The giant offered me a choice: I’d be his dinner or I’d be his wife. His hair wasn’t so coarse as the other giants of the area, his eyes so yellow, or his skin so mottled with patchy callouses – so I chose life. My groom barely looked my way during the ceremony, focusing instead on picking at his nails between repeating his I do’s, cheeks burning red with each mumbled word. Bits of flaked skin and spittle rained down, sticking in my hair or clinging to my dress, and the priest had to repeat himself twice before he heard, “You may kiss the bride.”
His lips covered my own, along with my nose and chin, and his breath smothered me as I shook, fearing he would eat me then and there. The priest took his fee – he was allowed to live – and the giant threw me over his shoulder, the same way he brought me into the church. I saw the poor priest fall to his knees and begin repeating the sign of the cross as we left the sanctuary, floorboards cracking below.
Two long days of hard rowing by boat brought us to the island my husband called home. My father’s words rang softer in my ears with each stroke of paddles delivering me from his house: “I’ll find you, I’ll save you, I promise.” I realized why my husband had grunted a laugh at these words. His arms pumped oars against the billowing waves the entire trip, and he ignored my questions and my gaze. He wouldn’t even meet my gaze, though I did catch him stealing a few glances.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “When will we get there? Who are you – what do you want me for, anyway?” Giants, as far as I knew, didn’t take wives, but he made no moves to eat me, crush my bones, or drink my blood. If anything, he seemed nervous around me. It had taken a lot of cajoling to convince him I wouldn’t run away and that he could untie my arms on the boat – I wasn’t going to try to escape by swimming, not in these shark-infested waters that my father had taught me to fear from an early age.
A late sun burned the treetops as my husband tied the stern to a primitive island dock made of rough branches tied with leathery vine rope. He moved to pick me up, but this time I sidestepped him, weak as my legs were, and walked myself down the dock. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life,” I told him, “being carried around like luggage.” He watched my movements but made no move to grab me, and walked by my side, towards a house gigantic as it was crude.
A schedule became apparent in the days that followed. My husband rose at dawn, tidying up the house and preparing breakfast while I lingered in a bed so large I needed a ladder to climb into it. I watched the sun rise across the stunted trees until I got up out of boredom or an uncomfortable bladder. At first I let my husband make meals and ate whatever he placed before me. I was a farm girl, though, raised for work and toil; after laying about for a week or so, I began cooking for him instead, a change which appeared to please him. Though I could not reach the sink without a ladder or lift the pans by myself, I was able to manage preparing at least one meal a day. It gave me some purpose. Fresh flowers began appearing in crude, oversized vases, and we settled into a routine that, while loveless, was not unhappy.
I asked one morning, as I climbed from the enormous bed, if I could see what he did during the daylight hours. I saw him only in the early morning and sunset, and wondered what could possibly take up his time. Every evening on his return a look of relief would pass over his face, as though he feared I would run away. Innocent though my question was, though, he snarled like a beast, and for the first time since our wedding I feared him. “You’ll stay here,” he warned me, eyes clouded. “You can go anywhere you want on this island, but never follow me.” He didn’t even eat breakfast before stomping away, pounding a beat into the earth.
The island didn’t take long to memorize. One of the first days I ventured out of the shack I did get lost, and my husband found me at twilight, trying to find my bearings atop a stunted tree; I never let that happen again. Though I could not see them, I knew there were other islands near enough for my husband to visit, as he rowed away each week, returning after darkness with food and other supplies. I never lacked clothing, and the kitchen remained stocked with everything from avocado to wine. He even brought me little offerings, gift-wrapped packages of sparkling jewels and pretty dresses I wore for no one. My curiosity still raged as I searched for hints of why a giant would want a wife; at the same time, I grew bored with the sedentary lifestyle. As my husband’s snores shook the leaves outside our hut one evening, I resolved to follow him the next morning.
My husband liked eggs and potatoes for breakfast, and I kept the silence he enjoyed, just like any other morning. I counted to one hundred before following him into the misty forest, listening for his heavy footfalls. Despite the noise, he left no path I could discern, perhaps fearing his nosy wife might follow. I listened for his heavy breathing and watched for flashes of his stained, tan shirt to keep the trail.
At last I found him, stooping in front of a large boulder. His hand flattened against the stone, fingertips pressing against the rough side. It swung open, like a door, and, eyes darting in caution, my husband entered. The rock clicked softly behind him, blending into the earth like any ordinary boulder.
He did not notice anything different in my manner that night. We ate in silence, watched the sun sink drowsily into the sea with me resting in his clumsy arms, and slept in his giant’s bed. If anything, I watched him closer, trying to see if he knew I’d followed him. My husband was a creature of habit, though, and the days passed as they had before. I did not follow again him the next day, or the next, and when he prepared to leave the island that week, he asked if I needed anything from the village on a nearby island, as he always did.
