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Fantasticoe 1997

The Devil's Helpmate

Tony Day


Love: A temporary insanity, curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary.
 

I was dragging my tail down the road, kicking up a nice brown cloud of dust, when I spotted a woman as ugly as I am, and I thought I'd give her a good rise.

Zap! I'm visible, not just a dust devil stirring the grit, but my best gnarly and naked, horned and horny - pure me. She doesn't even jump, and I think her eyesight's defunct. But she says, "So, what's eating you, Dr. Devil?"

I about fried her liver on the spot, rules or no rules. My mood was not good. Let me tell you the whys.

Picture this couple of newly chained young pups.

She says, "Honey, you forgot to take off your boots, and here's goat manure from the door to the water pail." Does she wrinkle her freckled nose? Does she toss her golden curls? Is there a pout? a stomp? No! She just smiles and purrs sickening sweet. Yuck!

Oh, if only I could put the right words in his mouth! "What do you expect bitch? I work in shit all day; a little is bound to follow me in." That's what he should say, right? But no. He just smiles, "I'm sorry, dear." And before I can burn that louse on my hump, he's on his knees with the slop cloth, wiping it all up like it was his plate. Beelzebub!

So, I dry up the juicy glob right next to the water pail, quick and hard. He has to scrape that with a knife, but does he say a word? Not one. He just hums that little tune that's always running around in his black-haired skull, thinking about what a sweet piece she is, his blue eyes as empty as the sky.

You know my business is to detect marital bliss and stamp it out quick. That's why I have these big brown hairy legs and tough clawed feet. A man and a woman get all itchy about what's between their legs. They have a mutual scratch, and it feels so good that they think they're made for each other, that their lives will be happy ever after. But you and I know better, don't we?

Most couples can do the devil's work by themselves, so I only take on hard cases. Where after the first month she still goes all cow-eyed whenever he takes off his cap before coming in the house. And he goes soft-legged whenever she sticks a pansy in the water bucket she brings him in the field.

I'd been working irritations on lovey and dovey since their wedding day - fall, winter, and spring - six months! The meanest thing he'd said to her so far was, "Honey, I can't find my shirt!" He was staring blankly into the wardrobe. I wished I'd snatched it, but she had it, and she came floating in like a thistle seed and crooned, "I was just freshening it up for you, sweetheart!"

Crap!

I wanted to see them hard and angry, like real people, the ones who know what marriage is. Like finding out he wants garlic on everything, and then when he wants you in the morning you learn what garlic does, cooking all night between his teeth. And like finding out that though you want her every time you look at her, she's always too busy or too sleepy or too pregnant. I set 'em straight, and then I help 'em out. I find a sugar-breathed prick she can play with in the oats, and I find him a wild witch who slips through the woods every Friday afternoon. And I find good things for them to say to each other when the biscuits burn or the goats get at the cabbages.

So, that's why I was dragging the old brown tail down the road, not paying much attention to what it picked up. I'd put way too much time into straightening these idiots out. And that's why I considered revising this hag's guts when she spoke up to me so pert, with her market basket in her elbow, headin' home from town I suppose.

"What's eating me, you ask?" I give her my look, like I might start chewing on a thigh or a nose in a second.

"No use popping your eyeballs and catting your tail at me, Dr. Devil. I'm not available."

She is putting on a good show herself, you can see, and that makes me take a closer look at her, since my eyes are wide open anyway. Her feet are big, bare, and dirty, with no nails except on the big toes, and those are long ones, well on the way to claws, in my opinion. She isn't that big all over, but her middle sticks out all around, so that her black wool dress with the ragged bottom hangs on her like a tent. She isn't so young as some. I count her thin gray hairs, 999, and the wrinkles on her face, 666. Her hands are great, long, bony, and rough, splotched red and brown, with 9 and ½ fingers - the little finger on her left hand is half gone. My kind of girl!

So, instead of squeezing her kidneys - 2 -, I tell her what's on my mind.

"It'ÿ those sheep-eared lovers of Neva fields. You know them?"

"The newly-weds! Aren't they a pair of yellow sparrows?" she says. "How could they bother you, Dr. Devil? With all the business you have in this village, such simpletons hardly seem worth a thought." Her smile is lovely. Six teeth!

So, I tell her. "Six months, day and night, I've been trying to humanize those yard hens. It's long past time for them to scrap and scratch a little. But they are pure honey barf. It makes my horns curl. She rolls over in bed and whacks him in the face with the back of her hand, and he doesn't even wake her up. He just holds his nose until it stops bleeding and goes back to sleep. In the morning she finds blood on the sheets, and does she go after him with her kitchen knife? No. She just washes those sheets a day early and smiles silently. What can you do with such stupids?"

"The trouble with devils is they have no imagination," she says.

I start to reconsider her kidneys, or maybe pickling her pancreas. But she just keeps smiling, and I notice an irresistible glitter in her rheumy black eyes.

"What will you give me if they try killing each other tomorrow?" she asks.

A bargain! I love a bargain. Business is my business. But I know my business, too, and I don't want to get sucked in.

"What's your angle on this?" I ask.

