And Then She is a Witch by Ellen Rhudy

Clarice wakes on blankets wet with her own secretions, damp with sour milk. “You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks as he strips their bed, Clarice watching from the corner. “You light a fire beneath her feet, and if she laughs instead of screaming, then she is a witch.” In the shower she presses liquid from the bee stung lump on her stomach, until the water cools and then shocks. But still there’s more to come, her body an endless fount of milk, and when she returns to the bedroom she can find the damp outlines of her body beneath the fresh sheets.

“They would have drowned you, once, for having that,” Sam says after scheduling her dermatologist appointment. That night he lowers his face to her stomach and suckles until he is stretched full of her. Once, Clarice thinks, she would have woken to a cat or a dog, a bat, latched to her; now, there’s only this man who holds her hand as the dermatologist explains it’s a supernumerary nipple, nothing odd, Ryan Reynolds has one, he usually wouldn’t remove them but since it bothers her—he numbs Clarice’s skin, and slices the nipple free with a blade flexed between thumb and forefinger.

“You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks the next morning as he changes Clarice’s pinkened, rusty gauze. “You dunk her in the water, and if she drips free with a smile instead of drowning, then she is a witch.” Clarice looks at a smudge, a potential cobweb, near the ceiling, because she cannot look at her stomach. She feels there is a thread latched to her wound, and if Sam finds that thread he will tug all of her out, inch by inch, until she is a heaped coil on the floor. He pats her thigh when the fresh gauze is taped. “Maybe tomorrow you can shower.”

In her dreams, her body remains complete. A child milks from her, grows larger and larger until she looks so much like Clarice herself that when she grips the girl’s arm Clarice is startled by the lack of her ghostly hand’s pressure on her own skin. Her wound will not heal, it weeps continuously and begins to smell rank, to smell like a dead thing. Sam drives her back to the dermatologist, who refers them to a plastic surgeon. “Maybe there’s a reason,” the doctor says, “I don’t normally remove these.” Clarice holds a hand on her stomach at all times and strangers, who do not realize she is trying to contain her body in itself, ask when she is due.

The plastic surgeon offers discounted supplementals—“while I’m in there anyway,” he says. A tummy tuck, a breast lift. “No thank you,” says Clarice, still waking fearful that her entire body will be encased in gauze, that she will have been made a thing unknown to herself. But there is only Sam, a clean bandage on her stomach. “Did you know,” Sam says, “that if you force a woman apart from her faithful black cat, and if she is rent with emotion rather than going to the barn to find another, then she is a witch.”

“When did you stop speaking like a person?” Clarice asks, but she still holds his hand. She does not wake him that night when a frog comes to her and pads down her thigh, or the next night when a black cat kneads at her heel. Clarice is in and outside her body in one moment, she feels every part of her self but cannot locate her presence in physical space—as if she is everywhere, and nowhere, at once. The plastic surgeon is pleased with her healing, her stomach swells, she feels Sam watching her closer and closer, she closes her eyes when he lays his hands on her. One day she is searching for a pebble in her shoe and finds instead a familiar damp soaking her sock. A slight, sour release when she presses the lump nestling into her arch.

Their daughter is born that July, a girl who looks so much like Clarice as a baby that she might have borne herself. At night she cries until Clarice relents and carries her back to bed, where Sam pretends to sleep and no more toads pay their silent visits.

“You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks. “You watch her at night, for who comes to her and lays close to her body—and depending on what you find, she is a witch.” Clarice wonders who he might have been in a different age—this man with his pocked cheeks and scratching beard, always inspecting their sheets. “So,” he says, “what do you say?” Their daughter suckling at her sole, Clarice reads Sam’s eyes on her and waits for him to speak her name.

 

Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in Split Lip and Gigantic Sequins, and is forthcoming in Story, Cream City Review, and Pithead Chapel. Her story “A Writer’s Guide to Fairy Tales” will be included in The Best Small Fictions 2020. She joined Ohio State’s MFA program in the fall, and you can find her at ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter @EllenRhudy. 

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