“Dark Warm Heart”: my grief over womanhood

This is not a light-hearted meditation. This is about a lot of things, congealing as they sometimes do for me, because of story. This is not the first time such things have solidified in this way, just the most recent.

This is about my grief. It is an old grief. It comes from the child who was not allowed to play tag with the boys, from the girl who was reminded by the men, and women, in her life of her powerlessness, from the adult, myself, who constantly struggles with the shackles of gender, nearly invisible until you move wrong, speak wrong, dress wrong – and run up against them strangling you. This is about being a woman. A woman who is awake. And it is about a story, a horror story that cut too deep, called “Dark Warm Heart.”

I read this story about the same time that Twitter, at least, reeled from yet another shooting. The victim was Karen Smith, an elementary school teacher who married a friend and then realized she had married a monster when he came into her classroom and took her life, as well as the life of one of her students, and then killed himself. This shooting was part of a larger epidemic. The article from Huffington Post discusses the statistics, seen in the above tweet. Teen Vogue did a wonderful job of continuing to unpack this in their article. As the writer Morgan Jerkins observed, “most murderers in murder-suicides are male and the most prevalent kind of murder-suicide is between two intimate partners, such as a man killing his wife or girlfriend.”

I read “Dark Warm Heart” before I knew any of this, of course. Not long before – I think I saw the first fragment of a headline cross my screen only about a half hour later. These stories, the real and the true, tangled in my brain. As they should.

If you want to read the story, the voice is beautiful, the writing is technically solid, the plot is compelling. It is chilling – if you’re into that sort of thing, do go. If you’re not, if you’re just here to listen to me ramble, be aware there are spoilers. Pretty much line-by-line spoilers.

This is a story about domestic violence. About the hunger of the male body and how women must accommodate it. About the isolation of womanhood – about not having anyone to lean on because you are supposed to lean on your husband. This is about how a wife and mother must sacrifice her flesh. I can’t tell if the author (Rich Larson, presumably male) intended for this story to be about that. I can’t tell if they meant this story as a critique, as a piece of feminine horror. For me it didn’t read that way. The character certainly never questioned her choice.

Kristine is a young woman. We presume she is newly married, from the text, though there’s no explicit discussion of how new. Her husband is returned from a research trip to the Arctic, where he has encountered something eldritch and strange. It has changed him. It is made clear, through text, that he chose this change. It may not have been much of a choice, but it was a choice nonetheless. From the story:

the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo.

Through his choice, he is made a monster.

Kristine knows none of this when her husband returns. She knows that she is happy. She knows that she is pregnant. But she realizes something is wrong. He bites her, hurts her. She reaches out to her mother, hoping for advice, or succor.

Her mother tells her that Kristine is obligated to make it work. He’s her husband. She just needs to try harder. Give more. She never asks what, exactly, has made Kristine so skittish. She doesn’t want to listen.

Kristine’s husband, Noel, cannot contain his hunger. To his credit, he tries other ways of assuaging it. He tries to eat himself, but the curse doesn’t work that way. He thinks that he might eat a body in the morgue, but he is not able to get access. Feeble attempts, really. In the end, he has wanted his wife since he came home. His bite marks, forced on her already, tell that story clearly.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin.

He never tries to eat another living person. There are so many other people on this planet, but he tries to eat his wife first, of all the living people in the world. She must be the one to feed his hunger.

“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.”

Kristine makes a choice, too. Where her husband chose to make a dreadful bargain and live, where he chose to push his hunger, in the end, onto his wife, she chooses to accommodate it. She chooses, at the end of this story, to feed him – to give up a literal piece of her body to his hunger. Whether she should do this thing is never questioned by anyone except her, and then only in the darknesses of her mind.

How easily this story follows the pattern of abuse. The lack of questions, the lack of wanting answers, the isolation. How quickly she is expected to do what is best for everyone else, and not for herself. How easily she succumbs to male violence. How virtuous it must seem.

I am so tired of reading stories which rationalize male violence and female self-flagellation. Which not just rationalize, but normalize, even glorify, these things. Noel was a victim. Kristine was a martyr. Sure. Really Noel was a selfish fool who made a deal with the devil, or something very like it, and Kristine was the innocent told that she must do anything to save him. How often women must pay for the men in their lives’ mistakes, for their aggressions. It’s a uniquely feminine horror story. It’s a story about something that many don’t even acknowledge as an issue in life. And yet it sat wrong, on a day when yet another woman had lost her life to someone who should have been a partner. When the horror is all around us, and not acknowledged, how then do we read a supposedly fictional horror story and not grieve and rage?

I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and the same Tor.com published this timely post the next day on horror and women’s intuition. This post discusses the trope of the woman who, like Kristine, knows something is wrong. Cassandra-like, she tells of doom, but no one believes her. As the author, Emily Asher-Perrin, notes:

…some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

Perhaps I just wish that the critique of Kristine and Noel’s supposed romance was laid out in more than unease and thrilling mystery. After all, Bluebeard was a story designed to keep young women obedient and it was a horror story, too. I want someone to acknowledge that the world, that society, failed Kristine. That she was backed into a corner with no one to rely on, no one to turn to, and only once choice: succumb in a way she might survive, or die. That the world fails women every day, and offers them this same choice. I wish, desperately, that this fiction might not just use that struggle, but acknowledge it in solidarity. And I don’t feel that that happened.

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