Acantha lived in a high walled, brick built town of weavers and fishermen called Medigon on a marshy-shored river. She was born there, raised there, and married there. Largely, she was content there. When she was young, she had left its brown walls and been once downriver with her father to sell his wares at the confluence where the river and another joined to make a mightier stream. In the stone built and colorfully painted city there, she had seen so many things and so many different peoples. She had heard their fine speech and seen their fine clothes, and there was born in her a desire to be one of them.
But, what of little girls’ dreams? Do they come to much? Are they not only dreams? They are left behind as one comes of age, is married, and bears children. Responsibilities replace dreams and bring contentment and the special joys of childrearing.
Acantha bore three daughters to her husband before she was aged twenty-five years, and they were named Aella, Agaue, and Hebe. Her husband began to wonder of his ever having a son but did not give up hope or trying. He was a man who tried harder when things did not go as they ought. He inherited her father’s loom factory on his death and took care of Acantha, her mother, and the three girls.
So Acantha was faithful and hardworking for him, though he was dull in his dogged persistence and bored her terribly. She spent her days nurturing her children and nurturing her remembrance of the city and its fine people with their fine speech and fine clothes.
The memory of the clothes especially tormented her, because they were made from the plain fabrics woven in Medigon. In the city, dyes were brought upriver from the sea and applied to the plain fabrics of Medigon to turn them into fine clothes. She could remember the colorful skirts she had seen the women wearing and the bright vests worn by the men. “How fair is it, Jonthem?” she asked her husband from time to time, “that we make the cloth that they dye and wear, but can only afford to buy a few metal tools and some clay pots?” Jonthem would only shrug and say, “That’s how it is. The clothes wear just as well dyed or undyed. Who cares if we wear them white and can’t afford to color them red and green?” She would usually say in reply, “You are intolerably stupid. That isn’t the point.” She might have snapped less had he told her that her hair was a lustrous, burnished red and her eyes a deep blue, so what needed she of more color? But he did not ever say this, so she snapped at him. To this he would shrug and leave, returning to the looms whatever the hour might be and working until he was hungry again.
There was no one in Medigon but the mayor, the magician, and the priest who could afford to buy colorful clothing from downriver. Acantha resented them and their families terribly for walking through town in red skirts and green vests. But there was one man who came to their market every week from outside the town who also wore colorful clothing. He was Buz Abaddon, owner of some cattle land in the plain a few miles from the town and some farmland upriver from the town. He was rich from his
lands and dressed himself extravagantly. He usually wore a blue turban, a black vest with gold buttons, a white shirt, and green pants. There were gold rings on his fingers, and he wore a leather belt with a silver buckle. He rode a horse bred in the far away lands of savages where horses first existed, made there from sunshine and rainfall. It was as white as milk, and it was as tall as a man at its shoulder.
Though he had no title, he acted like a lord. He had servants brought from a far away land to the south. They lived in his house lighting incense and speaking of mystical experiences in their foreign tongue. The town’s people called him “Buz, King of the Incense Burners.” He spoke like the citizens of the city downriver, using fine words in a voice and tone that carried authority and wisdom. He carried a sword at his belt. He spent money like water, giving it easily for whatever took his fancy. He seemed generous in this way, smiling from behind his immaculately groomed, black beard. When something could not be obtained but was really needed, a town person would go to Buz and ask for it. Inevitably, some arrangement would be made and the needed item bought.
Of all the people that she knew, Acantha liked Buz the best, for he spoke in the tongue of the city and was handsome, just as everything he owned was handsome. When he spoke, he carried one away to whatever place he spoke of, and he rarely spoke of mundane people and places, but generally evoked the wider world. Still, she never asked him for a favor because of her pride, though she longed for that wider world.
An evening came after a day when Buz had been in town, and she had heard his conversation with the magician and the priest. She was in a fine mood, dreaming of better places as she recalled every word, syllable, and nuance that she had heard and detected. But then, Jonthem came back from work, kicking dirt off his sandals just outside the back door and asking, “What have you prepared for my dinner, wife?” with a smile on his plain, shaven face.
