The stones sit heavy in her belly. They rub together with every step she takes. She can hear them, a low rumble, like a landslide, or like a house inside her being demolished bit by bit. Sapo moves slowly as she puts the blackened kettle on the fire to boil, trying to ignore the quarry sounds of her body. The river flows outside, not five minutes away on bare feet, bringing down more stones for her. For her mouth, for her teeth, for her belly.
The water in the kettle whistles as it boils. Sapo takes it off the fire, the hot iron almost searing her skin despite the rag she uses to protect her hands. She pours the boiling water over a sliver of root. She has needed it for a while to sleep, the occasional brew quickly growing into a habit religiously observed at bedtime, so she can forget the weight of the stones in her, dull the ache from the wreckage of her teeth.
The tea is bitter and pungent. It reminds her of Manak, the smell of him in the boundaries of his body; the secret places where arm meets torso, where belly fades into crotch. He hasn’t been up here to see her, to measure their pain against the height of the mountain, in—how long has it been now? Four moons? Six? He used to come every day at first, then every week, then once a month, then not.
Just as well.
She shuts the cabin window and downs her tea in small, quick sips. They send angry arrows of pain from her mangled gums, through her jaw, all the way down her arms and to the tips of her fingers. But the pain will soon pass, she knows. She will soon plunge into a thick, viscous sleep; uneasy, her dreams shriek-mouthed and more colorful than dreams should ever be.
In her sleep tonight, she is standing by the river, watching the foaming power of it, the relentless water, the endless supply of stones carried down to rest in the wide riverbank by her cabin. Her riverbank, her stones. How can there be so many? How hasn’t the mountain run out yet, consumed, reduced to little more than a heap of rubble? She has been crushing the stones between her teeth for so long, filling her belly with them again and again and again, yet they keep coming down the river as if someone retrieves them from the shores of her body every night and rolls them up the mountainside so they can be carried down by the river once more the next day.
That is what passes through her dream-mind when the dream-Sapo sees the dead animals flow down the river. Countless bodies, bloated, legs outstretched and eyes glassy and all-seeing, foxes and squirrels and rabbits and raccoons, staring.
The dream-her wades into the current. To do what? Her skirt soaks through quickly and the freezing water chills her to the bone, settling a terrible shiver within her, but she doesn’t stop. She walks first and then she slips and falls and gets up and walks again until she’s standing in the middle of the river, facing the drowned animals coming down the mountain for her, their bellies swollen, as if—
She starts awake. The fire has died down into embers and she has kicked off her shawl, the skin on her arms an ashen almost-blue. She eases herself out of the chair she’d fallen asleep in, working the creaks out of her aching joints. She’s a young woman, but the stones have made her body dry and languid, like a crone’s.
Was that the point of all this, then?
Her stomach growls.
She goes out into the clear morning air so crisp it feels like it’s ringing with cold. She makes her way to the river barefoot, the soles of her feet leathery, almost unfeeling. With the effect of the root dissipating, her teeth start aching, in dread or anticipation or for no reason at all; who can say? She runs her palms down her stomach and remembers the hands of the witch on her, they way she looked at her and made the frantic thought pierce her skull: she knows. She knows. About the leaves in my husband’s food to make his seed weak, the leaves that also make him sick. She knows Manak and I are not here for the same reason.
The witch didn’t give her away. Manak had listened to the woman as she blessed his wife’s fruit and gave her instructions: go live by the river alone, go feed on the stones of the mountain flowing down its stream. You will hunger only for stones. To Manak, she said: when the stones of the mountain run out, that’s when your wife will be with child. To Sapo, she said: as long as there are stones for you to feed on, as long as you fill your belly with the mountain, there will be no child for you.
Sapo had thought herself free then. Free of the dreaded little mouth, the little hands, the little feet. Of the shackles of another’s body clinging to her own, of the horror of milk flowing from her breasts unbidden. So she welcomed her fate, secure in the impossibility of the feat.
It was only months after she’d moved to the cabin, months of teeth cracking on stone, that she thought the witch may have meant her harm. Not a conspiracy between women, one free thanks to age, the other free thanks to cunning and constitution, but a punishment intended to ruin her. And yet Sapo kept at it, kept eating the mountain, stone by stone by stone, because she feared that if she didn’t, it would come, and she didn’t want it. The child, she didn’t want it.
So she takes off her clothes and wades into the water again, the leafing branches of alders and willows reaching above her like the seeking arms of drowning men. She picks up the stones and puts them in her mouth, and she swallows the smaller ones whole and grinds down the bigger ones with the jagged remains of her teeth, and then she bathes in the mighty cold of the mountain, her belly pregnant with stones.
When she sees the roe deer lain by the riverside, its body swollen to bursting, she thinks it’s one of the animals from the drowned tatters of her sleep.
She blinks once, twice, but the body is still there on the bank, so she wades back, heavy and slow, the stones weighing her down.
It’s a pregnant doe. She’s still alive, but only just. Her breathing is quick and ragged. She moans, a deep, guttural grief. Sapo places her hands on the doe’s belly and jerks backwards when the fawn moves underneath her fingers.
It lives, then. There is hope still.
