May as Well Hang for a Sheep

Submitted into Contest #207 in response to: Write a story about a magician who never reveals their secrets — until now.... view prompt


Speculative American Friendship

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Let’s just get this out of the way from the start: I am not a witch. I was doing a legitimate master’s in medicinal botany when the war flared up and my lab was destroyed. I don’t practice black magic. Magic is not real, no matter what the modesty enforcers say to keep women in line. 

I let my clients think it’s magic because science is the men’s realm they’re trying to circumvent, and because I’m only allowed to operate because the modesty force thinks I peddle wives tales and expired tylenol. To them it’s just tea leaves and hope, a way to feel in control of their fates, when the ladies are actually too foolish and uneducated to know that all the public warnings about black magic are just a red herring to keep their rebellions lady-sized and ineffective. It’s like having a pro football team used to be: a way to misplace your anger and console yourself that you aren’t a loser if your team is winning. 

So I put on some hocus pocus for them. Chant these words while you chew willow bark and the cramps will ease within half an hour. Apply this salve to your burns and greet the morning sun with kindness so it will forgive you. Aspirin and aloe, as everyone used to know. 

And other things they didn’t. I have them hold crystals up to the starlight before they give their husbands magic mushrooms for their PTSD. I have them make a solo pilgrimage every full moon and they thank me along with the saints that they don’t get pregnant again. They put copper sulfate on the fire to make it burn green before my own green blend of ginseng and ginkgo makes their husbands burn for them. 

And sometimes they need other things. Things the modesty force can’t know about. Things they can’t always say. Things even they can’t let themselves know about. I remember reading even back when the States were United that the most common thing women fantasized about was their husbands’ deaths. That was the word in the article: not “dreaded” or “had nightmares about,” but “fantasized.” But in New Plymouth, it’s not a fantasy. Sometimes it’s a necessity. 

Somehow, Naomi knew all of this already when she first came to my door, but she sure fooled me. She arrived a crisp autumn morning dressed like a good New Plymouth wife in girly ruffles that hid all of her skin and at the same time made her boobs seem to hover out over her slip of a waist, because the only crime in women’s dress worse than immodesty is being unappealing to the male gaze. Women can be all of it, though. That’s why men are so scared of us. 

Naomi was quiet and meek. She opened the door softly and looked over her shoulder. Her hand hovered over the bell on the counter, reluctant to disturb me. She never mentioned the black eye I detected under her perfect makeup.

“I understood you do… um, more than midwifery?” she said hesitantly.

“What’s your problem?” I asked. “Infertile? Period pains?” I offer a list because shy ones like her can’t come up with the words sometimes. They’re trained to be ashamed of their bodies. They need to know it’s just business, no judgment.

“No, nothing like that.” She hung her head so her long silky waves fell in front of her face. 


“Maybe that. I…. Can you make my husband love me more? Is there an herb…. Something I can put in his food to make him turn to me with…softness?” And she raised her pleading eyes so the bruise caught the light. There were two extra stripes on the cheek, below the blued bag hanging below her eye, the powdered-over shadow of the last two fingers of a man’s fist as if they’d been inked and pressed down on paper. 

“Is that what you want?” I asked after a few seconds of holding her eyes. “This man’s love?”

“I…” she dropped her eyes again. “I’ve seen a man who loves his wife. He brings home the foods he thinks she’ll like, rubs the knots out of her neck. When it’s hot he lets her wait in the shade while he pulls up the car. I hear the couple next door, talking and laughing into the night and never…. Yes, I want love like that.”

“Not the question I asked,” I said with a noisy teeth suck. I don’t know what drives me to make myself so crass around these pretty young women, but there it was. “I have something for you.” And I got out the “heart stimulant” foxglove and instructed her how to make tea. I also made a very clear point that she should not drink it herself, so if she wanted to know what that meant, she would.

 I also gave her an incantation to say over it and some gestures. I cover my ass even with someone like Naomi, who didn’t seem like she was here out of rebellion. Her ability to be a good wife was just being hampered by her lousy husband.

The next time she was in was about a week later. The marks on her face were almost indetectable, but as she pushed up her sleeve for a moment to avoid dragging it in some plant cuttings drying on the counter, I could see her arm was bound by a cuff of faded yellow beneath the skin. No fresh bruises. 

“How did your vixen mittens work?” I use little coded names like that to keep anyone from looking up the plants, if they should happen to have access to books. One her age might not be able to read.

“I don’t know. He’s been sick. I have to take care of him.” That meant he didn’t have the strength to beat her. It was a start.

“He appreciates it?”

She thought for a moment. “Yes,” she said more definitely than I’d expected.

“What can I do for you now?” I asked, pointedly holding her stare.

“Well, your…methods...they’re working. I wanted more of the same.” Every hesitation was heavy with the things she wasn’t saying. She balanced them like blocks in little pyramids across the silences so I could see them without knowing what held them up, could see that they would fall if not handled with care.

