When the first man disappears, his absence is blamed on a top-secret business meeting, or an illicit affair. A dollop of gossip for cocktail hour, a garnish for the canapés.
Cottage time is for unwinding. For being one with nature. It’s when the wives wear subtle makeup and sport sweatpants with cartoon bear-claw-slashes on their bums. They’re mostly second wives or first wives with second noses.
Newspapers sail onto their docks each morning, allegations of bad deeds wrapped in damp plastic. On social media, #MeToo hijacks feeds. While the husbands sermonize on the need for hard evidence and the hallowed nature of male reputation, the wives apply bee venom lip plumper to their pouts and file their nails into sharp pointed tips.
The wives relax dockside with their pedigreed pooches, negative-calorie snacks tucked into raffia totes for when they inevitably grow light-headed. Stalks of organic celery will do in a pinch, but konnyaku is best. Between each rubbery chew, they incant the diet food’s many names: Voodoo lily. Elephant yam. Snake palm. Devil’s tongue. They run their own tongues over their gums, imagining their bodies growing lighter with each grey bite. They dream of bones emerging from their flesh. Their bodies turning exoskeleton.
Maybe they will take a trip to the land of konnyaku after they close the cottage at the end of the summer, swishing down cobblestone streets in silk kimonos and savouring collagen-rich foods, like cod sperm tempura and turtle soup. Exotic beauty treatments intrigue them, like Uguisu No Fun, an ancient geisha face mask made from the dehydrated shit of nightingales raised on a special vegan seed and berry diet. Or perhaps they will try a slug facial, where live molluscs, fed only organic carrots, Japanese mustard spinach, and Swiss chard, glide over the topography of their faces on mucous-lubricated feet. The wives close their eyes behind oversized sunglasses, imagining the gentle suction of snail tongues upon their skin, each one filled with neat rows of 14,000 microscopic teeth. They daydream of fish pedicures too, where schools of gurra rufa nibble the callouses from their toes. It must be heavenly, they imagine, to be so daintily consumed.
Not everyone on Lake Joseph is a husband or a wife. Elise, a retired high school art teacher, spends her days alone, painting male portraits on her verandah in the early morning light. There’s something alchemical, she believes, about infusing the blank page with life. She crosses her freckled ankles as she works, and chews on the end of her thick red braid.
Some say she never married because of an unmended heart. Others claim she’s hungry for a husband, just playing hard-to-get. Or that she only likes the idea of men. Rendered flat and quiet and still on paper and stretched canvas.
Elise depicts scene after scene with vivid brushstrokes. A cowboy on a palomino steed, biting into a ripe peach. A naked football huddle, tender as a group hug. A boxer with torn red gloves, tears sluicing down stubbled cheeks.
On a nearby lake, the ex-wives timeshare in cheaper cottages with their own noses. Authenticity is in, they tell their mirrored reflections, grey hairs shining silver in the magic hour light. They are respecting their ancestors, and their ancestors’ noses, passed down through generations.
During communal spaghetti dinners, they embrace sisterhood and self-care, sighing contentedly as slinky noodles slap their cheeks. They study for real estate exams, type screenplays, and sign up for aerial silk classes and polyamorous encounters. They press Korean beauty masks over their faces before bedtime, transforming briefly into cheetahs and zebras and sea otters and pandas.
Elise rests her paintbrush as she gazes at the small islands in the distance, like inkblots on an unfolded page. The sun is hiding, and her rich neighbours too. Fanning off vintage wine hangovers, taking selfies in bed.
They descended on Lake Joseph a couple of weeks ago. Cars sporting vanity license plates like BULMRKT and RGYLDADY purring into the marina’s parking lot. Float planes touching down.
In a couple of hours, the lake will ripple with their activity. Schnoodles and Labradoodles barking at ducks. Children bossing au pairs. The wives eating fat-free yogurt, trading powdered animal bones for calories. The husbands dutifully partaking in the latest watersport trend.
Elise watches how they run like hamsters on their new synthetic rolling logs. She finds it mesmerizing to see them falling over and over again.
The hunter does not eat all that she kills. The missing man’s wife finds a couple of hairy scraps on the glistening grass. A nibbled leg, a Bvlgari’d wrist, a single big toe. The watch, with its alligator-skin strap and clock face recalling the ancient coins of imperial Rome, is the only part of her husband found intact.
It continues discreetly at first. A hedge fund manager here. A former TV heartthrob there. A scrap of tennis sock, a splattered pocket square.
The husbands are accustomed to being immune from bad things. They distract themselves by paddle boarding with their wives or checking sports scores from Muskoka chairs, not realizing they’re next.
Unlike most of the cottagers, Elise stays in Lake Joseph year-round. She lives in the same gingerbread cottage she grew up in, passed down through her family for generations. The high season is a necessary evil for her now, due to Muskoka’s skyrocketing taxes.
She supplements her pension by cleaning the cottages and walking the pets of her neighbours while they’re attending galas or sporting events. But that’s not the only reason she says yes when they ask. She gets a thrill out of pocketing their duplicate keys and prowling their bedrooms naked. She kneads their feather pillows, rubbing her scent all over their settees and silk sheets.
She likes the coldest months best, when her neighbours’ powerboats slumber on storage beds and chipmunks play house in dormant barbecues strewn with crystallized crumbs of meat. She yearns for winter’s solitude in summer, when Sea-Doos dragging whooping waterskiiers disrupt her painting sessions and fireworks explode her animal dreams. As the sky flashes neon through her white lace curtains, her claws retract and her eyes lose their amber sheen.
She counts down the days until the rich are gone and the temperature drops below freezing. She longs for the crunch her steps make in the snow. For the trees in their glass robes and the ice daggers glittering dangerously from cottage roofs.
The day the heir to a substantial chewing gum fortune is found dead on his docked yacht, the cottagers awaken from their stupor. It could be that the shock had finally worn off. Or simply the accumulation of killings. (Ten, and counting.) Perhaps it was his carefree gregarious nature. The summer soirees he hosted, with their flutes of champagne and performances by middle-aged Canadian rockers.
When the maid set down his daily afternoon butter tart and Americano, the heir stared at her, as usual, without seeing. She screamed when she realized his skin glowed whiter than normal, that the lower half of his body was missing. The boat bobbed in the water, its oil slick rainbow turning crimson.
A few cottagers pack up and depart immediately. Others send their kids to fancy sleepaway camps, but something (Curiosity? Hubris?) tells them not to leave, at least not yet. In the end, most of the cottagers stay.
Elise has been seized by animal dreams for as long as she can remember. As a girl, she’d wanted to become something romantic: a grasshopper with singing legs or a galloping white pony. Instead, she found herself humbly turned mouse, vole, squirrel.
This summer she’s begun to fully harness her power. It has something to do with the way she feels when she reads about the men in the newspapers, or her father.
She’s no longer foraging for nuts, seeds, bulbs, and tubers. She awakens most mornings with the tang of blood in her mouth.
Some men purchase hunting rifles and bows and arrows, wishing to hunt the hunter. It might be a cougar, they muse. A 130-pound feline with a fatal neck bite.
Others are secretly thrilled by the idea of being hunted, impatient for their turn to become prey. They no longer jack-off confessing shady deals and oil spill cover-ups to Siri and Alexa in the bathroom in the middle of the night. Now they lie next to their sleeping wives and fantasize about the fleeting shadow on velvet paws. The sudden pounce from above. They conjure the cougar’s muscular haunches and unsheathed claws. Imagine being licked all over by her giant barbed tongue.
The husbands take extra precautions while they decide what to do next. They hang bear bells from their wrists in case it’s not a cougar after all, and converge at a bonfire meeting in the woods.
“It could be an addled black bear that doesn’t appreciate being crept up on from behind,” suggests one married man, his square jaw flickering red.
“Or a mother with cubs,” declares another, his limited-edition Timberlands stomping out a wayward ember.
Some would like to lure the maybe-bear closer, smearing Manuka honey on their cheeks and carrying fire pokers behind their backs as make-do spears. If they fight and kill the bear then eat its meat and wear its skin as a shirt in the spirit of the ancient Norse berserkers, then perhaps they too can become a pack of fearsome werebears, killing in an ecstatic trance.
“But black bears haven’t been seen on Lake Joseph in generations,” protests one uneasy hubby. “And what the hell is a werebear?”
“A goddamn werewolf would be more likely,” snorts another, between long pulls from his flask. Most of the husbands ignore the sarcasm, adding “stay indoors on full moon nights” to their mental safety checklist.
Later, behind new steel window bars, such men watch YouTube archery tutorials and peruse the dark web for silver bullets and wolfsbane poison to dip their arrows in. When the moon wanes, they plant ash trees around the perimeter of their mansions and fill their pockets with rye and mistletoe before entering the forest alone.
Elise has been thinking of her childhood recently. Of the coop full of chickens and the weasel who could squeeze through any opening and into any shape. The absurd steps her father took to prevent him from entering that never did any good. The weasel, she recalls, was a messy eater too.
She remembers a chicken that pecked her own fertilized eggs. A fluffy white Silkie, formerly one of her father’s favourites. That night, she followed her dad down to the coop and witnessed him calmly breaking her neck.
