THE GIANT’S WIFE
by Kyle E. Miller
We gathered and ate
Her sweet tears like fallen fruit,
Why could we not see her?
A haiku written on the wall of a cliff in the Valley of the Giantess, which you might know as The River Valley. The people there still tell this story about the man who wrote it.
“Hey, what’s this?”
Hauk joined his friends and neighbors in their grave and hushed procession up the winding paths of the village. They went past the bright brick houses that sat on the steps of the river valley like toys on shelves, past the gardens, and up to the cliff at the valley’s north end, above the place where the river erupted from beneath the ground and ran across the rocks and below the place where the nectar would fall in great, succulent drops to gather in the reservoir bolted to the cliff. The people of the river valley paused there at the pinnacle and pushed their way closer to the reservoir to watch its surface fall still for the first time in their history.
A girl held in her father’s arms reached out to touch the last ripple from the last drop as it died at the edge, but she was too far away to reach and only groped at the air until her big sister drew her hand back and held it in her own.
And then the pool was a mirror.
For the first time the people could see the clouds, the cliff, and the trees sprouting from the escarpment above remade in the reservoir without the nectar dripping in to disturb the reflection. An old man wept, and his son freed his held hand with a shake and backed away. An infant shrieked and a woman whimpered, but mostly they were silent.
Hauk smiled. And he remembered, for a moment: the sun making a beacon of the reservoir in the summer when the sun was full and high; ruby red leaves twirling on its surface in the autumn; snowflakes melting there, as soon as they touched down; and rose blossoms and husks of seeds and nuts falling into the pool in spring–which was the season then, or it was beginning to be–and being fished out with long-handled nets. In a week or two, if there were any nectar left, those tiny castings–tossed from flowers like clothes from nervous lovers–would dance there in the light wind of spring.
“Are you okay?” someone asked.
“Briar,” he said, but it came out choked and strange: it was the first word he had spoken that day. “Hey.”
“Hey. Are you-“
“Are you okay?” He chuckled at the interruption. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She sighed. “I don’t think I am. Okay.”
He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed, and realized too late that it was his gloved hand, covered in soil and leaf litter. “Shit.”
“What the hell, Hauk.” She started brushing the dirt from her shoulder, but her attention wandered back to the reservoir and Hauk’s handprint of earth remained.
Hauk tucked his hand in a pocket. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”
And the crowd began to disperse and everyone seemed headed somewhere together, though Hauk had no idea where. He felt he had missed something.
“C’mon,” Briar said. “There’s nothing to see here, not anymore. We can’t just stand here. Everyone’s going to the bar. Weatherbee wants us to talk it all out.”
“Oh.” And she was leaving too. “Okay?”
They walked back down the winding paths, Hauk trailing a little behind Briar, watching the way she walked, the places she chose to put her feet in front of her. Even then Hauk had some notion of the change that would come to be felt across the valley. The brightly painted doors of their houses, the fruit-laden cornices, the yellow and orange trellises and arbors of their gardens, they all seemed different. Not dimmer or less ripe or smaller, perhaps, but neither were they brighter or more inviting: just changed. Even his own house seemed somehow more or less tangible, the tin-roofed shed and the garden. He was even aware of his body in a different way, and the dull agony in his jaw was no longer so mysterious. He knew why it hurt (that tooth!) and how to fix it and felt foolish for not having known it before. It was the little things. Then again, maybe it was all just the coming of spring, something that had always made him feel the blossoming of discovery, even though he was always rediscovering the same old things. Sometimes, it seemed to Hauk, progress was too much work to be worthwhile.
“Oh boy,” he said. “Things are gonna be different now.” He hadn’t meant to speak aloud, and he blushed and started walking more quickly.
“It’s too early to tell,” Briar said. “It could start up again, you know.”
He decided to go along with it. “Yeah, but even if it did, it could stop again. What could be can no longer be what it was. Or something.”
She paused, and one of the teachers guided a flock of children around them. One stopped to tug on Briar’s hand, but she didn’t notice and the ruddy little girl went away with tears in her eyes.
“You’re right,” Briar said, staring skyward. “Shit, you’re right.”
The shapeless bank of clouds that had been crawling toward the sun all day finally put out the light. Though Hauk liked the sun, he thought Briar looked best on an overcast day, when her warm colored clothes and towering curly hair could shock him into being like an orange tree in autumn or ice cubes dropped down his shirt. That’s why he smiled even as she frowned and said, “It’ll never be the same.”
“Oh c’mon,” Hauk said. “Don’t be so dramatic. I didn’t mean anything by it. Come on. We’ll be late!” He gave her a little push to help her along.