She looked at him from the kitchen table where she was cutting up a catfish to bake. She wondered what he would look like if he wore a beard instead of shaving, just like every other man in town. Foolish was how she would find him even then. So she said to him, “Fish again. Can’t you kick the dirt off a little further from my mat? Why are you smiling?” He frowned, but obliged her by walking over and leaning on the large oven in the kitchen yard. “Can’t a man smile?” he asked though he was no longer smiling.
“Of course a man may smile, pet. Good men smile all the time, just think of Buz. Does he ever not smile? – Don’t clap your sandal against the oven, Jonthem, I don’t want my fish to taste like the filthy street!”
“Well, it’s outside the oven. Not in it.”
“All the same, have you no sense of what’s proper?”
He shrugged and placed the sandal back on his foot. She did not ask him where he was going as he walked away from the house and back to the alley that ran beside it. She knew he would be working at a loom for a while. Grateful to be rid of his plain face for a while longer, she returned to her daydream of Buz.
Later, when the sun was nearly set, as she stood over the hot oven out the back door and wiped the sweat from her face, she wondered why he wasn’t back yet. He had seen her preparing the fish. She had cleaned two for him and one for herself and one for
each daughter. There was bread baked fresh from the morning and some vegetables stuffed in each fish to mingle the flavors. It was a good dinner. Tomorrow, she would buy a turtle from one of the boys who hunted in the marsh and prepare it for a surprise. She could not afford fine clothes, but she prided herself on cooking as if she lived in the city, eating something different from the norm at least once a week. Even dull Jonthem appreciated that, and it earned her a reputation worth bragging about.
She called to her eldest daughter, Aella, who was a very active, but responsible eight year old. “Watch the dinner, Aella, and do not let it burn. I’m going to the factory to fetch father.”
“Yes, mamma,” said Aella. And she took a station up before the oven and watched the dinner carefully though she hopped from foot to foot all the while. Acantha walked through the alley and into the street. She went on toward the factory shading her eyes from the setting sun with her hand as she walked. The cooking fires of the whole town raised columns of smoke to the setting sun. The half shadows produced made the day that much more hazy seeming. The air was redolent with the fragrance of baking fish and bread. She smiled each time she identified the fragrance from a particular house, because she knew that it was not so piquant as her little feast that evening.
“Are you not cooking dinner this evening, Acantha?” asked a merry voice that she instantly knew. From behind her sauntered up a blond haired, red skirted girl of some eighteen years, Mary, the mayor’s daughter.
“Hello, Mary,” she looked critically at the girl, but had to admit that she was flawlessly dressed, and her red skirt was clean and probably new. She took great care of
herself for she was not yet married. “My Aella is watching dinner while I fetch my husband from his factory.” There, the mention of the husband put the well dressed and pretty girl in her station. So what to Acantha, if she was not so well attired from her afternoon of cooking? Was she not well married since she was fifteen? Mary fell into place beside her, and they walked a few blocks together. Acantha did not look again at the bright red skirt, and neither did she look at the red ribbon tied in Mary’s hair.
“Does Aella already cook?” asked Mary politely enough.
“I am teaching her to bake, but she is only eight and still plays much. She is attentive, though. There is no girl more willing to learn than my Aella.”
“I have seen her from time to time playing near the shrine and the grape arbor. She is very pretty.”
“Thank you, Mary.” She let go of some of her envious animosity for the girl.
They walked through the heady dinnertime haze and parted outside the factory.
“Jonthem should light a lamp if he works into the evening,” Mary stated, seeing that the factory was in shadow.
“He works hard and barely stops for dinner or sunset,” she said defensively. She was not surprised though, for he was so dense and stupid at times.
“All our men should work so hard,” said Mary as she walked away, “A good evening to you, Acantha.”
“And to you, Mary.” She went into the factory, noting that the sound of work was not there. There was no shuttle clicking away as there ought to be. Indeed it was shadowed and silent. Eight looms sat in the dusk unused. She wondered where her
man was. Perhaps she had missed him on his return home. They might have taken different streets. She frowned as she left the factory and walked back toward home. Halfway there, she met Jason, the town’s enforcer and executioner. Jason the Strangler or the Strangleman was what he was called when one was upset with him or he was carrying out his official duties, for that was how executions were carried out in Medigon. He was strong and grim with his duties, but she was not put off by that.
