pubs and on the banks of rivers. She fights in pigsties and in estuary mud, on wooden docks and on the tops of dikes. She fights in fields and in country houses. She fights in sunshine and snow and rain and the never ending wind.
In the back of the wagon the girl sews clothes, plays games, sings to herself and the giant woman. She recounts pieces of fairy tales. The giant woman’s face is blank. She sits and watches the endless landscape. The girl, in her thirteen-year-old skinny nothingness, looks upon the woman’s vast flesh with terror, and knows it far better than her own. She can recount every bump, every plane, every fold in it with her eyes closed. She knows every smell and every sound it makes.
After the fights they scrub the giant woman’s skin with horse hair, rub her down with salt and ointment. The man stitches up her wounds with catgut thread, treats her bruises with paper soaked in vinegar. The girl tends to her hands and feet, removing teeth from knuckles, setting dislocated and broken toes. Naked, a rag across her lap, the woman sits on a stool outside the wagon, and they gently wash the blood and the dirt from her giant body with soap made from ashes and fat. They check her eyes, her ears, her mouth. Make her frown, look up, raise her huge arms and legs.
The woman is their monster and their livelihood. She is as broad across the back as a hay cart and her arms are as thick as men’s thighs. Her tits are like casks of wine, her legs like the trunks of oak trees. She is a machine for breaking men and she is the way and the holy word made flesh.
She is God’s message on earth.
In the summer the sea lavender turns the salt marshes pink and purslane grows thick on the dikes. Asters bloom like daisies and eels throw themselves from drains and ditches into the arms of anyone patient enough to stand and wait. At open air salt works up and down the coast huge iron pots are set to boiling day and night. Travelling south-west, the man and the girl and the giant woman can smell the alchemy from half a day’s distance.
They come to a village of Dutch cottages inhabited by taciturn Frisian engineers and their families. Each has been given a spot of new land in return for their work on the reclamation. The girl has never been this close to real live Netherlanders before, is amazed at their looks and their language, the floral dresses of the women. The man communicates with the engineers in pidgin, manages to make himself well enough understood to set up a match with the local boxing champion, a blonde six-and-a-half-footer unbeaten in fifty-two bouts.
Over three rounds the giant woman methodically takes him apart.
He’s fast and aggressive and has some technique, but when his punches connect it’s like hitting clay. And she takes her time. Waits until the end of the first round to break two of his ribs, just because she can. Bursts his eardrum with a slap to the side of the head at the end of the second. Puts out his right eye in the third, when he doesn’t know what country he’s in anymore. By the end it’s clear he’ll never fight again, may never walk or be able to eat his morning porridge without help from his wife. His children watch silently as the man and the girl and giant woman drive away.
In W— the woman fights a pair of idiot brothers, too stupid to know when they’re done. They keep getting back up every time she forces them to the ground. One loses three fingers, and the other half his teeth, before their father stops the fight. He argues with the man over the money, over the fact that he’ll have no-one to help him in the fields for the next two weeks while his sons recover. The argument goes on until the man suggests they stay and let the woman finish the job, at which point an understanding is reached.
Outside the town of H— where the sails of sea-going barges line the canals for miles, the woman wrestles a real live bear. She puts the poor shit-stinking, moth-eaten creature out of its misery after five minutes, strangling it with its own chain, its owner weeping for the loss of his business. At a nameless pub in the middle of the clotted and curdled grey landscape of the S— estuary she fights an entire gang of oystermen armed with shucking knives, beats them one at a time, leaves the entire village without the means of earning a livelihood for a month.
In the evenings out on the road they cook rabbits on the fire and the girl reads to the giant woman from the bible and the man watches. Sometimes the giant woman smokes a pipe and stares out at the purple dusk or the night sky full of stars. In the seven or eight years since he bought her (as convinced then as he is now of her importance to the Lord’s great plan), the man has never heard the woman say a word.
She was already a fighter when he discovered her, pulling a plough out in the beet fields, owned by a farmer who may or may not have been her father, earning beer money for the old man on Saturday nights knocking local drunks unconscious on a bet. She was generally considered either to be the child of an incestuous union or to have been found feral, dumb, scavenging in the wild country east of the fifty-foot drain at five or six years old. Whichever story was true she wasn’t telling.
She was untrained, undisciplined too, but the strength and stamina were there even then, the mute brutality of her. The man could see it, had known it before, saw their future already mapped out right the way up until the end. Paid the farmer with everything he had left, and that was him and the girl retired from the travelling quack business, the travelling preacher business, the travelling fortune teller business, right there and then.
In the north of the county some Lord of the Manor or other puts on a series of exhibition matches. The house looks out across two hundred acres of reclaimed pasture, is filled with dignitaries and important folk and the sweet stink of dying flowers. The bouts take place in the ballroom, where the dignitaries and important folk demand to feel the giant woman’s grip, to put their hands flat on the muscles of her legs and her arse. They tell crude jokes, laugh at the three of them, the giant woman and the man and the girl.
