The cherries were so ripe they burst, trickling down her fingers in crimson streaks that looked like coagulated blood. It was the third harvest of the season, and they had done everything they could possibly think of with the new batch of fruits: wild strawberry crepes, cranberry jam, blueberry pies, cherry wine. The other maids complained, saying that there was never a hot winter like this, not since the great drought of 1540.
A drop of juice ran down her arm. Aisha licked it away, her tongue sliding from her wrist to her palm. The others sweated, with rosy cheeks and folded skirts, slugging heavily from side to side while they cooked and spun, but Aisha loved the heat as much as she loved to see them suffering.
“What are you looking at, girl?” Old Flora twisted the yarn, compressing the wool between her crinkled fingers. More and more wrinkles crisscrossed her face every day, but her arms were still strong under her loose dress. “For the Belly-Slitter to come and get you?”
“I already have one witch in my life, and that witch is you.” Aisha popped another cherry between her molars. “The other one can surely find her own victims.”
This same contempt followed her since she first arrived in the village in 1810, a wide-eyed girl of eight who had been traveling for weeks with a man she did not know. The master of the house met her in the inn he was staying in Seville, and claimed he had to take her with him. You were such a charming thing, so clever and boisterous, he used to tell her. You amused us patrons greatly with your jokes, and enchanted many a man with this beautiful little face of yours.
Aisha loved the compliments and hated the inn, so she accepted the bargain. Her aunt, who managed the establishment, accepted it too, in exchange for a small fee. Everyone was happy: Aisha, who got to leave; her aunt, who got paid; the man, who got her.
They only spoke French at first, because she knew some, and it was the closest thing to Spanish. She also knew a bit of Arabic, most of which she had forgotten, and few sentences in English, but none of that would help her where she was going. Herr Jacopo wanted her to care for his ill wife, and thought a child could cheer her up. She will be delighted to have you, he said, pinching her cheek. You will be our little Mediterranean nymph. The wife died a few months later, but Aisha never returned home.
Herr Jacopo, then, assigned her to help the other maids, as all of them were getting old. Flora, who already looked ancient, taught her how to cook, weave and clean, and educated her in the local mixture of German, French and Italian. Not without a good dose of daily complaints: Aisha laughed too much, Aisha talked too little, Aisha was too much of a coquette for her own good. Too wanton, some would say.
“The Belly-Slitter is no fable,” insisted Old Flora.
“Then let us hope she will choose a different house tonight.” Aisha washed her hands, facing her reflection in the window. The tailor had been generous in the making of her dirdnl: the white blouse was light and breezy, the tight bodice had a rich burgundy color with a balconette neckline, the ribbons perfectly laced. “Go bother another doomed soul.”
Aisha adjusted the bodice to deepen her décolletage, and Flora narrowed her eyes.
“If I were you, I would be more careful,” said Old Flora. “The Belly-Slitter seeks young maidens like you.”
“Then I must be truly lucky, since it’s been a long, long time I am not a maiden.” Aisha dusted her apron and tied again the bow around her waist. “I could even tell you how, when and where it happened, but I fear for your poor heart.”
Every winter was the same. Their secluded village, surrounded by trees and embedded in the Alps, had its fair amount of peculiarities. The most striking was the unreasonable terror they cultivated during the twelve days of Christmas. Every villager prepared careful offerings, one for each day until the Epiphany, where the fear of the Belly-Slitter intensified, like she would appear at any given moment.
She has flat feet, some said, but others disagreed: she has feet like a goose. There was no agreement: she was either a beautiful maiden or a shriveled hag, a woman or a man, she was followed by dead children’s souls or by horrendous creatures, she punished misbehaving children and idle servants, she was the primordial protector of working women. Sometimes, she was winter itself.
You have to keep spinning, or else . . . Aisha used to believe in the threats. The first winter she spent in the village, Flora swore the Belly-Slitter would scrape out the eyes of liars with shards of broken glass, and that she took disobedient children and threw them in her basket. Now she liked to tell tales of a monster who cut open the bellies of lazy girls and filled them with dirt.