“Everyone will get,” Weatherbee began, but he was overwhelmed by the voices of his friends, his family, and his neighbors.
Hauk and Briar dragged a pair of stools against the wall and sat. Hauk leaned back and glanced at the slice of sky made by a door ajar. He could just see one of the tables on the balcony and the sun striking a glass set there: a mug, half full with glistening nectar, abandoned when the call went out. Everyone will remember where they were when it happened, Hauk thought, and he remembered: he was pulling winter’s devastation from his garden, as he had been doing for the past two weeks, as he did every year after the last heavy snow. He had just plunged a gloved hand into a welter of rotten weeds when the cry went out and–plants drooping out of a closed fist–he wandered down to the reservoir.
Weatherbee was still puffing and sweating on top of the bar. “Everyone will- Everyone will get a-“
“Shut up!” someone roared, and they did. Unease bubbled out in small, nervous motions and the gathered people nibbled fingertips, bit the insides of cheeks, and drew circles on the ground with the tips of their shoes.
Hauk chuckled and tried to get Briar’s attention, but she just waved him away.
“Uh, thanks. Whoever that was. Heh.” Weatherbee seemed afraid to speak, as if the wrong word would be the spark that ignites a cloud of gas. “Everyone will get a chance to speak, is what I was trying to say. I want to hear what everyone has to say. Ah ah, shh!” Weatherbee closed his fingers as if to extinguish a straying ember. “Not yet. We’ll go in order. Around the room, this way. Starting with you. Stand up, please, so we can all hear you.”
A young woman stood and said, “I think we did something wrong. We’re being punished.”
“Do you have any idea why or what for?” Weatherbee’s smile was the only one shining in the gloom of the bar besides Hauk’s.
She put a finger to her nose. “No.”
“Okay, thank you. Next,” Weatherbee said. “Let’s keep this going. We’ll all be heard, and then we’ll discuss what we said.”
“We have food, but won’t we start to die without the nectar?”
“It’s my belief that we will not,” Weatherbee said. “When I was a child, my mother used to ground me by taking away my nectar for weeks at a time.” He laughed politely. “It seems barbaric now, but I didn’t wither or grow ill, though I tried hard to convince her otherwise.”
“But what if this lasts forever?” someone shouted.
“Then we need to remember our history. Remember the protests. Six men and women fasted and ate nothing but roots and rain water for two years. They survived.” His smile faded. “Now, it’s possible, too, that there was some harm being done to their bodies during that time that we don’t know about. But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To discuss.”
“Maybe it wasn’t endless, you know?” the next speaker said. “Like a jug slowly leaking, eventually it runs out. There just isn’t any more nectar. We drank it all up.”
“That’s along the lines of what I was telling Lash just before you started in, Weatherbee. Maybe it just isn’t gonna come out anymore.”
“Hey, wait your turn,” Lash said. “Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was little we used to talk about leaving the valley. Now there’s an idea. Maybe-” There was an uproar of groans and curses, and Hauk threw a crumpled note he had been fingering in his jacket pocket: Lash’s single tired suggestion revisited again, or perhaps it was some private chestnut kept for his own amusement, squirreled away in the back of his mind.
“My turn,” a small woman said. One of the bar’s dim bulbs lit her hair from above and Hauk could see streaks of gray, as if she had swabbed the cobwebby corners of her attic with her head. Hauk remembered seeing mother spider spinning her web through the woman’s attic window.
“I think it might be the end of the world,” she said.
“Shut up, Hauk,” Briar whispered. “It’s not funny.”
“It’s just so… doomful. I’m sorry. It’s-“
“It’s your turn, Hauk,” Weatherbee said.
“Oh. Hi.” Someone swore. “I didn’t mean any disrespect. I just think that’s taking it a little far. That’s how come I laughed. I think it might be the end of the world as we know it, but maybe that’s not so bad. Right?”
“Yes, well, maybe,” Weatherbee said. “Thank you, Hauk.”
They moved on to other explanations, but Hauk was stuck on his and on a world revolving in his mind, one that contained more than the river valley and the nectar and even the dreary, grainy roots they were doomed to eat without garnish now, but what world that might be he forgot as soon as it had circled six times. He felt dizzy and, looking down at the floor (where was the note he had thrown–he needed that), nearly toppled the stool. Briar caught him and shushed him.
“Thank you, Harris,” Weatherbee was saying. “Now, I’d like to tell you what I think,” but he didn’t have a chance because a crash and a sliding slushing sloop from outside emptied the bar before he could lower himself to the floor. Hauk was left behind, too, and they peered out the door together and watched the reservoir empty itself into the river below through a jagged wound in its wall. Great planes of ice were still melting off the cliff and pursuing the precious nectar.
