The Broken Men—Aisling Walsh

content warning: sexual content

People often believe witches should look a certain way. They imagine us as haggard crones with black hairs curling out of warts protruding from the tips of hooked noses. They project us on screen with our gnarled fingers, tipped with black talons, wrapped around the shaft of straw brooms as we speed across the sky. Or they show us cackling as we wave our wands over steaming cauldrons to cast our spells. On Samhain they dress their daughters in our image – pointed hats, black capes, velvet dresses and hobnailed ankle boots – to scare wandering spirits back to the underworld. 

I have lots of freckles but no warts. My black garbs are always paired with something coquettish in moss green or aubergine. My broom is strictly used for sweeping and my magic wand is strictly for pleasure. A woollen knit, rather than a black cone, tops my head as I clip across the cobblestones of the medieval city I call home. People do not stare, nor cross the street to avoid me. Wrapped in a cashmere scarf with the collar of my tweed coat pulled up against the wind and rain, they barely give me a second glance as I weave my way through Saturday shoppers all-consumed by the drive to accumulate. I slip unnoticed into cosy wooden-panelled snugs, cradling hot whiskeys in one hand and a dog-eared Beckett in the other. I sip and reread, “the tears of the world are a constant quantity, for each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops,” waiting for a suitable candidate to appear. 

I was not collecting them at first, the broken men. I simply found my way to them, lured by illusions of artistic mystery and a sizzling chemistry obscuring their deformities until long after I was already hooked. We would clutch each other in the dark, spilling post-coital intimacies onto bed sheets damp with sweat and tears. I held them as they wept their pain into my bosom, basking in the afterglow of attachment sprung from sorrows shared and understood. 

I would offer up my pulsating heart on a silver platter and leave my body at their disposition, a source of solace, as much as pleasure. I chased those early ones to the end of my last shred of dignity. I shudder to think of my younger self, prostrate on the altar of their needs and vices until they had no more use for me. They would step over my broken, misshapen corpse, taking one of my vital organs with them as they walked away. Meanwhile I would cling to some useless artefact they had left behind, treating it with the same reverence the devoted bestow on sacred relics, until the next one came along. Such artefacts would then lose their sanctity and be boxed, discarded, or burned in accordance with the depth of my lingering heartache. Many men passed between these legs before I realised that instead of grasping at their love, I should let go. They, and I, were already beyond repair. 

It does not take long before a new one finds his way to me. It is usually the laugh that first catches my attention: a deep chuckle that ends in a wheeze. From behind my thick rimmed glasses and over the edge of my Beckett, I time the lapses between pints, watching as they disappear two, three or four creamy heads of stout. I study how they craft their rollies, their fingers stained yellow from years of measuring out the exact quantity of soft, stringy tobacco onto paper, a filter poised between their lips. I listen for the growls of self-deprecation laced with sarcasm and note the furtive glances at friends to make sure their jokes are received with laughter. I evaluate their carefully curated persona: the long hair tied back, the worn sweater or flannel shirt hanging loose over faded black jeans and black boots scuffed at the toes. They lope back and forth between bar, table and street, their shoulders hunched under their long black coats as they suck nicotine in a pub door. 

I wait until their fourth trip to the bar before I make my move, sliding in beside them and leaving my Beckett face up while I order another hot whiskey. They glance sideways at the book a couple of times before they try out a quote. I act surprised and smile. Yes, he’s my favourite too. Yes, I’ve read his complete works. Yes, I also prefer his poetry to his plays. They make a joke about Ireland’s greatest writers absconding to Europe and I throw my head back laughing. I hit them playfully on the upper arm, hold their gaze for ever longer pauses, and bite my lower lip. I forget to go back to my seat, pretending my friends have already moved on. I let them buy the next round. I let them think it was all their idea.