“It goes in one ear and out the other,” spat Old Flora. The wool twirled in the wheel, and her thin leg went up and down, pumping the pedal. “But I won’t say anything. I will let her find out by herself.”
Aisha rolled eyes. She brushed her hair with her fingers to straighten tangled strands that went down to her chin. Flora cut it short a few years ago, claiming it would prevent lice, but they both knew what the true reason was. What do you think you are, a lady? The old woman had added with a wry smile. Tufts of hair had fallen on Aisha’s lap like a pool of soft black wool, her long waves replaced by a boyish cut. We don’t pay you to look pretty, we pay you to work.
The hair now reached her chin, and it framed a golden face with the same tan she had last seen in Spain. The extended months of summer had emphasized Aisha’s differences: the russet of her eyes, the thickness of her lashes, the darker shading of her knees, elbows and other body parts.
And it reminded her how full she was of this place, its people, its beliefs.
“The Belly-Slitter won’t come.” Aisha smoothed the skirt that ended right above her ankles. She went to the front door, then offered the impish smile that had charmed Herr Jacopo in the past: “Not in the middle of this Spanish summer.”
Aisha left before they could answer. She should have reminded Flora that those who work in holy days are also punished by the Belly-Slitter, but she would rather not be dragged back by the ear. At least Herr Jacopo was too afflicted with the gout to think of her. Gone was the day where he moaned and thrashed, demanding Aisha to bring him meals or get him dressed; nowadays, he spent most of his time sleeping or drinking the healing concoctions made by his physician.
The woods surrounding the village watched her from a distance. Men paraded the streets with masks as the sun began to set, trying to scare away any creature that might come into the village. The fur of their costumes turned them into hairy beasts with grotesque faces, and they growled and leered at her as she passed. Aisha stuck out her tongue, laughing.
Two of them stopped acting to look at her. The eyes behind the masks peered at her cleavage, at her waist, at the curve of her hip under the skirt. Aisha found them amusing, sweating under the fur and leather, red like wild strawberries dripping from her fingertips. She wondered if the Belly-Slitter also punished such fleeting flirtations. Probably, Aisha thought with a sideways smile. She must be an old, loveless crone.
If the Belly-Slitter cared, Aisha would be dead by now. If she counted each night escapade to the celery, each torn ribbon ripped to hastily, each smile every time she asked the butcher to give her another rabbit or when she when she begged the tailor for a new bodice on the house, please, please, please, Aisha would have been buried deep down that frosty mountain years ago.
And the Belly-Slitter would have taken many others with her. She would have started with Herr Jacopo, whose hungry eyes continued to devour her even when his weakened body could no longer act on the desire. After she took every man and woman who deserved to be punished as much or more than her, she would finish with the servants who had to keep working from Christmas to the Epiphany to feed their masters. That was the point, wasn’t it? The wicked, the unruly, the naughty, the idle?
Aisha whistled as she crossed the street, hands buried into the hidden pockets of her skirt.
The bakery around the corner hummed with life. It was the only business still delivering parcels at this hour, but she was not there to deliver a payment or take a tray of food back to the house. Instead, she circled the bakery to enter the kitchen through the back door, following the smell of hot bread. There were pans of sweets everywhere: gingerbread biscuits powdered with sugar, honey-dipped struffoli, schinkengipeli stuffed with ham, candied fruit and pear compote.
Frau Trezzini, whose Italian grandparents had built the only bakery in the village, nodded when she saw her.
“Johann left a while ago to deliver bread to the tailor,” she said without looking at Aisha. “But I will hear no word of the boy coming late to dinner. The Belly-Slitter . . . ”
The Belly-Slitter this, the Belly-Slitter that. Aisha could not stand the Belly-Slitter anymore. She stole a honey roll, opened the door with her hip, and hurried to find Johann.
The tailor lived next to the woods, the last house of many before the trees started, threatening shadows against the darkening sky. Their crowns rustled with the breeze, but the heat continued, pleasantly warm and familiar. The men’s masks and costumes laid on the path toward the tailoring shop, vacant bodies without their owners.