She puts on her clothes hastily and lifts the doe. She’s as light as the wind. Even her udder looks empty. Did the little one starve you? Sapo wants to ask her. Do deer know nothing of stones?
She carries the doe back to the cabin and lays her out on the floor by the fireplace. It has opened its eyes and stares at her as she builds the fire and puts the kettle on. The doe’s breathing has eased some, but the blacks of her eyes are dull; her gaze long, already seeing into some other world.
She knows that the doe won’t live. She brews her root tea and sits by her on the floor, but there’s so little she can do. She tries to soothe the doe, dipping a cloth in the liquid and then slowly dripping it into her open mouth.
“What dreams will it give you?” Sapo asks her out loud. “What will the river bring for you?” Her words linger in the emptiness of the cabin, unanswered.
Sapo finishes the tea herself and lays her head on the doe’s warm neck, her softness a comfort she’s not used to; unbearable. She counts her breaths and waits for the root to take hold, her pulse and the doe’s pulse drumming a secret rhythm as the day marches on, unstoppable; uncaring. The waning light falls on them both—the dying one, the reluctant one.
She wakes to the doe’s stillness, and something cold grips her throat. She feels for the doe’s snout, hoping for the wet heat of breath. There is none. Sapo rises and lets her eyes adjust to the darkness, the little moonlight that creeps through the cabin window making everything look uncertain, other; the whole world standing on a threshold between being and not being.
Her breath quickens.
The fawn is still in its mother’s belly. Sapo kneels by the doe and feels for the outlines of the little one with her fingers. A gasp escapes her when it moves under the dead doe’s skin.
She stumbles to her feet and rushes to the table. She grabs her sharpest knife and descends on the doe again. She draws one quick breath and slices before she lets the breath out, hoping not to go deep enough to hurt the little one. The belly cuts open like butter. For a moment, she expects rocks to come rolling out, or maybe a human infant, but instead the fawn spills out, covered in fluid and blood. It’s wet and small and motionless, like a broken thing, a bag of skin stuffed with tiny bones.
Sapo cleans its snout with the hem of her skirt and touches her palm on the tiny chest. She finds a heart beating fast; a fluttering, a clinging to life.
“You’re fine,” she whispers in the night. “You’re fine.”
The little one stays on the floor next to its dead mother for hours, mute and still. Sapo lies by them both, careful not to get too much blood on her clothes, nudging the fawn now and then the way she’s seen deer do to their babies; encouraging or reassuring them, she doesn’t know. Its hind legs jerk from time to time, and in the wee hours of the morning it starts to bleat. A crying, Sapo thinks; a complaint. A question asked of the world.
Then it tries to stand up for the first time, its long limbs folding underneath it. It falls down, then tries to stand again. Sapo knows not to help it. This life, this ruthless, bleeding life, only lends itself to the fighting ones. And only for a little while.
When the sun has climbed above the mountain, the fawn can walk around the cabin, its cloven hooves tapping against the wood.
Sapo opens the door and steps outside. “Come on,” she says. “Come on now.” When the fawn follows behind her, she makes a nest out of grass and sets the little one on it. Then she drags the doe out of the cabin. Death has lent its body a newfound weight.
She pulls the doe all the way to the river. At the riverbank, Sapo stops to dry her brow. The fawn has left the nest and followed them.
“You’re not supposed to do that, you know,” she tells it. “You’re too young to be able to do that.”
The fawn bleats, a tremble rocking its hind legs.
Sapo lifts her skirt and ties it around her waist. She pulls the fawn’s mother into the water, closes its eyes, and lets the body float downriver. Then she makes her way back to shore and sets herself on the pebbles, waiting for her legs to dry.
The fawn draws near her, its ears pulled back almost flat against its skull. It pushes its cold, wet nose against her arm and starts sucking on her fingers.
Sapo cups its head. “I have nothing to feed you, little one, I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m so sorry.” As if to underline her words, her own stomach rumbles.
A flash of panic runs through her, turning her limbs to liquid.
The stones. She hasn’t eaten any stones since yesterday morning. How could she let herself forget? Her lightness. She marvels at it, gasps at it. She darts to her feet and pats her belly, half-expecting to find it swollen, only half-aware of the absurdity of her hands.
Without another thought she throws herself into the river, the icy current running between her bare calves, her feet almost losing their grip. She makes her skirt into a pouch. Then she bends down, and a memory of bending down before Manak burns through her, ravaging her forgetful muscles with sudden, unclaimed longing. Her gums hurt. She ignores it, the longing, the ache; plunges her arms into the freezing water, her skin tight against her bones, and she fills her skirt with stones, big ones and small ones, round ones and flat. And in a pause between bending and picking up and piling away, she glances at the fawn on the riverbank. It’s watching her, silent, with black eyes alert, all-knowing.
The wind keens through the branches of the willows above, making both the woman and the fawn look up to the sky, to the clouds, to the sun shining on everyone and everything, on every life different to hers. There must be a life in which a woman is both happy and free, she thinks. Surely, there must.
Sapo turns her back on the little one and picks up another stone.
She holds the stone in her hand, weighing it, weighing herself against it, its freedom and its ruin. The wind keens once more—for the doe, she wonders, or for me?
For all of us, she thinks as she swallows the stone. For us all.