They suggest shots then lead me around the dancefloor, then to their front door, stumbling up the stairs and into their bedrooms. I perch on the corner of the sagging mattress, looking at my hands, as if I am shy and do not usually do this kind of thing. Sometimes they prolong the moment by reciting verses of poetry or strumming a few cords on the guitar. I feign raptured enchantment, when they tell me they wrote it themselves. Their low gravely tones and scent of sweat, tobacco and aftershave, is a heady mix that still whets my appetite. I inch ever so slightly closer, until our shoulders are touching. They lean in for a kiss, slow and cautious at first, until lust overcomes inhibition and their tongues probe deeper and harder. Our fingers pull at buttons and wrestle with buckles. Shoes fall to the floor. They fumble around a bedside locker for condoms. I tell them I am on the pill. It is all very urgent and heavy handed. They heave, grunt and explode inside me. I sigh and moan at all the right moments to make sure they think I have come. 

It is in the moments after they have emptied themselves into me, collapsing, breathless, into the crook of my neck, when I can really tell whether they are the one I have been waiting for. It is as subtle as a fingertip caressing the curve of my bare hip, or a warm breath on the back of my neck. There is no need for me to say anything. I lie still in the dark letting the slick of my juices and their seed seep onto the poly-blend sheets. Their fraught whispers pour into my willing ear, until, cradled in my arms, they are utterly spent, their wounds glistening through the darkness. I feel a deep tenderness, as I rock them gently to sleep. They rest easy, secure in the certainty of their sexual prowess and lulled by the release of secrets shared between lovers. 

We exchange coy messages for a few days. I tell them how great it was to connect with someone so deeply. They ask me over to their place again, but I make excuses and suggest an afternoon coffee. We meet at a quiet little French place. I sip espresso while coaxing yet more confessions, nodding along as if I know exactly how they feel. Their pain floods the red and white checked vinyl tablecloth. I squeeze their hand as they wipe away just one rebellious tear. They tell me what a relief it is to finally be able to share all this with someone. 

After an hour or so of this emotional bloodletting, with a few choice traumas of my own thrown in to pique their interest. I say I have to dash but ask if they would like to come over to mine at the weekend? I live outside the city, alone, I tell them. The cottage is cute and cosy, and we won’t be disturbed. I offer to pick them up in town. It’s just easier, I say. My place is hard to find. 

I pull into the car park by the Cathedral at 5pm. It is already dark and blowing a gale. They jump into the passenger seat and plant a wet and hurried kiss on my cheek. The tyres screech over the tarmac as I head west. They do not seem to notice I have locked the car doors. We listen to guttural premonitions of doom from Tom Waits while driving across gorse covered hills and around the edges of black lakes. 

They pull a somewhat soggy rollie from behind their ears. “Mind if I?” 

“Be my guest,” I reply.  

The acrid scent of tobacco smoke, laced with something more herbal, fills the car. A gentle pressure creeps over my thigh and comes to a rest an inch from my pubic bone. I leave it there, pretending to focus on keeping the car to the left-hand side of the road. 

“Your house is really isolated,” they say to break the silence I have allowed to grow between us. 

“I like the quiet, it helps me concentrate.”

“What do you do? I just realised I never asked.” 

“This and that,” I say, shrugging as I turn off the main road. 

We bump over dirt and stones, the lights picking up the grassy verge that runs down the middle of the track. Eyes flash in the hedgerows and a startled rabbit darts across the lane, escaping the front wheel by mere inches. We come to a halt at an iron gate standing open. A white-washed cottage peeps out from behind holly trees bursting with red fruit. The soft light of a turf fire flickers in the window. 

I turn off the engine and there is a furtive exchange of saliva. Eager hands find their way around buttons and under jumpers. They offer their leather jackets as we make the dash from the car to the front door under a sudden squall. I allow a bit more fondling before releasing the latch. There is a chill in the air, so I throw freshly cut turf on the smouldering fire. Two glasses, a bottle of red and a little dish of olives sit on the coffee table. I light candles while they shuffle off to the toilet, a tiny closet filled with generic adornments I procured from a Swedish warehouse of blissful interior uniformity. My cat creeps out from under the table and rubs itself around my ankles but disappears as soon as the toilet flushes. 

I stand naked by the fire, one arm resting on the mantelpiece and the other holding out a glass of Malbec. They stumble, stutter and look at the floor to conceal the flush that has spread across their faces. I draw them down onto the cushions in front of the fire, loosen the top button of their shirts and lean in until my lips brush theirs. A sigh escapes and I feel their backs crumple under the stroke of my hand. Now it is my turn to take what I need.

