She would never be able to look at Nim the same way again. Vesper watched her neighbor standing in front of her house, staring up at her bedroom window, masturbating.
From her vantage point at the side of the house where she’d been hiding the last twenty minutes, she could see Nim in profile, holding a bunch of wildflowers. His other hand beat a furtive staccato on the ruddy, slightly curved member that poked out of faded trousers.
He must have arrived right after she’d left the house from the back door, heading for the ramshackle structure near the front of the property where the mule was stabled. Despite the dawn hour, she should have guessed that he’d come today—he’d always been an early riser, and his visits had increased in frequency since he’d heard of Aren’s engagement and realized that Vesper, being the elder sister by two years, must also be of marriageable age. Had he made the masturbation a sort of pre-courtship ritual all those other weeks, too? The thought made her shudder and then grimace as she noticed Nim also shuddering—and mouthing “Vesper” with a terrible scrunch of his entire face—before he tucked his penis away and straightened his clothes.
Now she had better make a run for it, because soon Nim would start calling her name, and the house would wake up. Sharrua, Vesper’s mother, had managed to scrape up enough coins to commission the services of a witch renowned for doing expert glamours. Today the witch was to work her magic on Vesper in an attempt to make Sharrua’s shy, dowry-less, and rather odd middle daughter appear the perfect first wife to lead a nobleman’s bevy of wives. Her guarantee had been encouraging: “For every girl I work with—she’ll be someone’s first wife, or she’ll get a first-rate husband with wealth and power. One or the other or both or your money back.”
Vesper was just as determined as her mother not to be there for the appointment. She’d left the house at dawn to go on a specimen-collecting field trip—for herbs, which she sold at a small profit, and insects, for her own personal study. Then Nim showed up…the one fellow who did want to marry her, first wife material or no. She’d refused his repeated proposals as kindly as she could manage, as she was fond of him and wanted him to be happy. Now the image of what he’d been doing was branded irrevocably onto her brain, and she didn’t know if she could look him in the eye.
She made a dash for the stable. Made it. Standing inside, panting, she tiptoed to Jack’s stall, patting the nose that pushed against the battered leather bag slung across her body. If the mule was in the right mood to run—or rather, since that mood hadn’t struck him in all the years Vesper had known him, if he would at least walk quickly, perhaps Nim would be too preoccupied to notice, and she would be free.
You’re a racehorse trapped in a mule’s skin, Jack, and today you’ll prove it, she thought as she saddled him, tied her bag across his back, undid his rope, and mounted.
If Jack could read minds, he didn’t show it. He shuffled out of the stable and bent down to crop at a patch of grass. Vesper was prepared for that; she reached into her bag and pulled out an apple.
Just as she cocked back her arm to throw, though, Nim turned. Slightly protruding blue eyes widened, and his face broke out in such a smile that Vesper couldn’t just dig her heels in and gallop away, even if Jack had cooperated. She sighed as Nim ran to her, arm extended, flowers bouncing with every step.
“Oh, Vesper,” he cried. “You’re awake! I brought you these…and I wanted to ask you something.”
“Hi, Nim.” She reached down and took the flowers, looking at the wilted blossoms to avoid the eager face turned up at her, a face that was itself like a freckled flower. “I’m in a bit of a hurry this morning…perhaps we could talk when I come back?”
Nim’s smile disappeared. “It’s important, Vesper.”
She sighed. “What is it then?”
“Have you thought about my marriage proposal?”
Vesper bit her lip. “Nim…I already told you I can’t.”
“I don’t need a yes now,” Nim continued doggedly. “We could wait another year. You’d still be my first, and maybe my only. I just need to hear that there’s hope for me, that someday you might want to…don’t you think we’re perfect for each other?” He paused. “What are you making those funny faces for?”
“I’m sorry, Nim. I just—I need you to understand that I don’t think I want to get married.” She fidgeted with the flowers, not knowing what to do with them, and she tucked them under the edge of Jack’s saddle, out of reach of the mule’s ever-questing mouth.
