by Nik Perring
Martha is the biggest woman in our village. And when I say big, I mean it. She must stand well over six feet tall, and that's in bare feet. Martha is the only person in the village who doesn't wear shoes, she's also the only person in the village who has a snake that talks.
They say the reason she's the way she is, is because of the time she spent in Africa in the sixties. She was married to an African man once, the Senegalese, folk used to call him. But that was well before my time and the only reason I know about it is because of what I've been told by the village elders; the ones who remember the war, when people worked the mills, when the village had a train station, and the winter it snowed so hard and so long that it covered a bus. They ignore Martha, says she's weird. Call her a freak, a druid. Some say she was a whore, most say she's mad. All agree she's bad news.
Martha was a little strange. She was an old lady, her grey hair looked brittle and coarse, like she never washed it, and her clothes looked like she'd stolen them from a washing line in some shanty years ago. She never left the village, not as far as I or anyone knew. She shopped at the local store; we'd see her walking down the main road, past the village green, the pub, the aqueduct; strong arms carrying her bags, strong legs carrying her on rough feet. She never had any trouble with the villagers though, no-one ever spoke to her and that was something I found quite odd in my youth, I mean people aren't usually that shy when it comes to abusing village freaks. Not so with Martha, they kept what they said behind her back.
I wonder if I was the first person in the village to speak to her. I imagine I was the first to in years, at any rate.
I'd been out walking. In truth I'd been to the pub and decided to leave early and take the long way home. It was a pleasant evening, bright and warm—something we don't often get round here and I decided to take advantage of it, the pleasant weather was a nice thing to appreciate. I walked the perimeter of the village, passed the fields on the east and the locks on the west, the petrol station by the main road and the fishing pond by the old mill. And when the light began to fade and the sky looked like smudged charcoal, I directed myself home.
I'd walked the length of the cricket pitch and was traversing the rec when we met. I heard a shifting to my right and a sound like fingers drumming. I turned and there she was, Martha, sitting on one of the benches they'd put in for the millennium, which were twee enough to make middle England proud. She seemed relaxed and intense, her legs stretched casually in front of her, her finger nails drumming the seat, and the fading light, the oncoming darkness, I thought, suited her; she looked stronger, more defined in it.
'Nathan,' she said.
Instinctively, possibly even against my will, I stopped; she had called my name.
'Nathan, I was hoping you would do me a favour.' The sweetness of her voice, the authority it commanded and the way her words were perfectly formed surprised me.
'If I can,' I said. 'What is it?'
As she leaned forward her long skirt rustled.
'I would like to dance,' she said. 'Will you help me?'
This was strange, and frightening, and I started to think about moving away.
'Dance with me, Nathan,' she said.
I could not reply.
'You don't want to?' she asked, leaning forward still further.
'I—' I began.
'You are scared. You have heard what they say about me. You would rather run away.'
'No, it's not that, it's—'
'And you believe them. You believe what they say about the weird witch woman. You think they have reason to be scared, don't you?'
'You have no need to fear me, Nathan,' she said. 'Give me your hand.'
And I did. God knows why but I did, I offered it to her, palm up.
'Now close your eyes.'
I did that as well.
And then I felt something. At first I thought it was her hand, placed in mine, and then maybe the end of a walking stick. It was neither. It was firm and scaly and warm.
'Open,' she said.
When I did as she'd instructed I saw that I was holding a snake, it was grey in the dimness and calm. My reflexes forced me to shiver, and my shiver caused her to laugh.
'You must think I'm mad,' she said.
'I don't think you're mad,' I replied, hoping to appease her. 'Or weird. And I've never said I think you are, not to anyone.'
'The others do. They have said so. And they have said so to you. Do you not think me strange?' The snake left my hand and disappeared inside the folds of her clothes.
I said the first thing that came into my head.
'I don't really know you.'
She laughed again, softer than before and said, 'You will.'
She began to walk away, following the same route that I had been heading along. And I went with her.
