By Laura Elizabeth WoollettFiction Scribe Publications
The Love of a Bad Man
A schoolgirl catches the eye of the future leader of Nazi Germany. An aspiring playwright writes to a convicted serial killer, seeking inspiration. A pair of childhood sweethearts reunite to commit rape and murder. A devoted Mormon wife follows her husband into the wilderness after he declares himself a prophet.
The twelve stories in The Love of a Bad Man imagine the lives of real women, all of whom were the lovers, wives, or mistresses of various ‘bad’ men in history. Beautifully observed, fascinating, and at times horrifying, the stories interrogate power, the nature of obsession and the lengths some women will go to for the men they love.
This collection of stories concentrates not on the violence inflicted by the titular ‘bad men’ of history or the magnetism of their personalities, but on the decisions made by the women who love them. The strength of this collection is in Woollett’s ability to make each female protagonist’s character distinct, her motives multitudinous and her voice unique. Each story contains an entire world and narrative arc, so they stand alone without the need to know context. Together, they present a riveting and nuanced character study of the ways desire can change a person.
Our crops fail, but our babies grow strong and sweet, like the sweetest pea-snaps. Every colour imaginable, every mix of every colour. God never intended to keep the races separate. Such prejudice could only come from the hearts of men, their infinite fear and folly. Sometimes, wandering through the nursery, I think of those stories of babies found in bulrushes, cabbage patches, and it’s a nice thought: that babies might truly crop up that way, from the pureness of the earth, free from the frailties of men.
Thirty-three born right here in Jonestown. Did you ever see such healthy, happy babies? And not one of them who ever has to experience America’s racism.
Our cribs are reinforced with mesh to keep out creepy-crawlies. Our wall hangings and hand-braided rugs are made of red, green, yellow, black: the colours of our adoptive nation. On the verandah, picture books bloom in the laps of our women, who nurture our babies’ minds with daily storytime. Many of our three-year-olds already know their ABCs. Of course this’s the first they ever heard of NBC.
Some of you men laugh. A tight, showy kinda laugh, but at a time like this that’s to be expected.
We didn’t want media. We didn’t want congressmen. We wanted to be left in peace. That you all couldn’t give us that much is proof of the enormity of what we’ve done: a thousand men, women, and children turning our backs on the United States for a simpler life down here in the jungle. But we’re making the best of this intrusion. Last night when the congressman came onstage to praise our community, the applause was so loud it almost brought down the roof of the pavilion.
We are nothing if not a proud people, an optimistic people.
Here we have the kitchen, where Sister Liliana and her crew prepare three thousand nutritious meals each day. The woodshop, where Brother Ernie and his crew construct everything from bunk beds to pull-along toys. The piggery; see how good and fat our sows are, our beauteous Blissie who is mother to eighteen piglets. Each plank we walk along was measured, sawed, and laid by our construction crew. Each person treading these paths is brother or sister to the next. Such close-knit community you’d be lucky to find nowadays even in the smallest Midwestern town, where people no longer feel safe leaving their doors unlocked.
There is no crime here in Jonestown, no dispute that can’t be resolved communally.
That knot of people by the pavilion, drawing more in like a tornado; I wouldn’t pay it any mind. There are less of you than when this tour began. Stay behind me, please; don’t stray. I know the sun is hot, and these flies are a nuisance, but we have many more sights to see, people to meet, refreshments awaiting us at the end of the line.
A pair of sisters whisk by. Another sister, our Esme who works so hard in the laundry, whispers in my ear, and what she says — well, that’s not for you to know. Maybe you few who haven’t yet snuck away notice my face tense; you newsmen are trained to notice every frown, tic, averted eye. But when I next speak, it’s with a smile.
A good first lady, in the face of crisis, always finds some way to smile.
In the pavilion’s shade, the afternoon looks hourless. I see my husband’s face from afar, the broad slack lines of it, and want nothing more than to lay him down and cover him with a cool sheet, tell him to sleep away this defeat. Sleep, Jim, just sleep. It’s true what Sister Esme said; there’s folks deserting, and the who and how many of it doesn’t matter because it’s plain he’s taking it personally. Always, in the more than thirty years I’ve known him, he’s been the kind to take things personal: the sufferings of others, their individual pains, but most of all their betrayals.
You can’t keep them all, Jim, I’ve tried telling him. You can’t hold them like cards to your chest.
The Morrises, one of our oldest white families. With us since Indiana, those ugly pre-integration days when just the claim ‘all men are equal’ could have folks burning crosses on our lawns, painting swastikas on our church stairs. So many hard times lived through together: Sister Judy, surely you recall how you came to us weeping after the drowning of your little boy in ’59? Brother Gerald, the years of alcoholism and the friends who got you through it, friends who are still here today? Will you truly leave behind all us here who love you? Will you truly turn your back on this life we’ve made?
It isn’t what we expected, Sister Judy says grimly. It isn’t what we were told.
Her eyes holding mine, glassy blue-green like mine, the skin around them cracked with wrinkles like mine. After a certain age, women like us – women who’ve worked hard and suffered much – we all start looking the same.
Brother Gerald can barely look at me, but when he does, his eyes are the sad brown of a dog with a broken leg. Then he lets them drop in my husband’s direction, and without planning on it, I’m seeing what they see: Jim, a dry-lipped ghost, hiding behind his dark glasses. He’s trying to squeeze little Billy Barnhart’s shoulder, frowning into his pimento-red shirt when Billy flinches. Nearby, his California college girls huddle with our lawyers, their slim legs crossed, lips working quick and snide. The big, bearish congressman whispers with his aide. Our security detail keep watch over the media, arms folded and faces gloomy as the gathering clouds.
There’s no words for it. No happy words, anyways.
You’ll always have a place here, Sister, Brother. That’s what I tell them, and I open my weary arms. All traitors shall be forgiven. Come back anytime. We love you still.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist