My novel Red Clocks takes place in a small town on the Oregon coast after Congress has passed a law granting rights of life, liberty, and property to a fertilized human egg. Abortion is illegal; in vitro fertilization is banned.
Championing the rights of a single-celled zygote over those of the woman whose body contains it has long been a fetish of conservative politicians. While doing research for this book, years before Trump’s election, I learned about the “personhood amendment” and Sanctity of Human Life Act supported by Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and other Republican legislators.
I was struggling, at the time, with infertility. These grinning men and their pious zeal to outlaw abortion and IVF made me shiver with rage.
A core character in Red Clocks is an herbalist named Gin Percival, also known as the Mender. She descends from the Cape Cod witch Goody Hallett, who sought revenge against her wayward pirate lover by luring ships to crash on the rocks. The Mender lives alone in the forest and tends to people who can’t afford doctors or health insurance. She breaks the law by ending the unwanted pregnancies of her clients.
The Mender is a hinge between our current moment and the violent, vibrating history of women who were feared, punished, or killed because they didn’t do as they were told. Women who did not accept enslavement, did not shut up about voting rights, did not become wives or mothers, did not smile enough.
Witches, bitches, stitchers, resisters.
– Leni Zumas
Last week’s complaint was vicious burning when she peed; today’s pain is new. “Pants off and lie down,” says the mender. Clementine unzips herself, kicks away the jeans. Her thighs are white and very soft, underwear the size of a shoelace. She plumps back on the mender’s bed and opens her knees. A vesicle on her south lip, the inner fold, white-red in the browny pink: how much does it hurt?
“Oh God, a lot. Do I have syphilis?”
“No. Plain old cunt wart.”
“My javiva,” says Clementine, “is having a bad year.”
Purslane, bishopswort, devil’s claw, ten strands of human hair in sesame oil. The mender dabs a few drops on the wart, recaps the tincture. “Put this on it twice a day.” More warts are likely to join it, possibly a lot more, but she sees no cause to say this.
After Clementine leaves, the mender misses her. Wants back the soft white thighs. She likes her ladies big-sirenic, mermaids of land, pressing and twisting in fleshful bodies.
She lies naked with the cat by the stove, rain steady on the roof and the woods black and the foxes quiet. The innermost chamber of her left ear catches powderpost beetles scratching at the roof joists, laying eggs in the seams of the wood.
Does she get frightened, all the way up here in the middle of nothing? Silly bitch, trees are not nothing. Nor are cats, goats, chickens, owls, foxes, bobcats, black-tailed deer, long-eared bats, red-tailed hawks, dark-eyed juncos, bald-faced hornets, varying hares, mourning cloak butterflies, black vine weevils, and souls fled from their mortal casings.
She is only alone human-wise.
The goats aren’t home yet. Cramp of worry. Last year they wrecked a campsite near the trail. Some dumb tourist left his food out. When the mender found them, the tourist was pointing a rifle. “Better keep them on your property from here on out,” he said, “because I love goat stew.”
In Europe they used to hold trials for misbehaving animals. Wasn’t just the witches they hanged. A pig was sent to the gallows for eating a child’s face, a mule roasted alive for having been penetrated by its human master. For the unnatural act of producing an egg, a rooster was burned at the stake. Bees found guilty of stinging a man to death were suffocated in the hive, their honey destroyed, lest murder-honey infect the mouths that ate it.