i. The Coven Reconstituted
Those of us acquainted with their sordid and scandalous story were not surprised to hear, by way of rumors from the various localities where the sorceresses had settled after fleeing our venerable town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, that the husbands whom the three Godforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves did not prove durable. Wicked methods make weak products. Satan counterfeits Creation, yes, but with inferior goods.
Alexandra, the oldest in age, the broadest in body, and the nearest in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity, was the first to become a widow. Her instinct, as with so many a wife suddenly liberated into solitude, was to travel—as if the world at large, by way of flimsy boarding cards and tedious airport delays and the faint but undeniable risk of flight in a time of rising fuel costs, airline bankruptcy, suicidal terrorists, and accumulating metal fatigue, could be compelled to yield the fruitful aggravation of having a mate. Jim Farlander, the husband she had conjured for herself from a hollowed pumpkin, a cowboy hat, and a pinch of Western soil scraped from inside the back fender of a pickup truck with Colorado plates that she had seen parked, looking eerily out of place, on Oak Street in the early 1970s, had, as their marriage settled and hardened, proved difficult to budge from his ceramics studio and little-frequented pottery shop on a side street in Taos, New Mexico.
Jim’s idea of a trip had been the hour’s drive south to Santa Fe; his idea of a holiday was spending a day in one of the Indian reservations—Navajo, Zuni, Apache, Acoma, Isleta Pueblo—spying out what the Native American potters were offering in the reservation souvenir shops, and hoping to pick up cheap in some dusty Indian Bureau commissary an authentic old black-and-white geometric Pueblo jar or a red-on-buff Hohokam storage jar, with its spiral-and-maze pattern, which he could peddle for a small fortune to a newly endowed museum in one of the burgeoning resort cities of the Southwest. Jim liked where he was, and Alexandra liked that in him, since she as his wife was part of where he was. She liked his lean build (a flat stomach to the day he died, and never performed a sit-up in his life) and the saddle smell of his sweat and the scent of clay that clung, like a sepia aura, to his strong and knowing hands. They had met, on the natural plane, when she, for some time divorced, had taken a course at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he had been enlisted as a fill-in instructor. The four stepchildren—Marcy, Ben, Linda, Eric—that she saddled him with couldn’t have asked for a calmer, more soothingly taciturn father-substitute. He was easier for her children—half out of the nest in any case, Marcy being all of eighteen—to relate to than their own father, Oswald Spofford, a small manufacturer of kitchen fixtures from Norwich, Connecticut. Poor Ozzie had become so earnestly involved in Little League baseball and company bowling that no one, not even his children, could take him seriously.
People had taken Jim Farlander seriously, women and children especially, giving him back his own coiled silence. His level gray eyes had the glint of a gun from within the shade of his wide-brimmed hat, its crown darkened where his thumb and fingers pinched it. When he was at the pottery wheel he tied a faded blue bandana around his head to keep his long hair—gray but still streaked with its original sun-bleached auburn and gathered behind into an eight-inch ponytail—out of the clay, wet and spinning on the foot-powered wheel. A fall in his teens from a horse had left him with a limp, and the wheel, which he refused to electrify, limped with him, while out of the spinning his masculine hands shaped blobs upward into graceful vessels with slender waists and swelling bottoms.
It was in bed she first felt his death coming. His erections began to wilt just as she might have come if he had held on; instead, in his body upon hers, there was a palpable loosening in the knit of his sinews. There had been a challenging nicety in the taut way Jim dressed himself—pointy vanilla-colored boots, butt-hugging jeans with rivet-bordered pockets, and crisp checked shirts double-buttoned at the cuff. Once a dandy of his type, he began to wear the same shirt two and even three days in a row. His jaw showed shadows of white whisker underneath, from careless shaving or troubled eyesight. When the ominous blood counts began to arrive from the hospital, and the shadows in the X-rays were visible to even her untrained eyes, he greeted the news with stoic lassitude; Alexandra had to fight to get him out of his crusty work clothes into something decent. They had joined the legion of elderly couples who fill hospital waiting rooms, as quiet with nervousness as parents and children before a recital. She felt the other couples idly pawing at them with their eyes, trying to guess which of the two was the sick one, the doomed one; she didn’t want it to be obvious. She wanted to present Jim as a mother presents a child going to school for the first time, as a credit to her. They had lived, these thirty-plus years since she had lived in Eastwick, by their own rules, up in Taos; there the free spirits of the Lawrences and Mabel Dodge Luhan still cast a sheltering cachet over the remnant tribe of artistic wannabes, a hard-drinking, New Age–superstitious, artsy-craftsy crowd who aimed their artifacts, in their shop-window displays, more and more plaintively at scrimping, low-brow tourists rather than the well-heeled local collectors of Southwestern art. Alexandra for a time had revived her manufacture of little ceramic “bubbies”—faceless, footless little female figures, pleasant to hold in the hand and roughly painted in clothes worn as close to the skin as tattoos—but Jim, jealous and dictatorial in his art as true artists are, had been less than gracious about sharing his kiln. In any case, the miniature women, their vulval cleft boldly dented into the clay with a toothpick or nail file held sideways, belonged to an uncomfortable prior period of her life, when she had practiced, with two other Rhode Island divorcees, a half-baked suburban variety of witchcraft.
