This, and the last short fiction piece I published as a bonus, Voyeur, have done the rounds of short fiction markets. ALL the rounds. I had no luck, not because the stories were bad, they all said, but because they were not a good fit for the publications at the time.
I think I write a lot of stuff that is not a good fit for anywhere at any time. These past two years have been a rejection-palooza for me (bar one, bar one really good one), and I flip-flop around between thinking perhaps they aren’t the right fit, or perhaps they are just bad.
But I don’t think they are bad, myself. I have confidence in my work. My plotlines are simple, yes, but I know my writing is good. It’s just… weird.
This one was inspired by a certain proposed ‘wall’ and what that might look like a long time from now. And too, when I was in year 12 we studied Augusto Boal’s concept of the ‘cop in the head’, which has always stuck with me. What if it was not a cop, but a husband…?
The Husband in Your Head
Content Warning: domestic violence (nothing overly gratuitous)
‘Up, you useless cunt.’
The voice comes through the thick cloak of sleep Rema come awake at a pace that leaves her brain scrambling to catch up.
She jumps out of bed and he’s there, standing above her, so she falls to her knees.
I am such a useless cunt, still asleep when I should obviously be awake.
‘I’m sorry, Alex. I will be awake when you need me to be tomorrow.’
‘Breakfast, now,’ Alex says, and Rema skitters out of the bedroom. Alex doesn’t follow her into the kitchen. She’s not sure he’s ever been in there. There’s only eggs from the chickens out back this morning, and bread she made yesterday, but no ham because the supply lines have been shaky lately with all the attacks.
This is my fault because if I was a good wife I would have found him some, would have got to the store before it sold out, something. But I did not, so it is my fault. I’m a terrible wife. I sleep late. I don’t get meat before it sells out. But mostly I am terrible because I have had no children for Alex, no sons to carry on our good heritage, no daughters to marry out to the good boy stock in town. The babies bloom, but they don’t flower. They always die. I’m starting to swell with another, but I know it won’t last. It’ll end in blood again, like it has ten times before. I am a waste of a womb. I am a terrible wife. The least I could do is find some ham. Useless cunt.
Rema brings Alex his eggs and his bread, and he doesn’t say anything about the no ham this morning, but her head whispers bad wife, bad wife, so he doesn’t have to.
A good wife punishes herself before she needs to be punished.
Rema hurries to the store early, in case there’s meat for sale. Beige dust kicks around her skirt, gets up her nose. Through the dirt haze, she watches the wall, looking close at the cracks that run up from the base in lightning-strike patterns. Whenever she sees it, which is whenever she is outside, she gets a feeling like it will crumble at that exact moment and hordes of them will come pouring over, ready to sack and to rape and do whatever else it is that sub-humans just do. The wall holds. Rema keeps it in the corner of her eye, though. Just in case.
‘Any ham today, sir?’
Joel shakes his head. Rema hangs hers.
‘Did it sell out? Did I come too late?’ She sees flashes of herself in her mind-eye: taking the lash of a whip; a thick-calloused hand tearing out chunks of her yellow hair; Alex’s boot pressing down on her face, grinding it into the dry earth.
I’d deserve that. I deserve worse.
‘Nuh, it never came.’ He spits onto the floor, keeps his gaze away from hers. ‘Fuckin’ subs coming over the wall and attacking the trucks. We should just nuke the fuckin’ lot of them.’ He fingers the leather strap of the rifle by the counter.
We’re so close to the wall and the sub-human state that we’d probably get nuked too.
As soon as she has this thought she pinches herself, hard.
We live here, so close to the divide and the wall because Alex is a strong fighter, and anyway he couldn’t get a post anywhere else after he let that raid attack his patrol.
Rema pinches herself for thinking this too. She has a permanent bruise on her thigh because she’s always thinking thoughts she shouldn’t.
I am a terrible woman and a hideous wife. Useless cunt.
On the walk home, Rema can’t help herself but to think about the business with the raid and by the time she walks through the door she’s limping, but Alex has already left for the day and doesn’t see.
If he’d seen he’d know I was having bad thoughts and punish me for real, which I would deserve.
But he doesn’t see, and she is deeply, shamefully glad. She pinches herself again. It’s one of those days.
Alex comes through the door quiet this afternoon, earlier than usual, and Rema is not done with her chores yet. She wipes the flour off her hands and tears off her apron, throwing herself on the floor at his feet, mumbling, ’sorry, I’m sorry Alex,’ but then she hears the titter of voices and eases up from the floor. There, in the entryway, is a man she’s never seen before speaking with Alex, and behind them trails a woman swollen with child.
‘Make yourself scarce,’ the man says to the woman and she turns towards the kitchen. Rema jumps back so the woman doesn’t see her peeking. She comes through the door, head turning, looking for someone.
‘Hello?’ she says, ducking a little, and Rema stands there, not sure what to say because since they’d been sent to this post they had not had many visitors.
