Angela Woodward‘s first novel, End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press), is a small masterpiece (small only in the sense that it is 104 pages long) that has unjustly gone without the wider recognition and audience that it deserves.
End of the Fire Cult tracks the slow dissolution of a marriage–not through the day by day tensions of the unhappy couple, but through the political, cultural and diplomatic relations between two imagined countries: Marmoral, invented by the wife, and Belgrave, invented by her husband. Relations are strained between these two countries, and as the reader explores the annual rituals, folklore and written literature, and the delicate negotiations of Marmoral and Belgrave’s shared border, the reader comes to see how large, how complex is the interior geography of any wife and husband, and how much can go wrong. Numéro Cinq is proud to be able to feature two excerpts from Angela Woodward’s novel: “Fire III—Fireflies,” and “Arachne.”
Half of Marmoral’s people celebrated fire. The priests of the fire cult bred a species of firefly that was larger but more delicate than the wild ones. These pampered creatures passed their larval stages under logs which the priests gently sprinkled with water or dried with fans, as the weather dictated. For three days only they lived in their adult incarnation, dull tan beetles with blinking yellow abdomens. For the short period the fireflies came out, the members of the fire cult stayed up all night, evading official curfew, and walked around the orchards. The dark trees flashed, leaves suddenly visible, then shrank back to murky umbrellas as the bugs’ torsos shut down. Your lover’s face swung into focus, the phosphorescence behind her haloing her cheek. Then a moment later she was extinguished, just a black figure beside you. Yet you still heard her breathing, regular and steady.
The fireflies didn’t do well after the introduction of modern pesticides. By the seventies they were almost all gone. They were enshrined in a song the children had to learn in Sunday school. While the little ones, under the spell of their beautiful teacher, chanted the lines with pious awe, by the time they were nine or ten they were sick to death of the nostalgic religion lessons and fitted their own words to the hymn’s simple rhyme. “Her tits, her tits,” they sang as loudly as they could. But if their mother suddenly showed up, they went back to the original version.
Recently, with only a day’s warning, the city administrators in the capital sent work crews to tear up the main street through the shopping district of the fire worshippers. The waste pipes underneath needed to be replaced. Everyone had complained for years about the sewers backing up, but they were still affronted by the quick work of the bulldozers. And when the workers showed up at dawn, cut through concrete for an hour, and then vanished to smoke cigarettes and watch soccer at the cafes in adjoining streets, the sour views of those who saw the construction project as punitive seemed justified. The workers set up sawhorses across every intersection. It became almost impossible to travel from one side of the district to the other, and the roads leading out were capriciously closed, one on one day, another the next, so that you never knew if all your maneuvering to reach a certain street was any good at all. The workmen came back in late afternoon and hammered through the dinner hour. All their effort seemed to do nothing but stir up dust. They knocked out electricity and phone lines and took days to restore service. Women stumbled to their dress shops, their fashionable shoes no good on the jagged rubble. The upholsterer didn’t get his delivery because the supply truck couldn’t make it through. Finally he sent his son and a lot of little boys to meet the truck in a park a mile away. The kids filed back to the shop, carrying the bolts of velvet like corpses between them.
It was unbearable, an outrage, and after months of work, the street seemed no nearer completion than on the first day. It would have been okay to have the sewers still back up, the residents told each other. At least they had their own plumbers. Wasn’t the city tormenting them? And who knows if there wouldn’t be a special tax levied, to make them pay for it all. That would be no surprise.
But each evening around nine o’clock, the workmen melted away. With no traffic on it, the main street was remarkably quiet. The kids from the apartment houses came out to play in the dirt. It was like when they visited their cousins back home in the countryside. Their parents came out to call them in, but the kids paid no attention. And the parents didn’t really mind. They stood on the corners talking to their neighbors, some they knew, some strangers from other floors or other buildings. The workmen left flashing orange flares on the sawhorses. All along the torn-up street, the harsh lights switched on and off, regular but out of synch with each other. Little slices of storefront stepped on stage, then fell back into shadow, one after another down the strip. If the electricity came back on, people hurried home to watch the news. But on the nights when the lines remained disconnected, men and women dragged out chairs or stretched out blankets and stayed up til all hours. The orange flares lit up rings of desolate rock, overturned chunks of concrete and orphaned pipe joins. The street might never be fixed. Rumor had it the city would leave it unfinished until the residents forked over a special assessment. The landlords should have paid it, but it was to be exacted from the tenants, and until everyone had settled their bill, the street would remain a mess. The workers were to dig holes one day and fill them the next. The cost would go up and up. It was intolerable, unfair, a disaster.
