Niobe Damnable

Rocky soil, Niobe has no children of her own, no, nor husband, but a house that beds forty and a tongue like a whip of fury. She is well-armed against change; here in the hinterlands, the cold damp north, she has found a refuge and sunk roots deep into the boulders of the plain. She will crack open this place, because she must.


She arms herself and her women, rifles them out, picks off these axemen, these blazers. She tacks their scalps, withered flags, to the splintering wood of her fence. They carve warnings in the trees — you can see them, even now, moss-filled, but deeply carved, testimony to their fear — and bend wide around her land. “More to be abhorred,” writes one, “than all the armies of the tribes assembled.”

She has, alas, too good an eye: the city grows up around her. Her clan is pressed on all sides by potholes, sewer pipes, the thousand teeth of civilization. She spits on them when they pass too near, empties chamberpots on their heads, once buries a knife handledeep next to a quivering male ear. In a town of errant seamstresses, her house hums with industry.

When she dies the ground spits her forth again calcified. “The woman too mean for Hell,” the newspaper cartoons it, but in the night her women steal her back.

Niobe persists, still guarding her impregnable retreat; the roads still bend away from her gate, but there are, somehow, always beds available.