'I am not unreasonable,' she said and as she spoke she did not look at me, but I looked at her, and in so doing I was reminded of her incredible size. I was not a small man but my head was in line with her shoulders. I also saw, in that dullness of the twilight, how lean she was, slim and strong.
'What do you mean?' I asked her, surprising myself at both my confidence and conviction.
'I mean I am fair,' she replied. 'I would not ask you to do something for me without the thought of reward, or recompense.'
'I'm not sure I understand.'
'You don't understand,' she replied strongly, 'I know. It is simple: You will dance with me and I will give you something in return.'
We crossed the bridge over the stream and ascended the stone steps which brought us onto the main road, and then turned onto the street where her house stood.
'You may think me a mad woman,' she said. 'Or maybe not. I am not sure, yet. But Nathan, I have been in this village for many, many years. I know it. It is as much a part of me as I am a part of it. I know it like a son, like a pet. Ask me something about it.'
'Like what?' I said.
'Ask me anything. About the village, the people who live here. Anything.'
I saw the hint of a smile appear on her face. 'A part of your reward.'
I wasn't sure what she was getting at exactly but I complied with her request.
'When were those steps put in? The ones by the stream.'
'Nineteen-ten,' she told me.
'And the cricket pitch?'
'Eighteen-ninety-three, completed April 5th. But you know that already. I know you know that.' It was true, I did. 'Ask me something you don't think I could know.'
I hesitated, thinking.
Martha continued, 'Ask me what they were saying about me in the pub earlier. Ask me what they said to you about me.'
'What were they saying?' I asked.
'They,' she said, still not turning to speak to me, still walking on, her head straight, 'Joe and George said that this place would be better without me. They said that I scare the children, that I'm mad and that I'm filthy. They said that it would be no great shame if someone were to do me in.'
This was incredible. Had she been there, I wondered? Had she heard them? She had repeated their words with utter accuracy, and what was stranger, what was even more unbelievable, was that as she'd spoken she'd sounded like the people she'd quoted. Her voice had become masculine, deeper and gravelly, her lilt broad and colloquial.
'Ask me what you said to them,' she continued. 'Ask me if you said, "leave her be, she's no harm." And ask me if you like the way I walk.'
Again I was incredulous and dumbfounded. This was all true.
'Ask me anything,' she said.
'Okay,' I said. There was something I wanted to know, something I had wondered from being very young. I wanted to know who my real mother was.
'Martha,' I began.
'Not now, later,' she said. 'We are here. It is time to dance.'
We had arrived at Martha's house, the ugly, sixties semi which, with its plain red brick, white door and PVC windows, looked the same as half of the other houses in our village.
She approached the door, pushed it open and entered. I looked at her feet, saw her dirty soles as she stepped into her hall and wondered if she found treading on carpet a pleasure or relief.
'Come,' she said. 'To dance.'
Her hall was far more normal than I could have imagined. When I had thought of her house I had images of it being a mad, swelling jungle of wood carvings and dreamcatchers, of statues, crystals and charms. It was nothing like that, not at all. A telephone sat on a shelf on the wall next to hooks on which very normal coats were hung.
'You are curious about my feet,' she said. 'Would you like to ask me about them?'
I shook my head, stunned again at what she knew, this woman.
She sat on the stairs, on the fourth one up and she smiled. She stretched out her legs and said, gently, 'Here. Look. No need to be embarrassed.'
I stepped closer. It seemed impossible to do anything other than what she wanted, but that didn't feel bad. I didn't feel as though I was being forced to do anything, just guided, chivvied.
'You wonder what it's like, me wearing no shoes. You wonder if it hurts, if the pavements and tarmac and gravel scar me. See for yourself. Look.'