‘Hello,’ Rema finally says, wringing her hands a little, looking to the other womans tight, round belly and feeling a stab low in her gut because she can’t hold onto her own.
I know, I just know, that this one will die too. It’s just a matter of when.
‘Hello,’ she says again and then she starts to cry.
‘I’ve lost three already,’ says the woman, whose name is Greta.
I do not want to talk about it.
She is embarrassed by her outburst and she dries her tears without looking at Greta. She thinks of the baby inside her and wonders how long before it tears away from her womb and the blood comes?
Now? Or now?
Greta drops her voice. ‘They say the ground is poisoned. It’s why the babies always die.’
‘Mmm,’ Rema says, fiddling with her embroidery. She needles as she speaks, fast and light.
We make these stupid tapestries for no reason but to keep our minds and fingers busy, to stop us from thinking other thoughts. It’s pointless, she thinks, and then surreptitiously stabs herself in the leg with the needle.
Greta places a hand on Rema’s. She’s seen. ‘Don’t do that,’ she says.
‘I’ve got to,’ Rema tells her. ‘I can’t stop thinking about things I shouldn’t.’
‘No blood can stop that,’ Greta says, low. Not quite a whisper, whispers would draw attention. ‘They get in here,’ she points to her ear, but Rema thinks she means her head, ‘and they make us punish ourselves. You don’t want a husband in your head as well as in your bed.’
Footsteps now, and they return to their needlepoint.
‘What are you talking about?’ Greta’s husband asks from the doorway, looking stern at her.
‘Babies. Recipes. Woman things,’ Greta replies, bubbling over like the notions give her great joy. ‘Do you like my embroidery?’ She holds it up for his approval.
He snorts. He leaves.
She scares Rema.
But that night, after the act and when she should be sleeping, instead of Alex’s voice in her ear, it’s Gretas that Rema hears.
You don’t want a husband in your head as well as in your bed.
Rema doesn’t want him in either.
‘Up,’ Alex says and Rema leaps out of bed, but she doesn’t do it with the usual verve and so he kicks her hard in the rear as she hurries to the kitchen for his breakfast.
‘No ham again? What use are you?’ he asks and slaps her in the face.
I’m glad I spat in his eggs.
And she only had to slice herself lightly with the bread knife to do it.
‘I think I’m going to have this one,’ Greta says. ‘I hope it’s born live.’ She pulls her dress tight over her belly. It’s enormous.
‘Mmm,’ Rema says.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a woman that big.
Greta takes Rema’s hand, pats it, then threads her fingers through hers. They walk alongside the road, in the shade of the wall, both of them waddling and kicking up fine brown dust in their wake. Alex lets them walk to the store together now. He’s just grateful the town fathers have permitted Greta and her husband to mix with them. The businesswith the raid must be losing its sting over time. Greta’s fingers worry across Rema’s, and when she looks over to the left and the wall, for once she barely notices all the cracks, doesn’t imagine she can hear the hordes on the other side, rallying to set it to tumble. In fact, with Greta like steel beside her, hands entwined, Rema reaches out her other hand and grazes the concrete with her fingertips. She imagines she can feel a slight hum in it, a zing of something powerful working inside, and then she feels the baby inside her quicken, and tumble. She cries out, and clutches at the swell.
‘What’s wrong?’ Greta says.
‘It moved!’ Rema tells her, and they grin at each other with gappy mouths, creasing the bruises at their eyes.
When they get to the store, there’s a pig’s leg hanging in the window. Rema asks for flour and sugar and powdered milk, and she thinks, fuck your ham. Later, when Alex is raging at her, and as her supper drips out of her hair, Rema thinks of Greta and says it to herself again.
Fuck your ham.
‘I’m not from here, you know.’
‘What do you mean ‘not from here’?’
Rema finishes oiling Alex’s rifle and starts in on cleaning his handguns. Greta picks up an ancient pistol and runs her eye down the side, then holds it in both hands and aims it out the window, out at Alex in the field.
‘Pow,’ she says, then puts it down on the table with a metal thump. ‘I wasn’t born here.’ She gestures with her head towards the front of the house, the road, the wall. ‘I was born over there.’
‘Over there? With the subs?’
‘I am a sub, then, aren’t I?’
‘You look like me,’ Rema says, confused. ‘Aren’t all subs murky of skin and eye?’ Greta has the same blond hair as Rema does, the blue-crystal eyes.
‘No. Some of them look like me. I got traded over here.’
‘For weapons. Guns and things. A couple grenades. There were five of us, all the same. Yellow hair.’ She takes a hank of her hair and twists it around her finger. ‘I was ten? I think? The guns stank like this, like oil and death. The smell was all around us in the truck on the way back. Got into my hair, I smelled it for days.’
‘Do you remember what it’s like?’