Jim’s illness drove her and Jim down from safe, arty Taos into the wider society, the valleys of the ailing, a vast herd moving like stampeded bison toward the killing cliff. The socialization forced upon her—interviews with doctors, most of them unsettlingly young; encounters with nurses, demanding merciful attentions the hospitalized patient was too manly and depressed to ask for himself; commisera- tion with others in her condition, soon-to-be widows and widowers she would have shunned on the street but now, in these antiseptic hallways, embraced with shared tears—prepared her for travel in the company of strangers.
She could not believe it—how totally Jim was gone, his morning absence as vivid as a rooster’s wake-up crow, his evening non-appearance a refusal bound, she felt, to be cancelled, any moment, by the scuffling sound of his boots limping across the entry hall or the squeak, two rooms away, of his potter’s wheel. Three months after his death, she signed up for a ten-day tour of the Canadian Rockies. Her old, married, cosseted self, a bohemian snob proud of her careless, mannish clothes and high-desert privacy, would have sneered at the feigned camaraderie of an organized group tour. She foresaw the daily duty to rise and gorge on cafeteria-style hotel breakfasts and submit to more marvels, and the resisted but irresistible naps in the swaying bus in clammy proximity to an alien body, usually that of another plucky widow, overweight and remorselessly talkative. Then there would be the sleepless hours, amid worrisome small noises and mysterious tiny red lights, in a king-size bed built for a couple. Hotel pillows were always too stuffed, too full, and lifted her head too high, so she woke, groggily dumfounded to have slept at all, with a stiff neck. The pillow next to hers would be undented. It would dawn on her that she would never be one of a couple again.
But, born in Colorado, she thought it an amusing idea to follow the Rockies north into another country, where a dramatic landscape did not flatter the rapacious vanity of the United States. And Canada, she discovered, did have its good points: airports not bribed to install television sets pouring forth an inescapable babble, and voices whose familiar North American accent was braced by a few leftover Scots vowels, and a gray imperial gravity of public architecture. This national identity had been created by the sensible spirit of business enterprise, linking the provinces like great beads on an iron railroad line, rather than by any evangelical preachment of a Manifest Destiny—manifest only to its Anglo perpetrators—that had hurled the agglutinated United States westwards and then outwards, across all the oceans, where its boy soldiers lost limbs and died. The daily death-tolls from Iraq were worth escaping.
On the other hand, in Canada hotel restaurants still seemed to think Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole the latest thing in background music, and the giant cruise ships docked in Vancouver were headed off to dreary cold Alaska. Canada, its tundra and icefields and miles of forest pressing its population down tight against the forty-ninth parallel, had in self-defense embraced Green-ness, trying to make a pet of it, mining for tourist dollars the nostalgia and righteousness inherent in its cause. Bring Back Nature—who could object to that? But for Alexandra, totem poles and emblematic moose had a basic boringness. She felt, up here, trapped in an attic of stuffed animals. Nature had been her ally in witchcraft, but still she distrusted it, as a conscienceless killer, spendthrift and blind.
After a day in Vancouver, and another in determinedly quaint Victoria, the tour—forty travellers, none of them young and eight of them Australian—boarded a sleeper train and were dragged northwards through the dark. They woke amid mountains dazzling with the yellow of turning aspens. The tour had reserved a viewing car for their party, and Alexandra, hesitantly entering, after a heavy breakfast fetched by lurching waiters in the dining car, was greeted with hesitant smiles from the already seated couples. She took one of the few seats left and was conscious of the vacancy at her side, as if of a monstrous wen throwing her face off balance.
But, then, she could never have talked Jim into coming on such an adventure. He hated foreign countries, even the Virgin Islands, where, a few times early in their marriage, she had persuaded him to take her, as a break from the long Taos winter and the ski-season traffic jams along Route 522. They had arrived in St. Thomas, as it turned out, in the late afternoon, and were caught, in their rented Volkswagen Beetle, in the evening rush hour, Jim trying to drive for the first time in his life on the wrong side of the road. More unfortunately still, they were surrounded by black drivers who took a racist pleasure in tailgating them and in rebuking every sign of automotive uncertainty with prolonged, indignant honking. Though eventually they found the resort, at the end of a poorly marked road, Jim got sunburned the first day, having scorned her repeated offer of sunscreen, and then got deadly sick on some conch salad. Whenever, ever after, he felt bested in an exchange of accusations, he would remind her, in detail, of that week that almost--twenty-five years before he really died--killed him.