“Have you passed my house this evening, Jason?”
“I did,” he responded as if surprised to be addressed.
“And did you meet my husband as you passed by?”
“No. No, but I saw your little Hebe playing with a doll in the window, and she smiled at me.”
“She is a friendly child. You did not see my husband at all, neither in the house nor walking toward it?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Good evening, and thank you.”
“Good evening, Acantha.”
She walked on, casting a glance over her shoulder at the grim Jason as he went his way. In front of him, the sun was setting into the horizon. Just a sliver of it remained. The eastern sky was turning a rosy hue. She turned forward again and continued home. She wondered what had become of Jonthem. It was not like him to pout so and disappear. She had not remonstrated with him so much that he should be any more petulant than usual.
As she passed an open window a few houses down from her own, a voice that she recognized caught her ear. It sounded like Jonthem saying, “Come here then, wench!” in a tone she recognized. He had said it often enough when he wanted her. She had never liked being called “wench,” but she did like the tone of his voice when he said it, and her mood matched his. But it could not be him, for this was not their house, and she was not in it. With stillness in her breast, she walked to the window and peeked in. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness inside, for no lamps were lit.
Soon though, she saw two figures embracing, shedding clothing, and she heard the voice again, and it was Jonthem’s indeed. So she left the window, hardly breathing, and walked away down the street. Houses crept by, and smoke filled her eyes. The sun was completely set. The dusk was full on the town and growing darker. She could not raise her eyes to the rosy glory of sunset. Their gaze strayed about the street before her feet.
“Dull, stupid Jonthem,” she lamented, “I always knew that I should have awaited a better offer, yet I took you anyway and did better for you than any other could have.” But she was utterly shamed and knew not what to do. This was why he never told her she did not need fine clothes, because he did not find her so beautiful. Who he did find so beautiful was unknown to her, for it could have been the wife in that house or the servant or the oldest daughter.
“Have I not given him three daughters?” she asked. She knew with that thought though, why he looked to another. He had yet no son, and, since she had no brother, sonlessness must run in the family. She walked weeping until she found herself in
Medigon’s grape arbor. There, she sat on a work bench, beside the stacks of barrels.
He could be put to death and possibly his lover as well. In the very least, they might both have to jump in the river to prove their innocence, and, there, they would likely drown. The thought brought her satisfaction for a moment, and she stood suddenly and triumphantly, but then sank to her seat again. All would know that she could not keep her man. How bitter that knowledge was to her already. She had no need of everyone knowing it. She sat a long time in the dark of the grape arbor, weeping at times, and wondering how she could live with such shame. Several hours passed perhaps, and then she heard a voice in the dark nearby.
A woman’s voice asked, “Who is weeping?”
She rose quickly and wiped her eyes. It had been Mary’s voice. She walked between the rows away from where she had heard the voice. The mayor’s daughter, of all people, should not know. From in front of her and much closer, Mary’s voice called again, “I heard you weeping. Who is it?”
She brought herself up short and avoided running into the girl. She saw the blond of the girl’s hair, inches away in the star shine. “Mary,” she said.
“I am just out for a walk. I ate a grape, but it was bitter, and I choked. It was that which made my weep.”
“Truly, but I am going now.”
“You sounded much sadder than that. Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I do not need to explain myself to an unmarried girl. Good night.” She brushed past the girl and continued away.
“Did you find your husband?” Mary called after her. The words hit Acantha like a club in the back, and she faltered, then let out something between a wracking sob and a harsh mocking laugh. Oh, how she had found her husband. She heard Mary’s footsteps and felt her hand on her shoulder.
“Tell me what is the matter, Acantha, though I am only an unmarried girl, I am not unsympathetic. I can keep a secret, if that is what you want. You must be longing to tell it to someone, and here am I.”
She tried to see Mary’s eyes in the dark. She felt a thousand years older than this baby. She felt like striking her in the face and spitting on her, but the girl was right. She longed to free herself from the burden of what she had seen. Swiftly, she threw her arms around the girl and clung to her for comfort. So the girl patted her head for a while until she stopped sobbing. They settled onto the grass and sat there between the rows of vines.