‘I was happy, I think. Where I’m from is green and cold. I think I remember the ocean.’
Rema puts the pistol down, wipes her palms on her apron. ‘The ocean?’
Greta looks at Rema with tear-rimmed eyes, then she pushes her by the shoulders til she’s back against the wall, right up by the window, and she runs a hand over Rema’s cheek, then into her hair and gets so close that their bellies touch and they can’t get closer. They kiss, and Rema can’t remember the last time she was kissed, maybe once or twice when she and Alex were first introduced, when her parents were deciding if they’d give her to him. She’s never been kissed like this, with the mouths open and the tongues touching. She’s torn in half, one part of her stabbing shameful hot and the other part of just waiting for Alex to bust in the backdoor and beat them both to bloody pulp with the butt of a rifle.
Rema doesn’t stop, though. The hot, rushy feeling wins out. She’s never felt anything like this before. Greta’s hand grips her breast, gentle, and she feels it start to leak, hot milk spreading out over her dress.
‘I’m going to go back,’ Greta murmurs into Rema’s neck.
Rema doesn’t say anything. She just keeps kissing her, pulling at the straps of her dress, as the sound of the old tractor fires up outside.
The act is done and Alex is snoring lightly at her side, but the thick thump of Rema’s heart is so loud she’s afraid it will wake him. She almost jumps right out of her skin when she hears the soft thud of bare feet on the porch, but he doesn’t stir. Rema eases herself carefully out of bed and undoes the lock slowly, like her hesitation will stop the tumblers from clicking too loud.
‘Are you ready?’ Greta says.
I am not. I will never be ready.
Rema has worried a hole in her leg, right by her knee, with her nail just thinking of this moment.
Greta takes her hand, kisses it, and the fear dies for a second. The baby flutters inside her as her heart spikes. She lets out a tiny yelp at the movement, then claps a hand over her mouth, eyes wide. From the bedroom she can hear the covers shuffling.
‘He’s coming,’ Rema says, and she’s frozen, but Greta flings the door open as Alex stumbles from the bedroom, and she pulls out a pistol, aims it right at his head.
‘What are you doing out of bed?’ Alex says, so rage-focused on Rema’s disobedience that he doesn’t see Greta at first. When he does, he starts so hard it’s almost funny. Almost.
‘You cunts,’ he hisses, then he grabs a handful of Rema’s hair, pulls her hard backwards, sending her vision spinning. She hits the floor at an angle, pulling herself around at the last second so she doesn’t fall on her stomach. Greta drops her aim and shoots Alex right in the knee as he’s dragging Rema across the floor by her hair and he drops to the floor, a scream wrangling from him as he goes. The blood flows out onto the floor and Rema’s first thought is, I better clean that up, but then Greta is at her side, pulling Rema away from him, helping her up. She hands the pistol to Rema. Rema holds it shakily, points it at Alex’s head.
‘Don’t you fucking dare,’ he says, and her mind, her mind, it’s babbling fast.
Her mother’s voice. Do what he says. Always do what he says.
Her father’s hands, slapping her face. Disobedient whore.
Alex, the king of her mind, his voice ever present. Useless cunt.
‘I’m going to make you wish you’d never been born,’ Alex growls from the floor. His face is ice and violence. He’ll make Rema pay for this, in blood and screams.
She’s dead anyway, so she pulls the trigger.
His head comes apart in the back, but the look on his face, still intact, is disbelief that Rema has disobeyed him. She hopes his last thought was of her, her rebellion.
Still, she drops to the floor once he’s dead, tries to scoop up the parts of him that have come away. ‘I’m sorry, Alex, I’m sorry,’ she mumbles, as his voice rings in her head, though she won’t hear it again for real. Not in this lifetime.
I’ll be hearing it forever, though. The husband in my head is planted so deep.
‘Come on,’ Greta says and Rema comes to herself. Alex’s voice quiets in her mind. The baby wriggles at the sound of Greta’s voice.
Greta takes Rema far along the wall, to a place where the crumbled facade makes a hole just big enough to squeeze through, and they crouch as the first rays of the sun spill over the horizon, lighting up the way. Rema feels like she can hear the hordes of sub-humans jostling on the other side, gnawing to get through, but when she peers through as they brush the chunks of wall from the passage there’s nothing on the other side. Just sand and dust.
‘You first,’ Greta says, and she drops Rema’s hand to let her through. Rema looks around, like the husband in her head is made real, storming after her, waiting to grip great handfuls of her hair and pull her away from the wall, back to servitude where she belongs, but when Rema blinks there’s no one there but Greta. His voice bellows as she crawls through, but she shakes her head and scrambles through anyway.
When Greta comes through, they link hands and start to run, as fast as their waddling forms will let them.
The further they get away from the wall, the quieter Rema’s head becomes. When the sun starts to beat on them and the wall is just a thin line on the horizon, it becomes a whisper.