“But you have to,” Nim protested. “You’re already nineteen—you can’t stay under your father’s protection forever—”
“I know that,” Vesper said. “But I can petition the mayor to have my own guardianship, just as soon as I can show I can support myself.”
“But why, Vesper? It would be so much easier if we just married.”
“I want something other than a life of having babies and running a household. I…I want to be a scientist, or a philosopher…something different.” She felt herself blush; she felt stupid for her confession, and even more at the way Nim’s lip curled in skepticism.
“I wouldn’t make you have babies—not right away at least—and…well, Vesper, I don’t think they let girls be scientists and philosophers. But I’d let you have hobbies and stuff. Whatever you wanted.”
“I…I need to think about things,” she mumbled, gaze skittering again toward the house. She could see signs of life stirring within; a shadow of a figure passed by the window. Then she heard it.
“VESPER!” Her mother’s holler was unmistakable.
“Sorry, Nim,” she said again, casting one more agonized glance at the crestfallen lines of his face, his brow furrowing from trying to think of the one thing that would convince her to change her mind.
She threw the apple, and the flowers fell from the saddle and scattered behind her as Jack lunged forward in the wake of the flying fruit.
One of Vesper’s prized possessions was a magical compass that resembled any such ordinary device except, when pointed at an object, it caused that object to spring out of the way. Only with its help could she get off the road immediately and into the woods, trees, and brush alike, all parting for her as if an invisible hand were sweeping aside all obstacles. Jack, who had no problems moving once he’d actually started, passed through with ease, and within moments they were no longer in view of the house.
Vesper sighed in relief. She’d been horrified when her mother had first told her about the witch who did “makeovers.” The changes the witch made were simply temporary, a glamour—and once a man had been caught and trapped into marriage, he would discover that her confidence, her seeming ability to manage a legion of wives and children and to support her husband’s rise in society, had simply been an illusion. What he would be left with was a passably pretty, but socially dysfunctional female to take care of who wouldn’t even make a good third or fourth or fifth wife—because she had nothing to offer in the way of domestic skills or entertaining company, but rather liked to waste all her time in strange, un-womanly habits.
On her end, she would rather die than enter a partnership under such pretense. If a man couldn’t accept her as she was now, how would he even begin to see the real her that went beyond all appearances?
Nim’s devotion, which didn’t care that she was awkward and bookish and liked to dissect things, came close to giving her what she wanted, but still didn’t make her feel…seen. To him, she was one of the few girls who was nice to him, the stodgy son of a poor alcoholic shoemaker with such little status that he seemed unlikely to even get one wife, let alone the three or more that designated a man of standing. He still wanted her to be a real wife; he would accord her the protection of his name and his livelihood, and she would in turn give him status—her time and energy would be his to direct. Since he didn’t value her for her mind or her curiosity or anything else that was really her, she had no doubt that her time would be spent struggling through the domestic tasks she’d always hated.
Aside from Nim, Vesper had aroused no interest in the men of Pecktown. Like Aren, she had the lustrous brown hair and sable eyes that hinted at ancestry amongst the mysterious olive-skinned Egregians to the south, and her angular face and slender frame were in their way as pleasing as her sister’s curvier shape. Still, the major difference between Vesper and her sister was that Aren wanted to be courted, and Vesper didn’t.
She noticed Jack’s pace was nearing standstill as her thoughts had drifted. If he stopped now, she wouldn’t be able to get him to start again until he’d eaten and rested. So she pulled herself back to the present, clucked her tongue at him, and focused on the road ahead, leading away from town and into gentle woods.
She’d been quite clumsy with her first few batches of insects, but she was getting the hang of it—proper incisions, removal and the like, according to her newest obsession, a rather expensive book from Egregia. The book was called Fortunetelling and Personality Analysis in Insect Innards. From early experiments, it seemed her personality and future were quite messy and chaotic, but now she planned to get some really big insects whose innards would surely be more conducive to clarity.
