One of the things that endlessly fascinate me—speaking as a person who was brought up femme in the rural United States of America—is how intuitive it feels for me to draw connections between women, fruit, and guilt. I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, but even so it was impossible for me to grow up free from the knowledge of Eve and original sin.
I have written before about how that old story of apples and illicit knowledge, among others, taught me to believe in the perils of giving in to the temptations presented by food. I’ve written, too, about trying to learn new ways of seeing sustenance. Ambient beliefs, though, have a remarkable way of getting into a body and never getting back out.
I was captivated by H. Pueyo’s story “Belly-Slitter” from the first sentence I read when The Dark printed it last December. This story’s stakes—set up by every character surrounding its protagonist—are so clear: If you give in to the temptations posed by the base, sinful impulses of “young maidens like you,” you will meet a terrible fate. The monster who metes out this fate—the titular Belly-Slitter—is new to me. Those stakes, though, feel very familiar, as does the way the story’s protagonist, Aisha, is immediately set apart through her sensual enjoyment of the uncommonly lavish fruit harvest the story’s other young women complain about having to deal with.
Aisha appears from the outset to be painted by everyone around her as a creature entirely built of base, sinful impulses. This, too, may feel familiar to anyone who was ever young and female (or at least treated as a female) and even a little bit different in a region where popular opinion is colored by religious conservatism. A beautiful foreigner, sold at the age of eight to a man who liked her looks enough to want to own them, Aisha grew up in the midst of people who will never stop judging her for things outside her power. Her choice to wield what little power she can—this being, thanks to her beauty and charm, largely power over men—despite the threat of the Belly-Slitter makes perfect sense in light of the impossibility of ever gaining any other type of control over her life. How much worse can a monster be than the men who use her—or at least hope to do so—for their own pleasure and the bitter old women who take their pleasure in warning Aisha that she will suffer for trying to survive?
“Belly-Slitter” is stained with ripe-to-bursting cherries from its first line to the end. That first sentence spoke to my own particular hungers and angers with a description of cherries so ripe they burst, literally reddening the hands of a protagonist who inhabits a body the villagers seem to see as sinful to the point of near criminality. I knew that I would have to bake a cherry pie when I wrote about this story. Cherry pie is one of my own lifelong temptations. The image of Aisha insolently licking cherry juice from her wrist in the sweltering kitchen where the young maidens sweat over the production of jam, wine, and pies is one of the more vividly sensuous scenes I have read. Baking a treat I enjoy so much that ambient belief tells me it must be a sin was too perfect a pairing with this story to resist.
Where I grew up, everyone knew that a proper cherry pie had to be made with sour cherries. Where I live now, no one seems to know that sour cherries exist. I have craved a cherry pie for years, but I could not make one because I could not find the proper cherries. That’s all right, I always tell myself. You don’t need pie. Eating something I love as much as cherry pie feels dangerous, even after years of reaching inside myself and trying to pull out the lifetime of internalized diet culture and Eve-inflected concepts of goodness and sin that live inside my guts. I cannot stop wanting to win over my baser impulses, even if I might be happier letting temptation have its way.
I revel in this story’s way of making me question what it means to win. Aisha never changes her ways, despite the disapproval of the hypocrites around her—and despite the constant threat of the Belly-Slitter. She may be “full of this place, its people, its beliefs,” but she is not of them. She cannot change what the village thinks of her. She is smart enough to know that, and the knowledge, in many ways, is wonderfully freeing. There is something glorious, victorious, in Aisha’s choice to not be ruled by the villagers’ superstitious fears, and in her acceptance of what happens when the villagers are proven right and the monster takes her.
I did make a cherry pie to celebrate this story. Unable still to find sour cherries for a proper pie, I followed this recipe from Karissa’s Vegan Kitchen using dark sweet cherries. It was, I admit, delicious, though it did not quite satisfy the craving for my childhood’s glorious pies. In a way, though, it felt right to make an improper pie for this particular story. In this story, as in so many stories fictional and true, propriety is a sham and the only character who does and gets exactly what she wants is a terrifying monster.
I do not want to spoil the details of this story’s—Aisha’s—ending. I want everyone to discover for themself the strange sense of triumph bleeding into the terror that marks the end of Aisha’s life in the village. All I want to say is that reading what the Belly-Slitter did to Aisha made me feel both fear and envy. I, too, am full of places and their people and beliefs. I, too, like to tempt fate, though I never dare to take it so far. I, too, almost want a Belly-Slitter to take me out of my places and those places out of me. It is hard to imagine what else could have enough power to reach inside me and excise the ingrained sense of guilt I still feel over everything I want—even cherry pie—and everything I am.
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