The children heard all this but didn’t let on. They crept down into the craters and tunnels under the street. They didn’t care how dangerous it was. Even if their father shook them and made them promise, they still crawled under. “Her tits, her tits,” they sang from their hiding places. The adults sang back, somewhat ashamed of how sentimental the real words were. What a stupid song. Everyone knew the melody, and some just hummed that. All up and down the street it burst out, little pockets of sound.
My husband discovered a new brothel in the back streets behind Belgrave’s capital. I didn’t need to know about it, did I? But he couldn’t help it, he said. It wasn’t like he’d gone looking for it. It was part of the culture. The brothel had no name, not even a sign over the door. For all his protest that the people of Belgrave were altogether more noble and civilized than my Marmolians, his country had no towns of any size other than its ungainly, sprawling capital. In a former sandwich shop a block to the west of the parliament building, an old woman had moved in with a new crew of girls. Just down the street were two of Belgrave’s oldest houses of prostitution, centuries-old hereditary businesses that were in all the guidebooks. These featured red lights, pink curtains, filmy nightgowns, seventeen-year-old beauties from the mountain villages. The girls shopped together in the markets in the late afternoon, where people goggled at their thin foreign tee shirts and stove pipe jeans, their modern, confident allure.
I don’t suppose I was too happy about Belgrave’s flourishing sex industry, but this new place was made along different lines. When it rained, its dim doorway was barely visible. Even a man’s very first approach to it was a hesitant groping, a brushing of fingertips along contrasting textures—rusty chain link, splintered wood, the smooth, sticky plastic of a shower curtain that partially shielded the porch. Madame specialized in exotics—not the brash magazine-reading girls of the other institutions, but women widened, enhanced, enlarged, or made tighter. One was slashed to accommodate “you and your friend,” while a host were permanent virgins, sewed enticingly tight. Another was totally hairless, even her eyebrows and arm hair removed for all-over silkiness, while another had velvety, furry breasts. One had been fitted with gripping, stippled vaginal walls. I would have preferred vague wondrous claims—unforgettable! Like nothing you’ve ever experienced! But the exercise of inventing Belgrave had made my husband, like me, into a wielder of precise optical detail.
We had little to do with each other in the evenings now. “What’s new?” he sometimes asked, standing four feet behind me in the kitchen, watching me turn down the flame under a pot of rice and punch the timer. He was afraid to ask when dinner would be ready. Maybe I hadn’t made enough for two. He didn’t like my cooking any more, anyway. I ate plain rice, a handful of cashews, an apple. That was enough. Or I cooked an elaborate eggplant dish, a curry braised in coconut milk, and by the time it was done, Daniel had already had some bread, a piece of ham, some carrots, three cookies. Our meal times were all out of synch, and our going to bed and rising.
One evening he told me a new attraction had arrived at the brothel. “Was there an ad?” I asked Daniel.
Just a rumor, word of mouth. “You won’t like it, though.”
Yes, the whole thing disgusted me. I had used to love his hair, especially when it flopped over his eyes when he neglected to get it cut. These days he was keeping it combed and parted, in yet another affront to me. His walk was more firm, too. I had used to light up to his heavy, rapid tread on the stairs, back in our old place. His decisiveness, which traveled through his every gesture, had in those days been reassuring. “No one will say what it is,” he said. “Just something different.”
“A thing or a she?” I asked. Without answering, he walked into the livingroom to turn on the lamps.
He wouldn’t tell me any more. I fretted as the gray behind the curtains became black. If I had to imagine it myself, it would be far worse than if he just told me. But he only rummaged on his shelf of miscellaneous things, looking for a washer to fit the leaky bathroom sink.
Men had to pay up front to be led into the back room where madame kept her special wonders. A man who ran a chain of pet shops hurried out of the room shaking his head, his hands thrust into his pants pockets as if to keep them from touching anything else. A couple of mobster louts leaned against the wall for a bit, deciding whether to go upstairs again, or maybe to go out to Kipp’s Bar. Madame smiled at them, and they fled. Nothing was worse than the sight of her even teeth making a friendly gesture in a face so closed off. Now the room was empty, and she sat down on the sofa and turned on the television.
Arachne wondered at the sound of the tv. It chattered on, girls talking, a horse neighing, the swift approach of booted feet. Then a long pause, a soft “oh,” a swell of saxophone. She lounged against the pillows, her swollen abdomen mounded in front of her. The body of a spider, the torso of a woman, slender neck rising above heavenly breasts, and such a sad, sweet face, while down below, her strange bulbous mid-section could not be confined by the crumpled sheets. She sighed and clacked her little hindlegs. She could not move off the bed without help, and Madame had hired two men to roll her. They were supposed to swab out the gummy orifice where she made her silk—it was in their job description—but they refused. Madame had to do this herself, with a dowel wrapped in wool, like the dusters maids used to get cobwebs off the ceiling.
