Blog

YA gives us more than great characters and themes. I love some YA for its writing. When I am reading I often stop to plague whoever is nearest, friend or family, with an excerpt that is funny, smar...  >

Header_puff
Tournlogo13 Advert
Puff_puff

Titty Anne and the Very, Very Hairy Man

Margo Lanagan

A dark spin on an already dark tale, by Margo Lanagan

‘It is time I did my baking,’ said Mother to the children. ‘Go to the mill and fetch me some flour, and to John Hives for honey.’

Titty went with Blaze and Bertha to Hives, because bees were always more interesting than millstones. But Bertha hurried them so in the honey-getting that they did not see more than the usual bees in weeds and hedgerows on the way.

‘I wanted to see him in his costume!’ Titty cried as Bertha, swinging the filled honey-pail, held Hives’ gate open and tapped her foot.

‘The sooner Mother starts, the sooner we shall have nice pastries in our mouths,’ said Bertha.

They all watched as Mother moistened the flour with butter and honey and eggs, and rolled it out with her pin, rolled and rolled it time and again, and folded and folded to fill it full of puff and lightness. It was almost alive the way it stretched and trembled under her hands, making itself nice for them.

Mother mounded the pastries on the board, pushed them into the oven and twitched the board from under, then piled coals up all around. ‘There.’ She put the board aside and turned to face all their eyes.

‘Who will take the grandmother’s pastries to her?’ said Keenest.

‘Who indeed?’ Mother looked at Titty. They all looked at Titty.

‘All that hair,’ said Bertha, ‘just in a year.’

‘Send Colt,’ said Jamezon, and they all regarded Colt instead, rolling a greyed pastry-sausage out on the floor. He looked up in surprise at the sound of his name, and they laughed at that, and at his very littleness, and the idea of him trotting off alone through the wood with the basket.

‘Perhaps it’s not so very much hair.’ William turned back to Titty. ‘We could shave it off, I think, the way you shave a sick person.’

‘All of it?’ Delft looked Titty up and down.

Titty stroked her cheek, her knee where the hair was thin from her kneeling and crawling in play.

‘Boil up a bath,’ said Mother. ‘Sharpen the knife, Smyrtle. Fetch in some lavender, Keenest. We will use the fat from the pig to soften her hair and skin, but we must sweeten her afterwards, else she will smell all the more delicious.’

So the bath was filled, and Titty was set to soak in it. The sisters and brothers hung over the edges, eyeing her fur, which swayed in the water like brookweed.

‘All of that?’ said Delft doubtfully.

‘All of it, everywhere,’ said Mother, ‘top to toe.’ Outside the razor licked the whetstone, whing, whing, a slippery sound.

‘Put your head under,’ said Blaze. ‘That is as hairy as anything.’

‘You won’t cut my head-hair as well,’ cried Titty, ‘that I’ve been growing so long? Why, it was almost as long last year when I took the pastries! I wore it all out loose, and no evil came of it.’

‘Your face,’ Mother said. ‘Just put your face under. That must go, all that growth.’ Bertha held Titty’s main hair back, tying it into a ball as Titty dipped her face, held it in the water as long as she could bear, came up gasping, then dipped and soaked again.

‘There,’ said Smyrtle, coming in. ‘This’ll slice your shadow out from under you, it’s so sharp.’

Titty pulled her face out of the water and squeaked at the sight of the knife edge all agleam. William laughed. ‘You would think she was going to cut your throat.’

‘Oh, she might,’ gasped Keenest. ‘You will have to keep very still, Tit.’

‘Begin with the face,’ said Mother, ‘where the hairs are the finest, and with her face in the steam. The rest can keep soaking while you work.’

Delft was the best with his hands and with delicate things, so he did the face. He worked so well and gently, soon Titty was almost dozing, so unafraid was she of the knife’s gentle hiss against her skin, its gentle stroking. Delft’s finger, here and here, steadied her head the way he wanted it. Right by her eye the blade shone, and in at the difficult corner against her nose; she could see how closely he watched himself, she could hear it in his breathing. The fat was warm and smelly, the pig long gone, its meat long eaten. Ghost-pig and lavender, she breathed, as Delft worked, and everyone watching grew dreamy with her, Mother hands on hips at the back of them, and the smell of the cooking pastries blooming and tantalising through the cottage.