She squints at me for awhile, like I am the sun maybe. Then she says, "I doubt you'd understand."

"You really know how to irritate a guy, you know that?" I slap my tail on the road for emphasis, sending up a little red dust report.

"You like my work?" she asks and shows me her six teeth again.

I have to admit, she was good at it. I'm thinking then that maybe it's professional pride for her, too, just like for me

So, we begin to negotiate.

I offer a face job.

"Can't use that. I like my face fine."

I can see why. Six scars and three moles with 23 hairs each! I offer a palace full of gold.

"You think I'm a stupid like that pair of calves? I want something I can use right here at home. Come on, make me a real offer!"

"Shoes that fit."

"Make it boots and shoes too. And they really have to fit, or you'll hear about it," she adds.

"You threatening the devil? I know just how full your bladder is," say I.

"And I know how to snip the wings of those love bees a-buzzing in your cat-ears!"

"OK. It's a deal. Shake."

"Left your brains in your tail and dragged 'em in the mud?" She gives me a look I'd be proud to use anytime, squinty eyes, big nose narrowing up so the bristles stick out of her wart and her flaring nostrils. She looks mean and mad. She goes on. "Take the devil's claw, dead by next thaw. I'm 66 today, and I expect those boots and shoes to take me where I'm going 'til I'm 99."

"You changing the deal?" I ask.

"You got any more tired tricks to try?" says she. I make to look ferocious, but I'm having too much fun, so I just laugh.

"OK. So here's the terms. You get shoes that fit and boots that fit and 33 years of good walking to use them in. I get to see Fanny and Danny tearing hair."

"Their names are Alice and Albert," says she.

"Danny Berty Allie Fanny. Little care I."

I blow my nose, and she blows hers. We slap hands and watch the snot vaporize as my hot brimstone and her cold, watery mess mingle. Smells great!

"Deal," we say together.

You can see she was sharp for such a youngster. You should have seen her work this trick.
 

Scene 1. Alice tearing up weeds in her pumpkin patch. Enter my helpmate, looking good as ever, with a raw walking stick just peeled in the woods, and with a ragged black bag made of reused yarn. I'll let you guess about where that yarn came from.

"Good morning to you, Mother Barbary! Can I give you something good today?" How I wanted to boil that girl!

"Certainly, my dear. And today I've brought you something as well," says Barbary.

"My! That's special." says Fanny Alice. She runs into that too neat, white cottage with the red tile roof, not one broken tile, though I'd cracked half a dozen last week. And she brings out a whole loaf of bread! That worries me a little. It's hard for mortals to keep up a good grudge in the face of sincere generosity. But I needn't have worried. Mother Barbary's heart is in the right place.

"You know my dear that an old woman like me can have dreams of the true future. And I've dreamt a sad time for you," wheezes my Barbary.

"How could that be, when I have my Bertie? Everyone knows that we never disagree, ever. We're going to live happily ever after."

Puke.

"Oh, but little one, I dreamt that Bertie won't always love you. Someday soon a rich girl will arrive and carry him off to another land. Then you will live alone until you're 99. Think of all those years," Barbary says.

I can see Allie F. trying to imagine how many years that might be, but Barbary focuses her attention.

"You may live all alone for eighty years, with just 11 goats to hear your tears."

How touching to see her eyeballs begin to swim! Before she can get a good start on braying, though, Barbary reins her in.

"But don't you worry little one, for the dream that told me he would whisked away also showed me how to make him stay. And because you've given me bread today, I will tell you what I saw."

The open-mouthed little blonde turns so pale her freckles look like oak leaves on the snow, and she listens just the way she is supposed to.

"At the very top of his head are 9 silver hairs in among the black ones. They're easy to see, though they are short and curly. You need to cut those off without his ever finding out. Then he'll never see another girlie."

Allie Fanny is too wrapped up ever to wonder why barbering will cure Berty Face's meandering eye. She snuffles, "How can I cut off those hairs without his knowing?"

"Do it when he's asleep, dearie. He always takes an afternoon nap, right?"

A little bit of light comes up in those empty blues of hers. I can as good as see the slow pictures forming in her hay-stack brain. Feed him lunch. Sit on grassy slope in warm sun and watch goats while he naps with head in her lap. Slip his razor out of her apron pocket. Now, she makes a note - "remember to take the razor." Slice off those hairs and throw them far away. After that no thoughts at all. Really, she's thinking about getting something other than his head in her lap, but I don't want to see that. End of Scene 1.
 

Scene 2. Bertydan the stud among his goats, making sure they stay in the neighborhood. Out of the woods and across the meadow comes my heroine, lovely Barbary. I'm having way too much fun, considering that the black hag is doing what I couldn't. She really warms my heart. I'm thinking maybe there's a partnership in here somewhere.

"Good morning to you Mother Barbary! What brings you to the fields?" says Danbert.

"It's love of you dear Albert, for I've had a terrible dream." She gives him a look so sweet I almost wonder if she's changed her mind.

"You're too good to us. I hope your dreams don't frighten you, Mother," he says.

"It's not for me I'm frightened, dearie." She looks up at his well-fed, ruddy face and gives him that smile. He doesn't blink or back off.