“What is the matter, good woman?” asked Mary after some time.
“I did find Jonthem,” she admitted hoarsely.
“Is he unwell, or angry with you?”
“He was in the arms of another woman.” How bitterly she spat the words from her mouth.
“But how could he? You are as beautiful as any woman in Medigon. You are a famous cook and keep a perfect household. Perhaps you mistook some other man and woman.”
“No! I saw them. I heard his voice speaking words to her that he only speaks to me. It was him.” She felt a rock beneath her, picked it up, and hurled it savagely away.
“Well, who was the woman? You can point the finger at them, and they will be strangled or tossed in the river at least.”
“I know the house, but I do not know who was the woman. It could have been a wife, a servant, or a daughter. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve too much pride to let all know that he disdains me, because I cannot produce a son, that I am too much a spitting cat to keep his affections. I’d like him to be strangled, but not if it means that all know my shame.”
“But what,” asked the girl shrewdly, “if someone else discovers it? Then you will also be seen as a wife too stupid to know when her husband is straying. No, you must point the finger and have your vengeance. Then, because you are still young and beautiful, you can marry again, but better. You will have all his property, too.”
She sat in silence knowing the truth that she heard. At last she said, “I would that I could have vengeance without the knowledge of my husband’s infidelity being public.”
“How likely is that?” ventured the girl, again sounding shrewd.
“What do you mean?” she asked sharply.
“Would you really kill him if you could keep it secret?”
“If I could keep it secret, I would kill him and her.”
“If you knew who she was.”
“If, yes. But what is the use of this? How can I do it?”
“Whose house was it in which you saw your husband and a woman tonight?”
“It was the house of Boaz and Beulah. Their daughter is Bilhah. Their servant is Hadassah.” She listened intently to the girl, wishing the star shine would show her face enough for it to be seen.
“The priest gave a feast tonight and had some guests. Did you not know it?” asked Mary
“I was there with my brother and my sister and my parents. I saw Boaz and Beulah. I saw Hadassah even who they brought and loaned to Iacchus to help serve his guests. But Bilhah was not there, Acantha. She was not there. I inquired about her out of polite concern, and Beulah stated quietly that her time of the month had come early, and she had stayed at home tonight. Her parents are still at Iacchus’ house now, discussing private business after the feast.”
She drew in a sharp, hissing breath. “The two of them planned it,” she stated coldly. “I would kill them if I could, my husband and little Bilhah.”
“Can’t you? Shouldn’t husbands be faithful and wives keep their pride? Why should you be subjected to shame?”
“What do you mean, Mary? For how can I kill them both without accusing them?”
There was silence from the girl for many breaths.
“How can I, Mary?” she pressed the girl, finding her hand in the dark and squeezing it. “How can I keep my good name and still have justice?”
“Did you know that I had a husband almost?”
“He seduced me once. I let him, for he said that he loved me. But he changed his mind after he had me. I was to take him to my father, and tell him my choice, for he would let me have my choice from among any good men of the town. But on the day that he was to go with me to my father, he did not show, and I went looking for him.”
“Did you find him in the arms of another?”
“No. But I found him, and he told me that he was not ready to marry, for he had seen the daughter of a merchant from down the river and wanted to meet her before he made up his mind.”
Acantha remembered that a young man had died a year or two ago, drowning in the marsh. He was the only to die in such a manner in recent memory. She held her breath as Mary told the rest of the story. Her stomach was a terrible knot of anger and hunger.
“I was enraged, of course. Furious, for I had given him my womanhood and, having tasted of it, he had found it not good enough. And I was ashamed of what I had done. So I left him, after slapping his face. I was in the market when Buz Abaddon rode by. He saw my expression and asked me what was wrong. He took me up on his horse, and we rode away. I told him my story, and he had pity on me. He told me that no woman should have to be shamed so. And, for a small price, he gave me my revenge.”
“He drowned the boy in a pool in the marsh?”
“Yes, he did, he cursed him to die that way. No one knows but him and me and now you.”