Now, in Canada, there was not a road or car in sight, just the tracks and tunnels ahead as the train bored upward through mountains splashed with quaking golden leaves. "There's Mount Robson!" a woman behind Alexandra excitedly told her husband.
An Australian across the aisle, in an attempt at friendliness, said to Alexandra, "Mount Robson ahead," as if she were deaf as well as alone.
From behind this speaker, another voice--not Australian, less peppy, with a tinge of the American Southern tinge--explained to her, everybody around her suddenly solicitous, as if of a defective in their midst, "The tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies."
"Really? Already?" Alexandra asked, knowing she sounded stupid and covering herself with "I mean, shouldn't they have saved it for later in the tour?"
Nobody laughed, perhaps not hearing, or understanding, her little joke. The train was taking a long curve, and the gleaming mountain-tip sank from view behind the aspens; the peak had been oddly regular, like a pyramid in a set of child's blocks, but white. "How high is it?" she asked aloud, determined to combat her sense of non-existence.
Again, she had struck a silencing note. "Nearly four thousand meters," an Australian voice volunteered.
She had trouble translating out of the metric system, and, borrowing a bit of her late husband's xenophobia, refused to try. The slightly Southern voice understood, and explained, "Nearly thirteen thousand feet, ma'am."
"My goodness!" Alexandra said, beginning to enjoy her own inanity. She turned her head to look at her informant. He was lanky, like Jim, and lean-faced, with deep creases and a mustache just long enough to droop. His costume, too-- faded tight blue jeans and a long-sleeved red-checked shirt-- reminded her of Jim. "Thank
you," she said, with more warmth than she had strictly intended. Perhaps this man with his air of dignified sorrow was a widower. Or was waiting for some slow-moving wife to join him here in the viewing car.
"Mount Robson isn't on the tour," the wife behind Alexandra was saying in her ear, in a penetrating, slightly vexed voice. "It's in a separate national park from Jasper."
"I really haven't done my homework," Alexandra apologized, backwards, experiencing a flash of hatred--the old impatient, witchy, bug-zapping kind of hate she thought she had long outgrown. Why should this woman, common and shrewish from the sound of her voice, have a live husband, when she, Alexandra, did not, sitting here exposed on all sides to these well-meant interventions from strangers?
"That's my style, too," a male Australian reassured her.
"Learn as you go. It's my wife reads the books ahead."
"And sees to the tickets and passports, you lazy sod," the wife said, in the humorous tone of a practiced complaint.
The train, smoother-running than American trains, on Canadian National Railway tracks welded and upheld by the government, continued to nose skyward. Mount Robson again appeared above the trees, its whiteness marked now by black striations--by snow-striped patches, faceted as if the peak had been carved to a point like a flint weapon. The hard cobalt of a picture-postcard sky pressed on these concave contours until the peak disappeared again behind the waves of yellow leaves. "It says here," the Australian wife loudly announced, holding a guidebook, "it was first climbed in 1913, by an Austrian bloke named Kain. K-A-I-N. It says the Canadian mountain men didn't like it when foreigners were the first to climb their mountains to the top. Got their ruddy noses out of joint."
Alexandra sighed and closed her lids, excusing herself from hearing any more. She wanted to relieve them all of having to pay her any further attention. Being a big woman, tall and somewhat broad, her full head of chestnut-brown hair still only half white, had given her a presence when she was younger but now that she was old and mateless made her conspicuous, an embarrassment to herself. Kain, Cain,
she thought. The first man to do a truly wicked deed, worse even than eating the apple of knowledge. Slew his brother, Abel. Thirty years ago Alexandra had slain a sister witch: she and Sukie Rougemont and Jane Smart had killed little Jenny Gabriel, though the death certificate blamed metastasized malignancy of the ovaries. The curse of it was always there, inside Alexandra, even when she didn't close her eyes, a sour gnawing. As negligible as a worm in the earth during the daylight hours, at night in her dreams the curse grew large and threatened to eat her alive. Again and again her dreams returned her to that hectic period, when Darryl Van Horne had taken as wife not one of the three of them but a younger woman, fair and ivory-skinned, with innocent, ice-blue eyes--too damned innocent, the older witches had felt. Had Jenny been less innocent, had she been as corrupt as they were, they would have accepted her besting them as part of a game among equals, marrying a man who after all hadn't cared for women, it turned out, and was not even rich, as they had been led to believe. They had imagined him, conjured him out of their own needs.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike. Copyright © 2008 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.