What had she been like when she was a normal girl? A weaver, from a long line of weavers, the gifted youngest sister in a family renowned for its rugs and tapestries. Her sisters and aunts petted and praised her, spoiled her. “No one can equal my skill,” she said, when she was just fourteen years old. The goddess of weaving came down from the clouds to investigate this claim. In the guise of an old woman, she knocked on Arachne’s door.
“No,” said Daniel, leaning over me, the ends of a roll of plumber’s tape in his hand. “That’s not it at all.”
Arachne at seventeen was the village beauty, the butcher’s only child. She stood behind the counter, chops at her fingertips, sausages swinging overhead. Her fingers were always red with blood, her apron smeared, her lips a scarlet gash. When she was tired, she waved her hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, and her bangs too stiffened with blood. The little membranes that sealed off kidneys and livers came loose and clung to her sleeves. When she came out in the sun at the end of the day, she picked these off, and the blobs of fat and marrow from her skirt. The young men were afraid of her chiseled features, her short, sharp laugh delivered while looking elsewhere. They only approached her quietly, secretly, after having walked their other girlfriend home and said good night. She had one man, then another, then another. They all knew each other, yet didn’t know they had all been entangled with her. How sad they were in the evenings now, even when newly married, the wife expecting their first child. Something about Arachne, how she held them close, cooing into their hair, but then later she wouldn’t even glance up. It penetrated and left them dry, no good for anything else. They poked at the fire, but never felt any warmer. The sun barely shone now, but only looked down on them, scornful.
“No, I don’t think so at all,” I said. But Daniel went on.
I still thought the goddess had come knocking, had challenged Arachne to a contest. Arachne wove the most marvelous scarf, on which was portrayed the entire history of her village–its founding by two bear cubs, the great fire, the flood, the invasion of the barbarians in great-grandfather’s time, the clever girl who outwitted the army with her poppy seeds, the modern-day back streets where the tanner caste slept in the doorways of the spinners’ hovels, and the weavers, three streets over, who watered the geraniums in pots on their balconies. She wove pigeons cleaning their breast feathers, and antelope, field mice, wood lice. Even the peace of a moonlit evening, when the girls and their aunts played cards on the veranda, was captured in the floating strands of Arachne’s scarf.
Yet the goddess got out her loom and proceeded to lay down with her shuttle the very cracking of the cosmos as it exploded from its seed, and emptiness, deserts, doubt, the shade of anxiety you feel when you turn a corner and the street is empty, though well-lit. A friend tells you a story about his uncle who moved to a derelict farm in his twenties and stayed there tending raspberries and rutabagas for forty years, working every day alone in silence for ten to twenty hours, and you feel so helpless, always distracted, doing nothing worthwhile. This was in the goddess’s tapestry, as well as watching your father stumble against the coffee table in the throes of the stroke that killed him, and the enormity of a mistake you made years earlier when you married someone you weren’t sure you loved. All was delineated in soft silk, the abstract weight of the universe overshadowing the historical and particular.
“This is what she was,” said Daniel. “A cruel, withholding girl. Always she whispered that she loved her man, but each one was only the latest conquest. She didn’t care at all. She had no pity, no feeling. Only an immense pleasure in her own attractiveness. Until one of her lovers cursed her, and made her a spider. ‘I see what you’re doing,’ he said, ‘drawing me in.’ This one man wouldn’t stand for her soft looks that were only binding him up.”
“Wait,” I said. But Daniel had already described the way Arachne’s slender waist all the sudden sucked in. It became no bigger than her wrist, while her rear grew globular, heavy, spherical. Her legs withered into tiny clicking sticks. Her hair fell in piles on the floor around her. She looked in wild anxiety at her mirror, at her dressing table with its bottles of lotion and perfume. The summer dress she wore under her butcher’s smock would never fit her again, but hung on its nail, now ready for some other girl. She would have to flee the village before light so no one would see her in her terrible new manifestation.
“But her face?” I said. I had seen her looking so remorseful, tears shining in the corners of her eyes.
“Oh, well,” he said. “We have to leave her a little bit of the human, don’t we?”
“Yes,” I said. I ran to the bedroom to look in the mirror.
Angela Woodward is also the author of the collection The Human Mind (Ravenna Press 2007). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Midwest anthologies, and has appeared in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Camera Obscura, Storm Cellar Quarterly, and Dzanc Book’s Best of the Web 2010 anthology. New work includes “The Language of Birds” in the Ravenna Press Triple Series, volume 4, with Norman Lock and Brian Evenson. The Triples combine three chapbooks in one full-sized collection. She has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council and the Council for Wisconsin Writers, and in 2011 she was awarded an Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland.