THE PENGUIN PLAYS ROUGH BOOK OF SHORT STORIES
"Five Husbands" by Pip Smith
She was married to five different men with the same name, which was both convenient and confusing. Convenient because she didn’t have to switch between names herself, or remember to call out the right name when making love, but confusing because sometimes the husbands blurred and she couldn’t remember which conversations went with which husband. SSShe colour-coded them, but they tended to wear identical clothes on any given day, making Husband Red hard to distinguish from Husband Blue when all five husbands were wearing purple.
She had to stay very alert and watch the nuances of their behaviour very intently. She noticed it was Husband Red who had a slight sneer, puckered nostrils and swore at taxi drivers when they changed lanes on the highway. Sometimes, when she and Red were fighting in circles, for hours, he would punch his fist through a wall on his way out of the room. But Husband Yellow had gentle eyes and a face that melted slightly at the sight of their dog in love — too much — with running. He also liked to lie with his head between her breasts and listen to the sound of her voice through her chest.
Husband Blue had a tight, still face. He could lock himself away for hours, carving intricate sculptures out of wood. As he worked, he tapped into some ancient place that lived beneath them like an underground ocean filled with urchins and prehistoric molluscs. He could feel the vibrations of those invisible creatures, and turn them into polished messages that fit in the hollow of her hand.
Husband Pink was wild and had tried every drug on the market, but Husband Green was an elderly soul who thought that drug users — like rugby league players and people who drive utes with six exhaust pipes and no muffler — were an insult to all reasonable members of society. He grew meticulously trimmed olive trees in their back garden and listened to Radio National over tea with two sugars.
She preferred some of her husbands to others, and never knew what to do after making love to Yellow and waking up next to Green, or — worse — Red. She would stay silent and roll her back to him, pretending to sleep but all the while staring out, trying to compute the change. What time did they change over? Did they share a roster and check in? Did they have meetings in their workplace where she could never go because she didn’t have a security swipe? Perhaps they didn’t even know about each other’s existence? She asked herself these questions as she cooked, as she showered, as she lay in bed well into the morning. So many times one of her husbands would ask her what was wrong and she would say, limply, that nothing was wrong, again and again, until he finally squeezed out of her that she thought he kept changing. But then he would look at her as if she was the one who had changed.
It worried her that her husbands might be right. But then Yellow would ask about the holes in the wall, or she would catch Green holding one of Blue’s sculptures, marvelling at it, as though he couldn’t possibly understand how it was made, or where it had come from. And when she quoted, directly, the things Pink had said to the women who hung off him at parties, all of her other husbands would adamantly deny that he would never say anything like that.
She wondered: if she conceived a child, how could she be sure which husband’s it should be? Or would be? What if she went to bed with Blue and Red slipped in at the last minute? He was, after all, the one most likely to have aggressive sperm that could find an egg and crash into it with life-starting intensity.
She’d always wanted children, but she could never see how they’d actually fit in to the lives they’d made for themselves. Now, her head was full of future babies — pink and bubbly, like marshmallows, or dusted with that yellow, scaly grit. But they all had her husbands’ faces, age 40, tacked on to their tiny bodies. Perhaps these visions were telling her something. If she had a baby it might centre her, like a sinker line weighing a buoy through a school of flighty fish.
She knew she couldn’t conceive unless she was 100% sure who would make the best father. If she let them see all the parts of herself she tended to keep hidden, the right one might step forward, and even stick around longer than his allocated shift — long enough to have a child with her, and stay to see it grow.
So she gave Yellow her favourite book and asked him to read it. He looked at her the way children do when they are given twice as much homework over long weekends, but she stroked his hair and told him how important it was to her that he try and finish it.
After a week she noticed her other husbands had discovered the book, and were reading it in their own ways and at their own rates. Pink slept with the book splayed open on his chest, the weight of the cover crushing the bent pages. Blue read quickly and briefly, moving the bookmark exactly two pages forward each sitting. Green read by running a finger under the words, and left the bookmark sticking out horizontally under the last line he’d read. But Red left the book hidden in unusual places. Once it was in the bathroom. Another time she found it bent and shoved down the composting drain. A third time she found it propping up the one short leg of their kitchen table. But one thing was certain: each time she found the book, the bookmark had moved backwards, moved forwards, gone missing, or returned again to the beginning.