The wives are told they must stay inside. For their own safety, of course. It could just be a coincidence, the husbands explain, that the victims so far have been men.
The wedlocked women unfold their newspapers, hovering their pencils over fashion spreads and Sudoku. When no one is looking, they flip to the front pages, rubbing out the eyes of each newly accused man with the nubs of their erasers. It feels good to inflict this small, secret violence.
The wives reclaim their dockside vigils when their husbands aren’t looking. Gaze longingly through the slats of their custom blinds when they are. They watch hornet nests sway in the breeze like paper lanterns. Sense the vibration of a hundred invisible wings.
Barn owls turn their heads full circle. Butterflies swarm turtle tears. Hoary bats hang upside-down, camouflaging as dry leaves.
“Vampires?!” someone posts on a Lake Joseph Husbands message board at 2 a.m. And so the men singe their lips with hot blessed thistle tea as they fill online shopping carts with holy water and stakes for piercing undead hearts. They pop raw garlic cloves into their mouths like potato chips and affix crucifixes to their backs. They surround the entrances to their homes with mirrors, checking that all visitors cast a reflection before granting entry. They carry seeds to sprinkle in vampires’ paths, to buy themselves escape time by triggering the bloodsuckers’ predilection for obsessive-compulsive counting.
The husbands steer clear of lapping shores in case of Loch Ness monsters or singing sirens. They stick-and-poke apotropaic marks onto their bodies to ward off evil. Google things like: “What to do in a zombie attack,” “are sasquatches real,” “cannibal FAQs,” and “how to kill witches.”
There are certain husbands that shun this type of scattershot approach. Men who refuse to question their natural dominance in the world and dismiss all things supernatural. Such fellows carry Montblanc pens and briefcases brimming with cease-and-desist letters.
The deadbolts multiply. The wives pace indoors. The husbands are watching them more than ever, joined by a fleet of security cameras with swiveling eyes.
Since the chewing gum heir’s murder, it’s become much quieter on the lake. Some misty mornings, Elise could almost mistake the mirrors surrounding her neighbours’ mansions for shining sheets of ice.
She’s begun to leave her verandah in the mornings to skulk around their properties in the dew. Crouching with her paintbrush, binoculars slung around her neck. Or sitting on a log in the woods, peering into fallen men’s faces. And from afar, the ones still standing.
Her dreams are also changing. It used to be that Elise was the sole shapeshifter. But now there are others shedding skins.
At first, the wives are in denial over their changing bodies. They attribute the briny smell between their legs to a festering UTI, or that pre-surveillance night they slipped out of the cottage and swam naked while their husbands’ eyelids jerked in REM.
When scales appear on their legs and asses, they assume they’ve just been slacking on their exfoliation routine. Expect that a luxurious body butter will do the trick. But no amount of dry brushing or loofah scrubbing or moisturizing will remove them. Upon closer inspection, they discover the scales shimmer emerald and gold. Are not, in fact, dead skin.
For other women, the transformation takes the form of peach fuzz that spreads over their bodies and thickens into a pelt overnight. Tailbones that twitch and a sudden lust for hot blood and raw meat. They cough up hairballs discreetly on yoga mats between alternating cat and cows. Hide their fangs beneath closed-lipped smiles. Toss voluminous caftans over their new fur coats.
The husbands feel uneasy inside their cottages now too. Celery rots in fridge drawers and dog pee puddles under beds. The wives sit silently across from them at dinner, smiles floating on frozen skin. Over steak tartare, the husbands propose that the wives schedule some post-cottage pampering in the city. Dental crowns, waxing, mani-pedis, the works. (They do, however, endorse the wives’ sudden hankering for prowling on all-fours and dark-lit bathtub sex.)
Elise was afraid of her father after the incident in the henhouse. She began to confuse him with the weasel. When he smiled at her, she recoiled at his small, jagged teeth.
Now, when she gazes at herself, her face in the looking glass is her father’s face too. His pointed nose and his beady eyes stare defiantly from her reflection. She doesn’t want him in her. She growls at the mirror and wriggles out, out, out. Out of his limbs, paws, mouth.
She checks her reflection again. She’s not a weasel after all. She shakes the morning dew from her red fur with relief. Yips.
More dead husbands are discovered. What’s left of them, anyway. Clinging to the nail of a diving board, a tuft of software entrepreneur beard. Floating among the reeds, a nightlife impresario’s windpipe. Barrister pancreas in the boathouse. Tucked among a cluster of wild mushrooms, a pharmaceutical lobbyist’s ear. The long intestine of a real estate developer coiled under a rock. Stretched out on a chaise lounge recliner, a mining executive with a hole for a face.
