The Mere Wife

Maria Dahvana Headley

July 18, 2018 
The following is from Maria Dahvana Headley's novel, The Mere Wife. In a modern retelling of Beowulf set in suburban America, two mothers—one a housewife, the other a battle-hardened veteran—fight to protect those they love. Maria Dahvana Headley is a novelist, Nebula-nominated short story writer, and editor. She lives in Brooklyn in an apartment shared with a seven-foot-long stuffed crocodile.


Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but I’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

There’s a sack over my head, but I’m seeing the faces of dead soldiers. I’m watching the war in slow motion, and then too fast, a string of men, a line of blood and baffled eyes

We got lost. All of us got sent to the wrong country, and everyone but me is dead. Now I think all countries are the wrong country, and I’m out here, two minutes from gone.

My guys are ghosts, and my girls too. My best friend Renee got killed a week ago, slipped on a step, made a noise, and bullets, fast as wasps. I had her in my arms when she died. Three days ago, I was riding in a truck with Lynn Graven from Gulfport, who told me the Mississippi River had wandered according to its own hungers, changed its path in order to drink up land it wanted to claim, and then told me that there was a river like that in this desert too, and we should swim in it and see if it drank us. He dove out of the truck we were in at eighty miles per hour, thinking he’d land in water. Raul Honrez grew up in Idaho, his parents fruit pickers. He got halfway through med school before the planes flew into the towers and he joined up. I watched his body blow apart, right before someone grabbed me and threw me into this truck.

Two months ago I was on leave, far away from all this.

Listen!” Someone shouted from the sidewalk, and she held on to my ankle. She had a sign that read YES. I GOT LOST. ANYTHING HELPS. She’d come from the same war I’d come from. Tin dish, rattling for change.

“Listen, lemme tell you what’s gonna come for you,” she said. “Gimme five bucks.”

“You can have everything,” I told her, and dropped the contents of my wallet into her dish.

“Then I’ll tell you everything I know,” she said.

“No, thanks,” I said, and walked.

“You’re gonna live forever!” she shouted after me. “You’re the one who gets away! You’re gonna lose some shit, though, so you better watch out.”

“I don’t have anything to lose,” I said to her, cocky for no reason.

“My guys are ghosts, and my girls too. My best friend Renee got killed a week ago, slipped on a step, made a noise, and bullets, fast as wasps. I had her in my arms when she died.”

You go into war knowing you’re signing up to be a goner. Living is luck, not anything special. You’re not magic. You’re just lucky.

I figured I knew the shape of things. I’d been fighting awhile. I signed up right after people stopped volunteering, in the middle of a war that went on forever. They made me think it was about heroes. That’s how they sell it to you when you’re seventeen. Go out and save the starving, the war-torn, the children, and the women. Instead, you march in and roll down roads, close your eyes and shoot. Hungry people on rations, scared people, fucked-up people, shooting by clothes and color of skin, or by the way bodies send out heat. Bright blots on a map, hearts beating.

I figured I’d been lucky so far. I figured that if I died, I died.

I got on a plane and came back to the desert.

Now I’m rattling down the road, and there’s nowhere I want to go, no good option. If I’m being taken, I’m going into a prison, or I’m going up on a screen. My brain’s shaking up old things, distractions, picking over the moments leading me here, grabbing things I should have paid attention to when people said them.

Listen!” an old woman said to me ten years ago, on a Greyhound Bus. “Let me tell you a story!”

I didn’t know that I could move away, so I listened. Windows full of places. Night and the highway, lights green and red, people in every car going somewhere, and beside me this woman, telling me her version of the story of the world, all the things that ever happened from the beginning of time to the end of it. Thirty hours.

“This is the thing about history,” she said. “People lie about the parts they missed. They tell you they know what happened, the world exploded and they watched it, when really all they did was hear a sound so loud it shook the ground. You never understand the whole story until you’re at the end of it. If you’re the last one standing, you’re the one who sings for everyone else’s funeral. But at least you get to be the one who tells it. You tell it for the rest of us.”