“Happy spring,” Hauk said.
Four women were mending the reservoir on a scaffold, like insects crawling across bones. They waved to Hauk and Weatherbee as they passed, and one nearly fell backward into the ravine, but her partner caught her and they lost an hour of work to teaseful laughing.
“They have food?” Weatherbee asked.
“They’ve been passing around a jug, yeah.”
“Good. I suppose those who need it most should get it first. Those who’re doing something to help. Those women. Children, too.”
Hauk was watching the women call each other names, and he smiled.
“You don’t seem worried,” Weatherbee said.
“I just never thought I’d see the day, Hauk.” Weatherbee sat on the guardrail that caught passersby from falling onto the street below. It had caught Hauk once, and he often gave it a little squeeze as he walked by. “I’m not as old as some, but I’m getting there. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen the river widen. That’s how I measure the years, I guess. It’s widened four finger widths in my lifetime. On this side. Who knows about the other. Not even I’ve crossed, you know.”
“I’ve seen babies born, people die, lovers split. I left my own, something I thought would never happen. Before you were born, I think. Or do you remember it?”
“Before you were born, or around then anyway. We were never very strong together, but apart…” Weatherbee paused and scratched at an odd bit of paint on the railing. “We were together for eight years. I never thought it would end.”
“I’m sorry,” Hauk said.
“No, it’s okay. I know now that things like that end. I’m over it. Mostly. It haunts me occasionally, but I have others now. I don’t need a lover. It’s a boyish thing.” He started walking again. “I just never thought I’d see the nectar run dry.”
“No one did, I think.”
“What about you?”
“No, I never thought about it.”
“I’ll tell you, Hauk.” Weatherbee seemed to be grasping for something, but Hauk didn’t know how to help him. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Can we try the river water?”
“Hauk. You know we can’t. It’s polluted.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Have you read any of the stories? No? You should. Wives’ tales, you might say, but they’re true.”
“Did you see somebody drink it?”
Weatherbee nodded. “He went insane. We had to keep two pairs of eyes on him all day and night. He rambled about some kind of vastness. And the river. He became obsessed with it. Talked about going upstream. He suffered from hallucinations. Eventually, he threw himself off the cliff and his body went down river. I don’t think it’s water. Not like the rain.”
“Spooky,” Hauk said. He could almost see the body floating downstream and the nets used for cleaning the reservoir hopelessly cast out to catch it. He shivered.
“Put a coat on, Hauk,” said Briar, joining them by climbing down from the street above. “Hey Weatherbee. What’s going on?”
“I don’t need a coat,” Hauk said. “The sun’s out.”
“We’re just rambling. Mostly me, going on about how old I am when I should be trying to figure out what to do with this mess. No nectar for me until I make a breakthrough. You two have fun.” He headed toward the scaffolding.
“Want to have the last of my nectar?” Hauk asked with a smile.
“Aren’t you worried?” Briar said.
“Oh, I dunno. I guess I haven’t thought much about it.”
“Doesn’t this affect you? At all?”
“Sure it does.” He laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
She pulled back her hair, let it loose, and shouted. “Isn’t this hell for you too?”
“What do you mean?”
“Everything. Nothing is the same, and it never will be. Like you said. Even if it starts again, we know it could stop. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again.”
“Well, yeah, I guess I couldn’t sleep the first night. Not that well, at least.” After a half an hour of turning this way and that in bed, he had taken a walk down to the reservoir, where he had fallen asleep–the walk having made him drowsy–in the street, his arm a pillow. “Everything’s different, but it’s not worse.”
“Of course it is.”
“If you say so.”
“It’s like… It’s like someone switched my memories with someone else’s when I wasn’t looking.”
Hauk hugged her lightly. “Oh Briar.” He was glad she couldn’t see his face when they hugged. He sniffled.
“What are we gonna do?”
“Come on,” he said, pulling away, and there was a curl of her hair caught in his mouth that he stretched and pulled (“Ow, Hauk!”) before he untangled himself and said, “Let’s go have a drink.”
And that’s what they did.
Hauk found himself wandering down to the reservoir, perhaps to see (as so many had done lately) if the men who cleaned the inside had missed a drop. One last drop of the old life. Every jar, mug, cup, vase, bowl, vial, and bottle in the valley had already been emptied and licked clean. No one had tasted nectar for weeks. Weatherbee had stressed the need to share, but no one had any left, although Hauk suspected his aunt of having hoarded some.
