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The Devil Is Beating His Wife Today

Sandra McDonald writes about everything, hoping to connect readers with stories that move the head and heart. She is the author of more than seventy published short stories and nine novels in the last decade. Visit her at SandraMcdonald.com or @sandramcdonald.

Yesterday afternoon, in the middle of a sunny day, it began raining.
"The devil is beating his wife today," said my landlady as she swept.
It's an awful colloquialism, and I asked her about it. She explained it this way: the devil's mad about the glorious day, so he takes it out on his wife. Her tears pour down.
"You might ask yourself why the devil's wife would put up with that." The landlady's broom scratched the front hall floor. "But we shouldn't judge women trapped in bad marriages."
"I would never judge," I replied uneasily, and readied my umbrella to dash outside. "Why do her tears fall from the sky? Isn't hell below our feet?"
She shrugged. Her hands were wrinkled, her hair gray with age. "Geography doesn't work well here."
"I noticed," I said, even though I hadn't. The city around us is a waking dream. Hell below or hell above: it doesn't matter.
Although the precinct house is full of offices, desks, and holding cells, no one else seems to work here. The telephones never ring. Used coffee cups pile up on my desk, but I'm not sure they're all mine.
When I get back from lunch there's a typewritten complaint in my wire basket. It's a domestic violence report.
Goosebumps and foreboding keep me from going. Eventually the complaint disappears.
The next day, another sunshower.
"A witch is making butter," says the man who sells tobacco.
On my desk, a report about an unlicensed dairy. This investigation is easy. The witch, a young woman with silver hair, protests that she can't afford a permit. All of her milk pails are dirty.
"I'll have to notify the health department," I say, writing out a ticket.
She gives me a shrewd look. "What if you pretend we never met, and I give you some milk of memory?"
"Why do I need that?" I ask.
"What's your name?" she asks.
The ticket in my hand is all filled out. All I wrote on the signature line is "X."
I say, "I'll take some milk."
Now that I remember what a calendar is, I write the weather pattern in the boxes of this nameless month. Everyone offers different explanations for the daily sunshowers, which are growing longer.
"It's a monkey's birthday," says the newsboy, whose newspapers are all blank paper.
"A female cat is making love," says the baker, whose loaves always taste stale.
"The lioness is giving birth," says the pushcart girl, her fruit covered with mold.
New forms land in my basket. The monkey's neighbors don't like the party noise. The amorous cat's kittens are running around unfed and pestering the neighbors. The lioness gave birth successfully and then bit the midwife in a dispute over the delivery fee.
I go back to the witch to get more milk, but she and her cow are gone. Wind whistles through the empty dairy. The ground is soggy from rain.
The domestic violence complaint reappears. I leave it untouched.
My shoes are always damp. Rainwater fills the gutters and floods the lanes.
"It's a chicken carnival," says the butcher, his hands red with blood.
"It's a zombie arguing about salty food," says the grocer, selling me stale oats.
My landlady says, "It's the devil beating his wife."
She's sweeping again. I only see her when she's sweeping. Sometimes at night I pass her door and listen for sounds of a husband or children, but hear only dead silence.
"My name is James," I tell her. The witch's milk gave me that, too.
"That's a good name." She smiles. She must have been young and beautiful once.
At work, the domestic violence complaint returns. I heft my umbrella and go.
The devil's building is rundown and smells like boiling cabbage. Because none of the apartments inside are numbered, I knock on several before I find the right one.
"Busybody neighbors," the devil says. He's wearing a scowl and a gray cardigan. "A man should be able to beat his wife without a ruckus."
"You cheat!" A woman yells. "You have no scruples!"
He lets me in. The devil's wife is frying potatoes at the stove with an apron tied over her housecoat. Playing cards lie scattered on the kitchen table.
"Spite and Malice is a cutthroat game," the devil says.
I study the wife. She looks defiant, which is not uncommon among those who most need help. She also looks tired, but so does everyone else in the city.
"Ma'am, do you want to file a complaint?" I ask.
She snorts. "The only complaint I have is that I didn't marry his brother instead."
"He never would have had a shrew like you," the devil says.
Hot oil jumps out of the pan and the wife draws back with a hiss. Her sleeve slides up, revealing bruises as black as ink. She quickly pulls it down.
"He beats me at cards," she says, daring me to defy her. "We always argue."
The devil glares at me. "Are we done here?"
Let them play their game. The room is hot and stifling. I can't breathe, and have to get out.
When I turn around in the street, the building has vanished.
It's been raining forever. Water through golden sun. The trolleys can't run.
"An old woman is getting married today," the conductor says, water rising to his knees.
The complaint form at work sends me to a graveyard on high ground. I carry my umbrella to a bride in a long faded gown and veil. Her hem is muddy.
"Wedding license, please," I say.
She lifts her veil. It's my landlady, and I remember her name.
"Sarah," I whisper. "Why are we here?"
"I'm not here," she says sadly. "You keep failing the test."
She kisses my lips. I don't see bruises on her neck, but I remember inflicting them whenever rage exploded out of me. I did many awful things beyond forgiveness or redemption.
"I have to move on," she says, and fades.
At the precinct house, the water is so high I have to crouch on my desk. Beyond my window. The sunshower engulfs the city with a steady fall of rain. The soggy witch floats by on her butter churn. The baker frantically bails out his leaky boat. The panicked monkey climbs gutter pipes. The butcher, fruit girl, cat lioness, grocer, tobacco man, and conductor all cry for help that I can't give them.
Instead I wait for a domestic violence report to land in my inbox. I wait and wait, and the water rises.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Author Comments

When I heard someone say "The devil is beating his wife today" regarding an ongoing sunshower, I was appalled at the casual twining of weather and domestic violence. An idiomatic search revealed many similar strange sayings across the world. Often these involve the marriage of animals. The challenge in this story was to fit them into a framework in which all could be true but also lead to a deeper, more thoughtful tale. I also struggled with the protagonist, and whether he is capable of redeeming himself without knowing the who, why, or what of his own history. In the end I hope it is a story about the challenge of making meaning out of the cryptic world that surrounds us--a challenge we all face on a daily basis.

- Sandra McDonald
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