“Not that I can think of,” I sighed, looking away. I needed to know what was in that hidden room, and though his trips always took the entire day, I wanted to make sure he did not return early.
“Nothing?” he asked, prodding. I knew he wanted to please me, in his clumsy way.
“Only…” I paused, and a slight smile pierced his face. “I’d like a little cloth, if it isn’t too much to ask. To make the house a little cozier – I’d like to make curtains, maybe, or a tablecloth.” He nodded, grin growing, and left with the tide as I waved from shore. A shock of guilt shot through my chest; he really didn’t seem to be bad, as far as giants went.
His boat hadn’t disappeared from sight before I ran back to the cabin. Despite having no path to follow, I stumbled over rock and hill before reaching the secret hollow. My waking thoughts had not left the rock, and my dreams showed me fantastic visions of what lay inside that mound of stones – a shining dragon’s hoard, a weaponry of clubs and swords, or perhaps something he collected – fish bones or toys from his childhood.
My hand, so much smaller than my husband’s, caressed the morning-cool rock, hoping it would work. The boulder shifted open, eager to please. I took two steps and the rock soundlessly trapped me inside.
A scream, high and wordless, echoed from the dripping walls; I did not realize it was my own, only that my heart shrieked in tune with the fearful song. Bodies hung from the walls, some with only bone and clothing – all feminine – others with flesh still clinging. Flies lowed their buzz, and wriggling maggots lived in the walls. A crusty butcher’s knife gleamed in the light which filtered through the rocky ceiling. A barrel half-full of persevering salt and cured hunks of meat hung from the walls and everything went dark.
The light shone in a band across my eyes when I awoke, and I had no way to tell how much time had passed. Though I wanted to avoid the gruesome vision, I couldn’t help myself; my eyes studied my husband’s work. On the floor at the far end of the cave was a sight that made me feel faint again, though I had not yet managed even to scramble to my feet: a small pyramid of heads, stacked on top of one another, their hair tied into disheveled knots to keep them together. The ones nearest to the top, the freshest ones, still had eyes which seemed to plead with me: they wanted vengeance. They wanted justice. And I did not want to die as they had.
Though my stomach lurched as I stood, I approached the cleaver’s knife on the massive table. It was, I already knew, my husband’s size, and even with two hands I could not manage to grip the handle he would carry with ease. I scanned the room, trying to get an idea of what to do, trying – and failing – to ignore the bloodstained walls, the hooks and nooks stuffed with old clothing and nails, the jars with floating fingers and toes. Everything in that cave was made for a giant of my husband’s size, despite its inhabitants. A shaft of weak light struck my eyes, which flew open: I had no idea how long I had been in the cave. I needed air and to plan what I would do when he found out what I had done – and I had no doubt now that he would know.
In my haste to escape, I stepped into a pool of congealed blood, but I ignored the squelching between my toes, instead inching along the walls until reaching the door. To my joy it sprung open with a soft touch, and I couldn’t believe that the sun had not moved. I discovered upon reaching the water’s edge that my hair had not turned gray from the shock, and though my hands shook, they were fair, not spotted or creased with veins as I felt they should be.
I dove into the sea, rinsing with salt and sand the fresh sweat from my skin. I saw the gaping eye-holes of those dead women, women who, like me, had been to this island. I vaguely noticed the blood on my foot, which would not come off, no matter how I scrubbed. I grew worried when, using soap retrieved from the hut, I found that the stubborn stain seemed to have dyed my skin. I dug up the shoes I wore when I first arrived, which had been abandoned after a few days of living on the island, and found they covered the shameful mark.
When my husband returned night had crept across the island, and I still had not determined what to do. Every moment had passed by as though it were an eon, yet time seemed still to slip through my fingers. He presented me with an offering, tiny in his hands and tied up with a blue silk bow. “I hope you like it,” he murmured, a gnarled finger touching my hand as his cheeks went red as the foot I hid below my skirts. I could not meet his yellowed eyes, and focused instead on the bundle held in his brown fingers.
“What is it?” I asked. I reached for the package, but he held it out of my arm’s reach.
“What you asked for this morning,” he said, looking confused.
My brain whirled. Morning had been a lifetime ago; my foot itched. “Oh,” I said, the thought hitting me, “the fabric!” I reached again, but my husband continued to hold it above my head, all traces of embarrassed hope gone.
“You were excited for it earlier,” he said.
“I am, I am,” I said. “I’m sorry, it’s just been a busy day.”
His eyes roamed the house, pausing on the unwashed dishes and floor. I kept my own trained on the package above my head. “You’re wearing shoes,” he said after a moment.