When she arrived, the sun shone in full early-morning brightness, the air crisp and cool but with the promise of warmth to come. She suspected that the promise would remain unfulfilled here in the forest, where the damp and the shade created an insidious sort of cold, the kind that crept into the marrow and urged the spirit to leave. Vesper shivered, unable to stop her gaze from seeking the shadows.
After she’d wallowed in unease for a moment, she squared her shoulders. “Let the mysteries come, then! Perhaps I’ll be the first to discover something and I’ll write a book about it.”
In the meantime, Vesper perused the flora around her. What had first struck her as dark and oppressive in panorama had settled into a rich quietness, her gaze slowing to notice details of the vast trees with their hues of dark red-brown or gray or ocher. Around them the undergrowth lay as a thick carpet of brush and spiny branches, where passage would have been challenging without the aid of her compass.
She came to a place that looked promising. A small, dark clearing angled downward toward a stream. Several tall mounds of dirt rose up amidst the brush—telltale signs of large ants living in the area. After dismounting and removing the bag, she let Jack wander to the stream and the patch of grass beside it. Kneeling, shovel in hand, she began to dig.
The back of her neck prickled in subtle warning. Was she being watched? She glanced up and around, seeing and hearing nothing untoward. She continued to dig, but she couldn’t dismiss a feeling that she wasn’t alone, and she didn’t like it.
A large-bellied ant the size of half her pinky finger poked out of the dirt. She reached into her bag to pull out a specimen container when she spotted another movement out of the right side of her periphery. Under a fallen branch, she spotted a reddish-colored object resembling a piece of uncooked meat.
First she thought it was just that—some carcass left partially uneaten, only appearing to move as the wind shifted the grass around it.
No—the object itself was moving. Could it be a mole or a mouse of some hairless variety? No—its movement was more languid, almost wormlike. Vesper got to her feet and backed away, never taking her eyes from it. What was that thing?
Her first instinct was to get back on Jack and leave as fast as possible. Anything that looked that unnatural tended to be mixed up with magic in some way—as in curses and possessed objects—and magic tended to be contagious, to stick to its finder like dog manure on one’s boot.
Then she heard tiny moaning noises coming from the direction of the object. It sounded almost human. She couldn’t leave without knowing what it was.
She approached it, reached out, and lifted the branch. About as long as her hand and pink, it resembled a piece of flesh. She identified it immediately…after all, she’d seen another one just this morning.
It was a penis.
One side had a rounded end, bisected by a gentle indentation with a small irregular hole in the center. On the other end, it still bore its testicles in their dark red sac. If it had ever belonged to a man, the wound had disappeared completely, as Vesper could see no place where it appeared hacked off or scarred.
Vesper recoiled, dropping the branch and drawing back.
The branch struck the penis, which shrieked and sat up, rolling onto its sac and growing taller and straighter.
“I was having a terrible nightmare,” the penis said then, its voice high-pitched, but quite male. The small hole on the round end moved a little bit as it talked—could it possibly be a mouth? Then the head swiveled a little, directing the small hole toward Vesper. “Ooh, a female. Hello there, cute stuff.”
“Oh…hello.” Not attached to a man, it actually wasn’t so intimidating. She leaned closer. How could something like that actually articulate sounds? Could there be a tiny tongue, vocal cords in there?
“Pick me up why don’t you? I can tell you want to.”
Vesper drew back again. She did admit an urge to poke it with her finger, but it was a detached talking penis, and that in itself made it suspect. Then something occurred to her. “Are you under a spell?”
“Not exactly,” it replied. “But you can kiss me if you want.”
Its tone was almost neutral, but it contained an edge of something that made Vesper uncomfortable—it was almost creepy. She noted the same sort of edge in the voices of men who sat in front of taverns calling at girls who passed by them. Those men always made her feel as if they saw her as public property, an object with nothing inside; the difference between her internal richness and their view of her made her want to scream and rip off the image they saw.
