The sun was high, crickets were chirping, and the air was thick with pollen. Maybelle strode with angry purpose between the wheel ruts on the dirt road towards the next town. She wore boots, caked in mud, that had belonged to her dead father and were far too large for her. Her arms swung like clock hammers, with fists balled. Her face was scrunched, and her nose was red with allergies. Under her disheveled skirts and a concealing sweater her belly was six months in bloom.
She marched along until she came to a rock bridge that had partly fallen into the stream it covered. She stopped and looked around, then scrambled down the embankment until she was ankle-deep in cold water.
"Hello?" she said in a commanding voice. "Is anybody here? Now don't waste my time. I was told there lived--"
"I am here," came a reply. The voice it belonged to was raspy, phlegmy.
"Where are you?" Maybelle turned around and back again.
"I am here," said the voice again.
"Show yourself then!"
The shadows under the bridge shifted and a large, misshapen form appeared. The rocks in the bridge cracked and scraped each other until the figure completely detached. In the light the creature was tall but bent over, with fat thighs, big feet, gray mottled skin, sparse hair sprouting from various patches of its body, and a wide head with an equally wide mouth slit that lacked lips. Its eyes were mismatched, as if one was taken from a sheep and another from an owl. Maybelle furrowed her brows and folded her arms across her chest.
"What is this? What are you?"
"It does not matter," said the figure. "All you need to know is that I am of magic. That is why you came? Didn't you? You need my magic."
"That I do," said Maybelle quietly, glancing down at her belly. "I need you to take my shame away."
"I see. And how did you come to know of me?"
"The old woman in the village. The one that reads cards for eatin' and drinkin' money. She said that one dwells here under this bridge that could help me."
"Can you help me?"
"Do you want me to help you?"
"Wha--of course I do! What do you think I walked four miles here for? It certainly wasn't to bask in the aura of your beauty. And I gotta walk four miles back too! I haven't got need or want of it, and not enough food for me, let alone another mouth. My word! You magical critters are all alike, all cryptic and wantin' to make everything a complicated puzzle! Why can't anything ever be straightforward with your folk?"
"Well, if you're going to talk to me like that, maybe I won't help you," the creature sniffed.
"Oh for--would you just get this done with?"
"What I meant, is are you sure? Are you completely sure and free of doubts?"
Maybelle rolled her eyes and slapped her thigh.
"Fine, fine," said the creature quickly. "But I do need to know how you came to be in this state?"
"It matters to me. The being inside you must be...compatible with my constitution."
"Well--" Maybelle looked at the creature with heated exasperation. "It happened the same way any of it happens!"
"I need details. Specifics."
"Goodness, you're a prying one!"
"It's important. Come on now," urged the creature. "I cannot help you otherwise."
"If you must know, it was by a man claiming to be a prince. He was well enough dressed to be one, that's for sure, but now I think he was a rogue or a successful highwayman. I was picking nettles by the road to make a soup, and he came up to me on horseback. He got down and complimented my hair. I smiled at him and bid him a good day, and mostly looked down at the dirt because he was my better, or I thought he was, and I shouldn't ever look my betters in the eye, or so my ma always said, bless her heart before she died--"
"Get on with it!"
"Ugh, well, he wouldn't go away and offered me an apple. I took it out of politeness. I figured it was for his horse, so it was probably good enough for me to eat and I took a bite, and suddenly felt weak. He caught me in his arms and conveyed me to the ground. I don't remember much after that. I woke up come evening time, with my skirts over my head, and I had a notion then what happened. The prince or whoever he was, was nowhere in sight. I few weeks later I got sick with the shame of it. The shame."
Maybelle shook her head and sighed.
"Is that all?"
"No dalliances with the local farmhands or the village idiot or your brothers?"
"What?! No! I never! Just what kind of imbecile do you take me for?"
"There are all kinds that come to me for my magic. You might be shocked. And you never saw this prince before or after?"
"Well? Is it, how'd you put it, compatible with your constitution?"
"Well yes. They mostly are, and you look ripened enough." At this the creature's thin tongue whipped around the orbit of its mouth. "But there might be magic at work here too."
"Huh? How'd you figure that?"
"The apple of course. The poisoned apple is the simplest curse of all. Even you should know that."
"Well like I said, I thought it was for his horse. Now can you do this or not? I don't want to be nattering here into the night."
"Yes. Yes I shall," said the creature, sloshing forward in the water towards Maybelle. "Lift up your skirts so that your belly is exposed."
Maybelle did so. The creature skulked into the full daylight and its skin shone with a slimy sheen. Maybelle swallowed hard. The creature extended a bony finger and poked at her navel. Maybelle flinched by stood her ground.
"Will this hurt?" she asked.
"My magic carries no pain." The creature exerted more pressure until her navel gave way. The finger plunged inside. There was no blood or gore.
The creature's eyes rolled back, and it opened its mouth panting. Maybelle shied her face from its rank breath. She felt a tugging from inside her, and her belly slowly became less and less swollen. When it was mostly flat, the creature sighed deeply and withdrew its finger. Maybelle looked down and saw that her navel was completely intact. She felt her stomach with both hands, pressing in and feeling at various points.
"That's it?" she asked, astonished.
"Your shame is gone," said the creature, looking bored and retreating back to the shade of the bridge.
"What payment do I owe you?"
"That was it. Quite lovely, thank you."
"Oh," said Maybelle. "Thank you."
She turned and climbed back up the embankment, and began her four mile march back to the village.
A few days later the creature re-emerged, its magic replenished, transformed this time as a rakish, handsome, itinerant farmhand. He walked, whistling, towards the village in search of a young woman fertile and able enough to prepare his next meal.