Then the giant woman beats a couple of local cow-herders into submission, breaks the legs of a famous wrestler come from halfway across the country for the purse, knocks the Lord’s favoured man unconscious, and for an encore tears the head off his favourite hunting dog.
They are not invited back.
At the end of the summer huge wild fires consume the reclaimed grasslands and the dried-out reed beds. The fires burn for days. Fine ash falls on everything, catches in eyelashes and turns throats red raw. When the rains begin the ash turns to black mud that covers everything with a thin, slippery sheen.
The man and the girl and the giant woman travel east, south, east again. The man tells them that these are the last days and that the world is full of signs and wonders. They see: a flock of migrating swallows five miles’ long. They see: the skeleton of a child found inside the pulp of a cut-down tree. They see: petrified lightning dug from a field. They see: a hanged man, half eaten by crows, who opens his eyes and watches as their wagon passes. They see: great evening murmurations of starlings that go on for hours.
At a harvest festival at B— the girl draws the attention of a group of young men and boys. They laugh and tell her jokes while the man is watching the fight, ply her with beer, lead her away and down to river. She is aware of the not-rightness of the situation, the sense that the world is dangerously canted, but she is also not immune to the fresh-scrubbed looks of a couple of the older boys, and the infinite possibility of the night sky.
When it comes down to it she gives as good as she gets, breaks a couple of noses before her attackers suddenly commence throwing themselves into the black water to escape the wrath of the newly arrived giant. At least one of them drowns. Afterwards the man checks the girl over, forces her to submit to an inspection. At first she thinks he is looking for injuries. She refuses to cry, allows herself a single sob when she sees that the giant woman has stopped watching.
In September the floods cut half the country off. They camp in a wood outside P- for a week, wake up every morning to see an inland ocean where fields used to be, farmers making their way about in rowing boats. A flock of stranded sheep shares the wood with them, nosing into their camp for company every evening, bleating for their lost fellows. There is nothing to be done but wait it out.
The man sets the giant woman to lifting logs and dragging fallen tree trunks in order to maintain her strength. The girl spends her days wandering the damp woods. She collects hazelnuts and sweet chestnuts and mushrooms, sets traps, and catches and kills birds and squirrels and rabbits. One morning she comes across a lost farm horse, already half way back to being wild, cropping grass in a clearing. She sees the giant woman too, staring at the horse from the other side of the clearing. She feels for a moment as if this is the Garden of Eden and they are the last three animals on Earth.
When the flood waters recede the woman fights every night for three weeks to make up for the loss in earnings.
The man is approached by a group of businessmen looking to make arrangements with the giant woman. Each with their own unique, familiar set of desires. Each story different and exactly the same. They tell him about the other women they have been with, the blind girls, the cripples and epileptics, the living skeletons and bearded ladies, the cretins, those speaking in tongues or raised by dogs, the women who had to be tied to the bed to prevent them breaking their own limbs.
“Heard of one feller has a set of Siamese twins,” they will end up telling him, “joined at the hip. And how do you think that might work, then?”
He knows what’s coming next. Money no object, he is assured. Or, at least, the contents of this here purse. Nevertheless, he remains a God-fearing man, and fearful for his investment, too, and won’t hear of it.
In the late autumn they suffer from tertian fevers brought on by the bad marsh air. They are struck down by paroxysms of shivering and fits that return every third day. They drink gunpowder mixed with water as a restorative. The man ties himself into the wagon seat to avoid being thrown to the ground in his apoplexy, and they keep moving across the country. In his disorder the man imagines the day of judgement and sees the giant hand of God reaching down from the sky and plucking men from the land like ticks.
The woman fights huge Africans, a Spaniard, an Indian. In the village of G– she breaks the back of a man as hairy as an ape and gets stabbed in the gut by one of his enraged investors with a hidden shiv. She tears her assailant’s jaw half off before staggering back to the wagon. She spends the next two weeks drifting in and out of consciousness as they try to put as much distance between themselves and the village as possible.
The girl washes the woman’s wound and changes the bloodied and pus-sodden bandages. She sings songs to her and prays for her life and wonders what will happen to them if the woman dies. The man remembers the death of the girl’s mother in childbirth, her sisters and brothers taken by ague and cholera. He knows the giant woman will survive. These are the last days and she is the omega. She is God’s holy instrument. She is the warning and the cleansing fire.
In the winter they follow the feast days and the frost fairs. The greasy smoke of bonfires piles into the pale frozen sky across four counties, and for days the sun sits low on the horizon, the colour of brass.
Tents go up on the marshes. Circuses. Markets. In D— they watch a half-mad preacher deliver an apocalyptic sermon. In S— a travelling theatre troupe performs violent tales of lust and betrayal and revenge among the Eskimo people, to much excitement. Everywhere they stop the woman wins tug-of-war competitions against teams of horses, knocks out prize bulls, beats local thugs and bullies senseless.
By December the landscape is already hard as iron to a depth of twelve inches, and the canals freeze over. In the estuaries ice floes smash boats and wooden docks to pieces. The salt marshes thicken into sludge. There are tales of giant icebergs spotted off the coast, of narwhals and polar bears at large.