“I was walking on the beach today.” I looked down at them. He had never before mentioned my way of dress. “The sands were hot.”
“Take them off.” I’d never heard such flint in his voice.
I took a step towards the kitchen, trying to distract him. “Wouldn’t you like dinner, or—”
“Take them off, or I’ll take them off for you.” He loomed over me, taller than I’d ever noticed, and I had no choice. I sat on the floor, removing first the shoe from my clean foot. I glanced up; he stood, arms crossed, brows creased with a severity I had not seen since the day he kidnapped me. I removed the other shoe slowly, inching it from my skin as my husband cleared his throat. Once the red showed, I slid it off in one movement.
“I’m sorry,” I said, voice shaking. I wanted to be brave, to confront him about his horrible deeds, to demand to know about the dead women, but the words would not form. I could not meet his eyes.
“You’ve been to the cave,” he said. Reaching down, my husband picked me up and carried me like a child. “You disobeyed my orders.” He set me on the massive bed and moved away the ladder that I needed to get down. Turning towards the door, he shook his head from side to side. Though I could not see his face, I knew it wore a frown. “All I ask is for obedience – I don’t even ask for love.” His voice stuck in his throat, and though my stomach churned, I wanted to comfort him. I may not have loved him, but I did not hate him, either. “My wives are never content with the life I offer.” My pity shrank; I had known that those other women had been his wives, that the clothes he had given me were from their corpses, but I had not wanted to believe it. “Prepare yourself,” he ordered, opening the door. He added one warning: “Take this time to pray, and don’t try to leave. I will find you.” He looked over his shoulder, one quick, longing glance, “And if I must, I will make it painful.”
The rebuke was unnecessary; my knees had no strength and I could not fathom rising. I heard an unfamiliar thud as my husband barred the door from the outside, closing off all hopes of escape. I could not focus on prayer, and my fingers gripped the coarse fabric of the quilt. “I do not want to die,” I whispered; I did not want my head to join that macabre pile. Taking a deep breath, I slid to the edge of the bed and, not giving myself a chance to think of the outcome, I tumbled down. My feet tingled with pain as small bolts of lightning coursed up my calves, but I walked toward the kitchen; my husband had not moved the ladder leading up to the counter.
He returned with the butcher’s knife gleaming his hand, clean of crusted blood and gore. His face likewise shone with a sorrow that did not fit. He was a giant – a man-eater, a cattle-thief, a bride-killer – yet his task was not enjoyable. “You don’t have to do this,” I said from the counter, next to a wooden cutting board. My husband narrowed his eyes. I had not hid, and stood straight as a nail, my head thrown back so I could look in his eyes. “We’ve been happy, haven’t we?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and I actually believed him, despite what he was about to do, “but you broke my law, my rule, the only one I had.” He shook his head. “And there is punishment for such actions.”
“The way you punished those other girls?” I asked.
He groaned, waving his knife in front of himself. “You women! Too curious for your own good. Of course I killed them – you know what I am!” He didn’t look like a giant then; he was my husband, large and ungainly, to be sure, but his was still a face I had come to know. He approached the counter, the anguished look still driving furrows into his face. “I give you a good life, lots of food and pretty clothing –”
“The clothing of dead girls.”
“And what do you do? The one thing I tell you not to.” He looked at the stain on my foot. “Now you’ve got to join them.” He raised the knife, wincing himself. I jumped back at the last second, though, shrieking as the blade thudded into the wooden countertop. He had closed his eyes, and opened them with some shock. “Stop that,” he said, raising it again. “Don’t make me hold you down; go with dignity.”
Instead, I reached behind the cutting board and pulled out the largest knife I could handle. My husband was a slow man, and he wrinkled his brow again, surprised that I fought back. I raced towards him, but he easily took a step back and was out of reach. “If I have to go,” I hissed, “I’m going down fighting.”
Every time he approached the counter I brandished the knife. He had the upper hand, I knew that, but I remained true to my word – I refused to just die and join that pile. My husband concentrated on my movements and, with only a little warning, he jumped towards the countertop, cleaver sailing.
That quick tick of eyebrow and tightened clutch of knife’s handle was all the warning I needed, though. Instead of facing his superior strength I jumped to the ground, holding my own blade away from myself. Ignoring the shots of bright-white pain rushing up to my knees as I hit the ground, I slammed the sharpened blade into the back of my husband’s right foot, slicing through a tendon. He crashed to the floor, alternatively roaring and screaming and making my eardrums ring. His own butcher’s knife lay forgotten on the counter.
“I don’t want to die,” I said, wondering if he could hear my voice amongst his own screams.
“Little bitch!” he screamed, voice still going high and low. “Little…” His words died off as he tried to staunch the blood flow from his ankle.