I ease them to the floor, strip them off all clothing and, straddling their hips, envelop them. I thrust hard and fast until I have them howling for mercy and cursing the Holy Mother. I make sure I have come before allowing their mournful release. I take their load, clenching and holding on tight to the deposit. 

Easing myself off them and onto the rug, I sip my wine and watch them pant, waiting for them to recover. I repeat the ritual throughout the night until they have nothing left to give, nothing left to say. As they sink into unconsciousness by the fire I retreat to the bathroom. I squat and deposit all I have managed to collect of their seed into a mason jar, screwing the lid on tight. I return with a second jar and the carving knife I keep behind the vanity mirror. 

I straddle them once more, my knees pressing their arms into the white sheepskin. The steel tip is recently sharpened and cuts through their flesh without the faintest resistance. They moan and turn their heads but do not struggle. Blood oozes from the slit, trickling over their chest hairs. There is a crack as I push my fingers in and snap apart the breastplate. I am quick and precise, cutting neatly through the main arteries. The heart comes away intact. I place it, still beating, in the second mason jar and seal the lid tight. Then I reach for the tin box, hidden under the vacant aesthetic of glossy coffee-table books, take out the wind-up clock, set the alarm to seven and place it inside the bloody hollow at the centre of their chest. I snap the breastplate back, press the flaps of muscle, fat and skin together, secure them with a needle and thread and use a tea towel to wipe away the blood. I lick my fingers of their residue, savouring the tang of iron and platelets. 

I press my ear to their chest and listen for the faint, but perceptible, tick-tock then I rub some calendula salve over the stitches which have already begun to fade. By morning the scar will be little more than a pink shadow. I leave their clothes folded neatly beside them, dress myself and disappear with my specimen jars. 

A gentle vibration wakes them just before dawn. They stretch a heavy arm across the rug but do not find me curled beside them. The embers are cold in the grate, a draft creeps under the front door. They rub their jaws, trying to piece together snatches of memory from the night before. Their chests hurt but they put it down to too much wine and fucking. They call my name, noticing how their voice cracks ever so slightly, but are met with silence. The embers in the grate are almost cold and they shiver as they become aware of their nakedness. Fumbling around in the half-light they pull on their scraps of clothing. With one final look round the empty cottage they spot the green eyes of a black cat sitting in the corner. He hisses. They curse and crash into the front door then stumble out to the overgrown meadow. The car is gone. They check their phones but there is no signal. Staggering down the dirt track they glance back at the cottage only to see a semi ruin with a caving roof. Tentacles of ivy are all that is keeping the gable wall from collapsing. The windows are smashed, and the door hangs loose on its hinges. They feel a sudden wave of nausea and empty a scarlet bile into the bushes.  

By the time they reach the road the sun is creeping over the eastern Turks. They squint against the glare and check their phone again. Still no signal. A tractor heads west loaded down with bales wrapped in black plastic, sheep bleat from the surrounding fields, but otherwise they are alone. They sit on a stone wall, roll a cigarette and wait for a bus or a car going east. It is early and the roads are empty, but they make it home before anyone notices their absence and before they realise what they have left behind. 

Meanwhile I am already deep into the mountains, carrying a black velvet bag. The two mason jars clink in rhythm to my strides across the bog. I allow myself the pleasure of a low cackle as I recall so many years of wasted effort trying to save the broken men from themselves, hoping that in doing so I might also save myself. Now I know there is nothing to save, in either of us, there is only what we can take from each other. 

Aisling Walsh (she/her) is a queer, feminist and neurodiverse writer based between Ireland and Guatemala. Her stories, essays and features have been published or are forthcoming in Púca, The Squawk Back, Litro, Barren, Rejection Letters, Cordella Mag, Pank, Entropy Mag, Refinery29, The Irish Times, and The Establishment. Her personal essay ‘The Center of the Universe’ was selected as runner up in the So To Speak CNF Prize for 2021. She is currently working towards a PhD in sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway, where she is researching decolonial and feminist practices of healing justice in Guatemala.

photo by Issy Bailey (via unsplash)