Delft stood back, having shaven Titty’s face and neck and shoulders.

Bertha sighed awake. ‘Look at that,’ she said. ‘Naked as a nine-year-old.’ ‘Stand up, Titty.’

There was some argument then, and they decided she ought to kneel, so that her legs and underparts could keep soaking.

‘For it’s the underparts that’ll need the closest shaving,’ said Smyrtle. ‘The smelly end of her.’

‘Yes,’ said Mother. ‘Best to sharpen the knife again, I should think, before you begin there, it’s all so soft and stretchy.’

‘Smyrtle can do the front and back, though,’ said Delft, handing Smyrt the knife.

‘They’re easier, and my hand is all cramped.’

‘Right.’ Smyrtle flashed her eyes, and Titty whimpered.

‘We don’t want even a drop of blood,’ said Mother. ‘You go sensibly, Smyrt. This is not a game or a trick.’

‘Well, it is a kind of trick.’ Keenest set to work rubbing fat on Titty’s front. ‘Making whoever think Titty’s nine again.’

‘Why do we call her Titty?’ said Jamezon. ‘She’s flat as a frog-splat in front.’

‘Here we go, then.’ Smyrtle stuck her tongue between her teeth and began, willy-nilly, on Titty’s chest.

‘Sensibly,’ reminded Mother. ‘Carefully. I would rather you go over twice than you cut her.’

‘I am careful,’ said Smyrtle. ‘These nipples are a nuisance, though.’

‘Leave them for Delft,’ suggested Blaze, ‘when his hand is rested.’

‘Where has he gone?’ Titty looked to the door; she was sure Smyrtle would be taking more care if Delft were standing near.

‘Out for a breath of air,’ said William. ‘It’s close in here, with the pastries, and the smell of pig. I am near fainting myself.’

Front and back, Smyrtle shaved her, and then she stood and Smyrt did her thighs as well. ‘You could go more gently,’ said Mother. ‘Look at the welts you’re raising on the poor thing.’

‘These are harder hairs, remember,’ said Smyrt. ‘We need another kettleful, to hot it up again. She can put her feet out on the edge while her bottom soaks.’ Discs of shining fat jostled on the cooling bathwater.

‘I am dying of hunger, from this smell,’ said Jamezon, and it was true, the pastries smelt very good, even with the pig-smell over them.

Bertha brought the kettle. ‘That’s better,’ said Titty, and she sank under and stopped shivering.

Smyrtle shaved Titty’s legs and feet, and then Titty crouched for a while in the warm, while whing-whing, Smyrt brought up the blade edge again.

‘She should bend over the table, bum to the light,’ said Blaze, ‘so Delft can get at her underbits.’

‘She should lie on the table, all spread out, for the front of them.’

Titty was weary of feeling scraped and greasy. Her hairs lay shaken off the blade in a dark fatty mass on the floor. Except for her head and nethers she was naked as an eel, naked as skinned rabbit in a pot.

She stirred the few strands showing at her crotch. ‘Will anyone smell that, within my drawers and skirt?’

‘Oh my, yes,’ said Mother. ‘That most of all must be cleared of hair.’

And so Titty bent over the table, and lay on it all spread, and Delft did his work. Keenest spread a blanket over her top half, and a rag over each of her legs, so that she should not chill and shiver and thus make Delft cut her. The room was noisy and busy with Mother taking out the pastries and fighting off the children’s fingers, and William and Delft emptying and scrubbing out the greasy bath, and filling it again, and Keenest bringing herbs to scent it.

They washed Titty, hair and all, in the scented water. Raw, she felt, and cold, as they stood her out and dried her. Keenest brought clean clothes, slightly too big. They were nowhere near as soft as Titty’s fur had been.