“I see. Will he avenge me do you think?” Buz! The great, glorious, fine Buz of her dreams. She actually laughed a trembling laugh. “Oh, Jonthem,” she thought, “how you will die.”
“You mustn’t share the secret, Acantha, not even with him. If you approach him, do not mention me. He has the magic of curses, and he swore me to secrecy about the deed. I would not want him to curse me for breaking his trust.”
“Then you think he will do it?’
“I know that he will,” she said earnestly, “but do not speak of me.”
“I swear that I will not.”
“Then go home tonight and act as if nothing has occurred. Keep your daughters quiet about your absence, and, after Jonthem leaves in the morning, go on an errand out of the town and seek the aid of Buz before noon.”
They parted then. She went home and found that her daughters were anxious and Jonthem was not yet home, though it was nearly midnight. She ate a cold dinner with her daughters and threw his in the street. Then, she put them to bed and left again. Were the pleasures of Bilhah so great that he would not come home at all? Was her nubile body so tempting that he would risk capture by her parents? He would apparently risk death for her. She crept out of town by the needle’s eye while the night watchman dozed. She went out into the countryside and walked away from the river toward the grazing lands of Buz.
As she walked, her rage grew. It mounted as she got into the hills. It grew fiery as the night grew colder. She was shivering when she reached the abode of the King of
the Incense Burners. She had not seen it for several years and had forgotten how opulently he lived. It blazed into the night with the light of many lamps and many fires that could be seen through open windows. He burned wood without thought to its cost. The scent of the incense of his foreign servants drifted across the countryside on the night breeze. She was heady with the unaccustomed strength of it when at last she hammered on his door, seeing her husband’s blood already on her fists. The door was opened by a light skinned man of far away lands. He was thin, and his eyes were glassy. He smiled at her lazily and invited her in from the cold. She stepped into the hall, hardly seeing the wealth of its furnishings.
“You will find the master that way,” said the Incense Burner waving vaguely at the other end of the pillared hall. She nodded to him and walked that way, feeling tired yet wrathful. There were carpets beneath her feet and silver mirrors on the walls. Couches and cushioned chairs littered the floor. Pillows and rugs were laid about the pillars with no thought to where one might step. Incense Burners lay about languidly, drinking wine and eating meat. It was three fourths to morning, yet here they were. She paid it no heed. She ignored the colors and proceeded to the great seat at the end of the hall. There, looking wakeful and attentive, was Buz Abaddon, with his great bronze sword in a scabbard across his lap. He rose as she approached.
He smiled from behind his lustrous black beard. “Come, sit with me, woman. Have a goblet of wine. Tell me what brings you here in the midst of the night.” An Incense Burner appeared with a chair, and she sat in it. Another offered her wine, and she drank it.
“Speak when you are ready, woman.”
“I have a favor to ask of you, Buz Abaddon, because you are powerful, and I am not.”
“Surely it is incumbent upon the powerful to aid the weak.”
“Grant me vengeance at whatever price you may set.”
“Certainly,” he laughed merrily, “upon whom?”
“Upon my faithless husband, who has shamed and dishonored me this very night.”
“This very night? Indeed, swift vengeance is best, Acantha.”
She plunged on, “He had relations this very night with Bilhah, daughter of Boaz and Beulah, while her parents feasted with the priest, Iacchus.”
“And what would you give to have him slain? For, surely, it will cost you nothing to point the finger at them and give them over to the strangler.” He stood then, towering before her, and she rose as well, tossing aside the goblet of wine and speaking wildly.
“It would shame me. It would cost me my pride. I would give my right arm before I let all know of my shame! He must be slain, and she must be slain, so that no one will know what they did, and I may have a life free of shame!”
“Very well,” laughed Buz most amicably, “you offer that I should slay to save your pride. How despicable of you, Acantha. Do you not know that the law is higher than us? It is for a court to settle, not for anger and sword. You could be slain for your plot almost as easily as your husband and his lover. I could slay you now on the
supposition that you are lying, for who would march across the country in the night to make such a claim when the law would see to it in the light?”
She stood aghast, not comprehending his amicable manner and terrible words together.