I bent slightly, then crouched and took a foot in my hand. It was not deeply scarred or broken, but neither was it unblemished. It was rough and scratched, tough and hardened. My curiosity began to get the better of me. It was true that I wondered what it felt like to never wear shoes, but her legs also intrigued me; they looked to be so toned, so strong—so muscular, especially for someone of such great years. I wanted to look, to inspect further, so I did, as subtly as I could. They were every bit as hard as I had thought; they were the calves, the shins, the thighs of an athlete. Perfectly toned and powerful.
I gasped in embarrassment and lowered my eyes when I realised that I was, in effect, looking up her skirt.
'It's fine,' she said, but despite her calm reassurance I stood and stepped back. 'Come,' she said, standing up, 'and dance.'
She led me through the kitchen, which with its pine cupboards, ordinary oven, kettle and range, was again far more normal than I could have imagined, and into the back garden. The garden was small, square and plain. The grass was neatly cut and it was all illuminated by a single floodlight which had been attached to the wall high above the door.
She took my hand and guided me to the centre of the garden and faced me. It felt as though I was before a tower or a bear such was her height. She pulled open her blouse, revealing two plump breasts, and I began to worry that she was trying to seduce me; I had no wish to sleep with her. She was looking more serious now, but she smiled which served to put me at ease. When she let her blouse flutter to the floor I saw the snake again, it was wrapped around her middle and was looking at me. Martha smiled again briefly as the snake stretched forward, slowly approaching me. 'Dance,' it said. It touched my hip, felt like it nuzzled me for a moment, before continuing around my back. Martha began to hum a tune, the like of which I cannot describe, even now, and she placed her hands on my shoulders. The snake coiled around me and then, firm, like a harness around my back, returned to Martha. Her humming grew louder and the snake pulled me tighter, pulled me closer to her until our bodies touched. She began to move, we swayed and turned in a circle, every nerve in my body fizzed, every muscle; manipulated and charged.
It was electrifying, the dance. For moments we were one. I felt blinded by the night and dizzy. I held Martha tightly, felt her flesh, hot and smooth and firm. One instant she was skin, muscle and bone, the next she was bark. And then stone, cold and rough. Then wicker, then clay, then mud, then fur. I saw the inside of the earth, her bowels and womb and heart. I saw her roots, her buds and her seed. I saw her children, her seas and their beds. I saw her parasites and her devoted, her idols, alters and dead. I saw all who spoke ill of her, all who sought to rule her, to banish her spirit. I saw her love for them and how they were forever protected. And then I saw black; intense, oily, thick and impenetrable. I felt heavy and squashed and exhausted.
When Martha released me it felt as though I had awoken from the deepest sleep or the fiercest dream. I gulped in air and felt relief and calm and a furious intensity all at once.
Martha curtseyed before picking up her blouse and shrugging it on.
'Thank you,' she said.
'Thank you,' I replied.
'Is there anything else you would like to ask me?'
I shook my head and told her, 'No thanks,' because I didn't need to.
Martha waved me goodbye from her door when I left, and I decided to take the quickest route home, the route which took me to the end of Martha's street, onto the main road and past the pub on the corner. It was as I passed the pub that I realised that I had been seen leaving Martha's house, and I stopped for a while outside it. It was late so the curtains were closed, the door locked and the lights at the front turned off. I shook my head, sighing, at the things they were saying about me. One called me a pervert, another explained that he'd always thought I was mad, a freak, even when we were at school. They agreed that I was bad news, that I was best avoided.
'What did I tell you last week?' one said, 'But you wouldn't have it. I said he was not to be trusted, that I'd never liked him.'
'I've never liked him either,' another agreed. And then another, and another, and more.
I shook my head again and then shrugged before walking on. I can't say I didn't care what they were saying, about what they thought of me, but I was relieved because, somehow, I knew better. And such was my conviction of this that for a second I considered removing my shoes. I didn't. Not that night. That night I just headed home.
Story Copyright © 2008 by Nik Perring. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Nik Perring is a writer and workshop leader from the north west of England. Heâ€™s the author of short stories and poems and a childrenâ€™s book. You can find out more about him by visiting his website www.nperring.com or his blog.