He walked along the scaffolding erected to help the women fix the broken wall and left because tearing it down seemed too hopeful. He grabbed the small rope ladder hanging over the side of the reservoir and climbed to the rim. Nothing, of course. Not a drop remained, and he nodded to himself and let his head drop back until his gaze lifted and he saw for the first time what had always been there on the cliff. He saw where the nectar came from. The sight of the golden green eyes of the giantess loosened his grip, and he fell backwards.
“She’s been there the whole time.”
“It’s the tears.”
“Tears. Never thought of them that way before.”
“They made so we never saw her.”
“Her. You’re right, it is a female.”
“What’s she looking at? Not us.”
“Well I’ll be.”
“She’s so. Human.”
“But not,” Hauk said. He had wondered if he might fill the reservoir with his own tears last night as he thought about her, himself, and how (what madness could have made them all so stupid!) they had never seen her before, how, in fact, they had never even known they were missing anything at all. “She’s beautiful.” A few people turned and looked at him. “What?”
“I knew we were missing something,” Briar said.
“That night at the bar right after she stopped crying. Stopped crying. That’s right, isn’t it? Anyway, it was like we were trying to talk about something we didn’t know anything about.” Briar looked thoughtful. “Hey. Hauk. Hauk, can you remember what the cliff looked like before?”
Hauk shut his eyes and thought hard and tried to remember what it was like before, but the giantess was always there. He tried remembering different seasons, night and day, sunny days and cloudy ones, days he felt sick and days he felt his best, but always: the giantess clinging to the cliff.
“No, I can’t.” he said. “I can’t remember.”
“I’m kinda glad,” Hauk said.
So it wasn’t just spring after all. To Hauk the valley seemed suddenly and inexplicably full, and that was the only word he could find to explain it to Briar and Weatherbee and the few others that asked. It was as if the valley and the reservoir had been two sides of the same hourglass–as one emptied, the other filled–so that now, with the reservoir empty, the valley seemed brimming with, what? Hauk didn’t know. Stepping out to see Briar or work in the garden, he would stand just outside the door arrested by the eyes of the giantess. They seized him each time he went out, though they never looked at him, or anyone else, as far as he could tell. Like the eyes of a fish, they were always looking and never seeing, at least not this world.
When Hauk finally tore his gaze from her eyes, he would instead watch her lichenous pores or the scimitar hairs of her eyebrows. He would stare at her mane: a mass of oily darkness like the weeds that grew on the bottom of the river; or her shoulders, speckled with bird droppings that grew like stalagmites until washed away in the rain; or her arms, thick with muscle; or her breasts, bats nesting beneath the nipples; or her buttocks, burned by the sun. He wondered if she could stop holding on, or if she would (and what might happen to them all then!) and if it hurt to hug the rocks so tightly.
Hauk could almost remember how those eyes shone in summer, how her lashes caught trembling ruby red leaves in autumn, how snow clung to her hair, and how in spring–which was the season then–her hair would thaw and flood the river below their homes. He couldn’t wait to see her through the seasons: take her by the arm as escort and point out every wonder and miracle of that never-ending cycle.
Weatherbee held another council in the bar, but Hauk forgot to attend. Briar found him later and told him all the ideas mentioned: she was ill, she had hypnotized them, she was sent to look out for them, she was trying to kill them, she was good, she was evil, she should be healed, she should be slain. It had almost come to blows so Weatherbee called a recess and they all went home.
“I don’t think he actually plans to reconvene,” Briar said. “At least not for a while. Everyone needs time to think it over, I guess. I think he’s afraid. I don’t know what to think. I can’t believe it. How’d we miss her all this time?”
Hauk kicked at the brick red cobbles in the path. “Do you ever wonder who first decided to drink her tears?”
Hauk found himself at the riverbank. There was a stretch of bank perfect for barefooted walking, and he started taking off his shoes when something in the water caught his eye. Soon, he had lost whatever it had been (the tiny dance of an insect drinking in flight) and was instead staring at the water, though–if Weatherbee was right–it wasn’t quite water. Not like the rain.
He stared at the giantess, as if for guidance. Tell me what to do, he thought, but her eyes looked past him still.
Hauk looked at the water again and took a few steps towards it. “Why not?”
Hauk dipped the tip of his little finger in the river and held it over his tongue.
A single drop fell, and he held his mouth open for a moment and almost laughed at how silly he must have looked to the girls watching from a balcony high in the village above. He waved to them and, losing his balance on the pebbly riverbank, shut his mouth and swallowed before he knew what he had done. There was a moment of stillness and then he tittered–the girls open-mouthed and pointing between the bars of the balustrade–and fell to the ground and seemed to wander upstream, though really he did nothing but writhe silently among the glistening pebbles and mud.
