93. Stone Cold

Despite my general poor attitude towards women, especially those around my own age, I don’t see females as inferior to males. In some cases, they are superior. 

Men have a history of abusing women. Of taking advantage of them and forcing them to do things they don’t want to. But women have their own way of righting the balance. They may not be stronger or faster or be able to park cars in a perfectly reasonable parking space, but one thing is certainly to their advantage: they made us. And creators know their creations better than anyone.

The relationship between men and older women—not just their own mothers, but all mothers—is a complicated one. Doesn’t matter if it’s a loving, adoring mother or a cruel, vindictive one. You can’t treat them however you want. You can’t say, “Look, old woman, this is how it is and if you don’t like it, scram.” Try it. Enjoy the utter devastation as your psyche implodes from a simple look of disappointment.

The women marching towards us were of all different ages. Some carried babies. Some dragged toddlers behind them. Most were of an age where doing your hair and makeup before you go out was not so much of a priority. Am I saying some women let themselves go once they’re married and have kids? Of course not, I would never say something like that.

Corporal Ween and his goons watched with baffled looks as the women formed a circle around them. I had sent Little Chicken to gather the men’s families, but there were far too many women here. There had to be at least a hundred. They surrounded Ween and his men and pinned them down with very harsh glaring—a surprisingly effective containment technique. I could feel my balls shrinking and they weren’t even looking at me.

A figure stepped out from the crowd. She was probably the smallest woman there, definitely the oldest. Her hair was pure white and her face was heavy with wrinkles. A large mole sat on the side of her nose daring you to mention it. Her back was hunched and she hobbled forward using a crooked branch as a walking stick.

“What do you think you’re doing, Ween?” She had the voice of a forty-a-day smoker.

“Mama Ivy, I’m just doing my job. You all, you need to get back to your homes. You can’t be interfering with me performing my duties.” I think he was trying to make it sound like a threat, but it came out more like a nervous plea. 

“Your duty, is it? Your duty to take these boys away from their families? I see, I see. And what about their duty to provide for their kin. How will they put food on the table if they’re off fighting ogres and goblins and what have you?”

“That’s… that’s not my concern. We’re fighting a war. There won’t be any tables to put food on if the monsters aren’t stopped.” He turned away from Granny Grimface and appealed to the crowd. “You... you should be proud of your boys for protecting this city. This city is your home. We need to fight to safeguard our home.”

“Oh, Ween,” said Mama Ivy. She seemed very tired and frail, barely managing to stay upright as she bent down, tottering with one hand gripping the stick, the leathery texture of her fingers almost matching the gnarled wood, to pick up a fist-sized rock lying on the ground. “We’re more than capable of protecting our home. Especially from men like you.”

A common insult among guys is to accuse one another of ‘throwing like a girl’. It is, of course, unfair to label all womankind as terrible throwers. It’s a way of suppressing an entire gender with casual jokes and put-downs and in that regard, it’s quite effective. Confidence greatly affects performance. I’d guess Mama Ivy had never been too bothered by mean words.

She didn’t throw like a girl. She didn’t even throw like a boy. She threw like a pitcher in the MLB. Once the rock left her hand, I didn’t see it again until it bounced off Ween’s forehead.

He staggered backwards, his eye darting around like he couldn’t tell where the blow had come from. He reached up and touched the blood pouring from the nasty gash.

The women all suddenly had rocks in their hands. Even the children, those who were big enough, had stones gripped in their tiny fists. 

The men beside me shrank back. They were pale and their expressions were somewhere between horror and pity. Many of them looked away.

“We should go,” said Jenny, gulping.

She started to edge past me but I grabbed her by the arm. “No. We should stay and watch.”

She gave me a questioning look and then winced. I was holding her arm too tightly, but I didn’t let go. And she didn’t ask me to.

In hindsight, there were probably a number of ways the men inside that circle of rage could have escaped. Form a tight unit and punch a hole through the wall of women to escape. Start beating everyone in sight and cause panic. Take a child hostage and threaten to do nasty thing if the crowd didn’t disperse. But they did none of those things.

Once the rocks started flying, only one of the carpenters tried to make a break for it, rushing headlong into the ranks of women. He was quickly swallowed up and ripped to pieces.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a stoning, but it’s far more gruesome than you can imagine. Some countries still use it as a form of punishment because those countries are run by sociopaths. Not even a person guilty of the worst crime deserves a death like that. 