“Well, as it is, I shall take your commission and let you pay your price. I will not kill you,” he said, “for your life will surely work more mischief than your death, but as you have offered your right arm to see him dead, the arm I shall take.”
Her mouth was dry and would not shut; she could not even speak as he drew his sword from the scabbard and set the scabbard upon the great chair. She could only stare in unflinching disbelief as he measured the distance, nodded to himself, and in a vast sweeping gesture cut her right arm off at the shoulder. A tiny quiver of dismay twitched across her face spasmodically before she swooned.
She woke sometime later, and it was daylight. There was movement all around her. It jostled and rocked her and caused her great pain on her right side so that she cried out. A foreign face appeared over her. “Patience, and the trip will be over soon. We are almost back to the town. Can you drink?” The Incense Burner offered her a flask. She reached for it but could not move her arm. The Incense Burner shook his head mirthfully.
“You must use the arm that is left to you,” he explained. She turned her head and saw that she was in a wagon pulled by cattle. She looked more closely at her right side and saw that her shoulder was bandaged and that her arm was not there. She swooned again.
When she woke, she was being held in a sitting position and made to drink from the flask. “There, there,” said the Incense Burner, “You won’t feel it for a while. Can you listen to me?”
She nodded to him in terror.
“Good, we shall tell the town’s people that you went out in search of your husband with whom you had a quarrel. You found him out here in the wilderness and were attacked by a lion, which took your arm and killed your husband, but we happened upon you and saved you. Do you understand?”
She nodded again.
“We do not say this to protect anyone but you, for the king does not fear the town’s people. But you should know that, should they learn of your strange and unnatural offer to the king, they would hand you over to the Strangleman for execution.”
They proceeded on to the town and entered through the gate. They handed her over to whomever was there, and she was taken to her house. There, they laid her in her bed while her daughters looked on and cried. They had spent a long night awake with neither father nor mother, and now their mother came home to them maimed.
Acantha lay in a daze of shock. Dimly, she began to understand that Jonthem was dead and that she had things left to say to him. The bitterness seeped into her bones as if it meant to stay. She could take no joy in the sight of her girls, nor could she comfort them in their distress. So she whispered to herself over and over, “What have I done, oh, what have I done?” She had not meant it was what she told herself. She had not meant to have Jonthem slain, nor had she meant to give her right arm.
In her mind’s eye, she could see the dark form of Mary in the grape arbor and
hear her saying, “And for a small price he gave me my revenge.”
She wondered what price the beautiful Mary had paid to the King of the Incense Burners. Perhaps it had been nothing at all. She repeated, “What have I done? I did not mean it.” She felt terribly cold, though the day was already warm. She saw her girls right beside her, putting a wet cloth on her forehead and holding her arm, but she did not feel them. She tried to rise and fell back, because she was trying to use the arm that was not there.
“No, mamma, you must lie still,” instructed Aella. She asked her daughter, “What have I done?” Her eyes bored desperately into her daughter’s and found only confusion. Then she saw Jason the Strangler enter her bedroom behind her girls. “What have you done, indeed?” he asked her sternly, quietly.
“I’ve killed my husband,” she wept.
“They say that a lion ate him, Acantha, and that a lion took your arm. But they also say that only your arm was injured. Is that not a strange thing for a lion to do?”
Her grey haired mother entered behind the Strangleman and took the girls in her arms and pulled them from the room. “Can’t you leave her alone, for now, Jason? She is not making sense.”
“I’m very sorry, but I need to know, for hers is not the only tragedy to occur this day. You should do as I asked, and take the children from here.”
She pulled them from the room, though they wanted to stay. Acantha tried again to sit up and succeeded when the Strangleman helped her. He crouched beside her bed and held her hand. “Tell me what happened to you, Acantha, and tell me truly.”
She confessed in a dull, hopeless voice now, “I insulted Jonthem last night, and he left. I thought he had gone to the factory. He usually - used to go there when I had been unkind to him. I went looking for him when I had made dinner, but I could not find him. Then, after I saw you on the street, I found him in the house of Boaz having relations with Bilhah. I was enraged but ashamed. So, I went to the house of Buz Abaddon and asked him to slay Jonthem and Bilhah for me, because they needed to die, and I did not want my shame to be known. I said that I would give my right arm to see them dead, but I did not mean any of it, I was only angry. It would have passed.” She was weeping again, but the tears hardly came for she was almost dry.