“And can you afford it, with your husband missing work for illness?” It sounded indelicate, but we both knew it sidestepped mention of what exactly the herbs had done to him. 

“Oh, that’s all right. I get along without him.” She smiled down at her hands resting on the glass countertop. “He’s actually the drain on the finances.” 

She was very careful to stay cryptic. I did learn that she made her money managing condo rentals, but all she ever said about how was that it isn’t the 70’s anymore. The anonymity of internet transactions meant no one could tell who was on the other side of an email in a man’s name. So I guess she could read and use a computer too. She didn’t say more, but I changed the package she went home with. She could afford to lose him.

Back when the bombs had dropped, none of us had been caught off-guard. The culture divide had been deepening for decades at that point and crossing a state line was like crossing a country border. On one side there were guns, on the other drugs. On one side poverty was pitied; on the other admired. Your marriage might be null on one side; on the other someone would hurl insults if not eggs at you for having more than one child. Now you can’t get eggs because on that side keeping animals in captivity is slavery.

I arrived in the smoky ruin and didn't stop to cry about it, just started packing every textbook, herb, Bunsen burner, and still that had survived the blast. My lab partner and professor, I learned later, had not fared as well as my graduated cylinders.

The university had been listed as a possible target. Our side would hit its own unis just to make a point about indoctrination. I say “our” not because I agree with any of their ideology, but because this side is where I chose to settle, to serve the women of New Plymouth. Not everyone had a choice, but this close to the border, with my parents on the other side, I could have crossed over. 

But don’t get any idea that it was some kind of self-sacrifice: I make money and live comfortably, and the only women who really suffer under the Plymouth laws are the ones who live with a man, and that was never going to be me anyway. On the other side, I would have just been a botanist; no magic at all. Maybe I’d work for a pharmaceutical company and hate myself. The Coastal States have their problems, too. On this side, the gun in my purse means no one will ever again force on my body the need for procedures that aren’t legal anymore. It’s different for girls who like men or whose parents force them to marry.

I’m no more freedom-fighter than I am witch. I’m not trying to undermine the whole regime. We benefit mutually. I deliver babies and keep moms alive, and I do it cheap without patents or insurance. They want bodies for their wars, and not the kind who can pay for a trip to Europe when their daughters get in trouble. That’s the long term strategy for retaking the Coasts: pure population advantage. That’s the real point of New Puritanism. Now you get points on your heaven scorecard for making babies, and I get money for delivering them. And just like with those old football teams, the ones dying in the war are still always on the winning side because at least they don’t suffer the humiliation of being women.

None of it is really about the principle. None of the decision makers care about fetuses or animal rights.The Costal States’ richest found one way to co-opt people’s values into more money and New Plymouth’s found another. And I found my way to ride my skills into my share.  Anyway, I made a good living until Naomi kept the receipts.

Two weeks later, when she came in, she was wearing black head to toe. The modesty force were there for a regular check in. Two men with moustaches and brown uniforms leaned against the counter, making sure I could see their nightsticks jutting from their belts. The regular police carried guns, but there was something much more fitting about the symbolism of threating to beat an immodest woman with a stick. Officially, women couldn’t outrun or overpower men, so what need was there for the modesty force to have a gun? I described for them how I pray for the women who come to me. I prattled on about gestational diabetes, post-partum depression, and stimulating lactation. Their eyes glaze over when you talk about babies sucking on breasts. Occasionally they’ll make a joke they think I can’t hear about the little pervs, but you can tell it makes them very uncomfortable to think about babies doing to moms what they think is strictly for men to get off on. 

But they came around to asking about whether Susan Freizen had come to see me in the weeks before her husband died, and I was just saying “who is Susan Freizen? What does she look like?” when I caught Naomi’s eye through the window. I knew exactly who Susan Freizen was. I had stopped the bleeding when she nearly died delivering Ruth Ellen. And I’d stopped the wedding when Ruth Ellen turned fourteen last summer. Couldn’t very well go ahead with a celebration when the bride’s father needed his wedding suit for burial. We’d get the groom when the heat cooled, hopefully before he raped anyone else in an attempt to trap the damaged goods into marriage. He’d bragged that he learned that trick from a news report about how they were cracking down on the practice in Kenya. 

Naomi must have read something on my face. She came rushing into the shop, all in a flurry, both hands pressed tight against her lower abdomen and called out “Julia! Can’t you do something about the bleeding?” I rushed around the counter to her. “It’s a bloodbath! It’s like a murder scene!” she bellowed, doubling over. “I’ve changed my underthings six times today.” 

“Good heavens, Naomi! Can’t you see there are men present!” I scolded gently.

She looked up sharply. “I’m sorry,” she muttered in the direction of the moustaches, but returned to lamenting the pain and excessive blood as she hid her face. The modesty officers looked very awkward and made their exit quickly.

