Something I find funny—both in the sense of something humorous and something curious—is how consistently it seems that horror stories about love turn to metaphors of consumption. I wonder what makes it so easy to believe in love as a thing that might gnaw us down to the bone, drink our blood, cut us into pieces or swallow us whole. This happens in other kinds of stories, too. Think of the food-based descriptors found in so many love poems, songs, and romance novels. To be lovable, it seems, is to be toothsome and delicious.
In last month’s installment of this column, I wrote about stories that warn us of eating food as an act that may lead the eater to be consumed. This month, in the wake of changing my name for love, I am thinking more of loving than of eating. Still my thoughts return to consumption.
I wonder what it is about loving, and being loved, that feels so much like consuming and being consumed. A better question, though, might be what it is about loving (and being loved) that makes us want to experience consumption. What it is that can make a cannibalistic metaphor feel as much like the stuff of romance as the stuff of horror.
Writers have been describing objects of love in edible terms since some time between the second and tenth centuries BCE, during which span of centuries The Song of Songs is thought to have been written. Surely this is far from the only ancient text to describe a lover’s body parts as dripping honey, but in light of its erotic references to both honey and apples it seems a fine precedent for the contemporary story I have chosen for this month’s column. Kathryn McMahon’s 2019 “The Honey Witch,” republished recently in both text and podcast formats by horror titan PseudoPod, is very much a story about consuming love. This tale of a beekeeper’s attempt to preserve what remains of her love in the aftermath of unbearable loss recalls both the Song of Songs’ descriptions of edible lovers and its characterization of love as a thing as strong as death.
It is no surprise that this apian story mentions more than a few honeyed aliments. In keeping with the conceit of this column, I rolled each phrase over my tongue, trying to determine what tasted the most representative of this story. Options included ginger-honey venison jerky, rosemary-infused apple honey on toast, pulled honey taffy. I could have simply opened a jar of honey and, as the story’s beekeeping narrator, Melissa, suggests to uncertain customers, “Serve it with goat’s cheese or brie, baste it over turkey or ham.” But this is a column about endings, and perhaps the most crucial ending in this story tastes of the pickled apples Melissa’s beloved, Tanith, craves until everything—including Tanith—changes.
If you would like to taste what Melissa and Tanith and I have tasted, you can find the recipe I used on the Food in Jars website. This is a simple recipe, requiring only a little chopping, measuring, stirring, and waiting. In flavor, though, its results are fittingly complex. The salty, stinging crunch of the vinegar-crisped apple slices, tart as love insufficiently requited, love blithely rejected; the hint of honey in the brine as faintly sweet as the lingering traces of a love that, regardless of insufficiency, will not die.
Melissa, the titular honey witch, states “I am not a social creature. I am not a bee.” (This is a mischievous authorial trick, given the meaning of her name.) Like a bee surviving winter, though, Melissa consumes what remains of her love in the form of honey. She drowns her grief in sweetness across a series of uneasily erotic passages. As she eats, she too is consumed.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about “The Honey Witch” is how convincingly it presents the uncanny events that follow its central tragedy as both frightening and romantic. What Melissa gains after losing Tanith is not what she dreamt of before, but neither is it nothing. It’s terrifying to consider what we might accept in return for the smallest taste of what we long for. It’s terrifying to consider how far we might let ourselves go. It’s terrifying to consider how much of one’s very self might be consumed in the process of having even a few of our romantic—and erotic—dreams fulfilled.
I love that “The Honey Witch” does not offer a happy ending. I love, too, that its ending retains some sense of romantic inevitability. Melissa knows what is happening in the final scene. It seems clear, though, that some part of her—most of her—truly wants what happens, because it will bring her closer to what remains of her love. This is both effective horror writing and another recollection of The Song of Songs’ reference to love strong as death. Melissa does not just allow herself to be consumed by love. She pursues this consumption. She is not a passive narrator but rather someone who actively chooses to make the best of an impossibly sad situation. What anyone else might think of her version of the best is not really relevant. What is, I think, relevant, is the sweetness that Melissa experiences in the story’s final few sentences as she lets the past go, relinquishing the sour saltiness of rejection—and the dream of loving the Tanith who loved pickled apples—as she accepts one final act of consuming love.
Reading “The Honey Witch” makes me wonder if this idea of love that consumes is something eternal. Something as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was when The Song of Songs was originally composed. If it is, I wonder if the dream of love as strong as death—strong enough to endure past death—is another thing eternal, both desirable and detrimental in its persistence. I wonder what we gain in clinging to such dreams, and what we lose.