When her birthday came, Husband Yellow decided to make her dinner. He told her she wasn’t allowed to do anything but sit still and let herself be waited on. It was a wonderful feeling, having everything fall into place around her. She watched the bare table turn a crisp white, the candles come alive with yellow, the mauve flowers move under the flickering light. The table was unusually steady, and she looked down to see the book propping up its one short leg. She felt weightless, as if she were cruising through the night in a sedan chair that Yellow would never let fall to the ground.
Then he placed a silver object, pronged with four spikes next to her plate. It seemed stiller than all the other objects on the table, as if it were about to rise up from the tablecloth and strike her in the face. Its colour was so slippery. It was grey for a moment, then yellow with the light of the candle, then mauve, then white. It seemed to take on the colours around it, but all the time it sat so sure of itself, with its four spikes curving their way up off the table, like the jawbone of an ancient, vicious fish.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes I’m fine, why?”
“You’re looking at that fork very strangely.”
And she laughed too, because it was only a fork.
That night she had to watch Yellow even more closely, so that she knew what to do with the fork, the fish, and the tiny bones inside the fish. But the more she watched him, the more his face seemed to have no colour at all. She wondered why she saw him as ‘yellow’. He was more of a kind of beige, with brushed red edges. But there were hints of blue and green veins in the crooks of his elbows, and the skin around his mouth was slightly pink. She realised, staring at him pull a fish bone from his mouth, that he could have said — right then — that he was a Green Peace whale activist or a Neo Nazi, and she wouldn’t be able to say she was surprised, because she had no idea who he was.
Yellow disappeared into the kitchen, and Blue returned and placed a white ceramic dish in front of her. In it were lemon-scented mountains peaked with brown. The mountains were sinking, slowly. She watched him place the dish in front of her. He didn’t think about the way his arms moved, the way he rearranged the other things on the table to make everything fit. It was as if he had many arms, all moving faster than his brain could possibly be keeping track of — the way a spider moves: totally unaware of itself, capable of killing, but incapable of the simplest of thoughts. She couldn’t let those mindless arms touch her. As he let go of the dish he almost brushed her arm, and she flinched away just in time.
She could feel him bristling under the skin. She looked up at him and could see nothing in his face. No colour — or lots of colours, but they added up to nothing. He was looking for something in her eyes, though. It felt as if his eyes were digging into hers, turning over each cell and reading its underside, then turning them back, unable to make out the strange language she was written in.
She began to lose her sense of days and weeks and repeatedly forgot engagements. Her friends left abrupt messages late at night, some reminding her that she had forgotten them, some suggesting they make another time, others cutting her off altogether. She didn’t tell her husbands this, as they all seemed to be spending more and more time at work. Perhaps they were fighting each other, out there in the world - or fighting over her, and for the right to be the father of her future babies. She waited up for them every night, even on the nights none of them came home. Those nights were long, in the way a circle is long. She would sit up in bed and listen to the crickets. She began to think of them as tiny engines turning themselves over, keeping the night moving on and on, never needing fuel, never running out of steam.
One night, as she was waiting, she noticed how the crickets were oddly quiet. The night’s engine had stopped, she thought, and she felt her eyelids starting to droop. But she wanted to be here, to see the winning husband, to know who would be the father of her children, so she went to look for the book to keep the night going.
She found the book wedged behind the toilet cistern. It had been there long enough for a spider to have built a web around it. The cover was torn and the edges of the pages were stained with partially decomposed vegetables and coffee grounds. She started from the beginning, but the beginning bled into the end which looped back into the middle and the whole story (or lack of story) made her want to scrunch the book up and shove it down the composting drain.
Later that night, winter came. It came noisily, howling up the drainpipes and under the tin sheeting on the roof. She’d never known a winter to begin like this. She put on two coats and went out into the garden. The olives had frozen, blackened, and dropped to the ground like gangrenous toes. The dog shivered in his kennel, too cold to yelp at the moon. There had always been a quiet, steady place she’d gone to when the winter set in. She had forgotten. She had been too busy keeping check of her husbands to think about winter, about the outside world and the stillness that could be found in it. She looked up. A few stars hung above her head, buoyed, somehow, in all that black. She had to remember to move her mouth, to unstick her lips from her teeth.