My husband John was in most nights now. Carry Nation’s visit had spent the town’s temperance fever, and, like John, most of the horn players had gone back to their evenings at saloons or dreaming next to dour wives. I wasn’t really dour, just blank as an egg, while I sat near the fire burning towards Martha and mending shirts for John. I stopped joining him in bed, but sat up over my sewing until he blew out the lamp.|
I had gotten a lock for the sewing chest. I saw John notice it, but he never said a word. I kept pages about Martha under the tray of spools and thimbles and a pile of fabric scraps.
I wrote about her nights after John had gone to sleep. I wrote her hand inside me, I wrote my body arching, I wrote her teeth on my nipples and her hair in my mouth. I told lies and made up stories and gave her special powers. She wrestled buffalo and screamed at eagles. I cupped her, formed her softness. She touched the tops of mountains with her languid double chin. She pressed her breasts against my bones. She lifted herself to find my slick tip with her nipple. She parted river waters so people carrying food in baskets could cross. She sank on me with her full weight, and I breathed shallow under her, caught by her substance and her wonder.
She flew. She spoke with angels. She played Jesus in the Bible. She carved a canyon with her tireless hands. She shook and brought forth waters. She sang whales into the ocean. She ploughed the ground with her knee while she rode a ridge and stroked her hands along the surfaces of grasses in the fields.
I became the earth, her instrument—smoothed and dug and brought forth—but I wrote her powers into her, and played her every night. The mornings were rushed and secret, bordered on all sides with commerce, but at night I made her stretch across me until we filled most open places I could imagine in this world.
Men were sitting on the porch of Moody’s store one night, debating about the sacred. The Reverend was off at the swimming hole, where he liked to go alone at night, so he wasn’t there to embarrass the discussion, and somehow things had drifted away from schisms and got hung on the nature of God.
The men chewed tobacco and leaned on the cracker barrel, serious. The sheriff said he believed the laws of nature and science were expressions of a Higher Mind. The blacksmith sat on a railing, drumming his hands on his thighs and calling out, “Sweet Jesus." The banker said such matters were best left in church. He stubbed his cigar out in the dust, and crossed Main Street lit by moonlight.
When a farmer said god was a father, a ram, not a pasty-faced lamb-kisser from colored pictures, the sheriff sent a boy into the store to fetch Martha.
He bowed from the waist as she stepped onto the porch. “I’ll keep watch on the cash register, Ma’am. There are mortal matters to discuss.”
Martha stood in the doorway with her hands stuck in the pocket of her black apron. She looked around the circle of men’s faces in the silver light. A wild little girl, Ruth, was chasing June bugs within voice range. She and Martha were the only human females out that night.
The sheriff posed the question, fingering his badge. “Mrs. Moody, you are familiar with mysteries. I’ve heard that you’ve spoken with water and had it speak back. Could you give us an image of God we could care about?”
Martha pulled a pipe from her pocket and lit it. The smoke smelled fruity and sharp. “Why ask me? I’m just here to sell mops and cream.”
The men coughed and shifted. They knew she had powers. The blacksmith started stomping his boots on the porch, and they all picked it up.
The sheriff tensed and raised his hand. “Now, we’ve all been making purchases from Mrs. Moody for years. Show some respect.” He gave every point of the circle his magnetic election day eye, and the stomping died off.
Martha smiled and breathed smoke. It looked yellow so near the lantern, and drifted over the men like a butter fog.
They all heard the slow clop of cloven hooves on sawdust as Azreal walked out through the store. The sheriff stood aside, his mouth gaping. The cow had her wings folded across her back. She ambled over to Martha, leaned against her, and lifted her muzzle to Martha’s ear. “Tell them to take off their golden earrings and bring them to you.”
The cow shone with a cold light that cast Martha's shadow over the porch and to the edge of Main Street. The men huddled together, but the sheriff stepped up and tapped Martha on the shoulder. “Um, ma’am. None of us wear earrings. If you could wait for us to go home and talk to our wives, we could come up with a pile of gold, I’d guarantee.” The sheriff was a bachelor, but confident.
Just then, a great rattling began. All metal started to move. Every watch and gun was shaking on the man that wore it. The blacksmith screamed. His glasses were dancing above him, floating over his face like a big-eyed silver spider. The sheriff’s badge pounded and buckled on his chest. His guns rose and clicked their butts like castanets. Pennies and half dollars spun on the boards. Belt buckles dragged men behind them across the ground. Men tangled in each other’s spurs.
There was no noise from the pots and axes and shovels inside the store. Ruth crouched in the darkness with the June bugs, who were whirring and clicking as on any other night.
A squirming pile of men fell off the porch, stuck together by the metal on their persons. They knocked the cracker barrel off, too, and it splintered. Crackers shaped like hearts and eyes and silhouettes scattered in the dust.
“Listen,” shouted Martha from the cleared porch, “this is an old story.”
Azreal looked at Martha standing on the edge of the porch with her hands raised and her red hair catching lantern light from the back. “You’re a fine figure of a woman,” said the cow. “Let’s wrestle.”