“So he cut your arm from your body, or he threw you to a lion?”
“He took his sword-”
“I understand. Acantha, we have not yet found Jonthem, but the Incense Burners are supposed to be leading some of the netters to his body now. We did find Bilhah though. I saw Buz Abaddon crawl out of her window just before dawn. When I tried to question him, he seemed startled, then he laughed, knocked me down and walked away.”
She noted for the first time a bruise on one side of his face, mostly hidden by his hair.
“I rose from the street and went into the house of Boaz and up to his daughter’s room where I found her obviously violated corpse in her bed. You have had your revenge but in a monstrous fashion. Why did you not point the finger at them?”
“I would have been shamed.”
“We cannot prove one way or another now that they were in fact having relations. You may well be executed. There is little more that I can do except hope to capture Buz Abaddon and question him.” He rose and let go of her hand. “It would not be the first time ever that a woman tired of her husband and contrived to have him murdered, but it would be the first time in Medigon. Still, if all you have spoken is true, then your punishment was included in your crime. We shall see what happens. The netters are out, and the Incense Burners do not seem to know of their king’s danger.”
She sat there numbly fingering the bandage on her right shoulder. If the netters, the Strangleman’s men, were out in force, then perhaps they would capture Buz. Their nets were blessed by the priest and enchanted by the magician, and little ever evaded them. So she feared that they would capture him and make her face him again. She tried to get out of bed, but her mother and daughters returned and pressed her down. They put the wet cloth on her brow and covered her with blankets and fed her what little she could eat. The physician would be coming soon to look at her wound.
She slept for a time.
When the next morning came, she awoke just before dawn. She saw that her bandage had been changed and assumed that the physician had been there while she slept. So she eased herself out of bed. She was weak but needed to relieve herself. It was not easy, but she managed, then could not make herself go back to bed. She tried to dress herself with just one arm and could not. Her mother came again and found her crying over clothing, her plain, white clothing. She helped her dress and then let her do what she wanted. She wandered the house listlessly, frequently sitting down or leaning against the wall. Her stupid husband’s things were all over the place. Finally, she asked her mother, “Did they find him?”
“Is he in the ground yet?”
“No, dear one, but you should not see him. He was mauled.”
“Take me to him.”
She leaned on her mother, and they left her daughters sleeping and went to the shrine to look at Jonthem and Bilhah. The two were laid out near one another, and she looked at them briefly but could not stand it for long. She didn’t know if she hated him or missed him. For Bilhah, she felt something too strange to put into words. She thought of Buz climbing out of the window and shuddered so hard that she fell. Her mother helped her up from the brick floor, and they left.
“They were together?” her mother asked.
“I saw them, heard them.” She started to weep yet again and so was questioned no further.
When they were halfway home, they heard a crowd of people coming their way. They started down a side street, but Jason the Strangler saw them from where he led the mob and called to them, so they halted where they were and waited.
She wondered, “Has he come for me?” But she saw then that the netters were there with their magic nets. They had hunted Buz down and now they returned, dragging him behind them on the dirt street. They halted before her and asked as a formality. “This is the one, the King of the Incense Burners, whom you asked to kill your husband and his lover, who cut off your arm to take as payment for the secret deed, who made a necklace of your pretty fingers?”
“Yes,” she replied in a hollow voice, gazing numbly upon the lumpy form in the nets. They released him to be sure, and he rose hulkingly over the mob. In silent menace, he eyed them individually, and, though he was now unarmed and surrounded, none could meet his gaze. Acantha saw her fingers on a necklace and almost fainted. Buz’s black hair and beard tossed in the breeze.
“You stand accused and identified, King of the Incense Burners, of making a devil’s bargain and murdering,” stated Jason the Strangler. From around the town, Acantha saw everyone coming in and joining the circle. Soon, they were looking down from the tops of houses. Buz laughed at them all, and all but Jason the Strangler and the netters backed away from him.