When he came back to his body, there were a dozen people standing over it. He wiped drool from his lips, kicked the numbness from his left foot, and stared upstream, past the giantess and the cliff to a place he had been made aware of.
“He’s coming,” Hauk said. “He’s been coming for a long time. A real long time.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with us.”
“Put a weed in the bucket, drink a tear from the pool,” Hauk sang. “See a weed, pluck it, tears fresh and cool.“
Hauk smiled over the place where his garden would emerge in the coming weeks. Flowers first, and then fragrant herbs and fat, hairy roots he would pull from the ground by their stems like rabbits from a warren, and finally the little trees’ fruit would ripen and drop a short distance to the ground. Wasps would alight on the puckering skins and drink the nectar inside. He imagined eating one of those fruits and wondered if they might not taste just as good as the tears, but, oh, of course someone had already thought of that.
“You’re a pretty bad poet, Hauk.”
Hauk looked up smiling. “Oh, hey Harris.”
“What are you doing?”
“Uh… gardening? What’s it look like?” Hauk gave him a silly grin. “I do this every year.”
“You’re an idiot.” Harris had picked up a small rake and brandished it this way and that. “We’re over there trying to come up with a solution, and I hear this noise, see.”
“I do this every year!”
“But right now?” Harris planted the rake in front of him. “We’re trying to cure the woman on the cliff. We’re going to lift a basket of food up to her mouth. We think maybe she’s hungry.”
Hauk felt hungry himself. The seedlings he had put in the ground wouldn’t be edible for another seven or eight weeks, but there were still plenty in the pantry at home. He could slice up four or five of the largest ones and fry them in a skillet–without tears, oh well–and spoon them onto a plate with some greens…
“Hauk. Hey! Hauk! Listen to me!”
“Leave him alone, Harris.” Briar kicked the rake away. “He’s growing food in here too, you know.”
“Whatever,” Harris said, and he wandered away.
“Asshole,” Briar muttered.
“Thanks.” Hauk wiped dirt from his forehead, but smeared it into his eye instead. “Ah, shit.”
“He’s just grumpy. Everyone is. It’s been too long. I’ve lost track of the days, weeks.”
Hauk started gathering up his tools: the rake, the mud-splashed trowel, and the flat-tined fork that he would later use to lift roots from the soil.
“Are you still mad at me?” he said.
Briar thought a moment. “I’m not mad, no. I still wonder why you did it, but I guess I used to be curious about it too.” She helped him with the pail of weeds and loose stones. “Actually, I almost tried it once when I was about six. I went down the bank with a few of my girlfriends–nobody you know–and got so far as to put my hand in. Well, just a finger. I was about to put it in my mouth, but then we all just ran away. Giggling like idiots.”
A few raindrops fell into the garden. “Well I won’t do it again,” Hauk said (dark, living mountain superimposed over Briar standing there). “I can tell you that much.”
“But you’re still not getting it.”
They started toward the shed.
“Not getting what?” They huddled under the awning of the shed, Hauk bumping into her.
“Yeah?” Briar kissed Hauk under the awning, and he dropped his tools one by one, the last two making a little music as they struck one another. When he went to recover them later, they were filigreed with rust. He laughed.
Weatherbee woke the town with a wail, and a hundred bright round windows and doors opened and caught the spring sun at the same moment, and a hundred sleepy heads poked out and watched him flail about up by the reservoir where he was pointing at the giantess, weeping.
“What happened?” Briar asked. She was still in bed.
“She’s crying again,” Hauk said.
“No shit,” Hauk said. “But listen. Hear that?”
Briar sat up. “No. No, I don’t.” She joined him at the window and rested one hand on the wall and another on the pale curve of Hauk’s left butt cheek.
“The river’s gone.” Hauk felt Briar stiffen suddenly, and her hand left behind a patch of gooseflesh as she lifted it to point at the immense arm hanging down the opposite side of the valley. Crimson-dusted fingers dangled above the dry river bed. A bearded head and shaggy chest lay beyond the arm. Hungry birds roosted on the lashes of his open eyes.
The giantess was weeping and clinging as before, though a bruise now covered her arm like a field of berries.
“Hauk. What happened? What is that thing? What’s going on?”
“I think they had a fight. And she won.”
“Do you think she’s sad?”
“But why? Why all this?”
Hauk had no idea, but he said, “I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with us.”
“Yeah,” Briar said. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
Kyle is the fourth incarnation of the Spring Fool. He is currently courting one of the Princes of Autumn, and hopes to wed him soon to keep the season cycle spinning properly. His fiction has appeared in Betwixt and See the Elephant magazines. He will be a goose next life; watch for him in the skies.