The women of the village were starving. They chewed their hair. They lost their teeth. They trod on dung. They ate their coats. Their bellies swelled and keened. Hard times had fallen on the village, a barren plain scattered with yellow boulders. The only game was small vole and stork, which, when cooked, produced a soapy rash in the mouth of the eater. The women hung up their slingshots. They were the last of their lines, and nothing could be done.
Their men were out killing each other in a distant field. No one remembered where. The country kept changing names. They even took the boys in their flight. The boys would sound the war-flutes. But the women no longer heard any flutes. They were left alone to tend their meager farms and raise their pathetic, consumptive girl-children.
That year there were no crops at all. The soil was poor. The women planted seeds, and the garden spit up sand. Useless!
So the women let their houses go and fell to greed and lust. All day they gathered on the cart path and gambled with the last of the eggs. The foulest ate them raw. They taunted their enemies with yolk streaming from their jowls. The others wrestled for drippings in the dust.
At sundown, the women gathered before the dwelling of Old Woman Božka and heckled. Jeering at the hermit was their favorite activity. Old Woman Božka was a proud widow. Her husband died sixty years ago and she never appeared out of mourning, if she appeared at all. Božka did not socialize with the starving villagers. Her house was watertight and guarded by an angry hog. She was not even plagued by the sand. In her plot grew the largest beet any of the villagers had ever seen. Its leafy greens reached the top of her roof, and a hard, red dome rose out of the soil. Every day the women peered over the fence to view the beet. As it got fatter and fatter, each woman imagined how she would season its chunks in her iron cauldron. The beet promised survival for the entire village if only Old Woman Božka would pull it. But the growing season drew to a close, and still, the beet did not budge.
“Toad-backed scurf. Cod-liver ox-pizzle. Vile, cream-brained lump,” chanted the women at Božka’s fence. “May a rat bite your sex in the night!” They squatted and threw up their skirts, displaying the white pies of their buttocks. Then they spat on Božka’s stoop.
The old woman threw open her shutters and emerged in a long, black veil.
“Worm-herders, muff-divers, heed my warning: do not covet this beet,” she said. She threw a rotten potato out of the window. “Now be gone!” And she disappeared.
“But Old Woman,” said the villagers, “your beet is full of health, and we will soon perish of dysentery.”
Božka’s head popped back up. “I do not give the skin of an onion for your dysentery,” she said. “The puller of this beet washes the village in blood.”
“Crusty stork,” said the women. “You are old and sucked dry, while we are young and dripping fruit. Are you so green as to wish us dead?”
“She who hunts the golden tit will suckle the dug of the ass,” said Božka. “Now get off my stoop before I sic my hog on your cunts.”
“We approach as kindly neighbors, and we are met with hostility!” said the women. They retreated to the shadow of the cart path. Old Woman Božka had gone senile. That was the only explanation. How could she look upon the starving villagers and refuse to pull her beet? It is known that the beet is the most female of fruits. It is the bleeding organ of the earth, restoring healthy metals to all who eat of it.
“We must not let this beet go to seed,” the women said. “Nor rot in the autumn rains.”
“We shall take the beet by force,” said a crass peasant named Dranislava. “I have the strength of ten men and four oxen, and I will not starve at the hands of a crystal-gazing crone.”
The women decided to return in the dead of night, when Božka was sure to be asleep. Then Dranislava, the strongest among them, would sneak into the garden and the yank the beet herself.
When the moon rose over the village, Dranislava crept over Božka’s fence in a costume of beech leaves. She beheld the beet. It was even more splendid by moonlight. Its greens were veined with deep purple, and its crown crested the rich dirt. She inhaled an earthy sniff. The beet was ripe for feasting.
Dranislava rooted her feet on either side of the beet crown. She gripped her hands around the green stalks. And she pulled and pulled, but she could not free the beet. It was as stubborn as a stone. Dranislava’s great muscles strained and tore. She yanked until her joints ripped from their sockets, and she fainted in a fit of agony. The women fled the cart path, fearing she had been captured. Božka’s hog found Dranislava prone in the garden, and rent her body with its tusks.
The next morning, the women reconvened in the cart path.
“Monstrous fate! It appears Dranislava, god rest her soul, was unfit to save the village,” said the women. “We will send forth another candidate.”
They stood in silence by the fence, observing Božka’s hog rutting on the corpse of Dranislava. No one volunteered to follow her.
“I propose we launch an arrow over the fence and pierce the beet, then extract its juices piecemeal by sucking from a long hose,” said a jaundiced, tubercular woman named Valenka. Her compatriots stared at her. “We would take turns sucking,” Valenka added.
“Who will venture over the fence to attach the hose?” asked the women.
“The hose will be attached to the arrow,” said Valenka.
The women considered this for a few minutes. “We have no hose,” they concluded.
“What if we hitched our plow-horses to the crown of the beet, and drove them toward the boulder-field?” asked a woman called Jioina.
“We slaughtered the plow-horses long ago,” said the women, “and the nanny goats are riddled with orf.” The women sighed.
“A hundred times nothing killed the donkey,” said Dorka, a randy egg-gambler. “We must not lose countenance. If we pool our strength, the beet we will conquer.”
The women gathered at the stroke of twelve. Clasping each other at the waist, they formed a long chain beginning in the garden and going down the cart path to the outskirts of the village.
“Flex!” Dorka called, and the women clutched each other tight and dug their heels into the soil.
“Heave!” Dorka yelled, and the women pulled with all their might. The combined weight of their efforts forced the women in the back to topple over. Up at the front, Dorka could see the beet begin to loosen in the soil.
The women released all manner of grunts, whines, and sulfuric gases. Dorka was nearly horizontal with each pull.
At last, Dorka witnessed the beet lodge from its earthen hole. The beet was massive and slippery and uprooted half of Božka’s garden. The women collapsed, pelted with dirt and roots. Then the beet began to roll. Dorka scrambled, but it was too late. The beet weighed two tons and crushed her instantly. Then the vegetable rolled down the line, flattening women, fence posts, stray dogs, and elm trees in its wake. The women in the back recognized their fate and tried to run away, but the beet followed. No soul was spared. A warpath of blood and beet juice crossed the entire village until the vegetable finally crashed against a large, yellow boulder. It split in two, staining the village with red.
The boom woke Old Woman Božka from her sleep. She opened her shutters to the pink light of dawn and clucked her lips. Her garden was now a giant crater, surrounded by squashed corpses. Finally, she was rid of the meddling peasants! Božka fetched her biggest cauldron and followed the trail of death down to the cracked beet. She took a carving knife from her belt and chunked a piece of beet into her cauldron. Then she built a fire right there and roasted the red chunks. She stirred in the meatiest pieces of the greedy villagers for flavor, raised the ladle to her lips, and supped.
Božka filled her belly with the greasy stew until it was drum-tight. She was spattered with purple juices and mush from the villagers. Her head rested against the boulder, and she dozed. The hog ran over and licked her clean. Satisfied, they curled up together, and they were never hungry again.
Sara Kachelman is the author of the art book Autopsy of the Sewing Machine. Contact her at sarakachelman.com