The men shouted and thrashed in their pile on the ground. Azreal and Martha circled each other. Suddenly the cow brought one of her wings forward and slashed across Martha’s skirt. The cloth split, and Martha jumped back. Then she grinned and threw herself on Azreal’s broad, muscled neck.
“Careful!” yelled Ruth, drawing closer to the porch. Some of the men were cursing and some were listening to what was happening on the porch.
Martha held the angel's neck close to her shoulders trying to tussle her to the ground. Azreal beat her wings, making a wind that loosed Martha’s hair from its bun and blew her ripped skirt up over her petticoat. Martha didn’t loosen her grasp, but took a step closer and wrapped one foot around Azreal’s foreleg. The cow lifted her hoof and stomped. The boards of the porch splintered beneath her, but Martha held on.
Sweat poured from the woman’s face like wax from a hot candle. She grunted, then dropped her full weight on the cow’s neck. The two figures fell to the buckling surface of the porch, and writhed: the cow on her back, hooves and wings in the air; the woman with her black-stockinged legs wrapped around the cow’s golden sides, flopping and groaning and clinging to the animal with all her might. Azreal contracted her wings, then she used their feathered muscles to lift her from her back and push off from the porch. They hung low in the air while Martha struggled to straddle the cow’s back, then they rose and flew toward the moon, laughing and breathing hard and whipping up a wind behind them.
The men found that they could untangle themselves, and they went home with whatever guns and watches they found stuck in their pockets. The next day they sorted through their possessions and fixed the porch for Martha. The sheriff asked Ruth who had won the wrestling match, but she just chewed on her fingers and said she didn’t know. Martha opened the store three days later, looking like a proper laced-up matron. No one asked her about mysteries after that. It was dangerous.
One day an angel was walking down the Main Street of Moody. She saw a store, and entered. A fat red-headed woman stood behind the counter. She nodded at the angel, and the angel recognized her. “Are you Martha Moody?”
Martha rang up a purchase and nodded again. “What’s your pleasure?”
The angel blinked her large yellow eyes, and said, “I am Azreal, and I need a favor”
Martha said, “I can’t take any time off from the store.”
Azreal stuck her muzzle in a barrel and picked up an apple. “Come on. It’ll just take a few moments of your time.”
Martha frowned. “Don’t bite that apple unless you're going to buy it. Can it wait until after five o’clock?”
Azreal licked the apple with her long tongue, then put it back in the barrel.
“Hey,” said Martha.
Azreal held up her hoof. “That will make it extra sweet for some lucky customer”
Martha looked skeptical, but as soon as the angel had wandered off, she found the very apple and took a bite. It tasted like honey would if it had a peel.
Azreal was back at five sharp. She lowered the awning while Martha locked up.
Martha was used to being asked for favors, but she was curious about this character. “What would you have me do?”
Azreal suddenly looked grander. “Your task is to come to a dry town and use your powers to make it wet and green.”
Martha stared at the angel as the store fell away around them. A wind came up and blew the gray cloak off of Azreal to reveal her in full glory as a winged cow. She was the color of fine butter, with deep yellow skin, broad yellow udders with veins in the pattern of lightning, yellow at the end of her tail, and the inside of her ears and around the eyelids yellow.
Martha saw that she was no longer standing, but floating on blue air thick as cream. Her black dress melted away from her, and she found herself in a short garment of a shimmering white fabric she did not recognize, with thin straps and a pattern of eyelet flowers over her breasts. Her body was loose underneath—her corset frothed off her into ticklish bubbles—and she was moving all over herself, like the sky cream she was riding.
“Look down,” lowed Azreal. Martha saw a hilly, green country, very different from Moody, with trees in abundance and black roads and strange houses at regular intervals.
“You must make it wet and green,” quoth Azreal.
“But it’s already green," said Martha, turning onto her side so that she could see the cow flying beside her. "So many trees.”
“It’s dry at the heart,” Azreal insisted.
So Martha stretched out on her stomach and floated looking down through the clear blue cream to the clusters of houses and odd vehicles. Azreal watched over her shoulder and breathed grassy smells on her back.
When they were close enough, Martha saw people—women, mostly, and small boys and girls—carrying brown bags, talking, gliding the streets in closed wagons. They looked like the people of Moody, just dressed funny and most of the women were thinner—but a smell rose from them and their houses. Martha didn’t recognize it, but it bit into her nose and made her eyes water.
“Dry rot.” Azreal flicked her tail, and the cream sky darkened. “Go on, Martha. They’re desperate.”
Martha wondered how to go about bringing them liquid. She could cry them a river, but she wasn’t that moved. In fact, she felt indifferent to lives whose dryness made her itch even from this distance. “Why don’t you do it?” she asked Azreal.
The cow stretched her wings. “That’s not my role. I just make the cream.”
Martha knew a thing or two about cream. She dipped a flesh-rippled arm in the thick sky she was floating in. “So that’s it. Okay. I'll churn the air.”