"You shouldn't worry about me." he says. "Alice and I couldn't be happier, for we've found that the way to make marriage perfect is never to disagree. And everyone knows we're living happily."

I give him a twinge in his side. It's pushing the rules, I know, but how can I resist?

"In my dream, you are in great danger, Albert." Barbary works at holding this selfless clod's attention to the main point.

"Dreams are silly things, Mother. You should let them fade the way I do."

She points at the sky with her midget pinkie. "That's easy for you, my boy . . . being young and in love, that is. But this dream won't leave me, and it concerns your heart." Then she points the stub at his breast.

"If telling it will ease you, Mother, say on."

"Listen, my son, and think about this carefully. I've dreamt this 9 nights in a row, and so I have to tell you. In my dream, I see your lovely Alice with your razor in her hands. She slides the blade without a sound across your sleeping throat, and the blood spurts out, and then she grins an icy and devilish grin. And the last thing I see is a man's brown hand, softly lifting the bloody blade from her open palm."

"That's a terrible dream, Mother! And it could never be true. Alice would never." I love the look she spreads out on his face, a delicious combination of denial and belief. She has him!

"That's what I dreamt. That's all I can tell you." Barbary looks so sad, with her blinking eyes and thick tears and a little bit of red around her large and hairy nostrils. She feels such pity for the poor boy! Yum!

By now Danny Butt is as pale as ever his Fanny Face was, and since he hasn't a freckle, the long thin scar from a childhood cut above his right eye is the only part of his face that isn't like goatsmilk. There is no reason why he should believe the witch's dream, but there is a worm in his cheese-curd brain, and it's working - working for all he goes round and round among the great number of reasons he has to disbelieve. I count three: his Alice is good; he loves her; she would never. And Barbary made fun of my imagination! End of Scene 2.
 

Time for my favorite part: Scene 3.

He's wolfed his goat cheese and bread and slurped his pansy-flavored water. To me he looks as if he has just a touch of indigestion. I imagine that worm screwing itself around in his head cheese. He drops off to sleep, head in her lap, the sun warming him, warming her, warming the grass, and the goats, 11 multicolored charmers with really lovely horns. Her hand goes into her apron pocket and emerges with the razor. She flips it open like she'd been shaving daily her whole life, just the way she sees him do it every morning. It sounds like it's slipping over the strop, and he hears it. He shoots up onto his feet, and there she is, red as home, the open razor in her hand, leaning over where she was looking for those silver hairs on a head that's disappeared.

Next thing she sees, the razor is flipping into the air over her head, and her right hand hurts a lot where he kicked it. I'm feeling just so perky. I'm real tempted to become visible and take some credit, but despite the hag's jibe, I do appreciate subtlety and drama.

"I know what you want, bitch! And when I find out who he is, I'll cut his throat!" says he.

There's imagination for you! He won't find his razor in a week, which is lucky for her. If she were quick of tongue, she'd say something, but she just gapes. In a minute he has her by the hair, and she is trying to push him off and finally, she is hitting and scratching. How lovely to see in his hands yellow tresses with little drops of blood on their roots, and on his face scratches turning red! When she sees her hair in his hands, the lady in her comes out, and a well placed kick puts him out of the running for awhile. I twitch him a little then, not to ease the pain, but just to be sure he produces a few kids - when he's able to get at her. The rules don't forbid healing, you know. And kids are really important to a good marriage.

At this point, Barbary reappears. I think she's done a fine job already, but here she comes with cherry pits for the jam.

"What?" she says, "Are the lovers who promised never to fight now bound to cripple and murder each other? What are you doing?"

They blubber and spit their tale to her, naming numerous animal offspring. And then she comes out with the most amazing speech.

"Dearies, I lied to both of you. I've dreamed no dreams at all about you two. If Albert has silver hairs on his head, I've never counted them. If Alice takes some pleasure now and then in the woods, I've never watched her at it. The trouble with you two is you lack imagination. If you told each other when you were angry, then you'd know each other. If you knew each other, you could be friends. If you were friends, you'd never believe such tales as I've told you today. Without friendship, love is doomed, little ones."

Her smile was gorgeous. I wanted to rush right in and tickle her pleated chin, but I thought twice about that. We had our bargain, and I paid up quick. I was satisfied with the work, and I assume she approved of the footwear, having heard nothing to the contrary. I could see the lovebirds were on their way to meanness and anger now. They wouldn't need me to nudge them along the path of the seven deadlies that leads us all home in the end. But as for taking on Barbary as a partner, it's a tempting prospect, except I like to do things my way, and I don't yet see quite how she fits into my style.
 

Acknowledgments: First, thanks to Angela Carter & Lithuania for "The Crafty Woman," the folk tale that provided the basic elements of the story. As I worked through my drafts, Lisa started me thinking seriously about making the ending happier. While several classmates recommended a deeper look into Barbary, hints from Kevin & Anne sparked the idea of changing her from villain to hero. Thanks to all my classmates for suggestions about small revisions, especially Chris, Laura, & Melanie. As always, special support came from Linda, my friend & helpmate.


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Fantasticoe 1997