She sat unhappily, eating her pastry with the others, the blouse scraping on her arms, her hands pale and naked, the fingernails trimmed back by Bertha and scrubbed out white by Keenest.

‘Wash your hands again,’ cried Keenest as Titty licked the last crumbs from her fingers. ‘And rinse out your mouth, and chew parsley. We don’t want any part of you to smell appetising.’

‘Here is the grandmother’s basket,’ said Mother. The treats were packed in neatly under a red-checked cloth. ‘I’ve put a pot of cream in too, so don’t you go swinging it, or banging it into things.’

Off Titty set. Mother carried Colt out to wave—he liked goodbyes—but all the others, having had their pastries, were now gone in this direction and that after different pleasures, some to Farmer Hay’s barn, Delft to check his snares, Smyrtle down to the brook to fish.

The forest closed behind Titty, hiding Mother and Colt’s waving. Titty sighed and began to hurry, for she did not want the sun to set while she was still among the trees on her way home.

It was strange walking clothed, without the protection of her hair, only a cloud of lavender and parsley-smell around her. The cloth of the blouse and drawers rubbed under her arms and between her thighs; it would rub her raw, perhaps, before she reached the grandmother’s house.

For it was a long way to walk. Why did the grandmother have to live so far away? Why could she not be in the very same house, like Hamhocks’s grandmother, or Meadows’? But Titty knew the answer to that: the grandmother was their father’s mother, and she blamed their mother somehow for his dying. She couldn’t abide the sight of all his children, the Mother-ness of them mixed in with her son. Besides, over in Thickets Valley grew all the herbs for her medicines; her house must be near there, she insisted, to save her this long walk every day.

Titty could hardly imagine the grandmother’s life, though she had visited her every baking-day since Jamezon grew too old for the job. Imagine spending day after day without conversation, only the wind in the leaves and the tumble of brook water, and every now and then, overhead, some great argument of a thunderstorm. Titty had always thought such solitude a dreadful thing to endure but today, after all the prodding and poking of her during the shaving, all the looking and discussing of her, she thought perhaps it was not such a terrible thing after all to go untouched and unremarked on.

She paused at the place where the path split, for blackberries grew there, and it was coming into blackberry time. Yes, there were a few ripened ones, dark among the canes, though most were pink and green still and it took some careful searching to find the good ones. Titty plucked one and ate it, and it was very good, and so she hunted down and ate another.

And then she was so busy searching the blackberry bush, deeper and deeper and with care not to catch herself too badly on the thorny canes, that she did not notice a man enter the clearing and stand watching her, until he cleared his throat, and even then she looked into the tree above her, thinking she had heard a chough speak.

‘Good day to you!’ the man then said.

Startled, she turned her head and saw him. She began to extract herself from the blackberry bush, but all at once it seemed longer thorned and more determined to hold her. The man watched her struggle, leaning against the trunk of a very large pine with his arms folded. In time she pulled herself and her snagged hair free and picked up her basket.

Titty was not rude enough to walk from the clearing without speaking. She gave something of a curtsey. ‘Good day, sir; I must to my grandmother.’

She would have slipped past him, only he moved, not obstructing her path, but only pushing himself off the tree and looming quite large and close. He was perhaps the hairiest man she had ever met. Despite his fine suit of red velvet, ingeniously cut to show what a grand strong chest he had and what narrow waist and legs, the smell that came off him was very strong indeed.

Titty stepped back from it. The man’s yellow eyes gleamed below great sprouts of eyebrows; his teeth grinned among his dark beard. But his voice came out of him quite smoothly. ‘Your grandmother?’ he said, and he sounded very interested, and almost kind.

‘Why, yes,’ she said. ‘I have these pastries for her that my mother baked, and a pot of cream.’ She went to lift the red-checked cloth and show him, but her fingers were damp with blackberry juice and they stained the cloth, and then she could only gaze in dismay at the mark she had made, while the hairy man’s stifling sour scent flowed around her like blowing pyre-smoke. ‘I must take them to her,’ she finally said, lifting a woeful face. ‘Please let me pass.’

