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From the crumpled bed the wife said, "I think today's the day. Look how low I've gone."
"Today? That would be like you, perverse and inconvenient," said her husband, teasing her, standing at the doorway and looking outward, over the lake, the fields, the forested slopes beyond. He could just make out the chimneys of Rush Margins, breakfast fires smoking. "The worst possible moment for my ministry. Naturally."
The wife yawned. "There's not a lot of choice involved. From what I hear. Your body gets this big and it takes over--if you can't accommodate it, sweetheart, you just get out of its way. It's on a track of its own and nothing stops it now." She pushed herself up, trying to see over the rise of her belly. "I feel like a hostage to myself. Or to the baby."
"Exert some self-control." He came to her side and helped her sit up. "Think of it as a spiritual exercise. Custody of the senses. Bodily as well as ethical continence."
"Self-control?" She laughed, inching toward the edge of the bed. "I have no self left. I'm only a host for the parasite. Where's my self, anyway? Where'd I leave that tired old thing?"
"Think of me." His tone had changed; he meant this.
"Frex"--she headed him off--"when the volcano's ready there's no priest in the world can pray it quiet."
"What will my fellow ministers think?"
"They'll get together and say, 'Brother Frexspar, did you allow your wife to deliver your first child when you had a community problem to solve? How inconsiderate of you; it shows a lack of authority. You're fired from the position.'" She was ribbing him now, for there was no one to fire him. The nearest bishop was too distant to pay attention to the particulars of a unionist cleric in the hinterland.
"It's just such terrible timing."
"I do think you bear half the blame for the timing," she said. "I mean, after all, Frex."
"That's how the thinking goes, but I wonder,"
"You wonder?" She laughed, her head going far back. The line from her ear to the hollow below her throat reminded Frex of an elegant silver ladle. Even in morning disarray, with a belly like a scow, she was majestically good-looking. Her hair had the bright lacquered look of wet fallen oak leaves in sunlight. He blamed her for being born to privilege and admired her efforts to overcome it--and all the while he loved her, too.
"You mean you wonder if you're the father"--she grabbed the bedstead; Frex took hold of her other arm and hauled her half-upright--"or do you question the fatherliness of men in general?" She stood, mammoth, an ambulatory island. Moving out the door at a slug's pace, she laughed at such an idea. He could hear her laughing from the outhouse even as he began to dress for the day's battle.
Frex combed his beard and oiled his scalp. He fastened a clasp of bone and rawhide at the nape of his neck, to keep the hair out of his face, because his expressions today had to be readable from a distance: There could be no fuzziness to his meaning. He applied some coal dust to darken his eyebrows, a smear of red wax on his flat cheeks. He shaded his lips, A handsome priest attracted more penitents than a homely one.
In the kitchen yard Melena floated gently, not with the normal gravity of pregnancy but as if inflated, a huge balloon trailing its strings through the dirt. She carried a skillet in one hand and a few eggs and the whiskery tips of autumn chives in the other. She sang to herself, but only in short phrases. Frex wasn't meant to hear her.
His sober gown buttoned tight to the collar, his sandals strapped on over leggings, Frex took from its hiding place--beneath a chest of drawers--the report sent to him from his fellow minister over in the village of Three Dead Trees. He hid the brown pages within his sash. He had been keeping them from his wife, afraid that she would want to come along--to see the fun, if it was amusing, or to suffer the thrill of it if it was terrifying.
As Frex breathed deeply, readying his lungs for a day of oratory, Melena dangled a wooden spoon in the skillet and stirred the eggs. The tinkle of cowbells sounded across the lake. She did not listen; or she listened but to something else, to something inside her. It was sound without melody--like dream music, remembered for its effect but not for its harmonic distresses and recoveries. She imagined it was the child inside her, humming for happiness. She knew he would be a singing child.
Melena heard Frex inside, beginning to extemporize, warming up, calling forth the rolling phrases of his argument, convincing himself again of his righteousness.
How did that proverb go, the one that Nanny singsonged to her, years ago, in the nursery?
Born in the morning,
Woe without warning;
Woeful and wild;
Born in the evening,
Woe ends in grieving.
Night baby borning
Same as the morning.
But she remembered this as a joke, fondly. Woe is the natural end of life, yet we go on having babies.
No, said Nanny, an echo in Melena's mind (and editorializing as usual): No, no, you pretty little pampered hussy. We don't go on having babies, that's quite apparent. We only have babies when we're young enough not to know how grim life turns out. Once we really get the full measure of it--we're slow learners, we women--we dry up in disgust and sensibly halt production.
But men don't dry up, Melena objected; they can father to the death.
Ah, we're slow learners, Nanny countered. But they can't learn at all.
"Breakfast," said Melena, spooning eggs onto a wooden plate. Her son would not be as dull as most men. She would raise him up to defy the onward progress of woe.
"It is a time of crisis for our society," recited Frex. For a man who condemned worldly pleasures he ate with elegance. She loved to watch the arabesque of fingers and two forks. She suspected that beneath his righteous asceticism he possessed a hidden longing for the easy life.
"Every day is a great crisis for our society." She was being flip, answering him in the terms men use. Dear thick thing, he didn't hear the irony in her voice.
"We stand at a crossroads. Idolatry looms. Traditional values in jeopardy. Truth under siege and virtue abandoned."Wicked
Excerpted from Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
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