“You can stand on my back if you want.” Azreal beat her wings and flew close to Martha. "To have a solid surface.”
So Martha climbed onto the back of the yellow angel cow. Azreal's back was broad, and Martha's feet were bare, so when she squatted for a moment, then stood up straight, she had a firm footing. She wanted to beat as much of the cream as she could, so she started swinging her arms and rolling her hips, the big swings of her belly moving the cream in a firm circle. Her hips stirred from the front and the back, and her arms caught the motion over her head and brought it back down to her hips again. She moved like sex, like magic, like the ocean she carried with her in her rippling back. The soft parts of her body that she couldn’t agitate floated back and forth in rhythm as she worked. It was hypnotic and exhausting. Martha didn’t learn so much motion in childhood, but grew into it with her breasts and the rolls of her sides. She walked forward on Azreal’s back with her hips and arms rolling, then turned on her toes and walked to the tail. Azreal sang low repetitions in the ancient voice of cow, to help.
They hung in froth that lasted for what seemed hours, a screen of small blue bubbles that clung to Azreal’s hide and Martha’s skin, but slid off her shiny slip. They could no longer see the town, but Martha had closed her eyes, anyway, to concentrate. She forgot about the people, forgot about dryness, but lost herself in texture, in nuances of foam as it slipped down her sides, as it clung to her eyelids and coated her hair. She felt herself swelling, arms and belly spreading until she and Azreal could move the whole sky.
Then it happened. It thickened. Martha’s breaths came slow and filtered through blue whipped cream. Azreal kept singing. Martha waved and rolled and danced. Quickly the cream clotted and butter milk spilled upon the people who had been pursuing their business as if the sky were a far and placid place.
Martha sat on Azreal, who flapped her wings slowly to help her gather the butter into a ball.
“That’s the moon,” Azreal told her. “They’ll see it shine tonight.”
Martha dug some craters with her fingers. “Do you go through this every month?”
Azreal shook her head. "Not that often. But these people are so hollow that they suck the moon down to nothing. So I look for a woman with strength and succulence who can churn my cream to butter when it gets too bad. There’s nothing like buttermilk rain for dry rot.”
Martha glanced down. It all looked about the same, only glossy.
Azreal landed. “Thank you so much.”
Before Martha could answer, she was standing at the counter of her closed store, with an apple sweet as honey in her hand.
These three pieces are excerpts from my novel Martha Moody. My publisher and I thought about the book as a “fantastical western,” although that might be misleading to those who love the traditional genre conventions of westerns. In the novel, Amanda Linger, the narrator, falls in love with a shopkeeper named Martha Moody. Amanda is unhappily married to a trumpet player named John, and both of them take comfort in the solid, animal warmth of their milk cow, Miss Alice. One revelatory moment for Amanda comes as she is caught up with other women in her community in a saloon-smashing when radical temperance activist Carry Nation rolls into town with her hatchets. That incident is referred to in the first story, “Martha Moody.” “Cream” and “Dangerous” are both stories from a series starring a powerful, mythic version of Martha that Amanda writes and sells to a pulp magazine called True Western Tales during a time when she is yearning for and separated from the real life Martha. Miss Alice, the household cow, gets transformed in these stories, too.
While I was writing the novel, which was published in 1995, I was exploring my responses to the wonderful, demanding, strange, revelatory, silly and exciting pockets of fat lesbian liberation that I first encountered in the mid-eighties. I thought of the book as about being about the nature of love. I meant that broadly, but my way into it was an exploration of the nature of the love of fat women for our own bodies and for each other. I had experienced plenty of discrimination, hatred and shaming around fatness, but I wanted to focus on convincing possibilities for joy and love. One thing that I felt both grateful for and unsatisfied with was the tendency I found in fat lesbian culture (and lesbian culture, in general, for that matter) to represent fat women as goddesses. It sometimes seemed to me that this incredibly brave, new movement – which, by the way, transformed my life – was so bent on countering the negative stereotypes we faced that we all were expected to be role models rather than actual, flawed human beings. The magical elements in Amanda’s stories, and in the book as a whole, let me evoke the thrill of that first rush when I recognized beauty, power and sensual pleasure where I had been taught to see only failure, ugliness and weakness. The arc of the book let me take the characters into recognition of their own flaws, so that they could know each other in more complete ways, with room for mess and wonder, both.
Susan Stinson is the author of novels Venus of Chalk, Martha Moody, Fat Girl Dances With Rocks and a collection of poetry and lyric essays, Belly Songs. In 2011, she was awarded the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize from the Lambda Literary Foundation. Her work appears in anthologies from Ballantine Books, Scholastic Books and NYU Press, and in many periodicals, including Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, and Early American Studies. She is Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. Visit her website. View a video of Stinson reading from Spider in a Tree on the website of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale.
Martha Moody, novel. Spinsters Ink, Duluth, MN: 1995. British edition, The Women’s Press, London, 1996. German hardback edition, Alfred Scherz Verlag, Bern, Switzerland: 1997. Paperback edition, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt, 1999.