His sproutish eyebrows lifted. He waved along the unobstructed path quite gallantly. ‘Which way will you take, little girl?’ he said. ‘The path of pins, or the path of needles?’

What was he talking about? Titty sidled past him, onto the path she always took. ‘Aah,’ he said and she turned. He stood slump-shouldered where the path divided. ‘My business takes me the other way. What a great shame; I should have enjoyed some company.’

She tried after a smile, but it trembled. ‘Good day, then, sir,’ she said, and off she hurried.

For a long time she did not look back, but only fixed her sights on the path and spread her nostrils for the taint of him on the air. Then she darted behind a grand elm, and peeped back along the path, and fetched her breath back, and listened. Breeze, leaves, bird-cries. No footfall, no red coat, no dark face. And so she ran on then, just as quickly but not so much afraid.

Soon she reached the grandmother’s house. She smoothed her clothes down on her shaven skin, and gathered her hair together and tucked it behind her, and pulled her face about trying to see if the blackberrying had stained her mouth. When she was quite arranged, she went up to the door and called in, ‘Grandmother?’

‘Oh, oh,’ came a feeble voice from within. ‘Who is that?’

‘It’s Titty Anne, your granddaughter. I’ve come with bakings and cream from Mother.’

‘Titty Anne? Why, come in, child, come in!’

Titty stepped into the house surprised, for the grandmother usually snapped and upbraided her from the instant she arrived to the moment she left. But then she saw the reason, for the grandmother—in the middle of the afternoon!—was still abed, with her night-bonnet all pushed forward around her face. She glanced out at Titty, her eye a gleam of yellow. ‘Forgive me that I don’t get up to meet you.’

‘You are unwell?’

‘Very poorly indeed,’ said the grandmother. ‘And cold, so cold! I have piled up the blanket and am wearing all my clothes, but I cannot seem to warm myself!’

‘I shall make you a tea, I think,’ said Titty. ‘You can drink it down with one of these nice pastries.’

‘So kind, so kind,’ said the grandmother. ‘But I should be so much warmer if you climbed straight into this bed with me, while you are still warm from running through the forest.’

‘Is there room?’ said Titty, eyeing the piled bed. ‘How fat you have grown. Is it your illness?’

‘Indeed it is,’ said the grandmother, lowly and with some shame. ‘I cannot get out and about as I’m used to doing, I am so terribly wan and weak.’ And a great shivering fit took her, so that her bonnet frills trembled like poplar leaves in a northerly blow. ‘Quickly, girl! Jump in beside me!’

Titty Anne put the basket on the table and went to the bedside. ‘I am sure a cup of tea would do better for you,’ she said. So close, the grandmother gave off a strong stink. It must be the fever sweat, or perhaps only general old age and not having bathed as recently as Titty. Whatever it was, it stilled Titty’s hand upon the bed, and gave her pause to eye the old woman’s hands, clutching the coverlet to her chest.

‘Look at your nails!’ she said with distaste. ‘They are so neglected! How long have you lain here alone?’ And she bent and looked below the bed, for surely some of that smell must come from a chamber pot? But no—the pot shone empty below, with a quantity of red cloth pushed in beside it.

‘Stop your fussing and take off your clothes,’ said the grandmother, turning her bonnet and whiskers to Titty.

That was more like the usual grandmother. Relieved, Titty slipped off her blouse. ‘Where shall I put this?’ she said, for nowhere in the grandmother’s house was quite clean enough for her to lay it.

‘Throw it on the fire, why don’t you?’ said the grandmother.

Titty laughed and draped the blouse over the bed knob. ‘I hope I don’t catch your fever, Grandmother,’ she said. ‘It has cooked your brains somewhat, I think.’ And she slipped off her skirt and bloomers. But when she draped them over the blouse, all three garments began to slither off the slippery knob. ‘Oh, this won’t do.’ She stood with her clothes in her arms looking around again. She did not feel warm at all; she felt cold and clammy, and she did not like being naked before the grandmother.