Why didn’t they fight back? Why didn’t they try to get away? When I came up with the idea to send for the families of the men trapped in the Pickled Gherkin, I thought it would shame Ween into backing off. Some industrial-grade nagging to put him in his place. I hadn’t expected this.

In the midst of it all stood Mama Ivy. Her face showed not one iota of sympathy. Her eyes remained on the men as they sank to their knees, as they dropped to the ground, as they begged for mercy. She wasn’t enjoying it. She wasn’t pleased with the outcome. She was just seeing the job through to the end.

She raised a withered, deformed finger and the rocks stopped flying. She walked, tilting from side to side like a duck with terrible arthritis, and prodded Ween’s prostrate body with her stick. He didn’t respond. She spat on him.

This was apparently the signal for everyone to go home. They all turned and walked back the way they had come. The men with us hurried to catch up. Mama Ivy was the last one. She waddled off, but then stopped and turned to look at me. Directly at me. 

I did what anyone would in that situation. I pulled Jenny across so she was in front of me.

Now, you may think hiding behind a girl isn’t the act of a true hero, to which I would respond by suggesting you go fuck yourself. This little old lady had just orchestrated the execution of sixteen men, and she’d managed to keep them frozen in place to receive their punishment simply by staring at them. She made Medusa look like some bint with a funny haircut. 

Mama Ivy pierced me with her gaze and my knees buckled. I would have fallen if I hadn’t held onto Jenny. Then she turned around and hobbled off.

“Did you just use me as a human shield?” said Jenny.

“What? No.” I let go of her. Behind us the door to the Pickled Gherkin was closed. In front of us were a bunch of bloody and tattered corpses. 

“Can we go now?”

“Yes,” I said.

We walked through the empty, early morning streets. 

“I don’t know why you wanted to watch that. Probably give me nightmares.”

“Good,” I said. “It should give you nightmares. That all happened because of you.”

She stopped. “That’s not very fair. It’s not like the alternative outcome was any better. People would have died either way. At least the ones who suffered deserved it.”

“And you’re fine with that, are you? You get to decide who lives and dies?”

“I’m not the one who summoned Lilith’s Army of the Damned.”

“Don’t try to shift the blame onto me,” I said. “You’re the one who stood on a table and started this. And I don’t give a shit about those guys lying back there. You’re right, they got what they deserved. But what about all those people you turned into killers today. Just because you had no idea what would happen, doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible. Do you think they’ll walk away from this unchanged? You think those kids throwing stones won’t be affected?”

Jenny looked down at the ground. “If you start thinking about all the possible outcomes like that, you’ll go mad.”

“Yes, it’s a lot easier if you don’t think about it. Don’t imagine that one of those kids will grow up, get married and then beat his wife to death when he finds out she slept with someone else because when he was a little boy, he learned that was how you got justice. Well, I do think about it. It’s all I ever fucking think about.”

I had got quite worked up and had to take a moment to collect myself.

“Every time I do something horrible to save my own neck, that’s what fills my mind. All the horrible possibilities I’ve created. The rest of you can go to sleep every night dreaming about rainbows and unicorns and whether you’ll get to see a flying horse tomorrow.” I pointed back the way we’d come. At the bodies in the street. “That’s what I dream about.”

Jenny took a step closer to me and reached out to grab my still-pointing arm. She gently pulled it back down.

“There is no right answer, Colin. There is no outcome where everyone walks away with a prize. All options are bad. All we can do is choose which is least terrible, because that’s what life is. You can’t choose options you aren’t given. I understand what happened today was because of me. Those dead men probably had wives and children, too. But I would still make the same call, because out of all the possible horrible choices I think it was the best one. And yes, it’s much easier to get involved when you don’t have to see the consequences, but it makes no difference. When I lie in my bed I’m not going to be thinking about the men who died, because what good would it do? You know what I’m going to dream about? I’m going to dream about flying horses, because now that you’ve put the thought in my head, I can’t stop thinking about it. Can we go and have some breakfast?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, she let go of my wrist and walked away from me. I stood watching her for a bit, and then I followed.

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