Aisha sighed irritably. She just wanted to have some fun before going back to work, but Flora’s tales followed her everywhere.
She only smiled when she saw a young man closing a door behind him, still wearing a white apron.
“Aisha!” Johann hopped to the side when she touched his shoulder. The youngest of the Trezzinis looked just like his father, but he had his mother’s colors: red hair and freckles, with a bulbous nose and green deep-set eyes. He would be absolutely mediocre were he not tall and sturdy. It was enough, Aisha told herself, enough until she found someone stronger, someone better. “What are you . . . ?”
Aisha stole a glance over her shoulder to make sure the streets were empty and the windows closed to tug his sleeve, dragging him to the woods.
“If we take too long, Flora will eat her own hands,” Aisha told him between one kiss and another, fumbling to untie his pants. “You know how she is.”
“But it’s late,” mumbled Johann. His eyes went down as Aisha leaned her arched back against the trunk of a tree. “The Bell—”
“The Belly-Slitter does not care one bit about you, Johann.” Aisha lifted her skirt, the vibrant green of the fabric gathered between them. “If she didn’t mind all the other times, why do you think she will change her mind only now?”
Aisha guided him to move the way she liked. Johann was even pinker than the usual, his poor, burly self suffering under the strong heat. He looked red, in fact. Red, cherry red, dissolving into a pulp, filling her, dripping down her thigh, red like rabbit blood . . .
She closed her eyes, thinking again of the Belly-Slitter. Her fear of her had disappeared years ago, in the second Christmas she had spent in the village. It was night, and a dragging sound awakened her. Carefully, Aisha had crawled out of the bed she used to share with Old Flora, and moved quietly to the window, heart racing. Outside, a strange figure marched in the snow. The Belly-Slitter was just like Old Flora’s descriptions: tall, hunching, covered by a white mantle, with muscular arms like a man, and the branched antlers of a deer sprouting under her hood.
Aisha had been sure the Belly-Slitter was after her. Maybe she had not spun enough, or maybe the other servants were right: she was not pure, she was not good, she had not worked hard enough. Maybe the mistress of the house would not have died if Herr Jacopo had not settled his eyes on her. Maybe . . .
Maybe none of that mattered, because the person outside had removed their mask and went back to their house. There was no Belly-Slitter, just Herr Trezzini trying to keep his children in line.
“Aisha, Aisha . . . ” Johann muttered against her ear, his body so warm it might have been submerged in cooking oil like the bakery’s rolls. His skin felt sticky and repulsive, and Aisha pushed him aside after they finished to fix her socks, one of which had slipped down, pooled around her ankle. “I should probably . . . ”
“Yes, yes, go run after your family like you always do.” Aisha touched her own forehead to see if she was sweating, but she was just as dry as before. “Fortunately, I have no family to worry about.”
“You could come with me,” said Johann tentatively. “Have dinner with us . . . ”
“God forbid! Your mother would faint if she saw me sitting at the table with you.” Aisha laughed. “Besides, I just wanted to have a nice time out before going back to that awful hag.”
Johann murmured something under his breath, begging her to stop saying such things, that this was the reason the Belly-Slitter took girls like her. It happened to one of my grandmother’s cousins because she was a gossiper and did not eat on her feast day, murmured Johann like anyone could hear them. She was twelve, and she was about this size, and they found her dead by the brook, her guts spilling out . . .
Aisha wanted to tell him that his grandmother’s cousin might have been dragged to the woods by an ill-meaning neighbor, but there was no use arguing with Johann. They had a fundamentally different understanding of the world; he had been raised by seven older sisters, he was his mother’s favorite, his father’s heir, he could afford to be naive.
“Enjoy the night with your family,” said Aisha. “Fröhliche Weihnachten.”
“Merry Christmas to you too.” Johann glanced at the village. “Aren’t you coming back with me?”
“I’ll wash myself first, then go back to Old Flora’s loving arms.” Aisha kissed his jaw, then pushed him playfully toward the little houses appearing between the dark trees. “No need to worry about me.”