‘I tell you, burn them!’ cried the old woman, so loudly and harshly that Titty stepped back from her, all laughter silenced. ‘You’ll have no further use for them!’ The bonnet looked her up and down, and a bright red-purple tongue came out and licked the teeth.

‘Grandmother!’ breathed Titty. ‘I do not like at all what this illness has done to you!’

She went to the table and put her clothes there, let them take up what stains they would. Slowly she turned back to the bed; the grandmother looked no better than before. All the way to the bed Titty went, into the cloud of the old woman’s breath and fur-sweat, and she lifted the coverlet. The shanks under there were not much more than bones with hair on, and they shuddered and rasped against the bedclothes. Quickly Titty laid the cover back down.

‘What’s your delay, girl? What’s your trouble this time?’ The old eyes glowed in the shadow of the bonnet.

‘I must go outside,’ she said, and her voice shook a little. ‘I shouldn’t want to wet the bed.’

‘Shouldn’t you?’ The grandmother’s voice was suddenly soft, but without the weakness it had affected before. ‘Use the pot, why don’t you?’

Titty thought of that pot, its empty shine. And the red cloth under the bed insisted itself upon her memory, rich cloth the like of which the grandmother would never wear, and crumpled as if by a fist, as if a fist had stuffed it under there in a hurry.

‘Oh, it’s quite fine and warm outside,’ said Titty, faint with the grandmother-stink.

‘And we breakfasted on asparagus shoots this morning. I should not like you to have to lie over the smell of that.’

The eyes and teeth regarded her from the bonnet’s shadow.

‘Bring me that spun wool.’ The old beast nodded at a spindle on the table with a distaff of flax-fluff next to it. Titty brought it. ‘Tie this around your ankle.’ The grandmother offered the thread-end off the spindle. ‘Let me see how you tie it. Yes, a nice tight knot. Now, off you go. I will hold to the spindle and unwind you, just to outside the door, and then when you’re done I will reel you in again.’

Out the door Titty went, and there she had the great good fortune to find a broken plant-pot, a shard of which she used to saw at the flax-thread, so that soon enough she was free. She tied the thread then around a thistle-stalk there that was bending and bowing in the breeze, so that it would give lifelike movement to the thread and not arouse the suspicions of that creature in the bed. And then she fled into the forest unclothed, as fast as she could.

But even as she plunged along the narrow path, she heard behind her the pretend-grandmother’s voice, at first querulous and still pretending, then sharp, then an undisguised roar. She ran and slid and ran, leaping over roots and dodging the sharper stones. The passing branches whipped her face and body, and snatched hairs off her head that she would not pause to untangle.

A thump and a crash sounded behind her at the house, and then all was silent but for her own breath and body noise while the man came after her. And then his foot-beats sounded, and she heard the branches whipping him, and finally she heard him grunt as he saw her, in rage and satisfaction combined.

His breath huff-huffed at her heels. He sprang and was ahead of her. He opened his jaws; his teeth spread wide; his tongue curled bright red into the black of his throat. Titty had no time to stop herself—into his mouth she fell headfirst. With one clomp he had her head and shoulders; with a jerking back and a gulp, his gripping teeth were down to her thighs; with a final jerk, all of her was swallowed.

It was hot, and wet, and dark, and innards pressed in on Titty from all sides. She had brought a little air in with her, but that was soon used up; she tried to make more, pushing out with her hands and elbows, breathing as little as possible. Oh, he was so hot and tight and noisy around her, his heart thundering like a stampede, his digestive sounds rushing close. Pinprick lights crowded in their millions into Titty’s sight, and though she thought she went on struggling, she was mistaken, and though she dreamed she went on breathing, she did not, and then she ceased to think or to dream, and she felt nothing more as the wolf padded through the forest, and found a patch of sunlight and sank down in the grass there, and laid down his head to sleep off that generous meal.


‘What is this? What is this! Saints keep and care for us!’ Titty did not hear that.

‘Oof, you’re a great-grown lummock now, aren’t you? And not a stitch on you! How so?’ She did not hear that either.

Stamp and puff and rub of a knife blade on grass—none of these did Titty hear. She was past hearing, past remembering, past dreaming.