She considered putting the penis in her specimen container and taking it home, but she didn’t trust it. Not only was it unnatural, but it could be demon-possessed. In real life, unnatural found objects such as these tended to be trouble, without the benefits of granting free wishes or turning into handsome princes like in the tales. Besides, Malland had no handsome princes for it to turn into except for King Bugger’s only son Magnus, a reputed philanderer and wastrel.
Without engaging the penis in any more conversation, Vesper turned and headed straight for her mule.
Impolite not to say goodbye, perhaps, but Vesper understood that when one was toying with creepy magical things, sometimes the wisest course was to disengage entirely without giving it anything else to respond to—so nothing else could be tripped or triggered in the spellwork that had disturbed its natural functions. Better to go somewhere else and start afresh in her insect search. Vesper suppressed a surge of resentment against the penis and went to grab Jack’s reins.
Only when she was astride and urging Jack into a walk did she see it.
She’d been wrong to think it couldn’t move, save for a little with that loose skin on top. It was mobile—extremely mobile, apparently, because it was hopping through the brush and grass to catch up to her.
Vesper felt a stab of fear. She dug her heels hard into her mule’s flanks. Jack, startled, broke into a trot.
Well, he’s no racehorse, but there’s still no way a little hopping thing can catch me now. After a moment, she pulled back a little from where she’d hunkered down over her mule’s neck to urge him to move a little faster. She glanced back.
She nearly toppled off in surprise. The penis was still there, all right, and no longer hopping—it was flying. If she hadn’t been looking specifically for it, she might have mistaken it for a bird of some sort. It wasn’t flying that fast—it rather pumped itself through the air with a weaving kind of motion, but it was definitely faster than the hopping, and it was gaining on her.
“C’mon, Jack,” Vesper urged. She fished in her bag and pulled out one more apple. This could either work or turn out very badly, she thought as she pulled her arm back and threw the apple harder than she’d ever thrown any fruit in her whole life.
They surged through the fields they’d come from in the direction of the closest road, and Vesper was thankful that their earlier tramping had flattened enough of the flora to ease the return. Vesper clutched Jack, unused to this sort of speed coming from him–glad for it, but knowing it wouldn’t last.
Just then, she thought of the compass. At the speed they moved, it was difficult to access her bag, but with a fortuitously timed lunge and a quick twist and pull, she had her bag in front of her. A few seconds later she had the magical instrument in her hand. She pointed it at the grasses before her—in a direction slightly off from where they’d come—right at a tree.
Jack was going too fast to stop, even had the tree not moved out of the way. Move it did, though—bowing to the side almost to the ground, so the mule barely had to jump to clear it.
The penis must have hit the tree. Vesper didn’t need to slow Jack down to confirm it, as he’d finally found the apple and stood by the tree, smacking and crunching.
She saw the penis on the ground on the other side of the tree. It quivered, then went still. Was it injured?
Now that it was down, it occurred to Vesper that this penis could make an interesting specimen. If it was already hurt and about to die, she’d have no qualms about giving it a quick death, and then opening it up to see how it could talk. If it seemed likely to survive, however, perhaps she ought to help it. After all, she was to blame for its injury, even though it had been the one chasing her.
She slid off Jack and took one of her well-padded glass collection containers out of the bag. She approached the penis one cautious step at a time until she was sure that it wasn’t moving. It seemed smaller than before, and was no longer rigid, but looked like a curled-up dead worm—all soft and wrinkled.
“Hello? Are you alive?” she asked.
It said nothing.
“Yes!” she exulted. She couldn’t wait to dissect it. She picked it up, noting that it was quite soft now, and popped it into the container. Fortunately the penis had shrunk, because it wouldn’t have fit in her case otherwise. She screwed the lid on, wrapped the container in its cloth again, and packed it into her bag.
She would have to put off her insect collecting for another day. She was already far from the original site, or any other place where she knew of the giant ant homes. The sun blazed high in the sky; surely the witch had already gone home. Doubtless Sharrua was furious. Sighing, Vesper remounted and turned Jack to head back home.