Aisha watched Johann disappear in the distance, finding herself alone in the woods. The silence of nature had never disturbed her; she enjoyed the swishing of leaves, the rabbits hiding in bushes, the chirping of nocturnal birds. If she could, she would stay there forever, merge with the wilderness, never to be seen again. There was no scolding among the birches that surrounded the stream, there was no master always after her.
Without the gaze of others, she simply existed.
With a sigh, Aisha left her clothes on a rock and dipped a toe in the lukewarm water. She imagined herself gutted like Johann’s cousin, half-eaten by crows. Would she shock or delight whoever found her there? Aisha closed her eyes, head bobbing back, soothed by the wicked thought of dying right there. She did not want to exist, she wanted to drift away from the place that never embraced her, if not in body, in soul. The water covered her up to the ear, and Aisha wished the stream would take her, wanting to hear nothing, see nothing, be nothing.
When she finally got up, Aisha felt the first hint of cold. She touched her chest, feeling the goose skin under the humid blouse clinging to her flesh. The heat that persisted for months, from the beginning of summer to the end of December, seemed to be coming to an end.
Aisha walked between the trees until she reached the tailor’s house. The village was completely dark. The lamps had burned out, and there was no one to be seen, no muffled sounds coming from the other houses, not even a faint hint of candle light coming from the closed windows. Aisha frowned. How long had she spent in the stream?
At least the Belly-Slitter would not go hungry. There were warm bowls of gruel with fish waiting in every door step, some of them still releasing steam. Aisha rubbed her arms, drops of water dripping from her hair and sending shivers down her spine.
“Flora?” whispered Aisha as she entered Herr Jacopo’s house, carefully avoiding the bowl of porridge left outside. “Are you awake?”
No one answered.
Aisha trembled like a gust of cold wind had sneaked under the door. It was a horrible moment for winter to return, she thought irritably, kicking away her shoes. Aisha took a handful of gingerbread cookies from the kitchen, cursing the fear of the Belly-Slitter for crawling into her head.
The windows rattled, and Aisha turned around.
“Flora?” asked Aisha again. A layer of frost spread on the glass like a flame in a book, freezing the window shut. The bizarre sight left her stuck in the entrance of the house, trying to understand even when every single nerve told her to leave. “Is anyone . . . ?”
Her words were engulfed by a cacophony of chimes. The tiny bells that hung above every door clattered at the same time, the clappers banging violently until they stopped again. Aisha felt herself trembling, but it wasn’t the cold, this time. It was the fact that no one seemed to be hearing this but her, no one woke up, no one seemed to be there.
Swallowing, she touched the door knob, feeling it cool under her hand. Maybe she was still that scared child that leaned against Flora as they slept, the pathetic little girl that ran upstairs, begging Herr Jacopo for crumbs of attention of any kind. No, I’m not, thought Aisha, wiping the glass with her apron. The street was just as deserted as it had been ten minutes ago, of course it was. Aisha considered going back there to prove that fear was unfounded, but another sound distracted her.
Steps, she was hearing steps, pounding and cracking the flagstones outside. Aisha couldn’t move, she could just feel her chest going up and down. Nothing, she thought, it’s nothing. Just an animal or a drunken neighbor or an incoming storm. It was the announcement of winter, nothing less, nothing more.
The steps were louder now. A new whirlwind of air made the bells chime, and the floorboards creaked under her. To bed, Aisha thought, like that could save her. I need to go to bed.
Something slammed the door.
It wasn’t knocking, like Johann did whenever he brought Herr Jacopo’s daily parcel of bread. It was a loud, massive thrust that made the entire house quiver.
Aisha stepped back. A white cloud escaped her lips, but she felt no cold, not with her heart racing like that. Again, something hit the door, and it felt intentional, this time.
Someone must have seen her with Johann in the woods, that was it. A neighbor must have seen them, and now he wanted the same as the baker’s son had. He wanted to disembowel her like the gossiping girl and leave her to rot by the stream, like death could erase what he had done. And she only had to flee or cry for help, but she didn’t.