“You were caught having just raped and murdered Bilhah, daughter of Beulah and Boaz. We have this woman’s word of the illegal deal that you struck and the maiming you did to her. Have you anything to say before your sentence is decreed?”
He eyed Jason with amusement. “It would be better for you not to slay me,” he advised, “for I am now the devil that you know, but I shall return in another form unknown to you.”
“You have no real magic that we have seen,” stated Jason contemptuously, “and we have no reason to believe your statement.”
They began to advance on him with their nets ready to toss. He folded his arms and addressed the crowd as he waited for their throws. “Do not forget me when you lie to profit yourself, or when you take, because no one is looking, or when in envy or scorn you malign another, for I am built of the pieces of yourselves that you sacrifice for the power to harm.”
The netters paused in amazement.
“The black of my hair is taken from all the colors of hair of those who have spent their days thinking of their enemies and growing grey with worry. I took the red from Laverna,” he said pointing at Acantha’s mother, “little by little, when she kept small coins back every week and rationed her daughter’s and husband’s bread so she could buy that pearl ring she wears.”
“Mother?” asked Acantha, remembering the lean years of her childhood.
“How?” asked Laverna, avoiding her daughter’s eyes.
“The strength in my hands, I took from Lugh when he knocked a hole in Lyr’s boat years ago to better his chances of catching a certain, famously large fish. Was it tasty Lugh? How’s the rheumatism? You, Boris, I took your eloquence, one word at a time, every time you kicked your dog or beat your wife, cursing them as you did so.”
Boris’ wife turned very pale and stepped away from her husband, who turned red with anger. “Why?” she asked of Buz, “why did you not take his foot as you took her
arm?” she asked pointing at Acantha. Men near Boris stepped away from him and looked at him with sudden disdain.
“Because he would have stopped kicking you, my dear.”
Buz continued naming people and revealing sordid secrets until the amazement wore off into horror and disgust.
“You are possessed by the devil,” stated Jason.
“I am the devil,” Buz laughed.
The netters threw their nets over him and pulled him to the ground. They dragged him away to the square. When they had gone by, the crowd fell in behind. Some were very quiet. Some were very loud. All followed to the square. Acantha saw Mary walk by, avoiding her gaze. She wondered with what Mary had paid for her vengeance. She followed the netters as well, leaning upon her mother all the way. Laverna was crying, and she could not bring herself to comfort her just yet. She felt very sick and weak. It was all she could do to make it to the square.
She watched with all the town as they cut a hole in the nets to get Buz’s head out. Jason put his hands around his neck, foregoing the rope he usually used and proceeded to throttle violently until Buz turned blue. Then he rose from the dead man’s body with a triumphant shout, and they cleared away the nets. Men came with bundles of sticks, grass, dried dung and anything else that would burn and was not a tool. They piled it high around the corpse and set it alight with burning oil from a lamp. As the flames began to leap and the smoke to climb high in the sky, Acantha thought she could hear Buz’s voice from the flames saying mirthfully, “Burn me, yes, but your hair will still be gray. Your joints will still ache, your tongues will still be tied in knots, your arm will only be a phantom in your dreams. You will try to refrain from lying or cheating and envying, but you shall do all these things, and I will have substance again.” She looked around her, but if anyone else in the crowd heard his voice, none showed it.
But the crowd cheered as the flames rose, and many of those whom Buz had named were there adding fuel to the fire long after it was necessary. They watched until the fire died down, and nothing but a few bones remained among the smoldering coals and ashes. Then they parted, going off to their homes separately with few speaking to one another.
Silence reigned. Acantha looked at her mother’s hands and saw that the pearl ring was gone, though where, she knew not. She leaned on her mother and said not a word. She found that her daughters were beside them in the street, though she knew not when they had joined the crowd. They walked on toward home. “I threw sticks on the fire, mamma,” stated both Agaue and Hebe. That was all that was said by the five of them for the rest of the day.gaue, and Hebe. That was all that was said by the five of them for the rest of the day. Agaue, and Hebe. That was all that was said by the five of them for the rest of the day.