The husbands no longer trust anyone other than each other. They decide to band together in the forest, to form a sort of army. They secure deadbolts to the outside of their cottages, ignoring their wives’ pounding fists and pleas.
The women wait until they no longer hear their husbands’ tinkling bear bells then smash all of the windows in their cottages. They shimmy their delicate bodies between vertical steel bars, emerging barefoot.
By the end of the summer, the forest is strewn with male bodies. Mauled, mostly. But also a few with chunks of konnyaku lodged in their throats, the remaining grey tubes of it clutched in stiff fingers.
The husbands didn’t hear their wives gossip about its negative-calorie magic. If they had, they never would have packed it for sustenance. No one told them that they shouldn’t eat it while being pursued, that sensible consumption required small precise bites. They weren’t aware of the rash of recent choking fatalities in Japan that gave konnyaku its new nickname: “killer jelly.”
Elise slithers out of her bed and into the night. Rearing from the sand, she’s a hog-nosed serpent, flattening her neck into a hood to hiss.
She’s climbing trees and rippling through the lake as a six-foot-long foxsnake. Suffocating small creatures with a squeeze.
She’s coiled in the dark with infrared vision. A Massasauga rattler, waiting in the long grasses for warm-blooded prey.
Elise slinks along the shoreline, releasing pheromones from the glands of her back. It’s not mating season but she orgies anyway, entwining her body in undulating tails.
Sometimes she’s carrying her snakelets inside her. Other times, she’s laying eggs under rotten logs and driftwood. Soon, these eggs will hatch more snakes.
The wives float through trees and dead husbands. They don’t want to miss happy hour on the dock, or the transformations taking place in the dying embers of the sun. Bodies tripling in height, sprouting shaggy fur and gigantic lumbering feet. Females pawing at traces of honey from littered Manuka jars. Levitating on broomsticks, spinning gossamer webs. Nymphs crawling out of the water, bodies thinning into needles, skin splitting open to reveal iridescent wings.
Those not yet transformed dip their toes into the water, inviting leeches to suck. They offer up their juiciest capillaries to scourges of mosquitoes, tiny mothers drinking up to three times their weight in blood. They roll back their eyes with pleasure as they loosen snails from their shells with their tongues.
More women arrive on kayaks and canoes. The first wives, with their parmesan-dusted hair and mouths rimmed in tomato lipstick. They didn’t come to mourn or revel in their exes’ misfortune, or to try to move back into the lives from which they were evicted.
They come as sisters.
The husbands surround Elise’s cottage, jiggling her locked door in vain. They pace and swear. She has their keys, but they don’t have hers. The men rip the screens from her verandah and climb inside. Mosquitoes trail their heat and breath with whining wings.
The husbands stomp around Elise’s home, pinching their noses against the territory-marking stench of animal piss. When they pull back her quilt, they discover snakeskin in her sheets.
Male portraits are scattered everywhere. The husbands shudder as they are confronted by their likenesses, by these eerie renderings of their own vulnerability. There’s a smear of white paint where their eyes should be.
They tell themselves that the paintings must be unfinished. They can’t imagine why they would be depicted as blinded, unseeing.
The men retreat into the forest, carrying broken briefcases and wooden crosses. Pine needles stick to their honeyed faces. Their breath reeks of fear and garlic.
Shadowdragons hover, mating mid-air and grabbing winged prey with their feet.
“Devil’s darning needles,” a husband whispers through his fingers, as the dragonflies’ serrated mandibles come closer.
The others shudder. “If I misbehaved,” one hisses, “Grandma said they’d sew my mouth shut.”
“It’s your eyes,” corrects his friend, “that they stitch up.”
“Mouth or eyes,” chimes in another.
They retch, imagining their heads fluttering with tiny wings.
Soon the husbands are vomiting and defecating and delirious. Maybe Elise or the dragonflies cast a spell on them. Maybe they were poisoned by rabid fox saliva or pit viper venom. Maybe they ingested rye fungus or picked some bad mushrooms. Maybe they drank too much blessed thistle tea or single-estate Scotch whiskey. Maybe they got shot with arrows or zapped too many times by their own electrical fences. Maybe it’s a climate-change-related tropical-mosquito-borne illness. Maybe the aerosol-red sunset. The full moon rising.
One man gestures to the woods. He rambles that the hunter is getting closer. Close your eyes, he says, and feel her breath pant against the back of your neck. Anticipate the crunch of your cartilage and bone between her teeth.
Others point to the horizon. If you squint, you can see mermaids slap their tails against the surface of the lake. If you strain your ears, you can hear a growing chorus of female voices rising from the deep.