Her knees were stiff, her feet tingled, her socks felt glued to the floor.
The bells chimed again.
Before Aisha gathered enough energy to force her limp body to run, a dull blow opened the door, revealing that, again, there was nothing outside.
What did you expect, Aisha thought, growing angry at herself, believing in fairy tales?
She stepped out of the house. Above her, the moon gleamed, pale and round, illuminating the little village. She would have sighed with relief when she realized there was no neighbor hiding around the corner, but she lowered her gaze, where an enormous shadow covered most of the frozen ground.
Aisha lifted her head, centimeter by centimeter.
Above her, inhumanly above her, was something so immense that she could barely register what it was. Its back was curved, hunching under a large wicker basket; its legs bent forward like a satyr’s; its gigantic frame was covered by a mantle, white and filthy and torn to shreds. A single foot, pale and palmate, appeared under the robes, its long toes joined by a thin membrane like a goose. And, on its face, was a mask: crude and twisted, with a gnarly nose, ridged horns, and yellow tusks coming out of a projected jaw.
Aisha stumbled against the bowl of gruel. A few drops sprinkled the doorstep, and she blinked, coming back to her senses.
The Belly-Slitter, Flora’s voice reminded her, comes for girls like you.
Aisha’s body reacted before her mind, and she raced toward the woods. No, she wanted to scream, no, that couldn’t be it. She couldn’t die like this. Not in this place. Her sock slipped on the paved way that led to the trees, and she fell, scraping her hands and knees. Aisha hopped back to her feet, feeling the creature looming behind her.
She would not even get as much as dying in her homeland.
Aisha lifted her skirt to run faster, her palms burning with the friction of grated skin against crumpled fabric. Every time she glanced back, she saw the monstrous white form, spreading cold wherever she went. The furry mask mocked her, its features distorted into a smile, and the Belly-Slitter strode unnaturally, dragging her misshapen goose foot with her.
Someone laughed behind her, and the sound reverberated everywhere: in the street, in the woods, in her.
It was not fair. Aisha shut her eyes as she ran, forcing her legs to go even faster. It was not fair that everyone had been right about her all along, and that she would be the only one punished in that vile place. Aisha sprinted between the thick trees, their branches scratching her exposed arms and leaving behind intersected lines. It’s not fair, she thought again, biting her lower lip until it turned red.
She, who had no one to protect her; she, who had been sold; she, who had done everything she could to adapt to land she did not choose. Had she not given others more of herself than they deserved? Her body, her work, her youth?
Aisha stumbled on a root and rolled down a slope. She tried to grab the grass, nails digging into the earth, but she only managed to tear clumps of leaves and dirt. A sharp sting blurred her vision when her ribs slammed against a tilted birch, and she held onto the trunk before falling into the brook. Aisha staggered, getting back to her feet, barely registering a sprained ankle.
“Come on . . . ” Aisha limped, lifting her right knee to hop on one foot. She was furious at her frail body, who couldn’t take a little bit of pain.
It was too late.
The Belly-Slitter was getting closer, slower than before, like she wanted Aisha to wait. She looked less like the crone described by Flora and more like the macabre creatures mimicked by the men of the village, but larger, much larger.
Aisha kept running toward the clearing. She could hear her own breathless whimpers and the way her body was telling her to stop, that there was no way to win. Every time her right foot touched the ground, her head throbbed in pain, but she kept going. Just a little bit more, she thought, just . . .
A shadow darkened the grass of the clearing, and a massive hand pushed her to the ground.
Aisha screeched, thrashing with all her feeble strength. The creature’s palm covered her from chest to hip, and her fingers closed around her like a cage. The Belly-Slitter stooped over her until they were face to face, enveloping her with a blow of cold air.
Aisha stopped moving; breathing; thinking.
The mask in front of her was made of carved wood and dark fur, painted in shades of wine, charcoal and brown. Above were shedding antlers with bits of velvet hanging from it, carnation red and bleeding, standing over smaller, curled horns. A fake tongue was suspended over the lower tusks, right above a goat’s beard, and there were hollow spaces for the eyes and mouth.