At night the man and the girl and the giant woman shiver under thin blankets in the back of the wagon. Ice forms on the inside of the canvas roof. At the turn of the year the temperature drops to fifteen degrees of frost and birds start falling out of the sky. In the mornings it takes half an hour to thaw water for cooking. They give up on washing altogether.
One afternoon they come across an entire family frozen to death by the side of the road. Four children and a woman, their shoes already gone, foxes working at their blackened faces and fingers. Another day they pass a travelling bible seller, his cart skidded off the road with a broken wheel, burning his leather-bound books to keep warm.
They’re still a day out when they sight the distant church spire scratched into the iced-over sky. It’s the tallest point for fifty miles. They camp that night in the lee of a twenty-foot-high bank, sheltering from the beginnings of a blizzard. Five other wagons huddle alongside theirs. Everyone on the road is heading to the same place, trying to outpace the weather. In the morning they have to dig themselves out of four feet of snow.
The town sits on the edge of a mile of tidal marsh filled with huge blocks and boulders of ice and the jagged remains of smashed up floes. More ice comes in on every tide. Five miles out a ship is stuck fast in the frozen sea, slowly being crushed to death.
In the bars and fisherman’s cottages along the dock and at the inn on the town square where the wagons park up everyone is already drunk. They’ve been drinking for days. The man and the giant woman and the girl attend a church service, listen to a garbled rant from the drunk rector. A man and a woman couple frantically in a pew behind them, someone else is noisily throwing up. The man tries to buy absolution for himself and the girl and the giant woman, presses money into the rector’s hands, asks for forgiveness for everything they’ve done and have yet to do. In the apse a group of children have lit a fire, are attempting to cook a dog.
In the wagon the man and the girl prepare the giant woman. They oil her great hide, loosen her joints, stiffen up her muscles. The girl places a garland of flowers on her head. The giant woman stares at their faces, considers her own fists as if seeing them for the first time. The man recites a prayer. Then they lead her out to serve her holy purpose.
The fights go on for three days, until the last stranded sailor has been relieved of his money and there are no challengers left standing for twenty miles. For three days the streets are stiff with frozen blood and bone and gristle and shit and the whole town stinks like a slaughterhouse. No one sleeps. The woman, washed red, fights night and day. She rips the tongues from the mouths of Greenland fisherman, tears out the throats of professional smugglers, breaks the arms and legs of arctic whalers. She murders twelve-year-old boys and seventy-year-old men, snaps the necks of starving children, makes sure wild-eyed fenland girls will never carry babies of their own. She is magnificent in her wrath. From the square to the town hall to the docks the crowds surge and follow as she visits the Lord’s terrible vengeance upon their doomed age.
By the end of it the man and the girl and the giant woman are rich enough to build their own church, or buy themselves passage to a new world.
The starving townspeople crown the giant woman their champion, throw rugs over her shoulders, build her a wooden throne. The girl has to hold her hand, persuade her to lower her glutted bulk onto the chair, show her how to bless the shy children, the pregnant women, the lame war veterans who are ushered before her. Then the townspeople carry the giant woman through the streets, pour spoiled wine down her throat until she weeps. No one talks about the smell of the burning bodies of the dead, what it reminds them of. That night the giant woman and the girl sleep under bear skins.
The town mayor, dressed head to foot in fresh seal furs, invites the man to dine with him, discusses business opportunities, the possibilities that the future still holds for smart men like themselves. They eat rotten cod, rotten seal meat still half frozen from the ice, break rotten bread. In return for his potential investment the mayor offers the man the use of his bed, women, young girls or boys. No man is an island entire of itself, the mayor tells the man. When the man refuses he is set upon on his way back to the wagon in the middle of a blizzard, gutted and left to die in the street in the slick made by his own steaming insides.
Then they come for the girl and the giant woman and the money.
In falling snow in the hours before dawn the giant woman battles the men and the dogs. She is shot in the shoulder and the chest and the back, and will not go down. She kills five of the attackers, buys herself and the girl enough time to escape onto the frozen marsh with the carpet bag. In the green half-light the mayor watches through a telescope as the fog closes around them.
Out on the ice they head north against the wind, the girl leading the giant woman by the hand. They move slowly, heads bent into the storm. In places the giant woman’s bare feet break through the frozen crust and the snow reaches her knees. In her fist the girl’s hand feels like a fluttering, captured bird.
As they reach the edge of the sea the weather ahead of them clears. Screaming black-backed gulls rise and fall over the mottled, slow moving waves, pivoting in and out of the wind. The giant woman sits down into the snow, and stares, amazed at the new day. She doesn’t move again.
The girl has never been this close to the open ocean before. She sees the frozen white mountains, big as cathedrals, moving toward the shore, watches as they pile up against the broken edge of the marsh. She imagines the unstoppable wall of ice come from the frozen north to end the new century before it’s even begun. She looks back and can’t see the land behind them.
Clutching the carpet bag, richer than whole kingdoms, she climbs into the still warm arms of the giant woman, and settles there to wait for the ship that will carry them away from the world.
– End –
[This story won third place in fantastic Moth International Short Story Prize 2017]