The Madonna Under the Willow

The Madonna had been sitting under the willow tree for some time, enjoying the gentle rippling of the nearby river and the rustling of the willow branches in the breeze. It was pleasant to be outside and alone. The river water was cold and clean, and there were nuts and berries and fish to eat. She made herself a little sitting area under the branches where the dirt was smooth, and she set down blankets and throw pillows to make everything cozy.

            One day God came up and parted the willow branches. He poked His head inside.

            “Are you going to come out?” God asked her.

            The Madonna looked up from her crossword puzzle, then looked down again. “No,” she said.

            God was silent.

            The Madonna kept working. She filled in one clue after another with her messy handwriting.​ Aquifer. Plato. Xenophobe. Rust.​ Her forehead was smooth and her nose was crooked.

            Finally, God spoke. “Why not?” He asked.

            The Madonna answered without looking up. “I like it here. I don’t want to come out.” Paula Dean. Spite. Berenstain Bears.

            God frowned. He waggled His snowy white beard and paced with what He assumed was stately grace. “I need you to come out of there,” He said in a rumbly voice.

            “Bring me a feast and we’ll see.” Her legs were long and her feet were big, and she had delicate light brown hair on her arms.

            God huffed and went away and she returned to her crossword puzzle.​ Aggregate. DNA. Castro. Toes.

            God came back the next day with a silver tray covered in an ornate ceramic lid depicting the Seven Days of Creation.

            The Madonna looked at the lid, then at God, then back at the lid. She laughed. “Is that supposed to be you?” she said, pointing to a muscly shirtless figure on the lid. The figure was creating a moose and a rhino and was surrounded by light-bathed clouds.

            “Just open it,” growled God.

            Still laughing, the Madonna lifted the lid. On the silver tray sat a tuna fish sandwich.

            “What’s this?” she asked.

            “It’s a tuna fish sandwich,” said God.

            She put the lid back on the tray. “I asked for a feast,” she reminded Him.

            The sleeves on God’s robe billowed. He smiled at the Madonna, in a way He assumed was winning and disarming.

            “A tuna fish sandwich is not a feast,” she said. She set the tray on the ground and pushed it toward God with her big toe. Her hair was long and wavy and brown with a purple streak, her lips pale.

            God pushed the tray back with the tip of his golden sandal. “Try it,” He said. “It’s an awfully good tuna fish sandwich.”

            Sighing, the Madonna took off the lid and hefted the sandwich. It did smell good. She took a bite and soon finished it.

            “So you’ll come out now?” God asked hopefully.

            “No. I won’t. A tuna fish sandwich is not a feast, no matter how good it is.” She handed Him the silver tray. “Now run along, please. I need to practice. I’m teaching myself to play the oboe.”

            God stomped off, sending dust clouds swirling up to the sky.

            He came back the next day, pushing a wheelbarrow. In it was a ham, bunches of grapes, smoked trout, sundry cheeses and nuts, a roasted turkey leg, two bottles of wine, a pot of mustard, a strawberry-rhubarb pie, twelve pints of assorted sorbet, and mozzarella sticks with marinara. Behind Him shuffled a grouchy-looking man wearing a floppy red hat, green tights, and bells on his shoes. He carried a lute. Trailing the man was a black bear wearing a pointy hat and a ball on its nose.

            “Come out!” thundered God at the willow tree.

            The Madonna poked her head out. She was holding crochet hooks and a three-quarters-finished cardigan.

            God dumped the wheelbarrow on the ground and gestured to the man and bear, who began an off-key melody and a limping dance, respectively.

            “Your feast,” He said. “Now come out of there.”

            The Madonna looked at the food pile on the ground, then at the man and bear, then at God. Her fingernails were painted dark green and looked chewed on and her eyelashes were long and very black from recently applied mascara.

            “I think you’re being passive-aggressive,” she said.

            “You wanted a feast,” God growled, “you got one.”

            “This is a very sad feast. I’m not going to eat off the ground like a turtle! Get me a table. Some plates and silverware.” She gestured dismissively at the food pile. “And this is all covered in dirt. You’d better do this again.”

            God stamped His foot and the food pile vanished. “No,” He said. “Come out! Now!” He had seemingly forgotten about the man and bear, who, ignored by both conversants, continued their tepid show.

            The Madonna folded up her cardigan carefully around the crochet hooks and set it aside. It was clear she wouldn’t get any more work done today. “Why do you want me to come out so badly?” she asked, arms crossed.

            God studied the ground. “I need to impregnate you,” He mumbled.

            “Excuse me?” The Madonna’s voice jumped an octave. Her eyebrows crawled up her skull.

            The man and bear abruptly stopped their performance and tiptoed away.

            “I need to impregnate you,” God said again, more firmly. His gaze fell just under her eyes.