Aisha breathed in and out.
Behind the tusks was skin, and on the skin was a line, crackling, gaping, smiling. A line that turned into a slit, a slit that turned into a mouth, a mouth that grinned, revealing two rows of black teeth.
And above were eyes with white irises and white pupils, dilating at the sight of her. Breathing against her face, ravenous, thrilled, devouring her fear and pain. A long black tongue slipped out of the gaping mouth, licking her face. The tongue went from her jaw to her cheeks, gliding over her smooth skin to catch her tears, cold and wet.
The hand pressed her abdomen.
Aisha gasped erratically, her almond eyes wide and dark, her injured leg quivering and swelling. The Belly-Slitter groped her torso, searching, fumbling, her tusks lined in a derisive grimace, the mouth behind the mask stretching to uncover the white gum lining her black teeth.
Aisha no longer fought.
A single sharp nail split her apron in two. The nail ascended, playing with the colorful ribbons hooked to her bodice, dipping into the middle of her cleavage and scratching her skin up to her neck. For a moment, Aisha hoped that was it. She lost, they won. That had to be it.
The Belly-Slitter touched her chin for a moment, then went all the way back down, pulling down Aisha’s high-waisted skirt to her hips, uncovering her stomach. One of her breasts spilled out of the bodice with the movement and the other threatened to follow. The knotted fingers of the Belly-Slitter rubbed the droplets of blood that sprouted from the scratch, painting Aisha’s skin red.
“No . . . No . . . ”
The tip of a knife sunk into her belly button like she was made of butter. Aisha felt no pain; it reminded her of all the afternoons she had spent crimping the edges of the crust of a pie before filling it with fruit.
Three fingers entered her body, excavating her interior to remove everything she found: stomach, spleen, liver, intestines. The organs fell to her side, soft like the guts of an animal cut in half. Aisha convulsed, and when she looked to her side, she realized there was no blood coming out of her. There was only a thick red paste: strawberry, gooseberry, cherry.
She never realized how empty she would feel until now.
Aisha lifted a hand to grab the Belly-Slitter’s white mantle, mumbling her name. Her voice trembled with her. Fill me up again, she wanted to say. You left me hollow inside.
She did not need to say anything else.
The Belly-Slitter licked her crimson fingers, dripping with the fruit filling of her entrails. Red mixed with black teeth, white gum, black tongue, thick saliva. The Belly-Slitter was over her again, shoving inside Aisha all the wool she did not spin during the year, squeezing her inner walls until she was stuffed, lining her with birch leaves and tiny hazel flowers.
When she was done, the Belly-Slitter sewed her belly and pulled up her skirt. Aisha was even able to sit down, light like a rag doll. She felt complete again, but there was something she couldn’t understand.
Why her? Why the punishment? Did she deserve it, after all?
The Belly-Slitter cracked another awful smile.
“There is no reason,” answered a guttural voice, beast-like. The Belly-Slitter grabbed her by the neck, dragging Aisha across a patch of grass. One of her socks caught on a rock and slipped out of her foot. The Belly-Slitter’s white eyes met Aisha’s black ones, and her tongue slithered out of the mask, drinking Aisha’s tears. It was almost loving. Almost sweet. “I do what I feel like doing.”
Inebriated, Aisha touched the wooden mask, running her fingertips over the fur, the tusks, the tongue, the goat beard. She gazed at this abomination, this wicked, repulsive thing, better and stronger than her or anyone else. The chilly, coarse tongue; the nodose fingers, the curved knife; the white pupils pupils dilating and constricting like Aisha was delicious and she desperately needed to eat.
Aisha touched the mask again.
The Belly-Slitter scooped her from the ground and opened the basket. Inside was a bottomless darkness, quiet, new, welcoming. Outside was the village that had housed her for so many years. Her own lips curled into a coy smile, cherry-painted, turning into a laugh.
The fear was gone; she would not die; she knew it in her core.
And she would never, ever return.
The Belly-Slitter threw her inside the wicker basket, and Aisha knew she had won.