I thanked her for the performance. Nothing clears a room full of men faster than mentioning period blood. It is hilarious to me that old movies used to show women fainting at the sight of blood and the men stoically taking it. Did the directors of those movies just think women’s bathrooms were strewn with passed out bodies all the time? No, they didn’t think about it at all because men are the ones who can’t stand blood. And the actresses didn’t correct them, just like the enforcers didn’t want to know anymore about another widow coming to visit as soon as she mentioned blood, and I didn’t want to correct them.

“Murder scene!” I laughed. She laughed, too.

“So I hear you’re looking for an apprentice,” she announced, eyes glittering as never before.

“I’m not.” 

“Right, you already found her.” I was confused and she was amused until her tone changed and she dropped, “I asked if you could make my husband love me. I have a sample of what you gave me instead.” 

It was fraught at first. The only way to keep my secrets--and my neck--was to tell them all to her. And she had made sure she had leverage to get what she wanted. I had bought the sob story, I killed her husband, and now she was going to take over my business. And you know what? Good for her. Smart, ambitious…. 

But it also wasn’t a hostile take over by a true New Plymouth Pilgrim. On her second day with her ears all over my shop, she heard me deny services to a woman whose period was two weeks overdue. I did that because I thought Naomi was a spy, a true doe-eyed Plymouth widow taking revenge on me for her husband. But she looked it up in a textbook and started asking me where to find rue, could it be used together with pennyroyal, etc. until she had a brew of some kind ready.

“I’m taking this to Lanitra,” she announced.

“Why?” I asked. “She can’t pay.” Naomi’s face darkened like I threatened to hit her, but she kept tucking her hair up under a visor she wore to pretend like she cared if her skin stayed white. 

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, dead-pan, dagger-eye. 

I rolled my eyes and said “That’s no way to run a business.”

“We are partners now, and you’ve got to stop pretending you do all this for the money,” she spat.

“What do you think I do it for? Do you know any other Plymouth women who live as free as men?” I indicated my leggings and running shoes, my grocery sack, which even from here showed a wine neck rising from the brown paper, my bare ring finger. 

“I don’t know any other women who risk being hanged as witches to help their neighbors,” she said. Her eyes were wide now and looked up into mine with ferocious tenderness, the kind a mother wears when she orders her child in the house without telling him about the snarling dog outside.

“It’s all a front. They know there’s no witchcraft. They want me in business. But it’s a business.” I turned and started yanking drawers out of the repurposed card catalog, taking mental inventory.   

“What you did for me was not business. And they absolutely would hang you for half your services.” Her voice wavered and the breath she drew bumped like a mallet over a muted xylophone. She hurried out in search of Lanitra, letting the glass door slam back in a way that first Naomi I saw would never, and leaving me to think over the phrase “for me.”

So I made us just regular tea. Well, it was verbena, which some people say cures this and that, but I say just smells so bright and lemony. When she got back I told her about fenugreek, and stinging nettles, and orange flowers (and drawing runes and spinning before them, just for the theatrics) And she put her hand on my wrist and told me that she’d been in contact with the Interior States Feminists.

“You can get real pharmaceuticals from them,” I gasped.

“Not all of them. They need you too. Your network, your cover.”

So it had been a ruse to get in my shop from the start. “And that black eye? Your husband?” 

“That was real. They pick women like me to recruit.”

Hmm, good for the Interior State Feminists. 

Feminist. That’s another thing I’m not. I can’t tell you how much time I spent back before the breech explaining to boys that that word didn’t mean angry bitch who thinks women are better than men out for revenge. It just meant someone who believed women were people. And that’s true. Which is why I’m not a feminist. 

Women are better. 

I want the revenge.

July 20, 2023 19:04

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Amanda Fox
16:11 Jul 24, 2023



Angela Ginsburg
17:36 Jul 24, 2023

Thanks for reading my work!


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Kevin Logue
16:54 Jul 21, 2023

This feels like it has the making of a larger novel or novella. I want to know more of this world and the war that made it so. Strong under currents of modern events but not overpowering the narrative. Flowed so well and I absolutely loved this line, Her voice wavered and the breath she drew bumped like a mallet over a muted xylophone. Great character voice, very well written. Great work as always Angela!


Angela Ginsburg
17:35 Jul 24, 2023

Thanks so much for reading and saying nice things! The voice was tricky on this one because it does have the underlying current events but not really trying to be a political commentary—glad I hit near the target!


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Oskar Reiss
23:53 Jul 20, 2023

so good and witty


Angela Ginsburg
14:00 Jul 21, 2023

Thanks for reading.


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Kevin Elias Kaye
22:04 Jul 27, 2023

very fun. New Plymouth. there are a few instances where the telling is a bit heavy "vixen mittens" and her code names can just be elided so that the process is obeserved by the reader and not explained.


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