Slap. Slap. ‘Granddaughter.’

This she heard from well along the tunnel of her dying. She turned in the tunnel, and sunlit leaves scattered across her sight, and smells arrived, of blood, and flesh, and wolf-insides all spilled about, as well as the clean forest smell, green and brown and wide and deep about her, rich and gaspable. ‘Oh!’ she said.

The grandmother’s face hove into sight, a collection of gorges separated by the sunlit mountain range of a nose, two sharp eyes as yellow as a wolf’s, and only a few teeth among the whiskers—how could Titty ever have thought that great grinning mouthful to be the grandmother’s?

‘There you are,’ said the old woman. ‘There you are in there. I see you.’ She took Titty’s jaw in her claw and waggled it back and forth so that the leaves flew and the sky dazzled beyond them.

Then she laughed and left her alone, sat singing nearby and sorting through her herb-basket. Wafts of fennel and rue floated past Titty’s nose, and she breathed them along with everything else, as piece by piece the day came back to her. The wolf juice dried stinking on her skin like a very tight, close costume, but she’d only to stretch a little, this arm, that foot, to loosen the hold of it. She turned her head; her slimed hair trailed back along the grass to the wolf’s opened belly, which offered this purple lump and that white tubing, all fatted and bloodied, to the sunshine and the circling flies.

Titty sat herself up, to see if she could. The grandmother put forward Keenest’s blouse and skirt and bloomers. ‘You’ll need to wash in the brook before you put these on.’

‘How did you find me?’ said Titty, for nothing about the clearing was familiar to her, not the stout live trees standing all around or the dead ones lying about rotting and being overgrown.

‘Part sight, part stench,’ said the grandmother. ‘He left a smell in my bed, and I saw your clothes and basket. He crashed after you off the path there, and I followed all the ground-scratchings and twig-breakings until I found him asleep here, fat with you.’

The wolf’s head lay as still as a rock among the weeds. Beneath a sprouting eyebrow, an eye stared dully at the sky; the tongue lolled out beyond the jaws like a damp purple-grey leaf.

‘I thought he was you,’ said Titty Anne.

‘Am I so ugly?’

‘He had your bonnet on. His face was all in shadow. And I had not seen you for a year. There was a lot I had forgotten.’

‘So it seems,’ said the grandmother with a snort.

‘Oh,’ said Titty, looking at her lap. ‘You have cut me, when you opened him. Look.’ And she smeared the blood smear further down her thigh.

A nut bounced off Titty’s head. ‘What!’ She rubbed the spot, glaring at the grandmother.

‘As if I don’t know how to slit a beast open.’ The old woman tutted and huffed and shafted Titty looks across the grass-heads. ‘Follow that blood,’ she said. ‘Go on. Follow it back and find the wound, I say. Then pick fault with my knifework.’

Titty did as she was told, pulling at her thigh flesh, then parting her whole legs. ‘Oh,’ she said, seeing where the blood began. ‘Oh, that.’ She remembered Bertha groaning in the bedstraw, holding a wrapped hot-stone against her belly—and Mother, white as cheese, having to sit down on a log beside the road to market and breathe there awhile. ‘That’s begun on me.’

‘Surprising, seeing you’re as hairless yet as a peeled willow wand,’ said the grandmother. ‘But yes.’ She crisscrossed the sorted herbs in her basket and stood up. ‘Come, then. Once you’re washed, we can boil up a tea. He has flung your cream about the place and wasted it, but the cakes are still good.’

Titty picked up her clothes and followed the old woman through the wood.



©Margo Lanagan

fiction

Puff_puff

In between luggage, lobbies and taxi ranks—new fiction by MB Cahill

Puff_puff

Linguistics and the language of despair in new fiction from Kate Elkington

Puff_puff

Infidelity captured on film in new fiction from Fatima Sehbai

Puff_puff

An overdue pregnancy and the nurturing strength of a mother, in new fiction from Ellen van Neerven

Puff_puff

The earth set alight from underground in new fiction from Jennifer Mills