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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Threeway Marriage
The land froze nine months of the year. Any winter dead had to wait until spring to be buried. The people hunted tarabagans for food, and wore rodent fur parkas, thin hairless tails hanging from their sleeves. The huts smelled of burnt flesh and goat marrow. In previous generations, they married at fourteen and died at thirty, but Lila’s parents had to marry her off earlier.
Lila was beautiful, with thick black curls and eyes that turned up at the ends. The devil saw her throwing rocks at tarabagans with unusual viciousness, a child with a warrior’s arm, and he loved her.
Her neighbor Min loved her too, maybe more. He loved her when she fooled him with riddles and he loved her when he bested her in sports. When he came of age, he asked her parents for her hand in marriage. They laughed in his face; they told him the astrological signs were incompatible. Who cares about the signs, he thought, and he watched Lila from his doorway, watched as she turned twelve and then thirteen, her hair even blacker, her smile ever sweeter.
The devil, meanwhile, had spent months and months tunneling through the permafrost out from hell, chipping away at the ice with only his long, curled nails. Finally he broke through and possessed Lila, one night in empty, dark winter as she was beating goatskin. She let out one bloodthirsty cry and fell over onto her side and lay with her bones rigid and her flesh trembling, her eyes gleaming with fire. She held everyone captive in her gaze except her sister, who came from behind and threw a blanket over her head, freeing the rest of the family from her flame.
In the morning Lila woke up and took off the blanket and began her chores; she complained of a headache, asked what had happened, and her family thought the devil inside her was gone. But it happened again that night, and the next, and every night, until they could only see the slow burning in her eyes even when the devil lay dormant. Small birds started dying around their house, fallen headless and bloodless, and Lila hiccupped feathers. The neighbor baby went blind, then her brother’s baby. Her parents knew they had to get her wed quickly, before the devil could take her during the day with another village family there to see.
It was easy to find Lila a husband; she came from a well-respected family, she worked hard, she had thick thighs, and Min had loved her forever, and his parents wanted him to be happy. On her wedding night, she spat and hissed and kicked at her new husband; the devil came up from hell to claim her, but he couldn’t overpower Min and Min couldn’t overpower him; unhappily, they shared their woman.
Lila started to bear children, ruddy, two-toed children with Min’s shiny hair and pointed ears and the booming, rasping voice of the devil and nothing of Lila. She didn’t believe they were hers and she refused to nurse them; they grew fat and angry on goat milk; they hit Min and drank his blood in his sleep, and he banished his children into the wilderness, where they toddled into snake holes or froze into the ice, and the devil got mad and began to poison the earth.
Well water ran red in the summer, snow fell black in the winter. Min tried to reason with Lila. “You’re my wife,” he said. “My parents paid for you.”
“But the devil claimed me first,” she replied.
“Make him leave,” Min commanded, and Lila laughed.
“You make him leave, if you’re my husband.”
Min couldn’t wrestle the devil; he didn’t have the strength. He went to the mountain with a hammer and chisel, and he broke off a slab of granite, six feet across and two feet thick, large enough to lay over the entrance to hell. His neighbor lent him a horse and cart, and together they covered the passageway. The devil rammed his shoulder against it again and again, but he couldn’t budge the stone, and Min and his neighbor turned their backs and walked away. The villagers grew accustomed to the howling coming from the outskirts of town.
Min spent the next week in bed with his wife; he had never had so much time alone with her. But without the devil inside her, Lila’s eyes grew dull and her shoulders slumped. She could work on the same four inches of weaving from sunup to sunup, never sleeping. She answered Min’s questions with one flat word. He grew bored.
Min went out to the place where the devil used to come up and tied ropes around the granite slab and pulled it aside. The devil, who had been pushing against it, flew out and tore into the hut, tore into Lila. He made love in fifteen furious, fiery strokes and collapsed next to her in Min’s bed. When he arose, Lila hadn’t moved; her eyes had turned to glass and her body was cold.
The devil dug her grave next to Min’s ancestors; Min carved her name into the former door to hell and made it her headstone. Once a week, they came to see her, bearing fresh meat or sometimes new clothes.
“Lila, my joy,” Min said.
“Lila, my treasure,” said the devil.
They clasped hands and wept, the devil’s tears burning like little coals in the earth and Min’s washing the flame away.
Forty years passed. Min didn’t have the strength to work the fields anymore, and he didn’t have any children to lend a hand. The only helper he had was the devil, steadily pulling the plough behind him.
Eleanor Levinson is currently completing an MFA in fiction and literary translation at Columbia University. She is at work on a novel and a story collection.