I looked at her, sitting next to me, her shaky hands and church hat. She looked old enough to have been born in the single digits.

I thought I knew everything.

I thought I knew what the Earth had in it. I thought I knew what was coming for me. Now I know all this was waiting, this desert, this sack, this stumble as they drag me out of the truck.

I hear the whetting of a blade.

I don’t know who they are, whoever has me, but I’m their them, and they’re mine. We are each other’s nightmares. I’m on my knees in the sand. They give me words, and I say them for the video.

“My name is Dana Mills,” I say. “America, this is your doing.”

I feel the wind of the blade swinging back, and I’m in a thousand cities at once, all shall be well, and in a thousand countries, and I’m on a ship coming across an ocean, and all shall be well,and I’m an old woman dying on a mountain, the last of my family, the last of my line, and all manner of thing shall be well, and there’s blackness, and in the blackness, there’s a bright star, and it gets bigger, and bigger

“Listen,” someone whispers into my ear. “Listen to me.”

Am I dead?

“Listen,” the voice whispers. “In some countries, you kill a monster when it’s born. Other places, you kill it only when it kills someone else. Other places, you let it go, out into the forest or the sea, and it lives there forever, calling for others of its kind. Listen to me, it cries. Maybe it’s just alone.”

I wake up, gasping, underneath sand. Grit between my fingertips. There’s space around my face, but nowhere else. I feel my heart beating, though, and that tells me something.

The sand is heavy and hot. Sunlight through my eyelids. I move sand with my fingers, then with my whole body, until my hand comes into the air. I push myself out, and stand up, swaying. There’s an unfamiliar weight, and I look down at my stomach.

“You never understand the whole story until you’re at the end of it. If you’re the last one standing, you’re the one who sings for everyone else’s funeral. But at least you get to be the one who tells it.”

I’m a tent in the middle of the desert, and someone’s inside it, someone who doesn’t speak and doesn’t march, who just sleeps. I almost laugh. I almost cry. I don’t know who the father is.

I’m the mother.

This is how I come back from the dead. Six months pregnant. This is what I have. This is what I own.

I look out across the sand, and there’s movement at the edge of it, ripples of heat, silhouettes of people moving. I start walking.

Hours in, something blows up ten feet from me. A shard of shrapnel in my eye, blood running down my cheek, nothing else. I tie my shirt around my face and keep going.

I walk until I get to Americans. I look so bad no one knows which side I’m on. They freak out when they get close. They read my tags.

Shitfuck, it’s Dana Mills. Get someone.

I wake up later, under lights, shaved all over, my head, my pubic hair, my legs, my armpits, like someone on her way to be cooked. There are bars on the windows. There’s a patch over my eye, and I feel drugged.

“Tough luck,” says the girl in the bed beside mine. She doesn’t have legs. “Guess it’s too late now,” she says. “For all of us stupid fuckers.”

“Guess it is.”

“I made it out of where I came from and I’m never going back,” she says. “I got no one out there in the whole wide world.”

“Me neither,” I say. “My mother’s dead. I’m alone.” We both look at my stomach.

“You’re not,” she says. “You got that one. Whoever that one’s gonna be.”

She has freckled skin and a pointed nose, crooked lips covered in black lipstick like she’s planning to go to a club and throw herself into a mosh pit. Maybe she’s seventeen, the same age I was when I joined up. Her fingernails are longer than regulation and polished with glitter. I don’t ask her what she did. She doesn’t ask me.

“So, are you crazy?” she asks, without fanfare. “I am. I see things. Mostly I see my legs. Why am I alive, anyway? Is that what you’re thinking? That’s what I’m thinking.”

I’m in the middle of replying when I see something light up in the center of her chest. A flicker. A flame?

