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The Flour Woman’s Daughter and the Demon of Renshire

June 25, 2020

This short story appeared in BigCityLit in 2001. I can’t remember if I wrote it with no spacing between paragraphs and no italics, or if the editor ignored my formatting suggestions. Either way, I always liked the piece, but lamented it’s lack of clarity in the published version. Below, I’ve added spaces between sections and italics to mark shifts in consciousness. It still lacks proper indenting and a few other glitches, because I’m not good at html. Still, I hope you enjoy the reboot!

Sarah Goodwin

The Flour Woman’s Daughter and the Demon of Renshire

        The writer has the title, ‘The Flour Woman’s Daughter and the Demon of Renshire.’ Writing is tedious and solitary, so sometimes she pretends to be reading to an eager child who begs, “I want to hear that one again, ‘The Flour Woman’s Daughter and the Demon of Renshire.'” She prefers first-person accounts.

       When we were little girls, Mama used to tell us that life would demand sacrifice, and indeed, it has come to pass exactly as she said. Mama was always old, her hair was always gray, and she was always corpulent. None of her daughters resemble another in look or temperament. People in the village said we all came from different fathers, but Mama insists that she did not give birth to us, rather, she found us in the hen house under the fattest red hen, sleeping in the eggs, one daughter every spring. Mama says, “How else can it be? You know I have never married.”
         I was Juliette Sweeper, the flour woman’s youngest daughter. My father could have been any man who’d braved Mama’s mounds of flesh in her dirty bloomers. He could’ve been Louis IX, the sainted French king, or the mule of the same name that pulled our cart, for all I knew.
         Day in, day out, Louis IX dutifully pulled us through town after town, then back to the flour mill. Even in my dress made out of flour sacks, a size too small and covered in road dust, I was a pretty child. As I began to fill my sack, Mama started worrying some men would follow us and take me into the woods where they would do unspeakable things.

“Unspeakable things?”
“You watch television, kid. You know what I mean.”
“Why do you say ‘unspeakable things’?”
“So I don’t have to speak them. If you want, I can stop now and you can contemplate the unspeakable things bad men do to children in the woods before you try to sleep.”
“I don’t think so.”
“So, where was I?”

I was perhaps twelve years old when my mother sold me to Brathwaite. A servant of that house was in town to purchase several items, including flour and a serving girl. He bought three sacks of flour and me. 

“Get to the demon. I want to hear about the demon.”
“Ah, the Demon of Renshire. I was just getting to that.”
“No you weren’t. You were on your way to Bath Water.”
“Brathwaite. Which is in Renfield. Please don’t interrupt.”

Panspermia. In an unnamed crater in Terra Sabaea near the Martian Equator during a planetary nebula, the star known as NGC 6751 died, spreading its microatomical spores into Earth’s prebiotic soup. Now mutation was in the equation: such as hemophilia and albinoism. The genome for blood drinking entered the phylogeny of certain arthropods: mosquitoes and ticks, for example. Among us hominids, the thirst for blood lay in thermodynamic entropy for thousands of years, until hunger woke him.

His young mother, accused of witchcraft, was ugly and surly, pregnant by her own father who beat her; you could say she slept with Lucifer himself. The child clawed its way out of her womb, scratching and biting. She tried to smother its head with a pillow, but the creature hissed at her, leapt up on two feet, and walked out the door.

That woman was Elizabeth Reeds of Renshire. Her younger sister Charlotte married Eliot Brathwaite, who was the great-grandfather of Geoffrey Brathwaite, who ordered the building of the mansion, which was soon to house our heroine, Juliette Sweeper.

 I was the most licentious of the flour woman’s seven daughters, and I refused many proposals of marriage. As of yet, I had met with no dire consequences. I was beloved of Venus, who visited me often in the form of the dim-witted, well-muscled stable boy. When old Harold Brathwaite called me into his library, I did not shrink before the great man in rich red robes.

 “I demand an explanation, Miss Sweeper,” said Mr. Brathwaite. “Tell me what you were doing in the lawns riding my best stallion bareback and naked?” Somewhere outside the door, a serving girl with a glass to her ear giggled.

 I answered, “My mama told me, as her mother told her, that her great-uncle once held in his hand parchment that told of foreign lands where a tribe of women with no breasts rode horses and handled weapons.”

(Somewhere, not so far away, the ancient priest who had burned the document of which the girl spoke, leaned more heavily on his cane.)

“I was on my way to the well to fetch water, and I took a shortcut past the plum tree where I woke a sleeping fairy. She asked what I was dreaming of that made me so distracted and clumsy, and I told her I was dreaming of adventure. In a bit of pixie mischief, she took me to fairyland, where changeling boys stripped me down. Then I was bathed and perfumed by three voluptuous nymphs. I was given a sword and a horse, told where to go, and sent on my way. I did not know that there was a prophecy about an adventure at sea, then a trial by fire, ending with me slaying the dragon and saving the kingdom.

One day, as I was resting with a belly full of mead and meat from a fairy feast, your horse came and nuzzled my hand, waving his tail and shaking his splendid mane. I climbed on top of him, and suddenly I found myself once again in your garden, entire months amounting to what, I soon realized, was but an afternoon.”

Braithwaite, that idle idol, gracefully sprawled in his plushest chair, his silver hair falling rakishly over one ear, his mouth forming an indulgent smile. What if, instead of lowering my head and pouting, I had grabbed the ornamental silver battle axe hanging over the fireplace and chopped off old Brathwaite’s arrogant skull, as guiltlessly as I had not long ago lopped off the head of the dragon?

“I’m rather upset, really,” I told Brathwaite, “because before the world dissolved, I was handed a crystal that has been passed down from High Priestess to High Priestess. I guess I was supposed to be their next Fairy Queen. But suddenly I was in the woods behind your estate, and your stable men had found me. Anyway, I keep the crystal.” And I opened my palm to reveal its sparkling smooth edges.

Old Brathwaite clutched his heart. “Are you a shadow? A sorceress? Suddenly I seem to have known you before, and thought for a minute that this life was nothing but a dream.”

I realize I’m saying this less to you than to myself when I ask: who am I to think that the world of fairy tales and mythology is real, containing all that humans fail to be or strive to be or were meant to be or which deep down inside, we are?
Blessed be for any insight you can give me.
Ah, the child sleeps!

 Anyway, through a skillfully woven sequence of coincidences it is discovered that Juliette Sweeper is actually the long-lost great-granddaughter of old Harold Brathwaite, and thus, she inherits Brathwaite’s riches and marries the dim-witted, but well-muscled stable boy. The Demon, by the way, is also a Brathwaite, so there is some symmetry in their meeting, which happens after intermission.

 

Click here to read the original story on BigCityLit

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