            “No way, buddy.” The Madonna went back inside the willow. She sat on the ground and hugged her knees into her chest.

            God stuck his head in. “Please,” He said. “You have to understand, it’s all according to My Plan.”

            “Your​ plan?​ You’re out of your mind.”

            “No, no,” God gestured broadly, the sweep of His arm encompassing the Wide World. “You are crucial to my Grand Design.”

            The Madonna glared at him. “Were you going to explain this plan, or just knock me up and let me figure it out?”

            God growled. “Very well, you stubborn woman. You will bear My Son, who shall be the saviour of Mankind.” He warmed to the topic, his voice growing sonorous and deep. “He shall suffer horribly for mankind’s sins and be killed and then reborn, thus redeeming them in My eyes.” His eyes glowed and he stuck out his hand triumphantly.

            “You’re cracked. Too much ambrosia.”

            God scowled. “You dare question the concept of My Design?”

            “This is your plan? You, the creator of the universe, this is what you come up with?” The Madonna snorted. “You’re an idiot. Get out from under my tree.”

            “You would be revered among women! Your image will be affixed to glorious art throughout the ages! You will be idolized forever!” God was on His knees, tears of passion in His eyes, His voice like a whispering river.

            “You know what your problem is? You needed sisters. They’d have cut this nonsense off before it got out of hand.” She shook her head. “Creating yourself out of nothing has twisted your brain.”

            “You won’t be single.”

            “What?”

            “You won’t be single. I have prepared a husband for you.”

            “Oh, goody. No. I said no.”

            “My will shall be done,” God said menacingly.

            The Madonna’s green eyes stared back at Him. “Get. The fuck. Out of here.”

            God left.

            He did not come back the next day, but instead sent a storm that bashed fierce winds and rain against the willow branches. Thunder and lightning crashed relentlessly outside. But the Madonna made tea with whisky and played with a wet kitten that crawled under the branches and told herself stories about living in an underground palace with a family of badgers.

            He did not come back the next day either, but sent herds of wildebeests trampling through the area, hooves pounding the ground, snorts and steam and beast-smell in the air. But the Madonna made friends with a small wildebeest that hung back from the herd. She fed it willow leaves and cold water and then the wildebeest slept near her feet while she worked on a new crossword puzzle. Archangel. Synonym. Velvet. Maestro. Galapagos.

            He did not come the next day, but sent a swarm of locusts buzzing over the fields of the valley. They swept over the land and devoured all the willow leaves. They drove away the kitten and the wildebeest and ate the Madonna’s crossword book. They tangled in her hair and crawled on her face and chewed on her knuckles. She stabbed them with her crochet hooks, stamped them to pieces on the ground. At nightfall, they left, and the Madonna fell asleep, alone and exhausted under the naked willow.

            The next day, God sent termites. They chewed the willow down to a stump while the Madonna watched and wept. She played an elegy on her oboe and then wrapped herself in a blanket and sat on the stump. Evening came, and still she sat.

            She heard a twig crunch. “Go away,” she said without looking up. Two more crunches, closer now. She raised her head. God stood before her, legs spread apart.

            “What do you want?” she spat at him.

            “Have you changed your mind?” God said. “I took care of your distractions for you.”

            “I have not. And I will not. I will sit on this stump until the end of time if need be.”

            God’s eyes flicked past her shoulder. She turned her head in time to see the man with the floppy red hat mouth the words “I’m sorry,” as he hit her on the head with a frying pan.

            She awoke on a comfortable bed underneath a snowy white comforter. God sat in a rocking chair nearby.

            “The deed is done,” said God. “Mankind shall rejoice!”

            The Madonna turned away from Him. God shuffled around the room. He sat on the bed, rested His hand on her shoulder. At last He said: “there’s tea in the other room. And your belongings are in the drawer under the bed.”

            The Madonna twisted fast and buried her teeth in His wrist. God shrieked and jumped up. She held on, dangling like a carp, jaws clenched. His blood tasted sweet, like licorice. He danced around the room, waving His arms. He bashed her against the wall once, twice. She fell with a grunt back onto the bed, and lay still, head spinning but enjoying the taste of blood in her mouth. He raised His hand as if to strike her. Then he dropped it and turned toward the door. He left without a word.

            The Madonna lay still for a long time. Then she reached down to open the drawer. She felt books, her oboe, the braid she made from clippings of the wildebeest’s mane. And a soft roll: the cardigan, and wrapped inside, the crochet hook. Her fingers wrapped around the cold thin metal.

Tyler Phelps is a writer, teacher, and musician from Madison, WI. He won The Gravity of the Thing’s 2016 Six Word Story Contest. his work has appeared in Writespace, the IPRC’s 1001 Journal, and in Arq Press.