“What’s in there?” I ask, but she’s gone.

Five men are in her place, making themselves at home, feet on the bed frame, one or two looming over me, looking at my charts. Letting me know I’m the only one in the room who can’t run. Being barefoot, once you’ve been to war, is terrifying.

“What happened to you, soldier? Who took you?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I’m still looking for the girl, but there’s no girl.

A guy kneels in front of me, looking at me with all sincerity, like I can’t tell him from a good person.

“We saw you on television,” the man says. “You were lucky. You were still pretty enough for video. The rest of your team got blown up.”

I think about luck.

“We watched you die. It was convincing.” “I’m alive,” I say. My skin’s prickling all over.

“Execution by edit.” He gestures at my stomach. “Whose child is this?”

“Mine.” I don’t expect to say that, but it’s what I say.

“Rape? Or consensual?”

One answer means I’m a victim, and the other means I’m a collaborator, and I don’t know, so I don’t answer. I hear one of them say something about DNA tests. My brain is skipping like a record. They hypnotize me, insist I tell them everything. There’s nothing to tell, except that I’m back from wherever I’ve been, that I’m alive, and that I’m pregnant.

I stay in the hospital that isn’t a hospital for six weeks, and then I feel my baby under my ribs, kicking hard.

There are other soldiers working in the prison. I find a guy who was stationed where I was. He gets me out in the middle of the night, a key in my food, a map under my plate, and I run. When I can’t find a train, I hide myself in trailers carrying horses. Go under a tarp in the back of a pickup. Wake up in a parking lot one night with someone staring at me, punch him in the side of the head, and take off into the dark.

I see the girl from the hospital again in a truck-stop bathroom. She walks out of a stall without the use of legs and says, “Hey,” and I say hey back to her like I’m not worried about my sanity. Her fingers are nothing but skeleton. She’s smoking a cigarette.

In the center of her chest there’s an open wound, and through it I can see her ribs, her lungs, a candle lit, balanced on her solar plexus and surrounded by gilding.

“God get to you yet? God ask for any favors?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Something happened to me. I don’t know what. I don’t know what’s happening to me now, either.”

“Something happened to me too,” she says. “I started spitting fire, and then I turned to ice and melted and everyone around me said I was a martyr. I got painted by every painter. You’ve seen me on walls and on drugstore candles. Go get one if you want.”

She indicates the votive in her chest. “Might help you.”

The girl takes a long drag, and her cheeks suck in so far I can see what her skull looks like.

“Still hurts,” she says. “You don’t want to go this way, even if you get famous. Your face shows up on burnt toast and you never stop feeling like you can’t get a good breath. Still, it’s better than the alternative.”

“What’s the alternative?” I ask. “Oh,” she says. “You know. Eternal flame.”

She walks out of the bathroom, legless, leaving footprints made of fire, but then they’re gone and I’m standing there, one hand wrapped in paper.

My baby kicks inside me, cars pull in and out of the lot, trucks make that grieving moan of too heavy and brakes half broken. I see a bunch of them pull off the highway and uphill because nothing works on a big thing, nothing but gravity.

I keep going. Why am I going home at all? It occurs to me that they’ll know where I came from, and be waiting for me. But they aren’t. Nobody’s there.

I guess that’s because where I came from is gone. I’m having contractions, close enough together that I’m scared, and all that’s left in the place where I used to live is a bright white light, a fence around new buildings, and a mountain.

Every life starts with the same beginning and ends with the same end. The rest is the story, even if you don’t understand it, even if you aren’t sure which parts are true and which parts are your brain trying to make sense out of smoke. I grew up in a house looking up at this mountain. I left this place forever, but forever is over. Now I’m coming home again.

I climb, stumbling up the slope, through the trees and toward the cave.

Listen, I think. Listen.


From The Mere Wife. Used with the permission of MCD Books. Copyright © 2018 by Maria Dahvana Headley.

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